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At 25,708 sq km (9,926 sq miles), Sicily is not only the largest island in the Mediterranean but also the largest region in Italy. This triangle-shaped land symbolized by the mythological three-legged Trinacria is home to the first known parliament in the western world (Palermo), the oldest continental tree (Sant'Alfio, near Catania), the highest and most active volcano in Europe (Mount Etna) and the vastest archaeological park (Selinunte).

Additionally, there are jewels that testify to Sicily's glorious Classical past (Agrigento, Syracuse, Segesta, Tindari, Morgantina, Piazza Armerina), unique styles of baroque architecture crafted in response to devastating earthquakes in the southeast (Catania, Noto, Scicli, Ragusa, and Modica), and, sadly, modern yet hideous postwar concrete monsters (Palermo, Catania, Messina, Agrigento).

The colors and natural contrasts are shaped by the elements like nowhere else on earth; African and Alpine fauna live spectacularly on the same island. At times you might think Sicily is some sort of paradise, but it takes only an SUV or a scooter roaring down a chaotic Palermo or Catania street to give you a reality check. Then, of course, there are the Sicilians themselves: The descendants of Greek, Carthaginian, Roman Vandal, Arab, Norman, and Spanish conquerors are welcoming yet suspicious, taciturn and at the same time garrulous, deeply tied to traditions yet always yearning to break away from distasteful precedents, namely the Mafia. Thousands of years of domination may have created these stark contradictions, but they have left an archaeological, cultural, and culinary legacy like no other in this world. In Goethe's words, "the key to it all is here."

Many first-time visitors to Sicily wrongly believe that it doesn't take much time to see the entire island. Nothing could be farther from the truth -- not only is it the largest island in the Mediterranean but it is Italy's largest region. Travel from Palermo to Syracuse, at opposite ends of the island, can take up to 4 hours by car.

Given this vastness, plan to stay at least a week, and that's just to see the highlights with lots of traveling in between. Unless you've decided to stay in one place and make daytrips, the best -- if not the sanest -- way to see most of the island is to fly into either Palermo or Trapani, located in western Sicily, and travel eastward, winding up your trip in Catania and flying out from there. Although the considerable network of buses and trains will take you where you want, renting a car at the airport gives you the most flexibility, as motorways are efficient and, for the most part, free of charge. That is, of course, if you're ready to take on the daredevil road rules of Sicily.

Know Before You Go -- Before visiting monuments and sites, it's always a good idea to call ahead or check their websites to confirm when they are open. Schedules can change from one day to the next, and you'll spare yourself needless expense and disappointment.

Online Traveler's Toolbox

Veteran travelers usually carry some essential items to make their trips easier. The following is a selection of handy online tools to bookmark and use.

  • Airplane Food (www.airlinemeals.net)
  • Airplane Seating (www.seatguru.com and www.airlinequality.com)
  • Foreign Languages for Travelers (www.travlang.com)
  • Maps (www.viamichelin.com)
  • Subway Navigator (www.subwaynavigator.com)
  • Time and Date (www.timeanddate.com)
  • Travel Warnings (http://travel.state.gov, www.fco.gov.uk/travel, www.voyage.gc.ca, or www.dfat.gov.au/consular/advice)
  • Universal Currency Converter (www.xe.com/ucc)
  • Visa ATM Locator (www.visa.com), MasterCard ATM Locator (www.mastercard.com)
  • Weather (www.intellicast.com and www.weather.com)

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.