There’s lots to love about Sicily.
Here are my top 10 experiences and places, in no particular order. Hope you like them too!
It’s an incredible city and one of my favourite three cities in the world. Stay in the old part of town and you can walk everywhere, no need to have a car here! Vibrant markets, fabulous food, palazzi, cathedrals and churches, opera theatres, puppet shows, dungeons, museums. The attractions are endless. I’ve spent ten days here over three separate trips and I haven’t yet run out of things to see and do. It was once the most opulent and richest city in the world and although it’s a bit tatty around the edges now it’s easy to see what it would have been like back in those times. I really, really love it and will devote a whole post to it at a later date.
Churches in the mountain top town of ERICE
Erice is really high up. So high up that the drive of many hairpin bends is just the littlest bit nerve-wracking and once you’re up there you feel like you can really touch the clouds. We were lucky to have a rainy, foggy and therefore suitably atmospheric afternoon for our self-guided tour of the churches – where the mist was swirling around town and the wind was whistling through the towers – and it made the whole place seem just that little bit spooky ….
You can purchase a combined ticket to all the churches at whichever one you go to first. They are all interesting in their own way but I have two favourites. The first is Real Duomo, which is a nice church with a fantastic bell tower. Make sure you climb right to the top and time it for when the bells are chiming. The weather prevented us from seeing the view, but I imagine it would have been great.
And secondly Chiesa S.Giuliano which has creepy wax models of baby Jesus and the head of John the Baptist
The ancient Greek temples of SELINUNTE, SEGESTA AND AGRIGENTO
Agrigento (valley of the temples) is the one most tourists visit because there are multiple temples all in pretty good nick, and all on the one walkable site. If you go make sure you cross the road to see the Temple Of Zeus for the huge stone statues which once formed pillars of the temple. There’s also a really terrific museum just up the road which puts the whole place in context and gives you extra information about what you saw at the site as well as some ancient burial tombs – the necropoli paleocristiana. Sure it’s impressive but it’s also very crowded (for Sicily), you can’t touch anything (watch out for the temple nazis!), the town is an architectural disaster and completely ugly, and the road to get there is very slow, frustrating and lacks nice scenery.
The Selinunte site is quite big and you can take golf carts (6 Euros per person) to get you from one part to the other. Temple E which was restored in 1958 is magnificent, and was originally used for weddings. The others only consist of rubble these days. What interested me most was that this was the most powerful city in the world for two centuries and then it was abandoned a few hundred years BC – why?
So my pick if you only have time to see one is Segesta. It’s in the middle of nowhere so it’s something you’d incorporate into a day trip, but it’s easy to park, it’s practically devoid of tourists, the temple is gorgeous (36 columns, no roof but otherwise fairly in tact) and one you’re allowed to touch, and there’s a bus that takes you up the hill to a Greek temple. If you visit, after you get off the bus keep walking past the first lot of rubble where the bus drops you off and you’ll eventually come to the theatre. We almost missed it! It’s also well preserved and has seriously good acoustics. Another big plus for me was when we were there the cafe at the entrance sold the most delicious almond biscotti I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve tasted quite a few!
There’s loads of ancient history in Sicily but if you want to see something super ancient head to the NECROPOLI DI PANTALICA
These are burial sites of bronze age people who lived here in the 13th century BC and carved out caves in which to place their dead. It’s a valley and so while wandering down the rocky path to the bottom you can see many of them on the other side, you can also go inside some that are right next to the path. There’s a lovely river at the bottom which makes a nice break after a hot walk down (we were there in late spring). It was also very pretty when we were there with wildflowers, including caper flowers, poking out from in between the rocky landscape.
VILLA ROMANA DEL CASALE
I’ve been there twice now and it’s where I go to get my mosaic fix.
It’s a Roman villa in the middle of nowhere which was reputedly home to members of the upper class, and built in the 4th century AD. It was only rediscovered in the 1950s, having been buried under a landslide in the 12th century so the mosaics have been very well preserved.
Despite the busloads of tourists (you really need to get to this one early in the day) with a little bit of imagination it’s easy to pretend you’ve been invited here for a sumptuous feast, and some poor soul is waving you with a fan of ostrich feathers while some other poor soul feeds you with peeled grapes. The mosaics are magnificent and their story telling power gives you a glimpse into what the Roman controlled world was like at that time.
The Spanish baroque cities of NOTO, RAGUSA and MODICA
What makes these towns so special is that due to a massive earthquake in the late 1600’s they were all destroyed and had to be rebuilt pretty much from scratch. The Spanish were in charge at the time, so they were all rebuilt in the Spanish baroque style.
They’re all reasonably close together but if you only have time for one, my pick would be Noto as it’s the most picture perfect of the three (but it also has the most tourists). If you go there make sure you see inside the theatre (Teatro Communale), and Palazzo Nicolaci, and any church that is open. Most of the good stuff can be found on or just off the main street. Oh, and eat gelato (see my next post on eating in Sicily for details)
If you want to stay in one of these towns for a few days and use it as your base then Ragusa would be my pick. We stayed at B&B Palazzo Castro al Duomo, in the suite dei Gelsomini and thoroughly recommend it. Listening to the duomo bells at 7am and 7pm from your balcony overlooking the piazza is a truly magical experience.
There are lots of fantastic markets to visit in Sicily – general food markets, fish markets, markets for antiques and markets dedicated to clothing and household goods – but my favourites are the fish market in Catania, and the Capo and Ballaro food markets in Palermo.
The one in Catania is my absolute favourite. It’s a fish market but also sells fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and deli items like olives and spices. You’ll also see unusual things like snails escaping out of baskets, piggy trotters, animal heads, stingrays and offal hanging from racks.
It’s all open air, set in two piazzas and the adjoining streets and surrounded by old, uncared for but charming apartment buildings. Wandering through you’ll hear stallholders singing about their produce but be careful in the fish section – it’s slippery, wet, and if you pass by a stall where a big fish is being chopped up watch out!
We stayed in an apartment just up the road from this market and so visited early every morning to buy our supplies for the day. This tasting, choosing and buying was practically the highlight of my trip. I don’t fool anyone that I’m Italian, but I can speak a little of the language and standing next to my dark-skinned Sicilian husband and conversing enough to be understood I sure felt it!
Buying is old school (some sellers still use old scales with weights) and fairly haphazard, or it appeared that way to my Anglo supermarket-trained brain. You ask for two fennels and they give you three then round down the price, and if you buy something by weight they’ll round it down to the nearest Euro. It’s a curious practice either designed to make the transaction easier, or to sell more, or maybe a bit of both.
You can easily wander around any of these markets yourself, but on our last trip we did a walking street food tour in and around the Capo and Vucciria markets with Palermo Street Food and loved it. For more information check out Palermo Street Food and my upcoming post on eating in Sicily.
THE DRIVE FROM RANDAZZO TO MT ETNA
Most people visit Mt Etna on a day trip from Catania or Taormina, but I had read that the northern approach was much less visited and much prettier. So we based ourselves in a restored country house just outside of Randazzo and drove up to Piano Provenzano from there. It is incredibly beautiful, especially in late Spring when we were there.
Read more about our trip up to Mt Etna and our stay in Randazzo here.
Visiting the tiny AEOLIAN ISLANDS OF FILICUDI AND ALICUDI by boat
We did this trip from Salina, another of the Aeolian islands off the coast of Sicily with Salina Relax Boats at a cost of 60 Euros per person, which we thought was very good value. You have lots of stops for swims, and is the case with all Italian boats we’ve been on the crew makes you a proper cooked lunch – usually pasta with bread, wine and coffee thrown in, and surprisingly it’s all good. A far cry from the bread roll, BBQ chook and coleslaw you’d get here!
What makes these islands special is their size (tiny), the number of inhabitants (not many) and their distance from Sicily and the mainland (a long way). Filicudi was our first stop. There’s not much to see but what’s there is, is both colourful and cute. Tiny Alicudi only has 90 inhabitants and most of those live way up the hill which is why they use donkeys to ferry people and goods up all those stairs. It’s so remote that building materials are brought in by helicopter!
As were were leaving Alicudi we spotted several goats way up high on the hills and on the way back we stopped in at a blue grotto, saw a turtle, had some more swims and just enjoyed the rest of the afternoon. A gorgeous, relaxing day.
Seeing a SICILIAN PUPPET SHOW
I’ve always been a bit wary of puppets and find them fairly creepy. But I put my fears aside and went to this as it’s part of Sicily’s cultural heritage and the number of places that do these shows is shrinking. The one we went to is the Teatro dei Pupi in Palermo and is family run. They make the puppets and are the puppetmasters too.
It’s in dialect so I didn’t understand all of what was happening but it’s in Punch & Judy slapstick style with a simple storyline and lots of fighting, beheadings and stolen horses, so it’s really very funny. Line up early for a seat at the front behind the special spots reserved for little kids. In a world where most things are super slick this really was very refreshing and highly entertaining.
The shrines at MONTE PELLEGRINI and TINDARI
This won’t be on everyone’s top 10, but I love Catholic shrines and so these two spots are right up my alley!
On top of Monte Pellegrino on the outskirts of Palermo and inside a grotto, they’ve built a church in honour of Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of the city who supposedly saved Palermo from the plague a few hundred years back. Her spirit appeared to a shepherd (there’s always a shepherd involved in these stories) and lead him to her bones and that’s where the church was built. Never mind that the bones were later discovered to be that of a goat, it’s a fabulous sparkly place.
You know you’ve arrived when you see the souvenir stalls. Park there, walk up the steps and through the small doorway and you’re in! There’s holy water, Santa Rosalia dressed in gold in a glass case, Santa Rosalia on an altar with blue lights shining down on her – and all in a CAVE! You couldn’t get more perfect than that!
And right next door there’s a fabulous souvenir shop where I bought a few things for my collection and for my catholic sister-in-law. They gave me a Santa Rosalia water bottle to fill up at the holy water station, which I did. I got it back home in one piece, no leakage, but then a week later all the water had disappeared – with no leaked water to be seen anywhere! Spooky, huh?
Tindari is famous for the black madonna. The story is that she was being transported by sea in the 8th century to somewhere other than Sicily when a storm forced the ship to take refuge in Tindari’s bay. Once the winds calmed, the sailors wanted to continue on their way, but the Madonna wouldn’t allow the boat to move until she had been offloaded on the beach. From there the local population entrusted her to the little monastery on the cliffs, and so there she stayed.
As in Monte Pellegrino we were met by the souvenir stalls (which are seriously good, with many statues being made out of black lava and then covered in glitter!!!).
This church is a regular kind of church and quite modern having been built in the 1960s but has some beautiful modern mosaics and paintings on the ceiling. The madonna is hard to get a close look at as she’s quite small and you’re not allowed to get close to her, but she’s definitely black!
I debated whether I should include Taormina in my list.
Sure it’s touristy and relatively expensive, it is the main resort town after all and the type of place Europeans fly into for a short breaks, but it’s still lovely. It’s a town that hugs a steep hill with little alleyways and staircases everywhere and spectacular views from lookouts and the Greek theatre.
The little rocky cove near Isola Bella is a lovely spot to while away an afternoon at the beach club, but my advice is to give a very firm no to the ladies offering massages unless you really want one, otherwise they’ll bug you every five minutes for the rest of the day. From the beach you can hire a saucy young Italian man and his boat to take you motoring along the coast to visit the blue grotto and admire the coastal scenery.
OK so I cheated – that’s my top twelve. But there’s so much to love about Sicily!
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Until next time, safe travels,
The Travelling Pantaloni