Things to Do in Sicily
Though the giant, craggy La Rocca may dominate the Cefalù skyline, the Cefalù Cathedral (Duomo di Cefalù) competes for that attention. The Norman-style church was constructed starting in 1131, prompted — according to legend — by Roger II, who, during a shipwreck at sea, promised God that if he survived, that he’d construct a church right in this very place. Today’s cathedral is noted for its fortress-like exterior, and for its interior mosaics, particularly the lavish Christ Pantokrator mosaic.
The grand mosaic is complemented by a relatively humble interior, which makes the contrast all the more striking. Almost just as important as seeing the inside of the church is experiencing it from the outside from the palm tree-filled plaza. It’s the perfect place to grab pizza, coffee or an ice cream — you might pay a premium for it, but the splendid views and free cathedral-entry more than make up for it.
The Natural Reserve on the Sicilian coast from Trapani to Marsala is set aside for multiple uses, from collecting sea salt to preserving wildlife. The salt pans are still used to harvest sea salt, using the same methods that have been used for centuries, which include the use of some historic windmills. There is also a museum, set in a former salt mill, that is dedicated to the salt harvesting history in the area.
As a haven for wildlife, the Trapani and Paceco Salt Pans Natural Reserve (Riserva Naturale Integrale Saline di Trapani e Paceco) has been under the direction of WWF Italy since 1995, and visitors can often see more than 150 species of birds here. Among them, look for flamingoes, cranes, storks and osprey.
The powerful figure of Neptune appears in many fountains around Italy, including the Fountain of Neptune (Fontana di Nettuno) in Messina. The Messina version was completed in 1557 by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli.
Montorsoli designed the Neptune figure to face the city of Messina from its original position near the harbor. The fountain was moved to its currently location in Piazza dell’Unità after it was damaged.
Neptune stands above a tiered fountain in the Messina square, holding his signature trident over the sculpted figures of two sea monsters representing two particularly treacherous rocks near Messina’s harbor. Neptune’s hand originally reached toward the city in a gesture of protection, though in the fountain’s current location his arm reaches toward the sea. Many tours of Messina’s city center include a stop at the fountain.
The Italian name of Isola Bella contains both a truth and a misnomer: though worthy of being called beautiful, this tiny rocky outcrop along Sicily’s coast near Taormina is not actually an island. Located off the Lido Mazzaro beach on the Mediterranean Sea, Isola Bella is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand that is often covered with water at high tide. The picturesque point was gifted to Taormina in 1806 by the King of Sicily and later purchased by the Scottish Lady Florence Trevelyan—her villa still sits on the highest point—until being taken over by the region of Sicily and made a nature reserve in 1990.
Over the centuries, Sicily was ruled by successive waves of conquerors, each one leaving their mark on the island’s architecture, culture, and cuisine. A perfect example of this blend of cultures is the Palermo Cathedral (Cattedrale di Palermo), a fascinating patchwork of Norman, Arabic, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical architectural styles.
The captivating former Greek and Roman city of Syracuse wasn’t actually founded on Sicily, but on a tiny island just offshore called Ortygia. Connected by two bridges to the mainland and modern expanse of the city, Ortygia is where you’ll find Old Town highlights such as the Duomo, Temple of Apollo, and Fountain of Arethusa.
Set on the eastern coast of Sicily, Mt. Etna (Monte Etna) is among Europe’s tallest (and the world’s most active) volcanoes. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013, the volcano has shaped Sicilian history and continues to impact life on the island today. Visitors can explore the mountain’s smoldering volcanic craters and lava fields.
Palermo’s beautiful opera house, the Teatro Massimo, is the largest opera house in the entire country. It’s an important landmark in the center of historic Palermo, and even if you don’t like opera you may be familiar with the theater’s imposing front staircase.
The Teatro Massimo was built in the late 1800s, opening in 1897 with a production of “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. The original plan called for seating for 3,000 in the audience, but the theater seats 1,350 today. There are seven levels of theater boxes in a semi-circle around the seats on the floor, all pointed toward the stage - a design very typical of opera houses at the time. As mentioned, it’s the largest opera house in Italy - and it ranks third in size in Europe.
The regular opera season in the Teatro Massimo excludes the summer, so if you’re visiting in the fall, winter, or early spring you can check with the box office to find out what’s playing and whether there are any seats available. In the summer, there are sometimes smaller orchestral or ballet performances in the Teatro della Verdura in Palermo instead of the Teatro Massimo. Palermo’s grand opera house is open for tours year-round, however. Inquire at the box office inside the main doors.
One of Taormina’s most spectacular sights is its 2nd-century Greek Theatre (Teatro Greco), which, despite its name, is actually an ancient Roman amphitheater built in the Greek style. Sitting high above the coast, the theater has beautiful views over Taormina, the Sicilian coastline, and Mount Etna.
One of Sicily’s prettiest baroque cities (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site besides), Scicli is rich in elegant architecture, religious landmarks, and charming restaurants and cafés. The city’s hilltop San Matteo Church is its most recognizable monument, and other popular attractions range from its grand town hall to pretty palazzi.
More Things to Do in Sicily
Taormina is best known for its 2nd-century Greek Theatre, but this Sicilian city perched high above the eastern coastline of Sicily has a number of impressive historic attractions. One of the most important is the Cathedral (Duomo), set on a pretty square of the same name (Piazza del Duomo) along the main Corso Umberto I thoroughfare.
The ornate 17th-century facade of Syracuse Cathedral (Duomo di Siracusa) is typical of many Sicilian baroque churches, but belies the unusual interior of this former Greek temple. Built in the fifth century BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena, the building was converted into a Christian church over a millennium later.
This stunning example of 12 and 13th century religious architecture is one of the most-prized landmarks in all of Messina. That’s because a 1908 earthquake leveled much of the city but let this prestigious structure untouched. Today, Church of the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani (Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani) is used as a church for the nearby University, but travelers can still visit the place and take in much of its original splendor.
From the western entrance, travelers will find three ancient doors that decorate a remarkably well-preserved façade. Once inside, they’ll be greeted by towering Corinthian columns in yellow, white and red stone. An iconic statue of Don Juan of Austria—with his foot standing atop the head of Ali Bassa, an Ottoman leader—is located towards the rear of the church.
If you are looking to immerse yourself in the local culture of Palermo, the Ballarò Market (Mercato Ballarò) is the place to go. As the city’s oldest street market and one of the most vibrant markets in Europe, Ballarò also provides a glimpse into Palermo’s past as a major commercial center and port.
Hidden among the ruins of Greek structures in the Valley of the Temples is the Kolymbetra Garden (Giardino della Kolymbethra). This under-appreciated oasis is within sight of some of the temple ruins.
The Kolymbetra Garden (Il Giardino della Kolymbetra) is an archaeological site as well as a garden. The area started as a large pool that was used as a water reserve for the nearby city. Paths were dug in the area to divert rainfall into rivers that would keep the pool full. References to this pool date back to the 1st century AD, though it’s likely it was dug as far back as the 5th century BC.
When the Moors arrived around the 9th century, they planted a garden in this lush area, digging irrigation channels to funnel the former Kolymbetra pool waters to their garden. Today, the Kolymbetra Garden is a peaceful and shady grove of citrus and other fruit trees, olive trees, palms, almonds trees, as well as many other plants. Parts of the original Kolymbetra pool are still visible, too.
Set in the hills of the Sicilian town of Syracuse is a large cave with the evocative name of the Ear of Dionysius. The name does not, however, refer to the Greek god. The name, Orecchio di Dionisio in Italian, was given to the cave by 16th-century painter Caravaggio, who named it after a vicious fifth-century BCE ruler of Syracuse. He is said to have used the cave as a political prison, and the cave's incredible acoustics gave him the ability to eavesdrop on his enemies. Another legend says he once used the cave as a torture chamber.
While the legends are unlikely to be true, the name stuck. The primary acoustic position in the cave is no longer accessible to visitors due to safety concerns, but the cavern is still an impressive sight.
From a road winding through the Sicilian countryside, family owned Gambino Winery (Vini Gambino) appears atop a hillside in the Etna wine region. The unique climate and soil of the area produces some of Italy’s tastiest wines, both white and red. Most wines are derived from either Nerello mascalese or Nerello cappuccio grapes, many of which are given DOC designation. Innovative winemakers in this region are making some of Sicily’s best wines, and while not all are available to taste Gambino Winery allows you to sample quite a few.
Mount Etna being an ancient volcano (the largest in Europe,) views from the winery are scenic and the surrounding landscape is beautiful to take in. There’s nothing like drinking a glass of wine right in the place in which it was produced, and there’s no shortage of great wine or views at Gambino. The winery also serves delicious food, cheeses, and local olive oils.
Some Italian piazzas are picturesque squares where locals stroll in the evenings, or watch their children play, or gossip with the neighbors. And sometimes, as is the case with Palermo’s Four Corners (Quattro Canti), they’re busy intersections.
Despite the fact that the Quattro Canti - also known as the Piazza Vigilena - is an intersection that’s often full of cars, it’s still one of the attractions visitors seek out in the city. This is largely because of the four buildings that sit at the four corners of the intersection - “quattro canti” means “four corners” - which are Baroque buildings dating from the early 17th century. The four buildings are almost identical, save for a few details.
Each of the four buildings is slightly curved, giving the piazza a rounded footprint, and there are statues in niches that represent the four seasons, the four Spanish kings of Sicily, and the four patron saints of Palermo. Each building is connected to a different Palermo neighborhood, and the patron saint on that building is the patron of that neighborhood.
Palermo’s most famous piazza, the Piazza Pretoria, is just a few steps from the busy Quattro Canti - but a world away in terms of the kind of piazza experience it delivers.
The centerpiece of the Piazza Pretoria is the fountain, known as the Fontana Pretoria. It’s huge, designed in the 1550s by a sculptor from Florence named Camilliani. The fountain was originally commissioned for a private villa in Tuscany, but was gifted to the city of Palermo in 1574. City officials had razed several homes to make way for a grand fountain, meant to show off Palermo’s impressive city plumbing, but locals weren’t quite prepared for the fountain’s decorations when it was unveiled.
There are 16 figures on the Fontana Pretoria, all of which are entirely or partially nude, that circle the fountain. There is no side from which you can simply enjoy the water itself without seeing a nude statue - which many Palermitans in the late 16th century found scandalous. There are two churches facing the Piazza Pretoria - Santa Caterina and San Giuseppe dei Teatini - which may have added to the perceived inappropriate nature of the fountain’s decor.
Syracuse’s Greek Theater (Teatro Greco) was one of the largest in the world when it was constructed, able to seat up the 16,000 spectators. Hewn directly from the side of the Temenite Hill overlooking the Sicilian countryside, the stone theater is a highlight of the UNESCO-listed Neapolis Archaeological Park.
Each day at noon, a crowd gathers beneath the bell tower of Messina’s Cathedral to watch as the gilded statues on the astronomical clock seem to come to life. As the bells chime, the lion roars, the rooster crows, statues strike the hour, and mechanical figures replay biblical and allegorical scenes. It's a spectacle no tourist should miss.
Italy is rich with ancient Roman ruins, but Sicily’s Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) is unique. Here, some of the some of the best-preserved ancient Greek ruins on earth dot the hillside outside of what was once the Greek city of Akragas, dating from when this area was part of Magna Graecia in the fifth century BC.
While Palermo has a number of bustling outdoor markets worth exploring for the lively atmosphere, the most famous is Vucciria Market, known locally as La Vucciria. Located in the historic center around Piazza San Domenico, the stalls predominantly sell fish, meat, and produce—but you can find a little of everything here.
The mosaic-filled Monreale Cathedral (Duomo di Monreale) is both one of Italy’s most impressive masterpieces of medieval architecture and one of Sicily’s finest examples of Norman design. The triumph of Norman, Arab, Byzantine and classical elements was built by William II in 1184, and continues to dazzle visitors almost 1,000 years later.
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