From the grumbling, lava-filled volcano of Mount Etna to the ancient Greek temples of Agrigento, Sicily is a land of natural and man-made beauty. The bustling, chaotic streets of capital Palermo give visitors an introduction to the Sicilian soul, full of charismatic street markets, Arab-Norman architecture and archeological museums. The relaxing beaches of the Aeolian Islands offer a calm change of pace. Discover the real Sicily through its food, something of which all islanders are deservedly proud. Live like a local: start and end your day with gelato.
Sicily has been conquered, settled, and abandoned by dozens of civilizations, from the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians in antiquity to the Arabs, Berbers, Moors, and Normans in the Middle Ages, to the Spanish and Bourbons in the Renaissance, and finally (at least nominally), modern Italy. It's an intricate and violent story that nonetheless left a fascinating legacy. Touring the relics of Sicily's tumultuous past can sometimes make you feel that you’re visiting several different countries at once.
Though separated from the mainland only by the 5km-wide (3 miles) Stretto di Messina (Strait of Messina), the 25,708 sq. km. (9,926 sq. mile) island, the largest in the Mediterranean, has a palpable, captivating sense of otherness. Some Sicilians will refer to a trip to the mainland as “going to Italy.” The island offers the full package of Italian travel experiences: evocative towns, compelling art, impressive architecture, ancient ruins, and a robust culinary heritage. Alongside the jewels of Sicily’s glorious ancient past (Agrigento, Siracusa, Segesta, Piazza Armerina) you’ll see baroque cities rebuilt after devastating earthquakes (Noto and Ragusa)—and some hideous postwar concrete monsters. The island’s geographic palette goes from the arid, chalky southeast to the brooding slopes of Mt. Etna to the brawny headlands of Palermo and the gentle agricultural landscapes of the east, all surrounded by cobalt seas and beaches where you can swim from May to October.
Then, of course, there are the Sicilians themselves. The descendants of Greek, Carthaginian, Roman Vandal, Arab, Norman, and Spanish conquerors, they can be welcoming yet suspicious, taciturn yet garrulous, reverent of tradition yet determined not to be shackled by the past. True to stereotype, Sicilians are a passionate people, and their warmth can make even everyday transactions memorable.
In Goethe’s words, “The key to it all is here.”
Sicilians fight over who has the best mosaics. Is it Palermo's Palazzo dei Normanni, or Monreale's Duomo, both commissioned by King Roger II? Roman mosaics can be seen at Piazza Armerina, within a 4th-century country estate. Kids will love Etnaland water park, complete with slippery slides. Stroll the cobblestone streets of medieval hilltop town of Erice, peer into flower-filled courtyards and take in the view of the flat land below, best seen from the fairytale-like Norman Castello di Venere.
Eating and Drinking
Sicilians begin the day with brioche filled with gelato. Many say the best of the island is found at Noto, where you can try the more unusual flavors like jasmine and thank Sicily's Arab conquerors for this obsession. Another ubiquitous snack is arancini di riso -- fried rice balls with gooey mozzarella or meat fillings. Trapani's famous fish couscous is mildly spicy, while Palermo's delicious cake, cassata Siciliana, with candied fruit, and cinnamon cannoli are both ricotta-based and wickedly sweet.
Agrigento's Valley of the Temples, the world's largest collection of Greek temples, dates from the 5th century B.C. and is amongst Sicily's finest archeological sites. By night, they're romantically floodlit. The dramatic backdrop of Mount Etna helps draw visitors to Taormina's Greek Amphitheater. The history lesson continues at Syracuse, where a Roman amphitheater and gleaming white Greek theatre stand. Segesta's temple, however, shows off 36 Doric limestone columns, still intact.
Hike up Europe's largest active volcano, Mount Etna, and hear it rumble and groan as you approach (but only when it's safe to do so! In 2019, it was quite active). On the Aeolian island of Stromboli to the north, another smaller volcano puffs away; the fiery lava is visible on an evening trek to the summit. Island-hop through the Aeolian Islands for sparkling turquoise waters, or head to tranquil beach resort San Vito lo Capo in western Sicily. Nearby, the hidden coves of unspoiled Zingaro nature reserve house native flora and fauna.