Sicily is a beautiful Mediterranean island that offers a bit of everything: gorgeous beaches for sun-seekers, fabulous food for gourmets and oodles of ancient monuments for culture buffs. All rolled up in plenty of laid-back Sicilian charm. There’s so much to see and do on this gorgeous island that it’s hard to choose favourites, but this is our pick of the top 10 things to do in Sicily.
1. Eat street food in Palermo’s market
Palermo, the Sicilian capital, is a crazy, chaotic, colourful city. Don’t miss the Ballarò and Vucciria markets, which are heaven for foodies. As well as the heaped stalls of local produce – perfect for picnic supplies – you’ll see lots of street vendors selling the city’s famous street snacks. The classic Palermitano delicacies are pani a meusa (a spleen sandwich) and stigghiola (entrails on a skewer), but those with less adventurous palates will be happy with sfincione (a cross between pizza and focaccia) or pane e panella (a sandwich with chickpea fritters). Yum!
2. Time travel in Siracusa
Go back in time in Siracusa, which is home to one of the greatest collections of Greco-Roman ruins in southern Italy. Most of these are concentrated in the Neapolis Archaeological Park on the mainland, where you can marvel at the enormous Greek theatre – one of the biggest ever built – which dates back to the 5th century AD. It dwarfs the nearby Roman amphitheatre, where gladiators once fought to the death with wild animals. But the most atmospheric area of Syracuse is Ortigia, a tiny island linked by a bridge to the rest of the city, where the lavish Baroque buildings are interspersed with splendid Roman ruins.
3. Eat gelato in a brioche
The gelato in Sicily is the best in the world, in our humble opinion. Prepared with the freshest, seasonal ingredients – such as lemons or pistachios from the slopes of Mount Etna – they are intensely flavourful and blissfully refreshing. In Sicily, gelato is usually served in a brioche, the fluffy roll providing the perfect counterpoint to the creamy filling.
4. Climb the tallest volcano in Europe
As well as the tallest in Europe, Mount Etna is also one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It’s the island’s most famous symbol, and visible from much of the eastern coast. Hiking up through the strange lunar landscape is an experience you’ll never forget, but you can also sail up almost to the top in a cable car. Mini buses take visitors from the cable car terminus to the crater, which may be haloed in smoke. Access is closed when the volcano is erupting, but at night you might spot fiery lava flows from Taormina or other nearby towns. It’s a thrilling sight!
5. Enjoy cocktails at sunset in Taormina
Taormina still reigns supreme as Sicily’s most elegant town. Perfectly perched high on a mountain crag overlooking the Ionian Coast, this exquisite little town also offers spectacular views of Mount Etna – and its fiery show, if it’s erupting. There are several viewing spots along the main street, but the biggest is the Belvedere Square. It’s surrounded by pavement cafés, where you can settle in with a cocktail and soak up the gorgeous views.
6. Admire the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
The stunning sight of these seven vast temples in Agrigento truly drives home just how powerful this region was during ancient times. Set not in a valley, but on a commanding ridge overlooking the sea, these mighty constructions were built between 2000–2500 years ago. The Valley of the Temples is one of the largest and most remarkable archaeological complexes in Europe, and the soaring columns are truly breathtaking. While there, take a break in the gorgeous Garden of Kolymbethra, full of lemon and olive trees, olive groves and tinkling fountains.
7. Be dazzled by the mosaics in Cefalù
Cefalù is one of our favourite holiday resorts in Sicily, with its long sandy beaches, picturesque fishing port and elegant historic centre full of chic boutiques and galleries. The vast cathedral (Duomo), which dominates the little town, is famous for its glittering Byzantine mosaics, created in the 12th century. Linger awhile in the charming cloister, where the medieval capitals are carved with biblical scenes, including a lovely depiction of Noah building his ark.
8. A vision in black and white: Catania’s Piazza Duomo
Catania is Sicily’s second city, a vivacious, if slightly battered, beauty full of Baroque architecture that sits in the shadow of mighty Mount Etna. One of the curiosities of the city is the black basalt stone that alternates with pale marble in its flamboyant churches and palaces. You’ll see the best of these on the Piazza Duomo, Catania’s splendid main square. It’s also home to the city’s symbol, an elephant bearing an enormous obelisk, as well as the resplendent cathedral, a vision in black and white.
9. Check out the Roman bikinis in the Villa Romana del Casale
Piazza Armerina is home to this magnificent Roman villa, famous for its extensive and beautifully preserved mosaics. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the villa may have been built as a country residence for the Roman Emperor Maximilian, although it’s more likely it was commissioned by a wealthy landowner. No expense was spared in the construction, which used the finest and rarest materials. The mosaics are incredibly vivid, from the Great Hunt that stretches along a long corridor, to the so-called ‘Bikini Girls’, skimpily attired female athletes playing sports.
10. Take a walk on the wild side in the Riserva Naturale Orientata dello Zingaro
A short drive north of Trapani, Sicily’s first nature reserve, the Riserva Naturale Orientata dello Zingaro, remains one of its most beautiful. Stretching along a narrow peninsula, it’s got some excellent hiking trails and glorious little coves for swimming, and provides the perfect antidote to the coastal hubbub.