German writer Goethe penned,
To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.
Arriving too Sicily is very much like arriving in a new country, one that seems far removed from the mainland. With its bursting volcanoes, rolling countryside, ancient ruins, crisp blue seas and delicious cuisine, it is easy to see why everyone once wanted a piece of Sicily throughout its history. The Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish and even, some say, the Italians, all wanted Sicily for their own.
As a result of Sicily’s countless invasions and rulers, the island boasts an unusual cultural makeup, one as Goethe explained, is the clue to everything. It isn’t just about cannoli in Sicily. The region lends a window into an Italy of another time and perhaps another country altogether. And so if you want to see Italy, come with us as we explore Sicily.
When I first studied abroad in Sicily, I recall telling others where I was going and being met with blank stares. So many don’t know where Sicily is or even what it is. Sicily makes up the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It also acts as the largest region in Italy. Surrounded by the Ionian, Mediterranean, and Tyrrhenian Seas, Sicily remains forever geographical and perhaps mentally separated from mainland Italy by the Strait of Messina.
When To Go
I have spent time in Sicily in the dead of summer, the shoulder season and even a brief period in the winter. Sicily can be enjoyable any time of the year, but certain seasons have greater appeal. While a relatively mild climate, Sicily can be downright hot during the summer months. June to September represents the high season on the island with steeper hotel prices and more crowds. August is better left alone as most establishments are closed for vacation. Sicily falls under quite the chill generally from November to mid-March. This is also the island’s low season when there are next to no crowds and beachside villages become ghost towns.
My favorite time to visit Sicily is during the shoulder seasons. Early to late spring bring ideal sightseeing weather and fewer crowds. September and October again lend optimal weather conditions without having to share all of the island’s ancient sites and museums with the masses.
Sicily leads three main airports, Palermo Borsellino Airport on the west coast, Trapani Vincenzo Florio Airport, also on the west coast and Catania-Vincenzo Bellini Airport on the island’s east coast. Direct flights to and from Italy, Germany, and the UK are quite common throughout the three airports. You can also arrive too Sicily by train. While a train ride from Rome or Naples can take anywhere from 9 to 12 hours, arriving too Sicily in such a fashion lends that extreme sense of arrival. Trains arrive at the port of Villa San Giovanni or Reggio Calabria and then roll onto barges to make the one-hour crossing to Messina. From Messina, you can continue on by train to Palermo, Catania or Syracuse.
On my first trip to Sicily for four months, I packed several suitcases, filled with all of the wrong items. I lived and I learned. Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, packing for Italy doesn’t have to be a struggle or involve countless suitcases. Summers call for lightweight, breathable fabrics. If you visit during the warmer months, sunscreen is a must to avoid going home looking like a tomato. Also, the mosquitoes on the island can be quite vicious. Always pack your bug spray to avoid Sicilian mosquito bites. Winters can be downright chilling so a down jacket, boots and plenty of wind protection is important. As in the case in most parts of Italy, you will be walking. A sturdy walking shoe for traipsing around ruins and over cobblestone is essential.
Sicily is surprisingly large with a great deal to see and do in a vast area. Travel from Palermo to Syracuse takes around four hours by car. Both cities are at opposite ends of the island. While you could plan to stay just a week, Sicily calls for more time if you want to visit all three of its sides.
If you want to merely travel by train, you can easily get around Sicily by train. Trains connect Palermo, Catania, Messina, Syracuse, Agrigento, Taormina and Trapani. Bus travel is also popular on the island as it can connect travelers with harder to reach villages and towns. Some of the main bus companies on the island include SAIS, AST, Cuffaro, Interbus, and Salemi.
However, my favorite transport in Sicily is a car. You can rent a car at any of the major airports and in some major cities. While renting a car takes a bit more of an adventurous spirit, you’ll have more freedom and you won’t wait on unreliable train and bus schedules.
To fit all that Sicily offers into one vacation is next to impossible. However, you can sample the island while sightseeing bit by bit. I tend to like to begin at the beginning with Sicily, exploring its many ruins. Syracuse is home to Ortygia, essentially its Centro Storico. The islet holds the oldest Greek temple on the island the Temple to Athena. Both have been incorporated into the walls of the town’s cathedral, creating a truly one of kind church. In addition, a visit to Syracuse isn’t complete unless you have visited the Parco Archeologico Della Neapolis, home to the largest Greek theater in Sicily.
Sicily’s ruined tour continues on to Agrigento. The town boasts its Valle Dei Templi, a row of the best-preserved temples in the world. The Temple of Concord stands nearly intact while the Temple of Zeus on site is thought to be the largest in the world.
Jogging over to Segesta doesn’t disappoint archeological fans for its Templo and Teatro Greco di Segesta. The limestone temple remains one of the best preserved on the planet. The town’s Greek theater is also impressive for its positioning with both land and sea views.
The Aeolian Islands --
Sicily would be lying if it didn’t concede that part of the reason many venture all the way down here are for its beaches. A fine spot to get a taste of Sicily’s beaches and so much more are on the Aeolian Islands. The UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of seven islands on Sicily’s northeastern coast. Largely the work of volcanoes, the islands are filled with attractions. Lipari is the largest island in the chain while Volcano is famous for its many sulfur mud holes, known for their therapeutic properties. Post mud bath, you can hop on over the Stromboli, another island in the chain, home to the most active volcano in Europe. Visitors can even hike up the volcano and witness lava flow first hand. Then again, the Aeolian Islands are known for their beaches, where relaxing on a black sand beach comes standard with a visit.
Mount Etna --
Adventure seekers, bewitched by Sicily’s natural fortunes would be hard press to pass up a visit to its greatest threat, Mount Etna. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe. Perched on Sicily’s eastern coast, the volcano frequently blows its top. The landscape is a bit unexpected with settings like snowcapped peaks, barren black lava fields, beech woods and lush vineyards. Many tour companies offer various ways to see the volcano from caving tours of lava flow caves to hiking excursions to see lava to even ski trips on Mount Etna.
While you could spend your whole visit to Sicily in its major cities, you would be missing its heart and soul. The countryside and its villages deserve careful examination. Just one hour east of Palermo, you will uncover enchanting Cefalú. The small fishing village lends big rewards with its medieval, honey-colored buildings and 12th-century cathedral.
On the western side of the island, you will find Erice, sleeping in its medieval glory. Watching over the port of Trapani, the village sits some 750 meters above the sea. Its walled town fills with forts, churches, and a Norman castle.
Then again, some of Sicily’s villages have retained a certain celebrity. Taormina is one such place. Perched on a hilltop in dramatic fashion, the candy-colored settlement features views of Etna, Greek ruins, and the Ionian Sea. Also on the glitzy list for Sicily, San Vito lo Capo on the tip of Capo San Vito warrants a gander. The seaside town becomes a beach lovers’ retreat in the warmer months.
Even inland villages in Sicily entice, like the Baroque beauty of Noto. As you roam Corso Vittorio Emanuele, you will find a town rich in red gold buildings, filled with churches and palazzi. Noto’s beautiful historic center also dishes up one of the best gelatos on the island.
Where + What To Eat
Sicilian cuisine is its own attraction. Leave all of your notions of Italian cuisine behind and you will find a very different plate. While gelato, cannoli, and pizza are standard at many establishments, Sicily should be recognized for so much more. Dishes draw from Sicily’s many invaders from the Greeks to the Arabs to the Normans. Seafood reigns supreme. You won’t be hard press to find tuna, swordfish, clams and sardines on the menu. Sicily also grows virtually all of Europe’s blood orange supply, making it a fine spot to always grab an orange at the local markets. Most importantly, Sicily is a place of regional specialties in which one part of the island will specialize in a dish the other does not. Always ask to try something that is locally specialized.
To the surprise of those who don’t know Sicily, the island is actually home to its fair share of Michelin-starred restaurants. Ristorante Duomo in Ragusa is one of those establishments to have earned two Michelin stars. Led by chef Ciccio Sultano, diners can feast on stylized Sicilian dishes. If you make it to Palermo, Antica Focacceria San Francesco is also worth a stop. A fixture in town since 1834, the old school style eatery is one of the few businesses in Palermo that refuse to pay protection money to the Mafia. Bring your appetite for focaccia sandwiches and arancini, otherwise, rice balls stuffed with mozzarella and peas.
Where To Stay
Sicily offers a wealth of accommodation options, from apartment rentals to luxury hotels. We are slightly partial to Sicily’s luxury side. One of the island’s top places to stay is Monaci Delle Terre Nere. Located just over twenty miles from the Catania Airport, the 19th-century estate features 19 suites with a mix of modern and traditional architecture. Monaci Delle Terre Nere is also conveniently located near Mount Etna, Sicily’s often-erupting volcanic star.
Some of the features of Monaci Delle Terre Nere tend to set it apart from others on the island. The property features no televisions or telephones in the rooms, lending a perfect set up for honeymooners or just those seeking to unplug. The estate is also eco-conscious, relying partially on renewable energy and featuring many efficient fixtures.
In addition, Monaci Delle Terre Nere also has an organic farm, growing olives, wine grapes, fruits, and herbs. Guests can appreciate the fruits of the land at breakfast each morning. Other amenities include an outdoor pool and gardens to explore. Extra experiences are also available like outdoor yoga in the summer, wine tasting classes from the Etna Wine School and cooking classes.
Have you been to Sicily? What’s your favorite part of this region of Italy?