Most of the island’s attractions are cultural or scenic, with only a few water parks offering family fun. But in Sicily, visiting the city is always more than “just” visiting the city. Its combination of history, mild climate and a vibrant contemporary eating and drinking scene gives this ancient island a year-round charm.
Do not underestimate the distances by car, the summer temperatures, or the extension of vast archaeological sites such as the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. And try to take into account the abundance of off-piste exploration and some of the ever-growing experiences of visitors to Sicily, from cooking classes to wine tastings and trekking on Mount Etna.
For more Sicily inspiration, check out our guides to the best hotels, restaurants, nightlife, beaches and things to do on the island.
Discover a historic melting pot in the capital
Ruled in history by Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards, Palermo is a fascinating historical mix and, with its palms, prickly pears and banyan trees, also a botanical melting pot. Do not miss the glorious 12th century mosaics in the Martorana church (aka Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio) or the private chapel of Roger II, the Palatine Chapel; and dedicates half a day to the journey up to the upper Monreale, whose cathedral boasts even more dazzling mosaics from the Norman era. For a complete change of pace, visit Palazzo Riso’s contemporary art gallery before exploring the Kalsa area just back from the port, filled with weathered Baroque churches and palaces and dotted with trendy bars and restaurants.
Expert tip: Many of Palermo’s treasured churches are under the ‘Circuito del Sacro’ umbrella – make sure you keep your full ticket for the first one you visit as you are entitled to a discount on all the others.
Explore the town’s beaches and Norman architecture
To the east of Palermo, on the northern coast of Sicily, lies Cefalù. The town’s location on a promontory under a high ruined cliff with a castle top, its long waterfront – partly built, partly sandy city beaches – bathed in the azure Mediterranean is astonishing. The narrow streets of its medieval old town pulsate with life. Above it rise the twin towers of the city’s remarkable Cathedral, a Norman cathedral begun in 1131. You can feel the Arab influence in the architecture of this beautiful church, but the superb mosaics in the apse and along the side walls are pure Byzantium. .
Expert tip: At the western end of the historic center, the simple medieval Porta Pescara is the only historic gate in Cefalù left standing. On the beautiful beach beyond, sun worshipers relax among brightly colored fishing boats. It is the place to watch the sunset.
Visit a lovely town with a lively ancient theater
Discovered by European travelers and winter sun lovers as early as the 18th century, it is not difficult to understand the charm of Taormina, which combines a breathtaking position – on a distant spur of Etna, dominating the east coast of the island – with a mild climate that allows jasmine and bougainvillea to bloom even in December. Its fame, and the postcard views of Etna from the Greek Theater of the city (actually a predominantly Roman construction of the 1st century AD), make it the most visited city in Sicily: in high season (from Easter to the end of October) there are days when the city bursts at the seams. But it’s still an undeniably nice place to spend a few days, and its proximity to Mount Etna means it’s easy to combine with eastern Sicily’s other major tourist attraction: the rise of the volcano.
Expert tip: The ancient theater of Taormina still performs its original function, with an extremely eclectic program of classical and contemporary music, opera, theater and dance concerts that span the summer months. Check the schedule and buy tickets through this site.
Take a hike around the highest volcano in Europe
Sicily is seething with volcanic activity, but Etna, which dramatically dominates the east coast of the island, is its rumbling and foamy epicenter. You can drive to the Sapienza di Nicolosi mountain hut on the southern slope and hop on the cable car almost to the top, for skiing in the winter or for traversing eerie black lava fields in the warmer months. The trails are rough and often poorly marked, so a qualified guide is recommended. The excellent Sicily Into Nature offers a wide range of volcano hiking adventures.
Expert tip: The vine has been cultivated in the mineral-rich soils of the volcano since ancient times, but only recently have Etna wines become of high quality and very chic. Learn all about them at Etna Wine School, where American sommelier Benjamin Spenser offers a series of personalized tours and tastings.
Explore an ancient Greek power base
In the fifth century BC Syracuse was as large and almost as important as Athens, the main city of Mediterranean Magna Graecia. In recent years it has undergone something of a renaissance, when visitors and seekers of a second home discover the charm of its historic center of Ortigia, which is surrounded by the sea on all sides and connected to the “modern” westward extension of the city by three short bridges.
Do not miss the Archaeological Park, with its 5th century BC theater where in summer the representations of ancient Greece are still represented (information and reservations here), and the Duomo, a Baroque cathedral built by filling the spaces between the columns of the Greek temple di Minerva – eloquent testimony of the depth of the history of this fascinating town.
Expert tip: Valiant knights fight against the Saracens in the ancient traditional puppet theater of Syracuse. Live it at the Puppet Theater which organizes puppeteering courses for all ages.
Wander the sandstone towns and taste the chocolate
The baroque triangle of the deep south of Sicily has exquisite honey-colored sandstone towns, built in a harmonious style by the island’s Spanish rulers after the devastating earthquake of 1693. Modica drapes its splendor between two valleys and their confluence. Ragusa is a divided city: bridges over a ravine connect lower Ragusa Ibla to upper upper Ragusa. The views of the surrounding countryside are superb: capture them from the Ibleo Park of Ragusa. Even more impressive are the views along the steep stairways that connect the upper and lower city of Ragusa.
Expert tip: Modica is famous for its grainy chocolate, made according to what people claim is an Aztec recipe reported by the conquistadors. The oldest and best producer, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, offers tours and tastings.
Stroll through a grandiose Greek temple
For sheer splendor, the Greek temple complexes of western and southern Sicily rival anything you can find in Greece, and those of Agrigento are arguably the most impressive of all. The archaeological site of the Valley of the Temples extends over a large area and includes two almost complete temples and the partially reconstructed ruins of three others. Accessible from within the archaeological site (but with different management, with an extra ticket), the dreamy Gardens of the Kolymbethra contain a wonderfully restored example of a traditional Sicilian garden, or citrus grove.
Expert tip: Watch the sun rise over the temples, explore underground tunnels and necropolises, or visit at night for beautiful illumination – there is a series of special-access guided tours, in English, via the Valley of the Temples website. It is a good way to avoid the crowds.
Admire the intricate mosaics inside a Roman villa
The Roman mosaics found in the 19th century in Casale, three miles south of Piazza Armerina, are among the richest and most intricate in situ collections in the world. A large complex in use from the 4th century BC to the 12th century AD, the villa most likely belonged to the owner of a large estate, and would have been used to entertain guests and as a base for hunting trips. The site is worth a detour. The artists (possibly from Africa) who designed these floors had a real knack for color and composition, and the friezes depicting marine animals, hunting scenes, the circus and famous gymnasts in bikinis are all absolutely delightful.
Expert tip: Memories of the 12th-century Norman reign in Sicily are everywhere, including the superbly austere Grand Priory of Sant’Andrea, 3km from Piazza Armerina, a Crusader church built by the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. The Palio dei Normanni in mid-August in Piazza Armerina is a beautiful re-enactment of the battles of the knights against the Saracens.
Enjoy the archeology on the beach
Selinunte, located on the southern coast of Sicily between Mazara del Vallo and Sciacca, stands proud on a coastal promontory carpeted with wild flowers and celery that gives the site its name. Here only a magnificent temple (of seven) has been reconstructed, overlooking an endless expanse of glittering Med. Seven miles northeast of the archaeological park, Cave di Cusa (open daily, by appointment via the site of Selinunte) was the place where the stone used in the temples of Selinunte was extracted. Suddenly abandoned in 409 BC, it is a fascinating place, with large sections of columns, carved in situ, anchored in the mother rock.
Expert tip: It can get hot to visit Selinunte – with its 270 hectares, Europe’s largest archaeological park – so grab water, put on a hat, and bring your bathing suit for a post-cultural dip from the miles of sandy beaches east of the archaeological site. in the nature of the Mouth of Belice Riserva.
Discover the ruins near the north coast
With a classic Greek appearance like any other Sicilian temple, that of Segesta is actually an impostor, built (although never fully completed) in the Doric style by a local Hellenized tribe around 420 BC. Close to the north coast, it’s a pleasant day trip from Palermo or Trapani. A well-preserved temple sits romantically on the crest of a hill; through a small valley on a hill overlooking, the excavation still active continues with the remains of a Roman theater, a Norman castle, a mosque and a fifteenth-century church, evidence of the long and varied history of Segesta. Visit in spring and the whole area is a riot of wildflowers.
Expert tip: Ruined mosques aren’t the only reminder around here that the island was ruled by Muslim emirs from the 9th to 11th centuries. The area around Trapani is famous for its couscous, traditionally served with a delicious mix of seafood. You will find it on the menu of most local trattorias. But if you are here in the last week of September, check out the CousCousFest in San Vito lo Capo.