Sicily is best known for its stunning beaches, but come out of season and you will discover a whole new side to the largest island in the Mediterranean. With rolling vineyards, sprawling olive and almond groves, and plenty of national parks, there are many stunning places to see in Sicily.
Sicily has its own spin on the Italian language, culture and traditional food distinguishing it from the mainland. Even those that are familiar with ‘the boot’, will feel completely lost on arrival in the ‘ball’ of Italy. But it does share some things with its neighbour. Like irresistible cuisine, mesmerising sites left by a fascinating and rich history, imposing landscapes full of mountains and volcanoes, and of course a swathe of stunning beaches.
On the north of the island you can expect to find hill towns topped by castles, in the centre are vast uninhabited mountain ranges, and on the south coast lies the agricultural heart of the island alongside the penetrating blues of the Mediterranean Sea.
If you’re flying in from other parts of Europe, you're most likely to start your trip in either Palermo, the capital, or Catania - also known as the ‘Black City’. Sitting right at the foot of the Etna Volcano, much of Catania is built from dark lava rock, the black buildings giving it its less-than-appealing nickname.
Scooters whizz around in a frenetic maze of colour and noise through the bustling markets and streets, ignoring the constant threat of the next big eruption. From here, you can continue south to Syracuse or north to Taormina.
If you are travelling by car or train from the mainland you will likely arrive by ferry a little further north in Messina, a kind of wild-west port town with an ancient history and interesting sights like the Messina Cathedral and Bell Tower, and the Norman-built Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani.
From here, head south to Taormina or west to Cefalù to start your tour around Sicily.
Taormina’s exclusive reputation started in the 1920s when DH Lawrence lived here. It’s a place steeped in history and abuzz with celebrity name-dropping, helped by its convenient location (roughly an hour's drive from Catania airport) and stunning views of Mount Etna.
Beautiful artisanal shops can be found down almost every side street, stacked up with ceramics, fine leather and artwork. Don’t miss a traditional granita from Bam Bar, a show at the Greco Roman theatre, and a hike to Chiesa Madonna della Rocca for wide-angle views of the cliffside town.
Stay in nearby Giardini Naxos, Mazzarò, or Letojanni to save on accommodation costs - from Mazzarò you can also take a swim out to Isola Bella for secret coves and crystal clear water.
For fans of the Godfather, Taormina is a great base for sightseeing. Close by, Savoca was the setting for the wedding walk, taking place between the Chisea di San Nicolo and Bar Vitelli along the scenic Via San Michele.
Get there early to have a look inside Bar Vitelli, avoid the coach tours and have the place all to yourself. Other Godfather locations include the Cattedrale di S. Maria Annunziata e Assunta in nearby Forza d'Agrò and the notorious Mafia town of Corleone near Palermo.
One of Sicily's main tourist attractions is also one of its best things to do. Sitting between the African tectonic and the Eurasian tectonic plates, Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano.
It’s a huge part of the landscape that you can’t really miss while driving around Eastern Sicily. But a drive up its switchback slopes reveals long-stretching views over Syracuse and the azure sea.
On foot, you can explore deep-red volcanic craters, hop on the cable car, or take a tour of a vertiginous vineyard - producing the famous Etna Rosso wine that the region is so well known for.
Hike around the viewing station or take a guided tour of Etna to get up-close to the steaming heart of Etna’s summit. In winter (if there’s enough snow), ski Etna’s active slopes from the hillside resorts of Piano Provenzana and Nicolosi.
Etna is one of Sicily’s most popular tourist destinations - and for good reason. Avoid the crowds with this off-the-beaten path tour of Mount Etna with a naturalist guide. Skip the tourist trails as you learn about Etna’s history from a local, visit a lava cave, and see the southeastern crater - Etna's most active area.
The ancient island of Ortygia (Ortigia) in Syracuse has captured the imaginations of travellers for centuries. During the 8th century BC, Syracuse was arguably the most important city in the ancient Western world, bigger than Athens and allied with Sparta and Corinth.
Also the birthplace of Archimedes, it was described by Cicero as "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all”. So a visit to Syracuse is undoubtedly a must while in Sicily.
Ancient Greeks landed here and founded a settlement that you can still visit today. Parco Archeologico della Neapolis is one of Italy’s greatest archaeological sites with highlights like the Ear of Dionysius, Teatro Greco, and the Roman Amphitheater.
Once you’ve had your fill of historical sights head to Ortigia Island to fill up on local specialities. The 3 Ortigia Street Market offers fresh produce every morning, find Caseificio Borderi amongst the stalls for freshly made mortadella, parma, and mozzarella ciabatta - one sandwich is usually big enough for two people!
Other popular spots to visit include Castello Maniace, the grand Piazza del Duomo and the Arethusa Spring at sunset. The uniquely decorated A Putia serves up antipasti, pasta, and homely Sicilian mains that are almost too good to be true.
For stocking up on souvenirs, independent shops like TAMI's make sure you won’t leave town without a trinket or two.
Visit the Baroque towns of Val di Noto, and stroll through the historic centres of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites; Noto, Ragusa, and Modica. The whole region is ripe with hills of mandorla (almond), lemon, orange, pistachio and olive groves, and vineyards. In nearby Avola, known for its beaches, one of Sicily finest wines Nero D’Avola is produced.
In Noto itself you can enjoy all of the freshest local produce in restaurants like Ristorante COM'é and Caffè Sicilia. A Sicilian favourite, Arancini, comes with a variety of fillings while Da Umberto Pizzeria serves up traditional Sicilian pizza with fresh ingredients like burrata cheese, pistachio pesto, and grilled aubergine.
For seafood, head to the nearby fishing town of Marzamemi past the nature reserve and archaeological site Tonnara di Vendicari. Sunsets are especially atmospheric with a plate of fried seafood at one of the harbourside trattorias - just make sure to steer clear of the swordfish.
In between meals, head inside Noto Cathedral and Palazzo Ducezio to marvel at the Baroque architecture - these cities were rebuilt in this Spanish style after an earthquake in 1693 left an almost blank canvas in Southeastern Sicily.
You can still visit the original at Noto Antica, a kind of open-air museum that locals still drive through and some still inhabit.
A 5 km hike in Noto Antica takes you through the highlights of the ruins including the Royal Castle and Carmine Church, before leading down a steep ravine into the stunning Cava Carosello nature reserve (take plenty of water and snacks as there are no facilities).
Ragusa is split into two parts; the old town (Ragusa Ibla) and the much newer part (Ragusa Superiore). Both have their reasons to visit but the old town claims some of the best photo opportunities.
Take the main street to the magnificent Duomo di San Giorgio, and continue up winding alleys to Palazzo Floridia for staggering views over the surrounding hills.
At the other end of town, Giardino Ibleo also offers sweeping views of the mountainous region and the rural valley below. This hilltop town is all about the views, grab a pizzolo and a cannolo (a singular cannoli stuffed full of ricotta cream) with your espresso at Caffetteria Donnafugata while you watch the world go by.
Not far from Ragusa, Modica is best known for one sweet treat in particular. Spain's three-century rule in Sicily left its mark on the architecture and the culture (four hour siesta anyone?), but it also brought with it a South American import that has been made the same way here ever since.
The Aztec art of chocolate making took over the town like a sugar-crazed gold rush, leaving behind cacao shops on every corner.
One of the oldest is Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, founded in 1880, today you can visit the shop and watch how it’s done. Order an assaggio to sample a few of the many different flavours of the delightfully grainy and ever-so-slightly crumbly chocolate of Sicily.
For sightseeing, walk up the beautiful flower-strewn staircase to the Cathedral of Saint George, just next door is Bar del Duomo - one of the best places to stop for a quick cafe and granita break.
Stick to the main streets of Corso Umbeto and Via Marchesa Tedeschi for a spot of shopping, and spy local landmark Castello dei Conti from below.
For traditional Sicilian food, “cooked with only the best local ingredients” the owners assured us, Osteria Ricotta & Co is one of the best places to eat in Modica - the homemade pasta with pork sauce is particularly memorable!
Located on Sicily's southern coast, Agrigento is well worth the two-hour drive from Catania or Palermo. Here you can visit the ruins of the ancient city of Akragas, both within Agrigento and at the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) archaeological site.
Uncover the ruins of a gymnasium, necropoli, and eight Doric temples, said to be some of the greatest and best-preserved examples of Hellenic architecture outside of Greece.
Highlights of a visit include the oldest structure the Temple of Heracles (Hercules), the best-preserved Temple of Concordia and the bronze statue of Icarus, and the Temple of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) - its four remaining columns have become the symbol of the city of Agrigento.
Another spot not to miss in the area is the cascading white rocks of Scala di Turchi, or Stairs of the Turks, an insight into Sicily's geological history just 20 minutes away by car along the south coast. Other important archaeological sites in Western Sicily include the rural Temple of Segesta and the trade settlement of Selinunte.
Stay near Agrigento for at least a night to make the most of a full day visiting the temples. B&B Templi e Arte is a friendly family-run hotel just minutes from the archaeological park - the homemade breakfast is particularly good.
The rough-and-ready streets of Palermo, the island's capital, are a real introduction to Sicilian food, while the Catacombe dei Cappuccini is a fantastic, if a little eerie, place to learn a bit about the island's religious history.
There are hints everywhere of the city's layered past. Romans, Byzantines and Normans have all contributed to making Palermo one of the most conquered cities in the world.
The island's stronghold in the Mediterranean Sea has made Sicily quite appealing to many invaders throughout its history, luckily for us nowadays it seems to be mainly tourists who are visiting.
Right at the centre of Sicily's northern coast, Cefalù is a beachside town with plenty of character. The small fishing town is full of locally owned restaurants and bars to get your aperitif from, explore by foot to make the most of the small shops and cafes crisscrossing the old town's mediaeval streets. Must-do’s include a visit to the Norman Cathedral and a climb to the castle-topped La Rocca di Cefalù - the imposing cliff face that looms over the town.
From this tourist hotspot, you can take a boat trip to the Aeolian archipelago. Explore Salina’s vineyards, hop off at Panarea and Lipari, then witness the active volcanoes of Stromboli and Vulcano. Another popular day trip from here is Castelbuono, a quintessential Sicilian town just 50 minutes inland by road.
Stay at Emma’s House, a fully equipped modern apartment in a quiet side street of the new town. With secure private parking and a supermarket next door, it’s much more convenient than staying in the ZTL-restricted old town - plus it’s just a 10-minute walk away via the beach.
Last Updated 15 August 2023