Guide to Visiting Sicily

Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once said “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”  The same could be said about Sicily – magic and pasta – and pizza, and cannoli, and wine, plus gorgeous beaches, a smoldering volcano or three and a little more magic mixed in for good measure.  This often overlooked island off the tip of mainland Italy is its unfiltered version where all that we love about Italy is intensified – from the flavors of the food to the beauty of the natural landscape and all of the bella chaos that makes Italy what it is.

Sicily quickly rose to the top of my travel wish list for two reasons.  First, a trip to Greece a few years ago left me dreaming about the Mediterranean sun and sea, and second, I missed Italy.  Sicily checked off both of these, and also has a personal connection for me as the place where my grandfather grew up.  And so the trip planning began.  What I soon realized is that Sicily is like an enigma that requires you to understand all of its pieces before you can figure out how to put them together.  And after I absorbed all that this under-the-radar destination has to offer, the hardest thing was deciding what to see and do because there was so much richness to choose from.  My first trip to Sicily was a good sampling of the island’s most impressive highlights, with still more magical treasures to uncover in future visits.  Here’s some of my recommendations, observations and learnings to help you start planning your own trip to this remarkable place.

Getting There and Around
The easiest way to reach Sicily is by plane with many direct flights from Europe to the island’s two major airports – Falcone-Borsellino in Palermo (PMO) and Fontanarossa in Catania (CTA) – which are connected to their respective city centers by bus.  There’s also the smaller Vincenzo Florio airport in Trapani-Birgi (TPS).  In Palermo, the Prestia e Comandè bus leaves every half hour and with several stops between the airport and the Palermo Centrale train station in under an hour.  In Catania, the Alibus service also runs every half hour with several stops including the Catania Centrale train station within about 30 minutes.  Both cities are relatively walkable, but have local bus service as needed.

Sicily is easy to reach with many direct flights from Europe

Another more leisurely way to reach Sicily is by train.  Trenitalia has direct InterCity trains from Rome and Naples and night trains from Milan, Rome and Naples (anywhere from 9-18 hours depending on the exact route) to Palermo, Catania and Syracuse.  When the train reaches the boot of mainland Italy, it is loaded onto a ferry to cross the Straight of Messina before continuing on to your final destination.  Although slower, the train may be a worthwhile experience if you have the extra time.  There are also several ferry options from various ports in Italy to Sicily, as well as routes to the Egadi and Aeolian Islands.

Various ferry lines connect Sicily with the mainland and nearby islands

Since we would be moving around Sicily quite a bit, we decided to fly into Catania and out of Palermo and rent a car for the duration of our trip.  Most major rental car companies have a presence at the airport and some have locations within major cities if you only need a car for part of your time.  We found that driving was a more efficient option than trying to navigate Sicily’s various train routes and bus companies.  In general, it was less chaotic than expected, although you should be prepared for lots of roundabouts, small unmarked roads, quick turns and minimal street signs.  With that, my biggest advice is to NOT forego the GPS option with your rental car (even if you have navigation service on your phone) because driving in Sicily can be tricky, especially in smaller towns.  My second piece of advice is to drive confidently and you will do just fine.  :)

Driving through southern Sicily

A few other things to note, there seemed to be a decent amount of paid parking lots in all of the cities we visited, and we only encountered a toll road once between Catania and Taormina.  With the latter, you take a ticket from an automated machine when you get on the autostrada and give it to the toll booth operator when you get off to determine how much you’ll pay.  Finally, we found that diesel gasoline was more expensive than what we are used to in the U.S., costing about 100 euros to fill up a tank.  All of these factors may influence how you choose to get around in Sicily, along with how much time you have and where you plan to go.

What to See and Do
Being a visitor in Sicily is like being a child in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.  Every corner is like a mini destination onto itself, varying in geographic landscape and cultural influence.  The latter is what makes Sicily a particularly fascinating destination as the island has been inhabited by everyone from the Greeks and Romans to the Arabs, Normans, Germans, French and Spanish over time.  These layers of culture are reflected in everything from the architecture to the cuisine that you’ll find in any given region.

Ancient Greek theatre in Taormina with Mount Etna in the background

Some of the biggest highlights include Palermo, the capital city of Sicily located on its northwest coast.  Here architectural wonders like the Monreale and Palermo cathedrals, Teatro Massimo and the Norman Palace with its beautifully Byzantine Capella Palatina are juxtaposed with the city’s gritty streets and raucous markets where you’ll find some of the best street food in Sicily.  Palermo’s historic core is divided into four quarters that come together at the Quattro Canti (four corners) and although large, the city is relatively walkable.

Western Sicily is a mixture of historical sites and coastal towns like Castellammare del Golfo, Scopello and San Vito Lo Capo.  Nestled between the latter two is the unassuming Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro. Designated as the first nature reserve in Sicily in 1981, Zingaro is home to a 7km hiking trail where palms and prickly pear cacti cling to rocky cliffs that make way to 7 jade-green and blue beach coves. Further west you’ll find archeological sites like Segesta, Selinunte and Mozia and cities including Marsla (famous for its sweet dessert wine), Erice (medieval hilltop town crowned by the ruins of a 12th century Norman castle) and Trapani (crescent-shaped port city and gateway to the Egadi Islands and the area’s evocative salt flats), which are connected by an aerial cable car.

Castellammare del Golfo (top), Erice (middle left), Trapani (bottom left) and Egadi Islands (bottom right)

Head across the rural interior to eastern Sicily’s Ionian coast, which is anchored by the island’s second largest city Catania.  Its distinctively Baroque architecture has been directly influenced by the nearby Mount Etna, both destroyed by and rebuilt using lava stone from the still-smoldering volcano that looms over the city.  As the largest active volcano in Europe, Etna is definitely a worthwhile daytrip for the adventurous type.  Also nearby is Taormina, which is often called the jewel of Sicily thanks to its charming boutique and café-lined street Corso Umberto I, striking Greek amphitheater and picturesque beaches surrounding Isola Bella.

Mount Etna (top), Catania (bottom left) and Taormina (bottom right)

Along the southern Mediterranean coast one of the most popular sites is the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, which is said to be some of the best preserved Greek ruins outside of Greece.  (For some of the best Roman ruins in Sicily head slightly northeast to see the vivid mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina).  The southeast corner of Sicily is anchored by the once strategic city of Syracuse.  At one time it was the largest city in the ancient world and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that woes visitors with its impressive Greek ruins and atmospheric labyrinth of streets and piazzas on the island peninsula of Ortygia.  Also nearby are the beautifully Baroque hill tows of Noto, Modica and Ragusa, each with its own unique charm.

Valley of the Temples near Agrigento

Finally, northern Sicily’s Tyrrhenian coast is dotted with resort towns such as the postcard-perfect Cefalù (great for beach lovers) as well as various hilltop villages in the nearby Madonie and Nebrodi mountains.  The area is also the gateway to the seven volcanic Aeolian Islands – Lipari, Vulcano, Panarea, Salina, Alicudi, Filicudi and Stromboli – that charm visitors with their natural beauty and slower pace, which makes for an attractive getaway within your Sicilian getaway.  Both Vulcano and Stromboli are home to still-active volcanoes, the latter of which treats visitors to fiery spectacles at night.

Our week-long itinerary began in Catania, from which we also visited Mount Etna and Taormina.  Next we drove south towards Agrigento to visit the Valley of the Temples and lounge at the Scala dei Turchi.  For the latter part of our trip we stayed between Scopello and Castellammare del Golfo, which served as our home base for exploring the west coast.  We spent a day hiking at the Zingaro Nature Reserve, and others visiting Erice, Trapani and two of the three Egadi Islands.  We covered a lot of ground but still have many reasons to return to Sicily.  Whatever you choose to do, be prepared for sensory overload.

Where to Eat and Drink
It would be more appropriate to label this section “WHAT to Eat and Drink” as the food in Sicily is among the best in Italy.  The cuisine is largely Mediterranean, rich in both seafood (it’s an island surrounded on all sides by water after all) and of course pasta (especially the thicker spiral-shaped busiate).  What makes eating in Sicily particularly interesting is that its culinary landscape mirrors its cultural history, drawing inspiration from all of the different cultures that once inhabited the island.  For example, regional specialties include Pasta alla Norma in Catania (made with eggplant, tomatoes and ricotta salata that’s named after Bellini’s opera Norma), Pasta con le Sarde in Palermo (made with salty sardines, pine nuts, raisins, fennel and other spices) and Busiate al Pesto Trapanese in Trapani (pesto made with almonds and tomatoes).

Pasta alla Norma in Catania

Ethnic dishes like seafood couscous are prevalent in certain parts of Sicily thanks to influence from North Africa, and one of the most popular antipasti across the island is caponata, a sweet and sour eggplant-based dish with other vegetables, pine nuts, capers and olives that’s typically served cold or at room temperature.  You’ll also find pizza everywhere and some pretty amazing street food larger cities like Palermo, with options including arancini (fried balls stuffed with rice and other fillings like meat or cheese) and sfincione (thick rectangular focaccia-like pizza). Beyond all of the bountiful citrus fruit and produce, other specialty items around Sicily range from pistachios from Bronte to chocolate from Modica.

Sicilian pizza and antipasti

You can’t talk about food in Sicily without mentioning the sweets!  The gelato has some of the most intense flavors I’ve ever tasted (especially the pistachio and chocolate), and I developed a newfound love for granita, a semi-frozen treat made from water, sugar and a kaleidoscope of fruit and nut flavors.  And in Sicily, it’s perfectly acceptable to order gelato or granita at breakfast, which is typically served in or with a sweet brioche roll.  Other desserts range from the marzipan-wrapped cassata cake to the beloved cannoli (best when the fried pastry tubes are filled-to-order with sweet ricotta cream and garnished with chocolate chips or chopped nuts).

Sweets in Sicily

Like the remainder of Italy, coffee is a way of life and it’s worth nothing that a café is a single shot of espresso that is typically ordered throughout the day and that cappuccino should never be ordered after breakfast hours.  In addition to all of the wonderful wine in Sicily, Aperol spritz is one of the most popular beverages for aperitivo and after dinner drinks range from limoncello to herbal digestives like amaro.

Aperol spritz apertivo

Where to Stay
We booked accommodations in two different places so that we could spend time exploring both eastern and western Sicily.  For the first part of our trip we stayed at the B&B Antiche Volte in Catania.  Located in the historic core of the city just west of the main thoroughfare Via Etna, the hotel is a convenient 15-20 minute walk from most major sites and transportation hubs.  From a handful of traditional rooms and modern apartments we chose a Classic room with earthy tile floors, vaulted fresco ceilings and a large bathroom, which we found to be both charming and spacious.  Rates were very affordable and included breakfast in the mornings with a variety of sweets and pastries, fruit, meat, cheese, yogurt, juices and made-to-order coffee.  Private parking was also available for a small daily fee.  The staff at Antiche Volte were especially pleasant and accommodating, which made for a truly lovely stay.

B&B Antiche Volte in Catania

During the second part of our trip we were looking for a more rustic experience and found just that at Casale la Macina.  Located about an hour west of Palermo near Castellammare del Golfo, this former olive estate turned bed and breakfast felt more rural, but was actually pretty central in terms of the cities and sites we planned to visit in western Sicily.  The staff was very friendly and were able to accommodate our request for a specific Superior room (now listed as a Suite on the website) with beautiful exposed stone walls.  The room itself was quite large and the bathroom had great lighting, which is something I feel is often hit or miss.  Casale la Macina also offers private residence accommodations with more space and a kitchen if you prefer to stay in your own personal cottage on the property.

Casale la Macina in Castellammare del Golfo

Each morning we were treated to an amazing breakfast spread of homemade cakes and pastries, along with bread, cereals, fruit, jams, meat, cheese, olives, juices and coffee that was always brought to us with a warm smile in the light-filled breakfast room.  There is also a small bar inside to order coffee, beer, wine or other beverages throughout the day, which was a nice perk for late afternoons of relaxing/napping by the gorgeous pool set among olive trees after a hectic day of sightseeing.  We definitely enjoyed staying at Casale la Macina and loved having access to a lot of different things within a reasonable driving distance of 45 minutes or less (plus the Guidaloca beach about a 10 minute walk away).  The only challenge was being so isolated in the countryside at night when we’re typically used to staying in a more urban environment where we can walk to and from dinner.

Also Good to Know
We went to Sicily expecting something very different than mainland Italy based on things we had heard and read before.  Things like how Sicily is a more extreme version of Italian culture (in both positive and negative ways), that it’s more chaotic and unorganized (except for the organized crime, aka the mafia) and that the big cities are dirty and in disrepair.  And while we only experienced a portion of Sicily, I found none of these statements to be true.  Rather, the people were all charming, the cities and scenery were lovely and the food was nothing short of amazing.  A better way to think of Sicily would be a smaller, more rural and spread out version of the mainland.  Another interesting observation was that a majority of the tourists we encountered were Italians.  So if that tells you anything it’s that Sicily is definitely one of Italy’s best kept secrets.

Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro

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