For an island that brought us the mathematician Archimedes, the composer Bellini, the acclaimed novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and, yes, the Mafia, Sicily is remarkably modest. Here are 10 places you really shouldn’t miss.
Photography by Tony Amos
Although it’s the largest island in the Mediterranean and easily reached from the Italian mainland, Sicily still feels a bit wild and unspoiled. Cruise ships sail into beguiling Taormina and bustling Palermo but few other Sicilian towns are so well visited. It’s an island of dreams, with lush hills in the interior, romantic volcanic outcrops lying off its shore and a chain of beautiful beaches along the coastline.
Embraced by the sparkling waters of three seas, Sicily’s culture has been enriched by the civilisations that have conquered it, from the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks to the Arabs, Normans and Spanish. An unparalleled concentration of magnificent buildings in styles spanning millennia makes it a must-visit for architecture buffs.
The enormous active volcano Etna dominates the island and provides rich soil for its produce, while award-winning Bordeaux-style wines are cultivated on its slopes. The food throughout Sicily is sensational, from simple grilled sardines to culinary specialities such as the indulgent dessert cassata and caponata, a delicious eggplant dish.
The island – which could almost fit into Tasmania three times – is easily navigated by car. There are a number of charming bed and breakfasts in each region, including converted baglios (countryside estates) and palazzi, to stop off at. But to really do Sicily justice, set aside at least a week. For first-time visitors, it helps to be guided by someone who knows the landscape and flavours of the island, such as Lisa and Alfredo La Spina of Melbourne’s Bar Idda restaurant, who lead food-focused tours of Sicily for small groups.
But regardless of how you travel, here are 10 places you really shouldn’t miss.
Sicily’s capital has had something of a bad rap and it’s wise to use a little caution when wandering its dark, narrow streets. But it’s magnificent nonetheless. Despite its turbulent past, the ongoing battle with the Mafia (now abated) and corruption that saw the expansion of soulless housing estates from the 1950s onwards, central Palermo has managed to retain much of its beauty, with a number of Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque churches and historic precincts. The island’s Arabic history has made an imprint in the town’s bazaars and lively markets like Ballarò and Vucciria transport you to another time. You’ll find outdoor restaurants around the harbour serving traditional barbecued fish. Make sure you detour to Monreale – its cathedral offers the finest example of Norman architecture in Sicily.
Sicily’s wild and wonderful west is only 155 kilometres from Tunisia, across the Mediterranean, and it’s here that the Arab influence is most pronounced – particularly in the cooking. The landscape is a tangle of lemon and olive trees, cactus bushes, red poppies, wheat and vineyards, with many beautiful abandoned villas and farmhouses. The region is famous for Marsala fortified wine, which was first produced in the 18th century by an English trader. These days, local winemakers are experimenting with indigenous and unfortified varieties with delicious results. La Divina winery at Baglio Donna Franca (donnafranca.it) is a good place to start exploring it for yourself. Before it catered to tourists it was the estate of the aristocratic Florio family, who marketed Marsala to the world.
This fortress city west of Palermo was once the Phoenician town of Eryx. Like so many Sicilian towns, it was ruled by Arabs until the Norman conquest and features superb examples of Saracen and Norman architecture. The Normans built a massive castle within the city walls and from its terrace visitors can revel in breathtaking views of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the white flatlands where local salt is produced. Narrow streets wind through the town, flanked by charming shops and cafés. The place to stop is the pasticceria of famous pastry chef Maria Grammatico (mariagrammatico.it). Watch the handcrafted pastries being skilfully shaped then relax in the courtyard with a plate of Arabic-influenced delicacies. If you think you don’t like marzipan, the Sicilian variety might be a revelation.
Valley of the Temples
Sicily is home to some of the best-preserved ancient Greek structures outside of Greece. Most famous are the seven Doric temples scattered along a high ridge outside the city of Agrigento in Sicily’s south. The UNESCO World Heritage site features two remarkably intact temples, most notably the Temple of Concordia, which was converted into a Christian church in 597 AD. This is a popular stop for tourist buses but it’s still possible to wander downhill through the ruins and groves of almond and olive trees and feel a sense of peace. There are some spectacular views of the coast all the way down but be careful where you tread – the Christians built catacombs into the hill at several points. When you arrive at the bottom, smiling street hawkers will ply you with cheap jewellery – and some of it is pretty good value.
Only an hour by train from Palermo, this beach town sits in the shadow of a massive rock that’s served as a natural fortress since ancient Greek times. One of the prettiest towns in the region, Cefalù is an ideal spot to take the passeggiata (leisurely stroll) in the evening. Explore its medieval streets while you savour a brioche con gelato – an outrageously sweet, soft bun stuffed with gelato – before stopping for serious eating at one of the many bars and restaurants set around the port. When you’re not lazing on the beach, there are plenty of architectural attractions to explore, including a Romanesque cathedral, remains of an ancient Doric temple, a medieval bathhouse and the magnificent ruin of a Norman castle on a promontory. If Cefalù looks familiar, that’s because it was the setting for much of the movie Cinema Paradiso.
The Aeolian Islands
Regular ferry services from Milazzo in Sicily’s northeast (where the best arancini you’ve ever tasted can be bought on the dock) take passengers to this wonderful island group in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The result of volcanic activity over the past 260,000 years, two of the seven small islands – Stromboli and Vulcano – are still active volcanos. One of the most popular islands for holiday-makers is Salina, set in clear blue waters with lush vegetation. Its tiny village of Malfa – with a population of about 1000 – has green-shuttered houses and stone fences covered with bougainvillea, cascading downhill to a beautiful beach. Adventurous types will want to visit Stromboli, where a guided three-hour climb will have you watching regular explosions from the crater’s edge. Tours timed to reach the peak at sunset provide a particularly stunning lightshow.
This gorgeous cliff-hanging village is where the rich and famous holiday in Sicily. While its port brings cruise-ship passengers by the thousands, its film festival has drawn movie stars every June since 1955. Numerous artists and writers have called it home, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. DH Lawrence wrote of Taormina: “Here the past is so much stronger than the present, that one seems remote like the immortals, looking back at the world from their otherworld.” You feel the same way at the Teatro Antico di Taormina, a remarkably intact ruin of a Roman-era theatre set against the glittering Ionian Sea. If the narrow streets are too crowded, escape to the Wunderbar near the town square (wunderbarcaffe.it). It’s where Williams would take his aperitivo in the evenings. The slightly cranky, formal waiters give a glimpse of another era.
It’s the tallest active volcano on the European continent at about 3340 metres and Mount Etna’s four summit craters have been intensely active throughout the past century, with lava flowing as recently as 2014. Don’t let that hold you back from taking a drive around the lower slopes or catching the cable car that rises to 2500m above sea level. Because of the fertile volcanic soil, Etna’s slopes are covered with vineyards and orchards. Indigenous varieties of grapes, such as nerello mascalese and carricante, have been cultivated in recent years and it’s worthwhile stopping at a cellar door to taste earthy, mineral-rich wines. Vini Biondi winery (vinibiondi.it) is set among terraced vines and has some excellent vintages.
Philosopher Cicero described Syracuse as “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all” and today the ancient part of this eastern Sicilian city, situated on the island of Ortygia, is still one of the world’s most beautiful destinations. Ortygia has a UNESCO World Heritage listing for its stunning Greek, Roman and Baroque architecture. The island is set on a tranquil harbour flanked by bars and restaurants in converted palazzi. Narrow streets house stylish shops and restaurants, such as the rustic Sicilia in Tavola (siciliaintavola.eu). The market is one of Italy’s best, with vendors happy to give you a taste of their produce. Science lovers will enjoy the Arkimedeion, a museum devoted to mathematician and physicist Archimedes, while for more light-hearted fun there’s Opera dei Pupi (pupari.com) – a tiny puppet theatre that’s been operating since the 19th century.
The Baroque East
A massive earthquake in 1693 destroyed much of the south-east of Sicily and its Spanish rulers rebuilt it at great expense, in a flamboyant style known as Sicilian Baroque. Buildings were sometimes constructed from dark volcanic rock, alternating stripes of grey and black, but more commonly from pink-golden local sandstone and limestone. Churches and palazzi in the cities of Catania, Syracuse, Modica, Noto and Ragusa represent the finest examples of this style. Fans of Italian television series Inspector Montalbano will recognise many locations around Ragusa, including the two-Michelin-starred Duomo (cicciosultano.it). Head for Catania’s central fish market for a more humble but still fantastic lunch. Any of the trattorias around the market will serve you incredible, fresh seafood. And do stop by Caffè Sicilia in Noto – chef Corrado Assenza is one of Sicily’s most celebrated pastry makers. ￼
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