In the spring of 2018, I invested three busy weeks in Sicily, circling the island to put the finishing touches on our new Rick Steves Sicily manual– which is readily available now. Throughout that journey, I collected 10 preferred useful suggestions for taking a trip in Sicily. Unique thanks to the book’s co-author, Sarah Murdoch, and contributing author Alfio di Mauro for their hard work and abundant insights. Amuni!
For a great sampling of Sicily, plan to check out a mix of huge cities (Palermo, Siracusa); smaller sized towns (Ragusa, Trapani, Taormina, Cefalù); and striking sights in the countryside (Mount Etna, ancient temples and theaters, the glittering mosaics at Monreale Cathedral). With more time, consider adding your choice of other towns: Agrigento (with its impressive ancient temples), additional time in Siracusa (for its ancient websites and wonderful urban bustle), Ragusa (for its subtle hill town atmosphere), Trapani (a pleasant west coast town with a selection of tempting side-trips, from salt flats to hill towns to overseas islets), and the beach town of Cefalù.
Pig out on street food.
The island’s food– which is noticeably various from mainland Italy’s– is, like Sicily, an unique mix of cultural impacts. Sicily is renowned for its street food. To sample a number of items in one go, simply wander through one of the particular street markets in Palermo or Catania … or join a street food trip.
Celebration with the Sicilians.
Most towns celebrate their customer saint’s day by processing through the streets with a fancy float (or numerous). I occurred to be in the pristine town of Noto during their biggest celebration of the year, the Infiorata di Noto. The town square hosted cooking demonstrations, and every restaurant in town was highlighting an unique cheese-forward dish.
Read up on ancient history.
In antiquity, Sicily was called Magna Graecia– “Greater Greece”– for the many Hellenic city-states that colonized the island. Ancient Syracuse (today’s Siracusa) was one of the most powerful city-states on the Mediterranean. Sicily was also a station of the mysterious Carthaginians, who were almost totally erased by the Romans. And all of these civilizations left behind world-class artifacts. Scattered throughout Sicily are some of the best ancient Greek temples and theaters anywhere outside of Greece: the Valley of the Forehead at Agrigento; Europe’s biggest historical location at Selinunte; and the theaters in Taormina, Siracusa, and Segesta. The cathedral in Ortigia (Siracusa’s old town) is really built on the still-visible columns of a fifth-century B.C. temple. And deep in the remote interior of Sicily is the Rental property Romana del Casale, with some of the world’s best-preserved floor mosaics. If you enjoy ancient websites, Sicily will blow your mind. If you do not … there’s no better place to start.
Check Out Mount Etna for its incredible volcanic sights– and its wine.
Mount Etna, which (literally) generated Sicily, is among Europe’s most available active volcanoes. A cable car blends you halfway up the mountain, and from there, you can get on a monster-truck bus nearly all the way to the smoldering top. (It tends to be clear first thing in the early morning, then clouds over just as it gets crowded a few hours later– it’s wise to be on the very first cable car, at 9:00.) But Mount Etna is also home to among Italy’s many enjoyable wine-growing regions. My favorite stretch– picturesque and still relatively off the beaten path– is on the north side of Etna, in between the towns of Linguaglossa and Randazzo. The Etna wine scene has actually taken off in recent years, garnering a growing number of worldwide attention. And even if you’re not into white wines, the scenery is spectacular: vineyards stretching up sun-baked slopes toward the steaming, snow-capped cone of Etna. Numerous picturesque wineries offer trips and tastings; it’s customary to call a day or two ahead to let them know you’re coming. (Some preferred finds for the upcoming manual include the swanky Tenuta di Fessina, the cheerful Fattoria Romeo del Castello, and the family-run, nicely subtle Filippo Grasso.) If you’re serious about red wine, Etna Wine School– operated by an American vintner expat who literally wrote the book on Etna wines– offers personal trips.
Be prepared for heat and hills.
Many of Sicily’s best sights are dusty ancient landmarks, requiring a walking to reach, with little shade. And essentially nothing in Sicily sits on flat ground– you’ll experience hills, hills, and more hills. Sicily is one of Europe’s most appealing winter locations.
Loosen up in the hill towns of the southeast.
Sicily can be extreme. And it’s one part of Sicily where most tourists aren’t Americans, or even northern Europeans– however Italians. About midway through my three-week journey around Sicily, I found Ragusa and the surrounding countryside to be the best location to settle in and just relax.
Peel back the layers of history.
Tactically located in the middle of the Mediterranean– practically forming a bridge from Italy to North Africa– Sicily’s culture has actually been formed by a shocking range of overlords and occupiers. From the ancient foundations of the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans, to the Arabs who managed Sicily for more than 2 centuries (and, throughout that time, highly developed the island), to the Normans from France who “reclaimed” Sicily for the Christian world and slathered its churches with Byzantine-style mosaics, to the Spanish Bourbon kings who curtained the island in a magnificent Baroque elegance, and even to the mafia who dominated much of Sicily’s 20th century (and whose impact is lastly on the wane) … Sicily is a pastiche of history.
Precede it’s too late.
In just a couple of brief years, Sicily has rapidly ended up being “all set for prime time.” Cities (like Siracusa or Palermo) that were rough, rugged, and a little unsafe have actually been prettied up and pedestrianized. I discovered great deals of European tourists … however fairly couple of American ones. I was likewise struck by the relative lack of crowds– even in late Might, when the weather condition’s perfect and mainland Italian cities like Venice and Florence are overrun. All of that is bound to alter in the next few years, as more people discover what an excellent spot Sicily is. Go now, prior to the feline’s out of the bag.
Accept Sicily on Sicily’s terms.
Street food stand.
Sicily is a perfect “deep cut” for Italy lovers who’ve already seen Venice, Florence, and Rome, and desire to experience an element of Italy that’s more intense and tough. Sicily feels more like Mexico than like Milan. It takes a few days to change to the island’s distinct rhythms, however once you do, it’s easy to get swept away by Sicily.