Taormina’s Ancient Greek Theatre is one of the most beautiful and visited on the island, and there are many Greek and Roman ruins in Sicily!
Where is Taormina’s Ancient Greek Theatre
The Ancient Greek Theatre is located in Taormina, on the ridge of Mount Tauro hill, and carved from limestone on the side of the mountain.
Vis a vis the city of the same name, it is located downtown, not far from Corso Umberto, making it a really easy to get to this tourist attraction in Taormina and unusually central for an archeological site of this magnitude.
Just walk for five minutes from the main square and you will find it to the left of the Hotel Belmond Grand Timeo.
Understanding the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina
Different construction phases of the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina
Taormina was an ancient Greek city built on the same site as today’s city, on the slopes of Mount Tauro above Naxos in the 4th century BC, and it was Sicily’s first Greek colony. In the years that followed until Roman arrival in the middle of the 3rd century, Taormina lost independence under Syracuse, regained it and lost it again.
With the Romans, Taormina remained an independent ally until it sided with the wrong Roman Emperor, was conquered by Augustus in 21 BC and had all its inhabitants expelled in favor of a Roman city.
Under Roman rule the city thrived and became the capital of Bizantine Sicily after Syracuse fell to Arab control until the 10th century AD.
With this in mind, it is important to clarify that, although it is called the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina, the structure we see today is a 2nd century AD Roman reconstruction of the 3rd century BC Greek theatre.
It is thought that Augustus was the one to order the theatre’s reconstruction because pictures of him and busts from contemporary magistrates were found on the site. It is also believed that between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AC the theatre was turned into an arena and its underground rooms enlarged.
The Romans transformed the original classical performance and musical theatre of the Greek period into a most spectacular amphitheatre structure with a larger arena that could host gladiator fights, gladiator-animal fights, as well as naval battles. This also required a trench to protect the spectators.
Why you should visit the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina
Taormina’s main landmark is also one of the most important theatres remaining from Antiquity and has become the emblem of Sicily often being used as the main image to promote the island.
Its importance lies in its uniquely large size (109m in diameter), only second in the Italian peninsula and North Africa (Magna Grecia) to that in Syracuse.
The second is the fact that some of the parts that have been lost to time and erosion in most ancient theatre archeological sites, are still standing here today. These are namely the parts behind the scenes as well as the theatre itself, mostly thanks to various preservation efforts.
If you have visited other Roman or Greek archeological sites, for example the theatre in Syracuse, you will have noticed that the stage is mostly gone and that the theatre itself is no longer standing, whereas in Taormina you can make out what it used to look like.
On the other hand, the seats, which have survived in many theatres from Antiquity, have disappeared here and instead, they have been replaced with modern wooden ones to accommodate today’s performances.
Taormina’s Greek Theatre is also an engineering and architectural feat. It is believed that almost 10,000 cubic meters of limestone rock had to be carved out to build the theatre so that it would have this magnificent location and views over the coast below and Mount Etna.
What you can see in Taormina’s Ancient Greek Theatre
While most of the grandiosity of the building has been lost to the elements and to medieval constructions, which used the theatre as a quarry, a lot of the original building can be imagined if you close your eyes and listen to the audio guide.
As you walk around the structure, or sit down on one of the seats, you can almost feel the classical performances staged during Greek times or the more dramatic gladiatorial contest of the Roman period.
You can visit the theatre on your own and at your own pace, simply observing what catches your attention, or follow the itinerary marked by the numbers in the audio guide.
Start by the main entrance and enter the theatre to the right of the stage. You then walk across the stage and up the stairs to the left which provide one of the nicest views of Taormina and Giardini Naxos below.
The itinerary then follows to the back of the cavea (the tiered seating), a columned portico which was used to accommodate spectators between acts, much like in today’s theatres and opera houses. This would be where the bars and cafes are usually found today.
Walk along the portico and then to the back of the theatre to the farthest end, on the mountain’s edge, from where you can the coast south of Taormina. Retrace your steps back to the souvenir shop and Antiquarium where there is a small museum, and down the stairs to exit behind the stage.
The souvenir shop and museum are worth a stop because the views of the coast below are the nicest in the whole theatre.
Where to buy tickets for Taormina’s Ancient Greek Theatre
You can buy tickets for Taormina’s Ancient Greek Theatre from the kiosk which is at the entrance, you cannot buy them in advance but that is not an issue because it will not be sold out and the queues tend to be small.
The theatre opens in the morning (9am) and until sunset time throughout the year (7pm in summertime earlier in winter) and offers audio guides for an extra amount.
Best time to visit the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina
The best time to visit is two hours before sunset so you can appreciate the views of the city and surrounding space.
However, if what you want is to have the best light on the theatre itself, come in the middle of the day. At sunset, half of the stage and front part of the theatre is already in its own shadow.
Guided tours of Taormina’s Ancient Greek Theatre
There are some signs and exhibits onsite by the main parts of the theatre in English but they don’t provide the complete picture so while I had the audio guide and read the signs, I still wish I had a guide with me to give me the overall picture and put things in context.
At the very least I would recommend getting the audio guide because of the limited amount of information available online. It costs less than 5 euro.
The best option to make the most of your visit is to book an independent tour with a guide. The theatre itself does not offer guided tours so you will have to book an independent tour.
The majority of the tours include Taormina city as well as the theatre. You can join a walking tour of Taormina with a visit to the theatre which you can book here. Bear in mind the tours never include the price of the ticket to the theatre (10 euro in 2019).
For the best experience, get a private walking tour which you can book from GetYourGuide here. I always prefer private tours because you can tailor them to what you like most and start/end when and where you like.
You can also make the most of having a private guide by asking many questions to truly understand Sicilian society (and get answers to all your mafia-related questions!). I very much enjoyed our guide for the rest of Sicily and she gave us good recommendations for places to eat in Taormina and other parts of Sicily.
Remember, GetYourGuide tours can be cancelled up to 24h in advance which is why I like to use them. In case something happens and you cannot make it you can get your money back.
Seeing a performance at the Ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina
The theatre in Taormina has been at the heart of the art world for decades and several film festivals and awards ceremonies have been held here, hosting renowned celebrities like Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Marcelo Mastroianni, Richard Burton or Sofia Loren. Many local Italian movies have also been filmed on site.
In the summer months there are performances, operas, concerts and more at the Greek Theatre. The preparations were ongoing when I visited Taormina and the first concert of the season happened when I was enjoying sunset aperitivo at the Belmond Grand Timeo.
At operas and other formal events, you should expect gowns, suits and ties for the men, a large security deployment, and all the who’s who of the Sicilian and international society.
Did I mention the theatre almost faces the sunset? What a great location for a summer concert.
More information about the calendar of events here. You may ask your hotel to help you buy tickets to the shows.
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