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There are so many things to do in Sicily it can be challenging to plan your itinerary. But worry not; this guide will give you all the inspiration and advice you need as you embark on your epic journey to the wondrous landscape of Southern Italy.
With layers of history and a diverse culture thanks to centuries of conquest, this Italian gem is as unique as its geography. Uncover the influence of Greek, Roman, Arab, and Spanish legacies and the UNESCO World Heritage sites dotted around this beautiful island.
You’ll see these influences in the architecture, from the Baroque facades in Palermo to the black ash buildings in Catania. The sights impress – as will the street food offerings (try the Arancini and Cannoli). One of the most prominent signs you’re in Sicilia is the view of Mount Etna, which is always emitting plumes of smoke.
Fascinating Towns and Cities
When planning a trip to Sicily, there are numerous villages and larger areas to explore. Each area on this Italian island is captivating in its own right. So, let’s get into these wonderful places you must see when you visit Sicily.
Located northwest of Sicily, Palermo is the island’s vibrant capital, known for its history, architecture, culture, and gastronomy. A guided walking tour is a great way to immerse yourself in this city, especially if you’re a first-time visitor.
Most travelers will know of popular attractions such as the Baroque square of Quattro Canti, the center of the historic quarters of Palermo. Quattro Canti, also known as Piazza Vigliena, sits between the streets of the Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
There you will see its octagonal shape defined by four Baroque buildings that each represent one of the city’s historic quarters. The architecture includes elaborate facades all with different themes relating to aspects of Palermo’s history.
Another must-see attraction is Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy, renowned for its perfect acoustics. If you can’t watch a performance, you can still take a guided opera house tour to see the inside of the Teatro.
And last but not least, don’t miss the street markets like Capo and Ballaro, where you can buy fresh produce and seafood.
On the east coast of Sicily, at the foot of Mt Etna, lies the city of Catania. Here, you’ll find a blend of historical treasures, lively culture, and awe-inspiring views.
Spend time exploring the city’s historic landmarks like the Fountain of the Elephant, Villa Bellini (a park and garden), and Castello Ursino. Then browse through the historic La Pescheria Fish Market. Finally, take in the encompassing views of Mount Etna, Italy’s most active volcano, with an Etna hiking experience.
Messina is a harbor city in the northeast of Sicily. It’s closest to mainland Italy but is separated by the Strait of Messina. This historic city is known for its landmarks and vibrant culture that has been influenced by a variety of civilizations, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Normans.
Notable attractions here include the Messina Cathedral, which is known for its impressive bell tower and astronomical clock. Other famous landmarks to see are the Fountain of Neptune and Messina’s port, which features the golden Madonnina guarding the city.
Taormina is one of the best places to visit in Sicily for many reasons. Nestled on a hilltop near Etna, this town is one of the most expensive and popular destinations on the island. Thanks to its location, the town offers panoramic views of the entire island and the Ionian Sea.
Taormina is also close to notable sites like the small Greek-Roman theater Odeon located behind Palazzo Corvaja on the main street of Corso Umberto. This theater was built in the second century during the reign of Emperor Ceasar Augustus Octavian. Though similar to the large Greek-Roman theater known as the Ancient Theater of Taormina, these ruins are a hidden gem still used for small events like Christmas nativity scenes.
Palazzo Corvaja is a medieval palace with Norman, Arab, and Gothic architectural influences. Be sure to visit Corso Umberto for these sites and to enjoy the boutiques, restaurants, and historic buildings, perfect for a tranquil stroll through town.
Located on the west coast of the island, Marsala has gorgeous landscapes filled with historical significance. The salt flats, used for salt production for centuries, are also a large part of the town’s cultural heritage.
Obviously, Marsala is also famous for the production of Marsala wine. The town’s wineries offer tours and tastings, allowing visitors to learn about the wine-making process. You can easily find a guided wine-tasting tour at almost any local winery.
Aside from its wine, Marsala is also known for the freshest seafood, which you can enjoy in its charming harbor and dine at the waterfront.
Siracusa, or Syracuse, is situated on the Ionian coast. This was once one of the most powerful and influential ancient Greek cities, which contributed to art, philosophy, and architecture.
When you’re not busy delving into the city’s archaeological park, you can enjoy the stunning Baroque architecture of the Cathedral of Siracusa. After sightseeing, take in the beauty of Ortygia’s waterfront and savor the traditional seafood dishes of the region.
Food and Wine
On your trip to Sicily, sampling the authentic food and wine on offer is a must. With the tantalizing cultural mix of Middle Eastern, Italian, and Spanish cuisine, the local food scene is an adventure.
Traditional Sicilian dishes are a must-try no matter which region you visit on your trip. Some of the most popular dishes served on the island include:
- Arancini — A type of street food made from balls of risotto that are stuffed, breaded, and fried. The filling typically consists of ragu, mozzarella, peas, sauteed mushrooms, and sometimes a combination of these ingredients.
- Pasta Alla Norma — Pasta Alla Norma is a classic pasta dish made with penne or rigatoni, tomato sauce, roasted or fried eggplant, cheese, and fresh herbs. The sauce is often made with ripe tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil.
- Caponata — Caponata is a Sicilian relish or stew with eggplant as its main ingredient. The dish also features a medley of vegetables, capers, olives, and a vinegary sweet sauce. It can be served hot or cold and can include pine nuts and raisins.
- Couscous — Sicilian couscous represents the island’s cultural fusion with elements of Italian, Arab, and North African culinary influences. The dish uses couscous, served with seafood or meat simmered in herbs and spices in an aromatic tomato sauce.
Besides the savory staples on offer, Sicilian sweets are always a treat. Here are three options you need to try when you visit Sicily.
- Granita — Sicily’s favorite semi-frozen dessert, Granita is made with simple ingredients such as water, sugar, and various flavors. This dessert is most popular in the hot summer months, and the most popular flavors are lemon and almond.
- Cannoli — Cannoli is pastry dough, fried in a tube shape and filled with sweet and creamy ricotta that can include chocolate chips or dried fruit. These are commonly topped with either pistachios, chocolate shavings, candied fruit, or powdered sugar.
- Cassata — Cassata is a traditional dessert that is both visually appealing and delicious. Elaborately designed and rich in both texture and flavor, the Cassata is constructed in layers. A sponge cake base is soaked in fruit liqueur or Marsala wine, which keeps it moist. It’s then filled with a creamy ricotta filling and covered with a layer of marzipan or fondant, making it smooth and sweet.
Sampling wine cultivated on the island is a treat. Sicilian wine varieties found in the fertile soil near Mt Etna are exceptional and go with almost any occasion.
- Nero D’Avola — Nero D’avola is a renowned red grape variety indigenous to Sicily. This wine has robust character and complexity thanks to the island’s warmth. Notes of plum, black cherry, spice, and tobacco are found the most in the wine’s flavor profile.
- Marsala — Marsala wine originates from its namesake town. This fortified wine is known for its complex flavor profile, which makes it suitable for both cooking and drinking.
Ancient Ruins, History, and Architecture
Those who love history and architecture will find delight in Sicily. With seven UNESCO World Heritage sites dotted around the island, there are fascinating sights wherever you look.
The influence of Ancient Greece is evident in the following historical landmarks.
- Valley of the Temples — The Valley of the Temples is an extraordinary archaeological site located near Agrigento on the south coast of the island. This UNESCO World Heritage site has some of the most famous and best-preserved Greek temples. Visit the Valley of the Temples to see seven Greek temples, all over 2,000 years old, as well as the Archaeological Museum, where you can see artifacts from the site.
- Siracusa Archaeological Sites — The collection of archaeological sites and ancient ruins within Siracusa includes the Archaeological Park of Neapolis. This park contains the 15,000-seat capacity Greek Theater, a smaller Roman Amphitheater, and the Ear of Dionysius (a limestone cave).
- Taormina’s Greek Theatre — Arguably one of Taormina’s most famous landmarks, this well-preserved ancient Greek theater dates back to the 3rd century. It’s still used for concerts, performances, and events today.
- Selinunte — This archaeological site on the southwest coast of Sicily is renowned for its ruins of Greek temples and other structures. Within the Acropolis of Selinunte lies the Temple of Hera and the Temple of Zeus. You can roam this archaeological park with or without a guide.
Villa Romana del Casale is a marvel of the Roman Empire, located near the town of Piazza Armerina. This amphitheater is home to the largest and most varied collection of mosaics in the world.
The villa contains artworks dated up to as early as the 4th century. The extensive collection displays exquisitely intricate scenes of ancient Roman life, culture, and artistic craftsmanship.
Located in the small town of Monreale, just outside of Palermo, the Monreale Cathedral is a magnificent example of Norman architecture. The landmark is decorated with intricate Byzantine mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible. With Romanesque, Islamic, and Norman influences, this eclectic mix of culture is evident from the Cathedral’s muqarnas to its naves and cloisters.
The Palermo Cathedral and Palatine Chapel are two exquisite examples of Arab-Norman architecture.
The Palatine Chapel is an early medieval building originally constructed around 792 AD and became the final resting place of Charlemagne. The interior reflects the multicultural character of medieval Sicily with its Byzantine mosaics, muqarnas ceilings, and depictions of Christ.
The Palermo Cathedral reflects diverse cultural influences. The architectural blend of Norman, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical styles makes it a unique and iconic landmark. While visiting this centuries-old monument, book a guided tour of the landmark and its surroundings.
Val di Noto, located in south-east Sicily, is a stunning example of late Baroque architecture. The towns of Noto, Ragusa, and Catania make up part of this historic area and are a sight to behold.
This Sicilian Baroque style can be seen mainly in the many churches in these areas, like Saint Agatha’s Cathedral, Cathedral of San Giorgio, and Noto Cathedral. Other hints of this style feature in the palaces of Palazzo Zacco, Palazzo Biscari, and Palazzo Ducezio.
Discovering Sicily’s natural beauty for the first time is always mesmerizing, from the flair of Mount Etna and its surroundings to a day trip to the nearby Aeolian islands via a boat trip.
Mount Etna is a fantastic highlight of Sicily’s natural beauty. Found on the east coast, this is the highest Mediterranean island mountain and one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is almost constantly erupting, so be sure to talk to a local guide about appropriate times to visit. Take a cable car up the mountain before hiking to the summit, which is the most popular way to take in the sights of the surrounding area.
Beautiful Beaches and the Coast
Exploring Sicily’s shoreline should be on every Italy itinerary. Venture out to the gorgeous Isola Bella, take a boat trip, or merely spend time on one of many of the small beaches on offer.
The following is a list of all the best coastal areas in Sicily.
Located near the town of Taormina on the northeast coast of Sicily, Isola Bella literally translates to “beautiful island”. Known for its natural beauty, lush gardens, and clear waters, it’s a popular destination for tourists seeking a relaxing experience.
Cefalù is a charming coastal city that offers a blend of historic sites, sandy beaches, and a peaceful island culture. You’ll find the best beaches for swimming and sunbathing here.
San Vito Lo Capo
San Vito Lo Capo boasts pristine sandy beaches, dreamy landscapes, and blue waters. You will enjoy the tranquil atmosphere of the town, where watersports, swimming, and sunbathing are daily essentials. When you’re not soaking up the sun, head to Zingaro Nature Reserve adjacent to the town. With diverse flora and fauna, it’s the perfect place for a relaxing nature walk.
Mondello is a small seaside district renowned for Mondello Beach, home to soft sands, turquoise waters, and Monte Pellegrino Mountains as the backdrop. The crescent-shaped beach is lined with shops and eateries and a beachfront promenade.
Castellammare del Golfo
Nestled between the Gulf of Castellammare and surrounding hills, Castellammare del Golfo is known for its scenic harbor, beaches, and seafood.
Sicily’s surrounding islands offer a little more to your Italian adventure.
The Aeolian Islands are another UNESCO World Heritage site with seven main islands, each with its own distinct character. I suggest planning an island-hopping excursion to get the most out of this archipelago, starting with Lipari, the most populated island known for its obsidian reserves and home to Lipari Town. The Lipari Archaeological Museum displays obsidian tools from the Neolithic era.
The other islands, Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Panarea, Alicudi, and Filicudi, offer a range of activities. Vulcano is known for its mud baths and Gran Cratere, a dormant volcano you can hike. While Panarea is full of upscale yachting resorts and vibrant nightlife.
Salina is known for its wine production and Pollara Beach. Stromboli has the most active volcano in the world (it never stops erupting), and Filicudi and Alicudi are the most remote and simple of the islands, with not much to see.
Aegadian Islands/Egadi Islands
This archipelago of mountainous islands lies near the city of Trapani. These are the three main islands, Levanzo, Favignana, and Marettimo. With Favignana being the largest and most visited. There you can see Cala Rossa and Cala Azzurra beaches, the island’s limestone cliffs, and Tonnara di Favignana, the historic tuna processing factory.
Levanzo is the smallest of the Egadi islands and is known for Cala Minnola, an underwater archaeological site, and Grotto del Genovese, a cave with prehistoric rock art and carvings.
Finally, Marettimo is the least developed, offering a more off-the-beaten-path experience for hikers, divers, and nature enthusiasts.
The Madonie Mountains are a picturesque mountain range in northern Sicily. They make up part of the Apennines, like the Nebrodi and Peloritani Mountains. Madonie’s main mountain, the Carbonara Massif, has an elevation of 979m above sea level. Beyond the major mountain range, you can reach Polizzi Generosa, a nearby village from Cefalú, and use it as your base to see the rest of the area.
A highlight of the area is the Madonie National Park, a nature reserve full of biodiversity. Take a look at numerous bird species and flora as you hike or walk through this protected place.
There are some fantastic things to do in Sicily that highlight its regional culture. Delve into some of the island’s integral cultural elements and find the hidden gems of Sicily’s feasts and festivals and the inspiring creativity of the locals.
Festivals and Feast Days
There are a few cultural festivals and traditional feast days you must see in Sicily to understand this wonderful place. The following events are some of the island’s biggest local celebrations.
Carnevale di Acireale
The Carnevale di Acireale is an important part of Sicilian history and a Sicily must-see. This is one of the oldest and most famous events held on the island.
Dating back as early as the 16th century, this cherished annual tradition celebrates community spirit and the region’s history. Every year Sicilians create floats made of fresh and paper flowers that form part of an elaborate parade that is the highlight of the festival.
Throughout the carnival, the streets of Acireale come alive with street performers, live music, and entertainment. The joyful atmosphere is furthered by the local street food, sweets, and wine available to attendees.
You’ll find the festival happens in the town of Acireale between February 4th and February 21st every year. You can stay in Catania and take a 10-minute train ride to the town. Pay a 5 Euro entry fee per day, and you’re all set to enjoy the festivities of the town.
Festival of Saint Agatha
The festival of Saint Agatha is one of the most important religious celebrations in Catania. It honors the city’s patron saint and is celebrated with deep religious devotion, grand processions, and various cultural events.
There is a candlelight vigil where thousands of people gather at the Cathedral of Saint Agatha, often wearing traditional attire, and they pray at mass.
The festival takes place annually from the 3rd to the 5th of February. Visitors can participate in these festivities, but you must remain respectful of these ceremonies as you partake in them.
Easter in Sicily
Easter in Sicily happens either in March or April, depending on when the first Sunday after the spring equinox full moon occurs. This holy event includes various celebrations which occur during what is known as the “Holy Week”.
Religious services, rites, processions, and feasts are among the usual happenings during Easter. You’ll find that each region of Sicily has something different going on.
Feasts of delicacies like roasted lamb, seasonal vegetables, Cuddura (sweet bread with colored eggs), and Cassata are made and enjoyed together. People commune together during this time, fostering community spirit and celebrating the coming of springtime.
The art of puppetry in Sicily dates back to the 19th century. This unique form of theater combines the craftsmanship of marionette puppets and creative storytelling to entertain Sicilian locals.
Sicilian theater performances had a recurring story of the clash between the paladins of Charlemagne and Muslim warriors occupying the Iberian Peninsula. You’ll find puppet-making to be popular in Palermo and Catania with shops like Casa Del Carrettino and Marionettistica Fratelli Napoli, where you can visit the workshop and even buy your own puppet.
Fans of folklore will love The Legend of the Moor story — one of passion, mythology, and Sicily’s well-known history of conquest.
The story is about a love affair between a Saracen and a local Sicilian woman. However, upon the discovery that her Saracen was married and had a family, she cut off his head out of jealousy and kept it as a pot for her basil plant. The townspeople saw how lush this woman’s basil plant was and crafted ceramics of heads in an attempt to emulate her.
The art of ceramic making isn’t limited to Moors’ head ceramics. Today, most people visiting Sicily go to Caltagirone, Santo Stefano di Camastra, Burgio, and Sciacca for all types of pottery, including plates, vases, bowls, and cups.
What to do in Sicily, Italy – Wrapped Up
With all the things to do in Sicily, you are bound to have a wonderful time. Go as a foodie, a history buff, a nature lover, or just to enjoy the ambiance of island life, Sicily welcomes everyone.
Why not learn a few basic Italian phrases before you go to help you communicate with the locals and learn more about the destination?