My 2-week Travel Itinerary for Sicily
My new favourite region of Italy is Sicily. And given that my favourite country in the world has long been Italy, that is saying something!
In September I had the luck of spending 2.5 weeks travelling around la ‘bedda’ Sicilia (as they say in the local dialect) and I can highly recommend it. I managed to spend such a long time there because I had a long summer in between university and my new job, but as most working people can take 2 weeks off at most, I’ve shortened my itinerary down to 2 weeks for you, with a couple of additional suggestions that you can either include or exclude. There’s a fair amount of beach-time in this itinerary, as well as plenty of Ancient Ruins and the main towns to visit for architecture.
The best way to get around would be with a hire car, but it is also possible to do almost everything by public transport if your budget doesn’t extend to a car.
As a base for Mount Etna and Taormina – 3 nights
Fly into Catania airport and explore the historic city centre a little. We found a great aperitivo in the tiny square of San Brillo district (Vicolo Moschetti), before heading to dinner in the underground grotto of restaurant Ostello (book in advance to get a table for two right next to the underground river). Other foods you must try in Sicily are arancine (deep fried balls of rice in all sorts of flavours) and pasta a la norma (spaghetti with tomatoes, aubergine and ricotta). I’m not personally a fish-eater but they are lots of seafood restaurants right next to the famous fish market. Caffe Prestipino on Piazza del Duomo was also a favourite of ours.
We took two day trips from Catania: the first to Mount Etna. There’s a public bus at 8:15am to Rifugio Sapienza up on the lava fields, from where you can start walking or take the cable car. The cable car is expensive, so only worth it if you’re not fit enough for the hike up. Take plenty of layers and gloves and a hat, even in summer, as it’s positively freezing at the top – around 5°C at 2900m! You can only summit the vulcano if you have a private guide, but by yourself you can also visit quite a few other craters in astounding shades of red, orange and black, and it’s a fairly surreal experience to spend a day up on an entirely black mountain with no sign of natural life! There’s only one public bus back to Catania at 4:30pm so be sure not to miss it.
The second trip we did was to the town of Taormina. It’s fairly small and accommodation prices are extortionate, so one day from Catania suited us perfectly. Head first to the 3rd-century BC Ancient Greek theatre, which at first didn’t impress me too much until I understood that it was originally three times as tall! It sits atop a hill overlooking the coast for miles and miles on both sides. Try to catch a performance or a screening in the theatre to get the full effect. Wander down Corso Umberto I, which despite the tourists is still very cute and leads to pretty piazzas overlooking the sea, before climbing up to the abandoned Saracen Castle for some peace and quiet and the truly amazing views. Taormina is an example of over-tourism, as it’s simply too small for its popularity.
For the beautiful city island of Ortigia and nearby beaches – 3 nights
Heading south from Catania you reach Siracusa. Splash out to stay on the little island of Ortigia, connected to the mainland by two bridges, as it’s the historic centre of the city and its mostly pedestrian labyrinth of alleyways makes it the perfect place to discard your map and just lose yourself. We stayed in a little apartment called Dammuso Ortigiano (and feel free to use this discount link for €15 off any accommodation on Booking.com), in perfect location for menu browsing in the evenings, as a lot of the best restaurants are in the western part of the island. One key place to visit is the Cathedral which has transformed over the ages from a Greek, then Byzantine, temple into a Norman church, then into a Baroque cathedral – a true lesson in the history of architecture! Another is the sand-coloured Maniace fortress jutting out into the sparkling sea.
Take a stroll or a jog around the perimeter of the island to see Ortigia from all angles, and you’ll see various small beaches and the occasional pontoon with sun beds jutting out into the sea. To get our beach fix we instead took a bus to the nearby beaches of Fontane Bianche, where there’s also a long stretch of open beach (without all the sunbeds and facilities that Italy seems to be so fond of) and some hidden coves if you wander far enough along the coast.#
For Baroque architecture and natural reserve beaches – 2 nights
Not far away is your next stop: Noto. Originally destroyed in the enormous 1693 earthquake, the entire town was rebuilt all in one go in Baroque style, so it looks like a fairytale. Cross Vittorio Emanuele is Noto’s main attraction and lined with churches, town halls and convents. Poke your head into each one, although the main beauty is the exterior of the street. The one that does merit a closer look and the entrance fee however is Chiesa Santa Chiara, as you can climb the stairs up to the convent’s terrace the overlooks the entire street and the incredible Duomo.
We had heard about a beach nearby voted the most beautiful in all of Italy, inside the Vendicari Nature Reserve, so we hired a scooter and scooted off to see what all the fuss was about. Cala Mosche is a small beach hidden by a cove so the water is very calm and clear, the temperature warm and sheltered from any wind. The fact that it requires a 15 minute walk from the nearest road and that there isn’t a building or sunbed in sight of the beach simply adds to its beauty.
While in Noto I would have loved to do an Inspector Montalbano tour, as south-east Sicily is home to all the filming locations, and Montalbano’s house on the beach is even a B&B that you can actually stay in! All of this however requires some advance planning – something that didn’t feature heavily in our trip to Sicily!
For the Valley of the Temples and the Scala dei Turchi – 3 nights
If you’re driving then head due west to Agrigento. If you’re on public transport then you’ll unfortunately need to go via Catania. We absolutely adored Guglielmo’s House which we found on Booking.com, with both an interior terrace and a sea-facing balcony, enormous rooms and high ceilings and not one but two bedrooms.
Agrigento is famous for its Valley of the Temples, some of the best preserved Ancient Greek temples in the world, and is well worth a visit even if you’re not an archaeologist or Classicist. To get to/from the valley, you can skip the extortionate Temple Tour Bus by taking a local bus instead – enquire at the main bus station in Agrigento for lines and times. Start at the eastern entrance of the valley so you have a leisurely walk downhill past the various temples, and don’t get the auidoguide, or else you’ll have to walk back up the hill at the very end to return the audioguide. Plenty of plaques explain the history behind the various temples and they really are something to behold. Start your visit in the afternoon to avoid the midday heat and see the temples both in daylight and when it’s romantically lit up at night.
Another beautiful spot to visit while in Agrigento is the Scala dei Turchi (Turkish staircase), a limestone rock formation that emerges dramatically out of the sea and makes for the perfect west-facing sunset spot. It’s understandably popular and does receive a lot of visitors, but is still a peaceful place to spend an afternoon sat on one of the white stairs looking out to sea awaiting the sunset. We even saw a bridal couple having a photoshoot on the stairs and it did look exceptionally photogenic. Once again, it is possible to get there on local buses but requires some advance research and a bit of a walk from the main road.
To cycle from beach to beach of this beautiful volcanic island – 3 nights
If you have 3 extra days then I’d highly recommend you hop by hydrofoil over to the Aegadian Islands from Marsala or Trapani. Being removed from the mainland of Sicily, they are that much more natural, less developed and beautifully small and flat enough to explore by bicycle. We visited Favignana, the largest of the three, and stayed to the south-west of Santa Caterina mountain.
I loved the freedom of cycling around little country lanes and along narrow paths to hidden parts of the island. The number of sandy beaches are limited but there are instead rocky outcrops for sunbathing and usually also somewhere to jump into the water. I haven’t seen such vivid blue waters in a very long time and it honestly felt like another world. An island off an island – a true escape from the real world.
Spend your days exploring the different beaches, watch the dramatic sunset one evening from near the lighthouse on the western point, Punta Sottile, spend another evening barbequeing, and yet another sunset having aperitivo at the little bar Kiosko just south of the mountain. We quickly realised we didn’t need a map, merely exploring the paths at random was enough to show us the island. I could have easily spent much longer there if I’m honest!
For the infamous city and as a base for Cefalù – 3 nights
Our last stop in Sicily was the capital, Palermo. The city has contrasting fame as historically very aristocratic but more recently rife with Mafia. The mafia isn’t something that’s obviously on show in Sicily and it certainly didn’t feel like a tourist attraction in any way. To spot the influence of the Mafia in Sicily you’d have to do your research and know where to look. There are discrete memorials to key figures killed in Mafia wars, and there is one museum in Corleone (although we didn’t visit it). The main highlights of Palermo are the various food markets, the Cathedral, the Royal Palace and if you like mosaics then you’ll entertain yourself with endless ornate little chapels.
I can highly recommend a truly fantastic apartment called Appartamentino al Massimo in a nice area of the city, where we spent three nights.
Palermo is the perfect base for Cefalù, a beautiful town that combines chilled beaches at sea level with dramatic rocky cliffs high above, on top of which sit various ruins of forts and churches and makeshift villages of past communities who’ve fled up high for protection from marauders. La Rocca has stunning views over the coastline in both directions and over the vivid azure waters below – mesmerising. Take an early train from Palermo and you can easily explore Cefalù on a single day trip. Start with an early hike up La Rocca before the midday heat and then reward yourself with a gelato while exploring the old town, before laying claim to your section of beach for an afternoon of swimming and lazing around in the sun. I personally preferred the small quaint beaches nearest the old town, instead of the wider beaches full of of deckchairs nearer the new part of the town.
Another beach even closer to Palermo is Mondello – with surprisingly crystal clear waters considering its proximity to the big port of Palermo. Just 20 minutes away by bus, it’s perfect for washing away the dust after a long day of sightseeing on two feet.
In our clockwise circumnavigation of Sicily we saw everything except the northern coast and the beautiful Aeolian Islands. I’m dying to see those islands on a sailing trip (I’ve been eyeing up Medsailors’ 1-week route), but otherwise I feel like we did the island justice. I felt so so at home in Sicily and found myself dreaming up jobs on the island that would draw me back on a more permanent basis. Alas, Sicily is one of Italy’s poorest regions with high unemployment – not a magic recipe for excellent career opportunities… It has become my new favourite region of Italy, and that really is saying something as I’ve loved practically everywhere I’ve ever been in Italy! Sicily is just magical and such a unique place to visit. The combination of Ancient Greek ruins, paradise beaches, volcanic ash, remote islands, Baroque architecture, delicious cuisine and the Italian culture make it utterly unique and simply enchanting. I honestly challenge you not to love Sicily…