Quick Travel Guide to Sicily
Wildflowers, citrus trees, and wisteria perfume the air and engulf you as you drive the winding road, the rolling hills before you and the bright blue sea below. Sicily was such a surprise in the best possible way. I’ve mapped out a quick guide to Sicily, a place I will definitely visit again.
Before visiting Sicily, I pictured a somewhat rough island- strewn with crumbling cities and desolate places. What I found was a sprawling region that reminded me of the rolling hills of Tuscany, the epic landscapes and beaches of the Canary Islands, and delightful ancient stone places full of gorgeous architecture and ancient Greek and Roman ruins. Although some places do need a bit of cleaning up (particularly Palermo and Catania), most of the towns we visited were absolutely remarkable.
Not only is Sicily breathtakingly beautiful, you’ll find it relatively inexpensive. Once you get past driving in the tiny cities, it’s very easy to traverse the landscape and see the entire island’s top sights in about a week.
How to Get to Sicily
There are multiple airports in Sicily, the largest being in Palermo and Catania. We flew into Catania. There are also a few options to fly into Trapani. Because tourism in Sicily is increasing, there are lots of well-kept roads and maintained airports.
How to Get Around Sicily
If you want to experience all that the island has to offer you must rent a car. Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and it takes approximately four hours to get across and there is a diverse landscape with much to see from coast to coast. In order to get the most out of your trip you need a car. The only time I felt a bit nervous to drive was in the tight alleyways of the bigger towns. Other than that the streets are very well maintained and easy to navigate.
Map of Sicily
Here's a map that shares all of the places I highlight and recommend you see.
Best Places to Visit in Sicily
I’ve mapped out an itinerary below, but since so many people fly into Palermo and Catania, I wanted to specify what I think cannot be missed. So, those the places listed below aren’t necessarily in route order, but the ones you must see.
As soon as we arrived in Syracuse I felt like I was on a movie set, ready to record at any moment. The open piazza with the huge Duomo seems like the perfect setting for an action movie or romantic love scene. Not only is it beautiful, and surprisingly pristine, there’s lots of history to boot. Both Greek and Roman ruins dot the small city with easy access to some small hill towns nearby. We walked the tiny, labyrinth-like streets of Ortigia, the island off the coast of the city, saw a puppet show and awed at the ruins.
Interwoven with ancient stone buildings are modern high-end shops and classic Italian restaurants. Duck away in a cute alleyway to discover a dreamy cafe. The tightly packed streets overflow with plants and intricate balconies hang above you. I could have definitely spent more time here.
Top Sights in Syracuse:
- Ancient Ruins – There are a number of ruins you can see throughout the city. I recommend walking to any located on the island of Ortigia and driving to those on the mainland. Highlights on the island include Temple of Apollo, Fountain of Diana, Temple of Minerva. On the mainland I recommend the Teatro Greco and the Parco Archeologico dela Neapoli.
- Puppet Theater – The “Opera dei pupi” is on UNESCO's cultural heritage list and a Sicilian tradition. Go to a show, it only lasts about a half hour, and is surprisingly fun. The show does a great job of showcasing Italian drama using puppets. There's also a puppet museum to learn more about the craft.
- Market of Ortigia– Lured by the savvy salesmen, we ended up buying way too much food at the market. Dried fruit, strawberries, oysters (€2.50 each with a free glass of wine), and plenty of seafood and meat. Don’t miss Caseificio Boderi market for sandwiches. Wait in line, you’ll be given many samples like cheese and truffle salami.
At first, I guffawed at spending the night at this port city. We drove here to then head to Favignana, a small island off the coast. But when we decided to spend the night here instead of the island, we discovered a lovely, thriving town with great restaurants and pretty architecture. Staying in the heart of the city, we had an ideal stay at Secret B & B. It’s a bit hard to decipher the hotel ratings online, even if it says it’s 4 or 5-star. But we took a chance on this hotel and loved it. Nice, clean rooms, with a fabulous breakfast inside an coold stone building is the perfect secluded (or secret) oasis in Trapani. It's in the heart of the city center and making it easy to walk around.
Trapani Top Sights:
- Erice – a small village just a few miles away from Trapani that can be accessed via car or funicular. I loved the almost all stone architecture. Make sure to try Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, famous, beautiful and delicious specializing in ‘torrone’ and ‘pasta di mandorla’ as well as marzipan and other treats.
- Gelateria Meno Tredici – Yes, I am in fact adding a gelato shop to a list of top things to do in Sicily. It was that good. Dozens of flavors- both unique and classic. You can even try it in a brioche bun- the classic Sicilian ice cream sandwich. We went twice.
- Calvino Pizzeria – This famous and local pizza place requires a reservation. If you want a break from pizza, try Busiate or 210 Grammi for pasta, Cantina Siciliana for fish, or all of the above at Osteria San Pietro or I Bastioni.
We almost didn’t visit this island after reading it was just a fisherman’s island. Then, we looked at pictures and decided to go. Thank goodness. This island is absolutely stunning. Once a hub for tuna fishing, now it's a laid-back beach lover's paradise. Beautiful, sandy beaches along with a rocky coastline and neon blue water are everywhere you turn. Though there are a few places to stay on the island, I recommend going to Favignana for the day, then spending the night in Trapani. Make sure to check the ferry times leaving out of Trapani and head there at least 15 minutes before departure. The ferry takes roughly 30 minutes.
Favignana top sights:
- Lido Burrone – My favorite beach on the island. You get the best of both worlds: crystal clear water washing up over soft sand and a rocky coastline that’s perfect for snorkeling.
- Cala Rotonda– A natural harbor with a unique rock formation – Ulysses's Arch.
- Bue Marino – The rugged rock formations are not just natural, they were quarried here. Favignana used to be a place to extract tufa, a porous limestone rock where great chunks have been bitten out of the hillside, right by the sea cliffs.
- Cala Azzura – Beautiful turquoise water with a large beach.
- Cala Rossa – This beach is very close to the port so it's easy to head here. There are sandy and rocky cliffs here which make for picturesque view.
Taormina is a resort town with one of the best preserved Greek theaters and the second largest classical theater in Sicily. Built in the 3rd century B.C. it was enlarged and then rebuilt by the Romans in the second century A.D. As it’s called, “Teatro Greco” offers ancient history along with stunning views. Make sure to look for the “boot” of Italy peeking out on a clear day! If you want to experience “La Dolce Vita” simply walk the Curse Umberto that runs through the heart of Taormina. The main street is lined with gelato, pizza, and pasta restarts. Don’t forget to try Cannolli here, they are known to have some of the best! I loved the pizza (and prices) at Da Cristina.
The drive to Agrigento alone is worth the trip. Wildflowers of every possible color flank the sides of the highway and show off the fertile soil of Sicily. Here, you’ll find a massive area full of Greek temples called Temple of The Valley. The best preserved is Concordia which is ringed with columns and might even surpass the Parthenon in its beauty.
The highlight in Pizza Armerina is Villa Romana del Casale, a former Rokan mansion covered in well-preserved mosaics. The mosaics show the Roman obsession with the exotic animal trade, their love of sports via the “bikini girls” who are shown throwing javelins, and their appreciation to the gods. I suggest staying the night just near the villa, for scenic views and a quiet respite from the city. We stayed at La Quercia e l'Asino. I picked it simply because of the donkeys on the property and I wasn’t disappointed. The man who owns the property actually uses the donkeys (and horses) to help disabled children.
Ragusa is an ancient stone town that takes your breath away as you drive up the hill. It was two separate towns until quite recently: the old original site of the town before the earthquake that destroyed a lot of nearby towns in the 1600s, the top of the hill was the area where the wealthier citizens re-established themselves rather than deal with the rubble. I suggest parking near the cathedral and grabbing a sandwich and dessert at Salumeria Barocco. With sandwiches and local cheeses made fresh you’ll also find an array of products like pistachio sauce or squid ink pasta. Try the dessert: ricotta topped with chocolate, pistachios, and honey. Different but divine. Here you can also check out Ragusa’s Duomo (just make sure to check the hours) and walk the piazza.
I am putting these three towns together because they are very similar. Pretty stone, hill-top towns that are great to peruse on foot. If you can only choose one, go to Modica for chocolate. Their ancient chocolate recipe comes from the Aztecs since the Spanish conquistadors in South America conquered the island and ruled for centuries. Today, the chocolate is still processed in the same way making it rich and crumbly. You’ll find chocolate shops everywhere, but Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is the most authentic. The shop offers dozens of flavors and freshly made cannolis. I opted for a bar with ginger and Michael devoured a freshly made cannoli for just $1.80.
This active volcano is the tallest in Europe! You can go here for views as this the highest point on the island. You can take a gondola ride or hike up. It’s renown for its fertile soil so there are wineries everywhere and lovely citrus trees. You might just see steam bellowing from the top of the mountain. You can easily take a half-day tour here from Catania or, make a day of it and also enjoy the wine and sunset excursion.
Some of the best beaches you can find in Sicily are in Cefalu. With 930 miles (1500 kilometers) of coastline around the island, you’re sure to find some pristine spots for your Sicily holiday. Of course, your options are endless with beaches if you don’t make it to Cefalu. The Aeolian islands boast scenic views and fun hangouts. The Egadi islands, including Favignana, are easy to get to and absolutely stunning. Not only are there great beaches for basking in the sun, there's also a historic city center.
Thought highly touristic, Palermo was one of my least favorite places in Sicily. I found it to be pretty rough, lots of trash (almost unbearably so), and the architecture wasn’t quite as pretty as Syracuse or Trapani. There are a few top touristic attractions that I recommend you see. But I would make a day trip to Palermo, see those, then head on your way.
Top Sights in Palermo:
- Market – Mayhem ensues at this boisterous market filled with sellers who yell at the top of their lungs to describe the products of the day. It’s hilarious to try and squeeze through the mass of people, scooters, and carts of food. Try the Sicilian pizza. You can ONLY find this in Palermo.
- Norman Palace and Cappella Palatina – The Royal Palace of Palermo dating from the 11-12th century is the perfect example of Norman dynasty. The ticket is €14 each and includes the palace, palatina, and gardens. The highlight is Cappella Palatina, an intricate display of mosaics that displays both Latin and Byzantine styles of art. There are detailed mosaics everywhere, curving around the columns and intricate details such as depicting water for a baptism. Marble covers the floors and walls, the ceiling is intricate wood created by Moorish artist of rare pictorial style.
- Palermo Cathedral – Because Sicily was ruled and conquered by many empires the cathedral reflects its many styles of it's various conquerors. It's one of the most beautiful buildings on the island and is well worth a peek inside.
- Capuchin Abbey and Catacombs – If you want to be a bit creeped out, head underground to the catacombs. Some of the best preserved bodies – some still with a full set of teeth, hair, and even skin can be found here. Bizarre but worth the tour.
- Teatro Massimo -Like its name suggest the Opera house is huge and is reminiscent more of a palace than a music hall. You can do a guided tour here as well.
- Cattedrale di Monreale – Just six miles away from Palermo is this massive church that is richly ornamented, built to show off Norman King William II in all his glory. There are intricate mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible on the walls. If you are really short on time in Palermo check out this one day Catacombs and Monreale tour.
The central feature of Catania is the large Piazza where you’ll find the marble Duomo- Cathedral of Sant’Agata and Fontana dell’Elefante, the symbol of the city. The main street looked very different from other parts of Sicily and reminded me of central Europe’s architecture. We also headed to the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena, a UNESCO heritage site and one of the largest monasteries in Europe. Other highlights are Castello Ursino and Teatro Massimo Bellini. I wouldn’t recommend too much time in Catania, outside the piazza it’s a fairly gritty city. We flew in and out of here which is why we toured Catania. This is also a good base for touring Mount Etna.
We flew into Catania and made our way directly to Ragusa. After briefing exploring the hilltop towns of Modica and Noto, we ventured over to Syracuse. We walked the town and saw a puppet show and ducked into the Duomo and Greek ruins.
Crossing the island takes only a few hours and we stayed a night in Palermo to discover the cathedral and market. Here, you can also head to Cefalu and Monreale.
We dipped back down to Trapani and also cruised the beaches of Favignana. Before leaving Trapani, we drove up to Erice then went on Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. This is the main site of the town so after a few hours here we moved on to Villa Romana del Casale and stayed in Piazza Armerina. From here, it was a two-hour drive to Taormina for the Teatro Greco and then a short time in Catania and Mount Etna before flying home.
Where to stay in Sicily
We booked our hotels extremely last minute, most often booking them the day of by looking at reviews. Some were total hits, some not so much. I suggest making sure it's a reputable place and is highly rated on Google. Any hotel I've listed in this post I fully endorse and would stay at again, I left out any place I wouldn't recommend. Almost every place in Sicily offers an included, homemade breakfast, so don't miss out!
Secrets B & B in Trapani.
La Quercia e l'Asino in Piazza Armerina.
Liberty Hotel in Catania. I didn't personally stay here but friends did and loved it.
Hotel Garibaldi in Palermo. I didn't stay here, as I stayed somewhere I wouldn't recommend, but a friend stays here regularly. A bit pricey but this is Sicily's capital.
Mandranova outside of Agrigento. If you want to experience “agriturismo” check out this working farm that produces olive oil and almonds.
Sicily is best understood as a place with many contrasts: dingy streets lined with litter and graffiti, but mostly epic scenes of beauty and ancient ruins. Trapani and Syracuse in particular are hidden gems that you should visit at least once. If you can embrace both the grittiness and the beauty I think you’ll truly have a fabulous time. I hope this guide helps you plan your trip to the island or encourages you to go. I found the beauty lies in the smaller coastal villages, beautiful Greek and Roman ruins, and the lovely stone hill-top towns.
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