Serving as a crossroads of the Mediterranean for millennia, Sicily learned how to play host to legions of travelers and today eagerly welcomes visitors from around the world.
With five million tourists arriving each year, Sicily caters to every type: those who want to steep themselves in archaeology and cultural history, to oenophiles who want to explore one of Europe’s premier wine growing regions, to agritourists who want to sample the country life, to ecotourists and naturalists.
A full range of accommodations—from guest houses and B&Bs to five-star hotels—many with English-speaking hosts and ready access to Wi-Fi, plus easy car rental services and plenty of tour operators means there is no excuse not to visit.
While Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean (about the size of Massachusetts) and less than two miles from the Italian mainland at the narrowest point in the Strait of Messina, it feels like a country unto itself. That could be due to the slower pace, except in the capital of Palermo, than is typical of highly touristed spots. Or perhaps because Sicilians are unusually open and trusting of strangers, which seems more old world than twenty-first century. Or because the food and wine—think marinated artichoke hearts, swordfish, braciola, arancini (rice croquettes), Ragusano cheese, a hearty bottle of Nero d’Avola, gelato—dazzles. Most likely, it’s a combination of all three.
Although the best way to tour Sicily is by car as that provides the greatest flexibility and enables the most spontaneity, a well developed train and public bus system is available. The four most popular places to see in a single visit to Sicily are Palermo, Agrigento, Syracuse, and Taormina. Here’s a summary overview of each.
Located in the northwest, this capital, home to 20 percent of the country’s five million inhabitants, is a main entry point to Sicily by air (though one can also fly to Trapani in the west and Catania in the east). Ferries also arrive from Genoa, Naples, and Tunis. The best way to get to know the city is on foot, but take advantage of buses and taxis to get to your next walking tour.
A modern, busy city full of grand buildings, hip boutiques and eateries, and non-stop traffic, Palermo can overwhelm. Fortunately, the city’s many distinctive, easily accessible neighborhoods offer a respite. For example, from the Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest theater, in the city center where a key scene in The Godfather movie was filmed, cross Vittorio Emanuele and wander down one of any of several side streets. You’ll soon come upon outdoor restaurants, and if it’s mid-day they’ll display dozens of freshly-cooked, ready-to-eat meats, fish, and vegetable dishes and salads. Being Sicily, each dish is distinct, savory – and irresistible.
Palermo is full of Norman history, dating from the 12th century. Not to be missed is the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) whose interior, completely covered in golden, sparkling Byzantine mosaics, makes it a national treasure and one of Sicily’s top sites. The Cattedrale di Palermo with its imposing, fortress-like façade demands a visit, although the exterior is more fascinating than the interior. Finally, the Cattedrale di Monreale, just outside the city, features one of the world’s great mosaic interiors, depicting 42 Old Testament stories.
The Ballaro Market, the largest of several street markets that wend their way through alleys and local plazas, offers everything that residents need – from fresh poultry, fish, fruits, and vegetables to household utensils, clothing, and hardware and decorative items. The mix of smells, noise, and unceasing activity provide an insight into the daily life of Palermitani. Finally, check out the Kalsa, the Arab quarter by the harbor. Near the Botanical Gardens, this trendy locale is full of Baroque and Norman churches. If you’re hungry, sit down at an outdoor trattoria on Via Torremuzza for a fish dinner freshly grilled near your table.
Agrigento and the Ancient World
It has been said that if you want to see Greek ruins go to Sicily, for the number of surviving structures surpasses those in Greece. Adding to their appeal is the fact that you can wander through most of the sites, unlike, for example, the Acropolis in Athens where access to the Parthenon and other structures is limited.
A good itinerary is to drive 50 kilometers west from Palermo to Segesta. With 36 columns, the temple at Segesta is one of the largest and best preserved in the world. Be sure to take the bus from the ticket office to the top of nearby Mount Barbaro to walk around the amphitheater and take in a sweeping view of the plain below and the Gulf of Castellammare.
Then, head 60 kilometers to Sicily’s southwestern coast to tour the largest archaeological park (667 acres) in Europe in Selinunte. Some of the temples, identified by letters C, E, F, and G, have been rebuilt from original materials. About a kilometer to the west is the ancient residential town, featuring an acropolis, pleasing views of the Mediterranean, and cooling breezes.
Another 100 kilometers southeast is Agrigento. Established in 580 BC, Agrigento became one of Greece’s richest colonies before the Carthaginians sacked it some 170 years later. Today, tourists visit the area to see the eight temples and other remains that make up the Valley of the Temples (actually located on a ridge), one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sicily.
The Temple of Concord is one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world. Having withstood earthquakes, this temple, alone among the others at the site, never needed to be restored and hasn’t been touched since it was built in the fifth century BC.
Many people make the Valley a day trip, but evening tours are available during the summer. If nothing else, stay long enough to view the illuminated temples at night, a stunning sight.
Villa Romana del Casale, about a two-hour drive from Agrigento, located inland at Piazza Amerina, showcases some of the best preserved mosaics anywhere, unparalleled for their artistic beauty and sheer volume. Another World Heritage Site, this Roman villa dating from the fourth century AD is built on a series of terraces. Mosaic floors in room and after room depict a wide range of subjects –hunting scenes and mythology, animals and flowers, and lovers and court life. Not to be missed is the famous “Bikini Mosaic.”
Located in Sicily’s southeast, overlooking the Ionian Sea, Syracuse (Siracusa in Italian), is best known for its Archaeological Park, which contains Greek and Roman ruins. Along with the nearby Archeological Museum, the park deserves a full day’s visit.
The Greek Theater, carved out of a wall of rock, is the largest outdoor amphitheater in the world. The plays of Aeschylus were first performed here, and viewers taking in a recent staging of Prometheus Bound likely experienced the same emotions as theater goers did 2,400 years ago.
Be sure also to tour the Roman Amphitheater, which hosted gladiator fights and horse races. Heron’s Altar is the longest ever built – 650 feet in length. Dating from the third century BC, up to 450 oxen could be sacrificed at one time. The Ear of Dionysius is a grotto where prisoners were held. Its name derives from the near-perfect acoustics that enabled guards to eavesdrop on prisoners.
When overnighting, consider staying in Ortygia, the historic center of Syracuse, an island linked by a bridge to the city. Wandering Ortygia’s ancient by-ways, you’ll stumble upon restaurants snuggled into charming alleys that—no surprise by now—offer a satisfying meal that fulfills the promise of the sumptuous aromas that brought you there.
After traveling 120 kilometers north, the coastal resort town of Taormina, at a height of 630 feet, will reward you with spectacular views of Mt. Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, the Ionian Sea, and the Italian mainland.
Once a medieval town, Taormina today welcomes visitors who fly into Catania, arrive on any of dozens of cruise lines, or motor in. The main thoroughfare, a pedestrian way, wanders from the twelfth century clock tower in Piazza IX Aprile in the west to the Greek-Roman Theater in the east. Dating from the fourth century BC, the theater is the largest in Sicily after Syracuse and is still in use.
Trekkers may want to use Taormina as their base for exploring Mt. Etna, including its frozen rivers of lava. Half- and full-day excursions are readily available and a cable car stops just below the main crater. As the volcano soars to 10,900 feet, it can get cold even in summer.
If the crowds loom too large, stroll down to the hanging gardens of Villa Comunale. Essentially a public park, the gardens offer an oasis of calm where you can view the coast and, depending how the wind blows, catch a whiff of sulfur from the ever-smoldering Mt. Etna. Or take a break at nearby Mazzaro Beach, complete with, yes, restaurants, trattorias, and gelaterias.
Discovery Sicily, www.italia.it