Not to be confused with its namesake in New York, Syracuse (Siracusa) is one of the most important cities in Sicily’s prosperous history. Greek and Roman ruins scatter the city, while street food markets full of fresh produce and seafood caught in the adjoining Ionian Sea keep the city's atmosphere alive and thriving.
Ortigia Island, Syracuse's historic centre, can get busy with tourists in peak summer months, it’s true. But, choose to travel to Sicily in the off season and you will find empty alleyways, spacious beaches, and no shortage of pistachio granita (a type of gelato).
If you’re interested in history, good food, or if you just enjoy walking around a beautiful old town, Syracuse should be on your list of places to visit in Sicily. To see everything, you will need at least two days in Syracuse, but the more time you spend here, the better.
For a more thorough experience, make Syracuse your base for exploring this side of the island. It’s in a great location, and there’s no shortage of hidden local eateries to discover, beaches to explore, and cultural sights to marvel at.
Many people are referring to Ortigia when they rave about Syracuse. A small island on the city’s coast, it measures just 1 km by 0.5 kilometres, but it’s jam-packed with personality.
It’s got the charms of any Sicilian old town, but the boutique shops, inviting cafes and photo-worthy alleyways make it stand out from the rest. In addition to the wonderful views of the serene azure sea from the island's fringes, Ortigia is a hard place not to fall in love with.
Ortigia’s main sights are the mythical Arethusa Spring, the central Piazza del Duomo (which holds the cathedral of Syracuse, the palazzo Beneventano, the town hall and the Archbishop’s Palace), and sunset walks along the Passeggio Foro Vittorio Emanuele II (the promenade). Other interesting spots are the Bagno Ebraico (Jewish ‘Mikveh’ baths), Teatro dei pupi (puppet theatre - an important part of local culture), and the Archimede & Leonardo da Vinci Museum.
A few foodie stops also worth a mention are the top-rated Sicilian dishes at A Putia, Mama’s - Soul, Kitchen & Community Sharing, the leafy courtyard at La Bracioletteria, and the frozen delights of Gelateria Gusto.
Sicilian markets are something else. Giant ripe tomatoes, luscious legumes, and fish so fresh that it deserves to be eaten the same day. The food on offer is so good that even the street cats seem too discerning for just any old titbit.
There are a few open-air cafes at the northern end of the market that are just as tempting. But for lunch, Caseificio Borderi tops them all. Sit out amongst the melee of the market stalls and order a fresh ciabatta sandwich filled with locally-cured meats, pistachio pesto, and the ubiquitous weighty dollop of mozzarella. Presented in a giant round olive tin, you will soon conclude that one sandwich could’ve easily fed two people - but we all make sacrifices…
The 3 Ortigia Street Market is open every day apart from Sunday, from 7 in the morning until around 2 pm. You can find it next to the main parking area and near to the Temple of Apollo ruins.
The grand Roman amphitheatre here measures around 140 metres in length and 119 metres in width - much of the structure was built from rock and still remains intact. You can really picture the caged beasts emerging from the vaulted floors and the gruesome gladiator fights that took place here.
Then there’s the Ear of Dionysius, an ancient quarry or ‘latomie’ used by Dionysius I to hear the thoughts of his enemies after he imprisoned them in the cave. Also at Neapolis is the sacrificial altar of Hieron II, and the vast 5th-century BC Teatro Greco (Greek Theatre).
Fill in the gaps by visiting the impressive collection of Greek and Roman artefacts at the nearby Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi.
Admission to the Neapolis archaeological park is €13, like many Italian archaeological sites entry is free every first Sunday of the month. The archaeological museum costs €10, but take note that it is closed on Sundays and Mondays. The combined Neapolis Park and Museum ticket is €18 or you can take a guided tour to learn more about the history when you visit.
It’s worth noting that it’s not just Ortigia that has some amazing food options. Syracuse has attracted many fine food producers, and prices in the main city are preferable to Ortigia.
On Via Aristofane, the concept butcher Ammucca has just one motto; "We cook everything you see". Choose your own cut and get it cooked exactly the way you like. You can find cutlets and skewers from €4, grilled aubergines, Polpette Di Patate (Sicilian potato balls), and caponata at €1.50 or less per 100g.
For dinner, try the pork belly at OSTARIA Siracusa, the handmade pasta at Le 7 Spezie, or vegetarian delights at Olivia Natural Bistrot.
You can opt to take a cooking class in Syracuse to learn the secrets of Sicilian cooking, where you will also learn more about the Ortigia Street Market from a local.
It’s not just within the archaeological park where you can see the city’s broad history. Syracuse was once the largest city in the ancient world with a population of 300,000 - larger than Corinth and Athens.
Wander the streets of Syracuse, and those with a keen eye will discover all sorts of interesting artefacts and architectural remains. A walking tour with an enthusiastic local is a great way of bringing the city’s history to life.
Syracuse came to be when Corinthian colonists landed on Ortigia in 734 BC, gradually expanding to the mainland around four years later. After defeating Athens in 413 BC, Syracuse became the most important city of Magna Graecia.
The city was the gateway to the Mediterranean and a vital centre for trade. Notably, Siracusa was the home of Greek inventor Archimedes, and was named the greatest and most beautiful city in the world by Roman philosopher Cicero.
Syracuse is a fantastic spot to base yourself, away from the hubbub of Catania and the tourist-saturated slopes of Mount Etna and Taormina. There are countless options when it comes to beaches near Syracuse. Although the small beach on Ortigia isn’t worth spending much time on, you could easily lose a day on Spiaggia dell'Arenella or in the small beachside hamlet of Fontane Bianche.
Then there are the waterfall-lined pools of Riserva Naturale Orientata Cavagrande del Cassibile. The protected valley is the perfect spot for a hike and a refreshing dip in the Cassibile River - limestone terraces make for warm swimming holes in the summer months.
The nearby town of Avola is a great place to go shopping or grab lunch and has a distinctly local vibe, while the small fishing hamlet of Marzamemi is lined with seafood restaurants to satiate hungry visitors.
Syracuse is well-linked to the rest of Sicily’s gorgeous southeast. Just an hour's drive north is the island's second-largest city, Catania, while travelling south will lead you to the baroque towns of Val di Noto. You can easily take day trips from Syracuse to Noto, Modica and Ragusa, allowing you to see some of the true highlights of Sicily.
Unlike in some other parts of Sicily, there are some fantastic options for eco-friendly places to stay in Syracuse.
Sustainable hotels like Calafatari B&B are leading the way, with beautifully appointed locally-owned stays. This environmentally friendly accommodation in Ortigia is close to Aretusa Beach and includes free WiFi and on-site parking. Or try La Residenza del Reginale owned by Sicilians Alberto and Anita, it’s right in the centre of Ortigia and you will get plenty of inside tips on the best places to visit in Syracuse.
If you have your own set of wheels and want to avoid driving on the mainly pedestrianised island, Byssus Suites is another good option. This sustainable bed and breakfast in Siracusa new town has an in-house restaurant so you can dine in comfort after a busy day of exploring the sights. The highly-rated restaurant has floor-to-ceiling views over Ortigia Island and the harbour.
For anyone looking for a touch of opulence, Wellness Spa Hotel Principe Fitalia is around 20 minutes away from town, within the Plemmirio Natural Reserve in Fanusa. You can soothe your aching feet with spa treatments and massages at the on-site wellness centre, it also has two pools, a Kneipp path, Wassar path and a Vichy shower.