I am constantly sitting down and planning out trips to do through Sicily. Often I don’t do everything on my list as I run out of money but I am generally happy if I do one of the trips every year as they are based on my experiences living here on the island.
Sicily is so rich, there are endless itineraries you can complete if you search on google but these are the things I’d recommend to my own friends and family.
The island can be terribly uncomfortable in July/August so I suggest do some of these in June as the weather is warm without being too humid or if the summer holds out as it usually does September is a perfect time to visit the island, with a lot less tourists too!
These ancient islands off the north-eastern coast in the province of Messina make gorgeous day trips and are easily reached from Messina and Milazzo.
The ‘seven sisters’ as the islands are colloquially known are a series of wild and volcanic archipelagos surrounded by a deep turquoise colored sea. Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli and Vulcano were the home of Aeolus the mythological guardian of the winds who populated these islands with his family.
You can usually pair up a couple of the larger islands for a leisurely day (Lipari/Vulcano or Salina/Lipari) or be more adventurous and hike out to the more distant rocky islands (Filicudi/Alicudi). If you shop around there are mini cruises and sailing trips to the four main islands (Vulcano/Lipari/Panarea/Stromboli) and night time cruises to see the volcanic eruptions on Vulcano.
I am always going on about how easy it is to experience Sicily by road and I urge people to hire a car from Palermo, Catania or Messina and plan out a trip.
I’d grab a hire car from Messina and head along the coast towards Palermo stopping at which major coastal city may tickle my fancy. Do you research and see if there are any food festivals (or sagras) on the way to stop and taste. I’d stop at Milazzo for some great seafood in the summer, browse around the ceramic stores at Santo Stefano di Camastra, see the Norman Cathedral at Cefalu’, spend the night at Palermo be sure to visit some museums, the Teatro Massimo which is known as the La Scala of the south and if you want to be impressed there is the Duomo, the Palazzo Normanno which is the seat of the regional government and both decorated by golden mosaics left behind by the golden age of Norman rule in 12th century Sicily. A day trip from Palermo is the Abbey of Monreale a magnificent arab/norman cathedral built by William the II in the 1100’s.
I encourage people to keep heading west along the coast and visit the cities of Marsala and Trapani filled with delightful beaches in the summer, fine food all year round, museums and towns to explore.
The central provinces are seldom explored by tourists so I would pack a lunch and head out to the belly button of the island for a new experience.
I’d go straight to Piazza Armerina, outside of the town is the Villa Romana del Casale which is one of the most well-preserved archeological sites from the late Roman period and allows you to walk through an aristocratic Roman villa filled with elaborate mosaics which have recently been restored.
Enna, Caltanissetta and Agrigento are easily reached from Piazza Armerina and are filled with rich historical sights and festivals depending on what time of year you visit.
For the lovers of the Baroque a fascinatingly rich part of the island is the Noto Valley (Val di Noto) which is a UNESCO world heritage site and includes many towns in the south-east of the island.
I’d meander my way down the coast from Catania and stop off in each of these towns who were all rebuilt in the Sicilian baroque style after a major earthquake in 1693.
Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli represent a considerable collective undertaking which created an amazing architectural and artistic achievement.
Further down the coastline from the Val di Noto in May and June every year there are performances of ancient Greek Classics in the Greek amphitheater at Syracuse which give world-class performances in this suggestive ancient location.
A fantastic way to experiencing the depth and breathe of the Mt Etna volcano is to take a trip around its base thanks to the Circumetenea railway (Ferrovia Circumetnea) which goes from Catania stopping at most small towns around Etna and ending up at the coastal town of Giarre (perfect for lunch and museums dedicated to ancient times).
You can also stop at Randazzo which is a suggestive small town that connects the provinces of Messina and Catania in fascinating dark lava historic center.
If you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus out to the station and head either towards Catania or Giarre for the day.
You can plan an entire trip to Sicily simply by going from museum to museum which can be an effort. I suggest choosing a couple of major museums and trying to fit in other cultural activities such as the theater.
I’d defiantly check out Teatro Massimo if you are staying at Palermo, their 2015 season is filled with orchestral concerts, ballets and opera. This elaborate historical theater can be visited during the day with regular tours.
The same can be said of the Teatro Massimo Bellini at Catania.
Rather than rushing through Taormina during a hot summer rush with the rest of the tourists why not take in a show during the Taormina Fest and spend the night in this beautiful town which will no doubt be unforgettable.
If you want to book tickets I suggest you try to get these done early to avoid disappointment.
The cultural element in Sicily is best explored towards the end of the summer even better in September.
Enjoy your summer or early autumn/fall in Sicily and be sure to let me know how it went.
I’ve been asked several times about the dangers of the Mount Etna volcano in Sicily. Over the past decade Etna has been relatively active opening several new openings in spectacular lava flowing fountains and fire works, but the province of Messina is distant enough to hear the stories and watch the news without being directly involved.
Etna isn’t only one mammoth mountain but volcanologists say it is part of a conglomerate of volcanic activity which descends below the island and connects it to the Aeolian Islands of Stromboli and Vulcano.
Catania often suffers from volcanic ash dust storms, which often cover their streets and results in the Catanese breathing in Etna’s filth. One year the soot was swept through all of Sicily, dirtying everything and everyone on the island.
It does take courage to live so close to Europe’s most active volcano, but the natives feel strangely protected under the shadow of their beloved Mongibello, a mixture of the Latin ‘mons’ and Arab ‘gebel’ for a ‘signor vulcano’ or the ‘grand mountain’ of their island.
Etna is an ancient volcano which Sicilians have always had to live with, nobody actually lives near enough to its peak to be in direct danger, the closest are the ski tracks and cable car many kilometers further down at the town of Nicolasi, where many tourists come to hike in the summer, ski in the winter and buy endless lava stone souvenirs in the dozens of stores near the tourist area just outside of Catania.
Etna North is on the opposite side and is reached by going around the volcano’s gigantic base, driving through Randazzo and climbing up via Linguaglossa. There are many less stores but just as many tourist rides up to it’s peak on giant buses with huge monster truck wheels, four-wheel drive jaunts and donkey rides.
What is the most fascinating aspect of Etna is how many towns have decided to live comfortably in its shadow. The ‘paese etnei’ in the province of Catania are part of the most densely populated area on the island. The cities include:
Aci Bonaccorsi (population 3,200), Aci Castello (18,122), Aci Catena (28,749), Aci Sant’Antonio (17,270), Acireale (57,223), Adrano (35,519), Belpasso (27,059), Biancavilla (23,982), Bronte (25,000), Camporotondo Etneo (4,464), Castiglione di Sicilia (3,366), Catania (300,000), Fiumefreddo di Sicilia (9,835), Giarre (27,988), Gravina di Catania (27,337), Linguaglossa (5,462), Maletto (4,061), Maniace (3,682), Mascali (13,464), Mascalucia (31,259), Milo (1,089), Misterbianco (49,948), Motta Sant’Anastasia (11,924), Nicolosi (7,229), Paternò (49,616), Pedara (13,087), Piedimonte Etneo (4,106), Ragalna (3,649), Randazzo (11,186), Riposto (14 932), San Giovanni la Punta (22,630), San Gregorio di Catania (11,604), San Pietro Clarenza (7,160), Sant’Agata li Battiati (9,396), Sant’Alfio (1,663), Santa Maria di Licodia (7,108), Santa Venerina (8,405), Trecastagni (10,626), Tremestieri Etneo (20,887), Valverde (7,760), Viagrande (8,090) and Zafferana Etnea (9,450).
Many of the smaller paeseEtnei are ancient little towns who huddle around the eternally burning heart of Sicily, they live with the tremors and earthquakes, scorching summer eruptions and inhale smoke like willing passive smokers.
Etna’s towns are all within a few kilometers of the volcano and regard her (as she is very much a feminine fertility symbol) with deep respect as she gives them prolific crops of olives, grapes (Etna’s wines are famous all over the world) and various other forms of agriculture. Etna’s dried lava deposits are broken down and used in the construction industry. Sicily thrives under the shadow of Etna.
The golden moment of the early Sicilian early morning overwhelms me, church steeples from the cramped towns hanging off the Nebrodi Mountains for dear life are lit up with a distinctly auburn glow. I rolled out of bed this morning at four am for a day trip by bus to Noto, Syracuse, so things are still a little groggy but the splendid morning is making me appreciate the effort.
It is a privilege to salute the mystic Aeolian Islands in the hues of a misty sunrise deep in the province of Messina as the sun begins to shine out from under its bed covers. The bus is filled with loud slightly hyperactive Sicilians who guffaw and happily proclaim: ‘Ogni tantu dovemu alargari’ – literally we need to let ourselves go occasionally.
As we climb onto the Consorzio delle Autostrade superhighway, a nattering group of fifty-somethings start to peel off layers of clothes to reveal freshly varnished nails and dressed hair. I put my headphones on to shut drown out the chatter.
At Messina the strait is like a sheet of ice as if Calabria is only a brief sledge ride away. Quaint Sicilian villages are littered like discarded building blocks and look out from the shifting mountains who appear to heave a sigh of restlessness. Autostrada tunnels create the illusion night time is close despite the evasive morning light. I don’t know whether to sleep or rejoice for the pristine lustre before me.
Those yelping hyenas who dominate the bus have settled down and we sneak under the bustling tourist Mecca of Taormina, briefly snatching a glance down at the ancient Greek seaside colony of Giardini Naxos, a respite from the darkness of the underworld beneath the ranges.
Heading towards Catania a dark lady reveals her splendid silhouette, even if she normally hides like a coquette seductively behind a feathered boa stole. Etna’s jagged outline sketches itself out despite the dreary clouds, wearing only a tuft of white as if gently pulling on a cigarette above the Messina – Catania highway. For Sicilian’s Etna is defiantly female alluding to the fertility of the goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology who create the gifts of agriculture and the seasons.
Palm trees and palazzi give way to a mélange of apartments, industrial warehouses, truck deposits and abandoned boarded up houses near Giarre. The foothills of Etna become a harsh and ugly juxtaposition of factories with an infestation of overgrown prickly pear cactus, rubbish tips, recycling plants and lava stone homes with names like Villa Corallo dell’Etna.
We stop at a tired Acireale autogrill gas station and I wistfully day-dream about Carnival parades while studying a solitary broken down campanile just behind the depot. The slate coloured steeple is covered in ‘edera’ vines adorned with white flowers called the ‘calice della Madonna,’ elongated chalices in which according to Sicilian folklore the infant Jesus drank.
Travelling in the bus again I can see into the windows of peoples high-rise apartments beside the highway as we creep around the back of Etna and through densely populated towns. Misterbianco is filled with mega shopping complexes and an IKEA superstore, while old lava deposits are piled up in between condominiums outside of Paternò.
As we reach Sicula Occidentale, it begins pelting with rain which blurs together the olive groves of Priolo, with the blockheaded limestone mountains of Gargallo and blankets the solar panels near Solarino.
Etna has mysteriously disappeared and more plains appear dotted by irrigated orchids of oranges, lemons, golden meadows, greenhouses and pleasant hills.
Rain comes streaming down the buses generous side windows as we reach Avola the town nearest to Noto, famous for its fruity red wine with a punch.
I’m contemplating the prospect of having to shut myself inside a little bar for the whole day to shield from the downpour, perhaps I could drown my disappointment in a few glasses of ‘Nero d’avola.’
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.