Sicily Guide: The Magnificent Island
Dive Into The Most Fascinating Of The Mediterranean Islands
Sicily is the largest of the Mediterranean islands and has a cultural richness that makes it unique. In the past this island has been inhabited by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines and Normans and all have left their mark. The traditions, temples and cities of these diverse visitors still influence the island’s character today. From food to festivals, from architecture to traditional music, all this cultural heritage is now part of the fabric of this unique island.
Sicily’s natural beauty is wild and breathtaking. It is a volcanic island, with Mount Etna dominating the skyline. The nearby archipelago of the Aeolian Islands is also volcanic, with magical places like Stromboli. Every evening the sky above this island lights up with a natural firework display of volcanic activity. The north of the island has some lovely nature reserves including Monti Sicani and Alcantara River Park. There are a further 70 nature reserves and 7 marine protected areas around the island. A nature-lover’s paradise!
Aside from the culture and architecture of Sicily, the one feature of this island that keeps travellers returning is the beauty of its sea. The crystal-clear waters vary from light turquoise to deep shades of lapis lazuli blue, creating a stunning coastline. Cefalù, Taormina, the Aeolian Islands, Capo Passero, Favignana and the Egadi Islands are just some of the unmissable seaside spots. Warm clear water and delicious seafood mean that Sicily on its coastline is at its unforgettable best.
Sicily has two international airports: Falcone and Borsellino Airport (Punta Raisi) in Palermo and Fontanarossa Airport in Catania. The island is connected to the mainland by the ferry Palermo – Naples and the one over the Strait of Messina. Train is another option.
The best way to get around in Sicily is to rent a car. The roads that cross this great island are often the highlight of the trip (but be careful to the distances, displacements may take time). You can also travel by train or by ferry if you are reaching the Sicilian islands.
Just 3 km from the Italian coast, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. It has an essentially hilly territory, but the north is mountainous. Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe, and the different Sicilian archipelagos complete the territory.
Sicily has a typical Mediterranean climate: hot and dry summers and mild winters. The water is warm. Average temperature in July is between 20°C and 30°C; in January between 5°C and 15°C. The inland has lower temperatures and in winter it can snow on Mount Etna.
Top 5 Things To Do In Sicily
Sicily is the result of an extraordinary mix of cultures. The ancient Greeks knew the island as Magna Grecia and left us extraordinary temples and amphitheatres, like those of Agrigento and Taormina. The Arab and Norman heritage is strong in Palermo, where the old town still offers glimpses of authentic life. Do not miss the splendid center of Syracuse, Ortygia, and the nearby city of Catania. To the south visit the Baroque towns of the Val di Noto, Modica and the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina.
Sicily boasts two UNESCO natural sites: the Mount Etna and the Aeolian Islands. With its 3000 meters high, the largest active volcano in Europe is perfect for lovers of trekking. North of Sicily, the volcanic archipelago of the Aeolian Islands offers stunning sceneries and crystal clear waters. Visit the mountains of the natural park of the Madonie or the Nebrodi Natural Park. Venture out on the beautiful islands of Favignana, Lampedusa and Pantelleria, a few kilometers from the African coast.
Said to be “God’s Kitchen”, Sicilian cuisine is a delicious mix of influences. Olive oil from the Greeks; lemons, pistachio and sugar cane from the Arabs; meet from the Normans; fish and vegetables from the sea and the land. Among the traditional dishes, the caponata – eggplants, pine nuts, a little honey and capers; pasta alla Norma – with eggplants as well; arancino – a traditional appetizer with rice and meet. Among the cakes, don’t miss the cassata, the cannoli or a jasmine sorbet.
Sicily’s most famous wine is the Marsala, a sweet wine created by the British in 1700. But beyond the tradition, over the last 20 years the Sicilians began to produce wine with great success. Taste the red wine Nero D’Avola, one of the oldest indigenous grapes, the Syrah or the Etna Rosso, born on the rich, fertile volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. As white wine try the Bianco D’Alcamo and with desserts taste one of the traditional sweet wines, such as Malvasia and Passito di Pantelleria.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites In Sicily (#7)
Palermo, the major Sicilian city, is an outstanding blend of artistic traditions: punic walls, Arab-Norman buildings, baroque churches, Neoclassical theaters and liberty villas here live together. Visit the Cathedral, the Church of Saint John the Hermit with its red domes, symbol of the city, the pleasant botanical garden, Pretoria Square and the beautiful Spasimo Church in the old traditional area of Kalsa. The most fascinating street market is the Vucciria, where time seems to stand still (try panelle, a traditional appetizer). If you are looking for a swim and a fish restaurant, then go to Mondello, a few km from Palermo.
According to Cicero, Syracuse was the biggest and most beautiful city of Magna Grecia. The city rises on the eastern coast of Sicily, and its historic center, on the cape/island of Ortygia, is simply magnificent. The Temple of Apollo, of Athena, the Greek theatre, the Roman amphitheatre are not to miss, as a visit at the outdoor market in Ortygia. From May to July the Theatrical Season at the Greek Theater takes place, with the staging of the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. Close to Ortygia, the Necropolis of Pantalica contains over 5.000 tombs cut into the rock, dating from the 13th to 7th centuries BC.
Formerly known as Magna Grecia, Sicily has an extraordinary classical heritage. With its 1300 hectares, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is the world’s largest archaeological site, protected by UNESCO. Visit the ten temples, the three shrines and the several necropolis walking among old olive trees and almond trees. If you are in the north, visit the Doric temple and amphitheater of Segesta. If you are in the south, choose the wonderful complex of Selinunte overlooking the sea, in the province of Trapani. Do not miss the ancient greek theater of Syracuse, where in summer music and dance performances are held.
Catania, the city in the shadow of Etna, has a long history characterized by various dominations which enrich its heritage. The Baroque of its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage. Visit Piazza Duomo with the famous Elephant Fountain (symbol of the city). Walks to via Etnea and the ancient historic city center, including the Roman theater of the second century A.D. and the Bellini Theater, considered one of the most beautiful in Italy. End your tour at the Castello Ursino, the ancient Norman castle of Catania. Do not miss the fish market to get an idea of the bustling daily life of the town.
Cefalù and Taormina
Cefalù and Taormina are two unique fishing villages on the coast of Sicily. Cefalù is located at the foot of a rocky promontory on the north coast, in the Madonie park. The splendid cathedral of the city was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Taormina is on the east coast. Do not miss the wonderful Greek Theatre, the Cathedral and the English Gardens of the Villa Comunale, where you can enjoy a beautiful view of the coast. Lose yourself among the quaint shops of Corso Umberto I. Both towns attract many tourists thanks to the beauty of the nearby beaches.
Val di Noto Baroque Towns
Following the earthquake of Val di Noto in 1693, the largest ever recorded in Italy, the major urban centers of a large area in the southeast of Sicily were reduced to rubble. The earthquake caused 60,000 casualties. In the early decades of the eighteenth century the reconstruction began. The cities were rebuilt according to the taste of the time. This is how the splendid late baroque cities that characterize the Val di Noto originate. Caltagirone, Militello, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa e Scicli have been declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 2002.
North of Sicily, the Aeolian archipelago is of volcanic origin. The main islands are Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, Panarea, Stromboli, Filicudi and Alicudi. Lipari is the biggest, Salina the greener. In Vulcano the jets of steam (fumaroles) create sulphurous mud with healing properties. Panarea is possibly the best known, for its white village and nighlife. Stromboli is dominated by the huge cone of the active volcano puffing smoke every know and then. Filicudi is magnetic, with its prehistoric village, and Alicudi wild, even rough. The entire Archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read more about Filicudi…
Called ‘a Muntagna (The Mountain) by the Sicilians, Etna is the most active volcano in Europe. Etna is also the highest Italian peak, excluding the Alps. With its 3340m., it dominates the city of Catania, on the eastern side of Sicily. Its landscape is extremely diversified: dense forests with endemic species, crops, desert areas of volcanic rocks that are covered with snow in winter, even glaciers. The terrific lunar landscape, the grand view of the sea and the incessant volcanic activity make Mount Etna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013, a destination not to be missed.
Nebrodi Natural Park
With its 86,000 ha of surface, the Nebrodi Park is the largest protected natural area of Sicily. It overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north and extends south to Mount Etna. The park is part of the Sicilian Apennines and is characterized by sweet reliefs, rich vegetation and humid environments. It includes the most important and largest woodland in Sicily and is crossed by dozens of hiking trails of varying difficulty. For experienced climbers, Mount Soro (1850 mt) is the highest peak. From here the view is stunning, with Mount Etna behind and the Aeolian Islands that can be seen to the north.
Madonie Natural Park
The Madonie Natural Park is a majestic complex of mountains overlooking the Mediterranean in the province of Palermo. Mountains reach two thousand meters high and are crossed by rivers and streams that carry water from the peaks to the sea. The park is home to more than half of the Sicilian plant species, especially endemic ones. The fauna includes more than half of the species of birds, all species of mammals and more than half of invertebrate species in Sicily. Wild boars, deer, hares, hedgehogs, foxes and butterflies live here. Ideal for trekking, horse riding, mountain bike and bird watching.
Favignana and Lampedusa Islands
The island of Favignana is known for having the most beautiful sea of the whole Sicily. West of the Italian coast, Favignana is the largest island of the Egadi. This butterfly-shaped island boasts sandy beaches, pebbly coves, caves and rocky coasts. Favignana is perfect for snorkeling and diving, as the island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, on the African continental plate. Here you will find a Caribbean sea, the beach that is known as “the most beautiful beach in the world”, Spiaggia dei Conigli (Beach of Rabbits), and then sea turtles, dolphins and a spectacular seabed. For adventurous travelers.
Scala dei Turchi
The name Scala dei Turchi derives from the past piracy raids by the Saracens and the Arabs, the Turks by convention. This coast in the province of Agrigento is in fact little windy and the landing is safe. Pirates cast anchor in front of this extraordinary cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Famous for its pure white color and rounded shapes, Scala dei Turchi is located between two sandy beaches. To access it you have to climb up a hill. Once you reach the top of the cliff, the visible landscape embraces the beautiful Sicilian coast to Cape Rossello. Very suggestive at sunset.
A Short History Of Sicily
A complete Sicily guide can’t miss the fascinating history of this island: Sicily has been inhabited since 8000 BC, in the Pleistocene epoch. Among the first well-known populations to have settled here, there are the Phoenicians, and after them the Greeks, who colonized Sicily in about 750 BC. They settled important colonies in Syracuse, Selinunte and Gela, beginning to cultivate the land with olives and grape vines, and therefore absorbing the ancient populations and creating the famous Greek civilization in south Italy, called Magna Grecia. Today Sicily is dotted by fascinating ruins of Greek temples, theatres and statues; the most famous example is possibly the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.
The longer war in ancient history erupted here, when Greek populations clushed against the Carthaginians, coming from North Africa. The Punic Wars were won by the Greeks, but only through the intervention of the Romans. Finally the Romans annexed the region, that became the “empire’s granary”. But the culture remained essentially Greek. Christianity first appeared here in 200 AD and spread quickly, when the barbarian invasions were about to erupt. From 440 AD Sicily was conquered by Vandals, Goths and Ostrogothics. In 535 AD Sicily was annexed to the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, and Sicily became a Byzantine province.
Then in 965 AD the Arabs conquered the country after defeating a strong resistance. Sicily became an Arab Emirate and, thanks to the Arab reforms, developed rapidly. Arabs encouraged the growth of smallholdings, improved the irrigation system and brought to Sicily oranges, lemons, pistachio. They brought also a refined artistic culture that is today part of the very Sicilian identity. The surprises never end and in 1068 AD Sicily was invaded by a Nordic population descendant of the Vikings: the Normans. Once arrived, the Normans quickly realized the splendor of the Sicilian culture and soon adopted it, in language, art and even in the presence of a palace of Eunuchs.
Norman Sicily became an attraction for artists, scientists and artisans, and a landmark in Europe for its tolerance, justice and culture. It was a powerful and multi-ethnic society, were Greeks, Arabs, Christians, Jews and Normans lived together, thriving. After a century, the crown of Sicily passed to the German Hohenstaufen Dynasty, then to the crown of Aragon, to the House of Savoy, the Austrian Habsburg Dynasty, and finally to the Spanish prince Charles Bourbon. In 1860 the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi landed in Sicily with 1000 men. The Expedition of the Thousand was the beginning of Italian Risorgimento, that will lead to the unification of the country. Italy was born, but this is another story.