Sicily Travel Guide

The largest island in the Mediterranean, strategically positioned Sicily has a history and outlook derived from its erstwhile foreign rulers. From the Greeks who first settled the east coast in the eighth century BC, through a dazzling array of Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish, to the Bourbons seen off by Garibaldi in 1860. Substantial relics of these ages remain, with temples, theatres and churches scattered about the whole island.

The best travel tips for visiting Sicily

There are many more immediate hints of Sicily’s unique past beyond architectural heritage. Most Sicilians consider themselves, and their island, a separate entity, and a visit here still induces a real sense of arrival. Sicilian dialect, for example, is still widely spoken in cities and countryside, varying from place to place.

The food is noticeably different from elsewhere in Italy, spicier and with more emphasis on fish and vegetables; even the flora echoes the change of temperament – oranges, lemons (introduced by the Arabs), prickly pears and palms are ubiquitous.

How to plan a visit to Sicily?

The standard approach for those heading south from the mainland is to cross the Strait of Messina, from Villa San Giovanni or Reggio di Calabria: this way, the train-ferry pilots a course between Scylla and Charybdis, the twin hazards of rock and whirlpool that were a legendary threat to sailors.

Inevitably, most points of interest are on the coast: the interior of the island is mountainous, sparsely populated and relatively inaccessible, though in parts extremely beautiful.

The capital, Palermo, is a filthy, bustling, noisy city with an unrivalled display of Norman art and architecture and Baroque churches, combined with a warren of medieval streets.

To the east, there’s no better place in Sicily for a traditional family sea, sun and sand holiday than Cefalù, with a magnificent golden sandy beach and a mellow medieval core overlooked by a castle-topped crag.


One of Sicily's beautiful beaches © Shutterstock


Best things to do in Sicily

From exploring the Aeolian Islands to witnessing Mount Etna up close, here are the best things to do in Sicily.

#1 Go island-hopping around the Aeolian Islands

Volcanic in origin, this archipelago of seven islands has active volcanoes, lava beaches, fractured coastlines and whitewashed villages. Named after Aeolus, the Greek god who kept the winds he controlled shut tight in one of the islands’ many caves, Homer said Odysseus put into the Aeolians and was given a bag of wind to help him home, but his sailors opened it too soon and the ship was blown straight back to port.

Their strategic importance attracted the Greeks, who settled on Lipari in 580 BC, but they later became a haven for pirates and a place of exile. The Fascists exiled their political opponents to Lipari too.

Every island is expensive, with prices in shops as well as restaurants reflecting the fact that most food is imported. But get out to the minor isles or a taste of what life was like on the islands a hundred years ago.


Aeolian Islands - Lipari Sicily, Italy © Shutterstock

#2 Climb Mount Etna

The bleak lava wilderness around the summit of Mount Etna is one of the most memorable landscapes Italy has to offer. The volcano’s height is constantly shifting, depending on whether eruptions are constructive or destructive, and over the last century it has ranged from 3263m to the present estimate of 3340m.

Whatever its exact height, Etna is a substantial mountain, one of the world’s biggest active volcanoes, and on a clear day it can be seen from well over half of Sicily. There are some fantastic trails on Etna, but bear in mind that the topography here changes rapidly, maps can be out of date, and conditions challenging even for experienced trekkers.

The volcano has been in an almost continual state of eruption since 1998, meaning that, at times, access is strictly limited. Trekking with an authorized guide is a good idea, especially on the upper slopes and craters.


Activity of Mount Etna © Shutterstock

#3 See a classical drama at Siracusa

Under ancient Greek rule, Siracusa was the most important city in the Western world. Today it is one of Sicily’s main draws.

The Ara di Ierone II, an enormous third-century-BC altar on a solid white plinth, is the first thing you see, across the way from which is the entrance to the theatre and quarries.

Catch a classical Greek drama at the Teatro Greco in the Parco Archeologico Di Neapolis, an extensive area that’s worth at least half a day's exploration.

The Teatro Greco is prettily sited, cut out of the rock and looking down into trees below. It’s much bigger than the one at Taormina, capable of holding around fifteen thousand people.

#4 Visit the splendid Baroque towns of Val di Noto

Noto, half an hour from Siracusa, is easily the most harmonious town of those rebuilt after the earthquake, and during the mid-nineteenth century, it replaced Siracusa as provincial capital.

Planned and laid out by Giovanni Battista Landolina and adorned by Gagliardi, there’s not a town to touch Noto for uniform excellence in design and execution. Each year more monuments are restored, regaining their original apricot- and honey-hued limestone facades, and each year more tour groups visit.

The pedestrianized main Corso is lined with some of Sicily’s most captivating buildings, from the flat-fronted church of San Francesco, on the right, along as far as Piazza XVI Maggio and the graceful, curving church of San Domenico.

Its Piazza Municipio is one of Sicily’s finest piazzas, with its perfectly proportioned, tree-planted expanses. The Duomo, a striking example of Baroque at its most muscular, reopened following the collapse of its dome in 1996.

Ragusa Ibla cityscape at sunset in Val di Noto. Sicily, Italy © Shutterstock

Ragusa Ibla cityscape at sunset in Val di Noto. Sicily, Italy © Shutterstock

#5 Wander through the coastal nature reserves at Vendicari or Zingaro

A line of small-town resorts stretches south from Siracusa to Vittoria, with several sweeps of pristine sands in between – most notably at the Riserva Naturale di Vendicari, a lovely coastal nature reserve.

Paths lead to unspoilt beaches of white-gold sand and salt lakes that, between October and March, attract flamingoes, herons, cranes, black storks and pelicans. In the middle of the last century turtles disappeared from the area, but thanks to careful management, they have now been encouraged back to Vendicari: at times, the local beaches are closed to allow them to breed in peace.

Just 2km from Scopello is Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro, Sicily’s first nature reserve, comprising a completely unspoiled 7km stretch of coastline backed by steep mountains. It’s less than twenty minutes to the first beach, Punta della Capreria, and 3km to the successive coves of Disa, Berretta and Marinella, which are more secluded.

#6 See the towering Doric columns of the Valley of the Temples

A road winds down from the modern city to the Valle dei Templi, which is divided into two zones. The more spectacular remains are in the eastern zone – to avoid crowds come in the early morning or (in summer) for the night openings. The western zone may be less architecturally impressive, but gives more of a sense of discovery – and holds the lovely gardens of Kolymbetra.

A path climbs up to the oldest of Akragas’s temples, the Tempio di Ercole (Hercules). Probably begun in the last decades of the sixth century BC, nine of the original 38 columns have been re-erected, everything else is scattered around like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Retrace your steps back to the path that leads to the glorious Tempio della Concordia, dated to around 430 BC.

The path and trees below the Temple of Juno (Tempio di Giunone - Hera Lacinia) in Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) in Sicily near Agrigento © Shutterstock

The path and trees below the Temple of Juno (Tempio di Giunone - Hera Lacinia) in Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) in Sicily near Agrigento © Shutterstock

#7 Peak around Villa Romana del Casale, an extravagant Roman residence

The Villa Romana del Casale dates from the early fourth century BC and was used right up until the twelfth century when a mudslide left it largely covered until the 1950s. The mosaics themselves are identifiable as fourth-century Roman-African school, which explains many of the more exotic scenes and animals portrayed. They also point four co-emperors with Diocletian, who divided the Roman world up between them.

The main entrance leads into a wide courtyard with fountains, where the thermae (baths) group around an octagonal frigidarium and a central mosaic showing a lively marine scene.

A walkway leads out of the baths and into the villa proper, to the massive central court or peristyle, whose surrounding corridors are decorated with animal-head mosaics. From here, a balcony looks down on one of the villa’s most interesting pictures, a boisterous circus scene showing a chariot race.

Where to stay in Sicily

On the whole, accommodation in Sicily is slightly cheaper than in the rest of Italy (though prices can double in summer). The only accommodation cheaper than this comes in the form of the very few youth hostels and the many campsites across the island.

Private holiday apartments and villas are available in places like Taormina, Cefalù, Siracusa and the Aeolians, and are generally rented for anything from a couple of nights to a month. Agriturismi is among the best places to stay in Sicily if you are looking for a traditional and authentic experience. Here are the best places to stay in Sicily.

Palermo, Sicily © Shutterstock

Palermo, Sicily © Shutterstock


Palermo and around

Most of Palermo’s traditional budget hotels lie on and around the southern ends of Via Maqueda and Via Roma, close to Stazione Centrale, but you’ll get far more for your money in the city’s B&Bs, many of which are charming and extremely well run.

Prices tend to stay the same year-round (except out on the nearby coast, where usual summer rates apply), but advance reservations are recommended, particularly around the time of Palermo’s annual festival, July 11–15.

The two nearest campsites, as well as Palermo’s youth hostel, are all at the beachside town of Sferracavallo, 16km northwest of the city or a good half an hour on the bus – convenient for the beach or airport but not really for the city sightseeing.

Planning a visit to Palermo? Read our complete travel guide for first-time visitors.


The Tyrrhenian coast

Most of the resort hotels are out of the town centre, by the beaches and bays to either side of Cefalù. There are, however, lots of central B&Bs, though vacancies are few in Aug (when prices everywhere double).


Self-catering apartments are widely available, though again summer is very busy and there’s often a minimum stay of three or even seven nights.


The Aeolian islands

In July and Aug it’s a good idea to listen to the offers of rooms as you step off the boat in Lipari. Salina and Panarea both have plenty of choice but you'll need to book ahead.


In summer, the quayside at Stromboli is thick with three-wheelers and touts offering rooms. If you have a booking and are arriving in the summer, ask your hotel to arrange a pick-up if you are far from the port or have baggage.


The Ionian coast

Perched high on Monte Tauro, with Mount Etna as a backdrop, Taormina looks down on two grand, sweeping bays and is Sicily’s best-known resort and has plenty of good quality guesthouses. Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city, is a major transport hub and has more of an international outlook than Palermo - and the good choice of accommodation reflects that.


Explore the variety of accommodation options to stay in Sicily.

Sicily coast, Zingaro Nature Reserve in San Vito Lo Capo, Italy © Shutterstock

Sicily coast, Zingaro Nature Reserve in San Vito Lo Capo, Italy © Shutterstock

Best restaurants and bars in Sicily

There’s much to be said for coming to Sicily just for the eating and drinking. Often, even the most out-of-the-way village will boast somewhere you can get a good lunch, while places like Catania, Palermo, Ragusa, Trapani and Siracusa can keep a serious eater happy for days.

In bars, it’s cheapest to drink standing up at the counter (there’s often nowhere to sit anyway), in which case you pay first at the cash desk (la cassa), present your receipt (scontrino) to the bar person and give your order.

Although bars have no set licensing hours, outside the cities it’s often difficult to find a bar open much after 9pm. Here’s where to eat and drink in Sicily.


Catania’s streets teem until late, especially in summer. Restaurants are pretty good value, thanks to the presence of so many students. Catania’s student population makes sure there is some lively nightlife, too.

The whole ambience is helped by the fact that the comune closes old-town streets and squares to traffic (the so-called café concerto) and bars spill tables outside until the small hours.

Of the outdoor cafés, those in Piazza del Duomo and Piazza dell’Università have the best views, while the cooler studenty bars are found around Piazza Bellini (particularly down Via Teatro Massimo, in Via Rapisardi and in adjacent piazzas Ogninella and Scammacca).

In summer, there are open-air venues for dancing until the early hours along the coast on the outskirts of town – ask around and look for posters and flyers for the latest spots.


You can eat fairly cheaply in Palermo, either snacking in bars and at market stalls or sitting down in one of dozens of good-value restaurants throughout the old town which serve cucina casalinga (home cooking).

Pizzas and pastries, in particular, are among the best in Sicily, while fish is another local highlight – a typical Palermo speciality is pasta con le sarde, which combines macaroni, fresh sardines, fennel, raisins and pine kernels.

Traditional street food is enjoying something of a renaissance, and in hole-in-the-wall outlets and fancy bars alike you can try the sort of earthy snacks and fritters that the locals have eaten for decades. The other unmissable treat is ice cream – Palermo’s best gelaterie (ice-cream parlours) are famed all over Italy.


Good restaurants are easy to find in Ragusa Ibla, while a few cafés put out tables in Superiore’s Piazza del Duomo – as night falls, and the lights come on, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that this is the prettiest square in Sicily. I Banchi


Eating out in Trapani is a real treat – you can get fresh fish and couscous almost everywhere, while the local pasta speciality, alla Trapanese, is terrific – either spaghetti or home-made busiate (long, thick twists of pasta) served with a pesto of fresh tomato, basil, garlic and almonds.

There are quite a few lively bars around, good for breakfast and snacks, and bustling at night with people stopping off from the clamorous passeggiata that fills Via Torrearsa and the bottom end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele.


Ortigia holds the city’s best array of cafés and restaurants, most within a short walk of each other. Prices are on the high side for Sicily, though there are few nicer places in Sicily to sit outside in a medieval street or courtyard and while the evening away.



Cefalu, Sicily © Shutterstock

How to get to Sicily

By plane

Sicily has two main airports, at Palermo in the west and Catania in the east, two smaller regional airports at Comiso and Trapani, and tiny domestic airports on the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa.

By ferry

The shortest crossing from the Italian mainland, over the Strait of Messina, is from Villa San Giovanni by ferry; or, fifteen minutes further south from Reggio di Calabria.

To cut the driving time in Italy, you could use one of the ferry crossings from the Italian mainland to Sicily, from Genoa (to Palermo; 20hr), Salerno (to Palermo; 12hr; or Messina; 8hr), Civitavecchia, near Rome (to Palermo; 12hr) or Naples (to Palermo; 11hr; or the Aeolian Islands; 10hr).

How many days do you need in Sicily?

You'll need at least a week in Sicily. With a vast array of attractions, including landmarks like the Valley of the Temples and the Greek Theater, with scores of incredible beaches to pick from, any less and you're selling yourself short.

Additionally, if you wish to visit nearby islands for day trips - such as going island-hopping around the Aeolian Islands - it's essential to factor in extra days into your itinerary. Similarly, you'll need a day to climb Mount Etna as well.

Looking for inspiration for your trip? Talk to our Italy travel experts.

Things not to miss: Greek theatre, Taormina, Sicily, Italy.

The Teatro Greco Taormina © Shutterstock

Tips for getting around Sicily

You don’t have to rent a car to see Sicily’s major towns and sights, but getting around by public transport is not always easy. The rail system is slow, few buses run on Sundays and route information can be frustratingly difficult to extract, even from the bus and train stations themselves. On the positive side, public transport prices are reasonable. Here is how to get around.

By train

Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane operates the trains in Sicily under the brand name Trenitalia and the privately owned Ferrovia Circumetnea operates a route around the base of Mount Etna. Trains connect all the major Sicilian towns, but are more prevalent in the east of the island than the west.

On the whole they do leave on time, with the notable exception of those on the Messina– Palermo and Messina–Catania/Siracusa routes that have come from the mainland. These can be delayed by up to three hours, though around an hour late is more normal.

By bus

Almost anywhere you want to go will have some kind of regional bus (autobus or pullman) service, usually quicker than the train (especially between the major towns and cities), and generally about the same price.

By car

Driving in Sicily is almost a competitive sport, and although the Sicilians aren’t the world’s worst drivers they don’t win any safety prizes either. However, with a car you’ll be able to see a lot of the island quickly, and reach the more isolated coastal and inland areas.

By scooter, quad and moke

Virtually everyone in Sicily – kids to grandmas – rides a moped or scooter, although the smaller models are not suitable for any kind of long-distance travel. They’re ideal for shooting around towns, and you can rent them in Taormina, Cefalù and other holiday centres. Crash helmets are compulsory.

By ferry and hydrofoil

There are ferries (traghetti) and hydrofoils (aliscafi) to the Aeolians, the Egadi and Pelagie islands, and Pantelleria and Ustica, and there’s also a summer hydrofoil service from Palermo to the Aeolians.


Roman Mosaics in Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicilia, Italy © Shutterstock

Roman Mosaics in Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicilia, Italy © Shutterstock

Best time to visit Sicily

Sicily can be an extremely uncomfortable place to visit at the height of summer, when the dusty Scirocco winds blow in from North Africa. In July and August, you’ll roast – and you’ll be in the company of tens of thousands of other tourists all jostling for space on the beaches, in the restaurants and at the archaeological sites. Hotel availability is much reduced and prices will often be higher.

If you want the heat but not the crowds, go in May, June or September – swimming is possible right into November. Spring is really the optimum time to come to Sicily, and it arrives early: the almond blossom flowers at the start of February, and there are fresh strawberries in April. Easter is a major celebration and a good time to see traditional festivals like the events at Trapani, Erice, Scicli and Piana degli Albanesi, though again they’ll all be oversubscribed with visitors.

Winter is mild by northern European standards and is a nice time to be here, at least on the coast, where the skies stay clear and life continues to be lived largely outdoors. On the other hand, the interior – especially around Enna – is very liable to get snowed under, providing skiing opportunities in the Monti Madonie or on Mount Etna, while anywhere else in the interior can be subject to blasts of wind and torrential downpours of rain.

Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.

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Ties Lagraauw

written by
Ties Lagraauw

updated 05.09.2023

Ties is a true world explorer - whether it be for work or leisure! As Content Manager at RoughGuides, and the owner of Dutch travel platform, Ties is constantly on the move, always looking for new destinations to discover.

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