53km (33 miles) N of Catania, 53km (33 miles) S of Messina, 250km (155 miles) E of Palermo.
Sicily attracts visitors from around the world, but perhaps there are two places that instantly come to mind when referring to the island: The chic resort town of Taormina, and the menacing Mount Etna, the highest volcano in Europe.
Although lying near to one another (30km/18.6 miles), they could not be farther apart in ambience and mentality: Taormina draws in the jetsetters, the nouveau riche, and everything in between to its romantic alleyways and dazzling hotels, while the rugged mountain offers an alpine scenery more in tune with nature-lovers and those seeking seclusion. Where Taormina offers a breathtaking landscape dense with man-made archaeology, Etna offers perhaps the most stunning vistas ever created by nature.
Yet despite these stark contrasts, both are steeped in tales of mythology: It was in Taormina that the Oxen of the Sun roamed the plains in Odysseyean tales, and Etna was the home to Hephaistos, the god of fire. Chance has placed these two wonders in relative proximity, and you won't have difficulty choosing between them: Both can be seen in one day should you be pressed for time, and either one makes a perfect base from which to visit the other.
If you still have time on your hands and your curiosity runs rampant, the choices for side trips are endless: Giardini-Naxos, the actual shoreline of Taormina, was the first Greek settlement of the island; the Gole dell'Alcantara (Alcantara Gorges), created by lava and carved by rushing waters, offers a refreshing getaway from the stifling summer heat, and the many towns at the foothills of Etna, such as Linguaglossa and Randazzo, are all excellent bases from which to explore Etna, each with unique histories of their own, and with gastronomical traditions far removed from anything seaside.
The spectacular views of the smoldering Mount Etna and across two bays out to the Ionian Sea have helped make Taormina Sicily's most famous -- and fabled -- resort town. Cascading down the slopes of Mount Tauro at some 200m (656 ft.) above sea level, Taormina first became a port of call in the 18th century when it formed part of The Grand Tour, and travelers flocked to see the well-preserved Teatro Greco amphitheater, where you can still see plays and concerts against the backdrop of distant Etna.
Soon Taormina evolved into the destination of choice for aristocracy, bohemians, artists, and jetsetters alike, and among the famous names who hung out in the town is D.H. Lawrence, who was inspired to write Lady Chatterley's Lover when he was there.
Guy de Maupassant, the 19th-century French short-story writer, played the tourist shill and wrote, “Should you only have 1 day to spend in Sicily and you ask me ‘what is there to see?’ I would reply ‘Taormina’ without any hesitation. It is only a landscape but one in which you can find everything that seems to have been created to seduce the eyes, the mind and the imagination.” Lots of visitors have felt the same way. The Roman poet Ovid loved Taormina, and 18th-century German man of letters Wolfgang Goethe put the town on the Grand Tour circuit when he extolled its virtues in his widely published diaries. Oscar Wilde was one of the gentlemen who made Taormina, as writer and dilettante Harold Acton put it, “a polite synonym for Sodom,” and Greta Garbo is one of many film legends who have sought a bit of privacy here.
With its beauty and sophistication, Taormina has a surfeit of star quality itself. The town seems more international than Sicilian, and visitors often outnumber locals. Then again, perched precariously on a cliff between the sinister slopes of Mount Etna and the glittering Ionian Sea, its captivating alleyways lined with churches and palazzi, Taormina is almost over-the-top beautiful, and what is more Sicilian than that?
Over the years, the town became Sicily's answer to Monte Carlo, today Taormina still has an air of chic, which is evident in the prices, but as the island's prime tourist destination it can also get incredibly crowded during the summer months. Its winding medieval streets are packed with Arab, Norman, and baroque monuments, as well as numerous restaurants, cafes, and shops. The town is a shopper's paradise with a plethora of souvenir shops, plus a host of jewelers, smart designer boutiques, and funky stores selling everything from hats to chandeliers.
In summer, you can hang out at the beaches below the town at Giardini-Naxos by day but, if you want to escape the tourist hordes, seek out adventures: Perhaps climbing Mount Etna, walking to the Castelmola, or making a trip to Syracuse.