A Sicilian wish list for a summer in Sicily

 

Church of San Giuseppe Corso Umberto, Taormina
Church of St Catherine Piazza XI Aprile, Taormina

 Daphne’s house: Giardini Naxos, Castelmola and Taormina

Taormina is a beautiful town to explore but it is terribly touristy and there are many other things to see in the vicinity.

Be sure to visit Casa Cuseni an historic house which became like a real character in one of the best books around about Sicily by the late great Daphne Phelps titled A House in Sicily. The book is a wonderful love letter to this Sicilian villa which became Daphne’s home after she inherited the grand old house built and designed by her talented Uncle, painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson from 1905 to 1907. It has been converted into a luxury bed and breakfast and museum.

Be sure to see a show at the Ancient Greek amphitheater at Taormina as it is one of the most famous postcard views of Etna and it will be an unforgettable memory to see an open air summer show of contemporary music or opera depending what may be on offer. Take the chance to do this now as the Taormina festival is suffering some major cuts in funding.

Be sure to explore the nearby towns who are just as beautiful as Taormina and with a lot less tourists Castelmola is above Taormina with positively vertiginous views. While Giardini Naxos below on the coast near Taormina, easily reached by cable car with some great beaches and cute little ‘Trattorie’ restaurants who offer great seafood at more reasonable prices than the tourist traps at Taormina!

 

Three Sicilian Cathedrals: Monreale, Palermo,Cefalu

If you love churches in the grand Norman style I suggest you do a mini tour of three of the most amazing cathedrals you will ever see.

The Cathedral of Monreale, outside of Palermo has the most spectacular mosaics including a giant depiction of Jesus Christ which covers one Dome of the grandiose church, filled with precious stones and gold. 

The Palermo Cathedral is a mixture of Norman,Gothic,Baroque and Neoclassical styles with extensive mosaic decorations and art treasures.

The Cathedral- Basilica of Cefalu’, dates from 1131 and was originally built-in the Norman style. The building was erected by Roger the second the King of Sicily after he escaped from a storm sheltering on the Cefalu beach. The fortress-like character of the building, which, seen from a distance, rises above the medieval town and is a powerful statement of the Norman presence in Sicily.

 Piazza Armerina

Along the theme of mosaics is the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina which is an ancient Roman villa so well preserved you can walk through the different rooms and marvel at the beautiful mosaic decorated floors. It has recently been restored and as of 2006 there are new archeological excavations underway.

Visiting Piazza Armerina will give you an opportunity to explore the belly button of Sicily which has its own unique character, be sure to take a drive around the ancient towns like Enna, Piazza Armerina,Nicosia and Mistretta which will give you a sense of the timeless quality of Sicily.

Ceramic factory, Santo Stefano di Camastra
Ceramic factory, Santo Stefano di Camastra

 Santo Stefano di Camastra

The most spectacular souvenir to take home from Sicily are the ceramics. There are many tourist traps around the island who claim to sell authentic pieces but you really cannot go wrong visiting the ceramic factories at Santo Stefano di Camastra.

Stores in the town vary in price and style but if you stick to the big warehouses on the other side of the town away from the autostrada exit you will be buying directly from the producers, with wholesale prices and international shipping!

 Nelson’s Castle, Bronte

Castello di Maniace (or Castello Nelson) is in the fertile countryside between Randazzo and Bronte.

 An historical English property which was given to Admiral Lord Nelson as a gift after he rescued the Bourbon king of the two Sicilies, after Nelson helped him to escape certain death during a revolution in Naples in 1796. 

I have blogged here about this places history before but to be honest and I am yet to make it out to see its beautiful grounds and museum, but can’t wait to get there this summer!

Etna cable car
Etna cable car

 Etna

All tourists who visit the island must go to Mount Etna! 

There are many ways of experiencing the volcano and the national park that surrounds it, from taking a tour bus from Catania to see the more touristy spots closer to its peak or take one of many walking tours. 

You can go up via cable car, riding on four-wheel drive buses or on Sicilian donkeys. For the less adventurous types there are many places to explore away from the main peak like old extinguished craters and shopping at higher altitudes for retail therapy.

If you are staying at Catania a wonderful day trip would be to catch the Circumetnea railway which takes you from Catania around the base of Etna all the way to near the coast at Giarre or if you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus and see the landscape in the opposite direction towards Catania. It is a wonderful way of seeing Etna (here is some great information on TripAdvisor.)

Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Randazzo
Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Randazzo

 Randazzo

I’ve always loved Randazzo at the foot of Mount Etna, it is a beautiful town made of suggestive lava stone, filled with historic buildings, castles and museums.

On Sundays there is a hug market which I love to visit with a bit of everything from local cuisine, antiques, to fashion.

My favorite gem at Randazzo is the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. It’s exterior is a contrast between intricate white lace and charcoal lava stone while inside is filled with art and the most outstanding stained glass windows.

 Aeolian Islands

The Aeolian Islands are a popular way of passing the summer at the beach. There are seven islands along the Tyrrhenian coast in the province in Messina, all of volcanic origin including: Alicudi, Filicudi, Panarea, Stromboli, Salina, Lipari and Volcano.

Lipari and Volcano are the most popular and biggest islands with great beaches and spas to explore even if food and drink can get costly as everything is imported from the mainland. 

The smaller islands are less touristy and just as spectacular. There are many mini cruises available to explore them even if it can get uncomfortable in the summer humidity, it is defiantly worth the trouble.

 

Interior stainglass windows at the Tindari church, Messina.
Interior stainglass windows at the Tindari church, Messina.

 Tindari

Ancient Tyndaris became a Greek colony in three hundred and ninety-six B.C but had been settled during the Bronze age in about fifteen hundred B.C. Its strategic location looks out on to the Bay of Patti along the northern coast stretching up to Cape Milazzo which made it a perfect post to maintain control of the waters between the Eolian Islands and Messina.

The Basilica of the Madonna of Tindari is modern, work on it began in nineteen fifty-seven after the old church was unable to cope with the influx of pilgrims to the site. The main attraction is the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna. The sculpture itself is quite modest yet history has given it a mysterious past and has bestowed upon it many colourful legends.

According to the tradition it was brought to Tindari by a cargo that ship was returning from the east filled with precious merchandise and treasures. The statuette had been salvaged from the Iconoclastic wars which saw the destruction of many religious icons.  As the ship sailed through the Tyrrhenian sea its journey was interrupted by a powerful storm, which forced the ship to stop in the Marinello bay near Tindari.

It is said the statue chose it’s own home, the ship remained trapped in the bay and became free only after the sculpture was unloaded.

The statue has a magnetic quality to it. The whole church draws you towards the sculpture and it is the main focus for pilgrims. For me it is its ancient quality that creates an undeniable mystique and well worth the trip to this somewhat isolated spot along the coast from Messina.

During the summer the road up to Tindari is closed but there is a bus every ten minutes or so and there are loads of souvenir shops all the way up. If you want to buy religious items like rosary beads the first shop directly next to the church is run by the religious community and profits go directly to the church.

The statue of the Madonna at the port of Messina. She greets everyone.
The statue of the Madonna at the port of Messina. She greets everyone.

 Messina

Messina is a lovely place to visit, in the summer it is not as chaotic and confusing as other Sicilian metropolises and there is always something to see and do. There are many museums and art galleries to visit and it is easy to stroll around the historical centre and discover many churches and beautiful palaces. I recommend climbing the bell tower near the Duomo, visiting the permanent exhibition downstairs in the Duomo which features wonderful historical artworks and treasures associated with the church and the celebration dedicated to the Virgin Mary which has a particular strong attachment with the city.

Messina is friendly for pedestrians and there is a tram service through the main part of town. Piazza Cairoli is an oasis in the confusion of peak hour traffic and is also the best place to rest and do some high-class shopping, the boutiques begin in the  square and continue either side of the tramline. Don’t forget to visit the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele which is practically next door to the town hall for a surprising glance at an original fresco by Sicilian artist Renato Guttuso depicting the myth of Cola Pese on the theater’s inner dome.

The best bookstore in town is Libreria Ciofalo on the other side of the Town Hall (municipio) and has a tempting array of Sicilian travel, history and literature.

It’s also easy to catch a ferry over to Calabria to explore Reggio Calabria and the main continent of Italy. Catching the ferry back over to Messina during the night is a magical experience.

Detail of Palazzo Nicolaci, Noto Syracuse
Detail of Palazzo Nicolaci, Noto Syracuse

Val di Noto

A wonderful way to while away your time in Sicily is to simply get out on the road. Why not hire a car and explore southeastern Sicily visiting the eight baroque cities which make up the Noto Valley. Create your own itinerary through Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania,Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli who are all UNESCO world heritage sites.

I’m a huge fan of the do it your self road trip and this area is easily enough navigated by car and there are endless resources online for suggestions on what to see. I suggest to do your research and try to book local bed and breakfast for memorable experiences as b&b owners will give you the best advice on what to see and where to eat. I have recently discovered Airbnb a great site with links to locals from all over the world who rent out rooms, houses and apartments to visitors which is a wonderful resources for travelers.

Another great idea for those who love theatre is to check out the summer program at the Syracuse ancient greek theatre, every year they offer a wonderful array of ancient greek classics, this year for example there is a lavish production of Verdi’s Aida.

 

 Agrigento

Yet another UNESCO heritage site in Sicily is The Valle dei Templi or Valley of the Temples it is an archaeological site in Agrigento in southern Italy and contains outstanding examples of ancient Greece art.

The archaeological park and landscape of the Valley of the Temples is the largest archaeological site in the world with some 1,300 hectares.

The Valley includes remains of seven temples all in Doric style including: the Temples of Juno, Concordia, Heracles, Accra’s, Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Vulcan, and Asclepius.

The best way to experience The Valley of Temples is to buy yourself some local delicacies like cheeses, bread, olives, fruit and vegetables and a nice bottle of red wine and enjoy a rustic picnic beneath these wonderful ruins of the ancient world.

 

 Trapani

The western coast of Sicily is filled with wonderful seaside towns to explore from Trapani with it’s windmills and salt producing artificial lakes, to Marsala where the dark sweet wine of the same name originated, up to the mountain top castle like fortress town of Erice. From the hills you can glimpse the Egadi Islands, Tunisia and Africa.

 This part of Sicily is an agricultural region filled with grape vines, olive trees, wheat and cotton fields which dominate the countryside and the coast provides salt, tuna and mackerel for consumers all around the world. 

Summertime is the perfect time of year to explore this part of Sicily, enjoying the sea air and sipping mildly chilled Marsala.

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I recently did a guest post for The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife about my last summer vacation in Sicily if you want more ideas!

12 thoughts on “A Sicilian wish list for a summer in Sicily

  1. A blissful post as far as I’m concerned. I went to Taormina for a holiday in 1987 and haven’t been back since, alas. I fell in love with the place and long to return and explore everywhere you mention that we were unable to include that time. Most of my photographs are in storage at the moment as we’re moving but I do sell one from Taormina on products at my Zazzle store. It wasn’t the brightest of days but I do adore little side streets! http://www.zazzle.com/firstnightdesign/taormina

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    1. Thanks! Every year I like to put together a kind of best of Sicily wish list, it keeps getting longer. Happy to say I’ve been to most of the places on the list but it would take many lifetimes to explore all of Sicily there is so much beauty here. Love the side street image! I need to do another post dedicated to window shopping and side streets in Sicily I think!!

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  2. Amazing post with so many helpful information!! Im making a tour to Italy in September with my husband.. We are going by car. We are still deciding if we should go to Taormina or Lecce… as we are coming all the way from the north it would be a little tiring to drive from Naples to Taormina… but we really wanted to dive there. Do you think we should stay in Taormina itself or somewhere close? Our diving center is in Giardini Naxos… I remember seeing that hotels are a little expensive in this area. We want to stay 1 week 🙂 any tips? Thank you

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    1. Seeing Italy by car is great as you will be able to take everything in at your own pace! Yes Taormina is costly, check out Giardini or look on the Airbnb web page for some ideas on where to stay. If I was going to Taormina I’d love to stay at the place I mentioned Casa Cuseni which is also a b&b and quite reasonably priced! Have an amazing trip!

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      1. The best thing about Airbnb is you are in direct contact with the owners and you can probably find a dog friendly place, I’m not sure about Casa Cuseni as it’s like staying in a museum. All the best.

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      2. Perfect!! I will for sure take a look and finally decide this part of our trip 🙂 thank you so much for the help!!

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  3. You made me realize just how much of this island that I’ve yet to see. I’ll be here for a few more weeks, so hopefully I’ll visit a few of them. And thanks for mentioning Messina! It gets overlooked, but worth a visit. Make sure to see the Chiesa dei Catalani. My wife is from Messina, and she’s writing post for my blog about the 1908 earthquake which leveled the city and killed more than 1/3 of the population. And then two World Wars….which is why so much of this town’s historical sites just don’t exist anymore…

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    1. The list of places to see and experience in Sicily is endless! I inserted Messina because I know it quite well and it’s a great place to simply walk around and explore. Yes I know the Chiesa dei Catalani, it’s my favourite church, I love the mixture of architectural styles and the inside is amazing, if I was to get married a second time (which I’m not planning to) it would be in this church! I left off so many things off my Messina list there isn’t room for everything! Be sure to check out the newly constructed Contemporary Art gallery across the road from the Church of San Francesco in the gothic style (this church actually survived the earthquake/tsunami of 1908!) and enjoy a granita at a bar in Piazza Cairole. I have read a lot about the earthquake, up until a few years ago people in some of the poorer neighbourhoods were still living in temporary housing. It’s such a traumatic thing to live through, hearing all the stories and seeing the images is depressing as Messina was a spectacular city to visit in that period. It’s a real testament to the Messinese that they rebuilt their city when they could have easy leveled over the rubble and move away. Can’t wait to read your post!

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      1. Yes, there is a tragic history to this city regarding the earthquake. Last week we went to the Church of St. Antonio and visit the little museum there to St. Anibale. Very cool…and free. Later that night was the Festa di S Antonio with the street procession and the whole thing. Really fun!

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