Ortigia Island – Guide to Visiting the Historical Center of Siracusa, Sicily

    Ortigia Island – Guide to Visiting the Historical Center of Siracusa, Sicily
    Last updated: August, 2019

    Ortigia island is the historical center of Siracusa, Sicily. Of all the cities we visited on our 10-day Sicily itinerary, 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. 

    Unlike Palermo which is a complicated labyrinth of big streets and narrow alleys, Ortigia Island is relatively small and easy to visit. You can split your visit to Siracuse, Sicily, into two parts: one day for exploring Ortigia Island, and one day for visiting the Archaeological Park of Néapolis.

    Historic center of Siracusa, Sicily

    A Brief History of Siracusa

    Siracusa (or Syracuse) is located near the southeastern corner of the island Sicily, on the shore of the Ionian Sea. The town was built on Ortigia Island, the site of an ancient Greek settlement founded by the Corinthians in 734 B.C.

    In its greatest period of economic prosperity and military power, Siracusa had a population of 300,000. The city was home to many ancient Greek personalities, including Archimedes – the most famous mathematician and inventor of all times. 

    The statue of Archimede in Siracusa, Sicily

    Throughout its history, Siracusa fell to the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Arabs, the Normans, and to the Byzantines. The city also played an important role in the spreading of Judaism and Christianity in the central Mediterranean and then through the Italian peninsula. Physical evidence of all these cultures are still visible today when looking at the city’s ancient structures and medieval treasures.

    Medieval structures in the historic center of Ortegia

    Visiting Ortigia Island– the Heart of Siracusa, Sicily

    Also known as Città Vecchia, the small island of Ortigia (or Ortygia, in English) is the oldest part of the beautiful city of Siracusa, Sicily. The name “Ortigia” derives from the Ancient Greek ortyx, which means “quail.” The best way to see Ortigia is just to wander around.

    The island is fairly small (about 1km long and 600 meters wide), so you can’t loose your way here. To reach Ortigia Island you have to cross one of the three bridges that connect it to the mainland. 

    The old town of Ortigia is a labyrinth of charming ancient and medieval streets packed with over 2,500 years of history. It’s a paradise of sightseeing, dining and shopping, but also a great place to discover the history of Sicily.

    Attractions on Ortigia Island

    The Temple of Apollo

    Right as you enter into Ortigia, you’ll come across the remains of the Temple of Apollo, dating back to the 6th Century B.C. The temple was supposedly the first great Doric temple of its kind in Sicily.

    Temple of Apollo in Siracusa, Sicily

    Throughout the centuries the temple underwent several transformations: from a Byzantine church to an Islamic mosque.

    Piazza Archimede and the Fountain of Diana

    Piazza Archimede was built in 1878 to honor the famous mathematician Archimede, who was killed by the Romans in 212 B.C., during the siege of Siracusa. Archimede’s tomb is located in the Archaeological Park on the mainland. At the center of the Piazza is the beautiful Fountain of Diana, the Roman goddess. The fountain pretty much marks the center of Ortigia as well.

    The Fountain of Diana in Siracusa, Sicily
    The Fountain of Diana 

    Piazza Duomo and the Cathedral of Siracusa

    The highlight of Ortigia is the marvelous Piazza Duomo, that dates back to the 5th century B.C. As you stroll through the labyrinth of narrow ancient streets, you suddenly find yourself in this large square dominated by the Cathedral of Siracusa.

    Piazza Duomo in Siracusa, Sicily
    Piazza Duomo and the Cathedral of Siracusa in Ortigia

    The Cathedral was actually built around the ancient Temple of Athena. You can still see the ancient Doric columns of the Greek temple in the wall of today’s cathedral.

    The wall of the Cathedral of Siracusa

    The Fountain of Arethusa

    One of the most beloved attractions in Ortigia, Sicily, is the Fountain of Arethusa. The fountain became a symbol of the city as its fresh water saved the city’s population during several sieges. The water of the Arethusa Fountain is actually coming from the Ciane river that crosses the Porto Grande (main port) under an impermeable layer of clay.

    The Fountain of Arethusa in Ortigia
    The Fountain of Arethusa

    Legend has it that Arethusa, an Arcadian nymph, fled to Ortigia trying to escape the insisting courting of the river god Alpheios. Desperate to escape his advances, Arethusa asked the goddess Artemis for help. Artemis took pity on the nymph and turned her into a spring, allowing her to escape underground. But Zeus moved by the pain of Alpheios turned him into a river. Alpheios located his prey and mixed his own waters with hers. They say that the spring connects directly under the sea to the river, at the sanctuary of Olympia. 

    One interesting thing about the Fountain of Arethusa is the papyrus plant growing inside. It seems that the only other place in the world where papyrus grows is on the banks of the Nile, in Egypt. 3000-4000 years ago, the Egyptian scribes were using the papyrus reeds for writing their records. 

    The Jewish Ritual Baths (Mikveh)

    Another interesting site on Ortigia Island is the Jewish Mikveh (Jewish ritual baths). The Mikveh lies 30 feet (9 m) below ground under the Residenza Alla Giudecca Hotel. This part of town was once the Jewish quarter (the Giudecca). Mikvehs were used for certain Jewish religious rituals that required purification.

    The Jews believed they can only be purified if they immerse themselves in ‘living water’ (water that flows naturally). The purpose of immersion in the Mikveh was not for physical cleansing, but rather for spiritual purity or renewal. 

    Jewish Baths on Ortigia Island
    Jewish Baths (Mikveh) on Ortigia Island

    A freshwater spring flows underneath Ortigia, making it an ideal location to build a Mikveh. It is possible that the same underground spring feeds the Fountain of Arethusa.

    The Mikveh have been accidentally discovered in 1987 during the conversion of an old palazzo into a hotel. The bath laid hidden for so long because when the Jews fled into exile they filled it with rubble and sealed its entrance. They were trying to conceal the location, hoping to return someday and reopen it.

    Castello Maniace

    Maniace Castle is an austere and imposing fort located on a promontory of the Ortigia Island and overlooking the Golf of Siracusa. Castello Maniace was constructed by the Emperor Frederick II between 1232 and 1240. The citadel bears the name of George Maniakes, the Byzantine general who besieged and took the city in 1038. He was also the first to fortify the island to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Arabs. 

    Castello Maniace on Ortigia Island
    Castello Maniace

    Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia

    At the far end of the Piazza Duomo is the unassuming Church of Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Siracusa. The church houses one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, The Burial of Santa Lucia. Saint Lucia was martyred near this site in 304. Every year on December 13 there is a celebration in her name.

    The church of Santa Lucia on Ortigia Island
    Chiesa di Santa Lucia (drone photo by: Laszlo Galffy)
    Caravaggio's famous painting "The Burial of Santa Lucia,"
    Caravaggio’s famous painting “The Burial of Santa Lucia,” in display at the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia

    Opera dei Pupi (the Puppet Theater) 

    The puppet tradition is strong in many places in Sicily, and Ortigia Island is no exception. The puppet theater in Ortigia (Opera dei Pupi) opened its doors in the 19th century, at the initiative of the Vaccaro brothers. They used to present old medieval stories of chivalry and Italian poems of the Renaissance.

    The family-run theater is quite alive and well today, continuing the tradition into the modern era. However, the puppeteers who manage both the theater and the nearby workshop, still make the puppets entirely by hand. Each “pupo” requires one month of work!

    Puppets Museum in Ortigia

    Opera dei Pupi offers performances every day at 5:00 p.m., so if you have time don’t hesitate to go in. Watching a puppet show is a cultural experience worth trying at least once. It was my most favorite thing to do in Ortigia. Buying tickets in advance is a good idea, as the theater is pretty small (it can only accommodate 30 people).

    Adjacent to the theater it’s a small puppet museum that has a fascinating collection of props, posters, puppets, and woodworking tools. We visited the museum before attending the puppet show. I was expecting to see some small marionettes, but to my surprise the puppets were quite big. Almost the size of a small child. This makes them remarkably effective when viewing a performance. The museum is quite beautiful, but no substitute for the show. So if you have time, you should do both.  

    Visiting Neapolis Archeological Park in Siracusa 

    Unlike Ortigia Island which is full of medieval buildings with a lot of character, chick restaurants, and many attractions, Siracusa is just a working Sicilian town. Other than the Greek/Roman ruins in the Archeological Park, it’s not very appealing. However, for the history lovers, Siracusa’s Archeological Park of Neapolis (Parco Archeologico della Néapolis) is a must! The park is located in the northern part of the city.

    Unfortunately, except for the Greek Theater, not many buildings are standing here after almost 2,500 years. Therefore, when looking at what remains of Néapolis today, it’s difficult to imagine what Siracusa must have looked like when 300,000 people inhabited it.

    The Greek Theater in Siracusa, Sicily
    The Greek Theater in Siracusa, Sicily

    Archeological Remains in the Park

    Besides the Greek Theater, there are some interesting remains of the  the Altar of Hieron II (a grand altar for public sacrifices). Don’t miss the Street of Tombs, a series of  cut deep into the bed-rock during the Hellenistic period. They say that one of these is the Tomb of Archimedes, the great mathematician, although many historians dispute this.

    The Archeological Park at Syracuse

    Don’t miss the artificial caves on the top of the Greek Theater. They used to supply water for the theater in its days of glory. The most impressive one is the Cave of the Nymph that has a vaulted ceiling and large pool inside.

    Latomia del Paradiso

    One of the great curiosities in the archeological park is the mysterious Latomia del Paradiso, a deep limestone quarry from the 6th century B.C. The quarry was used to extract stone for the ancient city. The area is pierced with catacombs and filled with a lot of vegetation. It’s quite beautiful to walk through and discover the strange rock shapes left behind after the quarry was abandoned.

    One of the most interesting formations in the quarry is the Ear of Dionysius (Orecchio di Dionisio). This is a huge 23m high grotto that extends 65m back into the cliffside. The grotto has some very unusual acoustic properties that amplify even the quietest of sounds, allowing them to be heard through an opening at the top. 

    Italian painter Caravaggio named the cave after the Greek tyrant Dionysius. According to the legend, Dionysius  who used the grotto as a prison, secretly listen from the top to the prisoner’s conversations. 

    Where to Stay When Visiting Siracusa

    Compared to Taormina that is perched up on the mountain offering spectacular views, Siracusa and Ortigia island are quite flat. Therefore, there is no point in looking for a room with a view. The next question is what should you choose as your base: Siracusa, or Ortigia Island?  

    If you come to Sicily by car, you should consider staying in Siracusa. Especially if you plan to do day trips around the city. Parking is Siracusa is not easy, but you can still find a spot or two, here and there. By contrast on Ortigia Island parking is extremely difficult (if not impossible!) Also, the bridges connecting Ortigia to the mainland can sometimes be a bottleneck of traffic. Walking to Ortigia from Siracusa is a breeze. Or you may choose to hire a cab, which costs only a few Euros.

    There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs to choose from, both in Siracusa and Ortigia island. We rented a modern and very well appointed room with a balcony through Airbnb. It took us only 10 minutes to walk to Ortigia and 15 minutes to walk to the Archeological Park of Neapolis. If you prefer a hotel room, you can check out some prices on TripAdvisor or Expedia.

    Places to Eat on Ortigia Island 

    Sicilian food is delicious and finding good eats both in Siracusa or on Ortigia island is not a problem. Most restaurants in this area serve traditional Italian food: pasta dishes, risotto and plenty of seafood.

    There are of course the usual tourist traps where you’ll get mediocre food and bad service, especially in Ortigia. However, we stumbled upon a few excellent ones that are real worth mentioning: La Tavernetta da Piero, Ristorante Regina Lucia, and La Volpe e L’Uva. The last one is a lovely outdoor pizzeria that has the best location in town: right in front of the Cathedral of Siracusa, on the main square. 

    La Volpe e L’Uva Restaurant on Ortigia Island

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