What do the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Spaniards and Italians have in common? They all made Sicily their home. This captivating Mediterranean island, located at a crossroads between Europe and Africa is a true mix of cultures, traditions and people. Sicily’s incredibly rich and diverse heritage is expressed in everything. From architecture to food and from people’s appearances to the language they speak. It’s because of this that Sicily feels like such a uniquely distinct island. There is simply no other place like it…
A trip to Sicily will almost certainly mean a sensory overload. Sicily is intense. Sicilians are passionate, loud people and much of life plays out on the streets – whether it’s the bustling markets that spill out onto the pavements during the day, or locals taking their chairs out to the street to sit down and catch up with their neighbours at night. And, of course, food plays a crucial role in daily life. Seafood, fresh vegetables, lemons, rice, ice and sugar (lots of it) are key ingredients in Sicilian cooking.
Just like two or three weeks are not enough to fully discover Sicily, so does a list of 10 to-do points not do justice to the island. My personalised list below is therefore not THE ultimate guide to Sicily. I see it more as a first introduction to the island. Because let’s be honest: anyone visiting Sicily once will want to come back for more.
- Visit Palermo’s Norman Palace
- Jump on a train to Cefalù
- Experience Catania’s seafood market and climb Mount Etna
- Go back to ancient Greek times at the Valley of the Temples
- Climb the Turkish Staircase
- Head up to mountain villages where time has stood still
- Have the best-ever granita in Noto
- Join the jetsetters in Taormina
- Admire the baroque splendour of Ragusa, Modica and Siracusa
- Chillax at some of the most beautiful (and quiet) beaches
Visit Palermo’s Norman Palace
For most travellers, a trip to Sicily will include a visit to its capital: Palermo. Palermo’s most glorious days are visibly behind her. You can’t help but detect a certain feeling of decadence and decay when walking through the rundown, polluted streets that are filled with one empty palazzo after another. Stray dogs and street cats stroll from bin to garbage bag and the facades of many buildings are crumbling (but then again, they’re probably gorgeous from the inside). For me, arriving in Palermo was a bit of a culture shock: are we still in Europe?
But look through the grittiness of Palermo and you’ll find an enthralling city with countless layers of history. The incredible remnants of its fascinating past are everywhere. From Arab architecture and Byzantine buildings to baroque churches and neoclassical facades – Palermo has it all. Some of the most famous examples of these styles can be found in La Martorana (byzantine) the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti (Arab-Norman), the church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini (baroque) and Teatro Massimo (neoclassical).
Perhaps the most impressive building in Palermo is the Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni). Originally an Arab castle, it was turned into a palace fit for a Norman king in the 11thcentury, making it the oldest royal residence in Europe. The Normans had come from northern Europe and after conquering England they made their way to the Mediterranean. Here, they ruled over southern Italy from its capital Palermo for nearly 200 years. The Normans were impressed with the architecture of the Arabs and rather than destroying it, they embraced and altered it. What you see today is an eclectic mix of Norman, Arab as well as Byzantine architectural styles and techniques.
Inside the palace you’ll find the mesmerising Palatine Chapel (Cappella Palatina). Adorned with gold and mosaics this chapel is so beautiful it makes your jaw drop. It’s one of the finest examples of Norman-Arab-Byzantine architecture and a trip to Palermo is not complete without having seen this marvel of a building.
Jump on a train to Cefalù
Palermo can be rather hectic and overwhelming. Luckily, you don’t have to look far for some downtime. While many people head to the beach resort town of San Vito Lo Capo on their day off, I would personally recommend a visit to Cefalù. This tranquil seaside village just east of Palermo not only has a lovely beach, but also a stunning historic town centre with lots of charm. And what makes Cefalù even more attractive is that it can be reached under 1 hour by train from Palermo. So you can escape the city without having to deal with the stress of driving through it!
Cefalù was founded by the Greeks but it’s the Arabs and Normans who really left their mark here. The most iconic building is the 12thcentury cathedral, or duomo, built in Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. It contains some of the best-preserved mosaics in Sicily. To escape the crowds (who will be there in high season), head out and climb La Rocca. From this imposing rock you’ll have magnificent views over the old town and Mediterranean Sea.
Experience Catania’s seafood market and climb Mount Etna
Situated on the island’s east coast, in the shadow of Mount Etna, is beautiful Catania. It may be Sicily’s second largest city, it has a very different look and vibe compared to Palermo. Although parts of the city are rundown, Catania feels altogether less chaotic and intimidating. Apart from its famous seafood market, that is. Every morning, except Sunday, dozens of fishmongers set up shop around Piazza Duomo. With an incredible array of seafood, as well as lots of shouting and negotiating going on, visiting Catania’s seafood market is a bustling experience.
Once the fish market has come to an end it’s time to explore the rest of central Catania. One of the city’s most striking features are its grey and black baroque facades. After a devastating earthquake hit the city in 1693 – killing two-thirds of its citizens – Catania was rebuilt in baroque style. Why in grey and black, you may wonder… Well, a lot of buildings were constructed using volcanic stone from Mount Etna, giving the city the unique, grand grey look it has today.
What Mount Vesuvius is for Naples, Mount Etna is for Catania. Europe’s most active volcano is looming over the city from every angle. For a change of perspective, a hike up the mountain is a must. To make the most of the experience I’d book a guided excursion with one of the many tour agencies in Catania. You’ll not only get to enjoy incredible views, but also learn a lot about the geology and history of the region.
Go back to ancient Greek times at the Valley of the Temples
Before the Romans arrived, Sicily (like much of southern Italy) was ruled by the Greeks. Greek ruins can hence be found across the island. Places such as Taormina and Syracusa (see below) are well-known former Greek settlements. However, the most impressive Greek remains are located near Agrigento. What is today known as the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) was once a vast city named Akragas. It was one of the wealthiest and most important cities in ancient Greece, with approximately half a million(!) inhabitants. When the Romans captured the city, they renamed it Agrigentum.
Along with Paestum, the Greek ruins of Agrigento are among the best preserved in Italy and indeed all of the Mediterranean. The Valley of the Temples is a designated archaeological park just outside modern-day Agrigento. Some of the most stunning temples include those of Concordia, Juno, Heracles and Castor & Pollux. With spectacular views over the hills and the Mediterranean Sea, you can only imagine what is must have been like to walk through this legendary city 2,500 years ago…
Climb the Turkish Staircase
On the coast just outside Agrigento lies a striking natural phenomenon. A bright white cliff here has eroded in such a way that it resembles a giant staircase. The terraced rock formation is locally known as the Scala dei Turchi – or Turkish staircase – because Middle Eastern pirates used to hide here from bad weather.
The contrast between the chalk white rock and the turquoise blue water makes for a unique sight. The stairs look so alluring that you can’t help but want to climb them. Which is what most people do. Be careful, though, because the surface is incredibly smooth and in combination with wet feet can by quite slippery. Once on top, you’ve reached the perfect spot for sunbathing or, even better, watching the sunset. There’s also a beautiful beach that can only be reached by foot. Simply walk along the steps and descend on the other end. A little piece of paradise!
Head up to mountain villages where time has stood still
Most people tend to stick to Sicily’s gorgeous coast, but there’s also a whole lot to discover further inland. Much of central Sicily is characterised by rugged hills and semi-dormant mountain villages. Not much has changed here for ages; it really feels as if time has stood still. Because of their isolated location, some of Sicily’s rural villages are rumoured to be Mafia hotspots (Corleone might sound familiar?). However, many are simply incredibly charming towns waiting to be discovered.
Take Caltabellota, for instance. I was told about this unassuming hilltop village by locals and visiting it was a proper off-the-beaten track experience, showing me a completely different side of Sicily. Zig-zagging up the winding road almost felt like driving back in time. Caltabellota has a medieval cathedral and there are ruins of an Arab castle, but it’s the sense of isolation that makes it so fascinating to visit. Oh and there’s a wonderful slow food restaurant called M.A.T.E.S. that’s worth the detour (which was my original excuse for coming here…).
Other attractive rural Sicilian town villages to discover include Savoca, Sperlinga, Enna and Castiglione di Sicilia.
Have the best-ever granita in Noto
There are two great reasons for visiting Noto. One: it is among the most enchanting towns in Sicily. Two: you can find the best-ever granita here. Granita is one of Sicily’s culinary delights. It’s a semi-frozen, sweet water-based dessert. It’s kind of a like a crushed ice lolly or a slush. Granita comes in endless flavour variations, but almond, coffee, citrus and fruit flavours are the most common in Sicily. Believe it or not, but Sicilians often have granita for breakfast, topped with whipped cream and served with a brioche bun. Speaking of indulgence…
As someone with a bit of a sweet tooth myself, I’ve had my fair share of granita on my trips to Italy. And by far the best granita I’ve tasted was at Caffè Sicilia in Noto. Others seem to agree – Netflix recently even dedicated an episode of their acclaimed series Chef’s Table to Caffè Sicilia. Founded in 1892, this family-run pastry shop is an institution in Noto. They sell the most delicious Sicilian pastries, including cassata and frutta mortorana. However, their granita is one of the highlights. It has the perfect texture (somewhere between smooth and crunchy), is not overwhelmingly sweet and is made of fresh, seasonal ingredients. If you can’t decide which flavour to pick, ask for the sampling version (degustazione), which comes with 3 different granite. On a hot summer day in Noto, there’s nothing more fulfilling than a granita on the terrace of Caffè Sicilia…
Join the jetsetters in Taormina
The Greek amphitheatre of Taormina is a spectacle in its own right. Not only is it one of the largest Greek amphitheatres in Italy, it’s also stunningly situated on a hilltop with Mount Etna as its backdrop. Once the playground of the Greeks, it’s now the scene of holidaying jetsetters. As early as the start of the 1800s, prominent European artists and royalty have been coming to Taormina, lured by its fascinating history and beauty. And there’s no denying, Taormina is a splendid place. Today its streets are lined with beautiful shops, fancy bars and fine restaurants, mainly appealing to an international, wealthier clientele.
While old town Taormina is located high on top of a steep cliff, down by the seaside lies another little jewel: Isola Bella. This tiny rocky island with a mansion used to be privately owned until it was bought by the Sicilian government in the 1990s and turned into a nature reserve. The island can be reached by foot via a narrow pebble beach connecting it to the mainland. Isola Bella is open to the public, but I personally think the island can best be enjoyed from afar, whilst swimming in the crystal clear seawater surrounding it!
Admire the baroque splendour of Ragusa, Modica and Siracusa
In 1693 a massive earthquake struck eastern Sicily, decimating many of the ancient towns and cities on this part of the island. Many of them were rebuilt in Sicilian baroque style. Funded by the extravagant local aristocracy, opulent churches and palazzi (grand city residences) were erected. These buildings are instantly recognisable. They are embellished with elaborate decorations, flamboyant facades and curved balconies, which are so typical of Sicilian baroque.
The most stunning examples of Sicilian baroque can be found in south-east Sicily, in towns such as Noto, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli and Siracusa. Take Ragusa, for instance. These days, it is divided into two parts: the old town of Ragusa Ibla on top of the hill and the new town of Ragusa Superiore in the valley. It’s Ragusa Ibla where it’s at. Here you’ll find some of the most impressive baroque buildings of the region, including the Basilica di San Giorgio. Walking through the steep streets that showcase a combination of medieval and baroque architecture, it’s difficult not to fall in love with Ragusa Ibla.
In nearby Modica its’ a similar feast for the eyes. Look out for the Cathedral of San Giorgio that is nestled on a slope between Modica Alta (old town) and Modica Bassa (new town). Chocolate lovers should also check out the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, which is the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily. They apparently still follow the ancient Aztec recipe for their chocolate bars (which got here via the Spaniards). It’s a bit sweet and grainy for my liking but visiting their vintage shop is a nice experience regardless.
Siracusa deserves a special mention because it not only has a fabulous baroque-style district, it’s also home to some of the best-preserved Greek ruins in Italy. After it was founded 2,700 years ago, Siracusa soon became one of the most powerful Greek city-states in the Mediterranean, rivalling Athens. In its heyday it was the largest city in the world. No surprise, then, that its massive amphitheatre could hold 15,000 spectators. It still exists today and can be found next to the ‘newer’ Roman amphitheatre, just outside the baroque city centre. Most other ancient and medieval landmarks are located on the small island of Ortigia, which is connected to mainland Siracusa by a bridge. With so much to do and see, you’ll need at least one day to discover this marvellous city.
Chillax at some of the most beautiful (and quiet) beaches
A Mediterranean island, you won’t be surprised that Sicily is blessed with some of the most pristine coastlines of Italy. Think turquoise water, limestone coves and sandy beaches. Are you dreaming away already…? I’ve already mentioned that Cefalù, San Vito Lo Capo (riserva naturale dello Zingaro), Scala dei Turchi and Isola Bella are perfect places for swimming and sunbathing. But the list goes on.
One of the most beautiful AND surprisingly deserted Sicilian beaches I’ve been to is the Torre Salsa natural reserve. With sandy dunes, cliffs and 6 kilometres of beautiful beaches, it’s a miracle this place is not crowded with people, not even in summer! Perhaps that’s because it’s slightly off-the-beaten path. Located between Sciacca and Agrigento, Torre Salsa can only be reached by driving along a narrow dirt road from Montallegro. Parking costs a few euros but then you’ll have the beach to yourself!
Another favourite of mine is Calamosche Beach near Noto. In the heart of the Vendicari natural reserve, this small sandy beach is situated in a cove. It’s about a 10-15-minute walk from the nearest car park, but the little hike itself is a joy. Again, when I was here there were only a handful of other people.
There are countless other beaches in Sicily that I have yet to visit. Those include the supposedly amazing beaches on the smaller islands of Favignana, Pantelleria and Lampedusa as well as the Aeolian Islands, all of which are part of Sicily. Still so much to discover. Like I said, one trip to Sicily just doesn’t suffice. It’s about time I started planning another journey to this beautiful part of the Mediterranean myself…!
Sicily’s best… (IHMO):
- Sicilian slow food: Osteria Ballarò (Palermo), Palermo’s night street food stalls
- Focaccia: Antica Focacceria di San Francesco (Palermo)
- Granita: Caffè Sicilia (Noto)
- High end Sicilian cuisine: La Madia (Licata)
- Market experience: Catania’s daily seafood market
- Historic towns: Noto, Ragusa Ibla and Siracusa are among my favourites
- Beach: Reserva Naturale Torre Salsa and Spiaggia Calamosche
Good to know:
Getting to/from: there are 2 main airports on Sicily: Palermo and Catania, which are both served by several European airlines. You can also travel by train or bus from mainland Italy, via Messina (the train will be transported onto a ferry to cross the sea). Italy’s high-speed rail has yet to be extended to the southern tip of the country, so a train journey will be a long one.
Getting around: apart from a few coastal routes, train services are limited on the island. And so is public transportation in general. The easiest way to get around is by car. This is especially true if you wish to visit some of the smaller towns and villages.
Best time to travel: summers can get very hot in Sicily. However, when I was there at the end of July, I thought it was very manageable. Temperatures are more moderate, but still warm, in late spring and early autumn.
Currency: as a member of the EU and the Eurozone, Italy uses the Euro
Water: like anywhere in Europe, tap water in Sicily is perfectly drinkeable