The Islands
Sicily

Nature reserves and inky blue seas in western Sicily

Aeolian Adventures

Welcome to Sicily

Imagine an island with an extraordinary history and mesmerising architecture, spectacular natural beauty and fertile land that yields fresh organic produce that most of us can only dream of. It’s safe to say that Sicily is an island that’s worth taking your time over.

Stealing the show as the largest of Italy’s 20 regions, the triangular shaped island is also the biggest island in the Mediterranean, with an enviable climate and one of Europe’s most active volcanoes. Its magnificent landscape flip flops between fertile hillsides, mountain ranges and a remarkably varied shoreline lapped by three different seas – the Tyrrhenian, the Mediterranean and the Ionian Sea.

And its geographical location explains why it has been conquered and ruled over throughout the centuries by numerous ancient civilisations and ruling nations that have each left an extraordinary legacy of art and architecture, and of flavours and culinary traditions that are quite unique to Sicily.

A snapshot of northern Sicily

Stretching from Palermo in the west to Messina in the east, the north of Sicily is surprisingly varied and takes in the capital city of Palermo, set in the north west. Hiding behind the long coastal stretch from Termini Imerese to Milazzo, the Madonie and Nebrodi mountain ranges are a world away from Sicilian beachlife, the focal point of which is the lively seaside town of Cefalù.

Over in the north east corner of the island, Milazzo is the main departure point for ferries and hydrofoils to the volcanic Aeolian Islands, with additional services available from Messina and Palermo.

Gastronomic experiences

Head to Palermo’s iconic food markets and wander among wafting aromas that emanate from smoking hot coals, against a backdrop of raucous street sellers. Be adventurous with what you try – if you’re not up for a spleen sandwich, there are plenty of alternatives. Try some sfincione (Sicilian style doughy pizza), panelle (chickpea fritters) or an arancina, a breadcrumbed ball of saffron-scented rice oozing with meat ragu.

Wine tasting is most commonly associated with Mount Etna but the DOC Monreale and the Alcamo DOC wine regions near Palermo are home to some of the island’s most important wineries.

Cultural and UNESCO sights

Top tip: Prepare to be dazzled by the UNESCO World Heritage Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel in Palermo, the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù and, if you can, squeeze in a performance at Palermo’s Opera House.

A snapshot of Western Sicily

Strongly influenced by their proximity to Africa and their history of Arab invasions, the fascinating towns of Marsala and Trapani are just part of western Sicily’s story. Both towns have captivating historic centres and are the departure point for ferries and hydrofoils across to the Egadi Islands. Alternatively, you can hop on a 10-minute cable car ride from Trapani up to the pretty village of Erice, the scenic way to arrive at the medieval walled town and the home of Maria Grammatico’s famous Pasticceria Grammatico.

Top beaches in this part of Sicily include Castellammare del Golfo, San Vito Lo Capo and the picture postcard sandy crescents fringed by crystal clear water bordering the Zingaro Nature Reserve.

A taste of the west – sea salt and olives

Nowhere is the North African connection more apparent than in eastern Sicily. Pick up some rosewater and saffron at the markets in Trapani and Marsala and, in restaurants, tuck into dishes of traditional aubergine caponata suffused with sweet and sour flavours and topped by pine nuts and raisins. Then there are giant ‘gamberi rossi’ (red prawns) from Mazara del Vallo, mild, buttery Castelvetrano olives and artisanal sea salt from Trapani.

When it comes to wine tasting, the Cantine Florio is the big name but there are numerous smaller wineries offering exceptional wine experiences.

Greek temples and the Dancing Satyr

Top tip: Don’t miss the ancient Greek temples of Segesta and Selinunte and the town of Mazara del Vallo. The town was founded in the 9th century BC by the Phoenicians, but its true claim to fame is the astonishing 7-foot tall bronze Dancing Satyr, pulled from the sea in 1998 and thought to date to some time between the 4th and 1st centuries BC.

A snapshot of southern Sicily

Travel down to the south of Sicily and you’ll find a wonderful array of superb sandy beaches and fascinating historic towns. Choose from the beaches around Porto Palo di Menfi and the Foce del Belice nature reserve in the west, and further east, from the dramatic Scala dei Turchi to the string of beaches that run from Marina di Ragusa to Portopalo di Capo Passero at Sicily’s most southeasterly tip.

But the region’s captivating towns represent some serious competition to the beaches. Visit the baroque historic centre of Sciacca in the west and, further east, the extraordinary towns of Modica, Ragusa and Scicli that form part of the UNESCO World Heritage designated Val di Noto.

Gastronomic treats – wine, almonds and Modica chocolate

The Menfi vineyards in the south west are one of Sicily’s biggest wine growing areas, producing native white varieties including Grillo and Catarratto Bianco. On the food front, highlights include spicy Modican chocolate, Pachino cherry tomatoes, almonds from Noto, basil and jasmine scented cakes, and ‘mpanatigghi’ pastries.

Mosaics, ceramics and Greek ruins

Top tip: When you’ve had your fill of Modica and Ragusa, head for Piazza Armerina to see the dazzling mosaics at the Villa Romana Casale, the most famous of which is the ‘bikini girls’ tableau. Then, there’s ceramic-crazy Caltagirone with its magnificent 142-step tiled staircase, and the astonishing Greek ruins at the Valley of the Temples.

A snapshot of eastern Sicily

The eastern part of Sicily is dominated by Catania, Taormina and Syracuse, but the region’s most iconic symbol is Mount Etna. In fact, there’s so much to see and do on this side of the island that it’s easy to overlook the less ‘out there’ places, such as Acireale, or the small but quite charming villages that dot the hillsides of Mount Etna.

Beaches tend to be stonier than along the south coast although you will find sandy stretches once you get south of Syracuse, such as at Fontane Bianche and at the far south east tip of the island where the water is magnificent. And then there are wonderful nature reserves such as the Cavagrande del Cassibile, the Vendicari with its sandy beaches, and the cobalt water of the Plemmirio Marine Reserve.

Fish, pistachios and wine-tasting

The combination of seas teeming with fish and fertile volcanic soil make eastern Sicily a foodie paradise. We start several of our tours with a visit to the vibrant fish market in Catania but also highly recommend the food market in Syracuse. Other gastronomic highlights in the east of Sicily include Bronte pistachios, blood oranges, Catania’s signature ‘pasta alla Norma’ and, of course, a visit to the wineries on the slopes of Mount Etna.

Baroque Noto and ancient Syracuse

Top tips: Noto, with its honey-coloured buildings and terraces embellished with fanciful baroque art is arguably the most beautiful of the Val di Noto towns, while Palazzolo Acreide remains slightly off the beaten track. Packed with ancient treasures, Syracuse deserves at least several days to fully explore whilst still leaving some free time for leisurely wandering through its narrow lanes and alleyways or simply sitting in the magnificent Piazza del Duomo with a gelato.

Hotels in Sicily

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