As the Sicilian capital and a city that's been around since the eighth century BC, you couldn't exactly call Palermo an undiscovered gem. But although over a million tourists visit Palermo every year, once you consider everything this ancient city has to offer, it's surprising it's not more. With incredible historic buildings covering centuries of history in many architectural styles, an unbelievable street food scene, gorgeous beaches just outside the beautiful city, and incredible mountain scenery that offers some of the best hikes in Palermo, the city has so much to offer as a tourist destination that it's almost embarrassing.
But southern Italy doesn't have the economic clout of the north of the country. As a result, visiting Palermo can be surprisingly cheap. The cost of living here is far lower than you'll find in cities like Rome or Venice, making Palermo, Sicily, a great option for budget travelers.
Of course, there's no price better than free. If you're really looking to stretch your euros, you'll find that Palermo has some great free attractions well worth seeing when you visit Sicily. Drop off your bags at a Bounce luggage storage in Palermo, to enjoy some of the best attractions in this spectacular city.
As the spiritual heart of the city, Palermo Cathedral is a must-visit location on any trip to the city. Palermo has the possibly unenviable reputation as the most conquered city in Europe, but this turbulent history has left it with an incredible legacy of cultural cross-pollination. Nowhere is that more visible than in the unique architectural style of Palermo Cathedral. This beautiful church combines Islamic, Norman, Gothic, and other influences to create a building that looks like no other on earth. The well-tended garden next to the Cathedral also contains examples of modern art deliberately chosen to both contrast and complement the unique architecture of Palermo Cathedral. It's easy to see why this magnificent church has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Palermo Cathedral remains a working church and therefore is completely free to visit. Be respectful of any services taking place in the church. If you want to climb the bell tower for a stunning view of the city, you'll have to pay an extra charge. But entering the church itself won't cost you anything, and is unquestionably one of the best free things to do when you visit Palermo.
When it was built, the impressive Teatro Massimo was one of the biggest opera houses in Europe. It remains the largest opera house in Italy and is a source of pride for Palermo residents to this day. A guided tour of Teatro Massimo will set you back around €10, and tickets to a performance in this opulent theater will cost even more. However, the Massimo Theatre is plenty impressive from the outside. Plus, located as it is in the heart of the city, it's a great place to go for walk on a summer evening like the locals do and enjoy the vibrant street life of Palermo.
A short walk from Palermo Cathedral and the Teatro Massimo, you'll find Piazza Pretoria. This public square is known for its stunning fountain, the Fontana Pretoria, and the nude statues of Greek gods and other mythological figures it contains. In fact, the Fontana Pretoria caused such a scandal when it was first built that the nuns of the neighboring Santa Caterina Church hurried to throw clothes over the statues and preserve their modesty.
Now, the statues stand in all their naked glory under the Sicilian sun. This is a great location to visit in Palermo for a popular photo opportunity and is right in the heart of the ancient city, so it's easy to get to from just about anywhere.
Close to the Fontana Pretoria, you'll find another of Palermo's incredible historic photo opportunities. The Quattro Canti sits at the intersection of two busy streets, and the four corners of the buildings are decorated with extravagant statues and murals that will make you feel like you're walking through a museum. Take the time to explore each of the four corners and admire the skill and craftsmanship that went into creating them. Without a doubt, it's a lot more impressive than today's advertising billboards.
Palermo is the kind of place where one of the best things to do is simply take a wander through the old streets or grab a seat at a sidewalk café and soak up the atmosphere. Sicilians live their lives outdoors, and there's always something to look at in the vibrant city. Surrounded by Santa Caterina church, San Cataldo, and Martorana, Piazza Bellini is a beautiful place to pause for a while with a view of the Fontana Pretoria and drink in the atmosphere. Plus, the fabulous churches make great free places to visit and get out of the sun for a while.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti
Recognizable by its distinctive red domes, this ancient church doesn't look much like a church at all. In fact, it looks more like a mosque, and that's not surprising when you learn that it used to be one during Palermo's era of Moorish rule. Now, the church, which dates back to the sixth century, is a living relic of the changing fortunes of the various rulers of Palermo. Recognized by UNESCO due to its historical importance, San Giovanni degli Eremiti is a must-visit for history buffs in Palermo.
There is a small fee to step into the church itself and see the incredible mosaics that combine Christian and Islamic motifs. However, the small but beautiful garden is totally free to visit and offers an oasis of tranquility in the bustling heart of Palermo. And once you see the outside of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, you'll probably be tempted to spend a few euros to see the inside, too.
Maybe it's due to the history of invasion, but Sicilians, despite their lively character, are people intimately in touch with death. That goes at least some way to explaining the Capuchin catacombs, one of Palermo's most unusual — and creepiest — tourist attractions. The catacombs contain over 8000 bodies of monks and notable Sicilians, divided by age and sex. Many of the corpses are posed in lifelike poses and dressed in the clothes they would've worn during life. To have your body preserved like this was once considered a great honor, but now, the Capuchin Catacombs offer a macabre and unforgettable place to visit in Palermo. The catacombs aren't completely free to visit, but at a cost of only three euros, it's well worth it if you're a fan of the spooky side of life.
Palermo Archaeological Museum
Sicily's history is long and complex, so you'd expect the capital city to have an impressive archaeological museum showcasing that history. And it does. Palermo's Archaeological Museum contains relics from the Phoenician, Greek, and Roman periods of the city's history, along with other artifacts from different periods and cultures. Of special note is the Palermo Stone, an ancient tablet covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics that helped archaeologists decode inscriptions from ancient Egypt.
Visiting Palermo Archaeological Museum will cost you six euros, which is very reasonable when you consider everything it contains. However, on the first Sunday of the month, Palermo Archaeological Museum, along with many of the city's other top museums, is completely free to visit.
No Mafia Memorial
For many, Sicily is synonymous with organized crime. That's really not fair to the people of the island, but there's no denying that the Mafia has a long history in this part of Italy. Located in downtown Palermo, the No Mafia Memorial is devoted to those who lost their lives combatting organized crime and tells the story of the fight against gangsters in Palermo and across Sicily. This memorial museum uses artifacts and multimedia presentations to tell the story of the Mafia and the fight against it in modern Sicily. It's the perfect place to explore the darker side of Sicilian history and get a better understanding of a struggle that still goes on today.
If you're willing to head a short distance from the city itself, you'll find that Sicily's beaches are fantastic places to spend some time when you visit Palermo. Mondello beach is the closest to Palermo itself at only six miles from the city center, and is where the locals go to beat the summer heat. Bus Route 806 will take you from the Politeama Theater in downtown Palermo to the beach itself, though you can expect the bus to be incredibly busy during the summer. Once you arrive at Mondello beach, you'll be treated to an expanse of white sand and turquoise water that will make you feel like you've arrived in the Caribbean rather than just a few miles outside Sicily's biggest city.
It's totally free to visit the beach, and you can even use the toilets and showers without paying anything. However, if you want a lounge chair and umbrella to make your stay more pleasant, you'll have to pay to rent them from one of the beach concessions. Alternatively, come prepared and bring your own for a truly cost-effective trip.
Palermo is home to some of the oldest street markets in all of Europe. Capo market, Ballaro market, and the infamous Vucciria are the perfect places to take in the vibrant street life of the Sicilian capital. You don't have to buy anything; just wandering through the stalls and hanging out with the locals will give you an unforgettable experience of Sicilian street life. If you're lucky, you'll even get to try samples of the local produce. Both tourists and locals love these markets, and they are undoubtedly one of the most fun things to do in the Old Town of Palermo.
Street Food Tour
Sicily may be the best destination in all of Europe for street food. Famed for cannolis, arancini, sfincione, and dozens of other incredible treats, Palermo has something new to try around every corner. To sample the best street food in the city, you could embark on a paid street food tour. But if you'd rather save your money for the food itself, take your chances and wander through the streets of the Old Town trying anywhere that looks good to you. In this city, you can't really go wrong. Just about anything you try is likely to be delicious. This is also one of the best things to do in Palermo with kids.
Located on Monte Pellegrino overlooking the city, the cave church of Santa Rosalia is not to be missed on a trip to Palermo. The cave is decorated with a variety of offerings to Saint Rosalia, including children's toys, soccer jerseys, and other items. The atmospheric dripping of moisture from the cave walls makes this tiny church a unique — and totally free — place well worth visiting, and all it will cost you is the price of the bus ride up the mountain to the church.
Located just to the north of the city center, Monte Pellegrino is one of the top destinations for hiking in Palermo. This 1970 foot high mountain offers incredible views over the city, the surrounding mountains, and the sea. The 18th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once described it as the most beautiful promontory in the world, and standing on the summit on a sunny day overlooking Sicily, it's hard to argue. There are many hiking trails on the mountain, so you can get a great workout while enjoying the view, and it won't cost you anything at all.
Palermo is already a very affordable city. Once you factor in these free things to do, you can have a great time in Sicily's capital without spending a lot of money. The more you save on attractions, the more you can devote to sampling all the delicious food the city has to offer. So leave your bags behind at a Bounce luggage storage near Palermo Airport and enjoy the affordable side of Palermo. You'll be glad you did.