Sicily is a big island with a big history and a big personality. It deserves some planning and it deserves some time, but it won’t be offended if you don’t have either.
Here time runs slower and the days longer. And though the stereotypes of carefree islanders doesn’t always work here – unemployment and corruption abound – you can’t help but think that one stereotype works: the islanders handle it in stride. After all, the land is rich, the weather perfect nine months of the year and the view is beautiful. In a land ruled by dozens of different kingdoms, countries and rulers it doesn’t much matter who the next conquistador is. The fishermen keep sailing, the eggplants keep frying and Mount Etna grumbles like a comforting mother.
If you want to go to Sicily you should know a few things:
First, summers are hot but the water is fine.
The island isn’t the same as the mainland, things work differently (or not at all). It is objectively more difficult to navigate compared to the mainland, as infrastructure has been slow to come. Trash billows on the streets and crumbling buildings lean against magnificent palazzi. It’s a world of juxtapositions. But go with the right expectations and your trip can be magical.
Because sure, it’s old, it’s dirty, it’s chaotic. But around the 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 and laughing in the face of change.
Sicily isn’t so easy, but it’s oh so worth it.
Here’s what to know before you go:
To ensure your trip goes smoothly.
Geographically closer to Africa than to the European mainland, Sicily runs hotter than most of Italy. To give you an idea, here are some average minimum and maximums for Catania in Fahrenheit:
Here more than ever the shoulder seasons are the time to go. This says that the average in August is around 90, but since I’ve lived in Italy (since 2012) it’s hit much higher temperatures than that in the hot summer season. The temperatures are high and the crowds are impossibly thick and not only that, but in many places Italians shut up shop and go on holiday. Unless you’re in a resort, you might be facing multiple closings.
The shoulder season gives you a delightful taste of the sun during a time that most of the US doesn’t have much of it. In December you can enjoy the Christmas season without the chill and in spring festivals abound with Carnival and Easter.
How to get there
For a totally unique, if not outdated, experience, take the train from Naples or Rome or even Milan and watch as it dismantles itself on the coast of Calabria, loads onto ships and is transported across the Messina Strait to Sicily. “Straits of Messina, from Villa San Giovanni or Reggio di Calabria: this way, the train-ferry pilots a course between Scylla and Charybdis, the twin hazards of rock and whirlpool that were a legendary threat to sailors. “
For a faster, and likely cheaper option, fly into the main island from most major cities in Italy or Europe. Most flights land either on the east coast in Catania or the northwest coast in Palermo, but there is also a small airport in Trapani and a new one in Comiso.
Or, if you’re already in Italy and you have the time, you can drive to ports in Salerno, Naples, Civitavecchia or even Genova and take the boat all the way there.
How to get around
Sicily is big and covers a large area. Though online it says that trains connect all the main towns and cities, I’ve heard from multiple Italian friends to avoid the trains as they are old, inefficient and slow. (I personally have never taken one in Sicily, though I do know that they are really inexpensive). It seems that the Tyrrhenian coast is quite well-serviced with train tracks and a motorway running from Palermo to Messina, but other parts of the region are literally off the beaten track, with nary a train track nor a highway to be found (especially inland and southeast near Agrigento).
I’d like to be able to tell you that there’s public transportation galore and to take the easy, eco-friendly option. But I think in this case it’s not so easy. Of all the public transportation methods, bus is the best choice. The Azienda Siciliana Trasporti and the Sais Autolinee connect most of the main centers of the island. Whereas the Autoservizi Salemi covers the area between Palermo and Marsala. The Autoservizi Cuffaro connects Agrigento and Palermo and Interbus covers the southeast coast. Your best bet is to decide where you need to go and search online for that specific destination.
The truth is, you’re best bet is a car.
Only with a car are you sure to avoid delays. Only with a car can you stop in that unplanned destination or take detours to tiny jewels of towns. It gives you a freedom that the public transportation can’t and, to be honest, works much much better.
Driving in Sicily is likely to be a unique experience for most visitors there, but it’s worth it if it means being able to explore the extent of the island.
Where to start
Sicily is the largest region in Italy and the largest island in the area. It has a 3,000+ year history and a ton of things to see and places to go to experience it. It’s difficult to do all of Sicily in one trip.
It’s normal to be overwhelmed about planning a trip to Sicily, so if you’re a total beginner make it easy on yourself: Start in Palermo or Catania.
Though there are two other airports in the region, these are the biggest and perfect landing points for your Sicily trip. Catania on the east coast easily leads you to Etna, Acireale and Taormina to the north and Siracusa, Noto and Ragusa to the south. Palermo could be a trip in and of itself (there’s a lot to see!) or it could lead you to Cefalù to the east or Erice, Segesta and Trapani to the west. If your plan is to ring around the island, choose the airport with the cheapest flights – all circles lead you back.
A brief on Sicily’s complicated history
Ok listen, Sicily’s history is freaking complicated.
Here’s an idea: First you have random settlers during ages named after minerals. After, the Carthaginians (Phoenicians from the eastern Mediterranean) arrive and found Palermo, among other settlements. After it’s followed by the Greeks, the Romans the Vandals, the Arabs, the Normans, the Aragonese, the Spanish Hapsburgs and then the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Bourbons then the British and then the Bourbons again before finally being united to Italy in 1860.
And to think I’ve skipped over some of the more brief, more difficult-to-pronounce conquerers. At one point Sicily was ruled by Henry VI of England who was succeeded by Frederick II (some king of Middle Germany of utmost importance because he then became king of multiple other places) then it was sold by the Pope back to the King of England who gave it as a present to his 8-year-old son. What a gift!
If that’s enough for you, great! If you like a little more detail in your historical knowledge, here are some excellent resources for you:
A Brief Overview of Sicily’s Fascinating History from the Thinking Traveller
A Brief History of Sicily on Reids Italy
What to eat
New culinary influences sprinkled into Sicily with each new ruler like a pinch of spice in a pan and the outcome is oh-so-delicious. Sicily’s cuisine is one of the most notably different cuisines from the rest of Italy’s regions.
In Sicily you’ll find a wide variety of spices: saffron, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, even cinnamon. Though some can be found in mainland Italy, most were brought up from this strategically-located island. There’s the rich terra that grows apricots, citrus, and melons, as well as pistachios, pine nuts and olives. Fresh vegetables like eggplant, peppers and tomatoes reign, along with fish such as tuna, sea bass and swordfish. When in doubt, go for the fish!
After you’ve gorged on impossibly fresh, impossibly inexpensive food, go for a walk to get a dessert – Sicily is full of them!
Read more about Sicily’s unique cuisine
Sicily is big. It’s old. It’s as complex as an independent nation and its sparring history doesn’t make it any easier to understand. In some towns you’ll find people who speak multiple languages, even English, and in others you won’t get a word beyond the geographical dialect. But don’t worry, anyone can be understood if they really want to be and anyone can understand if they’re willing to try. And Sicily is worth a try. Like most everyone who has ever seen it, you just might fall in love.