READ: Our guide to the Best things to do in Palermo.
An explosion of color, aromas, smatterings of dialect, and the constant presence of a smouldering Mt Etna – Sicily is a serious sensory overload in the best possible way as you’ll discover in our travel guide to Sicily.
This beautiful Italian island has multiple faces waiting to be discovered. With not one but two active volcanoes, striking rocky and sandy beaches, expansive national parks, cosmopolitan cities, peaceful mountain towns, sun-drenched islands off the coast, and a food culture perhaps stronger than anywhere else in Italy, travel in Sicily is like nowhere else.
Whilst unfortunately guides sometimes focus on the region’s largely historic and infamous organized crime, today Sicily is a very safe and exciting place to travel. The island’s culture, food and architecture are fascinating thanks to the influence of Greek, Roman, Arabic, Norman, and Spanish invaders and settlers throughout the region’s history who all left their mark. And this is what makes Sicily one of our favorite places to visit in Italy.
Read on to learn what to expect when you visit Sicily.
Where is Sicily
Sicily is one of two main Italian island regions in the very south tip of Italy’s boot. Located in the Mediterranean Sea, the region is closest to Calabria and in fact is connected via a train that is transported via a ferry across the Strait of Messina.
Sicily is south from Rome and Naples and easily reached from these cities in just over an hour by plane.If you’re flying from Milan, Florence, and Venice the region is reached within around 90 minutes.
Map of Sicily
Main cities and towns in Sicily
Whilst Sicily might appear small on the map, it’s actually the largest island in the Mediterranean and biggest region of Italy by area. There are so many diverse cities and towns to discover which means you probably need to stay longer than you think here or else it’s best to stick to a specific area of the island to explore. Here are some of our favourite towns to explore when visiting Sicily.
- Palermo: The capital of Sicily (pictured above) is loud, vibrant, gritty, and full of energy. Visitors to the city should not miss the Norman Palace and Byzantine golden mosaics in the chapel, St. John of the Hermits for a mix of Arabic-Norman style, Palermo Cathedral, the Quattro Canti crossroad and fabulous Ballaro food market.
- Monreale: Just 40 minutes from Palermo is the UNESCO heritage listed Monreale Cathedral. This incredible structure is Norman-Byzantine in style and full of shimmering gold mosaics that will take your breath away.
- Trapani: Known as the city of salt, this pretty coastal town lies at the foot of Monte Erice. Walk through the old town where you’ll find gorgeous fountains, historical city gates, the fish market and marvellous churches.
- Egadi Islands: Get onto serious island time over at this archipelago of mountainous islands including Favignana, Levanzo, and Marettimo. Easy to reach from Trapani and well off the beaten track, you’ll have the chance to swim in crystal waters and enjoy the freshest of seafood.
- Agrigento: Famous for the Valley of the Temples, a trip to Agrigento is truly breathtaking. Wander through some of the best-preserved Ancient Greek ruins in the world that stand on top of a ridge (ironically not a valley) overlooking the surrounding countryside.
- Piazza Armerina: History buffs will delight in an adventure to the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina. It is an exquisite Ancient Roman villa with beautifully preserved mosaics.
- Cefalù: While away a few relaxing days at this tiny sandy beachside town in the north – one of the locations for The White Lotus 2 series. Wander the Medieval streets, explore the Norman cathedral, and indulge at one of the many great fish restaurants.
- Catania: The main city on the Eastern side of Sicily, Catania is a port city that’s a little bit gritty but a whole lot of fun. It is full of vibrant culture and recognized as such by its status as a UNESCO heritage site. Mt Etna looms omnipresent over the town and all the buildings are uniquely black thanks to the volcanic ash used in their construction. Don’t miss the famous fish market, Ancient Roman theater, and of course a trip up the volcano!
- Messina: This interesting port city is on the northern-most point of Sicily. A trip to Messina might include exploring Ancient Greek ruins, the famous cathedral, and eating your weight in their specialty – swordfish. The city’s annual Easter procession is an amazing spectacle full of tradition.
- Taormina: One of the most popular places to visit in Sicily, exquisite Taormina is best known for its well preserved Ancient Greek theater with Mount Etna smouldering in the background. Soak up the views (the town rests high above a hill) before taking the cable car down to the beach at Isola Bella which quite literally means ‘beautiful island’.
- Ortigia (old town of Siracusa): The Baroque beauty of Sicily is surely Ortigia, an island connected to the mainland and Siracusa by a small bridge. This UNESCO landmark is also famous for its Greek heritage and has plenty of elegant piazze, grand churches, swimming spots, and delicious restaurants to visit.
- Aeolian Islands: Go island hopping off Sicily’s north coast and explore Lipari, Salina, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi, Vulcano, and Alicudi. Each island has its own personality with Lipari offering the most services. Don’t miss the magical eruption of the volcano on Stromboli every evening!
- Val di Noto: The region in the south-east of Sicily includes gorgeous Noto, Modica, and Ragusa. Known as the Baroque cities of Sicily, each are worth visiting in their own right. Modica is famous for its chocolate, and you can’t miss trying the granita at Caffe Sicilia in Noto.
Sicily Travel Guide: Top Things to Do
Sicily offers visitors of all ages and interests many great things to do. Whether you like exploring nature, relaxing at the beach, indulging your taste buds, or unleashing your inner historian, here are some of our favourite activities when traveling in Sicily:
Go island hopping in the Aeolian or Egadi islands
The perfect Mediterranean escape is to take a boat or ferry ride to the islands off Sicily. In the Aeolian, besides swimming and boat cruising, it’s possible to go scuba diving in Panarea, watch the volcano erupt nightly on Stromboli, hike in wild on Alicudi or Filicudi, or go wine tasting and caper picking in Salina. Listen to our podcast on the Aeolian Islands for more ideas. On the Egadi, the Italian way of piano piano (slowly, slowly) is an institution. Well off the beaten path, visit these isles for the ultimate escape
Visit the Baroque towns of the Val di Noto
Explore Catania, Ortigia, Noto, Ragusa, or Scicli to fulfil your wildest Baroque dreams. The towns were rebuilt in resplendent style after the devastating earthquake of 1693. Which Each of the town is full of its own personality but with distinct Baroque style.
Explore the Valley of the Temples
Step into the shoes of an archaeologist for a day at the site of the best preserved Ancient Greek ruins outside of Greece – Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples. Here you have the opportunity to see seven temples over 2000 years old surrounded by olive, almond and carob trees, ongoing digs, and a few goats. If archaeology interests you, make sure to visit the nearby Archeological Museum.
Sample local street food
Food is a religion in Sicily and some of the best is found at the markets or from street vendors. You do not want to miss trying delicious morsels like panelle, arancini, cannoli, sfincione, pane ca meusa (a roll filled with offal), pane cunzato, and so much more. Open your mind and your tastebuds will thank you. And never say no to freshly piped cannoli!
Go ceramic shopping in Caltagirone
Pick up your very own Moor’s head or beautiful ceramic tableware made from Maiolica. Caltagrione is the best place in Sicily to learn more about this ancient tin-glazed pottery art from. Here you can climb the town’s steps adorned in the art.
Visit a local winery
Sicilian wineries produce some knockout wines heroing indigenous Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, and Catarratto amongst other grape varieties. Consider making a unique winery visit on Mt Etna – there are over 250 wineries on this volcano to choose from.
You’ll always remember climbing the volcano known as the ‘mother’ of Sicily. The active volcano nourishes the land and is perhaps the reason why everything tastes so much better there. Opt for a self-guided tour from the Rifugio Sapienza, a 10 minute ride on a cable car for amazing vies, or book an experience with a private guide who can take you on off the beaten path hikes and to experience this UNESCO recognized volcano.
What to eat and drink in Sicily
The real question is what not to eat and drink as there is just so much to try when you travel to Sicily. From the abundant seafood and dishes influences by North African cuisine and of course the island’s celebrated sweet dishes, Sicily is truly a a foodie paradise.
Some of our favourite tastes of Sicily include:
- Ricotta: you haven’t tried real ricotta until you’ve eaten it in Sicily. Tanslated as ‘cooked twice’ this light fresh cheese is made from whey, left over from the first step in cheesemaking. Seek out sheep’s milk ricotta which is rich and creamy.
- Pasta alla Norma: Rigatoni pasta served with fried eggplant, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and ricotta salata (a salted, hard-aged ricotta). Although it originated in Catania, you will find this all over the island.
- Pasta with Pesto Trapanese: Unlike normal green pesto you might be thinking of, the Sicilian version is made with almonds and tomatoes, basil, and cheese and is paired with busiate – long tightly curled pasta.
- Pasta con le sarde: A delicious dish with Arabic origins – the sauce is made with sardines, wild fennel, and pine nuts.
- Caponata: This sweet and sour side dish is made with fried eggplant and then depending on where you are – celery, capers, carrots, tomato, pine nuts, sometimes raisins, olives, almonds, even pear.
- Arancini: Sicilian stuffed rice balls traditionally filled with a meat ragu. They are sealed and then coated with a batter before being deep fried and are a delicious street food snack
- Nero d’Avola wine: Try the most classic Sicilian red wine – Nero d’Avola. It’s full-bodied with notes of black cherry, prune, black plum, and licorice. You’ll notice the flavor and character of the wine changes depending on the region it is produced.
- Cannoli: Sicily is world famous for its desserts and cannoli is the most famous of all of all! They are fried pastry shells filled with creamy fresh ricotta and sugar and traditionally a piece of candied orange or lemon peel at the edges or sometimes pistachios.
- Granita with brioche:When in Sicily, breakfast as the Sicilians do! Granita is the traditional semi-frozen dessert made with sugar, water, and flavourings. The most classic flavour is creamy almond. Try it stuffed in a brioche bun for the ultimate Siciliano breakfast.
Where to stay in Sicily
When it comes to accommodation in Sicily, there are a great range of classic hotels and apartments, as well as farmhouse agriturismi stays or the more traditional baglio (walled country estate) available.
For a trip that focuses on seeing central and northern Sicily, Palermo makes for the most logical base thanks to its international airport and well-connect railway station. There are diverse accommodation options, including five star Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes which boasts a wonderful rooftop bar to charming boutique properties like B&B Sant’Agostino.
For a Western itinerary, we suggest Trapani as a great base to explore Marsala, and day trip to the Egadi Islands. Whilst there are certainly not as many accommodation options as Palermo, there are still a good range available. Try Residence La Gancia by the sea.
If your trip to Sicily includes perusing the East Coast, Noto is a great base. It’s well positioned to reach Ortigia, Ragusa, and Modica in under an hour and has a good mix of accommodation choices based in town or in the pretty countryside. There are also some fantastic restaurants and bars in town. Gagliardi Boutique Hotel is right in the heart of town.
Catania, at the foot of Mount Etna, also makes for an ideal base. This ancient port city has something for everyone, whether a relaxing beach stay in the nearby seaside village of Aci Castello or within walking distance of the city’s Centro Storico.
Of course, Taormina is the most popular resort town on the island. Here you’ll find luxurious five-star hotels like San Domenico Palace and charming boutique properties like Villa Fiorita Boutique Hotel.
When to go to Sicily
The best time to visit Sicily is in the shoulder months of Fall or Spring. The weather is pleasant and there are genuinely fewer crowds from March to June. Easter in particular is a fabulous time to visit for unique festivals and great food. There is the Almond Blossom Festival in March, Byzantine Easter festivals in Palermo, the Procession of the Mysteries in Trapani on Good Friday, and the flower festival in Noto in May.
The Fall is another wonderful time for a trip to Sicily as the wine and oil harvest is in full swing and temperatures reach a pleasant 56-69˚F (14-21˚C). The best festivals during this time include the Salina Film festival, Pistacchio festival in Bronte, and Zafferana festival on Mt Etna.
Unless you like extreme heat, the summertime is best avoided. August especially is sweltering hot and very busy as this is traditionally when Italians and Europeans go on vacation. Temperatures frequently get to 104°F (40°C) which can make sightseeing a little unpleasant. There are however fabulous festivals held during this time like the film festival in Taormina, the feast of Santa Rosalia in Palermo, a street food festival in Trapani, the Norman Palio in Enna, and many more.
The off-season runs from November until February, however, winter temperatures in Sicily are quite mild – around 50˚F (10˚C). If you’re traveling to the region during the wintertime, look out for the chocolate festival in Modica, and the incredible Festival of Sant’Agata in Catania in February.
How to get to Sicily
The easiest way to get to Sicily is to fly into one of the two main international airports: Palermo Airport or Catania Airport. From the airport at Catania there is an organized bus shuttle that goes into the city center or main train station, whilst there are two direct trains every hour from Palermo airport into the city center where you can then continue your journey into the region.
If you prefer to arrive on your own wheels, it’s possible to arrive via the car ferry from Reggio Calabria to Messina in just 25 minutes. If traveling from Rome, the drive to Reggio Calabria is around seven hours via the A1/E45 and A2. From Milan it’s about 13 hours drive to Reggio Calabria along the A1/A2, just under 12 hours from Venice, just over nine hours from Florence; or five hours from Naples on the A2 Alternatively, you can take the ferry train from Villa San Giovanni in Calabria to Messina in under half an hour too.
How to get around Sicily
Whilst there are trains and buses on the island, public transport in Sicily tends to be very slow due to old tracks and infrastructure. There is a direct train from Palermo to Catania and another to Cefalu as well as a direct train from Catania to Taormina. Monreale is also reachable from Palermo with bus number #389.
For most other travel between towns in Sicily there are no direct routes and you may need to take a mix of different public transport options to get you to your destination – all eating away your precious vacation time. For the sake of speed and convenience, it is best to rent a car in Sicily. Make sure you read our guide to renting a car in Italy first. It’s full of useful tips for getting the best deals and understanding the local road rules. We recommend picking up a hire car from the Palermo or Catania airports through AutoEurope.
Let’s go to Sicily!
If you liked our travel guide Sicily and are looking for more information, listen to our podcast on Palermo excursions and why Palermo is worth visiting, as well as read our blog on getting off the beaten track in Sicily and delicious Sicilian desserts.
Want a deep local immersion into Sicilian culture, history and cuisine? Join one of our small group tours departing from Catania or Palermo in the Spring or Fall.