The only problem a traveler may have when planning a trip to Italy is deciding just what to see: There is enough for a lifetime of travel! And though you won’t be able to see it all on your next trip to Italy, you can certainly taste its different landscapes. In a country that’s roughly the size of Arizona, it’s remarkable easy to get from the city to the coast to the countryside all in one trip. Hell, sometimes it’s possible to see all three in one day!
But then, then you come to Sicily and realize you need at least two lifetimes to see all Italy has to offer.
The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is a world of contrasts and intrigue and arguably the most beautiful region of all of Italy.
Frankly, I’m completely infatuated, attracted to its complex history, rich, multi-cultural food, people, geography.
For decades Sicily has been off the classic traveler routes as a difficult-to-reach and difficult-to-manage destination. There was crime, corruption, violence. But today those things feel like a thing of the past for travelers. Today what travelers notice is the chaos, sure, but also that around that corner are the Ancient Greek temples of Agrigento and beyond that one is the dripping, unabashed Baroqueness of Noto. Here you can stand in an amphitheater nearly as old as the island itself and there you can drink beer on the streets with the locals, who are as friendly as any could be. The craftsmanship is remarkable, the history more so and the food hearty and full of heart. It’s the last frontier in Italy for international travelers, stubbornly sticking to its own authenticity with ease.
The island truly has it all: bustling port cities, small hill towns, coastal resorts and complete wilderness. It has its very own volcano and dotted archipelagos that decorate the island like jewels on a dama. Though Sicily is categorically in Italy’s south, it’s really truly a world all of its own. So in our exploration of Italy’s geography (see: City, Coast and Countryside: Northern Italy, Central Italy and Southern Italy) Sicily deserved a post of its own.
The largest island of Italy, Sicily’s most important cities are essentially sea ports, grown powerful by the bustling sea trade from the times of the ancient Greeks. Visitors coming by plane will most likely fly into Palermo or Catania, two of Sicily’s largest cities.
Though the latter has long been snubbed as a dirty industrial town, its popularity is growing as visitors discover all the gems it has to offer: its teatro, Pescheria market, Duomo and convents turned art studios.
Palermo is an Arab-Norman jewel of a city with a strong character and a world of history and culture to discover. Though the days of an all out mafia war in the city are over, remnants of poverty and violence remain, with crumbling buildings adjacent to magnificent palazzi. But that’s just what Sicily is: a world of juxtapositions.
Read: What to See in Palermo
Beyond these two behemoths there’s the wonderfully Baroque Noto, rebuilt slightly uphill after the original Noto was destroyed by an earthquake or Syracuse, once the largest city in the ancient world. In the west there’s Trapani and its salt flats reemerging as a popular destination thanks to its new airport and convenient location to explore nearby towns like Erice and Segesta or off to the Egadi Islands.
Visitors to Sicily have more than 2,400 miles of coastline to explore between the Ionian, Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean seas. Life here is mostly packed along the coasts and with good reason: it’s convenient, economic and just beautiful.
Take a jaunt out of town to visit Mondello, Palermo’s city beach, or else go further afield to the more remote, but no less popular Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro. Sicily’s first ever nature reserve, it’s a haven for Mediterranean flora and fauna, a hikers paradise and is filled with coves and small beaches where you can take a dip.
Read: Day Trips from Palermo
The beach in Cefalù is a golden, sandy crescent backdropped by the characteristic buildings and the mountains beyond. The water is warm and calm and it’s easy to reach from both Catania and Palermo. Cefalù is one of those coastal towns that not only has a drop-dead gorgeous beach but also sights to see. Here, you’ll find the Cefalù Duomo, one of Sicily’s greatest Arab-Norman architectural masterpieces. It’s the third ring of the Arab-Norman UNESCO trifecta in Sicily along with the Cattedrale di Monreale and Palermo’s Cappella Palatina.
There are dozens of marinas to explore and beaches where you can relax, but we have to at least mention Taormina, a resort town since the ancient Greeks.
If you want to enjoy the coast with the jetset, Taormina is your place. Sure it’s pricey and completely packed with visitors in the summers, but it has a long history of serving the rich and famous and it’s easy to see why. Explore the massive Greek amphitheater, Isola Bella and the nearby Giardini Naxos, the first Greek colony in Sicily, before taking time to relax somewhere with a wonderful view – it won’t be hard to find.
The perfect introduction to Sicily’s countryside is just south of Agrigento in the Valle dei Templi, the ruined ancient city of Akragas and the most famous archeological site in all of Italy. Be sure to tour the beautiful Kolymbethra Garden nearby as well. Then, head to the west of Agrigento to visit the Scala dei Turchi, natural steps formed by salt along the coast.
Then of course there’s Mount Etna, the active volcano that dominates the island. Visitors to the area can take tours or hikes up to the crater, but the Etna Nature Reserve surrounding the volcano merits a visit as well. Filled with volcanic cones, craters, dried lava and verdant hills, there are dozens of different excursions for travelers visiting the area.
For those looking for nature at its purest, try hiking in the Madonie Mountains between Cefalù and Castel di Tusa. With some of the highest peaks on the island, hikers can enjoy views all the way to the Aeolian Islands.
Or, go straight to the heart of Sicily in Piazza Armerina. The town itself is worth a visit, with an 18th-century Duomo and dozens of other churches, but don’t skip the surrounding countryside: there you’ll find the Aidone Archeology Museum, the archeology site of Morgantina or the Casale Villa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and archeological treasure worth the entire day.
Bonus: The Islands of the Island
Of course Sicily is an island, but it’s the island’s archipelagos that deserve a special mention. Here is where you can truly get off the beaten path. Here is a side of Sicily that can’t be found on the island itself. Each of Sicily’s islands is a unique experience. Check out Favignana, the largest of the Egadi islands off of Sicily’s west coast with turquoise sea and small golden beaches with warm water.
Or go east to the Aeolian Islands to choose among Alicudi, Filicudi, Vulcano, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli or Lipari, the biggest of the Aeolian Islands. Most people start with Lipari, but the rest can easily be toured with a quick ferry trip over. Hike up to the crater in Vulcano. Immerse yourself in the greenery of Salina. Completely escape in Alicudi and Filicudi, two islands without roads or sites to see, just tranquillity and Mare. Admire the spectacle of lava and pure force from a boat off the coast of Stromboli, then stroll the whitewashed streets of Panarea, the smallest of the Aeolian Islands.
That’s not all though. We can’t forget about the Pelagie Islands of Linosa, Pantelleria and Lampedusa. Pantelleria and Lampedusa each have an airport and are closer to Africa than they are to mainland Italy. Pantelleria is tall, jagged cliffs and spectacular grotte all formed from volcanic rock. Lampedusa, instead, is all flat plains and white sands. Its Rabbit Beach has been named the most beautiful beach in all of Italy time and time again by travelers from all over the world.
There’s a world of things to explore, experience and see in Sicily – the islands alone would take a lifetime! – but that’s all the more reason to get started. If you’re up for the adventure and have turned on your “Italian time” (aka, slow) you can’t go wrong in Sicily. Choose a part of the island that attracts you the most and get started. Here you can have it all, city, sea and countryside.