This charming island has long a crucible of Mediterranean culture, and the island today is a fascinating mix of extremes and contrasts and a magnification of all things Italian. Wherever you turn you will see evidence of Sicily’s 3,000 years of turbulent history with an array of stunning architecture influenced by Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans. The island is a vast open-air museum, a testament to nearly every Mediterranean civilisation of the past. It is home to some of the best preserved archaeological sites in Europe from the Greek Valley of Temples in Agrigento to Mosaics in Villa Romana in Armerina, Sicily has it all including an amazing gastronomical culture full of traditional Mediterranean dishes, sweet cannolis and some of the freshest fish you will ever taste.
Top Attractions in Sicily
Idyllically perched on a rocky peninsula high above the sea, Taormina has been the most popular tourist destination in Sicily for hundreds of years, a town which commands spectacular views across the bay of Giardini Naxos and the monstrous volcano that dominates the landscape behind. Beautifully restored medieval buildings, breath-taking views around every corner and a giddy network of winding streets strewn with shops, bars and restaurants makes it a great place for a stroll around, with an authentic Italian atmosphere. Taormina is also home to a Teatro Greco, a 3rd century Greek theatre beautifully framing the bay and smoking Mount Etna that acts as a natural backdrop to the stage.
Mount Etna currently standing at 3,323m (10,902ft) above sea level is Europe’s highest and most active volcano and by far the biggest dominating attraction in Eastern Sicily. Mount Etna is a must visit if you are visiting nearby places such as Taormina. Head to Etna Sud for the option to walk around some of the older craters on foot or take an exciting cable car ride to 2,900m for a 2-4 hour round trip to the summit crater.
Tip: Some of the craters require a short steep walk to reach them so a good pair of shoes will be required to be able to climb the incline due to volcanic sands and loose lava rocks. It is also highly advised not to venture on the main craters without a qualified guide due to the volcanoes sporadic activity.
Agrigento – Valle-Dei-Templi
One of Sicily’s most famous historical sites is without a doubt the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO archaeological park consisting of eight temples (and various other remains) built between 510 BC and 430 BC. Typically Greek in style temples of Hera, Heracles, Olympian Zeus and other Greek gods can be found in the complex that makes for a great day out if you are around Agrigento. If you are visiting during the summer make sure you bring sun screen, head protection from the sun and plenty of water. It can get extremely hot during the day and the complex offers little or no shade from the sun.
Piazza Armerina and Villa Romana del Casale
Another of Sicily’s most famous archaeological wonders lies in Piazza Armerina. Some of the world’s best preserved mosaics can be seen at the famous Villa Romana del Casale, estimated to of been built in the middle of the 4th Century as a hunting lodge by a Roman patrician. This small Roman villa complex is one of the most luxurious of its kind and has some of the most extensive Roman mosaics, the finest still intact in the Roman world. It is especially noteworthy for the richness and quality of the mosaics which decorate almost every room in the villa.
The bustling city of Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily, is an exotic jumble of Arab-Norman and Baroque architectural splendours. Visiting this chaotic city is still somewhat of an adventure, you won’t find many restaurants with menu translated for tourists and you’ll have trouble finding anyone who speaks communicable English. Explore the city’s narrow labyrinthine back streets and discover its vibrant markets whose Arabic origins are still evident today. The city also has some fine palaces and a stunning 12th Century Normal Cathedral. You can even walk around some parts of the old town centre that have remained untouched since they were bombed during the war.
Syracuse (or Siracusa)
Without a doubt this is one city you won’t want to miss in Sicily. Without visiting would be like missing an essential part of the island. This city has an incredible amount of archaeological sites and some great architectural buildings. The best archaeological site to visit is situated in the northwest of town, home to a staggering number of well-preserved Greek (and Roman) remains. The main attraction is undoubtedly the Greek theatre that dates back at least until the 5th Century BC. There are also the famous Catacombs of San Giovanni. Running for kilometres under the city these catacombs were excavated for the most part between 315 and 360 AD, and remained in use until the end of the 5th century.
Another highlight of Syracuse is Ortigia. This small island peninsula is packed with over 2,500 years of history. Although enjoyable to visit during the day the island comes to life at night when people can be seen wandering the small alleys and side streets and socializing in the Piazza del Duomo a delightful pedestrian square in the heart of the island. Its historical highlight is the famous fountain of youth (La Fonte Aretusa).
The Aeolian Islands
The Sicilian experience would not be complete without a trip to the Aeolian Islands. Although typically most tourists take day trips to the islands it is also possible to stay a couple of nights and hop from one to the other. These small islands are unspoiled and steeped in history, myth and legends and some have spectacular beaches to relax on.
Vulcano, typically the first stop for the ferry (from Milazzo) offers yellow sulphurous baths and volcanic craters while its neighbouring island of Lípari is the largest and most populated. Its pumice beach has the only white sand in the archipelago. The island of Salina is the highest and the greenest and is topped by two symmetrical volcanoes. Stromboli is one of the most exciting islands to visit. Its two small villages are separated by burning lava flows and if you visit at night you might be lucky enough to witness Stomboli’s volcano in action!
The smallest and most visited is Panarea, a lush vegetated island that acts as a refuge to wealthy tourists and luxury yachts during the summer months. Filicudi and Alicudi are two of the less visited islands but they are a paradise for divers and marine-life enthusiasts.
Located in North West Sicily; Trapani is one of the most romantic places in Sicily. Previously known as Drepanon this coastal fishing town is booming mainly due to its budget airline connections with Europe. Characterised by long stretches of coast and coastal plains most people that visit Trapani head for its luscious white sandy beaches. But its city centre is full of lavish monuments, palaces and a beautiful countryside that begs to be explored.
Located on Sicily’s north coast this sleepy fishing village is one of the Mediterranean's undiscovered gems. This medieval town is well known for its beautiful beaches, with long stretches of golden sand and shallow warm waters ideal for families. The town also boasts a wealth of historical and cultural landmarks, a rustic fishermen’s quarter and a medieval old town, making it one of the most fascinating beach resorts in Sicily. Spend time wandering around the old town’s narrow streets and explore its picturesque piazzas. Visit La Rocca the town’s biggest natural attraction and hear all about its Greek myths and legends and visit the remains of the ancient Temple of Diana.
Best time to visit
Tourists visit Sicily between June and September
Flying: Sicily has three main airports, Palermo in the north, Catania in the south and Trapani in the west. International flights will often have an interchange at Milan, Rome or Naples and often flying into Palermo or Catania while low-cost budget airlines from Europe fly into Trapani.
Driving/Ferry: As an island, Sicily is well linked via sea to mainland Italy. If you are arriving by car from the main land you can take a ferry from Genoa in the north to Palermo (20 hours) or from Villa San Giovanni in Calabria across the strait to Messina in eastern Sicily (45 minutes approx.) There are also ferry connections from Livorno and Civitavecchia in Rome.
Train: Depending on where you start your journey in Italy the train journey to Sicily can take anywhere from 12 to 15 hours (Milan or Venice) or 9 to 12 hours (Rome or Naples). All trains from the mainland arrive at the port of Villa San Giovanni or Reggio Calabria and from there the trains roll onto enormous barges for the 1-hour crossing to Messina. Trains either stop at Messina Centrale or continue on to Palermo, Catania, or Syracuse.
Bus: There are various coach companies that operate routes from major European cities via Milan, Rome and Naples to Palermo, Catania or Syracuse.
One of the most flexible and easiest ways to get around the island is by car. Sicily has very good autostradas (toll roads) between the main cities and it is relatively inexpensive to use these. To visit remote villages and towns you'll sometimes find yourself going along a country lane. These are the bona-fide scenic routes, with roads sometimes just steps away from the shore. Cars can be hired from the airports although if you visit during the summer and over Ferragosto (an Italian bank holiday) expect high car rental prices.
There are regular train services that run between the main cities in Sicily however it is not advisable to use trains to visit smaller towns as they make stops at every town along the way and are considerably slower than the inter-city trains. Buses are becoming the other travel means of choice in Sicily. Fares are generally less than train tickets and are even cheaper when a round trip ticket is bought.