The best of Sicily: 10 places you have to visit

Volcanoes, ancient history, street food and beautiful beaches

The largest of all the Mediterranean islands, Sicily has plenty of coastline to explore. It also has archaeological treasures and ancient ruins aplenty, and some of the best food in Italy, particularly if you're someone who loves seafood or deep-fried pastries. Then, of course, there are its volcanoes. Etna is the most famous one but Sicily also has two other active volcanoes: Stromboli and Vulcano.

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1. Palermo, Sicily’s capital

A fusion of Mediterranean, French Norman and Arabic cultures, the Sicilian capital has all the ingredients for a great short holiday or jam-packed day trip. Try diving in with a visit to its food markets and, for afters, take in an opera performance at the Teatro Massimo. History buffs and admirers of grand architecture should head to the Piazza Pretoria. Meanwhile, Palermo’s location on the northern coast is ideal for chill-out time on the beach: Mondello and Capo Gallo are two of the best.

Best for: history buffs and foodies.

Get there: Fly to Falcone-Borsellino airport and then take the airport bus into town.

2. Catania

Sicily’s second largest city, Catania, has spectacular views across the Ionian Sea, a lively fish market and some of the island’s best seafood restaurants. It’s also a convenient base for a hike or cable car ride up nearby Mount Etna, which provides the city’s impressive backdrop. Back in the city, don’t miss the ancient Greco-Roman bathhouse tucked beneath the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, the two Roman amphitheatres and the UNESCO-listed Baroque monastery. Catania’s cuisine, some of Italy’s oldest, is also a must: look out for arancini and pasta alla norma.

Best for: anyone who wants to get close to the crater of a live volcano.

Get there: Fly to Catania’s own airport or, alternatively, go by ferry over the Straits of Messina.

3. Syracuse

No visit to the east coast is complete without seeing Sicily’s ancient capital, Syracuse. The ancient Greek and Roman remains, especially those in the old town on Ortigia island, make it one of Sicily’s most important archaeological sites. Meanwhile, the citrus orchards and honey-coloured buildings ensure it’s incomparably photogenic. Not only can today’s visitors watch theatre performances in the ancient Greek amphitheatre, they can enjoy street food that’s been eaten here for centuries. Look out for cassatelle, fried pastries stuffed with ricotta. If you’re a wine drinker, Nero d'Avola is a grape variety that’s been cultivated here for millennia.

Best for: anyone seeking a real sense of Sicily's ancient past.

Get there by bus from Palermo’s Piazza Cairoli, a journey of around three hours.

4. Taormina

The beautiful mountainside town of Taormina is one of Sicily’s most popular destinations, Hiking trails lead towards the white-capped Mount Etna but it’s the beaches, including Giardini Naxos and Mazzaro, beneath the cliffs that are the biggest draw. Sandy coves provide perfect sunbathing territory while sea stacks and tiny islands, including the fabled Isola Bella, ensure idyllic views. Back up on the cliffs is an ancient Greek theatre that still hosts performances today. It’s also a spectacular spot to watch the sun setting over the sea.

Best for: lazy days on sandy beaches.

Get there by bus from Catania airport, and then take a cable car to your beach of choice.

5. Aeolian Islands

Made up of seven inhabited islands - Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli and Vulcano - and several uninhabited ones, the volcanic Aeolian islands lie to the north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian sea. The hike to see Vulcano on the island of the same name is a popular expedition, taking around an hour and a half to reach the smoking crater. While on Vulcano, don’t miss the chance to soak in the mud baths at the thermal springs. Elsewhere in the archipelago, take a boat trip around the largest island, Lipari, coming in for lunch at one of the seafood beach restaurants that this island does so well. Alternatively, pop over to Panarea to glimpse some of the international jet set who visit every August. Ferries and hydrofoils connect the islands with each other as well as with Milazzo in northeastern Sicily.

Best for: spa devotees looking for a different sort of mud pack.

Get there by ferry or hydrofoil from Sicily.

6. Noto

Lying southwest of Syracuse, Noto is rich in Baroque architecture. It’s easy to see the main sights on foot in an afternoon, and still have plenty of time for gelato. A particular highlight of any walk around Noto is the Church of San Francesco all’Immacolata, which houses a Madonna and Child painting by Monachello. And, for the best views over the honey-coloured town and the almond and citrus orchards beyond, don’t miss climbing the tower of the Church of Montevergini. If you're in the town in May, look out for the annual flower festival and the mosaics formed from petals. 

Best for: a quiet few hours in a peaceful town.

Get there by intercity bus from Catania airport.

7. Agrigento

This southwest hilltop city is built over and around the ruins of much earlier cities. Its Valley of the Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that needs at least a day even to begin to appreciate, while its white sand beaches and elegant shops and trattorias are a siren call to relaxation. Particular highlights include the Via Atenea, Kolymbetra Garden, the House of Pirandello, the Cathedral of San Gerlando and the stepped white rocks known as La Scala dei Turchi. The Regional Archaeological Museum is a great place to learn more about the area’s history as well as take in some spectacular views across the city.

Best for: getting acquainted with Sicily's Ancient Greek heritage.

Get there by the scenic route: by sea from a variety of ports, including Genoa and Naples.

8. Cefalu

This fishing port on a rocky headland in the north has a magnificent Norman cathedral, an ancient fortress, a higgledy-piggledy old town and beaches with beautiful biscuit-coloured sand. If you're feeling energetic, head up La Rocca for the best views, stopping on the way to see Templo di Diana. A single entry fee covers admission to both the Templo di Diana and La Rocca.  At the heart of the town itself is the Piazza Duomo, and it’s a lovely place for a coffee or gelato. The nearby Duomo is free to enter and will dazzle you with its mosaics. 

Best for: peace and quiet.

Get there by regular trains from Palermo.

9. Erice

The town walls and two castles dominate the fortified town of Erice on the western coast. A wonderful day trip from nearby Trapani, Erice’s unique charms include its almond pastries and biscuits. Built on the site of an even older temple, the twelfth-century Castello di Venere offers spectacular views out to sea, along the coast and over to Toretta Pepoli, a tiny castle tucked onto the cliffs. The park next to the Castello di Venere and the Piazza Umberto are the best places to enjoy the town’s gustatory delights.

Best for: a scenic cable car trip and those with a sweet tooth.

Get there by an arduous walk up from Trapani or cable car.

10. Favignana

Located off Sicily’s northwestern coast, Favignana is ideal for a day trip from Trapani. Some visitors choose to enjoy the island from a sailboat but, on land, exploring on two wheels is the best way of getting about. Rent a bike and pedal off to one of the many beaches. Cala Rossa is popular and good for snorkelling; further east, you’ll find large, flat rocks that are great for sunbathing. For divers, Galeotta is a small island with plenty of marine life, including moray eels, octopus and dreamfish. If exploring underwater caves appeals, the dive at Cala Rotonda has one about eight metres below the surface that’s home to species such as umbrine and conger eels. More experienced divers should check out the dive at Secca del Toro, home to large numbers of barracuda.

Best for: cyclists, snorkelers and divers.

Get there by ferry from Trapani and remember to book in advance during high season.

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