Things to Do in Sicily
The city of Syracuse on the eastern coast of Sicily is partly located on an island called Ortygia, where much of the city’s history can be found. The island figures into Greek mythology as the place where the Greek goddess Leto gave birth to Artemis, and its name comes from the ancient Greek word for quail; Leto's sister is said to have turned into a quail and become the island when she fell into the sea.
There are two islands that connect the island with mainland Sicily, and most of the city of Syracuse is on the mainland. Among the sights in the historic city on Ortygia are its seventh-century cathedral and the Fountain of Arethuse.
You may have heard about the various cultures that have ruled Sicily over the centuries, right? When you look at the Palermo Cathedral, you can see the evidence of each one of them in the crazy assortment of architectural styles on the building.
The Palermo Cathedral (officially called Santa Maria Assunta, and sometimes known simply as the Duomo) dates from the late 12th century, built on the site of a temple dating from Ancient Rome. As later conquerors took over from the original Norman builders, they imprinted their own styles on the still-growing building. The exterior includes examples of Norman, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque architectural elements, and they seem to be slapped on top of one another rather than incorporated as parts of a whole. In other words, the cathedral has a somewhat strange patchwork appearance that makes it look like the designers couldn’t make up their minds.
The Sicilian town of Taormina has long been known as a popular beach resort destination, but it’s more than sparkling water and long stretches of sand that draw visitors. Taormina is also home to a spectacular ancient ruin - the Greek Theatre.
Despite its name, the Greek Theatre - or Teatro Greco in Italian - is actually an ancient Roman structure. The design is more akin to how the ancient Greeks designed their theaters, so it is believed the Roman theater was built over an existing Greek theater. The ruins you see today date primarily from the 2nd century A.D., although the theater was started in the 7th century B.C.E. Taormina’s Greek Theatre sits high above the town’s famous beaches, so visitors who climb uphill to see the ruin are rewarded with more than just an up close look at an ancient monument - the views can be fantastic. From the theater, you can see the town of Taormina, the beaches far below, and the Mt. Etna volcano. It’s one of the best views in Sicily.
Though the giant, craggy La Rocca may dominate the Cefalù skyline, the Cefalù Cathedral 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.
Mount Etna, on the island of Sicily, is Europe’s tallest active volcano. Not only that, it’s one of the world’s most active volcanoes and, as of 2013, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a small wonder, then, that this mountain has shaped much of Sicily’s past and continues to impact life on the island today.
The volcano sits near the eastern coast of Sicily, not far from the major port city of Catania. Eruptions from Mount Etna have been responsible for serious damage to cities and towns lying close to it, including one in 1669 that destroyed the villages that had been built on the mountainside. People continue to inhabit the mountain, however, partly because the rich volcanic soil makes an excellent base for crops. You’ll find not only fruits and vegetables growing on and around Mount Etna, but also grapes - there are many wines that owe their prominence to the volcano.
You don’t have to understand much Italian to guess that the Isola Bella attraction near Taormina in Sicily is a “pretty island” - but what you can’t guess from the name is that it’s not actually an island at all.
Isola Bella is a tiny, rocky outcropping just off the popular Lido Mazzarò beach in a small bay near Taormina. It looks like an island, but is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand. It’s sometimes covered by the sea, so there are times when it looks like an island. This islet was given to the town of Taormina as a gift in 1806 by the then-king of the region, and later purchased by Lady Florence Trevelyan - a Scottish woman who lived in Taormina in the late 1800s.
Lady Trevelyan built a house atop Isola Bella, which still stands today. Ownership of the islet changed hands several times over the years, until 1990 when Isola Bella went up for auction. It is now owned by Sicily and serves as a nature reserve.
The square in front of Taormina’s cathedral may have an obvious name - the Piazza del Duomo - but its primary decoration is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
The Duomo and the piazza are just off Taormina’s main street, the Corso Umberto I. The Duomo dates from the 13th century, although the main doorway was rebuilt in the 1630s. That’s also when the Baroque-style fountain was placed in the center of the Piazza del Duomo. The fountain was added to the square in 1635, and at the very top is a sculpture representing Taormina’s city symbol.
The symbol of Taormina is a centaur - half man, half horse - but for some reason the statue atop the fountain in the Piazza del Duomo isn’t a straightforward centaur. Not only is the figure female rather than male, it also only has two legs (the back two) rather than four. No one knows why the centaur isn’t quite “normal,” but the people of Taormina have adopted the statue as the town symbol.
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.
More Things to Do in Sicily
If you are looking to immerse yourself in the local culture of Palermo, Italy, the Ballaro Street Market is the place to go. As the city’s busiest street market and one of the most entertaining markets in Europe, Ballaro also provides a glimpse into Palermo’s past as a major commercial center and port. Said to be more than 1,000 years old, the market winds through the narrow medieval streets surrounding the Plaza Carmine in the Albergheria quarter of Palermo. While it is primarily a food market, it is also a great place to buy inexpensive clothing and other goods. Listen for vendors speaking a local dialect similar to Arabic and try to grab some food samples. Or, learn even more about Sicilian food by combining a walking tour of the market with a Sicilian cooking class.
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, Annunziata 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.
The city’s most memorable architectural and navigational landmark, Piazza Duomo is the buzzing center of downtown Catania and a strategic starting point for walking tours of the city. The UNESCO-listed square is encircled with grand buildings, the creative vision of local architect Vaccarini and a prime example of the acclaimed Sicilian Baroque style.
Dominating the northern edge of the piazza is the ornate Palazzo Degli Elefanti, now housing the City Hall, while the palatial Cathedral of Sant’Agata looms to the east, flanked by the elegant Bishop’s Palace and the arched walkway of the Porta Uzeda. At the center of the square is Duomo’s star attraction - Giovanni Battista’s Fontana dell'Elefante, a monumental fountain crowned by the city’s emblem - a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk, sculpted from volcanic rock and dating back to 1736.
The most impressive vestige of medieval Catania is the formidable Castle Ursino (Castello Ursino), built by Emperor Frederick II in the early 13th century and now home to the Museo Civico (Civic Museum). Originally built high on the sea cliffs to guard the Sicilian coast, the castle was encircled by lava after the 17th century eruptions of the Mt Etna volcano and now stands 500 meters inland on the cusp of the modern city center.
Today, the landlocked castle houses an impressive array of artwork and artifacts, many taken from the personal collections of Prince of Biscari and including a series of Sicilian school paintings, a Hellenistic statue of Polyphemus, a Roman ‘Gladiators’ relief and sizable exhibitions of weaponry, sculptures and porcelain.
In the hills just outside the city of Syracuse is a Greek theater, which dates from the fifth century BCE. The fairly well-preserved theatre was rebuilt in the 3rd century BCE and again during the Roman era, while the original theatre had 67 rows for audience members, making it one of the largest in the ancient Greek world. There are fewer rows today, as the site was modified over the centuries.
It wasn't until the 19th century that a real excavation of the site took place, and in the early 20th century the theatre became the site of annual performances. Today, it is sometimes used during the summer for music shows and theater.
One of Messina’s main draws is its cathedral, which houses its own campanile, or bell tower. The 200-foot tower was built in the late 16th century, destroyed after an 18th-century earthquake and rebuilt in 1908. In 1933, an astronomical clock was installed at the top of the tower, and it remains one of the largest such clocks in the world. The clock's show happens at noon each day, when bells begin to chime, a lion roars, a rooster crows, and a procession of golden statues circles atop the tower. It's an incredible show, one that draws spectators daily.
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 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.
A visit to Erice (pronounced EH-ri-chay) starts with the journey itself – either by riding the summer cable car or driving the dramatic winding road to the top of the Erice Mountain. Towering 750m over the port of Trapani, Erice is undeniably photogenic, affording spectacular views along the Sicilian coast and the nearby Egadi Islands. It’s also a striking example of a medieval fortified town and has a history dating back to ancient times, when it was an important center of the cult of Venus.
The best way to discover Erice is on foot, climbing the steep rough-paved lanes and stopping to browse the many small shops and bakeries, where artisans sell local specialties like almond biscuits and ceramics. The obvious highlight of Erice is the hilltop Castello di Venere (Castle of Venus) and Torre di Pepoli (Tower of Pepoli), and following the impressively preserved medieval town walls is a popular pastime.
From a road winding through the Sicilian countryside, family owned Gambino Winery 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.
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.
Taormina’s Medieval Quarter is one of the prettiest sections of the city, and Corso Umberto I cuts right through its middle. The clock tower that marks the start of the Medieval Quarter is actually in an arched tower that spans the Corso Umberto I. The particularly picturesque Piazza Aprile IX sits along the famous street, and it’s one of the most popular places to pause and do some people-watching. The view from the piazza over the water is lovely, and the piazza itself is a beautiful backdrop to whatever is going on.
You could be forgiven for getting a little bored of seeing one ancient Roman ruin after another in Italy - they’re everywhere, after all. But in Sicily’s Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, you get to see something particularly interesting - some of the best-preserved ancient Greek ruins anywhere.
Like the ancient Romans, the ancient Greeks got around - and for some time this part of Sicily (along with other coastal areas of southern Italy) was part of Magna Graecia. The town that is now Agrigento was once the Greek city of Akragas, and the Greeks built several impressive temples on a ridge just outside of the city. The remains of seven of those temples are still impressive enough to draw visitors to the site thousands of years later.
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.
Things to do near Sicily
- Things to do in Catania
- Things to do in Taormina
- Things to do in Palermo
- Things to do in Agrigento
- Things to do in Syracuse
- Things to do in Messina
- Things to do in Trapani
- Things to do in Amalfi Coast
- Things to do in Puglia
- Things to do in Lazio
- Things to do in Mellieha
- Things to do in Valletta
- Things to do in Sardinia
- Things to do in Umbria
- Things to do in Adriatic Coast