Syracuse is one of the most important destinations in Sicily together with Taormina and Palermo, and a major tourist attraction on the island.
Visitors flock to this fantastic UNESCO-listed city because of its rich past which mimics the history of the Mediterranean from the 8th century BC until today, each period leaving its trace on the area and contributing to the many places to see in Syracuse.
In Antiquity, Sicily’s Syracuse was made of five cities but today, it is split into two parts, the old island of Ortygia and the Maddalena Peninsula on the mainland which includes both the ancient archeological site of Neapolis as well as the newer city development.
History of Syracuse in Sicily
Syracuse was one of the most important settlements in Ancient Greece and was founded in the 8th century BC on the island of Ortygia. The city fell on Roman hands in the 3rd century BC and later became part of the Byzantine Empire until the Arab occupation in the 9th century.
Syracuse was invaded by Normans and Angevins until the arrival of the Spanish from the Crown of Aragon in the 14th century. Then came the House of Savoy, the Austrians and the Bourbons.
With this rich past, left by some of the most important kingdoms, empires and forces of the Medirerranean all having an influence on the city, today’s Syracuse is an incredibly fascinating place, a living museum where visitors can appreciate almost every period of the city’s history.
Things to do in Syracuse Sicily
Syracuse has several noteworthy archeological sites and tourist attractions split between Ortygia and the mainland. There are tourist buses that connect the two, and taxis will also take you for less than 10 euro.
On the mainland you will find mostly the Neapolis, which encompasses the Roman and Greek remains, as well as modern Syracuse. In Ortygia, you will find also Roman and Greek remains but also the city’s evolution in medieval and modern times.
The neapolis includes several archeological sites within a very large area which can be explored on foot. The entrance is by the side of the main road where you can park the car and get the tickets. You will then have access to the whole park.
Inside, there are the two large constructions, Greek theatre and Roman amphitheatre, as well as other remains. You can get a leaflet to find your bearings or take a picture of the map at the entrance (the one above).
The Greek Theatre of Syracuse
Perhaps the best known place to visit in Syracuse Sicily is the Greek Theatre, the largest on the island and of any other on the Italian Peninsula and North Africa which is part of the Neopolis. Originally a Greek theatre, it was then adapted under the Roman rule from the 1st to the 5th century AD.
Like with the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina, the theatre was carved on the side of the hill and is an impressive architectural feat with stunning views over the plains below and the sea in the distance.
The Romans expanded and adapted the theatre to their types of shows and what we see today is the unfortunate result of plundering during the 16th century which made use of the rocks for construction of buildings in Ortygia.
The Roman Amphitheatre of Syracuse
The Roman Amphitheatre dates from the 1st century AD and was used for gladiator shows and performances. Although only its ruins remain, you can still observe its shape.
Walk through the Ear of Dyonisius
This aperture in the rock on the way to the quarry of Syracuse was named by Caravaggio when he visited at the beginning of the 17th century after escaping from Malta.
He named it after the Syracuse tyrant in power Dionisius I not after the greek God, because of its shape which does indeed resemble an ear.
Walk the streets of Ortygia
Ortygia island is a major tourist attraction in Syracuse Sicily because of its quaint, narrow and mostly pedestrian Baroque and Medieval streets. Just wandering the older part of the city and getting lost among the many churches and grand buildings is worth a couple of hours.
Temple of Athena – Cathedral of Ortygia
A highlight of your visit to Syracuse Sicily will be the Cathedral which was built over an ancient Greek temple to Athena whose main elements (the temple columns) are still visible today in the walls of the cathedral.
You can see both the former ancient temple and the more modern church in the same construction and this is why this landmark attracts so much attention and why it is the most amazing place to see in Syracuse.
Located in the Piazza del Duomo, the center of Ortygia, first observe its two-tiered Baroque facade, with tall columns and intricate details, then walk around to see the columns of the Doric Temple.
The Hellenic temple was devoted to Athena and built in the 5th century BC to commemorate a battle victory. It was the Byzantine Empire which turned it into a basilica in the 7th century BC while preserving some of the main elements. It was later converted into a mosque and today’s facade was added during the Baroque period.
If you walk inside, you can see the nave with two side aisles. The ceiling is very high and the wooden cover was built in the 18th century and is very pretty.
The cathedral houses several works of art, such as the marble baptismal fountain, and a chapel to St. Lucia.
Syracusans are devout followers of its Patron Saint, St. Lucia, and a silver image of the virgin is held inside the chapel and taken out twice a year for a procession on 13 December and on the first Sunday in May.
Temple of Artemision
In Greek Antiquity, Syracuse was home to two temples, the Temple of Athena and the Temple of Artemision which were located side by side in what is today the Duomo.
While the Temple of Athena was turned into a church and somehow survived the passing of time, Artemision was destroyed and at one point was used as a stone quarry. What you can see today is barely the foundation of the temple, with a couple of signs and exhibits showing what it must have looked like.
Ritual Jewish Baths or Mikvah
One of the most interesting places to see in Syracuse are the Ritual Jewish Baths now part of the Residence Alla Giudecca Hotel but open to visitors daily for guided tours.
The baths were used for purification rituals are dug out 18m below the ground to a point where water would flow naturally, essential for the ritual. They had been hidden for 500 years only to be discovered when the hotel was being built.
Jews were expelled from most of Southern Europe by the Spanish Crown in 1492. Hoping to return to their homes, the Jews living in Ortygia covered the baths and hid them so well that they were never found.
Upon their discovery, the baths were restored and open to the public for short tours.
Bellomo Palace Regional Gallery
One of the few museums in Ortygia, and Sicily’s Syracuse, is the Bellomo Palace, a group of two former medieval places turned museum housing pieces from across the country from Bizantine times to the 18th century.
Originally built in the 12th century, the palace was purchased by the Bellomo family who gave it its current name in the 14th century and several Catalan Gothic elements were added as Sicily was part of the Crown of Aragon at the time.
The palace was merged with the adjacent Palazzo Parisio when it was acquired by the Benedictine nuns in the adjacent monastery. When religious orders were expelled from Italy in 1886 the palace was taken over by the state and turned into a museum in 1940.
Aside from the gallery housed in the building, the structure is worth a visit because of its architecture, reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and the beautiful arched courtyard and staircase of the same time.
Inside, there are 13 rooms where you can find archeological and art pieces, paintings, elements from monasteries and churches from across the island, etc. all spread across the many rooms and organised chronologically with the help of an itinerary map.
Look out for the room with the Sicilian coaches and the many marble coats of arms that are exhibited in the courtyard and which belong to the major powers who controlled Sicily like the Crown of Aragon, and used to be part of local landmarks and monuments such as the gates of Syracuse.
Santa Lucia alla Badia
There are many churches in Ortygia with interesting architecture, most of them a few centuries old. But Santa Lucia, located in the Piazza del Duomo square, is of particular interest because of the painting by Caravaggio, The Burial of St. Lucy, on display in the altar.
The church is open to visitors and is a working place of worship so respect the quietness and peacefulness of the place, despite the constant stream of visitors. Photos are not allowed and the staff are really making sure nobody takes one.
This 10th century fort was later expanded and renovated in the 13th century and turned into a castle which was home to Peter III.
Maniace Castle is located at the southernmost tip of Ortygia in a dramatic enclave, surrounded by thick protective walls and the sea. The building is open to visitors. Opening times here (site in Italian).
Hypogeum of Piazza Duomo
The hypogeum path is a network of underground tunnels and rooms that link Piazza Duomo with the Italian Forum and which were originally built during Greek times and expanded and repurposed as bomb shelters during WWII.
This unique past, dating back several centuries but also paying homage to the 2nd century, makes it a very interesting place to see in Sicily’s Syracuse.
The tunnels are open to the public and today host exhibitions around the WWII impact on Sicily and the 1943 bombings of Syracuse. The exit from the tunnel is not on the square again but near the Fountain of Arethusa.
This mythical fountain was created in Greek mythology, by Artemis, when she converted Arethusa into a sprint so that she could escape from Alpheus who was in turn converted into a river by Zeus so he could finally mix with Arethusa.
The spring and fountain are strongly linked to the city and are unique because of the fact that they run into the sea and because wild papyrus plants grow in the middle, one of only two left in Europe.
Temple of Apollo
In Ortygia Island but very near the mainland lay the remains of the Temple of Apollo, the oldest Doric ruins outside of Greece dating from the 6th century BC.
Today, only the base of some of the columns and some fragments can be seen in what is a large archeological site near the market. The temple was covered with a church and then a mosque then turned back into a church, much like the Temple of Athena, but had worse luck.
You cannot enter the site but can see it from around it as it is at a lower level than the street.
Market of Ortygia
Perhaps the most fun of all the things to do in Syracuse Italy is a market walk among the narrow pedestrian alleys near the Temple of Apollo.
Here you can sample and buy all of Sicily’s produce, from fresh fruits and vegetables in season, to preserved tomatoes, herbs, cured sausages, sauces, etc. Make sure to ask to try everything before buying. I got cured spicy sausages, capers, sun dried tomatoes, olives, cheese and cherries.
The market stalls are backed by many restaurants where you can sit for lunch.
Walk along the ramparts
Ortygia is an island and although it has no beaches, it does have a lovely seashore walk made of stone paths and pedestrian sidewalks that follow the sea. Every few meters, the ramparts will come up. They were designed to protect the island from many invasions.
A walk along the perimeter of the island is most pleasant in the summer months when you can hear the waves and feel the sea breeze.
Enjoy a day at the beach
Ortygia does not really have a beach per se but there are a few pebbly strips along the southern perimeter where locals come to lay their towels down.
On the south-eastern side of the island you will find a few small beaches like Spiaggia di Cala Rossa or the small rocky area below the Forte Vigliena rampart where locals simply put the towels down on the rocky outcrops. On the western coast there are some beach clubs with sun loungers, music and bars.
Best hotels in Syracuse Italy
I would highly recommend staying in Ortygia island because this is where the historical part of the city is and where walking around has the most charm. You can visit the theatre and the rest of the places to see in Syracuse from there either by driving your own car or on the tourist bus.
The island of Ortygia does not have any five star hotel, or a lot of hotels for that matter, but the best ones are the two Algila Hotels, either Hotel Charme which is on the eastern part of the island, or Hotel Roma 1880 which is right on the Piazza del Duomo next to the Cathedral and has the best location in the whole of Syracuse.
Both hotels blend historical buildings with charm and modern amenities. Don’t expect pools, but you can surely receive friendly service, useful advice and comfortable rooms in a great location. The breakfast spread is also superb.
Both hotels offer parking service so you just leave the car and they will park it for you, which is essential as parking in Ortygia Island is hard.
Best restaurants in Syracuse
This is Sicily, so food is always good, and being a city by the sea it excels at seafood, but there are a few great restaurants in Syracuse that I can recommend which were particularly good.
- Ristorante Regina Lucia: Set in a vaulted exposed brick faced building this is a great, and a little bit refined, restaurant right by the Cathedral and the Piazza del Duomo for a special occasion
- Ristorante D Dioniso: Nice restaurant with friendly staff and cozy atmosphere for a bit more refined meal without touching on the fine dining
- Locanda del Collegio: A more informal place with an extensive wine list and good traditional Italian pizza
- Locanda Mastrarua: Fantastic homey, cozy but slightly modern take on traditional Sicilian food. We had an amazing octopus
- Osteria da Seby: Highly recommended by our hotel, we did not try this osteria (the equivalent of a French bistrot) but saw it passing by. Located on a quiet street with some simple tables outside, and checkered tablecloths inside, with authentic home-made food
If you are still not sure where to eat in Syracuse, you could always take a foodie tour of the area. The tour has three different stops including seafood, white wine and prosecco, land-based food and red wine with bruschetta, and sweets and liquors with Saint Lucy pastry, Limoncello, and Sicilian sweet Passito wine and almond wine. Book the tour in advance online here.
Useful tips for your visit to Syracuse Sicily
The old part of Syracuse, located in Ortygia, is made of narrow mostly pedestrian streets and contrary to what Google Maps will have you believe, you will probably not be able to drive a regular car though so I highly recommend you leave the car in the parking as soon as you arrive at Ortygia and walk.
Just to make sure you understood what I meant, Google Maps is not reliable in Ortygia. It took me down alleys that were not for cars several times and it does not have updated information on pedestrian only streets.
Parking in Ortygia is difficult but there is a large parking at the entrance to the island on the east side, which is a great place to leave the car.
Most of the streets in Ortygia are cobblestoned, that means you will be better off wearing proper shoes than flip flops or sandals with flat soles.
To get around the city and to the places to see in Syracuse that are on the mainland one of the most cost-efficient and convenient ways is the hop-on, hop-off bus which costs only a few euro and is valid for the whole day. The bus also has an audio guide and free WiFi.
Alternatively, there are taxis on the street which will also take you there. If you decide to drive, there is a parking lot at the entrance to the Neapolis Archeological Site.
I would also recommend a walking tour so that you don’t miss out on any of the small details of this fascinating place filled with history. There is a milder 3 hour walking tour which you can book online here. It will take you to most of the monuments, the Archeological Park and a visit to Ortigia.
There are also full day tours of up to 8 or 9 hours which includes all the places in the shorter tour but also heads out to the small town of Noto with the unique Sicilian Baroque architecture. You can also book this tour online here.
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