History has given Sicily over two dozen centuries worth of things to do. The experiences, attractions and even tastes span the millennia.
Who knew that there are more world-class ancient Greek sights here than in most of Greece? Architecture from across the ages makes the towns and cities captivating places to visit. Then there’s hiking and swimming, volcano-spotting, festival-going and simply eating. Add in art and culture and Sicily astounds with its abundance of experiences. Here are 15 of our favorite things to do when you get there.
Marvel at Sicily’s most perfect ancient temple
Crowning an isolated, windswept hillside, Segesta’s perfect Doric temple is among Sicily’s most magical spots. Dating from around 430 BCE and standing in splendid isolation amid fields of wildflowers and grasses, it has retained all of its columns. They are topped by a perfectly intact entablature and pediment – though the missing roof and lack of fluting on the columns indicate that it was never completed.
Feast on Sicilian pasta
Like the rest of Italy, Sicily has a bevy of signature pasta dishes. Hit Catania for pasta alla Norma (pasta topped with eggplant, basil, fresh ricotta and tomatoes). In Palermo, try pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines, pine nuts, raisins, fennel and breadcrumbs). Celebrate the Southeast’s earthy flavors with lolli con le fave (hand-rolled pasta with fava beans), ravioli di ricotta al sugo di maiale (ricotta ravioli with a pork ragù) and cassatella di Montevago (fried, ravioli-like pastries filled with sweetened ricotta, honey and lemon zest).
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Take the plunge at Venus’ Pool
Swimmers couldn’t ask for a more idyllic spot than Piscina di Venere (Venus’ Pool), a natural pool at the Mediterranean’s edge. Out at the very tip of Capo Milazzo, this gorgeous rock-fringed waterhole makes an idyllic spot for swimming and sunbathing. Accessed by a 15-minute walk through a landscape of olive groves, cactus and stone walls, its tranquil turquoise waters are separated by a small ring of rocks from the ultramarine sea just beyond.
See Scicli, Sicily’s sleeper hit of a town
Southeastern Sicily’s baroque towns, from Noto to Modica to Ragusa, form one of the island’s most captivating string of sights. The most authentic of the lot, Scicli has long been overlooked, but these days it’s finally getting its close-up. Scicli is compact, with a quickly gentrifying historic center awash with cultural sights, from beautiful churches and aristocratic palazzi to eclectic museums and shooting locations for the TV series Inspector Montalbano.
Feel volcanic heat on Stromboli
Recent eruptions have put the summit of Stromboli’s volcano off-limits, but you can still get close to action on a climb almost halfway up the slope to the Sciara del Fuoco Viewpoint. From this 400m-high vantage point, you can see the blackened lava scar running down the northern flank. In the distance, you can still see the same explosions of lava that guided the way for passing ships in ancient times.
Go with the flow in Catania’s fish market
Catania’s raucous fish market, La Pescheria, which takes over the streets behind Piazza del Duomo every workday morning, is pure street theatre. Tables groan under the weight of swordfish, prawns and trays full of clams, mussels, sea urchins and all manner of less familiar sea life. The bargaining, the filleting, the clamor, it’s absolutely riveting. Surrounding the market are seafood restaurants dishing up ultra-fresh delicacies like the locally beloved zuppa di pesce (seafood soup).
Bask in the glow of Noto’s cathedral
Dominating Noto’s skyline, Basilica Cattedrale di San Nicolò’s golden-hued dome is one of Sicily’s baroque masterpieces. It had to undergo extensive renovation after its dome collapsed during a thunderstorm in 1996 . The ensuing decade saw the cathedral scrubbed of centuries of dust and dirt while other renovations undid centuries of benign neglect. See how many architectural styles you can identify in this grand pastiche of design.
Dive into one of the Med’s best sites
The fabulous Area Marina Protetta di Ustica, a marine reserve off Ustica’s western shore, is one of the Mediterranean’s top dive sites. It’s divided into three zones, of which Zone A is the most spectacular, extending along the west flank of the island from Punta Spalmatore to Punta Megna. Fishing, boating and diving are prohibited. All the better as two of the island’s most beautiful natural grottoes – the Grotta Segreta (Secret Grotto) and the Grotta Rosata (Pink Grotto) – are located here.
Hike to a beautiful beach on lonely Lampedusa
One of Sicily’s most beautiful beaches is also one of the hardest to reach. Cala Pulcino is the most remote beach on Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. There may be little sand but the pebbles are fine and the cove’s dramatic and lonely setting between two rocky headlands make it a wonderful place to linger. Lampedusa’s prettiest hiking trail leads here (30 minutes one-way). Alternatively, you can get a boat from elsewhere on the island.
Catch Greek drama in a stunning 2500-year-old theater
Watch classic Greek dramas at the Festival del Teatro Greco, in the same Syracuse theater where Aeschylus once sat. From early May to early July the theater hosts live performances of Greek plays (in Italian), attracting Italy’s finest performers. Constructed in the 5th century BCE and rebuilt in the 3rd century, the 16,000-capacity amphitheater is an essential sight even when the stage is empty.
Swim Sicily’s clearest waters
Slip into the electric-blue waters at Cala Rossa, an untamed sandless cove on Favignana’s north shore. It’s an exhilarating spot for a seafaring dip. Flop out afterwards on the rocks to dry – there is no sandy beach. A highlight of the Egadi Islands, which are known for their good swimming, you reach the cove on a dirt path with a steep scramble down to the crystal-clear water.
Experience 2500 years of history in one cathedral
Built on the skeleton of a 5th-century BCE Greek temple to Athena (note the Doric columns still visible inside and out), Syracuse’s 7th-century duomo (cathedral) became a church when the St Paul passed by. Its most striking feature is the columned baroque facade (1728–53) added after the 1693 earthquake. The original temple was renowned throughout the Mediterranean, in no small part thanks to Cicero, who visited in the 1st century BCE.
Get your art on in a gorgeous palazzo
One of Palermo’s grandest aristocratic palaces, the 16th-century Palazzo Branciforte, is now an impressive, cultural center. Tours take in the library as well as the Monte di Santa Rosalia, a spectacular, timber-framed exhibition space that houses an important collection of traditional Sicilian pupi (puppets). The ground-floor archaeological collection boasts over 4750 objects.
Check out 2000-year-old monsters and chariot races
Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina is home to some of the world’s finest Roman mosaics. Buried for centuries under a layer of mud, they stand out for their scale, use of color, and scenes of mythological monsters and bikini-clad women working out with weights. Don’t miss the chariot race which is right out of Ben Hur.
Save room for Sicilian desserts
Sicily has two signature desserts. Cassata siciliana is a concoction of ricotta, sugar, candied fruit and chocolate, flavored with maraschino liqueur, encased by sponge cake and topped with green icing. Cannoli are crisp tubes of fried pastry dough filled with creamy ricotta and variously decorated with a maraschino cherry, candied fruit, cinnamon, chocolate and/or nuts. You’ll find both on restaurant menus and at pasticcerias (pastry shops).