Ortigia Island is Siracusa’s centro storico, a mostly pedestrian zone where narrow alleys lined with romantic 18th-century palazzi spill onto Piazza del Duomo. The ancient ruins are a good half-hour walk north of Ortigia along Corso Gelone.
The historic center of Siracusa is an island only about 1 sq. km (3/4 sq. mile), with breezy, palm-shaded seaside promenades fringing its shores. Although Ortigia was settled in ancient times, most of the island today is baroque, with grandiose palaces and churches lining narrow lanes and flamboyant piazzas.
The first landmark you’ll come to after you cross Ponte Umbertino from the mainland is the Temple of Apollo, the oldest Doric temple in Sicily. The Apollion would have measured 58m x 24m (190 ft. x 79 ft.) when it was built in the 6th century b.c. It later served as a Byzantine church, then a mosque, then a church again under the Normans; it’s now an evocative ruin, with the temple platform, a fragmentary colonnade, and an inner wall rising in the middle of Piazza Pancali.
The Piazza del Duomo, certainly one of the most beautiful squares in Sicily, is all about theatrics—a sea of white marble softened by pink oleander and surrounded by flamboyant palaces with elaborate stone filigree work and wrought-iron balconies. Similarly fanciful are the frothily baroque Duomo and the pretty church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, its tall, marble baroque facade embellished with twisted columns, pediments, and a wrought-iron balcony. Also on Piazza del Duomo is an entrance to the Hypogeum (no phone; 3€; Tues–Sun 9am–1pm and 4–8pm), a network of underground chambers and corridors dug as air-raid shelters in World War II.
Head south from Piazza del Duomo to the waterfront, where you’ll come to Fonte Aretusa, a basin where papyrus grows in a shallow pool that supplied Siracusa with fresh water for millennia. Classical myth, however, tells a different story: The nymph Aretusa was bathing in a river in Greece when the river god Alpheus took a liking to her. She asked the goddess Artemis, protectress of young women, for help in avoiding his advances; Artemis turned Aretusa into a river that emerged here. Not to be thwarted, Alpheus followed suit, and the two of them bubble forth for eternity.
A Gigantic Teardrop Runs Through It
The tallest building in Siracusa is the bizarre Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Our Lady of Tears Sanctuary, Via Santuario 33; tel. 0931-21446; free admission; daily 8am–noon and 4–7pm), a monstrous cone of contemporary architecture (built in 1993) halfway between Ortigia and the archaeological zone. Meant to evoke a sort of angular teardrop and rising 74m (243 ft.) with a diameter of 80m (262 ft.), the showy edifice houses a statue of the Madonna that supposedly wept for 5 days in 1953. Alleged chemical tests showed that the liquid was similar to that of human tears. Pilgrims flock here, and you’ll see postcards of the weepy Virgin around Siracusa. In the interior, vertical windows stretch skyward to the roof. A charlatan TV evangelist and his congregation would not look out of place here.
The Ancient Ruins
Of all the Greek cities of antiquity that flourished in Sicily, Siracusa was the most important, a formidable competitor of Athens. In its heyday, the city dared take on Carthage and even Rome. Sprawling Greek and Roman ruins are these days surrounded by an unremarkable section of the modern city. To reach the ruins, walk north along Corso Gelone (or better yet, take bus no. 1, 3, or 12, or a cab from Ortigia’s Piazza Pancali) or take buses 11, 25, or 26 from the front of Siracusa’s central train station.
Some of the best, most unspoiled shoreline in all of Italy is on Sicily’s southeastern coast. Fontane Bianche is the closest beach to Siracusa, 15 minutes away. It’s an almost-square bay with laidback beach clubs and luxurious deep sand. Lido di Noto, 15 minutes from the baroque hill town of Noto, is a lively beach strip 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.
Between Noto and Pachino, the beautiful Vendicari Nature Reserve, 11km (7 miles) south of Noto on SP19, is set amid miles of fragrant citrus groves growing behind beaches backed by wetlands, a refuge for many exotic migratory birds. Vendicari’s most popular beach is Calamosche, on an intimate cove framed by rock cliffs and sea caves; from the Calamosche parking area it’s about a 15-minute walk along a path to the beach.
Isola delle Correnti, a little over an hour south of Siracusa at Sicily’s southeastern tip, is one of the best beaches on Sicily, though it’s a bit more windswept and wavy than the other spots. On a clear day, you can see Malta, just 100km (60 miles) to the south.
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