Italy is a wonderland of breathtaking architecture, deeply-rooted history, and, of course, mouthwatering cuisine. The mainland, however, receives much of the limelight. On your next adventure in search of “la dolce vita,” why not plan a trip to Sicily, a magical destination that’s home to all the above and more?
Its ancient towns are steeped in mystery, mythology, and legends. It has a lush, citrus-speckled countryside and turquoise-rimmed coast. Located off the toe of Italy’s boot, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and a treasure-trove destination filled with precious landmarks reflecting each civilization that conquered the island throughout a turbulent history. While exploring Sicily, you’ll see marks left by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and even the Spanish.
The most convenient way to get around the island is by car, but if driving in Italy makes you nervous and time isn’t of the essence, there are always trains and buses.
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily. Its somber color scheme comes from the use of lava as building material and adds an intriguing quality to the city. Look for Via Vittorio Emanuele II, the main boulevard that extends from the port through the old city, passing the grand Piazza del Duomo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, keep an eye out for the Baroque-Norman Catania Cathedral and the jaunty Fontana dell’Elefante, a Roman statue of an elephant carved from volcanic basalt rock.
Make a pit-stop for a ricotta-filled cannoli sprinkled with pistachios and continue toward the late 19th-century Teatro Massimo Bellini opera house near the Piazza Vincenzo Bellini. Named after the famous 19th-century Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini, the opera house is a stunning masterpiece that was planned 200 years before being built.
Break up all of the grey with a stroll through Giardino Bellini, an urban park with gardens and playgrounds. Located at the base of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, Catania is an excellent jumping point for hikes up the mountain. The fertile volcanic soil has also been used for viniculture, and wine tasting is a fairly new yet increasingly popular pastime.
To eat like a local, look out for Trattorias or Osterias tucked away on the side streets. Pair the seafood with fresh pasta, like spaghetti frutti di mare (seafood spaghetti) or pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines and anchovies). Don’t be turned off by the black spaghetti, which gets its color from cuttlefish ink. If you like eggplant, pasta alla norma is your dish.
From Catania, the bus to Taormina lasts a little over one hour. Known as a resort getaway, Taormina is a flashy cultural jewel and one of Sicily’s main attractions, boasting an incredible view of the glittering Ionian Sea from its perch. The main road through the old town is Corso Umberto, a perfect place for window shopping and eating. At the opposite end of the stores are must-see landmarks like the medieval Cathedral of Taormina.
The real show-stopper, however, is the ancient yet amazingly-preserved Greco-Roman theatre, filled with 10,000 seats and dating back to the 3rd century BC. Head down the hill towards the sea and you’ll find a few small beaches, including Isola Bella island.
When you get hungry, there are a few fantastic spots with special pizza menus ranging from €9-€12 a piece. If you want to be fancy, try sea urchin, a delicacy in Sicily during the winter months.
Messina is the third largest city on the island, but it lacks the hustle and bustle of Catania and feels incredibly peaceful. Messina is the port of call for visitors arriving from mainland Italy. If you’re a fan of Greek mythology and Homer, don’t forget to wave hello to mythological creatures Scylla and Charybdis from the Odyssey, who are believed to each guard opposite ends of the Strait.
Messina’s downtown is intersected by wide avenues and beautiful, grand buildings. In the distance, the hilly mountainsides can be seen. The modern infrastructure is the result of two reconstruction efforts at the beginning of the 20th century, following an earthquake and tsunami in 1908 that killed 60,000 people and nearly destroyed all of Messina, and again after air bombings during World War II. Even before that time, Messina fell victim to devastating earthquakes and tsunamis.
Although there aren’t as many historic landmarks still standing as in other cities in Sicily, you should visit Messina’s Duomo, a lovely Roman Catholic church that was initially built in the 12th century but periodically rebuilt after each devastation. Also, take a close look at the cathedral’s bell tower and unique astronomical clock with zodiac symbols, the largest clock of its kind in the world.
For a little midday snack, try arancini balls (or cones). These are deep-fried pockets of rice filled with flavorful ragu, different cheeses, and sometimes vegetables.
Cefalù and Palermo
Try to incorporate seaside Cefalù and Sicilian capital Palermo into your coastal adventure. In Cefalù, Arab-Norman architecture, sandy beaches decorated with colorful boats, and Byzantine art make the already charming village, cradled between rocky cliffs and the Tyrrhenian Sea, shine. It may be enticing to stick to the lovely medieval streets through town, but also visit the local cathedral, known for an imposing Norman facade and a breathtaking mosaic of Christ Pantocrator inside. From anywhere in Cefalù, look up and you’ll see the cathedral’s towers peeking at you from above the other buildings.
Palermo, on the other hand, is the island’s capital, largest city, and heartbeat. Start at the Baroque Piazza Vigliena, known locally as the Quattro Canti square, and venture outward in any direction, because it’s in the center of the historic town.