Piazza Bellini with the churches of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio and San Cataldo

These 5 churches in Palermo will amaze you

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At the top of the list of reasons why one should visit Palermo is the multitude of magnificent churches. You don't have to be a lover of historical buildings to be dazzled by the sparkling beauty of the local sanctuaries. After this article, you will know Palermo's most famous churches and have insider tips for your visit.

Which are the most important churches in Palermo? 

  1. The Cathedral of Palermo

  2. Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio and San Cataldo

  3. Chiesa San Giovanni Degli Eremiti

  4. Church of San Domenico

  5. Santa Maria dello Spasimo

  6. Map Palermo Churches

  7. Final words about Monreale Cathedral and Capella Palatina 

Ciao, I am Eugenio.

I'm a host at the BnB Dolcevita. I hope you like my article about the churches. It is part of our Palermo travel guide.  More about us!

Host Eugenio

#1 The Cathedral of Palermo

Woman in front of the cathedral in Palermo

If you're in Palermo, you should definitely stop by the cathedral. Photo: „© zigres – stock.adobe.com“

Borrowing from Goethe's statement about Sicily, one could argue that Palermo makes no image at all in the soul without the majestic cathedral, and it is here that the key to everything lies. The Cathedral of Maria Santissima Assunta (Most Holy Mary Assumed into Heaven) is a mirror of Palermo's captivating history.

In its present form, it contains a unique Norman-Arabic style mix from the years 1184 and 1185, which was supplemented by numerous influences in the following centuries. For many, the church is the most beautiful building in Palermo.

Exterior façade of Palermo Cathedral

No question that Palermo Cathedral is considered Palermo's most important church, also because of its impressive exterior façade. Photo: © Petr Jilek / Shutterstock.com

One of the many secrets of Sicily awaits you on one of the columns at the entrance to the cathedral. There is an Arabic inscription of a sura from the Holy Koran, which has even been approved by the Pope. The inscription dates from the time of Muslim rule over Sicily in the 820s to 1070s. At that time, the square where this monument stands belonged to the Great Mosque of Bal'harm (the Arabic word for Palermo). The verse is from the seventh sura of the Holy Qur'an, which praises God and his creations. 

Baroque interior of the cathedral in Palermo

Inside, the cathedral is baroque in style and impresses with its simple elegance. Photo:  EffemsPA Cattedrale 09 10 2017 14, Detail from RM, CC BY-SA 4.0

The cathedral is not only impressive from the outside. The baroque-looking basilica itself houses some important relics and art treasures such as a statue of the Madonna by the 15th century sculptor Francesco Laurana and the Madonna della Scala by Antonello Gagini. 

In the lower church, the so-called crypt, there are also the relics of former archbishops of the city and royal tombs. Henry VI, the German Emperor Frederick II and Roger II rest here, as do the queens Constance of Sicily and Constance of Aragon.

Sarcophagus of Frederick II in Palermo Cathedral

The sarcophagus of Frederick II from the noble family of the Hohenstaufen and revered king of Sicily from 1198 attracts many visitors to the cathedral today. 

Photo: Geak (Diskussion), Palermo-grab-friedrich, Detail from RM, marked in the public domain

The church has a special significance because the relics of Saint Rosalia have been kept here in a chapel since 1632. She is the patron saint of Palermo and is said to have once cured the city of the plague. Even today, the silver urn with her remains is carried once a year from the cathedral through the streets of the city. Thousands of people accompany this spectacle on 15 July and celebrate the feast of Saint Rosalia. 

Altar of St Rosalia in Palermo Cathedral

A highlight of Palermo Cathedral is the silver-plated altar of St Rosalia, Photo: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0Saint Rosalia Chapel - Cathedral of Palermo - Italy 2015 (2), Detail from RM, CC BY-SA 4.0

Relics Chapel in the Cathedral of Palermo

The Chapel of the Holy Relics in the southern nave. Here are the most precious objects, such as the first reliquary urn in which the remains of Santa Rosalia were carried in procession, after which Palermo was miraculously saved from the plague. Today, the urn contains the relic of Saint Agata. Photo: EffemsPA Cattedrale 09 10 2017 03, Detail from RM, CC BY-SA 4.0

To the right of the Chapel of St Rosalia is a treasury containing liturgical vestments, culminating in a crown in the Byzantine style. Frederick II had this placed in the tomb of his wife, Constance of Aragon.

Crown of Constance of Aragon

The magnificent crown of Constance of Aragon, which Frederick II had placed in her grave as a token of his esteem. Photo: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0Crown of Constance of Aragon - Cathedral of Palermo - Italy 2015, Detail from RM, CC BY-SA 4.0

Our tip:
Take the opportunity and climb to the roof of the church. For the climb up a narrow spiral staircase made of stone, your eyes will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city. 

View of Palermo from the roof of the cathedral

Walking on the roof of the cathedral, visitors overlook the entire city as far as the mountains and the sea. Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Opening Hours & Admission Fees 

Admission is free.

Those who wish to visit the crypt pay a ticket price of 3€.

For the roof tour, one pays a price of 7€.

Mon - Sat: 07:00 - 19:00 

Sun: 08:00 - 13:00 

#2 Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio and San Cataldo

Piazza Bellini with the churches of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio and San Cataldo

On Piazza Bellini, the churches of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio and San Cataldo seem like a small oasis in the bustling city. Photo: © illpaxphotomatic / Shutterstock.com

If you stroll along Piazza Bellini, not far from Quattro Canti, several ecclesiastical buildings will amaze you at the same time. On the south side of the piazza, on a small hill, there are two popular churches right next to each other, which is why we list them here as one sight. 

 

On the right is the church of "San Cataldo" from the Norman period and on the left the Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (Saint Mary of Ammiratus), also called La Martorana or Admiral's Church, built in the Baroque style and integrating Norman-Byzantine-Arabic artistic elements

Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (La Martorana / Admiralskirche) 

Exterior façade of the church of San Cataldo

View of the baroque façade of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio. 

Photo: BjsPalermo-Martorana-bjsCC0 1.0

The church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio was built in the middle of the 12th century and underwent numerous structural changes throughout history. Originally it was built over the ground plan of a Greek cross in a square shape and was used by a Greek Orthodox congregation and also served as a municipal court. In 1435 it was then given to the Benedictine convent of Eloisia Martorana and from then on it bore its nickname "La Martorana". Under the supervision of the Benedictine nuns, the church was extended in a rectangular shape. 

In the 17th century, a Baroque façade was added facing Piazza Bellini. Adjacent to the Baroque façade is the bell tower, which is still in its original state on the lower two floors, while the upper floors were added in the 14th century in the Catalan Gothic style. Since 1943, the church has been under the authority of the Italo-Greek parish of Palermo.

Our tip:

Often, "La Martorana", like its neighbouring church, is perceived by travellers as inconspicuous from the outside. There is therefore a danger of leaving the piazza again after visiting the neighbouring fountain Fontana Pretoria without entering the church. Don't make this mistake and intoxicate yourself with the unique Baroque - Byzantine mix inside the church.

The round arches and ceilings inside the church are decorated with Byzantine mosaics from the 12th century, making them some of the oldest mosaics in Sicily. It is no coincidence that the church is listed by UNESCO. A highlight is the depiction of Jesus enthroned in the dome mosaic as well as the depiction of an unusual scene on the side wall in which Roger II is crowned by Jesus himself and not, as was customary at the time, by the papal head. 

Photos of the interior of the church La Martorana

Photos: Robin Marx  - BnB Dolcevita

Opening Hours & Admission Fees

Admission costs €2.
Tip: Keep your ticket because you will get a reduced rate when you show it to the other of the two churches. 

Mon - Sat: 09:00 - 13:00 and 15:30 - 17:00 

San Cataldo

View of the church of San Cataldo from Piazza Bellini

View of the church of San Cataldo from Piazza Bellini

Photo by Giovanni Lauricella on Unsplash

The second church building in the Piazza Bellini is the Church of San Cataldo. It is one of the last basilicas in Sicily in the Norman style and captivates with its purist beauty. All the more striking from the outside are the three small hemispherical domes of the church with their contrasting red colour. Another striking feature of the church is the surrounding Arab cornice, a decorative element that stands out from the otherwise plain façade and bears witness to the long Arab rule over Sicily.

The church was built from 1154 onwards on the initiative of Maio of Bari, William I's great imperial admiral. He intended to use it as the private chapel of his palace. However, in 1160, the year of its completion, Maio fell victim to an assassination attempt by noble conspirators and as a result, in 1182, the building was given by King William II to the Benedictines of Monreale, who kept it in good condition until 1787. They used it as a hospital before it was converted into a post office. The correspondence of the Kingdom of Sicily took place from here. In 1885, Maio's palace was demolished and the chapel restored.

View of the domes of the church of San Cataldo from the interior.

View of the domes of the church of San Cataldo from the interior.

Photo: CarlesVACrèsia di San Cataldu, Detail from RM, CC BY-SA 3.0

The interior of the three-nave church is simple, but worth seeing. The high walls of exposed sandstone pave the way up to the dome vaults, which are set off by the light coming in from the small windows. Beneath this ceiling spectacle, round arches supported by ancient columns separate the three naves of the church. In the largest of them, the central apse, there is a white altar. Above it, the symbol of the Jerusalem cross adorns the door and the window. The cross makes it clear that the basilica has been owned by the Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem since 1937.   

Marble altar in the central nave of the church of San Cataldo

Blick auf den weißen Altar aus Marmor im Mittelschiff der Kirche San Cataldo. 

Foto: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Opening Hours & Admission Fees

Mon - Sat: 9.30am-12.30pm and 3pm-6pm

Sun: 09:00 - 14:00

Admission costs 2€. If you have visited the Admiralskirche before, show your admission ticket. You will then receive a reduced rate.

#3 Chiesa San Giovanni Degli Eremiti 

View of the Chiesa San Giovanni Degli Eremiti

The front of the  Chiesa San Giovanni Degli Eremiti

Photo:  © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Just a few steps from Palazzo Reale in Palermo, the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is another architectural testament to the fact that many cultures and styles have intermingled throughout history in Sicily. The church was built in the 6th century AD as a Byzantine chapel. Between 827 AD and 1091 AD at the time of the Arab conquest, the church was transformed into a mosque with touches of Romanesque and Italian Gothic architecture. The oriental influence of this period is still visible in the domes of the church today, although they were only given their red colour later in the 20th century. 

In 1136, under Norman rule, King Roger II migrated the mosque to a monastery and from 1464 it was placed under the control of the Benedectine monks. Unlike other rulers, the Normans did not categorically destroy their conquered cities, but tolerated the cultures and religions. It is probably thanks to them that this unique architectural mix of western and Islamic cultures was created. Parts of the church were used in reconstructions and over the centuries other parts of the building were added. At the end of the 19th century, the church was uncovered again and restored. In the process, post-medieval buildings were removed again. 

The church has a small cloister and garden in the Arab-Norman style from the 13th century. It offers a place of tranquillity that many travellers appreciate as a contrast to the lively Mediterranean metropolis. 

The cloister and garden of the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti. 

Photos:  © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Opening Hours & Admission Fees

Admission: 6€ (Reduced admission: 3€) 

Free admission on the first Sunday of every month

Monday - Saturday 09:00 h to 19:00 h (last admission 18:30 h)

Sundays & public holidays 09:00 hrs to 13:30 hrs (last admission 13:00 hrs)

#4 Church of San Domenico

Baroque façade of the church of San Domenico

The imposing baroque façade of the church of San Domenico in the square of the same name Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Yes, you are still in Palermo and no, you won't find the church of San Domenico in the Caribbean. It stands in the centre of the city, in the historic district of La Loggia, on Via Roma. The palm-lined Piazza Domenico with the church in the background is a grateful photo motif, also because many elaborately decorated, Sicilian wooden carts (Italian: Carretto siciliano) stop here and wait for their passengers, or because of the Column of the Immaculate Conception (Colonna dell'Immacolata) in the middle of the square. 

View of the Piazza San Domenico

View of the Piazza San Domenico with the Column of the Immaculate Conception

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

The church of San Domenico was built in 1640 by the Dominican architect Andrea Cirrincione. It was built after the demolition of a previous Renaissance building, which had already been erected around 1458. The façade of the church was remodelled in Baroque style in 1726. The frame consists of two bell towers, which are intended to slim the figure. 

 

From the middle of the 19th century, the church developed into a memorial and burial place for Sicilian personalities. In addition to Sicilian intellectuals and people from public life, the Parlermitans commemorate here above all those who initiated the end of the Mafia - first and foremost the judges Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone, two of the toughest opponents of the "Cosa Nostra" Mafia in southern Italy, who both lost their lives in 1992. 

Memorial plaque for Giovanni Falcone in the San Domenico

Memorial plaque for Giovanni Falcone in the San Domenico

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

The interior of the Church of San Domenico is the largest church interior in Sicily. 

The walls are decorated with statues of Dominican saints and popes. These decorations are the work of Giovan Maria Serpotta, the grandson of the great Giacomo.  The church of San Domenico is Palermo's second most important church after the cathedral. 

The interior of the church of San Domenico with a view of the high altar

The interior of the church of San Domenico with a view of the high altar

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Our tip:

To the left of the San Domenico church is the Rinascente shopping centre with Cafe Obica on the top floor. The cafe's outdoor area has a fantastic terrace overlooking the church and San Domenico Square. A great place to break or finish your church tour with an Aperol and Sicilian olives. 

Impressions from the terrace of Cafe Obica at Rinascente

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Opening Hours 

Sun - Sat: 08:00 - 17:00 Uhr 

Sun: 09:00 - 13:00

#5 Santa Maria Dello Spasimo 

Die Fassade der Santa Mari Dello Spasimo

The façade of Santa Mari Dello Spasimo. Photo: Matthias Süßen creator QS:P170,Q59087075, Santa Maria dello Spasimo (Palermo)-msu-0768CC BY-SA 4.0 

The church of Santa Maria Dello Spasimo has a special place among the churches of Palermo. It has a Gothic design and it is a church without a roof

Built in 1509, it was abandoned as a church just 70 years after its completion because it was close to the city walls and needed as part of the defensive works. After the Pope allowed the secular use of the buildings, it served various purposes. In 1624 as a military hospital for plague patients, later as a granary, poorhouse and hospital.

Due to the flood of 1931 and two earthquakes in 1940 and 1968, among other things, the building fell into ruin and has been open to the public again since 1998. Santa Maria Dello Spasimo is now used for open-air events because of its great acoustics and houses a jazz school. With its bare walls and skeletal arches, the former church conveys a very special atmosphere and leaves a deep impression. Eindruck beim Besucher.

Church without a roof in Palermo

Nature has made its way back into the ruins of the church.

Photo: Simone D'AlessioSpasimo al suo internoCC BY-SA 4.0

Opening Hours & Admission Fees

Admission is free.

Sun - Wed 08:00 - 18:00 Uhr

Do 16:30 - 18:00 Uhr

Fr - Sun 08:00 - 18:00

Map Palermo Churches

Concluding words on Monreale Cathedral and the Capelle Palatina

There are 85 church buildings in Palermo. Many of them are world-famous. We have presented the most important churches from our point of view.

A striking number of churches are built according to the Arab-Norman model and their red-coloured domes are reminiscent of Islamic culture. Other buildings take you back to the Gothic, Baroque or Classicist periods and bear witness to the many shades of the Christian faith.

Actually, two very famous churches are missing from our list. There is the Monreale Cathedral. Because it is a bit outside and represents a separate excursion that you cannot do on foot, we have listed it separately in our section "Palermo Top 15 Sights".

And then there is the world-famous "Capella Palatina", the small court chapel of the Palazzo Reale (Norman Palace). It is mentioned as a separate sight in most guidebooks. We have noticed that many travellers lose track if the chapel is assigned to the churches and then additionally recommended to visit the Norman Palace, where it reappears. Therefore, we have assigned the chapel to the Norman Palace and recommend that you discover it as part of his visit.

 

No matter how many churches you visit, these churches presented in this article should be among them. Because of their proximity to each other, you can easily explore them on foot in one day and get to know the surrounding area with its other sights.  

View of Palermo from the roof of the cathedral

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