Sicily Holiday Planning Guide
The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is a ruggedly attractive land. It has a long history of foreign domination, having been controlled by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Normans. The result is a distinct culture, blending elements from all of those areas and featuring an intriguing dialect. This huge island offers plenty of small villages to tour, each with its own treasures. Beyond the popular coastal areas, Sicily's inland attractions include an unspoiled landscape of mountains, hills, and villages that sometimes seem frozen in time. While the natural environment is probably what draws most to a Sicily vacation, its greatest asset may be its people, who remain proud of their traditions and incredibly hospitable to visitors.
Places to Visit on SicilyPalermo
: Visit the capital and tourist hub of the island to experience a jumble of architectural styles hinting at a history of occupation by many cultures. The city provides countless things to do, including fine dining, historical sites, nightlife and water activities on the coastline. Catania
: This busy city boasts a World Heritage Site designation for the Baroque buildings in its central area, a famous fish market, and an active nightlife scene influenced by the local university. Syracuse
: This World Heritage Site's rich history as an ancient Greek city-state remains visible today in its architecture and culture, while the surrounding area offers plenty of things to do on your Sicily vacation, including hiking and diving. Taormina
: Visit this upscale seaside getaway for unmatched swimming in warm water overlooked by cliffs, luxurious shopping experiences, and visits to historical sites from the Greek and Roman eras as well as the Middle Ages. Aeolian Islands
: This archipelago of seven volcanic islands is an outdoor enthusiast's dream: walk on black sand beaches, take a donkey ride over rocky terrain, marvel at colorful marine life on diving excursions, or hike up the side of a steaming volcano. This World Heritage Site also offers a selection of restaurants, shopping, and bars that will round out your Sicily holiday.Agrigento
: Agrigento is best known as home to some of the most striking Greek ruins in the world, the World Heritage-listed Valley of the Temples--but don't overlook the modern part of the city, which has some medieval history and an emerging arts and cultural scene. Ragusa
: Situated on a rocky hill with dramatic views, this city is divided into two parts: busy, modern Ragusa Superiore on top of the hill gives visitors a sense of daily life, while rustic Ragusa Ibla is a network of narrow alleys and stone and stucco buildings set into the hillside.Lampedusa
: Include this stunning, unspoiled beach vacation island for swimming in aquamarine waters, snorkeling, or relaxing on the many undeveloped white sand beaches. Trapani
: This harbor town presents an affordable and exciting Sicily vacation idea. Sun and swim on the beach, explore the Baroque architecture, or take a cable car ride up to sweeping views of the sea and Tunisia. Giardini Naxos
: This popular beach resort offers a low-key alternative to the fancier Taormina: park yourself at the beach and enjoy the bars, tourist shops, pizzerias, and hotels arranged on the shore.
Things to Do on Sicily
Popular Sicily Tourist AttractionsValley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi)
: This World Heritage-listed group of seven Greek Ionic temples represents a major Sicily tourist attraction. The site includes the temples as well as tombs, catacombs and necropolises. Greek Theatre
: This open-air theater began its life in the 3rd century BCE; it hosted fights between gladiators and wild animals and later served as a medieval palace. Today, you can catch one of the musical and cultural events hosted here, or simply explore the remaining Corinthian ruins.Monte Etna
: Looming 3329 m (10,921 ft) over eastern Sicily, this active volcanic mountain and the surrounding national park form a World Heritage Site offering unique nature explorations, such as hiking over hardened black lava, climbing snowy peaks, or walking through forest. The almost constant volcanic activity is closely monitored, and occasionally the area is closed to visitors when conditions are too dangerous.Spiaggia di San Vito lo Capo
: Save a place on your Sicily itinerary for this beach located at the foot of Mount Cafono's green cliffs. Lounge on the white sand beach, take a dip in the clear blue water, or try some rock climbing on the limestone cliffs. Ortigia
: The historical center of Syracuse, this small island is connected to the rest of the island by three bridges and makes the perfect place for a leisurely sightseeing stroll through buildings spanning 2,500 years of history, from Greek to medieval. Don't miss the Piazza del Duomo, where a cathedral was built to incorporate the ancient Greek temple that once stood there. Spiaggia dei Conigli
: Located on the small island of Lampedusa, this white sand beach with rocky cliffs and shallow, clear blue water is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Palazzo dei Normanni e Cappella Palatina
: Today the home of Sicily's regional parliament, this former palace was altered over the centuries and now displays a fascinating combination of Byzantine, medieval, and Arabic influences. Be sure to check out the Cappella Palatina and apartments, where mosaics with imagery of animals and religious figures cover the walls like jewels. Villa Romana del Casale
: This 4th-century villa contains the most expansive and well-preserved collection of Roman mosaics in the world, which cover almost every floor of the building and display narrative scenes in a wide variety of colors. Riserva Naturale Orientata dello Zingaro
: Hike, swim, or picnic on this nature reserve that sprawls over 7 km (4.3 mi) of coastline and includes mountains, beaches, cliffs, and secluded swimming holes. Isola Bella
: "The pearl in the Ionian Sea" began as a private residence for the Borromeo family, but today the island is a public nature reserve. Explore the rocky shore, take a walk and look out for the many birds and lizards who call the island home, or have a relaxing drink at the bar.
Planning a Sicily Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit on Sicily with Kids
Sicily offers a wide variety of things to do with kids of all ages, making it a good choice for a family vacation. Older children will appreciate taking a walk back in time with a stay in the historical city of Palermo
, or a stay at the ruin-rich Agrigento
. Nature lovers will enjoy exploring the Aeolian Islands
, where you'll have a wealth of outdoors activities to choose from. For a more laid-back beach vacation, base your Sicily holiday at a family-friendly resort town such as Giardini Naxos
, where kids can swim and snorkel in warm blue waters or play on the sandy beaches.
Things to Do on Sicily with Kids
A trip to Sicily has a lot to offer families traveling with kids, from exciting explorations of ancient ruins to relaxing beach days. Teenagers and older children will appreciate all the historical sites and buildings in the area: they can pretend to be ancient Greeks while touring the Valley of the Temples
. Kids are likely to be dazzled by the intricate mosaics and animal imagery covering the walls of the Palazzo dei Normanni e Cappella Palatina
or spread across the floors of Villa Romana del Casale
. A visit to the Aeolian Islands
provides some classic Sicily sightseeing: take a donkey ride on the island of Alicudi, or visit Stromboli Volcano
, which often puts off glowing orange sparks. Continue your volcano explorations at Monte Etna
, where you can walk over lava in its hard black rock form, or hike through forests. Of course, no Sicily vacation would be complete without a trip to the beach. The family will love lounging in the shallow waters of the famous Spiaggia dei Conigli
, or gazing at the green limestone cliffs while taking a dip at Spiaggia di San Vito lo Capo
Tips for a Family Vacation on Sicily
With so much to do, it's easy to get overwhelmed by options when planning your family's Sicily holiday. Fortunately, the island is known to be very welcoming to families, and business owners happily accommodate young ones in hotels and restaurants. To make the most of your time while still enjoying a relaxing vacation, plan your trip to include a mixture of visits to historical sites such as ruins and relaxing beach or nature excursions. In cities, hanging out in the public squares or piazzas can be a fun daily event, where kids can run around with others their age and maybe see a puppet show or musical performance. Watch out for scooters that are common on the island: sometimes they take a loose interpretation of "pedestrian-only" areas as they zip around the city. Finally, note that it can be hard to find public toilets in Sicily, so make sure the kids visit restrooms at tourist sites, or buy a coffee in a bar or restaurant and use theirs.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday on Sicily
Cuisine of Sicily
Sicily has a rich cuisine influenced by the many cultures that have called the island home over the centuries. The food is based on fresh, local flavors, especially seafood, citrus, nuts, ricotta cheese, and fresh herbs. For a snack, try "arancini," or little oranges: crunchy rice balls stuffed with a variety of fillings and deep fried. Pasta is very popular--be sure to try some of the local specialities on your Sicily vacation, including the iconic pasta alla Norma, made with tomatoes, fried eggplant, herbs, and ricotta salata. For your "secondi," or main course, try "involtini di pesce spada," swordfish rolls stuffed with nuts, raisins, breadcrumbs, anchovies, citrus juice, eggs, and cheese. Couscous (or "cuscusu"), another classic Sicilian dish, reveals the Arab influence over the island: couscous al pesce has all the flavors of the sea mixed with spices.
Sicilians drink wine with their meals, and you shouldn't miss the opportunity to try some delicious local wines. Gourmands on tour of Sicily should pay a visit to the area around Monte Etna
, known especially for its vineyards with rich volcanic soil contributing a unique flavor to the end product. Don't skip dessert! Sicily has many delicious sweets to end your meal. The famed cassata is a sponge cake filled with sweet ricotta cheese and chocolate, then intricately decorated with marzipan, candied fruit and royal icing. Granita, a flavored ice treat, is also popular on the island and is rumored to have originated in Catania
Shopping on Sicily
While on your trip to Sicily, there will be many opportunities to shop for gifts and foods unique to the region. The island has many bustling, colorful outdoor markets which are a sight to see even if you don't plan on buying anything. Palermo
has a very popular market where you can buy local produce or wine. Pick up some cheese, bread, and fruit from Mercato Di Siracusa
and have a picnic, or watch a fishmonger butcher an enormous tuna before your eyes at A' Piscaria Mercato del Pesce
, a market specializing in all kinds of fish and shellfish pulled from the nearby sea. Sicily
has a sprawling antiques and crafts market. Locally made items are perfect gifts and souvenirs of your Sicily Holiday; look for colorful ceramics from Caltagirone
and "pupi," wooden puppets, from Palermo
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Sicily
History of Sicily
With occupations over centuries by Greeks, Romans, Normans, and others, Sicily has a long and tumultuous history. The island's location in the Mediterranean made it a strategic spot for defense and trade, and records of its history live on in the many ruins and buildings that today serve as fascinating Sicily tourist attractions.
Even in prehistory, there is evidence of many peoples living on Sicily, tribes known to ancient Greeks as the Elymians, the Sicani, and the Sicels. By the 11th century BCE, Phoenicians established colonies on the island, including a major settlement at modern-day Palermo
. In the 8th century BCE, ancient Greeks colonized the island, establishing their most important city, Syracuse
, in 734 BCE. By the 3rd century BCE, this was the most populous Greek city. Ancient Greeks believed that Monte Etna
was formed when the goddess Athena threw the volcanic mountain onto the island during the gods' war with the giants. Many buildings, religious and otherwise, still stand in ruins that you can visit on your Sicily tour, including the World Heritage Site Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi)
The Punic trading colonies still on the island were now protectorates of Carthage. Constant fighting between Carthage and Greek city-states motivated a series of Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, with Sicily caught in the middle of the two powers. In the end, Rome was victorious in 210 BCE, after which Sicily remained under Roman control for the next six centuries. The Romans did not develop the island very much, using it mostly as a place to grow grain for their capital city. Still, some evidence of Roman occupation is evident today, in architecture and attractions such as the sprawling floor mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale
With the decline of the Roman Empire, Vandals invaded Sicily in 440 CE, but soon fell to the Goths. After a series of wars including the Gothic War, Sicily was taken over by the Byzantine Empire. In 826, the Byzantine Empire enlisted defense help from the Emir of Tunisia, who sent an Islamic army of Arabs, Moors, and other ethnic groups to the island. While the Muslim occupation of Sicily was tumultuous, it proved very influential in establishing the culture of the island: foods essential to Sicilian cuisine, such as lemons, were brought to the islands, and another layer of architectural complexity was added that is still visible today--look out for the Arabian vaults in the basement of Palazzo dei Normanni e Cappella Palatina
, where the foundations of the site's original Muslim palace lay.
Believed by some historians to mark the beginning of the Crusades, the Norman conquest of Sicily in 1091 ushered in yet another era of Sicily's history. During this time, the island kingdom became one of the wealthiest and most powerful states in all of Europe. The Normans brought major changes to the language, religion, and population of Sicily: immigration was encouraged from northern Italy and Campania, and many of those immigrants were Latin-speaking and Roman Catholic. They also had a large influence on architecture (as evidenced, for an example, at Duomo di Monreale
). The established Kingdom of Sicily went on to be ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Peter III of Aragon, and the King of Naples, and wars between states were met with almost constant resistance from the local population. Finally, Sicily joined the Kingdom of Italy when it was proclaimed in 1861.
After unification, Sicily suffered from economic stagnation, prompting a wave of emigration. In 1908, the Messina earthquake killed more than 80,000 Sicilians. Around this time, the Sicilian Mafia (also known as Cosa Nostra) got on the Italian government's radar. In the 1920s, the fascist regime tried to squash the Mafia, and had more success than previous efforts. During World War II, the Allied forces enlisted the help of the Mafia in their invasion of the island, which was generally welcomed by the local population. To learn more about this infamous chapter of the island's history on your trip to Sicily, visit the CIDMA: Mafia and Anti-Mafia Center
, where guides will walk you through the decades.
Landscape of Sicily
A holiday in Sicily offers an eyeful of natural beauty, as the island has been shaped by volcanic activity and the sea. Most of the land on Sicily is hilly, and any flat areas are used for agriculture. The northern coast is ringed with mountain ranges, while snow-capped Monte Etna
towers 3,329 m (10,922 ft) over the eastern coast. The largest of three active volcanoes in Italy, which occasionally releases black ash, is surrounded by a national park where you can hike over black and grey rock that is actually hardened lava. The Aeolian Islands
are another special geographical feature that you should make time to visit on your tour of Sicily--still-active volcanoes, including the glowing Stromboli Volcano
, have created this system of islands with lots of opportunities for hiking, swimming, and donkey rides.
Holidays & Festivals on Sicily
Most businesses in Sicily observe Italian national holidays, including All Saint's Day (November 1) and Immaculate Conception (December 8). The island also has a variety of local festivals that make fun and interesting additions to any Sicily itinerary. Each town has a celebration for its patron saint: the festivals in Palermo
are especially big and boisterous. Good Friday brings parades with beautiful masks on display. As a place where cuisine and agriculture are important, Sicily also offers ample opportunity to celebrate food. Many towns hold food festivals or "sagre," celebrations of particular agricultural products, such as pistachios in Bronte. Art, theater, and music festivals also occur across the island. For a special take on mosaic sites such as Palazzo dei Normanni e Cappella Palatina
, include the springtime Noto Flower Festival on your Sicily itinerary.
Sicily Travel Tips
Climate of Sicily
Located in the middle of the sea, Sicily enjoys a typical Mediterranean climate that draws visitors with warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Sicily's tourism booms in summer, when temperatures average around 32.2 C (90 F). While some smaller islands virtually shut down in the off season, winter in Sicily sees almost no frost except for in the mountains. It very rarely falls below freezing on the coast, with daytime highs dropping no lower than 10 C (50 F) in January. If you plan on hiking in the mountains, note that they are usually significantly cooler than coastal areas. Rain varies depending on where you are on the island: the south is drier, with a total precipitation usually less than 50 cm (20 in), and the north is wetter, with an average of more than 100 cm (40 in). One weather phenomenon to be aware of on your trip to Sicily is the Sirocco winds, which can blow up to 80 km/h (50 mph) and bring cold rain. They typically occur in spring or fall for periods of half a day to a few days.
Transportation on Sicily
The easiest way to get between Sicily attractions is by renting your own car or motorbike, although you should be aware that Sicilian drivers are known for their fondness for speed and disregard for road rules. If you'd rather not get behind the wheel, public transportation is available on the island and quite inexpensive. Buses and trains can get you between popular destinations such as major cities and beach resorts, but won't go to more remote attractions. Buses are generally more reliable than trains, which can be very slow. If you're looking to experience a smaller island on your Sicily tour, take one of the ferries or planes that service these outlying islets (planes are the easier option to get to Pantelleria and the Pelagic Islands).
Language of Sicily
While the official language of the island is Italian, you will notice many residents speaking the local language, Sicilianu, on your Sicily vacation. This "dialetto stretto," or pure dialect, is often heard outside major cities and in larger market areas. Sicilians tend to use the dialect in moments of high emotion or humor: jokes are frequently told in the language, and mothers use it to coo to their babies. Though often called a dialect, Sicilianu is technically considered its own language and has its roots in the island's pre-Greek times. The language reflects the impact of Sicily's many occupiers, including words influenced by Arabic, Latin, Greek, French, and other tongues.