There are many ways of exploring Sicily, from visiting the bigger cities and tourist centres, food and winery tours or seeing the major historical sites from Greek temples to endless museums.
Logistically moving around Sicily is difficult simply because of the mountainous landscape, bad infrastructure, lack of reliable public transport and really confusing or absent signage. Rather than attempting to see the entire island in one weekend (which I assure you is impossible), the best thing to do is simply break the island into smaller pieces and explore a smaller part of it.
It is easy to hire a car from any major airport and together with a reliable GPS, a guide book, a little research and some Italian, you can easily negotiate yourself around a particular area.
One trip or vacation to a concentrated part of the island is a perfect way to soak up the culture and colours associated with each of the nine different provinces (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Siracusa, Ragusa, Enna, Caltanissetta, Agrigento and Trapani.)
Western Sicilyfor example includes Trapani, Marsala and basically everything west of Palermo from Castellammare del Golfo around to the Aegadian islands, down the coast to Mazara del Vallo, if you want to be particularly challenged you can make it down as far as Agrigento (but I think Agriento deserves more time to be savoured and is best to be grouped together with central Sicily).
Sicily can be sliced down the middle from Palermo into its heart to Piazza Armerina, Enna, Caltanissetta down to Agrigento which are filled with much history, archeological sites and festivities during the year.
Then there is North Eastern Sicily which can be done by car from Palermo along the coast towards Messina and can include visits to places like Cefalù, the Aeolian Islands, many small coastal and mountain towns around to Messina and the resort town of Taormina.
If you decide to arrive at Catania airport you can start from there and explore along the coastline as there are many fascinating fishing villages and resorts all the way down to Siracusa and Ragusa.
A few days to explore the Val di Noto towns inland from Catania will give you the chance to experience the eight Baroque treasures of south-eastern Sicily: Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli, were all rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and are filled with ostentatious architecture, breathtaking scenery and equally rich culinary landscape to taste.
From Catania it is easy to catch the Circumetnea an historic railway which takes you leisurely around the base of the Mount Etna around to the picturesque seaside town of Riposto. From Catania airport it is simple to explore Etna itself and the endless small towns near and around the Mount Etna regional park, this area also boasts world class wineries, restaurants, historical sites endless farm stay or luxury bed and breakfasts, spas and a golf course.
Sicily is a multifaceted place with endless things to explore, simply do some research into whatever you may be interested in and see if you can explore the island through your hobbies and passions.
There is something for everyone Sicily is a paradise for people interested in hiking, mountain biking, nature photography, snorkelling/diving and windsurfing.
Sicily boasts some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean, if your family is originally from Sicily you can visit the town of your origins, foodies will have endless things to taste with a succession of Sagra food festivals throughout the year and the island has some of the best wine in the world.
There are literary parks to explore Sicily through its greatest artists, if you are after a luxury holiday there are many five star hotels and resorts, you can take a helicopter ride around the island, sail around the coast and hop around the surrounding islands, take archaeological tours around the most well preserved Greek temples outside of Magna Grecia, immerse yourself in the thousands of museums, palaces, castles, markets, religious or food festivals, squares, do an inspector Montalbano, Mafia or Caravaggio inspired tour.
The possibilities are endless simply break off a piece of Sicily and have a taste.
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.
It was at Piazza Armerina that I met this fellow the Cirneco dell’Etna an ancient breed of Sicilian dog which has woven its way through the hardened lava deposits near Etna for centuries, helping hunters to weasel out rabbits from their warrens.
This fine example was mesmerized by the sight of a caged rabbit, as if to casually show off his time-tested instinct.
Piazza Armerina in the province of Enna deep in the bellybutton of Sicily is still filled with traditions which are slowly disappearing in other parts of Sicily.
Visiting the agricultural markets (or fairs) used to give you the opportunity to see animals and products from all around the islands, however this market no longer happens, banned as of two thousand and seven after many generations, due to strict new health and animal handling regulations.
I will never forget coming across these curious little wooden boxes and weaved baskets. Can you guess what they are used for?
See comments section for an answer which will surprise and perhaps shock you too.
I have a soft spot for Sicilian open air markets, you never know what you will find.
Every town has a market day where traveling salesmen set up their stalls to sell everything from household goods, groceries, fruit and vegetable, toys and clothes.
Here is a one Euro stand which has attracted some men into the world of shopping at Piazza Armerina near Enna as it was filled with manly things like tools and other assorted hardware, usually it is the women rummaging for the bargains.
You have got to love the bare-chested gold necklace wearing store owner, so kitsch.
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.
The Aeolian Islands are Lipari, Salina, Filicudi, Alicudi, Stromboli, Panarea and Vulcano. They are located off the north east coast of Sicily and are filled with wonderful beaches and fabulous scenery.
The largest of these islands is Lipari and is terribly crowded over the summer, but a visit in the autumn will give you more time to explore the archaeological museum and the beautiful walks around the island, without any confusion. Vulcano is nearby to Lipari and is famous for its thermal baths which are open all year round.
Salina is the second-largest of the islands with a beautiful natural environment which made it perfect as the setting for the Italian film Il Postino. I think Salina is a great spot for some nature photography for those who are keen photographers.
Stromboli, is faraway from the other islands and is dominated by a single large volcano. Its deep waters are a favorite for divers. Like Salina, it is the setting for a famous movie directed by Roberto Rosselini titled Stromboli, starring Ingrid Bergman.
Filicudi and Alicudi: These smaller islands have no direct links to the main lans, so you’ll have to hop over from Lipari. With their landscape and few residents, they’re a perfect place to get away from everything. Panarea and Basiluzzo, popular with scuba divers, are even smaller and barely inhabited.
The main islands are reached by boat from Milazzo or Messina. There are often small mini-cruises offered by local travel agencies that allow you to take a day trip around the main islands but if you are feeling adventurous I suggest you stop and stay on Lipari and try to hop around to all of the islands. Be sure to bring your photo camera, be open to meeting the locals, explore every hidden spot, watch the sunset, eat loads of seafood and be ready for the odd volcanic eruption for an exceptional experience.
Palermo is one of the most fascinating cities in Europe with endless things to see and do, so I suggest you simply go online and create your own personalised tour of the city, for me I’d simply buy a map at the train station or airport and take a walk around the centre of town and simply let the city surprise me, you’ll be sure to find something interesting. A little word of warning though please if you find a part of town that is a little too seedy or dodgy just use your instincts and avoid it, like you would in other big city.
I have to mention one unmissable sight to see which is actually a little out of Palermo which is the Monreale cathedral and abbey which has the largest concentration of Norman, Arab and Byzantine art in one place. It is incredibly beautiful and it will literally take your breath away.
Our friends at The best of Sicily (www.bestofsicily.com) suggest to extend your visit to Castellaccio which is five kilometers north of Monreale on the steep, winding Via San Martino. Castellaccio is perched atop Mount Caputo, over seven hundred metres above sea level it is a twelfth-century fortress erected by the Normans. It’s the perfect place for an unforgettable picnic.
Piazza Armerina, Enna
Enna is literally the belly button of Sicily, the geographical centre and the heart of the islands mythology.Enna is where Hades the god of the underworld first saw the light and beauty of the earth, after deciding to journey from his subterranean kingdom to explore the world above. It is here in the rolling plains that Hades saw Persephone for the first time, struck by her beauty, kidnapped her and took her as his wife.
Enna’s main attraction is the Lombard Castle, built by Frederick II in the early part of the 13th century. The Duomo, the city’s principal church, is located on Via Roma. It was built in 1307, and almost destroyed by a serious fire in 1446, to be restored during the 16th and 17th Centuries. Thus its architectural styles range from medieval Gothic to late Renaissance to Baroque. The church of San Giovanni (St. John) in Piazza Coppola is a fine example of Gothic lines with Arabic construction.
Here approximately thirty kilometres from the main city of Enna we find an archaeological site of the late Roman villa at Piazza Armerina filled with beautifully preserved mosaics. The Villa del Casale, dates from the fourth century B.C and contains the most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world, making it an important UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to a recent period of restoration these works of art of even more outstanding than ever.
Trapani and Marsala
Trapani and Marsala are two suggestive coastal towns located one after the other on the north western tip of this triangular shaped island.
Trapani is a spectacular port city dominated by four outlook towers: Torre Vecchia, Torre del Castello di Terra, Torre Pali, Torre di Porta Oscura or Dell’Orologio all surrounded by the ancient fortress walls. Trapani is filled with monuments, churches and buildings which narrate the town’s history over the course of the various centuries.
Needless to say this is the place to taste wonderful seafood including the Trapanese signature dish of seafood flavoured couscous (they even have a Couscous festival every year towards the end of the summer, dedicated to this wonderfully exotic dish).
Marsala is a little further down the coast line, to see where this part of Sicily ends and the sea begins. Sicily’s wine country lies to its east, and Marsala is the home to this famous sweet dessert wine so it offers the opportunity for wine tasting.
Keep an eye out for Sagra’s and Festa’s
The beauty of Sicily is the Sicilian’s love of food which is reflected by a constant stream of celebrations of local products and cuisine in the form of Sagre and Feste throughout the year.
Be sure to keep an eye out for different towns Festa’s or Sagra’s literally for a taste of everything from seafood couscous, to salami cured meats, pistachios, olive oil, literally everything you can think of.
I suggest looking at the major Sicilian city’s web pages for updates or check out this great site I’ve just discovered for the latest Sagra news: www.karasicilia.it
A great source of information for this article is the online magazine the Best of Sicily (www.bestofsicily.com) which provided me with the extra details of places to see and some photos.