I’m just back from three busy weeks in Sicily, circling the island to put the finishing touches on our upcoming Rick Steves Sicily guidebook (available in spring 2019). For those who just can’t wait for the book to come out, here are my 10 favorite practical tips for traveling in Sicily. Special thanks to the book’s co-author, Sarah Murdoch, and contributing author Alfio di Mauro for their hard work and abundant insights. Amuni!
Visit a mix of big cities, smaller towns, and countryside sights.
For a good sampling of Sicily, plan to visit a mix of big cities (Palermo, Siracusa); smaller towns (Ragusa, Trapani, Taormina, Cefalù); and striking sights in the countryside (Mount Etna, ancient temples and theaters, the glittering mosaics at Monreale Cathedral). On a quick visit of just a few days, home-base in Taormina or Catania and make strategic side-trips to Siracusa and Mount Etna, then spend a day or two in Palermo. With more time, consider adding your choice of other towns: Agrigento (with its remarkable ancient temples), additional time in Siracusa (for its ancient sites and delightful urban bustle), Ragusa (for its low-key hill town ambience), Trapani (a pleasant west coast town with an array of tempting side-trips, from salt flats to hill towns to offshore islets), and the beach town of Cefalù. For most travelers, the best plan is to rent a car — but be prepared for the often challenging Sicilian roads, especially in cities. (And spring for the full insurance.)
Pig out on street food.
The island’s cuisine — which is distinctly different from mainland Italy’s — is, like Sicily, a unique mix of cultural influences. Choosing between eggplant pasta and fish couscous on the same menu, it’s clear that you’re at a crossroads of Europe and Africa. And some of the best food is also the cheapest. Sicily is renowned for its street food. Try an arancina (deep-fried saffron rice ball), panelle (chickpea fritters), sfincione (rustic, Sicilian-style “pizza”), polpo bollito (a boiled mini-octopus), and — if you dare — pani ca’ meusa…the famed spleen sandwich. To sample several items in one go, just wander through one of the characteristic street markets in Palermo or Catania…or join a street food tour.
Party with the Sicilians.
On this island of very tight-knit communities and fierce local pride, there’s always some big festival going on. Most towns celebrate their patron saint’s day by processing through the streets with an elaborate float (or several). Other celebrations fill a more specific niche. I happened to be in the pristine town of Noto during their biggest party of the year, the Infiorata di Noto. An entire street — several blocks long — was filled with gigantic murals, delicately constructed of flower petals. And when I was in nearby Ragusa, the townspeople were celebrating the native Ragusano cheese. The town square hosted cooking demonstrations, and every restaurant in town was highlighting a special cheese-forward dish. While I enjoy the serendipity of just stumbling onto Sicilian celebrations, it’s smart to do some homework, find out what local festivities might be going on nearby, and make a point to drop by.
Bone up on ancient history.
In antiquity, Sicily was called Magna Graecia — “Greater Greece” — for the many Hellenic city-states that colonized the island. Ancient Syracuse (today’s Siracusa) was one of the most powerful city-states on the Mediterranean. Sicily was also an outpost of the mysterious Carthaginians, who were almost entirely wiped out by the Romans. And all of these civilizations left behind world-class artifacts. Scattered across Sicily are some of the best ancient Greek temples and theaters anywhere outside of Greece: the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento; Europe’s largest archaeological area at Selinunte; and the theaters in Taormina, Siracusa, and Segesta. The cathedral in Ortigia (Siracusa’s old town) is actually built upon the still-visible columns of a fifth-century B.C. temple. And deep in the remote interior of Sicily is the Villa Romana del Casale, with some of the world’s best-preserved floor mosaics. If you love ancient sites, Sicily will blow your mind. If you don’t…there’s no better place to start.
Visit Mount Etna for its amazing volcanic sights — and its wine.
Mount Etna, which (literally) gave rise to Sicily, is one of Europe’s most accessible active volcanoes. A cable car whisks you halfway up the mountain, and from there, you can hop on a monster-truck bus nearly all the way to the smoldering summit. (It tends to be clear first thing in the morning, then clouds over just as it gets crowded a few hours later — it’s smart to be on the first cable car, at 9:00.) But Mount Etna is also home to one of Italy’s most pleasant wine-growing regions. My favorite stretch — picturesque and still relatively off the beaten path — is on the north side of Etna, between the towns of Linguaglossa and Randazzo. The Etna wine scene has exploded in recent years, garnering more and more international attention. And even if you’re not into wines, the scenery is magnificent: vineyards stretching up sun-baked slopes toward the steaming, snow-capped cone of Etna. Several picturesque wineries offer tours and tastings; it’s customary to call a day or so ahead to let them know you’re coming. (Some favorite finds for the upcoming guidebook include the swanky Tenuta di Fessina, the cheerful Fattoria Romeo del Castello, and the family-run, nicely low-key Filippo Grasso.) If you’re serious about wine, Etna Wine School — operated by an American vintner expat who literally wrote the book on Etna wines — offers private tours.
Be prepared for heat and hills.
At the same latitude as Spain’s Adalucía and Greece’s Cycladic Islands, Sicily can be very hot for much of the year. (Most of Sicily sits on the African tectonic plate — and the geology and climate really do feel closer to Africa than to Europe.) Many of Sicily’s best sights are dusty ancient landmarks, requiring a hike to reach, with little shade. And virtually nothing in Sicily sits on flat ground — you’ll encounter hills, hills, and more hills. Come prepared with broken-in shoes, sunscreen, and a hat for shade — and take plenty of breaks. Or consider coming off-season, when it’s cooler and less exhausting. Sicily is one of Europe’s most appealing winter destinations. It may not be balmy enough to swim in the ocean, but even in winter, you can often enjoy warm, sunny days and cool, refreshing nights….and zero crowds.
Unwind in the hill towns of the southeast.
Sicily can be intense. But one of my favorite little corners of the island is in the southeast, around the dramatic hill town of Ragusa. With green, rolling hills and neatly stacked stone fences, this area feels almost Celtic. And it’s one part of Sicily where most tourists aren’t Americans, or even northern Europeans — but Italians. In a short drive from Ragusa, you can link up some lovely towns: Modica, famous for its chocolate industry and its dual cathedrals (one on a hilltop, the other in a valley); Scicli, where troglodyte caves carved into the cliffs overlook a fun-to-explore town filling a valley; and beautifully Baroque Noto, rebuilt in a short period after a 1693 earthquake, giving it an unusual architectural harmony (not to mention its world-famous gelato shop, Caffé Sicilia). About halfway through my three-week journey around Sicily, I found Ragusa and the surrounding countryside to be the perfect place to settle in and just relax.
Peel back the layers of history.
Strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean — practically forming a bridge from Italy to North Africa — Sicily’s culture has been shaped by a staggering variety of overlords and occupiers. There’s so much history on this little island that it’s tempting to just let it wash over you. But this is a place where it’s really worth studying up and grappling with the epic story. From the ancient foundations of the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans, to the Arabs who controlled Sicily for more than two centuries (and, during that time, richly developed the island), to the Normans from France who “reclaimed” Sicily for the Christian world and slathered its churches with Byzantine-style mosaics, to the Spanish Bourbon kings who draped the island in a stately Baroque elegance, and even to the mafia who dominated much of Sicily’s 20th century (and whose influence is finally on the wane)…Sicily is a pastiche of history. Get to know and recognize the hallmarks of each period, and before you know it, you’ll be able to step into a church and say, “Wow, those Normans really did a number on this one.”
Go before it’s too late.
In just a few short years, Sicily has quickly become “ready for prime time.” Cities (like Siracusa or Palermo) that were rough, rugged, and a little dangerous have been prettied up and pedestrianized. I noticed lots of European travelers…but relatively few American ones. I was also struck by the relative lack of crowds — even in late May, when the weather’s perfect and mainland Italian cities like Venice and Florence are overrun. All of that is bound to change in the next few years, as more people find out what a great spot Sicily is. Go now, before the cat’s out of the bag.
Accept Sicily on Sicily’s terms.
Sicily is an ideal “deep cut” for Italy connoisseurs who’ve already seen Venice, Florence, and Rome, and want to experience a facet of Italy that’s more intense and challenging. But first-timers might find it a bit wild: buzzing motor scooters, potholed infrastructure, arm-waving people, and, yes, more graffiti and roadside garbage than you’re probably used to seeing. Sicily feels more like Mexico than like Milan. But that’s what I like about it. It’s rustic, rugged, close to the ground, and off the radar of most mainstream tourists. It takes a few days to adjust to the island’s unique rhythms, but once you do, it’s easy to get swept away by Sicily. Best of all, in all of Europe, Sicilians are some of the most enjoyable people to simply interact with. Walk through a bustling street market, strike up some conversations, and let a vendor talk you into buying a three-foot-long zucchini you don’t really need.
Rick was also in Sicily this spring, filming two new episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe. You’ll see those this fall on public television.
And if you’d like to visit Sicily — but would love it if someone else did all the driving, took care of the hotels and half of the meals, and explained it all to you — well, then, we have a great 11-day tour for you.