Top 10 Sicily Travel Tips

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.

Street food stand

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.


In earlier blog posts, I wrote about Palermo’s amazing street food scene, and the challenge of driving in Sicily.

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.

42 Replies to “Top 10 Sicily Travel Tips”

  1. We went on a Sicily tour a few years ago and it was a great trip…a great place to visit. Fab sights, food, wine, and local people. Put it on your bucket list.

  2. We are off on a big 2.5 month trip to Europe May 2019.
    Spending most of it in Italy.
    Have relatives in Siracusa.
    Can’t wait. I will certainly be doing my research with all your info
    Thank you

  3. We went on the Best of Sicily Tour in early November of 2015 and it was wonderful. The weather, food, scenery, people, the tour guide and whole experience was amazing. That’s why we keep coming back to Rick Steves. We are going on our 7th tour in October, The Best of Greece, Keep on Traveling!

  4. Monreale is a 20m bus ride from Palermo. A beautiful beach one end with private swimming area and changing sheds chairs etc for minimal charge. At the other end explore the fishing boats. In between some good quality shops and plenty of cafes and food outlets.

    1. Did you mean Mondello? Monreale is a hill town famous for the cattedrale, about 30 min bus ride from Piazza Indipendenza in Palermo

  5. My wife, twins and I spent a few days in Palermo, and then two fabulous weeks in Cefalu, Sicily in February 2015. It was during nine months we spent traveling around the world, and to me, Cefalu was easily one of the highlights of that trip. I often say that if there is one place I would love to spend a year in, it would be Cefalu. Such warm people, great food and beautiful scenery. Sicily is such a great place to visit, and we really learned to love living at a more leisurely pace.

    1. David, going to Cefalu in September, what should i see, and who do you recommend for restaurants, local tours etc…staying at artemis hotel

  6. Cameron, did you get to Caltegirone, the city of ceramics? We enjoyed it very much on an independent driving tour several years ago.

  7. We look forward to these places every year & exactly how we plan both large & small and everything in between . A mix of our favourite places such as Marina di Ragusa , Modica. Scicli. Trapani , Marsala,Argrigento & Cefalu & so many more .This year adding visits to islands as well.

  8. Good review. We wish there were more “deep cuts” in Europe like this. Usually Mafia or boat immigration fears scare many away. Fine with me. Too bad RS tours now leave off Cefalu. Was one of Rick’s early fav’s and part of why we went. The beautiful Aeolian Islands are the missing icing on this Sicilian cake description that are also must visits.

  9. In future articles, would you please address what, if anything, comes out the volcano? I live in a place where I have to breath noxious gas, so have been apprehensive about visiting Sicily

  10. We took the 11 day tour of Sicily with Virginia as our guide…She was fabulous!!..very knowledgable with a great sense of humor!!
    Sicily is beautiful..it is a must see all on its own!

    1. In the city, walking through one of the markets is a must, and for three churches on Piazza Bellini are breathtaking. Outside of the city, my favorites are the glittering mosaic-slathered cathedral at Monreale, and the Ancient Greek theater and temple at Segesta. Happy travels!

  11. Sicily is so wonderful and full of surpirises. By chance we found the small town outside of Siracusa. Plemmirio which is on the sea. The beauty here is amazing. Crystal clear waters where scuba or snorkeling is a dream. The lava rock on the shore aerea prevents erosion and there are a few sandy beaches scattered it. This is not a developed area, but some wonderful seaside rentals are available for about $100 a night. Google Plemirrio and check it out.

  12. I went to Sicily a few years ago for a month,using Rick’s book as a guide.I absolutely love Sicily and the food!

  13. It’s about time you were publishing a guide to Sicily!!!!

    We plus family are going in late 2019 for our first trip to Sicily (been to Italy twice). Looking forward to purchasing the Rick Steves guide. Always use Rick’s guides.

  14. I had the privilege of visiting Sicily in 1987! It seems like yesterday. Some highlights:
    –the golden glow of the sun on sandstone at Agrigento, definitely try to get there early
    –taking the first boat in the morning to Levanzo, one of the islands off Trapani. Being on the same boat as the newspapers and the live chickens for market was really unique
    –the cathedral in Cefalu built by Normans Roger II, but with Saracen arches
    Sicily is a fascinating mix. When I was in Trapani, I realized travel time to Africa (Tunis) was less than travel time to Rome.

  15. Excellent article & tips, Cameron. Also, fantastic photos. We love Sicily and cannot wait to return after enjoying three lovely months renting apartments in a residential neighborhood in Siracusa & Catania. It was the perfect get-away from NYC’s cold winter months in mid December 2017 – January, February & March 2018. The weather was comfortable, the locals friendly & warm, bus & train transportation between nearby cities (Palermo, Noto, Modica, etc) were convenient, the outdoor markets in Siracusa, Catania & Palermo – were our highlights. Sicily’s culture and cuisine outstanding and the exciting site of Mt. Etna was breath-taking.

  16. I haven’t made it to Ragusa, Scicli, or Modica yet, (or anywhere else in Sicily) but I’ve wanted to go ever since I saw the Italian television series Il Commissario Montalbano, which is shot in those towns. (It runs in the U.S., with subtitles, on a streaming service called Mhz Choice.) The opening sequence shows off the region: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lNsc0zqxC0

  17. sorry you will be sending throngs to the italy the way it once was (don’t call sicilians italians or italians sicilians, however)! we spent 4 weeks this spring driving the coast and interior. just buzzing through on a tour is regrettable and some basic italian phrases are really helpful. the cities are the ugliest I have ever seen in europe with trash (not organic garbage) there and at every turn in the road in the west. but the people are the nicest in europe (which is why you want to know some Italian and chat), going out of their way to help and never wanting a tip for doing so (it’s insulting). the cuisine is not refined…heavy on starches and if you don’t like artichokes, you have few vegetables or fruits apart from excellent citrus. that was an unhappy surprise.

  18. Spent 10 days on a self-drive independent tour last April, using Rick’s tour itinerary to form the basis of ours. Wonderful, fantastic, loved it – only wish we had added about 4 more days to see a few things we didn’t have time for. And, yes, the driving was a bit of a challenge, but so worth it.

  19. We just came home from the Best of Sicily in 11 Days tour and it was one of our favorites! It’s a beautiful exotic island with friendly people. On our tour we were invited into two Sicilian homes, one a working farm and one a vineyard, plus the home of a Count in Palermo. We went to the hilltop town of Erice for a fabulous buffet of Sicilian specialties and a cooking lesson. Highlights include the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, the Villa Romano del Casale, and our favorite town Cefalu…. for which we took an easy train ride by train from Palermo. Sicily’s multicultural mix never disappoints.

  20. I have long said that Sicily is a hidden wonder. My wife and I have spent a couple of trips to the island and have enjoyed it immensely! One additional highly recommended travel site is Sardinia. If Sicily is great, then Sardinia is even greater…..much greater! We have spent two to three weeks in Sardinia and could go back again (probably will). I can’t recommend it too highly!

  21. We spent 9 days in Sicily in April 2018 and had a fabulous time. We flew into Catania and rented a car, no problem at all driving though we didn’t go to Palermo. Highlights for us were: Valley of the Temples in Agrigento; Ortygia, the island that is part of Siracusa; amazing mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale; the Baroque hilltowns of Noto and Ragusa (terrific foodie scene in Ragusa, several Michelin starred restaurants), Taormina (touristy but exquisite, the only place we ran into other Americans), hiking in the Vendicari Nature Reserve and low-key and lovely Sampieri Beach. Wish we could have stayed longer but we’ll be back!

  22. Hi, Sarah Murdoch!
    Our tour with you in northern Italy a couple years ago was fantastic. At that time you convinced my wife Lorry to visit Sicily and we did take Rick Steves Sicily tour. One site not mentioned in the article and comment section is the WW II Museum in Catania. It is only a few years old and is different than any museum I have ever seen. I would need a long article to tell all the wonderful multi media and displays. The start of the museum tour is a real mover and shaker.

  23. Headed to Sicily with another tour company next month (August); we live in the desert of Arizona, so expect the heat will be tolerable — but not the humidity. But, Cameron’s blog makes it sound so worthwhile to be going —- & since we love artichokes & pasta & fish, it sounds as if we’ll be happy with the food. I’m a historian/archeologist — so will be in love with Sicily I’m sure. Thanks for all the good comments & the info — just hope our 2 weeks from Palermo to Catania will be enough time & that we old farts (in our 70’s) will survive!

  24. Louise and I were introduced to Italy in 2015 on a off season My Way Tour. That was followed in the fall by the Best of Sicily Tour – off season also. We have since returned for extended stays….Christmas 2016 in Taormina for 28 days and Christmas 2017 for two weeks in Siricusa and two weeks in Taormina. Since Rick did not have a guide, we searched the net for apartments and had great success. We now have friends in London who own an apartment in Taormina and rent it to tourists. Living the daily life in Sicily is a delight. Slow down, enjoy the slower pace, but watch out for the cars, Sicilians drive like the devil is after them. Marion and Jim mentioned that they are old farts – so are we, in our 70’s. Not to worry, you just slow down and enjoy life at a slower pace – “La Dolce Vita.” There were 75 stairs from the Corso Umberto to the living room level in our Taormina apartment, you get used to it. Enjoy Sicily for a slice of what Italy was like 25 years ago. “Andiamo”……Lets Go!

    1. Hi
      we are thinking of going to Sicily long term in the winter. Can you give us the name of the person who rents a home out in Taorima.
      Thanks
      Jane

  25. Just back from a week in Sorrento and a week in southeast Sicily. Use Rick’s book for our Sorrento trip with side trips to Naples, Capri, Pompeii, and Amalfi Coast. Took the train from Naples to Catania (about 5 hrs with the train an a boat across the Straits of Messina) where we did side trips to Mt. Etna, Taormina, and Valley of the Temples. On the way back go to the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina for the most amazing 4th Century mosiacs in the world. Then trained to Siracusa with side trips to Noto, Ragusa, Modica, and Punta Secca. Pick a hotel in the Siracusa Ortigia for the great restaurants and night life. Go to Greek play if possible. Good connections out of Catania airport.

  26. Good encyclopedic article. We went with RS to Sicily this February with the engaging, enthusiastic, funny Tomasso as our guide. We arrived in Palermo early and fit in a guided street food tour, which was great. Sicily is a wonderful land – spectacular views, a treasure trove of history – and the food is outstanding. I hope the coverage it is getting doesn’t make it get too crowded in the future. One turn-off for me was the litter and garbage, especially in Palermo. So, I was bemused when you commented Palermo has been prettied up – I can only imagine what it was like before!

  27. We did the Sicily tour April 2018, great trip. If you need a bit of a nudge to make the decision to go there; check out my posted videos on YouTube of the trip to Sicily

    Just type vito amorelli youtube Sicily..it’ll get ya there

  28. Ciao Jane,

    We rented the apartment from Virginia Garufi who lives in London with her British born Italian husband John. Virginia is from the Taormina area and her Mom (Pina) will settle you into the apartment – she lives there. Virginia and John have a total of 5 apartments, our apartment is in the center of town and just 75 steps off the main street the Corso Umberto. The apartment is located on the Seleta Humboldt. If you look on Google maps, you can find it easily. Across the Seleta is Casa Niclode (great Eats!!!!!!) and about 5 steps up is the Internet Cafe (good pizza and wines, and my great pals). If you face the I Cafe, the apartment is immediately behind. You don’t need a car if you are going to stay in town, but if you are interested in one of the other apartments, you will need a vehicle. They are up the mountain about half way to Castlelmola. These apts have a great view of the Med and Etna, but so does the apt in town. Here is Virginias direct address so you don’t have to go through TripAdvisor. Don’t worry about doing a wire transfer with her, we have done two and they have gone flawlessly.

    v dot garufi at hotmail dot it (the website is not allowing me to write addresses normally)

    If you have further questions my address is mcgee dot mike at hotmail dot com

    Please let Virginia know that Mike & Louise gave you the referral to her.

    Happy Trails and Keep on Traveling
    Mike McGee

  29. We spent almost a month in Ortigia. It was wonderful! We took side trips to Agrigento, Catania, Taormina, Ragusa, even the Lipari Islands for two days. It was beautiful! Loved it!

  30. Loved the article. A friend and I are heading to Sicily & Malta late August. We’re renting a car in Catania & have planned a short loop through part of the country. I’m not looking forward to navigating the narrow streets, but time wise it should be more efficient to have our own wheels.
    We’ve booked 2 nights each in Agrigento, Chiaramonte Gulfi, Ortigia/Siracusa and Giarre. We’re hoping this will allow us enough time to visit a few of the small towns/sites surrounding each of our bases. We’re so looking forward to the delicious local cuisine, ancient ruins, stunning scenery, farms, vineyards, etc. I’ve explored quite a bit of Italy over the years, but never made it all the way down to Sicily. Can’t wait to fall in love with another incredible place. :-)

  31. Stationed for two years in Comiso with the Air Force. Great fun touring the island. Lots of ruins and great food. Sicily has a long history compared to the USA. Sometimes difficult to get it all in perspective. What am I looking at is it 200/400/600 years old. Could be all of that side by side.

  32. Any way to get a copy of new Sicily book in January 2019 or sooner?
    Planning a visit there end of February and would really like to have Rick Steve’s recommendations before we leave. Thanks

  33. Coincidentally, like the previous question, I am similarly asking if there is any way to get a copy of new Sicily book sooner than the scheduled release date which I believe is April 2019?

    We are planning a trip there in early May and would love to be able to use Rick Steve’s recommendations since they’ve always proven to be so helpful with other travels we’ve made.

    Thank you!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *