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If you want to know the best places to visit in Sicily then make sure to ask an expert. Our friend Karen La Rosa from Sicily tour specialists La RosaWorks is exactly that person. Her passion for Sicily is infectious and in this article she shares the unmissable towns and sights of this fascinating island.
Why visit Sicily
For years, the Italian mainland has been the desired destination for tourists. Seems they can’t get enough, eating and drinking their way around the triangle from Venice to Florence to Rome. Venturing to the south of Italy never occurred to tourists and didn’t seem necessary.
Recently, that has changed. A switch has flipped, and the light is now shining bright on this magnificent and still somewhat secret island. Or, maybe the light is emanating from the island itself – that unique sunshine that reaches down to embrace Sicily from piercing blue skies more days of the year than most places? Tourists are re-considering.
Is a visit necessary? You bet. Will you ask yourself “Why haven’t I done this before?” You bet. I would like to put the impossible into words here, and give you a description of where you should go on a first visit and what you should see, but Sicily is complicated. Over the millennia more than a dozen unique cultures took up residence on this beautiful island, situated smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, making it an ideal trading spot and a fertile and hospitable land.
This just means that on your visit, you will change your historic hat frequently and question frequently the style of architecture, the food, the human gestures and the ambience. In some places, it’s all jumbled together, a reflection of the way the Sicilians adapted, incorporated, and demonstrated great resilience.
Who is Sicilian? The answer in short, is no one and everyone. Sicily is a great mosaic, still vibrant, still changing and still adapting. It’s an exciting place to visit, and oh, that wine!
First, let’s land in Catania, unsung Catania. Sicily’s second largest city is far less touristed than Palermo, the largest. Situated in the middle of the eastern coast of the island, it is a Baroque town but also has black lava stone buildings. It is one of the few places to see Roman remains.
The Cathedral that houses the relics of their beloved Patron Sant’Agata, the Benedictine Monastery (Catania University), the various churches and the Bellini Gardens that sit across from Sicily’s best arancini at Pasticceria Savia, are all worth a visit. The Museo dello Sbarco, dedicated to the Allied campaign in WWII is terrific.
Catania is alive with entrepreneurial spirit and has one of the Sicily’s must-see markets, the Pescheria. This fish market has been in continuous operation since the 9th century, Arab times, 6 days a week from dawn until lunch time, just steps from the beautiful grand Piazza Duomo.
You can pass through one of the city’s original gates, Porta Uzeda, or emerge from behind the larger than life fountain cascading water above the now submerged Amenano River. In the center of the piazza, a slight turn of the head, you’ll see another fountain and the city’s symbol, the Fontana dell’ Elefante. In the evenings, this area is hopping with musicians and people enjoy the traditional stroll called the passeggiata, along the pedestrian only Via Etnea, arriving to the piazza, gelato in hand.
This city is undergoing a food renaissance and good eating is to be had in every corner. From street food of sublimely fried fish-in-a-cone to some of the best arancini around, to re-interpreted classic dishes at Catania’s first Michelin starred restaurant Sapio to Vinoteca Ostier where wines are paired to your entrée, there is so much to feast on.
There is no shortage of wine sourced from Mount Etna, Sicilian craft beers, and local specialties. To tourists, Catania is yet under-appreciated for its sights and food, but it is the ideal place to arrive and from which to venture on day trips before moving on. Okay, let’s head north!
People have talked about Mount Etna for millennia. A volcano referred to as Mother, she provides a huge geographic area with remarkable fertility from her ongoing spurts of mineral rich lava ash that settles on the soil. Her imposing profile is visible from miles away and in every direction.
A visit up close is a must. There are various ways to experience her majesty, that begin with a visit to the extinct craters. Driving into the Etna Park, you will observe the landscape changing as you ascend. Boulders are everywhere. You arrive to the Rifugio Sapienza and the Silvestri Craters where you have a chance to climb up slopes of varying steepness and peak inside. The wind is audible, the soil rich in mineral colors, and the vistas, breathtaking.
Venture a little further to the next car park and you will find the cable car. A ticket will get you a seat on a 10-minute ride soaring to a platform where large 4-wheel drive vehicles whisk you further up onto the black lava sea, some 9800 feet high. From this vantage point you see the sky and the sea, the mountains and even Sicily’s center on a clear day. The wind is chilly in the warmer months and cold other times, but wrapped in warmth, you suddenly appreciate the power and magnitude of this volcano.
Private guides can take you on off the beaten path hikes and to experience this UNESCO recognized volcano in other ways. Be sure not to miss a visit to one of Etna’s more than 250 wineries. There is treasure in those hills.
Taormina is a small hilltop town, draped in floral displays of vibrant bougainvillea and about which great writers and romantics have waxed poetic. It is perched high above the sea, with a view to the mainland and draws hordes of international tourists to feast eyes on its unique beauty.
The Greek Theater is one of the most beautiful and at the edge of town it has exceptional views of both Mount Etna and the coastline, too. The historic center is given over to pedestrians who wander among the high-quality shops and cafes, climb up and down steps, and poke around narrow little corners, with restaurants serving aromatic foods tucked in here and there.
Taormina is unique in Sicily for its pristine and refined beauty. It is Sicily’s perfect place to relax and shop. Should you want some activity, take the cable car to the Mazzaro Beach whose white sand is just below the town, and hire a boat to skip you across to the crystal-clear Blue Grotto. Back in town, sit back and sip a crisp Etna white wine overlooking the breathtaking expanse and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about this town.
Ortigia is the small island that sits just steps over a connecting bridge from the mainland. For some, this place defines charm. It is the most historic part of the area with a long history, having been one of Greece’s most important cities after its founding in 734 BC. It can be explored through very narrow lanes that meet up at one of Sicily’s grandest piazzas, a perfect place for people-watching.
Before you is the stunning Baroque Cathedral, but a close look reveals its original Greek Columns, evidence of an earlier time, the ultimate recycled building. In one direction you can find a fountain steeped in mythology and papyrus growing in its sea water. In every direction there are ornately beautiful aristocratic palaces, some still privately owned, and some used for government functions. Shops selling both fine and delightful hand made goods line the streets.
There is a Jewish quarter in which it is possible to see two ritual baths, the Mikveh, and underneath the Church of San Filippo Apostolo there are catacombs and WWII shelter drawings. For a small island there is much to interest a visitor.
Off the island there is the Archeological Park with Sicily’s largest Greek Theater and the intriguing Ear of Dionysius. Here, in the spring, you can see fabulous interpretations of ancient Greek plays. There are also remains of a Roman amphitheater. Go with a guide and expect to stay 2-3 hours.
My advice: if you are planning a day trip, stay the whole day and enjoy. There are terrific restaurants and a market with places to eat fresh and delectable things.
Just a short 20 minutes away from Siracusa is Noto. Built after the earthquake of 1693 destroyed the original town, it is now recognized by UNESCO for its refined Baroque architecture. The town is laid out in a grid form so the sun shines along the streets, reflecting light off the golden limestone. Perched atop a large flight of steps the Duomo is an imposing feature in the center of the main thoroughfare. Its steps are inviting to all for a sit down. The Duomo faces another beautiful building, the Palazzo Ducezio, now used by the government.
Noto has a slower pace to it than Ortigia and people mill about eating gelato from well-known pastry shops, climbing to one of the two church roofs for fabulous cityscape photos, and exploring the balconies that drip with fanciful and ornate decoration. It is a welcoming place and one of the few where I have seen LGBTQ flags.
Stay at the Gagliardi Hotel for its beautiful spacious rooms and a rooftop for wine and cocktails with a view before dinner. Eat local almonds. Drink Nero d’Avola and Moscato di Noto wines, produced nearby. Visit the Vendicari Reserve in the morning or at dusk to see migrating birds (including pink flamingoes!), the sandy beach and old tuna fishing structures. The boardwalk paths are lovely to traverse.
Ragusa is another town that was a victim of the earthquake of 1693. It combines a newer town above the historic town below with iconic images of beautifully colored domes visible from the windy road in between. Like many other places, the main area is the Piazza Duomo, where many streets converge. Here you can sit and enjoy wine-flavored gelato while gazing at Ragusa’s quintessentially Baroque Cathedral, so recognizable with its steep stairs and wrought-iron gate.
The best view is from the parlor inside the Palazzo Arezzo, which is open to the public. Deeper into town there are steps leading to great vantage points and interesting streets. The Iblean Gardens are a peaceful oasis of exotic plants and ponds, flanked by the old convent. Don’t miss a visit to Rosso Cinabro. Cart-makers in the old tradition, they are the design creators for Dolce and Gabbana’s SMEG line of appliances. From this tiny workshop, the designs reach the world.
Not too far from Ragusa is Modica. If by now you are in need of chocolate, you will find it here. Modica is chocolate central and here the chocolate is made in the same way the Aztecs did, a style brought over by the Spanish. Cooked over a low fire, the chocolate remains granular. It comes in plain or many delicious flavor varieties. There are several places that will give you a tour with samples of their chocolate bars, chocolate syrup and confections, including the traditional ‘Mpanatigghi, that has more than just chocolate baked inside, a secret ingredient that always surprises.
You will then have the energy to climb the steps of the ornate and beautiful Cathedral San Giorgio. Much like Ragusa, the town is full of steps all leading away from the main Corso (Umberto) offering views, intriguing history and fun. Come dusk, you should position yourself next to the San Giorgio Hotel to see the lights as they cover the surrounding hills, another iconic image. Dinner can be in a Michelin starred restaurant or a small trattoria whose owners bring in cheese and other delectables from their farm. It is aptly named Ricotta.
It is well worth a visit to head a little further south to Scicli (pronounced She-cli). Yes, it’s another of the Baroque towns recognized by UNESCO in the Val di Noto and it is probably the smallest, but it has big surprises. Any Detective Montalbano fan can tell you that it is the home of the police station, the center of all story lines. Fans flock to this area to trace the steps of the beloved Inspector who mixes charm, insight, bravado, warmth and humor all into one character.
Visit the Chiesa San Bartolomeo to be amazed by the large and stunning diorama of the Nativity. The Palazzo Beneventano is interesting with its strikingly odd ornamental features. In the afternoon head to Gli Aromi, a nearby herb farm where its passionate owner Enrico will give you an ‘olfactory’ tour and his chef wife Rita will whip up a fabulous lunch. Herbs never tasted this good.
From Catania, Piazza Armerina is a day trip, fewer than 90 minutes away. In Sicily it is always best to talk about the time to travel, not the miles because going off the main roads can be slow with lights, trucks, and sheep traffic. Piazza Armerina is a good-sized town with a beautiful church and some lunch-time eateries, but the reason to drive here is to visit the Villa Romana del Casale, just a few minutes on its outskirts. Think 4th century wealthy Romans.
We don’t know exactly who they were, but the vast expanse of this villa and their intricately decorated rooms, would suggest they were very important. It was a hunting villa in the woods, and it contains miles of some of the best-preserved Roman mosaics in the world. Animal scenes, allegories, mythology and family life is all described with small stone, glass and ceramic tiles in each spectacular room. Another UNESCO site, a tour around will give you a sense of their very advanced living, from hot baths to a gym and much in between.
The ceramics tradition in Sicily dates back to the indigenous peoples who used the rich clay in the area to make useful things. The Greeks advanced to firing vases and pots. Fast forward to the Arabs who brought with them a knowledge of ceramics-making from the East and they began making decorative objects, later refined further by the Spanish.
History in Sicily is always complex, and all the peoples that came through left their own mark. Caltagirone is the largest of the ceramic centers in Sicily. Walk through the town and it is like you are in an open-air museum seeing glazed pottery on walls, balconies, decorative objects and on the town’s centerpiece, the Scala Maria del Monte.
These 182 steps are each adorned with ceramic tiles that tell a chronological story from most recent to older styles as you climb. Alongside the steps, the workshop doors are ajar for you to come in and browse or watch artistry at work. There are many, many shops in town from museum quality refined to the inexpensive.
The mother-lode of Greek ruins lies in the town once known as Akragas. It was a thriving, highly populated metropolis in the 6th century BCE. In the amazing place known as The Valley of the Temples, visitors will see 7 temples along a paved road (where it is possible to hop on a bus for a fee), among which is one of the world’s best-preserved temples, Concordia. This stunning group of temples all have similar light-colored stone now, but we know that back in the day, each temple was a colorful sight.
There are olive, almond and carob trees, ongoing digs, a few goats, and a rest stop or two as well. Imposing and majestic, this is an unforgettable sight with a complex history and mythology best explained by a guide. Allow yourself half a day for the Archeological Park (with comfortable walking shoes and sunscreen) and if archeology interests you, the well-stocked Archeological Museum is nearby.
The town itself is small but has some old churches worth seeing and a few good restaurants. A visit to the Monastero Santo Spirito is worth the steep walk and rewarded, as these nuns are one of the only ones on the island that still sell their marzipan sweets. Pay attention to parking rules in town. That’s experience talking.
The Sicans were an indigenous population from Sicily’s central area and recent efforts have been successful at bringing tourists to see a bit of pre-history. In tucked away caves and small off-the-beaten-path places, this area is awash with experiences for the curious, food and wine lovers, too, from visiting farms that raise goats to pistachios, from olive oil producers to winemakers.
You can spend a memorable day with a knowledgeable guide, immersing yourself in a bit of Sicily known to few. Afterwards, head to the sea and there you will find sandy beaches from which to watch the sunset. Accommodations in the area run from five-star hotels to wonderful rural properties, known as either a baglio or an agriturismo. You can watch a video about the Sicani hills on the La RosaWorks Sicily Presents YouTube channel.
Sciacca and Selinunte
On the windswept sea, along the Southern coastline sits Sciacca. It had thermal springs that served nearby Selinunte, a large Greek settlement in the 5th century BCE. Today Sciacca resembles a charming medieval town, built on an incline affording beautiful views of the sea. It is known for its ceramics with its own distinctive style, with many shops and workshops in town and also for its celebration of Carnevale.
If you visit the town for a half day of relaxed exploring, you can spend the other half roaming the vast Archeological Park of Selinunte. Among the least visited of the archeological sites, here the ancient grain blows in the wind, the stones are strewn about and it is easy to imagine the time when these lands were the scene of great Greek and Carthagenian battles. Buy a book at the newly opened visitors center to learn about the history. Signage at the site is minimal. Remember the sunscreen. Archeological sites generally offer little shade.
Mazara del Vallo
Coming up the west coast, the town of Mazara del Vallo says a lot about Sicily. As the crow flies, it is not far from Tunisia and this port town seems like a colorful extension, complete with a section of town called The Kasbah, Arabic art and signage, and the population itself often in Muslim dress.
There are Mosques and couscous, the signature dish, but there is also an old Jewish Quarter, Catholic churches and a museum housing one of Sicily’s great art treasures, a Greek statue. The Dancing Satyr was found in a fishing net off the coast and after careful restoration, looking up at it is a Stendhal moment. Sicily’s complex history is on display in this small town, a microcosm of diversity. Feast on the fish couscous here.
Not far, further north and also on the sea is Marsala – Mars-Allah, the Port of Allah. The Arab influence in Sicily is distinctly felt in the West in contrast to the Greek influence in the East. This town is known for its fortified wine. Marsala was Sicily’s first DOC wine. It became famous in the mid 19th century because the wine would remain drinkable for sailors and merchants on long voyages.
Although this small town is pleasant enough to explore, visiting wineries here is the thing to do. There are a number of cantine right around town; Florio, Donnafugata, and Pellegrino are all large scale and welcome tourists interested in seeing how Marsala is made and tastes, Florio being the most historic. Alagna Vini, just outside of town, offers a very personal approach to the wines they make, a delicious education. All by appointment only.
Outside of the city are the salt pans, and in the Summer, you can see white, conical piles of salt that were once used to preserve tuna from the local fishing industry. There is a small museum to explain the salt collecting process and different varieties.
Take the 5-minute boat ride over to the island of Mozia, a settlement of Phoenician merchants and sailors from the 7th century BCE. There are remains all over the island and archeological digs to observe. The main attraction is the museum, in which stands another of Sicily’s great art treasures, The Charioteer sculpture. As you gaze upon this stunning Greek body, you are sure to be amazed by its grace, power and unusual pose.
Not on most tourist itineraries is a trip into the interior. Salemi is not far inland from Marsala and well worth the visit. Known for its intricate breads made for the Feast of Saint Joseph, there is a museum that explains the meanings of the many bread shapes that decorate the special feast time altars. In town you will also find the remains of a Norman castle and a grand church. It’s a charming hill town with expansive vistas.
Nearby are many wineries offering tastings and each one offering their unique expression of winemaking. Tenuta Orestiadi combines their winemaking efforts with art and they are situated across the road from the Contemporary Art Foundation Orestiadi, a wonderful museum and relatively new addition to the landscape.
Trapani is further north and west. It was once an important trading port inhabited by wealthy merchants as is evidenced by the impressive houses that still line the streets. Trapani is known for its intensely somber Holy Week events that draw people from all over the world.
There is an historic medieval Jewish quarter that has narrow streets and some good restaurants, including Cantina Siciliana, where Pino’s Fish couscous is a signature dish. Sicily’s Jewish population before the Inquisition was quite large.
From the port of Trapani, that you can ferry to the Egadi Islands where the fascinating history of the tuna fishing ritual can be seen at a museum on Favignana. On Levanzo, a less populated island, scooters and light hiking offer beautiful and peaceful moments. Boating and water sports are available. Bring the camera.
From Trapani take the funicular up to the hill town of Erice, or you can drive up a steep and curvaceous road with many switchbacks, but fabulously stunning vistas. The town of Erice is small with a distinct medieval ambience but its history goes back to the Greeks. There was once a temple to Aphrodite, an important spot where a fire always burned and to which travelers came from afar to pay the goddess respects.
In later times there was a Norman castle with a breathtaking view. Flash forward and we can find Maria Grammatico’s Pasticceria. As a young girl from a poor family, Maria was sent to the convent. She spent her days helping to bake the traditional sweets for which the convents were known.
Today she bakes still, and her shop is quite famous. You much not miss her Brutti ma Buoni, almond paste or divine pistachio treats. You can see Erice in a half day, but if you have the time, walking the cobblestone streets and exploring slowly is my recommendation for all town visits.
Segesta rises from the landscape seemingly from nowhere. This was an ancient Elymian settlement and the ruins of the temple and the amphitheater are well preserved, making this site one of Sicily’s most visited.
A guide is useful to explain this particular ancient history. There is a bus every thirty minutes that can shuttle you to the higher ground on which the amphitheater sits, overlooking the rolling hills, or you can walk, although it is a steep climb that will take time. Half a day should be enough time here, and you can move along towards Palermo.
Perhaps one of Sicily’s top must see sites is Monreale Cathedral. It is simply spectacular and renowned for its beauty but also because it remains a symbol of a time when multiculturalism was at its height.
Begun in 1174 by William the Good, it exemplifies the best of the Arab/Norman heritage. It is an imposing Norman structure, covered in miles of brilliant Byzantine mosaics and colorful stonework with distinctly Arab motifs. It has decorated wooden ceilings, again displaying intricate Arab craftmanship.
On the side walls are gilded saints and Biblical stories while the glittering iconic Christ Pantocrator looks out towards devout worshipers. You can visit the cloister, a separate entrance, that is surrounded by unique columns and more mosaics, radiant in the sun. Another treat is climbing up to the walkway that surrounds the cloister for an aerial view of the cloister and surroundings.
Monreale is best seen with a guide to understand and not miss the layered meanings of its stunning contents. If you are hungry after being wowed, head to the wonderful Pavone for a very nice lunch with wine, but pizza in the Cathedral piazza is quite good, too.
Palermo is Sicily’s capital, the largest city with roughly one million inhabitants. It has UNESCO designation for its Arab/Norman heritage, but even beyond this important history, Palermo has so much to offer, a subject I address in the Untold Italy podcast episode 36: Palermo, Not what You Expect!
It is advisable to give yourself at least 2-3 days in Palermo to experience its variety: fabulous markets, famous for their chaos, colors, and cacophony; the historic sites, including the Palazzo Royale and its Cappella Palatina the extraordinary private chapel of King Roger II (with more incredible mosaics); Palermo Cathedral that houses the remains of Palermo’s patron saint, Rosalia, medieval tombs and a rooftop experience; the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third largest opera house (tours are offered); the excellent Archeological Museum Salinas with its unique lay out in an historic convent; the large circular Pretoria Fountain with its particular history; the Galleria Arte Moderne, GAM; the ornately decorated Oratorios decorated in stucco relief by the artist Serpotta, and the charming traditional puppet shows, the most well-known and central of these being L’Opera di Pupi Cuticchio.
There is a wonderful Orto Botanico as well as 16th-18th century Spanish palazzi all around the city, some of which you can visit by appointment. Stanze al Genio, a private collection dedicated to the important history of ceramic tiles in Southern Italy is well worth the guided tour.
These are highlights of what Palermo can offer to fill your days, but Palermo’s nightlife is busy, too. In Palermo’s old Vucciria Market, there is a party of street food and music. On pedestrian only Via Maqueda you can hear street musicians and eat arancini. The Piazza Verdi which fronts the Teatro Massimo is always alive with buskers and tourists. Palermo is a wonderful city, at one time Europe’s most important city, and it is a mistake to overlook it.
Cefalù sits on the Tyrrhenian seacoast, a small but very charming town built around its main Cathedral whose sturdy Norman spires dominate the landscape. It’s an iconic image of an unusual setting with sandy beach at its front and the Madonie Mountains at its back. To the side of the Cathedral is La Rocca – a rocky promontory whose top can be reached on a path that leaves the center of town and after a moderate hike gifts you with stunning views of the sea, the town and the mountains.
Cefalù has a good tourist population but it seems far less international than Taormina. In the evenings the narrow streets are full of locals taking the passeggiata or sitting in the Piazza Duomo for an espresso or gelato. There are eateries aplenty here and if you go to the edge of the town on Via Bordonaro, you can sit on one of their terraces on the water and listen to the water gently lapping as you devour a great pizza and local red wine.
Don’t miss the Duomo itself, filled with more amazing and well-preserved Byzantine mosaics in the Arab/Norman style. The small Mandralisca Museum is a gem of a collection and contains the famous ‘Portrait of an Unknown Man’ by Antonella da Messina. If you are looking for down time with a few things to do, for a base from which to do relaxed day trips, consider staying in Cefalù for a couple of nights.
Which places will you visit in Sicily?
The message for visitors is clear: do not miss feasting on the variety of what Sicily has to offer, on your plate, in a glass, and with your eyes. The history is layered, the contrasts are great, the landscape is stunning and the overall experience otherworldly. And this list is but a sampling, for in every town large and small, there are untold stories to uncover.
Delve deeper into the places to see in Sicily
Recommended reading to inspire your Sicilian adventures!
- Seeking Sicily and Sicilian Splendors by John Keahey;
- The Peoples of Sicily by Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio
- The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
- The Wine Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia
You’ll find more books and inspiration for your trip to Sicily at La RosaWorks.