Located in the Mediterranean Sea to the South of the Italian peninsula lies Sicily, a beautiful island with a fascinating history that goes back centuries and a beauty that is arguably unsurpassed. There is an incredible amount to see and do on a holiday to Sicily, whatever your age and interests.
Palermo is the capital of Sicily and is a good starting point for any visit. It’s a bustling lively place with a wealth of things to see and do including the Palazzo dei Normanni with its incredible Capella Palatina. The palace was once home to the most magnificent court in Medieval Europe. Also in the city and of note are the Piazza Bellini and the Piazza Pretoria, the Catacombe dei Cappuccini and many interesting museums. The city itself has had a chequered history and the many historical influences are still evident today including that of the Arabs, Normans and Baroque period.
Catania is Sicily’s second largest city behind Palermo, but it’s completely different in looks with most of its buildings constructed from black lava. A good starting point for a visit is in the heart of the city at the Piazza Duomo. Here you’ll find the Fontana dell’ Elefante, a fountain which has an elephant made of lava in the middle and who has on his back an Egyptian obelisk with a globe on top. For opera fans, there is a museum dedicated to the opera composer, Bellini, whilst the city’s cathedral houses his tomb. Also noteworthy in Catania is the Roman theatre and the Medieval castle – Castello Ursino.
For lovers of art, architecture and ancient history, there are an incredible number of ancient remains to explore, most of which have been miraculously preserved. The first of these is the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) which is home to arguably the most well preserved Greek temples anywhere in the world, among them the Temple of Concord and the Temple of Juno. The Temple of Zeus also once stood on the site. Whilst this no longer exists, there is a copy of the enormous stone figure that once held the temple up. The site is extensive and is also home to some Roman remains and, of course, many original artefacts can be viewed in the nearby museum.
However, if you’re looking for Roman remains, a much better option would be to visit the mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina. This is the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics, dating to the 4th and 5th centuries AD. By far the most famous is the ‘Coronation of the Winner’ known more affectionately as the ‘Bikini Girls’ mosaic since it depicts ten rather scantily clad ladies performing various athletic events.
Other towns steeped in ancient Greek history include Syracuse (Siracusa). The birthplace of Archimedes and home of Plato and Pythagoras, the city is home to one of the biggest Greek theatres in the world. If you’re visiting in May and June, then it is well worth booking tickets to one of the live performances of Greek drama that still take place in the theatre ruins. Again, there are Roman remains here to explore too. Take time to visit the Roman amphitheatre where gladiators would once have fought and where there was a huge altar dedicated to Zeus and used for public sacrifices. A complete collection of Greek and Roman artefacts can again be viewed at the Museo Archeologico Regionale in the city.
When in Syracuse, it’s worth also visiting the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Santuary of Our Lady of Tears). Inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s, the sanctuary was supposedly modelled on the shape of a tear drop and was built to house an image of the Madonna that allegedly wept real tears for four consecutive days back in 1953. The building is well worth a look with an incredible ceiling rising up more than 70 metres above the floor and superb acoustics. You can find out more about the events surrounding the weeping Madonna in the Museo della Lacrimazione situated on the lower floor of the sanctuary.
Another popular excursion is to take a trip to the Archaeological Park of Neapolis. Here, the Ear of Dionysius is a famous man-made cave, supposedly built by local tyrant, Dionysius I of Syracuse. As the name suggests, it is shaped like a giant ear. Legend has that Dionysius ordered that the grotto be built to contain his prisoners, leaving an opening in the ceiling so that he could hear the prisoners whispering their secrets and gain the upper hand. In reality, it was probably more by chance that the building has the unique design that enables everyone inside the cave to hear any whispered secrets, no matter whether they are next to you or at the opposite end of the cave!
You can’t visit Siracusa without visiting Ortigia. Linked to Siracusa via a bridge, this island is home to the remains of the 6th century BC Temple of Apollo. However possibly the most noteworthy of attractions in Ortigia lies under its streets. The hypogeum – ipogeo – is accessed from a small opening in the walls of the Archbishop’s Palace in the Piazza Duomo. It consists of a number of passageways and galleries, one of which was used as an air raid shelter in WW2. In fact, the route that tourists now take is dedicated to the civilian victims of the Anglo-American bombing of Syracuse on 19 July 1943.
Sicily’s history is not confined to the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans though. Head to Erice and you will see the Norman castle – Castello di Venere – which now sits where the temple of Venus once stood. Interestingly, visit this spot on a clear day, and you may even be able to enjoy the views across the sea all the way to Tunisia.
More recent history can also be viewed in Monreale. Here, the cathedral is home to the most incredible mosaics. The cathedral’s exterior is beautiful and dates back to 1172 but it is the interior that will amaze you the most. It literally glitters and sparkles with mosaics.
There are plenty of smaller towns and villages to explore too including twenty villages in Sicily that are among the ‘borghi piu belli d’Italia’ (most beautiful villages in Italy). These include Erice, Petralia Soprana, Savoca and Stuera but this is by no means an exhaustive list. Take a look at the official website for a full list. Another of the towns that makes the list is Cefalu. This is a charming fishing town and it is definitely worth spending time wandering along its streets, visiting the Norman cathedral and taking in the sights of the colourful fishing boats lined up along its shores. However, a visit would not be complete without climbing to the top of La Rocca di Cefalu which overlooks the town quite dramatically and from where you will enjoy some stunning views.
And of course, many of the smaller towns and villages also form the backdrop to Inspector Montalbano, an Italian detective series that has been running since 1999. The programme is set in the imaginary town of Vigata in Sicily however many of the set locations are in the area around Ragusa. Montalbano’s house can be found in the village of Punta Secca whilst the fictional police station is the Scicli town hall. Numerous scenes are filmed in Ragusa whilst Modica also appears in certain episodes. Of course, after all his detective work, the inspector needs to cool off and you’ll often find him on the sandy beaches of Donnalucata and Sampieri. For those looking to enjoy a slower pace of life on their holiday to Sicily, the island has a plethora of beautiful beaches. Long stretches of white sand, pebbled coves and rocky beaches all sit comfortably alongside one another.
For a break from Sicily’s architecture and to enjoy a different aspect of the island, take a trip to the salt pans on the West coast of the island between Trapani and Marsala. The salt marshes have huge historical importance to Sicily. Learn more about the history and process to extract the salt at the Salt Marsh museum (Museo delle Saline). At its peak the salt marshes produced over 100,000 tonnes of salt each year, exporting it as far afield as Norway. These days, the marshes themselves are a spectacle to behold with enormous piles of salt drying in the sunshine and with a series of windmills dotted in between. It’s possible to take a train ride to the salt pans from Trapiani which is a fun way to get there.
Another good train journey to be enjoyed on the island is on the Circumetnea Railway. This is a 100 km long, 950 mm narrow gauge railway which circles Mount Etna from its starting point in Catania to Riposto. It’s a unique way to see this beautiful area and the train passes through a number of picturesque villages and past vineyards on its journey. That said, it does also pass through some industrial areas too so it’s not all picturesque scenery en route.
There is plenty for nature lovers to appreciate on the island. Some of the most spectacular scenery can be enjoyed at the Scala dei Turchi which are white cliffs which the Turkish and Moorish pirates landed on centuries ago and which, over the years, have been eroded into a series of steps, hence the name (Staircase of the Turks). Definitely head here at sunset… there can be very few more magical settings to watch the sun setting each evening.
And of course, no visit to Sicily would be complete without a visit to Mount Etna, the island’s active stratovolcano measuring 3326 metres high at the time of writing (although its actual height varies dependent on eruptions). With various ways of reaching the summit – by 4 x 4 minibus, by cable car, by jeep or even by donkey – it’s certainly worth making your way up to the crater area. For a different way to explore Etna, it’s also possible to take a helicopter ride to enjoy an aerial view of the crater.
There is plenty to see and do offshore too. The Aeolian Islands lie off the North East shores of Sicily. Made up of a collection of seven islands – Vulcano, Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi and Alicudi – the islands are now a UNESCO world heritage site. Lipari is the largest and most bustling of the islands, whist visitors to Vulcano can enjoy the mud baths – fanghi – and witness the smoking Gran Cratere volcano that expels sulphurous fumes from its crater. Stromboli is most famous for its unusual black sandy beaches and its active volcano which constantly emits smoke from its peak. Visitors will find Panaera much quieter as are Salina, Alicudi and Filicudi.
Sitting off the North West coast of Sicily are the Aegadian Islands. These are a group of five small mountainous islands (Favignana, Levanzo, Marettimo, Formica and Maraone). Exploring these offer another perfect excuse to hop in a boat. However, we can also recommend a boat trip to explore some of the caves nestled into Sicily’s rocky coastline including the Grotta Azzurra, Grotta dell’ Oro and the Grotto delle Barche where, in the past, fisherman used to moor their boats in a storm.
Pantellaria is the largest island off the Sicilian coast and it actually sits closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. The island is volcanic in origin and, as a result, the landscape looks almost lunar with dark colours, barren hills and lava flows. The strong winds that batter the island all year round have forced the island’s olive trees to grow almost horizontally and only seem to add to the lunar feel. Despite being surrounded by sea, the island is also short of drinking water and so buildings have been constructed in a unique style. Called dammuso, houses are square, whitewashed buildings with specially designed roofs shaped to collect the rainwater.