Sicily. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Seismic Sicily

This Mediterranean island offers elegant cities, world-class beaches, and a distinctive cuisine that melds Italian and North African influences.

Medusa stares steadily out from the center of Sicily’s bicolor flag, the gorgon of Greek myth who, with a look, could turn anyone to stone. Upon first encounter, it seems an unusual emblem for such an attractive island, where the sight of its cloud-swaddled volcano, peacock green seas, and elegant coastal cities energizes rather than petrifies. 

But therein lies the rub. The gorgon, the symbol of the Greek goddess Athena’s protection, was intended to ward off those keen to discover the charms of this sunny, strategically important island in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Unfortunately, it seems that the divinity had other priorities. 

Roughly every 200 years, a new conqueror would appear on the horizon—Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and, eventually, Italians. However, while it may have led to anxiety for the indigenous people and the creation of all those fortified hill towns, it was this endless succession of alien cultures and their assimilation into the Sicilian whole that has made the island, arguably, Italy’s most interesting region. 

But where is Sicily’s most interesting part? It’s a question that’s almost impossible to answer given the island’s endlessly overlapping narratives, although it’s reasonable to say that the eastern side of the island—where Taormina, Syracuse, and Mount Etna are found—offers the greater density of highlights. 

To reach the east, fly into Catania, the country’s largest and busiest airport. While it might be tempting to immediately transfer to Taormina or Syracuse upon arrival, you should spend some time in Catania, a city with a generous dose of soul. Leveled by a massive earthquake in 1693, it now has homogenously baroque streets and a main drag—Via Etnea—that has been remade in black basalt and oriented between a looming volcano and the shining Ionian Sea. 

Catania is probably best known for pasta alla Norma and its famously shouty La Pescheria fish market. However, if you can’t wait for the stalls to set up, consider a cooking class with Cotume in the richly ornamented house-museum that is the Catania Historical Society. It’s a quick way to immerse yourself in Catanian culture and cuisine. 

Catania. (Photo: Bernhard Schürmann from Pixabay)

A Leading Coastal Resort

From Catania, many will choose Taormina to the north ahead of the main dish of Syracuse to the south. However, Taormina is the starter that might linger longer in the memory than the main. 

Sicily’s leading coastal resort, Taormina is set on a mountainside overlooking the Bay of Naxos. It has cracked, cobbled stairways and the checkerboard-tiled Piazza IX Aprile, which have been pencil-sketched and explored by artists and Grand Tourists since the 18th century. The Greek Theater is the town’s antique tiara—an emotive, partially ruined site that crowns Mount Tauro. Concerts are still staged in these third-century surroundings in the warmer months. 

Etna. (Photo: Websi from Pixabay)

Mount Etna, which rises behind the theater, is impressive, and Taormina acts as an excellent jumping-off point for forays into its forested heights, where juicy peaches swell to unparalleled sizes and Nerello Mascarese vines produce vivid fruit for vinification. Come winter, snow blankets the upper altitudes and Sicilians strap on their skis. For the rest of the year, the peak is an engrossing volcanic landscape of glittering magnesium sand, dunes of sooty basalt, and powdered clay that lays down precise impressions of your soles. 

Taormina. (Adobe Stock)

Eventually, somehow, you’ll pull yourself away from Taormina’s Isola Bella beach and drive south for two hours to Syracuse. Established in 734 B.C., it was once the largest city in antiquity, growing from an insignificant Greek colony into the capital of Magna Graecia and a rival of Rome. 

The city’s historic kernel is the island of Ortigia—a shining warren of white limestone that pulsates with life. Hectic food markets clog side streets while, as the sun goes down, serene restaurants offer well-stocked wine cellars. Refresh yourself with a cappuccino in the light-filled Piazza del Duomo before exploring the cathedral with its Grecian columns, a visible indicator of Ortigia’s layered history. Cross the piazza to absorb the power of the Caravaggio found within the Santa Lucia alla Badia church.

Jasmine-scented Gardens

Leave Ortigia by one of its two bridges, passing the tomb of Archimedes (the city’s most famous son), on your way to a eureka moment at the Latomia del Paradiso. These extraordinary jasmine-scented gardens, part of the Neapolis Archaeological Park, have flourished in what used to be the footprint of Greek-era quarries. See the Roman amphitheater, the adjacent antique canal (which once likely held crocodiles), and slip into the cool shade of the tall, curving cave known as Dionysus’s Ear. The Ear’s remarkable acoustics allowed the eponymous tyrant to eavesdrop on his imprisoned enemies from above, or so the legend goes.

While you’re in this part of the island, consider a day trip to the UNESCO-inscribed Val di Noto, with its beautiful Sicilian baroque hill towns of Ragusa, Modica, Noto, and Scicli. In Modica, pick up bars of intense chocolate produced to an Aztec recipe brought to Sicily by the Spanish. Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is the island’s oldest chocolate producer and offers plenty of tasting opportunities atop its antique display cabinets.

The south coast is best known for miles of superb beach as well as the Valley of the Temples. Get in among the extensive ruins, some of the most impressive in Sicily, or book a viewing from a distance at Villa Athena’s La Terrazza degli Dei, dining on the gourmet tasting menu while the sunset slips long shadows between the burning Doric columns.

The north coast has plenty of beaches, too, as well as regular ferry service to the volcanic Aeolian Islands. Standout north coast destinations include Tindari with its 12th-century Black Madonna; Messina, the gateway to the Italian mainland, where trains cross the strait on boats before rolling off onto Sicilian tracks; and the beach resort of Cefalù. The latter, for such a high-profile spot, feels more low-key than you’d imagine, and consequently more attractive. Beyond its shallow, transparent waters and fine-sand beaches, you can see UNESCO-listed Byzantine mosaics glowing in the quiet interior of its outsized Norman cathedral. 

Many visitors to Cefalù will have arrived there on the regular hour-long coastal train from Palermo. With a vibe akin to a Rome-by-the-Sea, Palermo is a busy, culturally rich capital city amid a slow-blossoming renaissance. Vespas putter past as you take in the dazzling array of architectural influences that characterize the historic center, some fusions of which are unique to the island. 

A Picture-perfect Parabola

Palermo’s city beach, Mondello, is also a picture-perfect parabola that’s better experienced in the shoulder seasons before its honey-yellow sand is divided and subdivided by the beach clubs. The capital’s street-food scene is also legendary. Favorites include creamy cannoli, gooey arancini, and the pani câ meusa (fried beef spleen sandwich). Get the latter near the seafront from Porta Carbone, a dining experience spoken about in hushed tones by food writers. 

Travel west of Palermo and you’ll reach an unspoiled headland capped off by the resort of San Vito Lo Capo. While San Vito’s broad sands are a magnet for vacationing Sicilians in the summer, the beaches of neighboring Zingaro Nature Reserve offer much more solitude and a desirable dearth of beach clubs. Hiking trails crisscross this hilly cactus and pine wilderness, although for many the 20-minute walk to the beach from the reserve’s southern entrance car park is exercise enough. 

Here you’ll also find picturesque Scopello (a former tuna cannery) with its limestone sea stacks rising from opal shallows, and the attractive coastal resort of Castellammare del Golfo. The latter offers a handsome harbor, a gelato-stocked main street, and an immense sea wall. Walking its streets strung with colorful ribbons, it’s hard to imagine its dark Mafia history when, during the 1950s, 80 percent of the male population had served time (with a third of those sentences for murder). 

Scopello (Photo: Antonio_cali from Pixabay)

Drive south into the cultivated hills and you’ll reach Segesta—a former city of the Elymians, one of Sicily’s indigenous peoples. The main draw here is the impressively intact temple, although the archaeological park’s sweeping views offer picturesque breathers from the ancient ruins. On the west coast, with the gently sloping outlines of the Egadi Islands offshore, you’ll find the small cities of Marsala and Trapani, where Arab and African influences become more conspicuous. Marsala is world famous for its eponymous sweet wine, and you’ll find wineries dotted around town. (Cantine Pellegrino, near the center, is one of the best; be sure to book in advance for tastings.) 

Trapani, Marsala’s larger neighbor to the north, has for centuries been an important stopover port for trade routes. It has a deeply agreeable historic center that’s squeezed into the curving spit of land that gave the city its Phoenician name, “the Sickle.” An overnight stay is recommended, as aperitivo hour on Trapani’s vibrant Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle sees the seaside end of the street glow vermillion, while at the other end, the baroque city hall’s two clocks glow like twin moons above the Aperol Spritzing Sicilians.

Also overhead, on its namesake mountain, is the fortified town/tourist trap of Erice (reached by a winding hill road or cable car from Trapani). The situation of this former Elymian settlement—often immersed in clouds while the sun shines on Trapenese beaches—is a reminder of how, despite the threat of divine protection, invaders always came. That’s Sicily’s gift and curse: this mysterious gem of an island has something for everyone. 


What It Is: A part of Italy, Sicily is an island in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s famous for its often rugged but sometimes sandy coastline, layered history, and unique cuisine. Mount Etna—an active volcano that has shaped the island’s past—is its most recognizable landmark. 

Climate: Sicily’s mid-Mediterranean location ensures long, hot summers with August seeing daily highs between 75°F and 87°F. Spring can be changeable, but by the start of summer daytime temperatures are settled at around 70°F. Early autumn offers similar temperatures, fewer crowds, and warm seas.

Getting There: Sicily has two major airports, each serving one side of the island. Falcone-Borsellino (commonly known as Palermo Airport) is in the north-west, while the larger, busier Catania-Fontanarossa (or Vincenzo Bellini Airport), is in the east. Both welcome private jets. 

What to Know Before You Go: Almost everything grinds to a halt from around 1 to 4 p.m. for Sicilian “siesta” time. Restaurants will typically still be open during this period, although it’s wise to call ahead to check. Pizza is also seen primarily as an evening dish, and you’ll rarely find it available for lunch outside of the main tourist areas.


Accommodations: The five-star Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo (A+), high among the pines in Taormina, serves wonderful negronis. Evoking mid-20th-century Italian glamor in its rooms, the hotel offers birdsong-filled gardens, fine dining, and a cell phone ban in all public areas…The bumpy road leading to the Rocco Forte Verdura Resort (A) near Agrigento is unpromising, but soon you’re in a golf paradise with a sea view, two championship courses, and a superb Kid’s Club…Five-star Grand Hotel Minareto (B+) has wonderful views of Ortigia across the water and loungers arranged on a rocky outcrop lapped by the turquoise sea…Villa Igiea (A+) in Palermo, since its modern revamp by Rocco Forte, is now a belle epoque beacon of luxury with sea views and an exquisite garden.

Cuisine: The beachside restaurant of Villa Saint’Andrea (A+), near Taormina and only yards from the hissing surf, offers Sicilian dishes paired with a superb wine list that includes Frank Corneliessen natural wines that make the lights of Calabria, visible across the Strait of Messina, all the more twinkly…Elegant Don Camillo(A) in Ortigia is renowned for its arancini and seafood, although if you’d prefer its meat options you won’t be disappointed…In Palermo, Casa Stagnitta (B+) is an excellent breakfast option close to the Quattro Canti that offers superb granita with brioche or a selection of decadent chocolate and pistachio-filled cornetti (Italian croissants)…On the outskirts of Trapani, Duca di Castelmonte (A) is a handsome olive oil–producing agriturismo with an always busy traditional restaurant and is well worth a detour. Its busiate alla Trapanese is delicious…In Trapani’s historic center, Calvino Pizzeria (A) is a beloved down-to-brass-tacks pizzeria with no windows, paper tablecloths, and an unmatched ambiance. Book ahead and loosen your belt for the pizzas with roast potatoes as a topping.