Almost every empire in the last few thousand years has set foot here. Located in the Mediterranean, the island of Sicily is one of the only ones in Europe. People lived on the island from 12,000 BC to 750 BC, and colonies of Phoenicians and Geek began to line up around the island. Sicily was an important place during the Punic wars until the fall of Rome when it was then ruled by the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, and then the Emirate of Sicily. It became part of Italy only in 1860, so that most of its human experience, the island was not even a part of the country with which people connect it today. And that’s what makes it so unique. There were very few places in Europe at the mouth of so many people and empires, which all left a mark on the island in some capacity. Sicily is at the same time Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, African and Italian, and at the same time it is none of that at all and is simply Sicilian.
With the staring Mount Etna dominating the Sicilian sky, the island has a rugged landscape consisting of 9 regions. There are also about 9 cities on the island, and Palermo is the largest and capital city known for its 3000-year-old history, architecture and gastronomy. Other cities like Catania and Agrigento have UNESCO sites, and the island itself is one of the warmest in Europe with long dry summers and sunny winters. Although some people speak English, most speak Italian with a Sicilian accent, but if you want to impress the locals, try choosing a few words in the Sicilian dialect.
Climb Mount Etna
The landscape is dominated by the constant presence of Mount Etna. The smoking silhouette of the volcanic mountain constantly reminds of the insecurity of life on the island. The volcano is the second most active in the world with smoke constantly leaking and for this reason it is a fairly large tourist hotspot.
For thrill-seeking adventurers, traveling up the mountain can be as easy or difficult as you are willing to go. If you are looking for a low-level activity, but still want to go up, there is a cable car that you can go on, and all you need is spare money and good walking boots. The cable isn’t a shortcut though and you’ll have to take a little walk, but it won’t be the same walk as if you started from the bottom. At the foot of the mountain known as Etna Sud there are shops, restaurants and even a few hotels so you can prepare a little. Although you can climb quite high, scaling the peak is not something that tourists can do due to the unpredictable nature of the volcano.
Spend the day at the beach
Maybe hiking and watching the volcano is a little too much if you are looking for a relaxing holiday. Fortunately, Sicily has amazing beaches where you can relax, tan and come back looking like a bronze god. The island gets dry, sunny heat in summer, with minimal rain which makes it a fantastic holiday destination on the beach. Right in front of the city of Palermo is the beach Mondello, a popular place among tourists and locals. To access the amenities and facilities on the beach, you will have to pay a small fee, but otherwise, the beach is free. Another place to check if you want to spend the whole day outside is the seaside town of Cefalu. The small coastal town has a thriving beach, an imposing Norman cathedral with beautiful mosaics, narrow streets with small restaurants and a bustling central square. Take a few shots of the villas and cabins along the beach here and start planning your retirement here right away.
Feel like an archaeologist in the Valley of the Temples
The story of Icarus says that when he flew too close to the sun during his and Daedalus ‘escape from Crete, Icarus’ waxed wings melted and he sank to the sea and drowned. Daedalus sought refuge in Agrigento on the undiscovered island of Sicily and mourned, and then built the temple of Apollo in Apollo’s honor. The temple would become the first of the city’s famous temples.
Of course, this is all just a myth, but the Valley of the Temples is one of the most famous sights of Sicily. In reality, the city was a Greek colony founded around 500 BC and its archaeological heritage is still in a beautifully reserved condition today. Believing that Daedalus founded the city of Agrigento, this place became an important center for culture and religion.
The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in total there are about 7 different temples and other smaller landmarks in the area built about 400 to 500 BC. Some other notable temples here are the Temple of Hercules, the Temple of Concordia, the Temple of Juno and the Temple of Zeus. Some of the smaller monuments and attractions here include the mausoleum of a former tyrant named Theron and an 800-year-old olive tree. At its peak, Agrigento reportedly had over 300,000 inhabitants.
Admire the Roman mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale
Built around the 4th century, Villa Romana del Casale is home to one of the best preserved and most complex Roman mosaics and frescoes in the world. The complexity of the art made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and while the villa was abandoned in the 12th century, it took another 6 centuries to discover its treasures. The frescoes cover about 3,500 square meters of not only the interior but also the exterior walls. The quality and uniqueness of the preservation are partly due to the landslides and floods that covered parts of the villa. The entire villa was finally and completely excavated in 1959, showing mosaics of hunting, young men playing, sailing and, perhaps most famously, women in bikinis engaged in sports.
Eat (or more) Cannoli
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The famous line that Peter Clemenza introduced to The Godfather is one of the most significant lines in cinema. Get out of the movie and make sure you can afford some cannons while you’re here. The legendary pastry can be found all over the world, from Italian bakeries in New York to supermarkets in Australia, but the origin of the tubular dessert has its roots in Sicily.
Which means “small tube” in English, non-Italian speakers may be interested in the fact that although “cannoli” is said in the singular, “cannolo” is a technically correct pronunciation of the singular. If for any reason you are unaware of this dessert, cannoli is a fried dough in the shape of a tube, filled with a sweet creamy ricotta filling and sometimes dressed with things like nuts, chocolate, fruit and other sweets.
The dessert is said to have originated in Caltanissetta around 827-1000 AD, and was made by concubines of local princes who wanted to attract his attention. Although some other food historians attribute it to a historically prepared treat during the Carnival season with a creamy center and tubular shape attributed to the fertility symbol. His popularity then became the main thing throughout the year.
Cannoli can be found almost anywhere in most bakeries on the island, but some of the best you will find in Palermo, and are especially made from local ricotta sheep cream.
Explore the local flora and fauna in the Zingaro Nature Reserve
The local flora and fauna of Sicily are some of the unique in the area, and the Zingaro Nature Reserve is a great way to spend an afternoon and go for some walks (especially if you’ve eaten a few cannons). Apart from some rural homes, there are no buildings, no roads, and the only noise comes from the wind and the sounds of the Mediterranean. Although cities like Palermo are full of fun, the density and bustle of life can make someone run away for a while, and the Zingaro Nature Reserve is your best chance to do so. Experience Sicily millennia ago with just the sounds of nature and animals on the island, walk the trails, see exotic plants and maybe take a dip in the aqua blue pools.
Try local wines in the Tasca d’Almerita vineyards
Without a doubt, there are some of the world’s best wine-producing regions, and one of them is Italy. Italian wines are exported almost everywhere, so you would be sick if you didn’t (responsibly) indulge in some local wines. The Tasca d’Almerita vineyards are located about an hour outside the city of Cefalu and are a paradise for wine lovers. Green undulating hills filled with vineyards as far as the eye can see. Here are over 1000 acres of vineyards, along with idyllic houses and villas. Sample several varieties of wine such as Inzolia, Catarratoo and Nero D’avola. Sampling fine wine wouldn’t be the same without taking some fine food, so be sure to book a casual gourmet meal with a wine tour.
Explore Palermo food
Italians are fiercely proud of the culinary mark they have left on the world, and Sicilians even more so. Italian-American cuisine would not have been anywhere had it not been for the large influx of Sicilian immigrants who went to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with the cannoli, the food on the island is one of the best in the world and despite the relatively small size of the area, the food here is varied, fresh, healthy and of course delicious.
Palermo, as the largest city, has plenty of places to dine and is a kind of de facto home to Sicilian cuisine. Although pizza could be attributed to the Neapolitans, Sicilian pizza is a whole other world. Frida Pizzeria is located in a picturesque square in the heart of the city and serves some of the best pizzas in the world. With classic Sicilian toppings like buffalo mozzarella, capers, ricotta and peppers grown on Mount Etna, you can’t find anything more authentic than this.
If you are looking for street food, try Pani ca ‘Meusa. One of the most famous Sicilian delicacies with street food to foreigners might seem strange, but a sandwich of boiled cow’s spleen, trachea and lungs served on a freshly baked bun with a little cheese is a classic street food meal. It sounds a little weird, but it’s delicious, ubiquitous, and cheap.
If you’re in Syracuse, check out the huge and vibrant Ortigia Market and have some of it all. Although mostly appealing to locals, the market is a great place to enjoy local food at a fair price like almond cakes, pistachios, snails and sun-dried tomatoes. Being on the coast also means that fresh fish and seafood are plentiful and delicious here.
Our final word
Sicily is a beautiful island with a rich and eclectically diverse history that lasts for thousands of years. Empires came and went on the island and left something small that makes Sicily a truly unique place to be.