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After 10 years of visiting the island, you could say I’ve become a little bit of an expert on the best places to visit in Sicily. There is so many destinations and must-see-sights that it can be hard to narrow it down and know which ones to visit, especially if you’re a first time visitor to the island. So I’ve listed below some of my top suggestions to help you and ensure you don’t miss any of Sicily’s highlights and I’ve included the best way to visit too!
Idyllically perched on a rocky promontory high above the sea, Taormina has been one of the best places to visit in Sicily for a couple of hundred of years and is one of my favourite places to head to in the early evening when the sun is setting and you get this amazing view.
Beautifully restored medieval buildings, breathtaking views around every corner and a giddy network of winding streets strewn with shops, bars, and restaurants make it a great place for a stroll around, with an authentic Italian atmosphere. At the very back of the town lies a Teatro Greco. As the name suggests it’s a Greek theater estimated to of been built around the 3rd Century. The views from the theater are spectacular, taking in a (usually) smoking Mount Etna and the Bay of Naxos down below.
You can drive to Taormina and park your car at the bottom of the town where there is a large multi-story car park. There is also a train station in Taormina, but this is right at the bottom of the down and you’d have to take a bus to the top or make the steep walk uphill.
2. Mount Etna
The most active volcano in Europe and by far the biggest dominating attraction in Eastern Sicily, Mount Etna is a must visit and easily one of the best places to visit in Sicily. It is an easy day trip from Catania or Taormina by bus or by car (although car is recommended). You can also take a guided tour.
If you head to Etna Sud you have the option to walk around some of the older craters on foot or take a cable car ride to 2,900m, from there it is a 2-4 hour round trip to the summit craters, although there is no need to go that far to get a good feel for the majesty of the mountain. The other point of departure is Etna Nord (Piano Provenzana) from where you may walk or take 4X4 buses up to the observatory at 2,400m. You may walk to the summit craters from there. I would highly advise to not go venturing to the main craters of Etna without a qualified guide.
3. Agrigento – Valley of the Temples
If you’re looking for the best places to visit in Sicily, then make sure you include a visit to Agrigento. The Valley of the Temples is a UNESCO archaeological park consisting of eight temples (and various other remains) built between about 510 BC and 430 BC: the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Heracles, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Temple of Hephaestos, the Temple of Demeter, and the Temple of Asclepius (the God of Medicine).
Agrigento can be visited as a day trip from Catania or Palermo although an early start is recommended. During the summer, I also recommend wearing a hat and bringing plenty of water as shady is minimal.
4. Piazza Armerina and Villa Romana del Casale
Another of Sicily’s top tourist attractions lies in Piazza Armerina, a small town in the middle of the island which I recommend visiting from Catania and by car. Some of the worlds best-preserved mosaics can be seen at the famous but remote Villa Romana del Casale ( a car is definitely needed to reach here). Schedule half a day to see and visit the entire estate.
Built in the middle of the 4th Century AD as a hunting lodge by a Roman patrician, here you can see some of the most extensive Roman mosaics. The villa is one of the most luxurious of its kind. It is especially noteworthy for the richness and quality of the mosaics which decorate almost every room; they are the finest mosaics still intact in the Roman world. The site is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and entry is around 10 Euro per person.
5. Syracuse (or Siracusa)
Siracusa is one of those places in Sicily that you have to visit. Without visiting would be like missing an essential part of the island. This city has an incredible amount of archaeological sites and some great architectural buildings.
It is by far my favourite city in Sicily. The archaeological site, situated in the northwest of the town, is home to a staggering number of well-preserved Greek (and Roman) remains. The main attraction is undoubtedly the Greek theatre that dates back at least until the 5th Century BC. There is also remains of a Roman theatre and the famous “Ear of Dionysius”, a 20m-high, slender pointed arch cut into the rock face that develops inwards for about 65m.
There are also the famous Catacombs of San Giovanni. Although not a massive highlight they are worth seeing if you have time. Running for kilometres under the city, these catacombs were excavated for the most part between 315 and 360 A.D. and remained in use until the end of the 5th century. Unfortunately, after thousands of years of looting, what survives is only the “bare bones” of the building, stripped of coloured plaster, mosaics, stone slabs, and even small objects that were incorporated into the enclosures to distinguish one tomb from another.
6. Ortigia – Siracusa’s island heart
The best way to see the island of Ortigia is just to wander. It’s difficult to get lost (it measures just 1 km by 500 meters and has lots of little streets that all look the same) but packed with over 2,500 years of history. We often come here at night as it’s a great place to soak up some Italian nightlife, wander past the harbour showcasing the yachts and sailing boats of the elite and also drop by the famous fountain of youth (La Fonte Aretusa).
Half a dozen Greek poets wrote the tale of the nymph Arethusa, who was bathing in the Alpheus River in Greece one day when the god of that river took a liking to her. She begged for deliverance from his advances, and Artemis in pity turned the nymph into a spring, allowing her to escape underground. She travelled under the sea to emerge here, in Siracusa. Alpheus, though, was hot on her heels and came gushing out in the same spot, mingling his waters with hers for eternity. Apparently this, to the Greeks, was romantic. They used to say you could toss a goblet into a spring at Arcadia in Greece and it would pop up here.
Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily, is one of those cities with its own very distinct, unique character, a city of mystery where reality often outperforms the traveler’s imagination and preconceived stereotypes.
Visiting Palermo is still somewhat of an adventure in a world where so many places have become tourist-friendly to a fault. You won’t find many restaurants with menus translated into 5 different languages, you may have trouble communicating in English in many places, and some parts of the old town center have remained untouched since they were bombed during the war.
Nonetheless, Palermo is in my opinion another of Sicily’s best places to visit and if you happen to visiting the top half of the island or are visiting for a short time, its a great place to base yourself, with a myriad of day trips from Palermo within easy reach of the city.
Sicily’s second largest city is Catania. It lies on the Eastern side of the island along the Ionian coast, sitting in the shadows beneath Mount Etna. In 1669 Catania was covered in lava from Mount Etna and then, just 24 years later in 1693, an earthquake shook the town down to its foundations.
Most of the old town was rebuilt, and as ever resourceful was rebuilt using lava, therefore Catania is described as being a rather dull and grey city. There are a couple of nice piazzas and the Duomo is worth a visit. The atmosphere is what really brings you to the city, the bustling fish markets, the people and the smells. There is a place in the city that is also renowned for horse meat if that’s your thing! Or if not give it a try..although the signature dish of Catania is Pasta alla Norma, that consists of fried chunks of aubergine, a rich tomato sauce, and salty ricotta cheese….. Buon appetito!
Catania is the ideal city base for those looking to hit up the Eastern and Southern coast, and with so many day trip options you’ll never get bored!
9. Isola Bella
Located at the foot of Taormina, this small pebble beach is one of the most iconic beaches in Sicily. You could easily spend the day there snorkelling in the crystal clear waters of the Ionian sea, rock pooling amongst the rocks, relaxing on the sun loungers or even taking a short boat trip to the caves near by.
The islet is connected the mainland beach by a very narrow strip of pebbled beach. At high tide it is covered in water but at low tide you can walk straight across.
There are two beaches here, a public beach where you can lay down your towel or a paid beach where you can hire sun loungers with umbrellas and use the lido services.
10. The Aeolian Islands
If you’re visiting Sicily for the first time, then you may not want to leave the mainland but a day trip to the Aeolian Islands just north of Sicily are not to be missed! These seven small inhabited islands are somewhat unspoiled and are very much steeped in history, myths and legends.
Most day trips to the Aeolian Islands leave from Milazzo. We took a day trip to the islands of Vulcano, Lipari, and Salina using the public ferries. Most day trips will drop you off at one of the ports on the islands. Getting around is fairly simple, you can walk around the ports and small towns easily, however, we hired a scooter so we could see as much as we could in the short 3 or 4 hours you have on each island. It allowed us to get to some remote beaches and drive through some of the small picturesque towns.
The island of Vulcano is famous for its mud baths (‘fanghi’) and its still smoking main crater. Depending on the wind, you might be immediately hit by the characteristic sulphurous smell coming from the hot springs. (Smells of rotten eggs! Yuk!) A swim in the shallow shores on the beach is also good fun, with thermal hot water seeping through the rocks bubbling to the surface. It is almost like a natural jacuzzi.
I would advise bringing water shoes here as the rocks can be quite slippery and sharp. There’s a shower on the beach if you want to have a rinse and the sulphur smell sticks to your skin! It’s 1 Euro for about 60 seconds. There also isn’t a great deal of choice in restaurants. We bought a small packed lunch with us anyway and 2 bottles of water with us in a backpack!