Exploring small Sicilian towns

When people come to Sicily, they tend to go along the well-followed tourist road, sticking to the main cities like Palermo or Catania or visit coastal resort towns like Taormina or Cefalù, which are all beautiful and worthwhile. Still, the island offers many more unique experiences.I always advise people to go and explore smaller towns, which are easier to study and offer a more authentic type of experience. Whether it be tracking down the village where your long-lost Sicilian ancestors came or visiting relatives, it is easy to hire a car for a day and go up into the mountains, along the coast or into the island’s interior.There are hundreds of small towns to visit. In the province of Messina alone, there are 108 towns, each with its unique history, sights, sounds and tastes.

Small towns aren’t as bustling and vibrant as the bigger cities, but visiting them will give you a sense of the natural 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 you should know that will help you have a satisfying experience.

Be willing to get lost

First of all, you must give yourself time and space for the unexpected. I can guarantee things will 100% not go the way you planned. For example, there are many places where your phone or GPS will go haywire. The network is pretty unreliable in Sicily, so don’t rely on it too much. Signage and roads can also be unpredictable in some places, so the best way to be sure is to consult a map beforehand or stop and ask for directions.

Don’t be alarmed because Sicily’s best discoveries come from stumbling upon things unexpectedly. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve unearthed a stunning artwork in a tiny provincial town’s church or the most fantastic palazzo by making a wrong turn, and the scenic routes in Sicily will always offer up the best landscape. Asking the locals will always lead you to the best places to stay or eat.

 Bring a phrasebook

Once you get out of the tourist areas and major cities, the frequency of spoken English disappears, so you will need some Italian to make yourself understood.

Some guidebooks will make you believe you will hear primarily Sicilian dialect. Still, the reality is everyone is 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 moving 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 or whatever pastry or biscuit the cafe’s/bar offers as their local speciality).

Often a pasticceria will have the most delectable seasonal creations, whether ricotta-filled cannoli, sfinci di San Giuseppe or pasta di mandorla. It depends on what time of year you visit. There is always something special for every religious celebration, saint day or season in general.

Starting your day at a local bar in town is always a good idea because that way you can ask the waiter or barista what you should be seeing. Bar owners are fonts of excellent local knowledge as they are usually located in the centre of town and are always in the know. Sicilians 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 art is in Sicilian churches. The Roman Catholic church once engaged the best local artists and artisans to beautify their places of worship. You will 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. You are respectful and don’t take too many photos, especially in front 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. If you are extra lucky to bump into the local parish priest, you can easily ask them about the church; most priests work tirelessly to maintain their historic churches and will be more than willing to answer any questions.

Castles and palaces

Every town will have a series of Castles/Fortresses (Castello) or historical aristocratic Palaces (Palazzo). Many have been turned into museums and are open to the public.

They are always fascinating places to visit as focal points for local history. Sicilian small towns are places with many centuries of history. Since prehistoric times, the island has been inhabited, so there are endless fascinating historical sites to see.

Once again, be sure to ask the locals for advice. There may be a little local museum that’ll be worth the time to explore.

By foot

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 visit a mountain town, this walk will mean hiking up and 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.

Several Regional Parks around the island offer opportunities for hiking. Some of the most satisfying and suggestive trials include places like the Aeolian Islands and Mt Etna.

The three main parks to explore are the Parco dell etna, the Madonie, Nebordi and numerous other natural reserves, dotted around the island’s variegated landscape.

Mercati, Fiere and Feste

If you want to see a Sicilian paese with its best face on it, you must visit a local Festa (saint day celebration) or Sagra (local food festival).

Each town has its patron Saint and protector, celebrated with elaborate markets and processions during the year. It is always great to see this celebration usually accompanied by other events like art exhibitions and concerts.

Sicilians are great connoisseurs of food and always love to promote their local products; each town celebrates their food by offering visitors a taste throughout the year. For a few euros, you can often enjoy a full meal.

Food festivals are dedicated to everything from ice cream to pistachios, sardines, salami, roasted pork, chestnuts, ricotta and oranges; the list is endless.

Most are advertised on posters, billboards, or flyers 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 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 grab a few local products to taste for a picnic lunch.

Eat local

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 be able to get a quick panino. Larger supermarkets may even have cooked meals that you can wash down with a beer or wine readily available from the store.

If you are wise enough to follow my advice and ask 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.

If you want to taste the fresh local fare, your best bet is to eat at a Trattoria (family-run restaurant). Also, an Agriturismo (agricultural tourism hotel) usually grows and produces whatever they consume at their table. There are better alternatives to a Ristorante (restaurant), which will charge you more but not give you the best experience.

Tourist Information

Each small town has a local tourist information office usually associated with the local town hall. If you decide to find a place to stay and experience the city 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 in the area. So a Pro Loco can also give you in-depth information about the surrounding areas.

These local tourist information centres are run by enthusiastic volunteers who will go out of their way to help you. Often they organise small tours of the local areas for visitors. So be sure to ask for a schedule. And if you participate on a tour, be kind enough to leave a tip or donation as they are all volunteers.

Always keep an eye out for flyers, handouts and posters pasted up around the place. Local events are often publicised by word of mouth or local ads.

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. Do not take too much cash and keep your documents in a money belt under your clothes to avoid falling victim to pickpockets.

In the larger cities, it is a good idea not to be ostentatious in the way you dress as it will identify you as a foreigner, and you will become a target for muggers.

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 be aware of any potential danger. These are the general rules to follow if you travel anywhere worldwide. Sicily is no different to any other international travel location.

There is no need to be afraid of anything, locals appreciate visitors and will always be friendly and accomodating. Things in smaller towns are generally tranquil, safe places to visit as there is a wonderful sense of community.

Come back after Corona

For now, many things are carefully regulated by restrictions put into place for the current pandemic. Many towns haven’t celebrated their saint days, markets or food festivals.

The island of Sicily has lost an immense amount of money over the past two years, particularly in tourism. Many businesses have shut down, and more locals have been forced to move away from Sicily as employment opportunities have diminished. It’s sad to see the whole of Sicily suffering so and ever more so these tiny towns, who were starting to disappear even before the pandemic.

The world has changed because of the Coronavirus, but Sicily and Italy, in general, will never be the same.

So I encourage anyone who wants to travel, as soon as it is safe and practical to do so, to come back to Sicily and seek out these smaller towns to help them get back on their feet. Tourism is vital for the locals.

Honestly, this beautiful Mediterranean island needs you, so please do come back after Corona.


5 thoughts on “Exploring small Sicilian towns

  1. I have visited the fishing village of Terrasini where my grandparents were born and lived before going to America. It’s a meaningful experience to see the streets, buildings (especially the church) and spend time in the piazza among the residents. I’ve been to Palermo, Cefalu, Erice, Segesta, Catania, Taormina and walked on Mt. Etna. All thrilling.

    1. Thanks for commenting Grace. It sounds like you’ve had many meaningful experiences travelling through the island, which is great. I certainly got chills when I visited the town my grandparent were from. I think so many people rush through Sicily, when the joy of the place is experienced through the smaller things. Which I think can also be said of travelling in general. I’m 100% for slow travel 😉

    1. Oh yes Debra, the whole Val di Noto is a real jewel each town is a gem. Scicli is away from the tourists but there are literally hundreds of other equally fascinating places to visit in Sicily. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. I certainly agree with you on this subject. I have only been to ‘Sicilia once time for 6 weeks and we did not visit any of the main tourist areas. Small towns the entire time. To me it is the best way to know the soul of Sicilia. I hope to be there next year again.

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