If this is your first time in Sicily and you are still not sure which way to go and what towns to visit, you’ve come to the right place. You may have heard a lot about this island at the toe of Italy’s “boot.” And maybe not all of it was good!
Well, forget everything bad you’ve heard about Sicily. Yes, there is corruption, poverty, rubbish, and crumbling buildings, but none of these matter to you, the rambling traveler. What matters to you are the beautiful lemon trees, rugged cliffs, and stunning beaches. The magnificent archeological sites and baroque architecture. Sicily may be Italy’s problem child, but it’s still a fascinating place to visit.
Famous Towns (and Cities) in Sicily
There are many historic cities, quaint little villages, and picture-perfect towns in Sicily that will steal your heart away. So if you are still wondering where to begin, here are some that you shouldn’t miss:
To remark that Taormina is very touristy is in no way to diminish its appeal. Perched on a promontory about 700 feet above the sea, Taormina is one of the most beautiful towns in Sicily and the perfect location for a hiking day trip to Mount Etna.
Taormina is irresistibly charming. Its main street – Corso Umberto – twists like a snake through the town’s historical center, always animated with visitors. Despite being jam packed with overpriced boutiques, expensive restaurants, walking through Taormina is a bliss.
The most important attraction in Taormina is its 3rd century B.C. Greek theater. The theater is famous all over the world for its spectacular location, with splendid views toward the coast of Sicily and the cone of Etna. In summer you can attend concerts and classical plays here.
Of all the cities we visited when driving around Sicily, I loved Siracusa the best! It’s one of the most fascinating places I have ever seen. The biggest and most beautiful Greek city – as Cicero called it. This 2,700 year old Sicilian town still bears witness to the art and culture that have flourished in it throughout the centuries.
The old part of Siracusa is on Ortigia Island. Ortigia is a paradise of sightseeing, dining and shopping, but also a great place to discover the history of Sicily. Another great attraction is Siracusa is the Neapolis Archeological Park, that holds the remains of a Roman theater and some other ancient ruins.
No Sicily itinerary would be complete without a visit to Palermo, the island’s capital. Palermo is eclectic, yet exotic. Chaotic, yet exciting. Ancient, yet modern. The city still bears the scars of the heavy bombings during the 2nd World War.
Palermo surely looks rough around the edges, but has great architecture, medieval streets, a vibrant life and very lively markets. It’s so interesting to see how the many cultures that passed through have left their mark on the city’s architecture, language, and art.
Most of Palermo’s churches are a mixture of Western, Islamic and Byzantine styles, which is the reason many of them have been declared Unesco World Heritage sites.
Palermo has many landmarks and places of historic interest, but there are two that you shouldn’t miss. One is the Norman Palace and its beautiful Palatine Chapel, a masterpiece of Arab-Norman-Byzantine style. The second must-see monument is the Palermo Cathedral, in my opinion the best place to visit in the capital of Sicily.
Unusual Towns in Sicily
The small town of Monreale is just a short distance away from Palermo, on the slope of Monte Caputo. The town’s most important attraction is the famous Duomo of Monreale, a great example of Norman architecture.
Few people do not gasp in awe when they enter the Duomo of Monreale. This cathedral is much more than “just another church.” The interior of the cathedral is in the shape of a Latin cross with three naves, divided by marble columns.
The walls are adorned with mosaic depicting stories from the Old and New Testament. Decorating the church with scenes from the Bible was a necessity hundreds of years ago, when the parishioners were illiterate.
The most stunning mosaic of the cathedral is the half-figure of Christ Pantocrator (Christ All-powerful), which by far surpasses all the other mosaics around.
Some 70 km east of Palermo, at the foot of a towering rock, lies one of Sicily’s most iconic towns: Cefalú. The Greeks called it Kephaloídion. The Romans knew it as Cephalaedium. For the Arabs, it was Gafludi. But the Normans were the ones who restored it to the splendor it once knew, during the Greeks.
Dominated by its Norman Cathedral, Cefalú has beautiful historic sites, narrow medieval streets, and small squares. Like many other Sicilian towns, Cefalú bears witness to the various cultures that passed through it over the centuries.
One of the Cefalú’s prime attractions is the sandy beach that stretches alongside the town. Tourists flock here almost year round, but especially in summer and fall, when the water is warm.
The little town of Agrigento would probably go unnoticed but for the grandiose the Valley of the Temples next door. This incredibly well preserved series of temples and relics is one of Italy’s most impressive archaeological sites. It is also the finest example of Greek Doric temples found anywhere in the world, outside of Greece itself.
The temples date back to the 5th and 6th century B.C., when the ancient Greek city of Acragas (also known as Agrigentum) was one of the most powerful cities in the Mediterranean and the leading city of Magna Graecia. Huge walls once surrounded the city of Acragas and the temples that spread along a hilltop overlooking the sea.
There are two parts of Ragusa: Ragusa Superiore (the more modern part of Ragusa) and Ragusa Ibla (the old town). The long main street, Corso Italia, cuts through the upper town and makes for Ragusa’s best promenade.
The most scenic way to reach the old town is by taking the long stairway, Santa Maria delle Scale, heading down from Ragusa Superiore to the historic center of Ibla. If your time is limited, you can skip Ragusa Superiore and spend whatever time you have available in Ragusa Ibla.
One attraction not to miss in Ragusa is beautiful public garden, Giardino Ibleo. Besides the gorgeous panoramic view across the Valley of Irminio, the garden is home to some religious buildings among which the Church of San Giacomo.
Acireale and the Riviera Dei Ciclopi
Although not exactly undiscovered, Acireale is largely a tourist free town. That comes as a surprise, considering the many beautiful baroque churches and imposing buildings. Every year in February, Acireale comes to life during its Carnevale, which is one of the best in Sicily.
The city seems to be more famous for its beautiful seaside promenade – Riviera dei Ciclopi – than for its baroque architecture. Riviera Dei Ciclopi owes its name to a Homeric legend.
The myth says that the huge black lava rocks that rise out of the sea were thrown by the blinded Cyclops, Polyphemus, in a desperate attempt to stop Odysseus escaping from his cave.
Towns in Sicily That Have Been Used as Filming Locations
If you want to experience a truly authentic Sicilian atmosphere, you should go to Savoca. The town sits high up on Sicily’s eastern coast, just a short drive from Taormina. Savoca became famous because it served as a filming location for the movie The Godfather.
The memorable scene at the Bar Vitelli, where Michael Corleone asks Apollonia’s father for her hand, was filled here. The Bar Vitelli still looks exactly like it did in the early 1970s, when they made the movie. Also in Savoca is Chiesa di San Nicolò, the church where Michael Corleone married Apollonia.
While in town, you should visit the Capuchin Convent, dating back to the XVI century. Next to the convent there is a crypt that contains the mummified bodies of 37 people who belonged to Sicilian nobility.
There are few towns in Sicily as authentic and picturesque as Forza d’Agro. Nicknamed The Godfather Village, Forza D’Agro’ is a very picturesque mountain town just 20 minutes north of Taormina.
Because of its quaint location, Francis Ford Coppola filmed many of the scenes of The Godfather here. But fame hasn’t changed the cozy Sicilian village whose winding, narrow streets and crumbled buildings seem frozen in time.
There is not much to do in Forza d’Agro other than wander around. There is a beautiful cathedral in town – the Church of Santa Maria Annunziata – that was almost completely destroyed in the earthquake of 1648 which devastated Eastern Sicily.
You can also climb up to the ruins of an old Norman castle from the 11th century that stands 420 meters above sea level. The are only a few walls left of it, but the 180º view from up there is worth the steep ascent. It’s a great place to visit for half a day and for lunch, even if you are not a Godfather devotee.
A Final Note
All these amazing places in Sicily are but a small part of this island’s treasures. It’s simply too much to see in Sicily to be able to cover it all in one trip. We’ve spent almost two weeks there and felt we could barely get a glimpse of it. Give yourself time if you plan to visit Sicily. Buon Viaggio!
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