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“I am not Italian, I am Sicilian”. Words from the lips of my husband, whose family hails from the southeastern coast of Sicily. While Sicily is technically a region of Italy, it differs greatly and has a complete identity of its own. In fact, when travelling in Sicily, you’ll often question yourself, is it part of Italy at all?
Getting to know Sicily
Having travelled through the country of Italy pretty extensively, Sicily is the region where I have spent the greatest amount of time, and have explored the greatest in-depth.
In the 10 years, I have been going to the island, I can tell you that it is nothing like any other region in the country. If you were blindfolded and dropped into the heart of Sicily, you may struggle to identify where you are, because everything from the culture, language, architecture and even the cuisine differs so much from the mainland.
In fact, I can’t tell you how many people have told me after returning from a holiday there how surprised they were to travel to Sicily and struggle to understand the locals because locals speak the Sicilian dialect, which is totally different from the Italian taught in lessons and in guidebooks.
Nonetheless, Sicily is a pleasant surprise for anyone wishing to travel there and while the island definitely has its challenges and differences, you won’t find many other places with a such a diversity in culture, mouth-watering food, stunning beaches and warm-hearted people.
So if you ask me is it worth visiting Sicily? Of course! But there are some things you should know before you travel to Sicily which you should take note of.
Planning a trip to Sicily
Sicily is a very diverse island and, there is so much to see and do that planning a trip to Sicily can take time. While it may look small and compact, Sicily’s top sights are pretty spread out and it would be impossible to see and do everything in one trip. To plan your trip to Sicily, you first want to decide how long you want to travel to Sicily for because this will greatly determine where you should go, how much you can see and your overall experience on the island.First time visiting Sicily? See my suggested top destinations and must-sees by clicking here!
The best time to visit Sicily
Sicily is one of only a few destinations in Europe that I would recommend visiting at any time of the year. If you want to avoid crowds and hot temperatures, you’ll want to travel in the Spring or Fall time, from March to June and October through to November.
Extreme temperatures, crowds and higher costs can be expected in July, August and September, so advanced planning in these months are especially important as hotels, resorts, ferries and beaches will be at their busiest. Sicily is one of the hottest regions in Italy with temperatures soaring well into the 90s (30 degree Celsius plus) in July and August. If you suffer from heat-related health issues avoid these two months.
The off-season (November to March) can be chilly, but you’ll at least have the sights and much of the island to yourself. Note that some services won’t be available in this period, particularly in the tourist towns because hotels will be closed for renovations and certain resorts, shops and restaurants only operate in peak season.
How to travel around Sicily
When planning a trip to Sicily, be sure to plan your cities in a logical route. You’ll want to avoid skipping from south to north, to west then east as you’ll waste a lot of time travelling in between.
Roads and infrastructure in Sicily are very different to the richer regions on the mainland of Italy, so travelling from point to point, especially if you plan on using public transport takes time.
Decide if you want to travel around Sicily by car (my recommended method), or be more adventurous and use public transport. Public transport in Sicily is sparse and unpredictable outside the main cities. Trains connect most of the large cities and buses fill the gaps, but slow services, reduced schedules on weekends and festivals make this quite challenging.
Do not underestimate distances in Sicily
Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean and while it may look small, it actually takes over 3 hours to drive to Palermo to Siracusa. A lot of people underestimate the distances in Sicily, and some don’t even realise that there are some small mountains in Sicily (excluding Mount Etna) that makes driving distances even longer as most of the highways tend to be built around them rather than through them.
Don’t be fooled into thinking you can do Palermo, Siracusa and, Taormina ins a quick 3 or 4 days. These 3 cities alone need a minimum of 7 nights.
Renting a car in Sicily
Renting a car in Sicily is our preferred method of getting around the island and my biggest recommendation for anyone travelling to Sicily.
If you have limited time, renting a car will give you the maximum amount of freedom, flexibility and it will save you so much time. Always make sure you book your car well in advance if you are travelling in peak season as car availability is scarce in the months of July and August.
I also highly recommend renting a small car because parking is a big issue is the big cities and at popular beach sites. Sicily also has narrow streets and tight roads, so if you hire a big SUV don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting stuck with on-coming traffic.
Crazy Sicilian Drivers
Sicilians have a bit of a reputation for being some of the worst drivers in Italy. They will cut you up, pull out of streets in front of you, drive super fast (often very recklessly) and their parking abilities are abysmal.
So if you end up renting a car in Sicily, be super cautious, always check multiple times before pulling out of an intersection and be on the lookout for youngsters driving on scooters as they often speed along the streets during the summer without the required protective gear on to and from the beach and are often the casualties of road accidents in the summer.
Tips for Travelling in Sicily
Sicily can make even the most experienced traveller wrecked with nerves with its carefree attitude to timetables, lack of infrastructure and nonchalant approach to getting anything done on time. If you travel to Sicily with an open mind, positive attitude, a go with the flow approach and armed with the best information, you’ll have the most incredible experience and you’ll be wanting to go back to the island time and time again. My tips for travelling to Sicily are made up of first-hand experiences and advice that family members have given to me to pass on to friends and family who have travelled to Sicily. So I hope you find these useful in planning and navigating your away around this beautiful island.
Sicilian dialect is different from Italian
I thought I was going crazy. I had practised speaking Italian and I was even taking a course so I could speak to my then-boyfriend (now husband) in his native language, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand anyone in Sicily. That is because they speak in the Sicilian dialect which is totally different (almost a completely different language) to traditional Italian.
English is widely spoken and understood in many of the touristic areas in Sicily, but the moment you travel away and get into the more rural areas, you’ll find locals only speak the Sicilian dialect. I highly recommend learning some key phrases in Italian before you go to Sicily because at the very least if you speak some Italian, they will understand you and the communication won’t be completely broken down. If you get truly stuck, use a translation app or ask a younger local who may be able to understand broken English.
Cash is king in Sicily. You’ll need to have euros in cash to pay for multiple things in Sicily, from toll roads, shopping in markets, parking fees, some entry tickets and of course espressos and ice creams!
ATMs are widely available so you can easily withdraw cash as you need it but use only ATMs that are attached to banks as others are privately owned and can charge you a high fee for withdrawing.
Be careful if you carry large sums of money with you. I highly suggest only carrying enough cash on you that you need and hiding the rest of the cash out of sight or in a different wallet. Certainly don’t flash cash around in cafes, restaurants or supermarkets and do not carry your wallet in your back pockets.
Be also mindful of being short-changed. This happens fairly regularly, especially from market stallholders so always count your change.
Eat Granita for breakfast every day
You know the saying “When in Rome?”. Well, when in Sicily, do what the locals do and indulge in a granita for breakfast. This slushy like ice cream is made entirely from fruit and ice and it is often served in a glass with a warm brioche (like sweet soft bread). Typically flavours are strawberry (Fragola), lemon (Limone), Mandola (Almond), Coffee (Caffe) and Mixed Berries (Gelsi) although I have also seen Orange (Arancia), Pistachio (Pistachio) and Chocolate.
Prepare to slow down and adapt to the Sicilian time
Like many Mediterranean countries, many shops and businesses take a siesta or “pausa pomeridiana” and close between 1:00 pm and 4:30 pm (sometimes even later). So if you want to get your groceries, I highly recommend getting them in the morning. Afternoons, especially in the summer months, are for resting, as the heat of the midday is often very strong. You’ll even see most locals leave the beach around noon to go for lunch and stay out of the strong sun and return later around 4:00 pm.
If you use public transport in Sicily, prepare for trains and buses to arrive and depart late. As I said earlier, schedules are more like guidelines and you can never rely on arriving anywhere on time.
Visit markets in the morning
If you want to shop locally and enjoy some of the freshest and most delicious produce while in Sicily, you’ll want to head to the local outdoor markets for your groceries. Some of the most famous ones are in Ortigia (Siracusa), Catania’s fish market in Piazza Carlo Alberto and Palermo’s Ballaro.
But head there early morning. This is not only the coolest time of the day, but it is when the fresh fish is laid out. If you wait until the afternoon, you’ll often find no fish left. Bread (pane) is also best purchased either in the morning or late afternoon from a bakery (panettiere) when they reopen after the siesta.
Outdoor markets in Sicily are an incredible experience and it will heighten all your senses. The colours, smell and sounds of the market merchants shouting to sell their fresh fish is a fun experience!
Don’t mention the “M” word
While Hollywood may have glorified the mafia in films like The Godfather, Sicilian’s have actually had to deal with the consequences of the Mafia in real life for over a century and the fastest way to get a Sicilian on the defensive is to bring the Mafia up. While the Mafia’s firm grip on the island has loosened in recent decades, organised crime is still prevalent in Sicily, and many business owners still have to pay a second form of tax that goes to organised crime for so-called protection to be allowed to operate their businesses without problems.
Tourists are extremely unlikely to be directly affected by any mob violence or dealings with the Mafia, and in fact, if you do brush shoulders with a Mafia member you won’t even know it.
There are hundreds of establishments, hotels and restaurants in Sicily that have said no to organised crime. In Palermo, you can grab a “pizzo-free” map of places that have signed an anti-extortion charter.
Sicily is safe
It is a question that I get asked a lot from friends and family who think about travelling to Sicily for their holiday. Sicily is very safe and it is a wonderful destination for families as well as couples, so you should ignore anything negative that you read online. Solo travellers (especially females) may want to stick to the big cities and avoid taking public transport alone, as they may fall victim to pickpocketing. I also wouldn’t recommend driving around Sicily alone if you’re not familiar with driving in Italy.
The people of Sicily are very welcoming and kind, and as long as you stick to the main tourist sites, you’ll manage just fine without the need to speak Italian. Wander off the beaten path a little and you’ll still find the warm hospitality, just with a little less English.
There are plenty of family-friendly places in Sicily and some beautiful seaside resorts for those who want a typical beach holiday and some sightseeing, while others may want to be on the road exploring 24/7. Whichever option you choose, you’ll have a fantastic time in Sicily and will surely want to return again and again.
Sicilian Opening Hours & Planning Ahead
One of the biggest challenges we have found when travelling in Sicily is the sporadic opening and closing times of sights, restaurants, cafes and shops. As I mentioned above, most businesses, including sights and archaeological sites close during lunchtime, typically from 12:00 pm to around 4 or 5 pm in the afternoon. Some also do not allow admission from 1 hour before closing time.
On top of that, some sights and shops also close on Mondays. But then there are others that are open every day of the week in the peak season (April to mid-October). My biggest advice would be to always plan one or two days ahead and always check the opening and closing times of sights. We have arrived at a few places in the past and found them to be closed so always check before setting off for the day or plan ahead one or two days.
If you travel in low season this advice also applies as some sights will operate limited hours.
Avoid the weekends on the beach
During the summer months, the weekends (Sunday is the worst) are typically the busiest days on the beach as locals who work during the week also go there. This can mean crowded beaches, limited loungers and parking and in some lidos, higher fees. Whenever we go to Sicily in the summer, we always find alternative activities to do on the weekends, such as exploring on of Sicily’s cities or going only going to the beach very early morning before the crowds arrive. Leave it to 10 am and it is already too late.
Religion is a big deal in Sicily and no doubt you’ll visit one or two churches during your explorations. If you plan on entering any church or Duomo, you must ensure your shoulders and knees are covered at all times as a sign of respect. You should also remove any hats, and respect the rules inside churches in regards to photography and noise.
Many (but not all) churches are open in the morning from 8 till 12, and some are open after 4 PM. Some churches may also charge an admission to enter certain areas of the premises including museums, domes or cloisters.
Eat as much local cuisine as you can
If you’re a big foodie, then travelling to Sicily will surely give you a mouthgasm. Sicilian cuisine isn’t too different from normal Italian cuisine, except Sicilian’s love to experiment with flavour. Sicily has a great variety of locally grown produce from lemons, to pistachios, oregano and tomatoes to name but a few, so you’re definitely in for a treat when it comes to mealtimes.
Since Sicily is an island, you can expect to find a lot of fresh fish in Sicilian diets including Bluefin Tuna, Swordfish, Octopus, Squid and a lot of shellfish.