Before visiting, I wasn’t aware that there were so many things to do in Sicily and thought that 12 days would be a long enough road trip to see it all. But it wasn’t, and I wish I had more time to explore leisurely some of places to visit in Sicily on this list.
Sicily is not one of the most famous destinations in Europe yet, but it is fast becoming the choice for the wealthy and a popular port of call for cruise ships. This means that some of the best places in Sicily can be quite full in the peak summer months, when dozens of cruises dock on the island every week.
With a rental car, you can get away from the most crowded areas and explore out of the way places such as wineries, small towns and other Sicily attractions that are less readily accessible.
If you want to cover all the things to do in Sicily on this article you will need two weeks and your own car. If you have less, I hope to inspire you to build your itinerary with your own best places to visit in Sicily. Then continue on to the rest of the country with an epic road trip across Europe.
Discover beautiful Taormina
Taormina is the island’s jewel and the most popular place to visit in Sicily. The small city with Greek and Roman archeological vestiges is located on the side of a hill that gives it its name, Mount Tauro, and you can’t visit Sicily and not come to enjoy Taormina at least for a day.
Taormina’s main pedestrian Corso Umberto street is a joy to stroll along from the Porta Messina Gate to Porta Catania Gate. Lined with clothing stores, galleries, souvenir shops, traditional crafts stores, bars and restaurants. This is where all the locals come for a pre-dinner walk.
Stop at the checkered black and white April IX Square where the Norman fortified Church of Saint Augustine and the pastel blue, yellow and white Chiesa di San Giuseppe are and look down to the coast. Both churches are worth a visit for the intricate interiors.
Make sure to visit the Ancient Greek Theatre which is actually a Roman construction over an ancient Greek one and has the best views over the coast of Naxos Giardini below. The audio guide is a must to understand the theatre’s history.
After the theatre visit, have a sunset cocktail at the Belmond Grand Timeo Hotel located right by the entrance to the theatre.
If you are feeling energetic and want to take in some dramatic views, hike all the way up Mount Tauro to Chiesa Madonna della Rocca and the Taormina Castle. You cannot visit either of them inside but the views are fabulous.
Insider tip: Chiesa Madonna della Rocca is open for mass on the third Sunday of the month so it’s an opportunity to see the inside frescoes.
For a dose of the beach, you should take the cable car down to Isola Bella, basically a rock, which is now connected to the beach thanks to a British Aristocrat who escaped to Taormina and fell in love with the area. The beaches at either side of the rock as well as further north are the most popular (see next section).
Delicious frozen granitas are typical of Sicily and best savored in Taormina. One of the best places to have it is at local favorite Bam Bar which serves it from 7am to 11pm with fluffy brioches and in several flavors you can mix up. Almond, coffee and chocolate are amazing as are the fruits in season.
Spending time in Taormina is one of the best things to do in Sicily and, while simply people-watching and strolling along Corso Umberto already feels like a holiday, you can’t leave town without exploring all of the above.
Book a walking tour so you get to know all the small details and anecdotes which make the city so fascinating in half a day. Here are my recommended tours of Taormina:
- Private half day walking tour (2, 3 or 4h long) for you and your family/friends only can be booked here. You can tailor it to your liking.
- Segway tour of Taormina for those who want to go fast and furious. There are private and group options. You don’t need experience. This is helpful as Taormina can be steep and spread out, so the segway tour covers places that are a bit farther away. Book it here.
- Shorter (1.5h) group walking tour of Taormina for those who prefer the no-frills option. Book here.
- Sunset group walking tour of Taormina which ends at a rooftop terrace for sunset. The terrace is right above the main square and has sea views. This is a good option in the hot summer months for those who want to chill by the pool during the day. Book it here.
Enjoy the posh beaches in the northeast
Sicily is an island and, as such, is surrounded by beaches, so it should come as no surprise that one of the best things to do in Sicily is actually spending time on the beach. It is also one of the main reasons why people come to Sicily.
But not all beaches are made equal in Sicily, some of them are nicer than others, and some of them are posher than others, and the two don’t necessarily align.
For example, the pebbly beach area around Taormina is where the high society of Sicily and Italy congregate, it is also where most of the tourists go thanks to their proximity to the airport in Catania, the beautiful town of Taormina and the tourism development. So these are indeed the posher of the lot.
However, in my opinion, these are not the nicest beaches in Sicily to relax in. They are made of pebbles, which are unpleasant to walk on, and the water is extremely cold, even in the summertime when it can be at around 19/20 degrees Celsius, that is half the temperature of our bodies and after a few minutes in, my legs were numb.
The above does not discourage the thousands of people who descend on the beach clubs and small bays every summer.
Isola Bella, is a rock that is now connected to the beach thanks to a British aristocrat. The beach of the same name and the adjacent one at the other side of Grotta Azzurra, Mazzaro, are some of the most popular beaches in Sicily and certainly packed in the summer. There are restaurants, boats ready to take you on a coastal tour, and thousands of people.
Mazzaro is the name of the town where Isola Bella is and the small bay after Grotta Azzurra. This is where the Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea is located and, while the beach in front of the Belmond and the nearby 5-star Grand Hotel Mazzaro Sea Palace are private, there are pockets of public beach in between where you can rent a sunlounger.
These two beaches are more developed and posher and have everything you need, from sun loungers and umbrellas for rent to facilities like restaurants and toilets that make them a better choice for tourists.
If you are looking for a more no-frills option, Giardini Naxos is a longer, thinner beach along the coast below Taormina where the modern town of Giardini Naxos is, built on the ruins of an old Greek settlement from the 3rd century BC. The sea-facing, pastel colored houses in town are quite picturesque.
Isola Bella can be accessed from Taormina via the cable car or the stairs that go down from the city. From there you can walk along the road to Grotta Azzurra and Mazzaro which are 10min away.
If you are brave, fit and want to take the stairs down from Taormina, beware they are steep, slippery and crumbling as they get farther away from the city, and it will take you a good 30min to go down. I would not recommend going up the stairs in the hot summer months, especially since the cable car is only a few euro.
If you have your own car there is subterranean parking in front of Mazzaro Beach but the entire area gets very crowded in the summer months so come early.
Climb Europe’s most active volcano, Etna
Mount Etna was inscribed in UNESCO’s world heritage list in 2013 and is located a mere 45min drive from Taormina and a similar distance from Catania.
The volcano is considered the world’s most active stratovolcano, Italy’s tallest and its largest, and also the best place in Sicily for an adrenaline-fuelled adventure.
You may be more familiar with Mount Vesuvius which created the Pompei landscapes, but that is a third of Etna’s size. At the base, Etna measures 140 square kilometers and at the top, it has four craters. Bottom line, it is huge.
Because of its size and shape, you can hike Etna from two sides, north and south, but if you think that one of the best things to do in Sicily is hiking an active volcano and want to go all the way to the top, or to 3,300m above sea level, you need to do so from the south side.
Mount Etna has had hundreds of explosions since what is believed to be the largest at the end of the 17th century. At that time, lava reached the walls of Catania. The most recent explosion happened at the end of May 2019 and caused the closure of the mountain and the airport in Catania.
Because of its constant level of activity and the tourism and infrastructure development in the area, Mount Etna is one of the most fascinating places to visit in Sicily and one which I highly recommend.
Mount Etna can be visited and hiked to various heights. At 1,800m you find Sapienza Refuge. Cars are to be parked there. From there you can get a cable car to 2,500m and then you may also get tickets for the 4×4 truck/bus ride to 2,900m. At that altitude you get (with the bus ticket) a 20min guided tour of the two craters.
Avid hikers can get all the way to the top at 3,300m with a guide (you can’t go alone). You can go to 2,900m independently with tickets from the cable car company but hikes to the very top need to be booked with a guided tour.
Visit independently by simply driving to the Sapienza Refuge at 1,800m and then buying cable car and bus tickets to 2,900m from the cable car ticket counter which includes a guided tour from a guide from the Italian Alpine Club at 2,900m. Or join a tour. These are my recommended tours:
- Sunset ascent of the volcano where you can actually see the sun setting and then sample the local honey and wine at organic farms. This tour includes all equipment so you don’t have to pack your own (trekking or snow) shoes and jacket as well as the trip to 1,900m (Silvestri craters). They also pick you up from your hotel.
- This is a semi-DIY tour of the volcano. You get transport to 1,800m Sapienza Refuge and you can decide what to do from there. Cable car and 4×4 bus tickets to 2,900m are not included but you can buy them there on the spot, as well as jackets or hiking boots.
- This one is the regular tour with all included, same as the previous but with the price of the cable car added (no price arbitrage, the difference in price between the two is the cost of the cable car ticket) to get to 2,900m. Equipment rental and meals are not included either. Meet up point is the bus station at Taormina.
- To make a day of it, choose this tour which includes the ascent to 2,900m and then also lunch and Alcantara Gorges. Bear in mind the entry ticket to Alcantara Gorges is not included and neither is lunch. Meet up point is the bus station at Taormina. This is a good choice if you want to visit Etna and also the gorge which is stunning.
- If you want to hike Mount Etna to the top, here is one of the few tours providing that. Note that the tour price is just the cost of the guide, cable car and 4×4 bus to the top are not included, as aren’t any meals and drinks but you will get trekking shoes. This tour starts at the Sapienza Refuge already so you need to get your own transportation to the mountain.
Read all about the volcano on my article about Hiking Mount Etna, everything you need to know.
See a volcano in action
While Etna is Europe’s most active volcano, explosively sounding Stromboli is the one spewing lava most consistently, and one which is almost surely guaranteed to give you the chance to get up and close with it.
The name of the volcano may be familiar because it is also the name of an Italian dish and because it is mentioned in Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Stromboli is located on the island of the same name in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and is one of six Aeolian Islands which are UNESCO-listed. The island contains the 900m volcano and some houses and is rarely visited other than on day boat tours, so it feels as if time stopped still.
Because Stromboli is very active, the most impressive way to see it is from the distance, at night, when the lava explosions are most visible. You can book a boat tour including other islands in the area here.
You can of course also climb it up to the summit at night, but you should be quite fit as the ascend is 900m up and takes 3h. You can book the tour here. Climbing tours include gear and hiking boots, so you don’t have to pack them.
Bear in mind that, while visits are dramatic, they are generally safe, but a sudden explosion claimed the life of hikers as recent as July 2019.
Sail the Aeolian Islands
The Aeolian Archipelago is a UNESCO-inscribed part of Sicily that includes seven islands, Stromboli, Vulcano, Filicudi, Lipari, Panarea, Salina and Alicudi all of which were formed because of various volcanic explosions through the last millennia.
The islands were populated as early as Neolithic times and then abandoned and repopulated again by the Carthagenian, Norman and the Kingdom of Naples. This is one of the best places in Sicily to simply disconnect from it all.
Of all of them, Lipari is the most developed and was an important religious center during Norman times, a Bishop’s see and even had a Benedictine monastery.
The islands are linked to the northern coast of Sicily via ferries and are best visited on sailing day trips or one by one if you want to do it independently by ferry.
Usually, the popular islands to visit are the largest ones, Lipari, Stromboli for the volcano, and Vulcano for its sulphur mud baths. It is also common to take sailing trips around the majestic Faraglioni rock formations.
Here are some of the best tours to the Aeolian Islands:
- Lipari and Vulcano with Faraglioni: this tour departs from the Port of Milazzo so you need to drive there on your own. You have time in Lipari and Vulcano for the sulphur mud baths. Tickets to both the spa and the museums on Lipari are not included, you get free time to explore on your own.
- Lipari and Vulcano via boat: If you have your sea legs and want to see Lipari and Vulcano from a different perspective, then why not cruise by private ship to the two UNESCO islands. You can also swim in the warmer sulphureous seawater of Vulcano.
- Panarea and Stromboli from Taormina: If you want to explore the smaller island of Panarea with its cute cobblestoned streets and then see the sunset over Stromboli, with its constantly active volcano, this tour includes that. Meals are not included but you depart from Taormina bus terminal.
Italy makes some of the best wines in the world in my opinion. The range of endemic grape varieties, age-old traditions and even UNESCO-listed wine making practices make it a wine lover haven.
In Italy, Sicily produces some of the most amazing wines thanks to its geography, its soil (remember all the volcanoes?) and its Medieterranean temperate, breezy and hot weather.
Vineyards are planted across the island, but there are three main wine producing regions: Etna where volcanic wines are made, Marsala and Trapani where the largest volumes come from, and the south and southeastern parts of the island.
If you are used to wine tours and cellar doors in other parts of the world like South Africa, Australia or Spain, you will be disappointed to hear that wine tourism in Sicily is not as developed so you have two options: reaching out to individual wineries on your own or joining a wine tour which visits a few.
If you do it on your own you will be able to choose the wineries you visit, but it is a very time-consuming task, I know because I did it and spent hours researching only to come out empty handed.
Many wineries don’t have information on tours online, their websites are only in Italian and will most likely close on the weekends, you will have more luck with the wineries in Trapani/Marsala than with those in Etna. I did manage to visit two wineries independently. Principi di Butera in the south and Cantine Pellegrino in Marsala.
Principi di Butera, closer to The Valley of Temples, is part of the Zonin Family which owns wineries across Italy, and has a beautiful cellar and fantastic wines (I even bought 6 bottles to ship home!) and I highly recommend a visit which they can give in English and includes some snacks. You can email them to book.
Cantine Pellegrino has the advantage of being a large winery which also makes Marsala wine and UNESCO-listed Passito di Pantelleria dessert wine (see the section further down). It has a cellar door where you can taste the wines, staff that speak English and several daily tours in various languages. Book in advance to find out the timings in English.
The main problem of winery road trips is always that you need to drive, so I always prefer to go on a tour so I am driven and can fully enjoy the wine rather than spitting it. If you don’t want to drive and want to learn more about the wines of Sicily, here are a few tour options I would recommend depending on where you are based.
Best wine tours from Taormina
- To explore the unique volcanic wines and food of Etna, make it a feast with a visit to a winery with wine tasting, then lunch with food pairing, prosecco and limoncello. The tour includes pick up and is in a small group.
- For wine lovers, a private wine tour of Etna, visit three wineries with your own friends or family. This is my top choice because you can discuss what you like most and have a more personalised experience rather than being in a group. Here the focus is on the wine and you will visit 3 wineries and 9-15 wines in total. Pick up is from your hotel.
- For those who want to taste the wines without leaving town, this walking food and wine tour of Taormina tells you more about the wine and liquor of Sicily without a winery visit.
Best wine tours from Catania
- You can pair a winery visit with an orange farm visit. Lunch is included and you also learn about citrus farming, an important Sicilian produce.
- Visit a volcanic Etna winery: You get pick up and a tour and tasting at Planeta winery with a visit to the vineyards. There is no guide on the journey to and from Catania only at the winery. You also sample some olive oils.
- Visit an awarded winery (not on Etna) and quaint town, you can visit Abbazia Sant’Anastasia, housed in an abbey turned luxury hotel and winery after touring the picturesque Castelbuono.
- For wine lovers, visit two Etna wineries and have lunch at the second. The tour also includes a visit of Linguaglossa or Castiglione di Sicilia and transport.
I would highly recommend a tour of the volcanic wineries because the types of wine are very special and rare, produced in islands such as Santorini, the Canary Islands, The Azores and Sicily. And they are in vogue, even with its own conference.
Italy is home to a few volcanic wine appellations thanks to its three active volcanoes and Etna DOP is probably the most significant. If you are interested in reading more about it, Canadian sommelier John Szabo has written a book about them.
Explore the Greek and Roman ruins of Syracuse
Syracuse is made of two parts, the old island of Ortygia and the newer Maddalena Peninsula on the mainland where you can also find the Neapolis Archeological site and Greek Theatre. The city is best known for its rich past and for being one of Sicily’s UNESCO-listed sites.
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 became part of the Byzantine Empire until the Arab occupation in the 9th century.
Then followed invasions by Norman Angevins and Spanish from the Crown of Aragon in the 14th century, and finally the House of Savoy, Austrians and Bourbons.
Syracuse has some of the most interesting things to do in Sicily thanks to this very rich past. One of the most popular places to visit is the Roman theatre of Syracuse which is not only the largest on the island (larger than that of Taormina) but also the largest in the Italian Peninsula and north Africa.
Ortygia island is also a major tourist attraction in Sicily because of its quaint, narrow and mostly pedestrian Baroque and Medieval streets. A highlight of your visit will be the cathedral which was built over the ancient Greek Temple to Athena whose main elements are still visible today.
You can read all about Syracuse and what there is to do and see, where to stay and the best restaurants on my Guide to Syracuse.
Discover beautiful mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale
The site is made of a large villa part of a Roman Estate called Filosofiana and owned by a member of the aristocracy (probably a Senator) and it is one of the best places in Sicily to learn about Roman life.
The villa’s floors are covered with well-preserved mosaics from as early as the 4th century AD which granted it its heritage status, and the walls used to have frescoes, some of which can be seen.
The villa was originally a smaller construction that was expanded several times and inhabited until the 12th century by its original owners and then subsequent invaders. It was finally abandoned after a landslide.
The building was still partially visible but forgotten until excavations started in the 19th century and continued through the 20th century. What can be seen today is the result of several excavation efforts and is in a great state.
The mosaics are truly impressive and well-worth a visit, especially because of the state in which they were built and their degree of preservation. They mostly depict Gods and hunting scenes, the longest and most detailed one, the corridor of The Great Hunt, features exotic animals caught across the world and is truly exceptional.
The villa is open to visitors and you can explore its many rooms via the elevated walkways. Each of the mosaics has a small sign with explanations in English about what is depicted and why.
Villa Romana del Casale is located about 45min drive from Catania and can be visited as part of a day tour. Here are the various tour options:
- From Palermo, Villa Romana del Casale tour can be booked here. Entrance ticket to the site not included (10 euro)
- From Taormina, Villa Romana del Casale with Valley of Temples, the combo tour can be booked here.
- From Catania, the combo tour with Valley of Temples can be booked here.
- If you want to book a guide only who will meet you onsite and tell you all about the villa you can book this here.
The ticket entrance also gives access to a small museum in Piazza Armerina, the town closest to the villa. Read more on their website here.
Visit the Valley of the Temples
One of the best places to visit in Sicily is the Valley of the Temples, a large Greek archeological site located near Agrigento in the south of Sicily and made of Doric temples.
Although the name points at a valley, the site is actually located on top of a ridge, rather elevated than in a valley, as you can see from my drone pictures of the Valley of the Temples. From there, you have a nice perspective of Agrigento, behind and above.
The Valley of the Temples is a large site in varying degrees of preservation and easy to explore on foot following the well-marked routes and paths. If you park your car at the main parking lot in gate 3 you will first find the Temple of Juno and will then be able to continue down the main road towards the rest of the temples.
The best preserved temple in the site is the Temple of Concordia, which is also one of the best preserved Greek ruins in existence, in the world.
Almost all the 13 by 6 Doric columns are still standing and, at sunset, the light casts a nice hue on the orange stone. Later on, the temple was turned into a church but damage was limited. Look out for the iron statue of a fallen angel near the temple which is recent.
While you can visit The Valley of the Temples on your own, even if you have your own car, I would recommend visiting on a tour because otherwise you will miss most of the explanations. The site has exhibits in English near most of the monuments and ruins, but it is hard to understand the context in which they were built.
The typical tours cover The Valley of the Temples, Noto and Ragusa in one day or just the Valley of Temples. Here are the best tours:
- From Catania: Because you are closer, you can visit the Valley of Temples with Villa Romana del Casale in the same day. Book the tour here but note that it does not include the ticket entrance fees (add another 20 euros approximately for both sites).
- From Taormina: like from Catania, you can combine the Valley of Temples with Piazza Armerina aka Villa Romana del Casale here.
- From Palermo: Book the Valley of Temples tour and Archeological Museum in Agrigento here.
- If you are driving on your own and just want the guided tour, you can book it here.
Alternatively, if you are driving on your own and plan to visit independently, allocate at least a couple of hours to explore the site. Park at the top near Gate 53 and walk down along the main path to see all the temples, then you can take the buggy back up if you don’t feel like walking up the hill.
You can book your tickets ahead of time to avoid the queues. Here are the best options:
- Full Day in Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. Book here.
- The e-scooter guided tour can be booked here. This is a good option in the summer because there is little shade, it gets really hot in the bare landscapes and the distances are long.
I highly recommend going in the late evening, before sunset to see the warm sun rays on the orange sand, it is stunning.
After the visit, spend a night at the nearby Alba Palace, a great little 4-star hotel in the center of the quaint town, and before the visit, make a lunch reservation at Michelin starred La Madia in Licata which is 40min drive away.
In the summer months, between July and September, there are night tours so you can see the sunset against the temples as they turn orange, and then as they are lit up in the dark. Magical. You can book them ahead of time on their website.
See the grand Baroque Noto, The Stone Garden
Called “The Stone Garden” by art historian Cesare Brandi, Noto is the jewel of Sicily’s Baroque architecture and where the famous architect Roberto Gagliardi and his disciples left their strongest imprint. You cannot visit Sicily and not stop at Noto.
Modern Noto is one of the three Baroque towns in southeast Sicily that are part of a joint UNESCO listing because of their artistic and architectural value and it is one of the best places to visit in Sicily to see pure Baroque style of architecture. There are more than 50 religious buildings and 15 palaces from that period.
Among Ragusa, Modica and Noto the later is the grandest and has the most imposing architecture with dozens of buildings in the city center located along a cross. But the original city, the thriving Arab urb, was 15km away, where only the ruins remain after the devastating earthquake.
Leave your car at the conveniently located Parcheggio Centrale and walk towards the center of the architectural cross. You will first reach the Basilica Santissimo Salvatore e Torre Belvedere which includes the Basilica, a convent and a seminary as well as the tower.
You can visit some parts of it and see some of the remains of the ancient Noto which are kept here, and, most interestingly, you can go up the bell tower for nice views over the seminary below and the entire city center.
Continue towards pedestrian Corso Vittorio Emanuele street and you will soon see San Nicolo Cathedral, at the top of three grand staircases, this is perhaps the most emblematic of all the Baroque churches in Sicily.
In front of the cathedral is the equally aristocratic Palazzo Ducezio which is today the town hall and showcases a very classic facade. Locals sit by the staircases of both buildings and people watch. Teenagers cuddle up at sunset, as the sun rays come through Corso Vittorio Emmanuele.
Stroll along this street which feels very much like Taormina’s Corso Umberto, gated at each end and line with churches, cafes, shops and mansions and you will understand why the city has been called “The Stone Garden”.
Noto has been made famous by an episode of Netflix Chef’s Table which explores Sicilian food through the eyes of the family and team behind Cafe Sicilia, in Noto’s main pedestrian street. Don’t leave without trying their range of Sicilian sweets which is absolutely mouthwatering and will leave you undecided, so you might have to have more than one, or two, or three.
Explore hilly Ragusa
The third of the UNESCO-listed Baroque towns of Sicily is Ragusa, also known as the major filming location for Italian TV series Inspector Montalbano.
I came across the TV crew while they were filming one of the episodes in front of Ragusa’s Duomo and was thrilled. I have read all of the books by Anrea Camilleri and watched many of the episodes and movies, even those only in Italian!
But going back to Ragusa, like Noto and Modica, the town is dramatically perched on the side of a hill and was completely devastated by the 1693 earthquake. Its reconstruction offers quite a lot to the visitor.
The city is split into two sections, the small historic center of Ragusa Ibla (which gets its name from the hills the city is built over) and which has its origins in Greek times, and the newer part called Ragusa Superiore. If you can only visit one I would go for Ibla.
In Ibla you can find the arresting 18th century Cathedral of San Giorgio located on top of a hill and a grand set of stairs, the towering facade looks like it rises up to the sky and touches it.
The three level columns at each side of the main portal and the heavily decorated three-tier facade give the cathedral the most dramatic look. The cathedral can be visited via a side door. Inside you can find a large statue of St. George on the horse.
From the cathedral, the pedestrian street runs all the way down to the Giardini Iblei, or Ibla Gardens, which are not only beautiful but also give panoramic views. There are two small churches in the garden area that are worth a visit.
Along the way you can spot museums, squares, churches and other points of interest. The Archeological Museum of Ibla is worth a visit. You will find materials from as far back as the Paleolithic excavated from across the province.
Outside Ragusa lies the Palazzo Donnafugata, a fine Baroque palace that houses the private collection of Barone Arezzo and includes noteworthy pieces such as paintings from Caravaggio.
Sample stone chocolate in Modica
Modica is another great Baroque city and it is best known for its chocolate, no doubt this was one of the best places to visit in Sicily for a chocolate lover like myself.
Perched on the side of a cliff, Modica is a very picturesque city made of sandy colored facades stacked up as if they were one on top of the other. It is famous all over Sicily and Italy because of the stone chocolate produced.
If you wander along the main road you will see a continuous string of chocolate shops all mentioning the traditional cold chocolate making technique that was used by the Mayan, and subsequently the Spanish, to make chocolate.
With the discovery of chocolate from the Mayans, Spanish Conquistadors brought the chocolate beans to Spain from Mexico and then to the rest of the Spanish colonies at the time. As part of the Crown of Aragon and then Spanish Crown, Sicily also received the beans and the wisdom taken from the Mayans.
The Mayans used to prepare chocolate over a warm stone which was hot enough for the chocolate to melt but not enough for the sugar added in Europe to turn into liquid. As a result, the chocolate made using this technique has a granular texture because the sugar crystals having not fully blended in with the chocolate.
Modica continues to make chocolate this way and the most famous place to sample and buy the end product is Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, founded in 1880, which is also the oldest shop. The store allows you try all the chocolates they make and also offers tours and guided visits to learn more about chocolate making.
I could not help but buy several chocolate bars to take home and a freshly prepared chocolate cannoli which we ate on the spot. You can also buy 100% pure dark chocolate bars.
After sampling and buying too much chocolate, wander down the street to the Chocolate Museum which has a small exhibition telling you a bit more about the history of chocolate in Modica and you can see a map of Sicily made with chocolate.
Then walk all the chocolate fat on your way up to the 18th century St. George Cathedral which is located up the hill at the top of two double staircases flanked by bougainvillea flowers and has a bell tower open to visitors for just two euro.
The cathedral was built in the 16th century then rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake but the top part was only finished in the 19th century. The cathedral overlooks the entire town and looks really similar to the one in Ragusa.
Another landmark of Modica is the castle and clocktower both of which lie at the top end of the town and can be visited. Inside there is a museum and you can explore the various rooms.
I also took the tourist train which takes you around the small village for 5 euro and tells you about its main sights. You will stop at the city’s belvedere, or lookout point, from where you have panoramic views of the city.
Photograph unique Scala dei Turchi
Scala dei Turchi, or the Turkish Steps, is perhaps the most unique of the places to visit in Sicily. This stunning white, beachfront, cliffside, rock formation made of marl is located in the southern part of Sicily, about 20min drive from Agrigento, in the town of Realmonte.
The bright whiteness of the rocks shines in the sun and is quite distinct, resembling Turkey’s Pamukkale. Marl is a mineral, a lime-rich mud made with clay and silt that looks like chalk and has the same texture. You will also turn white if you sit on it.
The name comes from the rock formation shape, eroded into stairs by air and water, and because the Turkish tried to invade several times by climbing them.
Access to the area is free through steep stairs that go from in front of the main parking lot down to the beach where you will still have to walk for another 10min on the sand before you reach the cliffside.
In the summer months, the beach and the cliffside are pretty full of people and it can get really hot so bring a hat, put on sunscreen and shoes in which you can walk on the sand and on the steep stairs.
Once you get to the stairs, beware as the chalky surface has been polished off by hundreds of people every day and it can be very slippery, you might want to take your shoes off rather than try to climb the steep start on your flip flops.
But it will all be worth it when you get there. This is also one of the best places in Sicily to fly a drone and get those dramatic shots.
Go on an adventure at the Alcantara River Gorge
Sicily is all about nature, food, culture and history but you may be missing a bit of adventure and physical activity beyond walking up and down the steep hills that are so characteristic of the island or hiking Mount Etna.
The best place in Sicily for an adventure is the Alcantara Gorge, located about half an hour drive from Taormina at the footsteps of Mount Etna.
The gorge and the river of the same name were most likely formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago and its unique shape has been created over centuries of craftsmanship by the elements.
There are several natural paths, hiking trails and water pools to take a break in, but beware the crystal clear water is very cold. The best way to explore the area is on a tour and most of them will combine Etna with Alcantara Gorge because of the proximity between the two.
Here are the best tour:
- If you are up for a real adrenaline rush, go for the river jumping tour where you will get to jump into the water and walk on the river with guides and all equipment. Pick up from Catania.
Learn about salt making
Between Marsala and Trapani, you can find another interesting place to visit in Sicily, the saltpans known as Saline della Laguna, believed to have been established first by the Phoenician at the turn of the first century.
Here you can learn more about how salt has been made naturally for centuries and what some of the common household words, such as fleur de salt (salt crystals), actually mean. Salt is produced by natural evaporation of water from seawater, and harvested in the summertime.
The site has a windmill which houses a museum where you can watch a video explaining the entire process and follow interactive panels to learn more. You can go up to the windmill as well.
The laguna can be visited independently and there are also tours of the area by boat which you can book onsite. There is also a restaurant on site and a small hotel with views over the saltpans.
If you are staying in palermo and don’t have a car or prefer to go on a tour, there is a tour which includes the salt pans and other interesting destinations in the western part of Sicily such as the cute towns of Segesta and erice. Book it here.
You can find more information here. At the souvenir shop you can also buy some salt to take home.
Taste Marsala wines and Passito di Pantelleria
I already told you about the wines of Sicily but the island also produces dessert wines like the famous Marsala wine DOC, similar to Spanish Sherry. There is also Passito di Pantelleria, made from grapes dried in the sun on the island of Pantelleria, the point in Italy closest to the coast of Tunisia.
There are a few wineries in Marsala and Trapani, as this is the largest grape growing part of Sicily, and several of them produce Marsala wine as well.
One of the best places in Sicily to learn about the island’s dessert wines is Marsala. The winery I visited is Cantine Pellegrino, which is also one of the easiest to visit because it offers tours in various languages and you can taste some of the wines at the cellar door. Contact them before to know the timings, they are offered almost daily in English.
Marsala wines are fortified wines made from local white grape varieties, are similar to Sherry, and follow the same solera process called “in perpetuum” in Italian. The wine is popular in Europe thanks to Woodhouse, a British trader who saw the potential of the wine at the end of the 18th century and started to export it to the UK.
Passito di Pantelleria is a very special dessert wine made from a combination of regular and dried out grapes that are almost raisins and has been listed in the UNESCO Intangible World Cultural Heritage list.
These grapes grow on the Island of Pantelleria, located south of Sicily and almost on the Tunisian coast, following traditional and ancestral methods, and planted in hollowed land to protect them from the wind.
Their UNESCO listing is thanks to the historical and communal way in which the grapes are cultivated and the wine is made, in perfect symbiotic relationship with humans. To qualify for Pantelleria DOC (wine appellation), they must be grown, dried and the wine produced on the island.
If you visit, you will almost surely buy a bottle, I bought two bottles of Passito di Pantelleria and one of Marsala wine.
Slow down time at the Aegean Islands
Sicily is already an island but there are also a few other islands around it that make for a great escape to a place where time seems to have stood still.
Some of the most beautiful ones are the three islands located in the Mediterranean Sea and called Aegadian Islands, Favignana, Levanzo and Marettimo. The name of Favignana comes from the wind that often blows in the area, and believe me it does.
The islands are connected to Trapani by fast ferries and hydrofoils from Siremar and Liberty Lines several times an hour, some of them will allow you to take your own car with you, but it is best you leave it in Trapani and rent an assisted bike or a scooter to explore the island, this is one of the best places in Sicily to go back to a slow pace of life.
Favignana has a few hotels, the best of which is the Hotel-apartment Pretti which is right by the ferry terminal. There are many rental homes, villas and affordable bed and breakfasts.
It is common for locals to spend a few days on the islands simply relaxing, enjoying the sun at the few bays or sailing around. You can rent a speedboat from the port, get bikes or simply grab a taxi to go to the few stunning coves.
The main square and streets in the small village have lots of souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, etc. and the coast of Favignana is quite unique because of the rock formations which the excavations of the calcarenite quarries have created.
Visit Cala Rossa (red cove), which got its name from a major Roman – Carthaginian battle in the 3rd century BC which washed ashore hundreds of dead soldiers. Despite its macabre name, this is a popular beach and a stunning bay of incredibly deep blue waters.
Another favorite spot is Bue Marino, a similar place to Cala Rossa with flat rocky areas where you can place your towel and a food truck in the summer.
Above all, Favignana is a place where time seems to have stood still and tourism development has yet to take off so it makes for a great place to visit in Sicily if you have had enough of the crowds. But beware, despite its calm-looking coves, the winds can be really strong and nights chilly even in the summer.
Favignana can also be visited on a day trip from Trapani. Visit the counter of one of the ferry companies in Trapani port, buy tickets with day return and rent assisted bikes at the port when you get off the ferry.
There is a cycling itinerary which takes about an hour to complete and goes to Cala Rossa and the other bays in the area. Add time at each of the two main beaches, and lunch in town and you have a great day out.
Explore the capital of Palermo
Palermo is the largest city in Sicily and has the second airport after Catania with the most low-cost connections to Europe. As a result, this is the main entry point for most visitors.
Because of it size and long history, Palermo has some of the most interesting places to visit in Sicily, a huge historical center and a great foodie scene (arancini are typical of Palermo).
Palermo is not as posh and polished as other places in Sicily like Taormina or Syracuse, here things are a bit rough around the edges and the sheer size of the city, and orders of magnitude bigger than Taormina, make it a constant surprise.
Start at the historical center where you can visit several of the city’s most important tourist attractions. Palazzo dei Normanni is the site of the Sicilian Parliament and also houses the Cappela Palatina, a gold and precious stone extravaganza dating back from the 12th century.
The chapel was built by Roger II and is breathtaking. The level of detail of the paintings and their degree of preservation and the amount of gold and bling are stunning. You can also visit the palace from Friday to Monday. More information on its website.
Palermo’s Cathedral is a must-see attraction in Sicily and features as one of the top things to do in Sicily because of its very unique architectural style and size.
The cathedral was originally built in the 12th century but renovated and reconstructed through the centuries with a Gothic portal, a Renaissance porch and a Neoclassical facade giving it a very unique look. The cathedral’s official website is here.
If you did not get to see the mummies in Savoca, then Palermo is the place with over 1,500 mummified corpses in the Capuchin Catacombs. The tradition of mummifying bodies was left for the wealthy and the religious and was believed to be a way to live forever. Official website here.
For a break from bricks, head to the street markets where the smells, colors and sounds explode from all directions. I am dying to go back just thinking about all that Sicilian food. There are several street markets in Palermo (I told you it was a big city) but try Ballaro market which is the largest.
If you are interested in performances, Teatro Massimo is the second largest opera house in Europe and an elegant space to attend a performance from September to June. For a more casual type of performance, don’t miss a puppet show which was inscribed by UNESCO as a world intangible heritage.
No doubt the best thing to do in Palermo (and in the whole of Sicily, I am sure by now you realised) is eating. Go on a walking food tour to discover why Palermo has been named as top-10 best street food cities in the world by Forbes.
Because there is so much to see and do in Palermo, it pays to be efficient and either book a tour or have transportation. Here are my suggested tours:
- For art lovers, this group tour will take you into the Cathedral, Cappela Palatina and explore other buildings in the historical center. Entry tickets not included (10 euro).
- Group tour of the catacombs and Monreale with lunch can be booked here. Entry tickets are not included and meet up point is the Teatro Massimo.
- Go private to tailor your own experience with this tour just for you and your travel companions which takes you to all the places mentioned above and includes lunch.
- Or get the hop on – hop off bus ticket which takes you around the main sights, has WiFi and air conditioning (trust me, this is a life saver in the summer).
If you prefer to travel around yourself, but need a ride into the Sicilian capital, then we recommend booking a ferry online with Bookaway. Book your ferry ticket from Naples to Palermo here.
See a razed village turned into art
One of the most interesting things to do in Sicily is visiting the old city of Gibellina, known as Ruderi di Gibellina, which was completely destroyed by the 1968 earthquake and then turned into art.
The village was covered in concrete by doctor and prisoner of war turned artist Alberto Burri who decided to maintain the shape of the streets to create a truly unique modern art piece best appreciated from the sky.
Chill at laid back Cefalu
Cefalu is a small seaside town with one of the most popular beaches in northern Sicily and the island as a whole and it is incredibly packed in the summer months, not least because of its proximity to Palermo, reachable by train in an hour.
But Cefalu is not just a beach town, it also has an incredible cathedral, the Duomo of Cefalu which is a fantastic Norman building with Arab influence. Go inside for the well-preserved Byzantine mosaics of Christ Pantocrator that are emblematic of the town.
If you are up for it, take the Salita Saraceni path to the top of La Rocca for the best views over the coast and town below. The climb can take up to 45min.
Walk the city of Catania
Catania is best known for being the major entry point into Sicily because it has one of the two airports on the island, but is often skipped in favor of other more popular destinations in Sicily like Syracuse, Taormina or Palermo.
However, there are quite a lot of things to do in Catania and you can easily spend a couple of days there between the Roman ruins, Baroque buildings and the fantastic foodie places. Add in some museums, a convent and a couple of palaces and you have a small Sicily.
The city was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake and sits at the bottom of Mount Etna so it is on permanent alert when the volcano explodes, which it does constantly, closing the air space.
Its compact city center make it a convenient tourist destination with all attractions within walking distance. Park the car and explore on foot.
Start at the 13th century Castello Ursino which acts also as a museum, then continue to the large Baroque Cathedral Sant’Agata on the Piazza del Duomo, followed by the Thermal baths of the Rotonda and the Roman Theatre, and end at the Benedictine Monastery.
For lunch or dinner, Trattoria U Fucularu is a lovely family-run restaurant with a great selection of antipasti which you can pick yourself and a nice menu featuring what is seasonal and fresh. The staff are very friendly and accommodating and the few tables outside are pleasant.
Follow in the footsteps of The Godfather
Sicily is well known for The Godfather movies, in particular the second one which has several scenes shot on set in the island and the best places in Sicily to learn more about how the movie was made and shot is in two small villages near Taormina.
While the original book the movies are based on mentions the Corleone families and the village of the same name, located in the central north part of the islands, this is not the village where the movie was shot.
When Francis Ford Copolla arrived in Sicily for his location scouting, he realised that Corleone had no charm and would not make for a good backdrop to the movie.
He was staying in Taormina with his crew, when one of the staff members suggested Savoca and Forza d’Agro, two nearby villages up in the mountains of the eastern coast of Sicily. He visited them and fell in love with the locations so the movie was shot there.
In the peak summer months, these two tiny villages on top of a hill are visited by hundreds of The Godfather fans who are in search of the background churches, streets and bars that are featured in the movies.
You will be pleased to know that there are tours which will take you to all the locations in both villages and show you every spot. The places have been maintained just as they were. I went on a private tour with a guide and it was one of the best things we did in Sicily.
Tours last between 3-5h depending on where you start and how long you stop at each place (Savoca is about 20min from Taormina).
Here are the best Godfather tours:
- Group tour from Taormina or Catania can be booked here, it does not include any drinks or food but you will stop for a snack at Bar Vitelli, I recommend the cakes or granita.
- Group tour from Taormina, Giardini Naxos or surroundings with lunch (pasta and wine) can be booked here.
- The Private Godfather tour I took can be booked here. The guide will stop when you like, you can have a drink/snack at Bar Vitelli and add a good lunch or dinner after the tour. You can ask the guide anything about life in Sicily, the Mafia today or the movie.
See real mummies
Who would have thought that one of the best things to do in Sicily would be getting up close with real mummies? Well, you can!
In Savoca, famous for The Godfather filming locations including Vitello Bar, you can see real-life mummies in the crypt of the local Convento dei Frati Cappuccini, known as the Capuchin Convent of Savoca.
Mummification in this way was common in Sicily during the 17th to 19th centuries and has been found in other locations on the island and other parts of Southern Italy.
The practice was only accessible to the higher classes because it was very expensive and therefore, the mummies found are of wealthy people or monks. Mummification aimed to achieve eternal life by allowing the people to be preserved till eternity.
A desiccation room, usually located beneath churches, is found in Savoca’s Mother Church and is thought to be where the corpses were left to dry before natural mummification. Corpses were placed in niches with seats and holes underneath and filled with vinegar and salt. The bodies would naturally dessicate this way and the fluids gathered in the holes.
In Savoca, there used to be 50 but now only 17 zombie-looking mummies, all from the 19th century, and some of the heads, are on display inside the crypt behind glass or in coffins. They used to be displayed openly but vandalism and the risk of damage prompted authorities to restore and protect them with glass.
The practice stopped with the arrival of Napoleon and the expansion of cemeteries. Many of the mummies were then taken from the crypt and buried.
The crypt of the Capuchin Convent can be visited in exchange for a donation but you cannot take photos inside. There are some signs, mostly in Italian, which talk about each of them, who the person was and what they did, so you have names, dates and professions to make out the clothing worn and the social status.
If you can’t make it to Savoca, there are catacombs and mummies elsewhere in Sicily. The largest and most famous one of them is in Palermo where over 1,000 mummies can be found some dating back to as late as 1599.
Sip almond liqueur from penis-shape glasses at Castelmola
Continuing with some of the most interesting things to see in Sicily are penis-shaped shot glasses, menus and all sorts of objects in a cozy cafe in Castelmola. But don’t be put off by this, Castelmola is an interesting place to see in Sicily even for those in search of a PG13 trip.
Located right on top of a hill with practically 360 degree views over the coast below and the mountains around it, Castelmola is a quaint almost idyllic village in Sicily topped by the remains of a Norman castle and connected through narrow, steep and picturesque alleys.
The town is famous not only for the penis bar, Turresi, which has been a fixture of the village for decades, but also because it is thought that almond liqueur, now a typical Sicilian dessert wine, was invented here.
The best way to reach Castelmola is by car driving up the steep and windy road and then simply walking around, or you can walk from Taormina if you don’t have a car. Tours are also offered in combination with other places:
- Castelmola with Taormina and Savoca (The Godfather location and mummies) which you can book here.
- Castelmola, Giardini Naxos and Taormina which you can book here.
Shop Italian fashion for a steal
Everybody loves brands like Prada, Gucci or Armani and most of these brands are significantly cheaper in Italy. If you are a shopping addict or just want to get that prized handbag, one of the best things to do in Sicily might just be visiting an outlet mall.
There is a particularly large one near Catania called Sicilia Outlet Village, about 40min drive from the airport, which sells all the favorite Italian brands as well as some international ones. Here you can shop at discounted prices and then get your VAT refund back.
What makes this extra convenient is the fact that there is a VAT return office in the outlet mall so you can get your refund on the spot. You should receive an additional 13% back in the form of VAT, although VAT in Italy is 21%.
This is because there is a part of the VAT that is still payable and because there are some commissions taken by the Tax refund companies.
If you prefer to get your VAT refund at the airport, you first need to go to the customs counter to get your receipts stamped then to the tax refund counter to get your money back. If they refund it to your credit card there will be no commission, but if you want cash there may be an additional commission taken of 3%.
I did not find any queues for the VAT refund at the airport in Catania and got it all sorted within minutes.
Eat cannoli, granita and other delicious Sicilian dishes.
Sicily is best known for its food exports, most notably cannoli, which have made their way into many movies and TV series episodes. While you can buy some of these at the airport to take home and they travel quite well (I know, I bought three) and keep for up to three days, they taste better in Sicily.
Let me start by saying that Sicilian canolo (the singular form of the word), are quite big, not the finer sized version you find in the US but about three times that. And as noted, we say one cannolo two cannoli.
Granita and brioche is the typical Sicilian breakfast and best enjoyed in the eastern coast where the granita is finer, I loved mine at Bam Bar in Taormina where I had breakfast every morning.
If you watched the Netflix series Chef’s Table, you will have heard all about Sicily’s main ingredients, nuts, in particular almonds and pistachio, goat milk and cheese (like the ricotta used in cannoli), fresh fruits, etc. The dessert cake called Cassata uses a few of these ingredients.
Other Sicilian specialties include the roasted vegetables called caponata or the Sicilian parmigiana, made with aubergines, tomato and cheese and fashioned like a lasagna.
I could go on about Sicilian food (in fact I have written an extremely detailed guide here) but the bottom line is that the best places in Sicily might just be the many cafes and restaurants. I would comfortably admit that I spent a third of my time in Sicily eating.
The best way to learn more about the island’s food is on a tour. These are some great food tours in the major cities:
- In Palermo: A very popular 3-hour walking food tour that can be booked here. Or for a traditional food tour check this one.
- In Catania: A food tour which also explores the city’s main highlights can be booked here.
- In Taormina: a food and wine tour can be booked here
- And in Syracuse: you can book a walking food tour here.
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