Beaches, Culture, Architecture, History, Food (Ooohhhhh the food)…Sicily offers all of it…A lot of it.
Did you know that this autonomous Italian region is actually an island?
The Mediterranean’s largest and most populated island. Its strategic location has resulted in Sicily practically becoming a cross roads for trade, culture and politics; over the last several centuries.
The Sicily we experience today is a confluence of all the civilizations that have lived there. Roman, Greek, Arab, Spanish.. They’ve all left behind firm influences.
This shows up most of all in their food.
The food actually ended up being a huge highlight of this trip, for us. Every single meal of our 12 day Sicilian holiday, was a treat. And this warrants a separate post, just about the food (coming up real soon)..
Its literally just 3 kms away from the mainland’s Southern most tip. BUT… getting here isn’t exactly as quick as that may make it sound. The fastest way is by air actually. From Rome, Naples, or other European airports; into Palermo or Catania.
We flew into Palermo and started with the western side of the region. But took a flight out from Catania at the end of the trip, after exploring the Eastern bit.
There are regular ferries as well from Rome and Naples…but the shortest journey via ferry is about 9 hours and the reviews on various forums didn’t exactly make it sound super convenient.
Oh, there is a train too…and it’s quite an experience (if you have the time and patience). For the sea crossing bit, the compartments are detatched and you and part of the train go across on a ferry boat. Once on the Sicilian side, you disembark and its back to being a train ride…Sounds interesting to read…but in reality not really worth the time this takes..
So…We simply took a flight from Rome ..
We went in the 2nd half of September…Long, warm and sunny days. The evenings with just that very slight chill in the air to warrant a light cardigan or stole, maybe. Perrrfffect water temperature (at about 22C).
Enough crowds in the streets for it feel lively (yet so much nicer than the crazy crowds that supposedly come in, at the height of the summer holidays). September also meant we lucked out on some fabulous Airbnb properties at great prices (Ive given the details at the end of the post).
From what everyone there told us, the peak summer months (July and August) are not the best time to visit because of the crazy temperatures Sicily sees…The sun gets relentless.
Partly good luck and part of it good homework I guess…But on this trip each and every one of the places we stayed at, deserve to be revisited and highly recommended. Just in case you don’t end up staying at these; I’ve mentioned the location I’d definitely suggest
Palermo – Via Giuseppe Mazzini 49 (though Booking.com). Its an adorable, fairly large apartment (2 couples or a family of 4 would fit in comfortably). Right below you have numerous bars and restaurants. Teatro Massimo is a 5 -6 minute walk away. And around there is a good location to look stay in. The heart of the city centre is just another couple of minutes further up from there.
Taormina – Casa Oasi. Right at the edge of the Old Town’s centre, but in a tiny by-lane. We could be in the heart of the action in literally a minute, yet had all the peace and quiet that we needed. And with a huge private terrace overlooking the sea. Its the closest you’d get to having a private tiny villa (just perfect for a couple). Beautifully done up.
In fact our terrace was so special that we did’nt really feel the need to go over to the pretty but swanky bars that I’ve written about ?.
Near or on Corso Umberto is a location that you should try for..
Lipari – Borgo Eolie Hotel. A Simple yet comfortable hotel. Its located at a bit of a distance from the town centre and the port (10-15 mins walk / 3 minutes by taxi or their complimentary shuttle). But the fabulous service they extend more than makes up for this.
Corso Vittorio Emanuel is the town’s most lively avenue… Lipari’s main artery, as such..
Ortigia – Via Roma 148. Alessandro and Maria’s apartment 1st floor apartment (no elevator) is bang smack in the heart of things. Very smartly done up..and with everything you’d need. Plus they look after you really well.
Anywhere on Via Roma is a perfect spot to stay in…or around the Piazza del Duomo.
For its small geographical size (you can go all the way across the country in 4 hours!!), Sicily has an enormous amount to see and experience..You’d need several weeks to do it all.
Hence, first and foremost..the planning…What is it that interests you and that you’d like to see and explore. These are my top 9 highlights. (I’ve listed them in the order that an itinerary would follow)..If you’re short of time and can only manage 7-8 days, Id suggest skipping Nos. 1,2 and 3; and flying in and out – both from Catania.
No.1) Palermo… Its Sicily’s largest city…But Palermo’s social, cultural and food nucleus; is pretty much centred within a 5 kilometre radius.
LL Tip…First things first. DO NOT RENT A CAR WHILE IN PALERMO. Its a very congested city and the traffic and the parking situation, both are insane .
Everything you’ve read or heard is true. Its a gritty and crowded city…Rough at the edges. Quite the opposite of how gracious, refined and charming ; a lot of Italy is; Yet Palermo is where you get to see all the architectural influences of the different cultures that have lived in Sicily over the last millenium.
Arab Norman, Byzantine, Baroque; even the Renaissance era.
The remnants of the opulence that once existed here, today sandwiched amidst the harsh times that came about as a result of the both the World Wars.
The city’s Cathedral is simply gorgeous…both on the outside and the inside. So is Teatro Massimo.
Palazzo Normani, Villa Palagonia, Chiesa della Martorana and Capella Palatina are the other main sights…
Quattro Canti (and the bylanes around it) is pretty much the centre of the Old Town and a great spot for getting a drink and people watching. The Poet’s Bar at the corner became ‘our’ spot for a Spritzer; all the 3 days that we were there.
Until I visited Parlermo, I’d had no idea that a significant number of Jews resided there as far back as the 6th Century AD…Later when the Arabs arrived and took control in the 9th Century, a comfortable co-existence came about. This was until the end of the 15th Century, when Spain’s proxy rule and the Spanish Inquisition resulted in the expulsion (or forcible conversion) of all Jews.
The ancient ruins today make for an interesting walk-through. So also does the Arab Quarter of Kalsa.
Palermo’s main sights are do-able in half a day. I’m a big fan of free walking tours and that’s what we did here, as well. (We had booked ‘Free Tour’ and our guide did a good job).
The local markets are another interesting aspect to the city. They date back to the 9th century and are similar to Arab ‘souks’.
The ‘Mercato do Capo’ definitely warrants spending an hour or so just walking through the lanes (its fresh produce mainly, but the sheer variety and freshness is really really inviting).
Definitely try out the fresh local snacks that some of the stalls are churning out …Palermo is after all considered to be one of the ‘street food capitals’ of the world. Your guide’ll walk you through a couple of the markets; and its worth coming back later and grabbing lunch at your own pace.
Evenings in Palermo are lively and super fun. The city has a really vibrant bar scene and any of these spots are really nice to spend an evening in… Piazza Marina (Via Bottai), Via Alloro, Via Paternostro, Via Allora, Via Aragona; and the Castrofillipo area.
No. 2) Monreale… Whilst in Palermo, leave half of the next day free for the Cathedral of Monreale. It’s a half hour bus ride each way (Bus 389 from Piazza Independenza. Direction Rocca Monreale).
The 12th Century Norman cathedral is beautifully preserved and warrants an afternoon.
(Remember – no bare shoulders or knees..they are quite particular about it).
No.3) Cefalu…Don’t miss this small and adorable seaside town…We only spent the day there, but now that I’ve been, I would definitely recommend staying for at least a night.
Its a 50 minute, really comfortable train ride from Palermo to Cefalu and the trains run every half an hour or so, all through the day..
Cefalu’s 12th Century Catheral (Norman again) is very different from the one in Monreale.
Its nowhere as grand. Bu it’s rusticity invokes a feeling of serenity . Worth stepping inside for the beautifully preserved mosaics.
The small Piazza in front of the cathedral (the Piazza del Duomo – but ofcourse ?) is touristy, but lovely for an aperitif.
Even lovelier is walking through the tiny town and its adorable bars, trattorias and small shops..
It was in Cefalu that we’ve had our best lunch, the best Aperol Spritzer and the most yumm ‘Arancini’; of the entire Sicily trip.
The icing on the cake…the town’s beach..
Almost the entire town of Cefalu is back-dropped by a 269 metre high rock formation – ‘La Rocca’. Made up almost entirely of fossils; and with some medieval walls and the remnants of a Roman castle at its very top.
If you can manage the 1 hour climb, you can see as far as the Aeolian Islands, on a clear day. (So the locals say…After our perfect lunch – all I could think of was a siesta on the beach ?).
No. 4) Taormina…literally across Sicily..over to the East coast now..
We took the train from Palermo. It involves a quick (yet easy) change of trains in Messina, but the 5 ½ journey’s quite comfortable as such. Definitely, pre-book your tickets online.
Once at the station of Taormina- Giardini, its a simple taxi ride up to the main town. Its a pedestrianised town, with very few parking spots on the outskirts…Renting a car was’nt really making much sense.
With Mt Etna for its backdrop (Europe’s highest active volcano) and the Mediterranean sprawled out below its cliff top setting, Taormina was the most romantic part of this entire trip (made more so thanks to our gorgeous, villa like Airbnb property ?).
That ☝️ ? was the view we had.
After Palermo, Taormina felt like another country altogether…This tiny town reeked of gentility. Everything felt ‘posh’.
The Ancient Greek Theatre is undoubtedly the city’s main monument…Not just for its historic and artistic value, but also for its unparalleled location; and the supperrrbbbbb view it gives you over the Bay of Naxos. (During the summer, events are still planned at the theatre, so do look up if any are on during your dates).
Taormina is tiny!. The centre of the town is only a 2 km stretch, flanked at both ends by two historic arches or ‘gates’. Porta Messina and Porta Catania.
The main avenue between both ends is lined with shops (? great shoe shopping), bars and restaurants.
Sloping tiny alleys leading down…and stepped pathways leading up to the ancient walls; make up the rest of this ‘movie set like’ small town…
What to do in Taormina literally comprises of – soaking in the fabulous view, enjoying the beach and ‘ Eat, Sleep, repeat’ ? …Oh – definitely enjoy the unique ‘terrazza bars’ and the ‘Granita’ at Bar BamBar. (Nobody else’s comes close. Trust me after about 9 of them, over just 3 days, we’d know…)
LL Tip …Taormina is referred to as ‘Sicily’s tourist capital’..i.e massive crowds. Book your accommodation as soon as you know you’re headed to Sicily…Even then this bit will probably be the most expensive part of your Sicilian holiday ?.
What Taormina lacks in size, it more than makes up for in its languor, charm and character..Its the vibe, not the sights.
2 nights here are the minimum I’d say, considering at least a half day if not a full one is spent at the beach.
From the centre of the town, there’s a ‘funicular’ (cable car) that takes you down to the small beach of Mazzarro. This one’s set into the bay so its a sandy beach (and it has a handful of eateries).
200 mtrs to the South of Mazzaro is the prettier ‘Isola Bella’ beach leading to the Isola Bella islet.
No.5) Lipari… Sicily’s gorgeous Aeolian Archipelago is made up of 7 islands.
Lipari is the largest.
Apart from being lush and gorgeous; and having the most amazing waters, this area is primarily known for its active volcanoes.
From Taormina, its an hour and a half’s drive to Milazzo, followed by a 55 minute ferry to Lipari (We rented a car from Taormina and although we left our rental in a parking garage in Milazzo, for 2 days…it was just easier… as compared to taking the public bus). From Taormina, they also have day cruises to the islands. But they sounded like a really, really long and exhausting day.
Supposedly dating back to the 4th Century BC, today Lipari is a tiny port flanked by pastel colored houses, the remnants of a really small citadel; and numerous alleyways filled with some fabulours ‘enotecas’ and restaurants.
An ancient and slightly more intense version of a sleepy fishing village; but with a super lively main street and most of the ‘action’ centred at or around the port…The ideal base to explore the other islands.
Great food. Simple and fresh and supperrrb.
Lipari’s also got a really nice beach…but on the other side of the town,away from the port.
We took the early afternoon cruise around the other main islands; and for a sighting of the volcanoes .
Vulcano… was mythologized by the Romans as the location of Vulcan’s forge and the volcano as its chimney. The sight of ‘Fossa di Vulcano’ with its sulphur belching, reddish grey mountainous hulk looming over the harbour; is really quite impressive. But the rotten-eggs’ smell pervades the air for quite a few miles all around.
Panarea… is made up of exactly 50 people, 2 restaurants, 1 bakery and a supermarket. And of course – it’s few upmarket hotels. In the summer it apparently has a resort like feel with tourists zipping up and down the narrow streets, in the hotel golf carts.
At the end of the summer, the island was empty and asleep..No matter how picturesque Panarea seems – Lipari makes a much better base for the 2 nights (unless of course you only wish to enjoy your swanky hotel).
Stromboli…is the highlight of a visit to the archipelago; and its most active volcano. Erupting sporadically, but regularly right through recorded history.
The cruise docks at Stromboli for the better part of 2 hours.
One entire side of the island is flanked by a jet black pebbly beach. The result of the constant lava eruptions. The other side is an inhabited village. Yup – people choose to live on this live firework of an island!! Crazy? Courageous? Both I guess.
Stromboli has a tiny 100 metre long promenade, made up of high priced bars and restaurants…that leads up to its small piazza and the sole town church. We had no inclination to hike up to the craters, but it was fun to see those that had the guts and the stamina; being kitted out.
We bought a bottle of wine from the local supermarket instead, and settled ourselves on the unique (practically private) black beach.
Just before sunset, the boat leaves the dock, encircles the island and drops anchor (at a safe distance) to hopefully catch a sight of some eruptions. It wasn’t our day …Not a single spark… Just a few puffs of smoke…
In spite of the volcanic ‘no-show’; the 2 days in Lipari were really special for both M and I. Really really relaxing, fabulous quality time and some amazing food.
No. 6) Ortigia, The ancient centre of Syracuse…The ferry from Lipari brought us back to Milazzo; and from there its a 2 ½ hour drive.
LL Tip…Almost the entire town is a pedestrian zone and the lanes that are permissible drive-thru’s, are quite confusing. So get a head’s up from your apartment host / hotel, about the closest parking garage and luggage drop-off point, before you get there…Inspite of the parking woes, I’d strongly recommend having a car for this region.
Ortigia makes a perfect base for exploring the ‘Val di Noto’.
The most popular and ancient sight in this area is the Neapolis Archaelogical Park .
Its a half hour drive from the main town; and whether by coincidence or by design, two of the most ancient archaeological sites in all of Italy are situated almost adjacent to each other.
The very well preserved 5th Century BC Greek theatre (the largest in Sicily); and the 3rd Century Roman amphitheatre (one of the largest ever constructed although not as well preserved as the Greek theatre), they were built for very different purposes. It’s interesting to see the different styles of both, in that context.
Together these 2 sites are considered to make this region the most important archaeological one, in all of Italy.
Also here is the Ear of Dionysus, an ancient cave formation known for its acoustics.
Ortigia was the most memorable part of the Sicily trip for me…Simply perfect.
Surrounded as it is by crystal clear, blue waters (no proper beach in the town though), a grand and gorgeous piazza and numerous small lanes leading to more alleyways (quite labyrinthic in fact).
The quaint 2 storied houses are fronted by an insane number of fabulous bars and restaurants. Its sheer ‘foodie paradise’.
The shopping in Ortigia is also great. There’s some lovely local shops, as well as a small ‘high street’ with a few international labels
I simply fell in love with the ‘Mercato di Ortigia’…This is definitely one for all the senses; and where to pick up all that you want to carry back home…Must buys – Capers, Oregano, the freshly made jams, Walnuts, Pistachhios and sun dried tomatoes.
The market’s most interesting feature is a fabulous and unique sandwich place. (You mmmust do a lunch here). Actually I can’t simply say ‘sandwich place’..Eating at ‘Caseificio Borderi’ is both a spectacle and a treat ?…Watch this and you’ll understand what I mean?.
For the town of Ortigia in itself, 2 half days are enough (half a day for the archaeological park+ another half day for the market, as it winds up by 1pm).
But its in the evenings actually that the town has the most amazing vibe; and some fabulous dining options. So much so, that for all the 4 days that we stayed in Ortigia, although we ventured out for day trips ?; we drove back home in time for dinner (at a new place on each of the 4 nights)
No.7 Noto.. 40kms from Ortigia (an hour’s drive), Noto could easily be mistaken for a movie set; and is considered as Sicily’s most beautiful historic centres.
The 18th Century reconstructed Noto Cathedral is the town’s most stunning sight. Just before dusk the Cathedral practically glows and turns russet gold in the fading light. Its actually referred to as the ‘Golden Hour’.
The day in Noto was also our most special beach day, ever…Earlier, not having access to Google Maps that day we’d just followed the signs; and instead of trying to locate the beach club that our Airbnb host had recommended, we ended up at Noto’s public beach.
Pristine, gorgeous, and not crowded at all. And I have never seen calmer or bluer waters. Just perfect with its couple of small lidos and a simple, but great restaurant. Heavenly ?!
No.8 Ragusa… a 100 kms from Ortigia (an hour’s drive), Ragusa is considered to be one of the most picturesque towns in Sicily…Also unique in this region, for having 2 distinct parts to it…
Almost the entire region of Val di Noto was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693. To avoid damage from future calamities, a newer town was planned and built on higher, more levelled ground – ‘Ibla Superiore’. It was a more rationale layout, with better planned streets, etc…But the majority of aristocrats refused to leave the older ground and rebuilt their ‘palazzi’ on the ruins of the old town,
This today is Ibla Ragusa. The more charming and prettier part of the town.
What do you do in Ragusa.? .A fellow traveller’s put it beautifully – “you meander”.
Wandering through the narrow streets, stopping for a Cafe Latte in the Piazza del Duomo after having been inside the Duomo di San Giorgio; and having a nice leisurely and wholesome lunch.. (Plan your lunch beforehand though as the town has a limited number of restaurants…most close by 2pm and several are simply closed on Mondays).
The Giardino Iblea (a public garden) is another very pretty part of Ragusa..a perfect picnic spot actually.
We spent the 1st half of the day in Ragusa and then drove on to Modica; our last highlight of Sicily. (The 2 towns are only 19kms away from each other).
No.9 Modica… is an interesting mix of older medieval houses as well as late baroque style architecture. As a result of the earthquake of 1693 and the floods of 1901, the town is today built over 3 levels.
Fun fact…its main avenue Corso Umberto I, traverses the course of a river that once ran through the town; and was covered over post the flood.
The town’s 2 highlights are both its cathedrals.
The Baroque-Sicilian ‘Duomo di San Giorgio’ which overlooks the entire town. (Its 250 steps are quite something and connect Modica Alta to the lower town); and the Church of San Pietro in Modica Bassa with its statues of the 12 apostles.
LL Tip..Ask a local to point you to the winding road, to climb up to the church…Take the steps only for when you come back down ? ?.
‘Chocolate di Modica’ is the other thing the town is famous for. Its technique supposedly dating back to an ancient Aztec recipe. (Makes for a great gift to carry back home).