Palermo is a beautiful port city that has an astoundingly rich cultural heritage, delicious cuisine and breathtakingly spectacular coastal scenery. Influenced by many distinct traditions, including Norman, Arabic, Byzantine, North African and mainland Italian, Palermo is a melting pot of architectural styles that has inspired some of the world’s most unusual churches and cathedrals. The most prominent architectural expressions that you’ll see in the churches of Palermo are Medieval, Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance. However, there are also lots of distinctly Arabic mosaics and Byzantine features to behold.
The entire capital city of Sicily is a tribute to the age-old importance of Christianity on the island. All through Palermo you’ll see religious iconography, small shrines and statues to the Blessed Virgin Mary, all of which are frequently adorned with fresh cut flowers or candles. The city also has a busy annual calendar of religious celebrations and festivals which means that unlike in some other parts of Western Europe, the churches and cathedrals still play a central role in the day-to-day life of the community.
As a visitor to Palermo, you’ll enjoy exploring the living tradition of the religious side of Sicilian life, and there’s no better place to start your journey than in the magnificent churches and cathedrals of the city. To help you get started, we’ve compiled a concise guide to the churches and cathedrals that you simply can’t afford to miss out on seeing.
Cattedrale Di Palermo.
This beautiful 12th-century church, located at Via Vittorio Emanuele, is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and is an excellent example of the unique blend of architectural influences that you’ll see all over Sicily. The church was originally built in the 12th Century, but it underwent numerous renovations that continued until the 18th Century, which helps to explain the eclectic mixture of Arabic, Byzantine, and Renaissance features that were added to the original Gothic structure through the centuries.
Palermo Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Palermo and, consequently, is one of the most important historic churches on the island. It’s free to enter the cathedral and have a look around but if you’d like to access the rooftop to get a spectacular view of Palermo there’s a small fee of about 10 Euros to pay. A ticket to the rooftop also gives you access to the Royal Tombs and the Chapel of the Beneficials, both of which are worth seeing for yourself and come highly recommended.
Chiesa Inferiore Della Cappella Palatina.
The Palatine Chapel is a hauntingly graceful 12th-century chapel, located at Piazza Del Parlamento, that was built in the original Norman fortified Palace. Dedicated to Saint Peter, the chapel was built in just 8 years and was originally intended for the personal worship of the Norman King Roger and his family, although fortunately today it’s open to the general public.
One of the highlights of the UNESCO-listed chapel is decorated with thousands of dazzling hand-painted golden mosaics that artfully depict important biblical scenes. But remarkably, the chapel also includes wooden muqarnas, a traditional Islamic architecture element that can be found in modern Iran and Uzbekistan – once again, highlighting the rare blend of cultural influences that define many of Palermo’s most famous Christian sites.
Visitors to Palatine Chapel need to purchase a ticket to enter, costing around 12 Euros per person, which gives you full access to the chapel as well as the neighboring Royal Apartments and the lovely Royal Gardens of the Norman Palace.
Chiesa Del Gesù.
The Church of Gesù, Piazza Casa Professa, is too often overlooked by visitors to Palermo but it is one of the most elegant churches on the island. Hidden behind the austere, and unassuming facade of this 16th Century Jesuit church, the interiors are a glittering heaven of bright hand-painted frescoes, lavishly ornate stucco work and priceless marble carvings.
Undoubtedly one of the best examples of Baroque artwork at its very finest, it’s free to enter the church and experience the transcendental beauty of the Church of Gesù. Sadly parts of the church, including the dome and several frescoes were damaged by an exploding bomb during WWII, although most of this damage was restored in the following years. So, whatever you do while you’re in Palermo, make sure the Church of Gesù is on your schedule. It is worth noting that the church is not always open to the public in the afternoon, so it’s better to plan your visit for the morning.
Chiesa Di Santa Maria Dello Spasimo.
The Church of Santa Dello Spasimo, located at Via Dello Spasimo, is a 16th-century church that has a strangely poignant story. Originally intended to house a Raphael painting in an impressive Gothic church, right in the heart of the oldest part of Palermo, the unexpected invasion of the island by Turkish forces meant that it was never completed because its funding was diverted to military expenses and the city’s fortifications. To add to the misfortunes of the church, the Raphael painting was then secretly sold to Philip IV of Spain in the confusion and is now exhibited in the Prado Museum of Madrid.
Eventually, after much back and forth between the city’s authorities, the church was never officially consecrated and for a long time, a solitary tree grew in the center of the church’s incomplete aisle. Tragically, in recent years, even this tree was cut down. However, regardless of the church’s tragic history, it’s now a popular place to get married for “Palermitans” who do not want to get married in one of the city’s official churches. As such, the Church of Santa Dello Spasimo is an interesting place to visit, even if you won’t be wowed by incredible interiors or ornate statues, it has a bitter-sweet atmosphere that is worth experiencing for yourself. It’s free to enter and have a look around and is also a nice spot to have a picnic at lunch.
Chiesa Di San Cataldo.
The Church of San Cataldo, located at Piazza Bellini, is one of the oldest churches on the island. Completed in the early 12th Century, this UNESCO-listed church is an excellent example of Arabic-Norman architecture and is relatively understated compared to some of the other more flamboyant churches in the city. However, although there are no frescoes on the walls, the red-domed church has impressive mosaics on the floor that are bound to leave a lasting impression on any visitor. It costs just 2.50 Euros to enter the tiny church although you may have to wait a few minutes to enter because only a few people can enter at a time.
Chiesa Di Santa Maria Dell’Ammiraglio.
Located just next to the small Church of San Cataldo, the Church of Saint Mary of the Admiral is a UNESCO-listed church that epitomizes the island’s blending of Byzantine and Islamic architectural styles. Dedicated to George of Antioch, the church was built in the late 12th Century and is the official seat of the parish of Italo-Albanians in Sicily.
As you enter the church, after paying a small fee of 2.50 Euros, you’ll be met with an exquisite interior of golden mosaics, incredibly ornate iconography and even wooden beams painted with Arabic inscriptions. As well as the unusual combination of architectural styles, the church also mixes distinct Christian traditions! For instance, despite being a Roman Catholic church, it follows the traditional rituals of the Eastern Orthodox Church, something which is almost unheard of anywhere else in Italy.
Unique Churches And Cathedrals Of Palermo.
There are few places in the world, let alone Italy, where you’ll find such an eclectic collection of churches that incorporate such a wide diversity of distinct architectural styles in their designs. Each church represents a fascinating swathe of the island’s history and these remarkable stories are preserved in the stonework and the artistic visions of their creators. In fact, the churches of Palermo are so central to daily life, that no visit to the city would be complete without spending some time exploring the beautiful churches that are dotted all around the city’s historic center.