Separated from the ‘toe’ of Italy by just 1.5 miles of water, Sicily might as well be a completely separate country. With its own language, culinary traditions and eclectic history, the largest island in the Mediterranean has its own cultural identity that separates it entirely from the mainland.
Travelling here can be frustrating at times, beguiling at others, but you are sure to come across something unexpected. You may not initially think of Sicily as a multicultural place, but due to its central location, you can hear many locals speaking French, German, Arabic and Romanian along with Sicilian and Italian.
Surrounded by the Tyrrhenian, Mediterranean and Ionian Sea, Sicily has always been a desirable island to live on with past settlers including the Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Ostrogoths, and Byzantine empires. Because of that, it has some of the most fascinating archaeological sites in Europe, along with its diverse modern culture.
Sicily is a place that needs to be explored slowly; focusing on one region at a time. Nothing works at a fast pace, so it pays to slow down and appreciate the little things that make this island so fascinating. Even after a month here, I left feeling like we’d only scratched the surface of Italy’s ‘football’.
It’s best not to fight it. If you’ve spent time in Southern Europe or Latin America before you are probably already aware of ‘siesta’ time, but Sicily takes this post-lunch nap to the next level.
In the afternoons, supermarkets, cafes, tourist attractions, and life, in general, takes a break and everything closes. Between (around) 1pm and 6pm everyday, summer or winter, don’t expect to get much done.
If you want more flexibility with meal times, choose self-catering accommodation or a resort with a restaurant attached, especially if you’re travelling with children. Forget to eat by 1pm and it’s a long wait until dinner.
If you’re an early bird who likes to get out and see everything in the morning then Sicily is the place for you. Everything generally reopens for business for a couple of hours in the evening too, but meals are generally had much later from around 9pm onwards.
This makes sense in the summer as the heat can reach around 30 C and there are over 10 hours of daylight. However, in winter when it’s light for just half of that time, it can be difficult to plan your day around.
Generally speaking (and don’t quote me on this), on Sundays the shops are all closed, and on Mondays many restaurants are closed. While many local businesses do have an online presence on Google Maps, often the opening times are not regularly updated - and even if they are, the stated times aren’t strictly adhered to anyway!
It really struck us that in this modern age, where we are so used to checking a local restaurant menu online and researching the logistical details of travel beforehand, Sicily remains almost stubbornly averse to the online world. As part of a major Western European country, it’s surprising how seriously it lags behind many destinations in Asia and South America.
It’s not like travelling in places like Cuba (where there is no way to get online at all), in fact 4G coverage is quite good in Sicily, especially with a multi-provider e-SIM.
There is an online presence and you can find information on local businesses - but often they are missing vital details like opening times and prices. It’s best not to rely on the WiFi either - as with many places throughout Italy, it is very slow and unreliable.
Don’t get me wrong, after the initial ‘learning curve’ of getting used to the fact that we just had to risk it and hope somewhere was open once we arrived, we did start to enjoy the surprises that unplanned travel can bring. A cafe next to the (closed) Cathedral of Saint George in Modica that we hadn’t planned upon, turned out to have some of the best pistachio granita of our trip.
But it could also prove an issue - especially when travelling with a child, dog, or on an empty stomach.
It’s best not to try and fit too much in and allow for the unexpected when travelling in Sicily. Plan to get to that one must-see attraction early, have a long lunch, and spend the rest of the day just exploring.
Although there are coastal train services and confusing privatised buses, renting a car is the best way to see all of the off-the-beaten-path attractions in Sicily. It’s true that the roads aren’t well maintained, and even major motorways can have large potholes.
Some lanes have been closed so long that there is grass growing in the middle... and as of January 2023, the central highway that cuts through the mountainous interior of Sicily is completely closed due to maintenance.
A major benefit of the lack of expenditure on the roads is that there aren’t many tolls and fuel is cheap and abundant, making travelling around Sicily by car incredibly affordable.
Sicily is just under 10,000 square miles in size, driving from the north to the south would take you around 2 and a half hours, while it's around a 4-hour drive from east to west. It’s very easy to get things done in Sicily, changing tyres or visiting a mechanic is straightforward. We found people to be very friendly and seem to genuinely want to help.
The roads are very quiet in winter, but more nervous drivers may want to avoid driving in major towns and cities like Palermo or Catania. As a professional driver that’s driven around 90 % of Europe's major cities, I could only name one city (Paris) that has a worse standard of driving than Palermo.
We met several Italians that had ‘popped over’ to Sicily for the weekend just to eat out at a restaurant or stock up on fresh supplies.
Around four-fifths of Sicily is mountainous, but agriculture is an incredibly important part of life here due to the extremely fertile soil. Everyone knows a Sicilian lemon is the juiciest around and the olives are some of the best on the planet; both are exported all over the world.
It’s largely down to the volcanic soil, with famous wines like Etna Rosso being grown right on the side of Europe's largest volcano - Mount Etna. While the equally sumptuous Nero D’Avola wine is produced just south of Syracuse, around the bustling foodie-town of Avola.
The flat lands of Sicily’s southeastern corner are lined with groves of pistachio, almond, oranges, lemons and olives. Fresh herbs grow out of the ground like weeds in almost every part of the island.
While the Italian trinity of pasta, pizza, and fresh bread is the staple in Sicily as well, there are some uniquely Sicilian foods to try. Arancini is one of the best known, deep fried breaded rice balls containing everything from ragu to pistachio pesto - but always with a healthy dollop of mozzarella at its core.
Pizzolo, a kind of pizza sandwich, is another lunchtime favourite often filled with caciocavallo cheese and parma ham, while Sfincione is another twist on traditional pizza with a thick base and crumbly top - it's more like a delightful bread pie.
Every Sicilian Nonna has a recipe for caponata, a rich aubergine ragout, and Pasta alla Norma with aubergine sauce. Of course, you can’t visit without trying cannoli, a sweet pastry filled with fresh ricotta that’s beloved all over Italy.
Sicily is definitely an off-the-beaten-path tourist destination in Europe. Although it is popular with Italians and receives a lot of beach-goers in the summer months, outside of peak you will often find yourself to be the only one at a major tourist attraction.
It’s completely different to the cosmopolitan Rome, the hustle and bustle of Venice, or the art and foodie hub of Florence. The big ticket sights like Mount Etna, Valley of the Temples, and Taormina have plenty of tourist infrastructure, but stray just a little further and you can find yourself struggling to find any information online.
The baroque towns of Val di Noto in the southeast are a great place to base yourself, with Syracuse, Noto, Modica and Ragusa providing a real Sicilian experience.
In the west, Marsala and Trapani are best known for ancient ruins and beach resorts, while in the north Palermo and neighbouring towns like the stunning Cefalù are a little more tourism-focused and offer trips to the volcanically active Aeolian Islands.
Sicilians are very fond of dogs, and many own smaller canines as pets. We had read about stray dogs in Sicily before visiting, and it's an unfortunate aspect of travelling in this part of the world.
Many live on farms and can be seen running along the road, but rather than aggressive or wild they predominantly seemed very friendly. Our own one-year-old dog made very good friends with a stray puppy on the farm we stayed at.
The majority of shops, restaurants, tourist attractions and even supermarkets are dog friendly in Sicily. The only real exceptions are nature reserves (as dogs would disturb the nesting birds) and the beaches in summer - from our experience, all of the beaches in Sicily are dog friendly in winter.
Italy definitely has a convoluted relationship with the environment. With intricate recycling systems and green cities like Milan, there is undoubtedly progress being made when it comes to sustainability.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, there are major issues that contribute to a huge amount of fly-tipping and litter in the southern regions of the mainland and in Sicily. While it’s not for me to deliberate the reasons why, you do get a sense that the government is somewhat absent in these parts of Italy - this void is filled by the Mafioso.
While the fame of the Sicilian Mafia has brought a kind of dark tourism to Sicily, with many travellers coming to visit the Godfather filming locations, you can’t forget the reality of the situation. The town of Corleone, which appeared in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, is the real-life birthplace of some of Cosa Nostra’s most ruthless bosses.
Locals, activists and anti-mafia organisations all over Sicily are trying to shed the horrific legacy and ties to violence, but systemic corruption does not simply disappear. There is still a lingering sense that there is a different kind of law in Sicily.
Sicily is a multi-layered holiday destination. Come in summer and you could simply explore the beautiful coastline, stay at beach resorts and make the most of dolce far niente - the joy of doing nothing.
But dig a little deeper and you will find archaeological sites that rival Rome or Athens, vast swathes of nature and hiking opportunities, and an unpredictable culture and food scene that you wouldn’t expect to find in a Western European country.
There is so much to see and do in Sicily during winter, and you really do get to have some breathtaking places all to yourself - Noto Antica, Scala dei Turchi, and Laghetti Cavagrande spring to mind. Sicily is not an easy place to travel around, and it’s definitely not ‘picture perfect’ as the travel brochures would have you believe.
But if you take your time to get to know the people of Sicily, slow down and embrace the unplanned excursions, you will get the chance to experience just how much of a difference 1.5 miles of water can make.
Last Updated 2 August 2023