Sicily is an island of many splendors and a rich but complex history. Situated as one of the main stepping stones between Europe and Africa, Sicily has been coveted by many civilizations due to its strategic location and resources (both mineral and agricultural). During periods in its history, Sicily was occupied or controlled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Austrians, Spanish and the Bourbons. In 1861 Sicily joined with Sardinia and regional states along the peninsula to become the country today called Italy.
Sicily is approximately the size of Maryland or about 1/9th the size of the island of Great Britain. Sicily includes the Aeolian Islands to the north, which are popular with tourists, as well as lesser known islands to the northwest, west and southwest. Messina, located in eastern Sicily, is just 30 minutes by ferry from Calabria (the toe of the boot) on the mainland of Italy.
Modern Sicily is an enigma. It historic treasures are decaying at an alarming rate and urban decline is widespread. Monies designed to be applied to preserving its attractions mysteriously disappear and rumors of Mafia involvement are widespread. To be honest, many travelers are disappointed when visiting Sicily.
Well, if things are so gummed up, why visit? Our answer involves the attractiveness of Sicily’s historic buildings, its impressive archeological sites, sunny beaches and, of course, its food. So, let’s start by describing Sicily’s treasures and then you can decide whether a trip to Sicily should be on your list of places to vacation. If you decide to go, avoid the summer months if possible, as the island bakes in extreme heat, especially in July and August.
Best Places to Visit in Sicily
- Palermo offers a host of interesting sites that highlight the Norman period of the island’s history. Be sure to see the Temple di Normi, the regional Archaeology museum, the Duomo and the buildings of the Old Town in the historic center of the city. Also, visit nearby Monreale for its delightful Norman cathedral and cloister and more distant Cefalů for another Norman cathedral famous for its mosaics.
- Erice, high on a hill overlooking Trapani and the distant Egadi Islands, was originally colonized by the Phoenicians. Today it is known for the two scenic castles (one built by the Normans, the other Islamic in origin) that dominate this historic city. Erice has managed to preserve its medieval look and is interesting enough to deserve a brief visit.
- Segesta is known for its exceptionally well-preserved Greek temple and neighboring amphitheater, both located on the slopes of Mount Bŕrbaro, in a gorgeous section of the Sicilian countryside.
- Selinunte was one of the first areas colonized by the Greeks in Sicily. Eventually conquered and razed by Carthage, Selinunte offers several excavated temples that are worth a visit. Although there are fewer standing-temples here than Agrigento, there is also less surrounding development.
- Agrigento (Valley of the Temples), founded in the 6th century B.C., was an important and prosperous center of the Mediterranean world in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. Today, the remains of the city can be found in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, an archaeological site that is world famous for its outstanding collection of excavated Greek temples.
- Piazza Armerina is the closest town to the famous Roman Villa at Casale. Although the identity of the Roman luminary who built the villa remains unknown, this luxurious, large estate is famous for the number, quality and beauty of its numerous mosaics. Be sure to consider at stop at Casale, as it mosaics are regarded as the finest Roman mosaics still in situ, anywhere in the world.
- Siracusa was once the largest city in Magna Graecia (Great Greece) and was proclaimed by Cicero as the “The greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all.” Siracusa was the birthplace and home of Archimedes, as well as other famous Greeks.
- Two areas of the city bear inspection.
- The Neopolis Archaeological Park on Terminite Hill has a number of historic sights, but its well preserved Greek theater is the most popular attraction.
- Ortygia (Ortigia), an island, contains the historic core of the city is worth a look. Although the oldest sites were cannibalized in the past, Ortygia is a pleasant place for a stroll and some modest sightseeing.
- Two areas of the city bear inspection.
- Mount Etna is the largest volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. Catania is the closest stop for a tour for the volcanic Mount Etna, although many arrange a tour from Taormina instead.
- Taormina is the leading vacation and resort area of Sicily. The town has many delights, including a fantastic Greek theater that overlooks both the sea and Mount Etna. Taormina’s beaches are prime sunbathing areas.
- The Aeolian Isles, comprised of seven islands off the northern shore of Sicily, were named based on the belief that they were the home to the Greek God of the winds. The islands are scenic, fun to visit and extremely popular in the summer. Lipari is largest island and the one most popular with visitors.