Sicily's Best Beaches

The pace of life is a little slower in Italy's deep south; here, the coast near Taormina, Sicily. Giuseppe Piazza
By Sylvie Hogg & Stephen Brewer

Sicily has more sandy beaches and dramatic coastline than any other region of Italy (except for maybe Sardinia), and it's warm enough for swimming 6 months of the year (May-Oct). Fantastic shorefront restaurants abound, and there are plenty of ways to get out on the water, whether in a rented pedalò at San Vito lo Capo or a beach shuttle boat in the Aeolian Islands. Allow at least a week to visit all the places on this itinerary and to have time to enjoy them at a leisurely pace.

Photo Caption: The pace of life is a little slower in Italy's deep south; here, the coast near Taormina, Sicily.
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The north coast beach of Mondello is a lovely crescent easily accessible from Palermo. Giuseppe Piazza
Mondello A crescent bay with shallow water and white sand, an Art Nouveau bathhouse, and a carnivalesque atmosphere make this the quintessential "people's beach" of Palermo, especially for families. Windsurfing and snorkeling are popular here, and the grand Stabilimento Balneare (bathing club), built on a pier in the middle of the bay in 1913, is a fabulous nugget of the old-fashioned European good life. Mondello is an easy 15-minute bus ride from Palermo, so it's best to visit as a day trip from there.

Photo Caption: The north coast beach of Mondello is a lovely crescent easily accessible from Palermo.
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Cefalù's best strip of sand for sunworshippers is just west of the town. Elisabeth Blanchet
Picturesque Cefalù is where Giuseppe Tornatore shot most of 1988's Cinema Paradiso (rent it before you go), and despite a considerable influx of northern European sunseekers in summer, it's still a working fishing village where everyone seems to be named Salvatore. The swimming- and sunbathing-friendly part of this fishing village is its western, modern end along Lungomare G. Giardina, where gentle breakers lap at a narrow but well-used strip of white sand. Farther east (closer to the old town), the beach is packed with sunseekers, while it's a bit broader and less crowded to the west.

There isn't much to do, sights-wise, in Cefalù beyond the Duomo and rocca (fortress), but it's a nice base if sunbathing and a slow pace are of chief interest. Think Sicily (www.thinksicily.com) has a number of wonderful vacation rentals in and around Cefalù. For the best (almost) seafront dining (the places right on the water tend to be lower-quality tourist traps), try Al Porticciolo, adjacent to the old port. There's a cavelike interior dining room as well as sidewalk tables. The seafood pastas and Sicilian pastries are to die for.

Photo Caption: Cefalù's best strip of sand for sunworshippers is just west of the town.
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View from Capo Milazzese on Panarea Island, Aeolian Islands, Italy Bernd Hofmann
If you have the time, it's well worth hopping on a hydrofoil at Milazzo to spend a few days in this archipelago off Sicily's northeast coast. Because they're a bit harder to reach, the Aeolians remain a mostly Italian vacation spot where you can have a truly authentic "native" vacation experience. Each island has its own character -- Lipari is the largest with the most services, Salina is the best for nature lovers, and Panarea is for partying with jet-setters and wannabes -- but all the Eolie have clear, calm water and paradisical places to swim, though very few sandy beaches. Don't miss a chance to rent a small motorboat and putter around whichever island you choose as your base. It's a fabulously independent way to get out on the water -- you can drop anchor and dive in whenever you want.

Photo Caption: View from Capo Milazzese on Panarea Island, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
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Beautiful pebble beach in Taormina, Sicily Onefivenin/Dreamstime.com
Don't let the town's vertical distance from the water discourage you: It's easy to reach the shore, whether by taking the funivia or local buses from Via Pirandello. As with the best Italian coastlines, "beaches" tend to be narrow and crowded, with gravelly sand, but the surrounding scenery of forests and rocky cliffs and warm, cerulean water make up for it! Expect to pay €8 to €10 for use of a chair and umbrella at any of the beach clubs.

At the bottom of the cableway is Mazzarò, a small bay with several beach clubs and kayak rentals. The larger bay to the south is punctuated in the middle by Isola Bella, a gorgeous island and World Wildlife Federation nature reserve that's connected to the beach by a narrow spit of sand (you walk or wade to the isola, depending on water level). If you want to see where young Italians party, take a bus to Giardini-Naxos, a more modern resort development with budget hotels and thumping nightclubs on the beach.

Photo Caption: Beautiful pebble beach in Taormina, Sicily.
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Fontane Bianche is the classic beach detour for those who stay in Siracusa, 15 minutes away. Giuseppe Piazza
Some of the best unspoiled shoreline in all of Italy is on Sicily's southeastern coast. This is also one of the most popular zones for vacation rentals on the island, thanks to the combination of beaches and cultural offerings nearby.

The color palette is lighter down here -- the water is more pastel than cerulean, and the sand is white and sugary. From north to south, Fontane Bianche is the classic beach detour for those who stay in Siracusa, 15 minutes away. It's an almost square bay with laid-back beach clubs and luxurious deep sand. Lido di Noto, 15 minutes from the baroque hill town, is a lively town beach with great waterfront restaurants. Half the beach is private beach clubs (where you pay around €10 for day use of a lounge chair, umbrella, and shower facilities), and half is free public access.

Isola delle Correnti, at the very southeastern tip of the island, is one of the best beaches on Sicily. It's a bit wilder, more windswept and wavy than the other spots, and can be a nice change from perfectly still turquoise water and searing sunshine. An abandoned tuna factory at one end of the beach adds to the atmosphere, and on a clear day, you can even wave hello to Malta, which is just 100km (60 miles) south.

Photo Caption: Fontane Bianche is the classic beach detour for those who stay in Siracusa, 15 minutes away.
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San Vito lo Capo's crescent beach is part of the tranquil, authentic Sicilian experience to be found on the western side of the island. Giuseppe Piazza
A glittering sandy beach, irresistible turquoise water, a dramatic mountain at land's end (Monte Monaco), and a funky, Arab-inflected town make this spot between Trapani and Palermo one of Sicily's best up-and-coming resort destinations. At first glance, a panorama of this beach town looks like a postcard from Rio de Janeiro -- a broad expanse of white sand lines a curving bay, with a massive mountain promontory at one end. But this Sicilian resort is a much smaller, quieter affair (even though San Vito's Monte Monaco stands just as tall as Rio's Sugarloaf). There are no high-rises or wild nightlife here: The mellow centro consists of boxy, whitewashed houses with Saracen arch doorways that bear the unmistakable influence of Arabic culture. That influence carries over to the local cuisine as well -- couscous is bigger than pasta here, and there's even an international festival for it held in San Vito every September.

San Vito's gorgeous beach -- a kilometer-long stretch of clean, fine sand -- makes it a popular summer destination for Italian families and couples. (Singles and party-seekers take note: Go to the more happening, rockier shores of the Aeolian Islands instead.) Swimming in the turquoise waters here, with the imposing contours of Monte Monaco to the east, is an unforgettable experience. Organized boat tours of the nearby Zingaro and Scopello nature reserves are a great way to access hidden coves and see unspoiled Sicilian flora and marine fauna.

Photo Caption: San Vito lo Capo's crescent beach is part of the tranquil, authentic Sicilian experience to be found on the western side of the island.
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