Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean and we like to think of it as a floating continent due to its geographical diversity. This is where you can find sandy and pebbly beaches as well as black lava and white chalky cliffs overlooking the sea. There is a fertile volcanic plain below thundering Mount Etna and a golden valley covered with citrus groves around Palermo. Tall mountains are covered with a sprinkling of snow during the winter while hills and low mountains are the norm inland. Fields of wheat and vineyards go on forever on some of these hills, while Mt. Etna's rich soil produces some of the best wine in the world.
This diversity is mirrored in the physical features of the people who live here and in the local language, but you can also find it in the food we prepare, in our architecture and in our traditions. The island has been conquered by peoples arriving not only from the entire Mediterranean area, but also from northern Europe, so it is not uncommon to meet Sicilians with a fair complexion, blue or green eyes, red or blond hair born into a family with darker Berber, Greek or Sicanian features. Here you will find the true epitome of a human melting pot.
Sicily’s unique history is visible today in the art history and layout of its towns and sites, some of which are listed below.
PALERMO MONREALE SEGESTA ERICE MARSALA MOTHIA AND THE SALT FLATS AEGADIAN ISLANDS GIBELLINA AND POGGIOREALE CEFALU' CORLEONE MADONIAN MOUNTAINS NEBRODIAN MOUNTAINS SICANIAN MOUNTAINS AGRIGENTO PANTELLERIA ISLAND TAORMINA MESSINA MOUNT ETNA CATANIA SIRACUSA RAGUSA MODICA NOTO PIAZZA ARMERINA AEOLIAN ISLANDS
The capital of Sicily and its biggest city, Palermo was founded by the Phoenicians almost three millennia ago. Its seaport calling is still strong and it has one of the largest ports and shipyards in Italy, while the city is surrounded by mountains above a fertile valley. During the Middle Ages Palermo became a multicultural city first under the Muslims and later under the Normans, and this ethnic and religious mix is still visible today in the city’s architecture, street markets, language and food. At first glance its colors, voices, flavors, monuments, peoples and traffic can overwhelm you, but with the right guide you cannot help but to fall in love with Palermo. This city offers something for everyone, so we insist that you should spend at least a couple of days in order to visit the capital’s souk-like street markets, medieval and Baroque churches and palaces, museums, theaters, fountains, squares, gardens, seaside front and more.
Founded during the twelfth century by the Norman king William II on top of a hill overlooking Palermo, Monreale is famous for its Cathedral and Benedictine Abbey and Cloister. The Byzantine and Arab style mosaics inside the Norman Cathedral cover an area of over 6000 sq m (over 65000 sq ft) and they are among the most important ones in the world. You don’t want to miss the golden and colorful larger-than-life size Bible stories on the mosaic studded walls of this medieval masterpiece, together with the Islamic-style geometric mosaic designs. This combination takes you back to the multicultural mix of Sicily’s medieval golden age of tolerance.
If you really want to see one of the best preserved Greek-style temples in the world, Segesta is the site to visit. Although it was never completed, the main structure of this 5th century BC (BCE) Doric temple is still standing and you can get up close to see it on top of a hill surrounded by vineyards, trees and wild flowers most of the year. The archeological site also includes a classical theatre on a separate hill where digs are slowly bringing to light an entire city that belonged to the Hellenized Elymian people of Sicily.
The Elymians had a number of towns in Western Sicily including hilltop Erice usually surrounded by clouds and overlooking the sea and plain below. This was the city sacred to Venus during classical times and a temple dedicated to the goddess of love once stood at the site of the Norman Castle. The winding streets today date back to the Middle Ages and the fragrance of freshly baked almond cookies and local fish couscous is usually in the air. Small local boutiques add to the beauty of Erice with their colorful ceramics, coral jewelry, geometric patterned rugs and of course delicious almond pastries.
Marsala, Mothia and the Salt Flats
Marsala and its surroundings is one of the most scenic areas in Sicily thanks to the salt flats along the entire coastline. Here sea salt has been harvested for centuries and wind mills still stand like sentinels along the flats that host an incredible flora and fauna including migratory birds such as flamingos. Mothia island is one of the most important and best preserved Phoenician archeological sites of the Mediterranean and you can reach it thanks to a ferry from one of these salt flats. A visit to Marsala and its lively city center cannot be complete without a stop at one of the local wineries that ship this renown fortified wine all over the world. We also suggest a stop at Marsala’s archeological museum where you can see a number of sea treasures including parts of Carthaginian ships that sunk during the Battle of the Aegates in 241 BC (BCE).
The sea between these islands and the mainland was the setting of the famous Battle of the Aegates (in Latin) between the Romans and the Carthaginians in 241 BC (BCE). They comprise Favignana, Levanzo and Marettimo, plus the tiny islands of Formica and Maraone. Besides the incredible beaches, natural landscape and sailing, there are a few sites you shouldn’t miss such as Levanzo’s Grotta del Genovese with Paleolithic paintings and graffiti and Favignana’s Tonnara Florio, the tuna factory founded by the entrepreneurial Florio family. During the tuna fishing season, the Mattanza, the traditional tuna catch, still takes place out at sea.
GIBELLINA AND POGGIOREALE
Gibellina is a town in Western Sicily that was hit in 1968 by the Valle del Belice earthquake. Gibellina was completely damaged along with other towns such as Poggioreale and Salaparuta while a few nearby towns like Salemi were only partially destroyed. The residents moved to Gibellina Nuova, which was built ex-novo not far from the old town. Over the years, famous architects from all over the world were invited by the local government to help out with the founding of this new town creating some of the most interesting forms of contemporary urban architecture. Italian artist Alberto Burri came up with the novel idea of covering up the ruins of the old town of Gibellina under a concrete cement creation called “il Creto di Burri”. Today this stunning setting is used as a stage for all kinds of performances.
Poggioreale instead was abandoned and left as it was after the events of 1968. It can still be visited either by people looking for the former homes of their grandparents and family or by others attracted by the town’s surreal and sad beauty.
King Roger II founded this medieval seaside town with a towering Norman-Romanesque Cathedral decorated with Byzantine mosaics inside. A visit to Cefalù takes in the amazing beaches along its twelfth century city walls that once protected the city’s narrow streets and homes, which are occupied by the locals still today. During the summer Sicilians and foreigners alike spend some time on the sandy and rocky beaches or shopping at local boutiques during the day while in the evening they enjoy dinner or a gelato at the local, charming restaurants and cafés.
Its name is famous due to the movie saga The Godfather. However, it is unfair to associate this town with the fact that a number of murderous mafia dons happened to be born here. This vibrant town was founded by the Muslims and over the centuries it has kept its medieval layout with winding streets and towers protecting it from above. Corleone is a true example of the rural hinterland of Palermo and it is surrounded by an incredible natural landscape spanning from woods, waterfalls and a hunting lodge to wheat fields, vineyards and green pastures with grazing sheep and horses. A visit to the nearby Royal Hunting Lodge is highly recommended.
A journey into this mountainous area turns your perspective of Sicily all the way around. For centuries most of the inhabitants of these isolated mountain towns had no idea what the beach was like and how it was to live in a large seaside city. Life high up in towns like Polizzi Generosa, Petralia Soprana and Petralia Sottana, Castelbuono, San Mauro Castelverde, Geraci Siculo, and Gangi has always had its own pace while agriculture and everyday activities are still partly influenced by the weather and microclimate due to altitude. The hills and meadows below are very fertile, so this is the place to try out some of the most genuine local Sicilian products. Each town has its own unique layout and architecture including churches and castles plus one-of-a-kind food specialties that cannot be found elsewhere on the island. The highest peak Pizzo Carbonara at 1800 meters (6000 feet) and other nearby peaks and high plains are often covered with snow during the winter and you can go hiking, trekking or horseback riding in the Madonian Mountain Park with its interesting fauna and flora.
Geologically this mountain range is a continuation of the Madonian Mountains although somewhat lower. However, the towns of the Nebrodi range open up an entirely new perspective. Closer to Messina and therefore to Byzantium, this side of the island had a strong Greek culture going into the Middle Ages and today it is still visible in the local architecture. Towns like San Marco d’Alunzio, San Fratello, Montalbano Elicona and Alcara Li Fusi are worth a visit and a longer stay can include hiking or trekking in the Nebrodian Mountain Park where a native breed of horses still roam wild. Typical foods include prosciutto and salami produced with a local black swine closely akin to wild boar.
Driving south of Palermo you reach the Sicanian Mountains. Although they are not very tall, the highest peaks are Rocca Busambra (over 1600 m, 5250 ft) and Monte Cammarata (1578 m, 5200 ft), this mountain range offers a number of interesting sites and towns that depend on the fertile fields and hills of this area. Durum wheat, sheep and cow cheeses, local produce, wine and olive oil have been an integral part of this land’s economy for centuries. Mussomeli offers a stunning medieval castle built into a natural rock formation; San Biagio Platani is famous for its bread architectural structures during Easter; at Sant’Angelo Muxaro, which still has some ancient Sicanian tombs, you can experience ricotta-making, visit an-old fashioned bakery and try out local food all in the small town center. These are just a few of the sites you can visit.
Founded by the Greeks during the 6th century BC (BCE) as the city of Akragas, Agrigento is still famous for its ancient Temples dating back to around the same epoch. The Valley of the Temples offers visitors some of the top examples of classical Greek Temples in the world (such as the incredibly well-preserved Temple of Concordia, and the ones dedicated to Hercules, Hera, and Zeus) on a ridge over-looking the Sea of Africa to the south and the valley below. The local Archeological Museum has one of the best Classical collections in Sicily. Excavations are still being carried out in Agrigento and more of the ancient city is being unearthed including its Greek Theatre.
Pantelleria is situated south-west of Sicily in the province of Trapani. This island is famous for its local capers (considered to be the best in Sicily thanks to the island’s soil) and sweet wines (Moscato and Passito). The local beaches and coves are considered almost exclusive spots by visitors, who often prefer to lodge at one of the typical dammusi (old stone homes with a unique shape) rather than at hotels.
Taormina is often called the Capri or Sorrento of Sicily. It is situated on a natural terrace overlooking the blue Ionian Sea on one side and breathtaking Mount Etna volcano on the other side. This town’s main corso offers visitors all kinds of boutiques, shops, cafes and restaurants. The well-preserved Greek-Roman Theatre is one of the city’s main attractions and it houses concerts and events during the year including the annual Taormina Film Festival with movie stars arriving from all over the world. We can arrange excursions to various sites from here, such as Savoca and Forza D’Agrò famous for The Godfather saga, Mount Etna and more.
Sprawled on the northeastern cape of Sicily, Messina’s history is entwined in Greek mythology and strategical and commercial importance. In fact, during the Middle Ages this port city was a passageway between Europe and the Middle East for merchants and crusaders alike. In 1908 a devastating earthquake razed Messina to the ground and since then the majority of the city has been rebuilt. Today Messina is a combination of new architecture and old styles.
There are a number of amazing sites to see in Messina. One of the highlights is the city’s Cathedral founded by the Normans and rebuilt after the earthquake. Inside you can admire the meridian and visit the treasury, but the most striking feature is its adjacent bell tower with the world’s largest and most complex mechanical astronomical clock designed by the Ungerer Company of Strasbourg in 1933. At noon each day all its mechanical figures come to life to the sound of music.
Messina’s Regional Art Gallery has two of Caravaggio’s final paintings: The Resurrection of Lazarus and The Adoration of the Shepherds. Another must-see is the San Gregorio Polyptych which is a 15th century masterpiece by Antonello da Messina.
Mount Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe and a must-see for nature and adventure lovers visiting Sicily. The drive up the slopes of this volcano is breath-taking and one can’t help admiring the geological- and bio-diversity: at the bottom slopes there are olive trees, fruit groves and vineyards; further up woods with chestnut, beech and firs, and then the landscape is all dark volcanic lava, covered with snow many months of the year. The most adventurous visitors purchase a special excursion to the Upper Craters. A visit to this volcano should also include a local winery as this is one of the best wine production zones on the island.
Catania is the second largest Sicilian city and it is situated on a fertile plain between the sea and Mount Etna. During the late 18th century most of the city was rebuilt in a unique Baroque style using the local dark volcanic stone with white stone decorations. This was the hometown of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini (his tomb is in the city’s Norman-Baroque Cathedral). You shouldn’t miss the open-air fish market and a walk down Via Etnea. The World War II Museum is a big attraction for enthusiasts of the Allied Forces Landing in 1943.
This was the most powerful ancient Greek city outside the motherland and Siracusa reached its peak of power when it destroyed the Athenian fleet that arrived at its port in 413 BC (BCE). Today you can still catch an incredible glimpse of that epoch thanks to a number of monuments that survive: the Greek Theatre, the Rock Quarries, the Temple of Apollo and the columns and walls of the Temple of Athena visible at the splendid Cathedral on the island of Ortigia. Aside from all this classical history that is even now part of everyday life here, Ortigia’s winding streets and lovely piazzas and the surrounding views of the sea and port alone are enough to visit this charming town today. We highly recommend a few days here to enjoy the local life and to visit as many sites as possible, which also include a Caravaggio painting portraying the burial of St. Lucy, patron saint of Siracusa, museums, some of the largest early Christian Catacombs in the world, one of the oldest mikvehs in Europe, and the archeological park with some of the aforementioned Greek monuments.
The Baroque Capitals: Ragusa, Modica, Noto
T hese towns are situated in southeastern Sicily and they can be visited individually or in combinations of two at a time. In 1693 this area and most of eastern Sicily were hit by a devastating earthquake and architects arrived from all over the island to help out with the reconstruction of towns and buildings. What developed was a very unique 18th century Baroque that is different from the one that is almost a century older in places like Palermo or Rome.
Ragusa Ibla and its newer town sit sprawled out on two hills. Ragusa Ibla has winding streets leading up to the steep, monumental staircase of the Cathedral of Saint George with a huge cupola that is distinguishable from afar thanks to its cobalt blue windows, renderd famous thanks to Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano.
Modica is famous for its chocolate that is still made according to an ancient recipe that the Spaniards got from the Aztecs. This town is on a high hill and it boasts two cathedrals: the monumental Cathedral of Saint George with a spectacular staircase and the Cathedral of Saint Peter that you reach after walking up another elaborate staircase with the statues of the Apostles along the sides.
Noto is on lower land and it also has a lovely cathedral dedicated to St. Nicholas. A walk on the main street will allow you to enjoy the façades of monumental palaces and balcony corbels carved with lions, mermaids and strange faces. During the yearly “infiorata” festival local artists create flower carpets on the streets that look like unending paintings.
Near the medieval hill town of Piazza Armerina, surrounded by fertile fields of wheat, is the Roman Villa del Casale famous for its incredibly well-preserved mosaic floors dating back to the 4th century AD (CE). This was once the home of a powerful Roman landowner and the rooms, baths and fountains that are still standing cast a glimpse into the wealth and luxury of past times. Almost every room and hall is decorated with colorful mosaics making this the villa with the major amount of Roman mosaic decorations in the world. Among the most memorable stories illustrated on the floors are the girls in bikinis, the myth of Hercules and the mildly intimate lovers’ scene.
Located northeast of the main island, these volcanic islands are sometimes called The Seven Sisters, but their name is dedicated to Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind that often blows strong here in the middle of the Mediterranean. They include Lipari (the biggest island), Vulcano (which is still active with moderate volcanic activity), Salina, Stromboli (one of the most active volcanoes in the world), Panarea, Alicudi and Filicudi. Some of these islands are perfect for a beach holiday or for a stop with a sailboat or yacht, while Stromboli is big with volcano fans.