Unforgettable cuisine. World-class wine from ageless, heirloom vines. Tangible links to centuries of history. Sicily’s warmth, from its temperate climate and its friendly residents, bids welcome to its guests. Long a destination for winter-weary mainland Europeans, most insiders will tell you that the 9,927 square miles that are the Italian island of Sicily takes a lifetime to explore and fully appreciate. Here is a look at four of Sicily’s largest cities, and their adjacent can’t miss destinations.
Rome’s famous ruins barely hold a candle to Syracuse’s well-preserved ancient architecture. Socratic plays and battling gladiators once drew crowds of 15,000 to the Greek Theatre at Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, which dates back to 470 BC.
Architecture enthusiasts can’t miss the famous Santa Maria delle Colonne, a cathedral built in the seventh century upon and amid the ruins of an Athenian temple. “Colonne” refers to the Doric columns of the temple, still evident among the otherwise Baroque stylings.
A peek into the Ear of Dionysius at the famous stone quarries on Syracuse’s northwestern edge is a must for those interested in Mediterranean stonework, and at the southeastern end of the city, jutting onto a peninsula, the Temple of Apollo is best visited bathed in early morning sunlight, or at night, when it is beautifully lit.
Syracuse offers luxurious seaside lodging, world-class dining establishments and high caliber merchant districts for those who appreciate a contemporary base of operations while exploring the mysteries of the ages.
Trapani and the Egadi Islands
Sicily’s other main western city is the fishing town of Trapani, which spreads out over the sea on a low-lying peninsula. Trapani is a gateway to the Egadi islands of Favignana, Levanzo, and Marettimo, wildly popular among divers and boaters for its crystal clear water. The islands themselves offer hiking, relaxation and on Levanzo, the Grotta del Genovese. Here, Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings depict daily life on the islands. The most famous of these is the “Grotta del Genovese” on Levanzo.
Swordfish and tuna are the culinary picks on the Egadi islands, and most travelers select cured tuna roe as delicious souvenirs and gifts.
Trapani is known for its Easter celebrations and jaw-dropping cathedrals, and regional attractions such as Mount Erice and the winemaker’s town of Marsala.
Visit Palermo’s Cappella Palatina for soaring frescos and highly detailed mosaics and marble inlays, inset precious stones and intricate, Islam-inspired woodwork designed by King of Sicily Roger II in 1130. Spend a day wandering the narrow lanes amid historical hillside neighborhoods while sampling delectable dishes from food vendors, or indulge in nine-course meals at any number of Palermo’s exquisite fine restaurants. Either way, you’ll want to save room for a cannoli or three.
A trip to Palermo isn’t complete without a visit to Palace of the Normans high atop the city, with its expansive white stone courtyards, mysterious treasure rooms and the same multi-ethnic influences added to the original castle by Roger II who, after returning from the Crusades and unifying the Normans, kept his conversion to Islam secret.
Opera lovers won’t want to miss a quick trip to Museo Civico Belliniano, home of composer Vincenzo Bellini. Now a small showcasing many of his instruments, handwritten compositions, personal mementos and even his original coffin, the apartment-sized home is also a look into how Catanians lived in the 1800s. The most impressive homage to Bellini, of course, is attending a performance at the opera house named after him: The Teatro Massimo Bellini.
If you are a seafood lover or just want to experience authentic Sicilian life, we highly recommend a visit to the vibrant Sicilian street markets. We particularly recommend checking out Pescheria market, which is still the place to buy your fish in the city.
The tallest active volcano in Europe, Mt. Etna dominates Catania’s skyline. With its most recent eruption having occurred as late as March 2017, Mt. Etna attracts a steady stream vulcanologists and geologists from around the world. Those who brave its fertile slopes enjoy hiking, cave exploration, snow skiing or a scenic trip on the narrow-gauge Round-Etna railway.
In between these four cities, whether inland or along the island’s coast, you’ll find hundreds of villages of varying size and character, surrounded by small farms, vineyards and olive groves. Select a cozy bed and breakfast, or rent a sprawling villa for your base of operations as you wander Sicily, but whatever you do, set aside plenty of time.