Historical Religious Buildings (Self Guided), Palermo

Religion has always played an important role in the lives of the Italians – and the Sicilians are no exception. Thus, it is little wonder that the main city of the island, Palermo, boasts a plethora of religious buildings. The collection of historical churches found here ranges from the Arab-Norman-Byzantine to the Medieval, Gothic, Baroque and the Renaissance.

In the course of history, many of the local temples have been demolished, abandoned or deconsecrated, or, as during the Arab occupation, converted to mosques. Eventually restored to their original denomination, some of them, after the unification of Italy in 1861, were confiscated by the state. Still, the majority of the artistic treasures held there have survived and today make up the bulk of the historic and artistic heritage of Palermo.

Running the risk of being spoiled for choice, here are some of the most important churches in the historic heart of Palermo you may not want to miss:

Palermo Cathedral – a colorful mixture of architectural styles; home to the relics of the patron Saint of Palermo, Santa Rosalia, and more;

Chiesa del Gesù – a 16th-century Jesuits Church, one of the most important Baroque temples in Sicily; inside, expect one of these “jaw-dropping moments”, as the interior is truly overwhelming;

San Cataldo Church – founded in 1160, a perfect example of Norman architecture;

La Martorana (Martorana Church) – famous for its interior, featuring a series of superb Byzantine mosaics;

Santa Caterina Church – a Grand Catholic Dominican church with ornate decor and collection of precious artworks.

San Francesco d'Assisi Convent – one of the few buildings remaining from the Renaissance era;

Chiesa San Domenico (San Domenico Church) – known locally as the "Pantheon of Illustrious Sicilians", the final resting place of many prominent figures in Sicilian history.

Chiesa Anglicana (Anglican Church) – built in 1872, the only Anglican church in Palermo.

Make sure to spare some of your time to explore at least some of these religious sights, if not all of them – well worth visiting, indeed. You are not going to be bored! Just take this self-guided walking tour and see for yourself.
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Historical Religious Buildings Map

Guide Name: Historical Religious Buildings
Guide Location: Italy » Palermo (See other walking tours in Palermo)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.2 Km or 2 Miles
Author: Lilly
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Palermo Cathedral
  • Chiesa del Gesù (Church of Jesus)
  • Chiesa di San Cataldo (Church of San Cataldo)
  • La Martorana (Martorana Church)
  • Chiesa di Santa Caterina (Church of Saint Catherine)
  • Chiesa di Saint Anne 'della Misericordia (Church of Saint Anne the Merciful)
  • Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi (Church of Saint Francis of Assisi)
  • Chiesa San Domenico (San Domenico Church)
  • Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo (Saints Peter and Paul Church)
  • Chiesa Anglicana (Anglican Church)
1
Palermo Cathedral

1) Palermo Cathedral (must see)

In 831 Arab conquerors noted the presence of a great "infidel temple" on the present-day site of Palermo Cathedral. They promptly turned the infidel temple into the Great Mosque. Then, in 1072, along came Roger I and the Normans and the Great Mosque turned back into a Christian church. Roger II was crowned in this early Palermo Cathedral.

The present Palermo Cathedral has a history of changes, additions and restorations that have given it a mixture of architectural styles. The cathedral was erected in 1185 by Walter Ophamil. Walter was the Anglo-Norman archbishop of Palermo and minister to King William II. Walter's remains currently lie in the Cathedral's crypt.

The entrance to the Cathedral is on the Matteo Bonello Street. The Gothic portal of the entrance is framed by two towers. Above the portal is a niche holding a 15th century Madonna. The broad Gothic portico of the main entrance is on the south side. It has turrets in a Gothic-Catalan style and three arcades, built in 1465.

The interior is planned as a Latin cross. There is a nave and two aisles separated by pilasters. The royal tombs are in chapels on the right.

The treasures of the cathedral are sacred vestments of the 16th and 18th centuries, monstrances, chalices, a breviary of 15th century miniatures and a gold tiara belonging to Constance of Aragon.
2
Chiesa del Gesù (Church of Jesus)

2) Chiesa del Gesù (Church of Jesus) (must see)

Jesuits arrived in Palermo in 1549. After settling in, they began to build. They had their own Jesuit architect, Giovanni Tristano. Following his design, they built one of the most important Baroque churches in Sicily, Church of Jesus.

Tristano's design required a single nave, transepts and side chapels. Early in the 17th century this was changed by architect Natale Masuccio. Natale favored something more sumptuous. He removed the chapel walls and added two more naves. When this was finished in 1636, the church was consecrated.

In 1943, during an air raid, a bomb exploded and crushed the church dome. The adjacent walls were mostly destroyed along with frescoes and paintings.

Some of the interior survived. Marble bas-reliefs showing the Adoration of the Shepards and the Adoration of the Magi by Gioacchino Vitagliano (1719-21) remain intact. A fresco of the Adoration of the Magi by Antonino Grano and a relief of the Glory of Saint Luke by Ignazio Marabitti also lived after the bomb.

The facade has three portals in the lower part. Above are niches with statues of Ignatius Loyola, a Madonna and Child and Francis Xavier. The nave is 237 feet long, 140 feet wide and 230 feet high. It is decorated with frescoes. The pillars are covered with marble reliefs and mosaics. The rebuilt church has a double dome.
3
Chiesa di San Cataldo (Church of San Cataldo)

3) Chiesa di San Cataldo (Church of San Cataldo)

The Church of San Cataldo is a Catholic temple located in Piazza Bellini, and attached to another church – of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio. Erected in 1154, this is a notable example of the Arab-Norman architecture, unique to Sicily, which flourished under the Norman rule.

The church was founded by admiral Majone di Bari. In the 18th century the building was used as a post office, and in the 19th century was restored to the original Medieval appearance and returned to the religious service. Since the 1930s, the church has been the property to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

The rectangular plan of the church, with blind arches, partially occupied by windows, shows the Normans' predilection for simple and severe forms, derived from their military formation. At the same time, it shows elements present in the Islamic and Byzantine architecture, such as the preference for cubic forms, with the blind arches articulating the external walls, and the typical spherical red, bulge domes (cubole) on the roof and Arab-style merlons.

The interior has a nave with two aisles. The naked walls are faced by spolia columns with Byzantine style arcades. The splendid mosaic pavement is original. Also original is the main altar.

Beneath the church, open to view, is the remnant of the old City Wall.
Sight description based on wikipedia
4
La Martorana (Martorana Church)

4) La Martorana (Martorana Church) (must see)

La Martorana is also known as The Church of St Mary of the Admiral. The admiral was George of Antioch, a Syrian Christian and principal minister of King Roger II of Sicily. George was not only the King's main man, he founded this Eastern Orthodox church.

The charter is dated from 1143 and written in ancient Greek and Arabic. Construction may have started before 1143 but the church was finished definitely by 1151. George died that same year. He and his wife are buried in the narthex of the church.

In 1193 or so Lady Eloisa Martorana moved in next door with her own division of Benedictine nuns. She established her convent which eventually took over the church, thus giving it the name "la Martorana." The nuns of Martorana created sugary treats in the form of fruit. The nuns have left but the Martorana fruit is still popular today.

The church has undergone architectural changes since it was built. The narthex houses the tombs of George and his wife. The campanile, elaborately constructed with arches and loggias, still is used as the main entrance.

The church is famous for its interior. A series of Byzantine mosaics are similar to those in the Palatine Chapel and Cefalu Cathedral. Mosaics on the walls show Roger II receiving the crown of Sicily from none other than Jesus. The dome over the nave has Byzantine images of Christ Pantokrator with saints, prophets and evangelists.
5
Chiesa di Santa Caterina (Church of Saint Catherine)

5) Chiesa di Santa Caterina (Church of Saint Catherine)

The Church of Saint Catherine, otherwise known locally as the Church of Santa Caterina delle Donne, is found in the heart of the historic center of Palermo, between Piazza Bellini and Piazza Pretoria.

In 1310, following a testament left by the rich local aristocrat, Benvenuta Magistro Angelo (Mastrangelo), the area, previously occupied by the palace of George of Antioch, admiral of Roger II of Sicily, was secured for the foundation of a Dominican convent, complete with a church. The new nunnery was dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

In 1532, the church was expanded, and between 1566 and 1596 was further remodeled under the supervision of the Mother Prioress Maria del Carretto. It was inaugurated on 24 November 1596.

The building represents a synthesis of Sicilian Baroque, Rococo and Renaissance styles, manifested in the combination of texture, sculptures, mixed marble, stucco, and frescoes. For a long time, its design was attributed to Giorgio di Faccio, the architect of another church in Palermo, of San Giorgio dei Genovesi. However, more recent studies reveal the involvement of two other architects, such as Florentine's Francesco Camilliani and Lombardia's Antonio Muttone, who had been involved in the construction of Piazza Pretoria. The dome was designed by Francesco Ferrigno. The inner ornamentation dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

During the 19th century, the church was damaged on several occasions, namely: the uprising of 1820-1821, the Sicilian revolution of 1848, the Gancia revolt (1860), and the Seven and a Half Days revolt (1866).
Sight description based on wikipedia
6
Chiesa di Saint Anne 'della Misericordia (Church of Saint Anne the Merciful)

6) Chiesa di Saint Anne 'della Misericordia (Church of Saint Anne the Merciful)

The Church of Saint Anne the Merciful, or simply Sant'Anna, is a Baroque church found near the ancient market of Lattarini, in the historic center of Palermo. It is affiliated to the Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance.

The 16th-century document, called “Contrada della Misericordia”, contains record of a chapel dedicated to Our Lady Of Pity in this area. There, Tommaso de Vigilia painted a fresco of the Pietà, which over time became an object of popular devotion. In 1596, the structure, located near the chapel and used as a granary, was converted into a place of worship with the icon hung therein. In 1597 the convent of Sant'Anna was built.

Eventually, the church proved too small for liturgical needs, and the Palermo authorities decided to enlarge it with the help of local aristocracy and common worshipers. The architectural design, featuring late Renaissance style, was done by the senatorial architect Mariano Smiriglio. On 26 October 1606, the groundbreaking was launched. The church was completed in 1632 and consecrated on 13 November 1639. The temple was dedicated to Saint Anne, mother of Mary, and is thence known as Sant'Anna la Misericordia.

In 1726, the Terrasini earthquake caused the building's façade to collapse. The new façade was designed by Giovanni Biagio Amico in accordance with conventions of the Roman Baroque. Over the following centuries, the church had sustained multiple damages from several earthquakes.

After the unification of Italy in 1861, the church and the convent were confiscated by the state, and for several years afterwards were used as granary. In 1925, the church and part of the convent were returned to the friars.

Today, the convent houses a museum of modern art, called the Galleria d'Arte Moderna Sant'Anna.
Sight description based on wikipedia
7
Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi (Church of Saint Francis of Assisi)

7) Chiesa di San Francesco d'Assisi (Church of Saint Francis of Assisi)

The Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, colloquially known as San Francesco d'Assisi, is one of the few remaining buildings from the Renaissance era in Palermo. It represents the main Conventual Franciscan church of Sicily, and has the title of Minor basilica, granted by Pope Pius XI in 1924.

The history of this church starts with the arrival of the Franciscans in Sicily in 1224. Shortly after that, however, the local clergy, supported by the Saracens, chased the friars out of the city, who then appealed to the Pope Gregory IX. With the pontiff's support, they built a new convent in 1235, which again, because of the quarrels with the Pope, was subjected to destruction by Frederick II in 1239.

In 1255, the Vicar general of Sicily, Ruffino Gorgone da Piacenza, chaplain of Pope Alexander IV, finally asserted the Franciscans' presence on the island and entrusted their church reconstruction to the bishop of Malta, Roger. In 1302, the main portal and the anterior façade were built, both in Chiaramontan-Gothic style. In the 15th century, several chapels were added, in Gothic and Renaissance styles, including the Chapel Mastrantonio, being the first manifestation of the Renaissance in Sicily.

On 5 March 1823, the building was severely damaged by an earthquake, and was subsequently restored in Neoclassical style. Other damages, including those from air raids during World War II, and ensued restorations over the following decades, resulted in the church featuring a mixture of styles – mainly Gothic and Sicilian Baroque.

Presently, the church of Saint Francis plays an important role in the religious life of Palermo, as a home to the Simulacrum of the Immaculate Conception used in the procession that passes through the streets of the historic center each year, on December 8.
Sight description based on wikipedia
8
Chiesa San Domenico (San Domenico Church)

8) Chiesa San Domenico (San Domenico Church)

The church of San Domenico in Palermo is known locally as the "Pantheon of Illustrious Sicilians." It has overseen the burials of many prominent figures in Sicilian history. The first Dominican church here was Norman-Gothic in style. It was small, but it had a convent and cloister. It was made in imitation of the Benedictine cloister of Monreale.

In the 15th century the church had really become too small. With the aid of Pope Martin V a new church was built in the Renaissance style. Time marches on and the Renaissance church in turn became too small. In 1630 Domincans commissioned architect Andrea Cirrincione to build a replacement. It took a while.

It was not until 1640 that ground was broken. The work continued. The Baroque facade was finished in 1726 and the bell tower was completed in 1770.

The style is Baroque. There are two high bell towers and stucco statues on the facade of saints and popes, some in niches. There are twelve columns on the facade. They stand in twos. Eight line the entrance and four are on the bell towers.

The convent is accessible from the north side of the church. The cloister has columns and arches from the 13th century. On the walls are paintings of Dominican Saints, the Apocalypse and the Last judgement. There is also a refectory and a library.
9
Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo (Saints Peter and Paul Church)

9) Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo (Saints Peter and Paul Church)

The church of Saints Peter and Paul in Palermo is a marvelous piece of Renaissance architecture, designed by the renowned Italian architects, Giacomo Serpotta and Domenico Castelli, who also created the wonderful stuccoes inside. The building's façade comprises three inputs to pointed arches in Romanesque style.

The central altar and the side altars have been decorated by the painter G. La Manna. There, depicted in the center are St. Peter, Jesus, and St. Paul; on the left are David, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel; on the right are Isaiah, Daniel and Solomon; and above are the archangels Gabriel and Michael. The left altar is dedicated to St. Benedict of Norcia, with a number of Sicilian saints at the top. The right altar is dedicated to Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso; at the top you can see Sant'Anna, San Gioacchino, Giovanni Battista, Sant'Alisabetta and San Giuseppe.

Going along the left side aisle, you can find the altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a plaster statue. Crucifix with the wooden statue of Maria Santissima Addolorata and, above the confessional, the oil painting “The massacre of the Innocents” made in 1880. On the right side aisle there are the chapels of Santa Teresa del Bambin Gesù and Saint Joseph, with the depiction of the saint in oil on canvas.

At the central entrance there is a stained glass window decorated laterally with the icons of San Mauro and San Placido, Saint Geltrude of Nivelles and Saint Scholasticaall of the Benedictine order; in the center there are images of archangels Michael and Gabriel.

From 1880 to 1940, the church was the chapel of the nearby Benedictine monastery; in 1941, due to the reduced number of nuns, it was ceded to the archdiocese, and became a parish.
Sight description based on wikipedia
10
Chiesa Anglicana (Anglican Church)

10) Chiesa Anglicana (Anglican Church)

Formally known as The Church of the Holy Cross, this 19th-century temple on Via Roma is the only Anglican church in Palermo.

It was built in the 1870s, when Sicily was under the British Protectorate, seeing many British entrepreneurs come to the island in search of an investment opportunity. Two English entrepreneurs, namely Joseph Whitaker and his cousin Benjamin Ingham Jr., funded the construction of this church. For this project, Benjamin Ingham Jr. donated his own land, located in front of the then Ingham palace (today Grand Hotel et des Palmes), but died in 1872. Subsequently, Whitaker took care of the construction, which commenced in 1872 and was completed in 1875.

The design was done by William Barber and Henry Christian, the latter being the son-in-law of Joseph Whitaker. The church organ, built by "TW Walker & Sons" in London, was shipped directly from the UK in 1903; in 2003 it was rebuilt on the occasion of the centenary of the same.

The style of the building is typical of the Anglican churches of the time, with a large central rose window and a thin bell tower ending in a point. The base of the building follows a regular rectangular plan and the façades, both the front and side ones, are quite bare of decorations; there are only small skylights.

During World War II, the church was used by the U.S. Forces. It was entrusted to the diocese of Gibraltar in 1962, and today forms part of the Diocese of Europe, whilst remaining dependent on the Anglican Church of England.
Sight description based on wikipedia

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