Things to Do in Sicily - page 2
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.
The Palatine Chapel was once the private royal chapel of the Sicilian kings, located inside their royal palace. Today, it is an absolute must-see attraction for any visitor to Palermo who likes Byzantine mosaics.
The original royal chapel inside the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) in Palermo was built in the late 11th century. The Palatine Chapel - Cappella Palatina in Italian - was built on top of it in the early part of the 12th century, making the old chapel a crypt. Mosaic art was at its peak when the chapel was constructed, and the chapel’s interior is covered in gorgeous mosaics. Many surfaces are predominantly gold, which makes the entire chapel appear to glow.
The mosaics in the Palatine Chapel date from the 1140s, just after the chapel was built, through the 1170s. The older mosaics are the best examples of Byzantine art in the chapel, although you’ll see even more mosaics of this quality if you visit the Monreale Cathedral in the hills outside Palermo.
Often called the Casa Professa, the Church of the Gesù (Chiesa del Gesù) is one of the most important Baroque churches in Sicily. Built by the Jesuits in the late 16th century on the edge of Palermo’s Jewish Quarter, the church took almost 50 years to build, with help from hundreds of artists and artisans. Inside, visitors will find colorful frescoes, intricate stone carvings and marble reliefs in a stunning setting for reflection and worship.
Many of the church’s frescoes were replaced after being destroyed in World War II, but are impressive nonetheless. Look for the paintings covering the dome’s vault, as well as those in the side chapels on the right, such as a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi and of St Paul the Hermit. Marble reliefs from the 18th century depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi both survive.
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.
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.
One of the most famous sights in Palermo - albeit an incredibly macabre one - is the extensive network of Catacombs under the Capuchin Monastery. These crypts hold thousands of mummified remains, some of which are spookily well-preserved.
The Capuchins began burying their own friars in the crypts underneath the monastery in the 16th century, and they soon discovered that the unique conditions in the catacombs - combined with their own burial traditions - preserved the bodies extremely well. It wasn’t long before Sicilians decided that being buried in the Capuchin Catacombs - and therefore being preserved after death - was a status symbol.
In total, there are more than 8,000 bodies interred in Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs, in varying states of preservation and from all walks of life. There are chambers dedicated to priests, monks, women, men, and children. Some are still encased in coffins, some are perched in standing positions on the walls.
La Zisa is yet another remnant of Moorish reign in Sicily. The Norman castle was built in the 12th century, and it’s worth a visit although the interior has long since been cleared of its original decoration.
The palace of La Zisa was originally designed as part of an extensive park that served as a royal summer retreat. The grounds were stocked with wild animals (and fenced), giving the royals something to hunt. The park, known as the Genoard, also included another Norman-era palace that still stands in Palermo, La Cuba.
There were architectural alterations made in the 14th century, and by the 16th century the building had fallen into disrepair - it was even being used to store items contaminated with the plague. In the 1970s, city officials in Palermo acquired and began to restore La Zisa, a project that took more than 20 years. Today, the palace houses a Museum of Islamic Art on the second floor.
More Things to Do in Sicily
Despite being ravaged by eruptions of the neighboring Mt Etna volcano at least 17 times since its founding, traces of Catania’s long Greek and Roman history still remain, most notably the Roman theaters of the Parco Archeologico Greco-Romano di Catania. Dating back as early as the 2nd century AD, the remarkably preserved ruins can be found right at the center of the modern city, in striking contrast to the medieval Castello Ursino and the elegant Baroque masterpieces that stand nearby.
The Parco Archeologico Greco-Romano di Catania is home to three main structures, most notably the Teatro Romano (Roman Theater), once an opulent 7,000-seat theater constructed with a blend of marble and black lava stones, and the ancient amphitheater, once the largest of its kind in Sicily and seating up to 15,000. Additional highlights include a series of Roman baths and the smaller, but none-the-less impressive Odeon 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.
The Palazzo Mirto in the historic Kalsa district of Palermo is one of the only aristocratic homes from the 17th century that is not only intact but also open to the public.
In the late 18th century, the Palazzo Mirto was built on what was once the foundation of a building dating from the 13th century. The palace was built for a wealthy family as their residence, which is exactly what it was until 1982. At that point, the family that lived there - the Lanza Filangieri family, princes of the nearby town of Mirto - gave the palace to the government of Sicily.
Today, the Palazzo Mirto is kept in the fashion of an 18th or 19th century aristocrat’s home. Many of the palace’s rooms are decorated with furniture and artwork that was originally owned by the Lanza Filangieri family, so in some cases these pieces have occupied the Palazzo Mirto for centuries.
Mandralisca Museum may not rank among Italy’s (or Sicily’s) largest cultural attractions, but visitors say it’s still worth making a stop. That’s because this small, privately owned destination is a Mecca for Greek ceramics, Arab pottery and some incredible Italian Renaissance portraits. The museum dates back nearly two centuries and houses the personal art collection of Barone Mandralisca, including an iconic portrait by Donatello da Messina.
Although the museum is full of rare wonders, travelers and locals say visitors should be prepared, as most of the museum’s signage is only in Italian. Still, the works alone make it well-worth the trip.
Experience some of the best of Sicilian Baroque architecture by heading to Ragusa’s old town, called Ragusa Ibla, where you’ll find Chiesa San Giuseppe, or San Giuseppe Church. Dating back to the 1700s, it was constructed atop an earlier church, which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1693.
Its impressive façade, featuring an elaborate Baroque bell town, is very much the star of Piazza Pola. The oval-shaped interior dazzles too, complete with a frescoed cupola, and — take note — high-up wooden grate-covered lookouts from which the nuns can participate in services. If you like what you see here, head to nearby Chiesa San Giorgio, which features a similarly extravagant façade — so similar in fact, that it is believed that the church’s designer, Gagliardi, also designed Chiesa San Giuseppe.
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 Aeolian Islands
- 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 Abruzzo
- Things to do in Ionian Islands