Located between mountains and sea and packed with historical monuments, gorgeous churches, sun-soaked piazzas, and incredible places to eat, Palermo is an undeniably beautiful city, even by Italian standards. From the moment you arrive in the Sicilian capital, you’ll be blown away by this gorgeous town’s scenic grandeur and historical importance.
But wander the streets of Palermo for a while, and it won’t be long before you start to detect something else. Sicily has always been one of the poorest regions in Italy and remains so to this day. But unfortunately, it’s also become synonymous with organized crime. So everywhere you turn, you’ll see the glowering Godfather, played by Marlon Brando, graffitied on the city’s crumbling walls.
Palermo is perfectly safe to visit, provided you follow the usual precautions you should follow in any city. For instance, dropping off your bags at a Palermo luggage storage will help to keep your things safely looked after while you explore.
But there’s no denying that the often turbulent history of Sicily has left Palermo with more than its fair share of dark tourist attractions. If you have a taste for the unusual and the macabre, these attractions are guaranteed to give you an unforgettable time in Sicily.
Catacombe Dei Cappuccini
One of the creepiest attractions in Palermo is also one of the weirdest things you’re ever likely to see.
The cities of Europe are full of catacombs, like the ones that line the Appian Way in Rome or the famous and sprawling catacombs of Paris. But the Sicilian attitude to life and death makes the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo one of the most impressive tombs you could visit.
The catacombs started as a resting place for the Capuchin monks of the Monastery back in the 16th century. The monks developed a technique for preserving bodies and would dress their departed brothers in robes before displaying their corpses on the walls.
Over time, many of Palermo’s wealthy and influential decided they wanted the same treatment after their deaths, and the catacombs became a resting place for a cross-section of society.
The oldest corpse in the catacombs dates back to 1599, and one of the most recent is from 1920. While most of the bodies are skeletons now, the embalming process and the dry climate of Palermo mean that several are mummified. And all of them are dressed as they would’ve dressed in life, making this an incredibly eerie place to visit and come face-to-face with centuries after Palermo’s death.
This palace was built back in the 14th century by one of Palermo’s most powerful noble families. Passing from one owner to another through the centuries, it was from 1600 to 1782 that the palace became famed — and feared — as the local base of the Spanish Inquisition.
This organization was tasked with rooting out heresy throughout the sprawling Spanish Empire, which included Sicily from the 15th to the 18th centuries. And the cells where unfortunate prisoners were kept to await trial and execution are open to the public.
The extent of the graffiti left behind by the inquisition’s prisoners makes the palace so haunting to visit. Drawings and poems written in various languages testify to the misery endured by the prisoners here. It’s a side of history you don’t often get to see and a visceral encounter with a dark chapter of Palermo’s past.
Trionfo Della Morte
Housed in the Museo Regionale Abatellis, you wouldn’t expect a painting called The Triumph of Death to be cheerful. And it isn’t. This 15th-century fresco is a terrifying dive into the fears and terrors of its age.
The painting shows a skeletal Death riding an equally desiccated horse through the city and launching arrows at rich and poor alike. The massive size of the fresco makes it even more striking as you look at the dead bodies piling up beneath the hooves of the rampaging horse.
The painting is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know who or when it was painted. So why would anyone want to look at it daily while strolling their palace grounds? Yet, there’s no denying the powerful effect this creepy painting has on those who see it.
Qanat di Palermo
Palermo’s period of Arab rule ended almost a thousand years ago, but traces of the Moorish past remain in the city if you know where to look. It’s impossible to deny the Arab influences on the architecture of Palermo Cathedral, for example. But if you plan, you can visit another lesser-known trace of Moorish rule in the city.
Palermo’s qanats are underground aqueducts constructed by the city’s Arab rulers to bring water to this dry city. Reservations are required, and a change of clothes is recommended, as the water level in these ancient underground passageways can be unpredictable. Exploring beneath the city with only a headlamp to guide you is an unforgettable experience that many visitors to Palermo never get to have.
No Mafia Memorial
The Mafia has been a part of Sicily for centuries. And while this feared organization may not have the power and reach it enjoyed during its heyday, it remains a fact of life in Sicily.
Palermo’s No Mafia Memorial is both a museum and a tribute to the victims of this vicious crime organization. Stripping away the Hollywood glamour, the No Mafia Memorial tells the story of the island’s crime families and the courageous men and women who worked to bring them to justice.
While this museum tells some upsetting stories, it’s an important place to visit to understand the horrible reality of organized crime in Sicily.
The sun shines brightly in Palermo, and this coastal city is a beautiful place to spend some time. But this bright sun casts its share of shadows. Explore the darker side of Palermo, and you’ll have a better understanding of the city and Sicily as a whole. You’ll also get to see some of the lesser-known attractions this city of light and dark offers.