Sicily is a land of passion. Emotion and strong feeling seems woven into the very fabric of the wild, craggy landscape, the baroque splendour of the towns and cities, and the justifiably famous cuisine. When you go to Sicily, be prepared to dive in and live well. To help you on your way, we’ve picked five of the very best towns and cities to explore.
Ragusa’s old town, ‘Ragusa Ibla’ is a UNESCO-protected warren of charming lanes and alleyways, with baroque spires looming above the confusion. We can thank the long-gone aristocrats of the town for this charming mess – when an earthquake hit, the wealthy declined to move, repaired their palazzos and created what you find today.
Fans of the television adaptation of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano will recognise Ragusa as real-life setting of the fictional town of ‘Vigata’, and many of the series’ most beautiful scenes were shot in the stunning baroque surroundings of the Piazza Duomo. The detective is often portrayed discussing the latest case over a mouth-watering meal at Trattoria A Rusticana, just off the main square.
Where to stay – Locanda Don Serafino
Our favourite boutique hotel and restaurant in Ragusa Ibla is a very real reminder of this strange and wonderful past. Both the hotel and restaurant of Locanda Don Serafino, are built into the rock, quarried in centuries past for building – several rooms are essentially caves! We especially love the restaurant, that has been awarded two Michelin stars for authentic Sicilian dining.
Close to the beach resorts of Giardini Naxos and Letojanni, but miraculously not as swamped by tourists, we adore this hillside town. Here you can find Roman ruins, such as the impressive amphitheatre, medieval churches and laneways and baroque fountains – just the place to stroll with a limoncello as the sun dips in the sky.
If you’d rather just hit the beach, catch the Mazzarò cable car (Via Luigi Pirandello) to Isola Bella, a stunning beachside nature reserve that has both sandy sections where you can rent a deckchair, or wilder, pebble beaches on which to sit and sun for free.
Adventurous sorts can try a day trip to Mount Etna from Taormina, with a bus, then jeep taking you as close to the summit as is safe. Many operators advertise in town – compare prices before choosing.
Great Sicilian cooking can be found at Mammarosa (Via Naumachie, 10), right in the centre of town. They’re particularly well-known for their crispy-base pizzas, using a few local ingredients for topping as a simple yet satisfying dish.
Where to stay – Hotel Villa Carlotta
This boutique hotel has gorgeous panoramic views over Isola Bella from its restaurant; we’re also particularly fond of the bar that has been built into the ancient Roman catacombs beneath the hotel – a truly unique place for a nightcap! and a restaurant that has panoramic views. We’re mostly fond, however, of the bar that has been built into ancient Roman catacombs beneath the hotel – a truly unique place for a nightcap!
Syracuse is ancient. It was old at the time of the Greeks and Romans. Today, it is a wonderland for those who seek to explore the past. Make sure you explore the old town on the island of Ortygia where you can find the Duomo and the remains of the Temple of Apollo. Once you’re done there, head to the Via Cavour, a celebrated shopping strip, where you can find designer boutiques next to artisan craftsmen selling their wares.
Hungry after a day of exploration? We recommend Don Camilio (Via della Maestranze 96) for creative spins on traditional dishes. Afterwards, treat yourself at Gelateria Fiordilatte (Via del Porto Grande 8), which has a very large selection of flavours and good views of the duomo.
Where to stay – Masseria della Volpe
A short drive from Syracuse in the equally picturesque Noto, Masseria della Volpe is a luxurious retreat set within a garden of ancient olive and carob trees. Unwind in the spa or enjoy a game on the floodlit tennis and volleyball courts.
While not on the big island itself, Salina is worth the diversion, not so much for sightseeing, as the spectacular beaches that ring it. Scario, Pollara and Rinella beaches are easily accessible from the towns of Malfa and Santa Marina Salina by car, taxi or bus and each is good for swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing.
The other thing to do on Salina is to drink wine. The local Malvasia grape varieties are richly treasured for their sweetness, and wineries considerable portions of the island. While wine tourism is only just taking off in the area, enotecas (or wine tasting shops) are a great way to get acquainted with the local product. We recommend you wander the main street of Santa Marina Salina or Malfa, where you’ll find plenty.
Where to stay – Hotel Signum
A real hidden gem, Hotel Signum has one of the best spas in the region, utilizing techniques thousands of years old to soothe and revitalize. The Mediterranean garden, filled with local flora and fauna, is heavenly.
Sicily’s capital and largest city had a colourful and explosive history over the centuries – repeatedly invaded, destroyed and rebuilt. This has left the city a wonderful mosaic – medieval palazzos sharing a street with baroque churches and modern shopping centres.
You could spend a good few days in Palermo – there’s that much to see. However, if you’re pressed for time, make sure to take in the Cathedral (Corso Vittorio Emanuele), the rather macabre yet fascinating Capuchin Catacombs (Piazza Cappuccini) and the view from the Favara Palace (Vicolo del Castellaccio, 21/23)
Shoppers will be in heaven in Palermo – it has some of the best in Southern Italy. Head to La Kalsa, the city’s old Arab Quarter to find all manner of bazaars and traders selling traditional wares. For more contemporary goods, including designer fashion and homewares, Via Ruggero Settimo and Via della Libertà should be on your itinerary.
Just outside the city is Mondello Beach (Viale Regina Elena), playground of the city’s inhabitants. There’s a long curving swathe of sand that’s great for families, stalls and food trucks and a real sense of fun – a real must-see.
Close out your time in Palermo with a meal at Al Genio (Piazza San Carlo 9), a traditional trattoria that throws its soul into its creations. It also has an amazing wine selection.
Where to stay – Masseria Susafa
Nestled in the rolling green hills of central Sicily, Masseria Susafa is rather secluded, although Palermo is still reachable for a day-trip. This lovingly restored 18th-century farmhouse is surrounded by beautiful countryside, and the restaurant serves mouth-watering traditional fare using locally-sourced ingredients.