Sicily vacation: the best places in Sicily to visit
Sicily is a treasure chest to discover, any time of year. From the Baroque cathedrals of Palermo to the temples of Agrigento and Segesta, from the splendid blue flag beaches of eastern Sicily to the marvellous mosaics of Piazza Armerina, not to mention the dreamy islands that dot the seas with which it is surrounded.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, not only in size but also in the heritage it offers. A crossroads of various civilizations that have taken turns in dominating the island, it has inherited from each of them both a piece of the mosaic that makes up the character of Sicilians and the rare beauties that have made it so unique in the world.
The mild climate, diverse itineraries and landscapes, from pristine seabeds to active volcanoes, from great mountains to beaches, from art cities to literary and nature trails, make Sicily one of the most original tourist destinations in the Mediterranean and the world.
Leaving for a vacation in Sicily means discovering many different worlds and falling in love at every step with its artistic, historical, architectural and natural heritage.
The many faces of Palermo
Overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, Palermo the “all-port” city for centuries at the center of the Mediterranean, a land of peoples from East and West who vied for dominance. From the Phoenician Zyz to home to the high aristocracy of the 1900s, Palermo was the stage for the struggles between the Romans and Carthaginians, between the Eastern Goths and Byzantines, and then passed into the hands of the Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Aragonese and Bourbons.
Today, Palermo’s historic center is a living testimony to this succession of emperors, dynasties and peoples, a great open-air mosaic of religious and civic architecture of different eras and styles, often contrasting, that have created a harmonious universe in which histories, cultures and traditions survive, revealing all its most brilliant nuances.
The capital of Sicily under Arab and then Norman rule, Palermo experienced its greatest cultural splendor with the Altavilla dynasty, which lasted for more than 100 years and under which were born the splendid churches of the Martorana and the Magione and monuments of unique charm such as the Royal or Norman Palace, the Castle of the Cuba, the Palatine Chapel or the Admiral’s Bridge.
The heart of Palermo’s historic center is in the splendid Piazza Vigliena, known as the Four Songs of the City and renamed “Teatro del Sole” or “Octagon of the Sun.” Here the Cassaro, today’s Via Vittorio Emanuele, and Via Maqueda, the “New Road” that ushered in the modern age, intersect. At this focal point, lit constantly by the sun, the city is divided into the four main districts of Kalsa, Capo, Loggia and Albergheria.
Itineraries not to be missed
You can take the Arab-Norman itinerary, which preserves the beauty of Muslim mastery with arabesques, large porticoes and flourishing gardens, starting from the majestic Cathedral of Palermo and stopping at the Zisa Castle. From the historic center, then, you can reach many places of interest, such as historic markets, villas and gardens, high-fashion stores, artisan workshops, and typical food places where you can enjoy delicious seafood, street food, and gastronomic excellence.
From the historic center, it is only a few minutes to the large Piazza Castelnuovo and Piazza Verdi, where the Politeama Theater and the Massimo Theater solemnly welcome tourists and spectators, guiding them on a walk that leads down to the sea, where a breathtaking view of the Gulf of Palermo can be enjoyed.
It is here, at the end of the ancient Cassaro, that stands one of Palermo’s most striking villas, Villa Garibaldi, a 19th-century villa set in a garden of centuries-old ficus trees, fountains and sculptural busts, including one dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Palermo is known for its history and extraordinary artistic wealth, but also for its enchanting coastline and seaside villages. Of Palermo’s various seaside resorts, the most beloved and most scenically and historically fervid is undoubtedly Mondello.
The coastline, washed by the Tyrrhenian Sea, offers an evocative view of the sweetest and wildest nature, a perfect postcard-perfect reminder of a diverse, irreplicable, rare and richly contrasting territory. The bay is bordered by nature reserves and the two respective promontories of Monte Pellegrino and Monte Gallo and holds, along with the beach of Capo Gallo, cliffs, sheer cliffs, caves and carbonate platforms dating from the Mesozoic and Eocene periods.
A tour among Palermo’s historic markets
The true soul of Palermo can be discovered by leaving the tourist itineraries and going into its hidden alleys, among the people, being seduced by the bright colors and intense scents of its historic markets.
From the center it is easy to reach Palermo’s main historic markets, which are located in some of the most beautiful and charming neighborhoods of the center. Near our property, near the Teatro Massimo, stands one of Palermo’s oldest and most energetic markets, the Mercato del Capo.
Spanning the same area where the ancient Arab quarter of the Schiavoni once stood, it leads from Via Cappuccinelle to the widening where Via Beati Paoli, Via Sant’Agostino and Via Porta Carini intersect. The latter takes its name from the 14th-century gate of the same name, the main entrance to the market adjacent to the Palace of Justice.
The Mercato del Capo is the fish market par excellence, but on its open-view stalls sheltered by colorful awnings you can also find fruits and vegetables, canned goods, spices, fresh meat and street food products, from fried fish cups to roasted squid.
Just continue down Beati Paoli Street and then down the picturesque Vittorio Emanuele Street, where Palermo’s majestic Cathedral stands, to reach the Albergheria district that is home to Palermo’s oldest and most characteristic market: Ballarò.
The ancient district market of Ballarò winds its way from the heart of Piazza del Carmine, with its Baroque church of the same name, and offers all kinds of products and foodstuffs, but also a glimpse into a universe of flavors, colors and traditions that has remained unchanged over time. Here you can also enjoy delicious street food products, not only at the market but also in the many places that crowd the multi-ethnic neighborhood.
You can’t say you’ve seen Palermo without first visiting one of the city center’s most famous historic markets. An undisputed protagonist of literary and pictorial works, the Vucciria market has been dedicated to the words of Camilleri and the brushstrokes of Guttuso, an artist who also inspired one of our art suites.
The Vucciria market is located in the ancient Loggia district, between Via Roma, Piazza San Domenico and Via Vittorio Emanuele. Right from Piazza San Domenico we enter one of the once most chaotic, busy and rowdy markets in the historic center.
Its name, which recalls the French boucherie, literally “butcher’s shop,” says something more about the origin of this market once dedicated to meat. Yet, over time, fish, fruits, vegetables, and local produce for preservation also began to be sold in this market. Thanks to the proximity of La Cala and the port, fish became one of the protagonists of this busy market in which the “balate” were always wet because of the water sprayed by the fishmongers on the fresh fish.
Discovering Greek cities
Sicily is an island that holds many of the historical events from which a rich culture made up of art and tradition has been propagated. Among the first we find the Greeks, whose passage is still alive in the temples, theaters and certain customs and rituals that still persist today in many cities of Greek origin.
It was 756 B.C. when the Greeks first landed in Zankle, present-day Messina, to make it a Greek colony. Not content, they decided to continue by colonizing other cities. Sicily was, in fact, the center of a flourishing civilization generated by Greek colonization that gave birth to the cities of Syracuse, Taormina and Naxos, Catania, Zancle (today Messina), Selinunte and Agrigento. Let us discover some of them.
A land of history and ancient legends, home to poets and great men of science, Syracuse (Syrakousai in Greek times and Syracusae in Roman times) is still today the cradle of culture and knowledge of the entire island, widely honored by passing intellectuals, philosophers and artists and known for its timeless beauty.
Founded by the Corinthians between 733 and 734 B.C. and contested by different peoples because of its strategic geographic location, Syracuse is undoubtedly one of the richest Italian cities in history and art ever.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 2005, along with the natural and archaeological site of the Necropolis of Pantalica, and a Mediterranean powerhouse during Greek domination, it has seen a succession of different peoples over the centuries, from the Romans to the Arabs, the Byzantines to the Spanish.
This melting pot of cultures can be breathed in every alley and rediscovered in its monuments, particularly in the historic center, which was partly damaged by the 1693 earthquake and later rebuilt in the Baroque style.
Anyone passing through Syracuse cannot miss its historic center, the first stop on the itinerary to discover the beauty of ancient Greece.
The undeniable historical and natural wealth of this city has made it immortal in time. Syracuse possesses many peculiarities, some widely known others a little less known, and one of them concerns the Cathedral itself.
The Cathedral of Syracuse was built on the remains of the ancient temple that dominated the polis of Syracuse, at the top of the Island of Ortigia. Traces of the marvelous Greek temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena, are still visible today thanks to the two original Doric columns that were incorporated into the structure of the Duomo itself.
The island of Ortigia
On this itinerary to discover the city of Syracuse, one cannot fail to walk the streets of the island of Ortigia and enjoy the view it offers of the vast natural inlet that hosts the Grand Harbor.
Ortigia, the oldest part of the city of Syracuse, is connected to the new part by two bridges and preserves architectural and scenic beauty of rare charm.
In addition to the ancient historic center of Syracuse and the Cathedral, Ortigia still preserves monuments of historical importance such as Maniace Castle and Marieth Castle, fortifications from the Spanish era, numerous important noble palaces, the temples of Apollo, Artemis, and the remains of the temple of Athena, as well as the ancient Market and the wonderful fountains.
It is here that the beautiful papyrus plants are born, so much so that Ortigia is home to one of the two papyreths in all of Europe.
Castello Maniace, also known as Castello Svevo, is located near the island of Ortigia. Dedicated to the Byzantine general, it was commissioned by Frederick II of Wake in 1200 to defend the city and port of Syracuse from attacks by conquerors.
It is one of the most important monuments of the Swabian period and among the most emblematic achievements of Frederick’s architecture. The castle was further fortified in the Spanish era with the erection of the four drawbridges, which totally isolated Syracuse, turning it into a stronghold.
Its function, however, was not limited exclusively to the defense of the city since the Castle was also used as a residence. The second floor of the castle, in fact, reveals a clear recreational function.
The four towers at the corners of the fortress, in the Arab style, house four spiral staircases, and the architecture of the rooms is reminiscent of the splendid Islamic mosques. In addition, inside, there is an ancient freshwater spring in the underground Queen’s Bath.
If the island of Ortigia enchants you, the Neapolis Archaeological Park will completely captivate you. Covering an area of 35 hectares, the Park is home to important Greek monuments and is particularly known for its Greek Theater.
From the Altar of Sacrifices to the Roman Amphitheater, from the Altar of Hieron II dedicated to Zeus Eleutherios to the Necropolis, you advance within a natural path that leads to the Ear of Dionysius.
The Greek Theater of Syracuse, carved into the rock and still intact, was a place of worship, trials and city assemblies. Today, it hosts the famous performances of Greek tragedies that attract thousands of spectators from all over Italy each year.
It spreads among the rocks of the Temenite Hill, providing a striking glimpse set between a fervent and impetuous past and the evocative atmosphere created by the natural landscape.
The cave carved into the limestone rock, which takes the shape of a large human ear, a full 23 meters high and 65 meters deep, was renamed Ear of Dionysius by Caravaggio and offers tourists a very special experience.
The acoustics inside, given the size of the cavity and the particular sinuous shape of the cave, allow sounds to amplify up to 16 times. A true natural and architectural wonder not to be missed.
At 1,300 hectares, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, which was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997, is the largest archaeological site in the world.
There are 12 sites that can be visited within the park: the Temple of Juno, which is located on the highest rocky outcrop of the Hill of the Temples and dates from around the mid-5th century BC. C; the Temple of Concord, one of the best-preserved temples of Greek antiquity; the Early Christian Necropolis, a sub divo necropolis, that is, an open-air necropolis, with about 130 trapezoidal chest tombs dug into the rock, one of the park’s most exclusive educational visits; the Roman necropolis Giambertoni, with the famous sarcophagus of the child, now preserved at the Pietro Griffo Regional Archaeological Museum.
Also, the Tomb of Theron; the Temple of Asclepius, a monumental complex, dedicated to the Greek god of Medicine, son of Apollo; the Temple of Hercules, the oldest of Agrigento’s Doric temples and built around the end of the 6th century BC. ; the Temple of Jupiter, the most damaged one; Gate V, which was part of the fortifications; the Temple of the Dioscuri; the Temple of Vulcan; the Gymnasium, an ancient building related to gymnastic activities; and the Theater, identified only in 2016, which shows similarities with the theaters of Solunto and Segesta, built in the 2nd century BC.
Set like a precious gem between the volcanic barrenness of Mount Etna and the blue Ionian Sea, Catania is a multifaceted metropolis. A city that knows how to conquer thanks to the richness of its Baroque architecture and its historical and artistic heritage, but also for the spirit of a young and energetic Sicily.
Catania‘s history begins in 729-728 B.C., when some Greek colonists from Naxos founded Kατάvη, Katane. After a period of Syracusan rule in 263 B.C., the city’s history continued under the Romans.
Today there are not many traces left of the passage of the Greeks because of the eruption of Mount Etna in 1669 and the Val di Noto earthquake in 1693. Catania is a modern city. The Sicilian Baroque style is the result of an impeccable reconstruction, and after joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1860, Catania was eighth among the 27 cities decorated with a gold medal as “benemerite del Risorgimento nazionale” for the highly patriotic actions taken by the city during the Risorgimento period.
What to see in Catania? Definitely the Ursino Castle, founded by Frederick II of Swabia in the 13th century and now a civic museum. As you stroll through the streets of the center keep an eye out for the black-and-white palaces that tower above large squares. First and foremost is Palazzo Biscari, the most important private palace in Catania and a precious testimony to Sicilian Baroque.
Now take a break at Villa Bellini to see one of the two oldest gardens as well as one of Catania’s four main parks.
Finally, visit Catania Cathedral, in whose marvelous square towers “O Liotru,” the little elephant symbol of the city, and take a walk along Via Etnea, the most important street that stretches a full 3 km. Also worth a visit is the Peschiera di Catania, the ancient and noisy morning fish market that is reached by climbing a flight of volcanic rock steps.
Giardini Naxos and Taormina
Halfway between the Ionian Sea and the high peak of Mount Etna, the city of Taormina is one of the most desirable and fascinating destinations in the Mediterranean. This pearl set in the jewel that is the land of Sicily combines and magnifies all the characteristics that have made it famous in Italy and around the world.
Natural beauty ranges from the bay of Taormina itself to the nearby Alcantara Gorges, and then up to the prolific volcanic terrain surrounding Mount Etna. The artistic heritage winds its way through a town’s history, from the striking Hellenistic Theater, still active today, to the medieval-era buildings that make up the heart of the city.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Taormina was one of the most important stops on the Grand Tour of wealthy young people and the destination of choice for intellectuals from all over the world, who came here to discover natural beauty and historical monuments.
Among these the most famous is surely the Ancient Theater, second in size only to the Greek Theater in Syracuse, the main attraction of the archaeological park that also includes the Baths, the Agora, the Odeon, the Mosaics and the Naumachiae (temporary basins that hosted simulations of naval battles). Taormina is located at one end of an inlet called the Bay of Naxos from which the archaeological park extends to the slopes of the Nebrodi Mountains.
Certainly, the atmosphere is different. The less chaotic center entices tourists to take a relaxing stroll among monuments, boutiques, and uncrowded clubs. Arriving at Piazza IX Aprile, one can enjoy an evocative sunset over the bay of Giardini Naxos, without the summer throng of “landscape photographers” ruining the most beautiful moments. Imagine that you are the only one there to observe that fabulous view.
In addition to strolls along the main street, filled with stores and artisan workshops of ceramics and jewelry, you can visit the medieval village of Castelmola and nearby villages at the foot of Mount Etna, such as Linguaglossa and Castiglione di Sicilia.
One cannot complete an archaeological itinerary in Sicily without passing through Piazza Armerina and visiting the Villa Romana del Casale.
Piazza Armerina is world-famous for the extraordinary Mosaics of the Roman Villa del Casale, more than 3,000 square meters of perfectly preserved mosaics, and for its enchanting Baroque and Norman historic center built on the ancient city of medieval layout.
A Historic Center capable of taking us back in time for its very ancient features: the medieval alleys, the beautiful Renaissance and Baroque palaces, such as the Palazzo Trigona and not far from it the Aragonese Castle.
But Piazza Armerina is also known for one of the most important events in Sicily: the Palio dei Normanni or “Cavalcata”, an event that attracts thousands of tourists and celebrates every year the historical procession of Norman militias that entered the ancient city of “Plutia” to free the Christian population from the Saracens.
The cities of the Val di Noto
Since 2002, UNESCO has listed eight late Baroque towns in the Val di Noto district, in the southeast of the island: Caltagirone, Militello in Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa and Scicli.
Struck by an earthquake in 1693, these towns were rebuilt in a late Baroque style that was later codified as a true, unique and recognizable architectural style: Sicilian Baroque.
The baroque towns of the Val di Noto and its wonderful beaches have become destinations for a booming tourism in recent years. Discover with us the treasures of this land.
Noto is the undisputed capital of Sicilian Baroque, famous for its Infiorata and the many noble palaces that show off all their majesty on Corso Vittorio Emanuele and historic Via Nicolaci. You only need to take a walk along the streets of the historic center to realize the architectural beauty of this city, a symbol of what was the glorious rebirth of southeastern Sicily after the 1693 earthquake.
Nestled between the Iblei Mountains, Ragusa Ibla is the ancient historic center of Ragusa, a small Baroque jewel enclosed around the monumental Church of San Giorgio. Walk along the historic streets, long stairways and garden paths. Admire the panoramic view of the surrounding countryside with its typical dry stone walls and verdant hills. Rich in churches and palaces, Ragusa Ibla will fascinate you with its special views.
Modica is the “city of a hundred churches,” so named because of the very high number of sacred places it houses. Baroque churches, scenic staircases and a large historic center that winds along Corso Umberto I and the upper part of the city, located on a hill from which there is a magnificent panoramic view. Not to mention the famous Modican chocolate, a real treat all to be enjoyed.
Known for its ceramic production, Caltagirone is another of the baroque gems of the Val di Noto. If you visit this town, you should definitely stop at one of the many little ceramic stores where you will find colorful everyday objects, from knick-knacks to vases to kitchen utensils. Climb up the unique Steps of Santa Maria del Monte, decorated with hundreds of majolica tiles.
Nature itineraries: from big woods to volcanoes
An unmissable stop for sea and nature lovers is the Zingaro Nature Reserve, which can be traveled along a seven-kilometer coastal path from Scopello to San Vito Lo Capo. Here you are totally immersed in an enchanted place made up of paths shrouded by broom, holm oaks and Aleppo pines, with delightful coves that can be reached by those who wish to dive into the turquoise blue sea.
After a day of trekking and walking inside the Reserve, we recommend reaching Scopello to taste the cunzato bread. A real delicacy!
The Madonie Mountains, then, offer an exclusive nature tour for those who love trekking and breathtaking landscapes. In addition to walking in nature, you will come across delightful medieval villages such as Collesano, Petralia Sottana and Petralia Soprana. At Piano Battaglia you can try the new ski facilities, while for those who love to walk, a climb to Pizzo Carbonara (1979 m), the highest peak in the Madonie, is recommended.
What about the volcanoes? Well, those who come to Sicily know that a must-see is Mount Etna Park, one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. With its many paths leading to the summit, you will discover a never-before-seen, almost lunar landscape. Perfect for anyone, for trekkers, for families and for true professional climbers. Any itinerary is magical.
But there are two other Sicilian volcanoes to discover: Stromboli and Vulcano, which are part of the Aeolian archipelago. Also active, they offer extraordinary experiences to those who visit them: such as the hot baths and therapeutic mud baths of Vulcano and the black sand beach of Stromboli, with its collapsed caldera of Pollara, a prehistoric submerged crater, the remains of which are still visible, shaped by lava, wind and sea.
Staying in eastern Sicily, Ortigia is known for the presence of natural springs and springs. One of these is the Fountain Arethusa, a beautiful body of fresh water formed by the contact between the freshwater of the underground karst aquifer from which it originates and the water of the sea.
For fans of trekking and nature walks, it is a must-see. The Ciane River is a small watercourse of rare charm, located in the beautiful Nature Reserve south of Syracuse in the “Fonte Ciane” natural area, and springs from a promontory called “Cozzo Pantano.”
Its beauty has made it the protagonist of myths and legends since its discovery. Particular is the Greek myth that has always accompanied it and tells the tragic love story between Ciane and Anapo, the young nymph and river goddess.
Sicily vacation: when to go to Sicily
Let’s face it, you can go to Sicily all year round! Both because of the particularly favourable climate and because of the beauty it has to offer all year round. From beautiful beaches to snow-capped mountains, there is no month of the year when Sicily does not offer those who visit a wonderful sight.
Of course, it also depends on one’s travel plans or needs. In summer, we recommend visiting the beautiful beaches of Trapani, San Vito Lo Capo or eastern Sicily, many of them “blue flags“, as well as trekking on Mount Etna or the Madonie Mountains.
In autumn, it is advisable to visit the cities of art or tackle routes in nature, on foot or by bicycle, without suffering too much from the heat. But even in winter, during the Christmas season, you can take advantage of seeing the famous Living Nativity in Custonaci or walking the snowy paths and tasting porcini mushrooms in one of the many mountain villages.
To discover Sicily would not take a year, perhaps not even a lifetime. Because take a vacation in Sicily is like reading the pages of a book about the history of the world, about the many peoples who have dominated it, about the many landscapes that embellish it, about the traditions that make it so unique and so rich like no other.