When people come to Sicily they tend to go along the well followed tourist road, sticking to places like Palermo or Catania or visit coastal resort towns like Taormina or Cefalù which are all beautiful and worthwhile but the island can offer so many more unique experiences.
I always advise people to go and visit a smaller town, whether it be tracking down the village where long-lost Sicilian ancestors came from or simply hiring a car for a day and heading up into the mountains, along the coast or into the interior of the island. There are literally hundreds of smaller towns to see. In the province of Messina alone there are 108 towns each with their own unique history, sights, sounds and tastes.
Small towns aren’t going to be as bustling and vibrant as the bigger cities but visiting them will give you a sense of the real colour and pace of day-to-day Sicilian life which is much more satisfying than merely crossing things off a bucket list.
You can easily hire a car from any major airport in Sicily and with GPS technology it is easy to get off the Autostrada and explore.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Bring a phrasebook
Once you get out of the tourist areas the frequency of spoken English disappears so you will need some Italian to make yourself understood. Some guidebooks will make you believe you will be hearing mostly Sicilian dialect, but the reality is most people are well versed in Italian although it will be spoken with a thick Sicilian accent. Once the locals see you trying to make yourself understood in their language they will do everything to accommodate you, as they are proud of their town and will do anything to show it off.
Get there early
Get going early as most towns tend to slow down after midday and you will have to avoid any traffic heading out of the bigger cities. I suggest arriving in time to have breakfast (strictly a coffee/cappuccino or fresh orange juice and croissant which most cafe’s/bar offer regularly) and that way you can ask the waiter or barista what you should be doing in their town. Bar owners are fonts of great local knowledge as they are usually located in the centre of town and are always in the know. Sicilian’s freely give information on local events and the best local places to eat, so you can’t go wrong by simply asking.
Start with the churches
The best place to see traditional Sicilian art is in Sicilian churches, the Roman Catholic church once engaged the best local artists and artisans to beautify their places of worship and so you will literally find a treasure trove of sculpture, architecture and paintings.
Even the most run down looking church will give you the best surprises. Most churches are open throughout the day, they don’t cost you anything and you can walk around without any problem just as long as there are no religious services and you are respectful and don’t take too many photo’s especially of the altar. If you are feeling generous you can slip in a donation into the Offertory boxes which usually go to the upkeep of the church.
Castles and palaces
Every town with either has a Castle/Fortress (Castello) or historical aristocratic Palace (Palazzo). Many have been turned into museums and most will be opened to the public. They are always fascinating places to visit as they are focal points for local history. Sicilian small town are places with many centuries of history, the island has been inhabited since prehistoric times so there are endless fascinating historical sites to see. Once again be sure to ask the locals for advice.
The best way to see a Sicilian village is to park the car and walk around the town focusing on little side streets, suggestive abandoned houses, tiny little stores and hidden courtyards. If you are visiting a mountain town this walk with mean hiking up, discovering new perspectives and picturesque views. While coastal towns will give you romantic strolls along the seaside or panoramic outlooks carved out of the landscape. Sicily is perfect for slow travel as Sicilians always take the time to savour the moment.
Feste, Sagre and Market time
If you want to see a Sicilian paese with it’s best face on, then you must visit when there is a local Festa (saint day celebration) or Sagra (local food festival). Each town has its patron Saint and protector which is celebrated with elaborate markets and processions during the year, so it is always great to see this celebration which is usually accompanied by other events like art exhibitions and concerts.
Sicilian’s are great connoisseurs of food and always love to promote their own local products, throughout the year each town celebrates their food by offering visitors a taste. For a few euro’s you can often enjoy a full meal. There are food festivals dedicated to everything from ice cream, to pistachio’s, sardines, salami, roasted pork, chestnuts, ricotta and oranges, the list is endless. Most are advertised through large posters fastened to walls on the side of the road or on billboards and above all by word of mouth. So if you see one be sure to swing by. These are usually evening events so you may have to arrange accommodation for the night.
The market day tradition is still very much alive in Sicily and each town has its own open-air market day during the week. You never know what you will find at the markets, there can be anything from cheap Chinese clothing, fabrics, local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, food carts, folk art and antiques. It will always be worth the effort even if you simply grab a few local products to taste for a picnic lunch.
Food is never a problem in Sicily, even if you hurriedly run into a small supermarket just before they close for the lunchtime siesta you will still be able to ask them to make up a quick panino and deli lunch which you can wash down with a beer or wine easily available from the store.
If you are shrewd enough to follow my advice and asked the local barista where you should go for lunch you would already have a selection of recommendations for a place to enjoy a local meal.
Generally if you want to taste fresh local fare the best bet is to eat at a Trattoria (family run restaurant) or Agriturismo (agricultural tourism hotel) rather than a Ristorante (restaurant) which will charge you more and give you less.
Each small town has a local tourist information office which is usually associated with the local town hall. If you decide to find a place to stay and experience the town over a few days they will be the place to go for recommendations about local bed and breakfasts and other places to stay overnight. The Pro loco will be a great font of knowledge as each town is connected through a network of other tourist information centres so they can give you in-depth information about the surrounding areas too as things like web pages and online information is hard to come by.
There is no reason not to go forth and explore.
Sicily has had a bad reputation in the past but if you use the same level of caution you usually use while travelling overseas there is no reason to be afraid. Keep in mind things like controlling your change while shopping so you don’t get short-changed, don’t leave cameras or expensive equipment in your car, keep valuables either at home or close to your person, don’t take too much cash and keep your documents in a money belt under your clothes to avoid falling victim to pickpockets. Don’t be ostentatious in the way you dress as it will identify you as a foreigner and you will become a target for a mugger or tourist fraud.
Generally, avoid run-down neighbourhoods or isolated areas like train stations or abandoned city squares late at night, if you don’t see people around it means you shouldn’t be there either and simply be aware of any potential danger.
These are the general rules to follow if you travel anywhere around the world, Sicily is no different to any other international travel location.