It's difficult to characterize Sicily as just a region in Italy, as Italy has only controlled this island since 1860. For hundreds of years previous, a dizzying variety of cultures shaped Sicily into the melting pot it is today. The Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Normans, Arabs, Spanish Bourbons, Germans, British—even Napolean—have all left a cultural imprint on this island, and visitors will get a sense of this the moment they arrive.
To wrap your mind around all of Sicily's complexities and experience its culture deeply requires both an open mind and a long travel itinerary. To that end, below we outline all the practical info you'll need to plan your perfect Sicilian holiday.
Planning Your Visit
Sicily isn't like Venice or Florence or even Rome, where you can enjoy the highlights in just two or three days. This is a large region best experienced over a couple of weeks. There's much to see and do here, be it visiting ancient ruins, famous landmarks, historic cities, long stretches of beautiful coast, and of course, sampling the most diverse regional cuisine in all of Italy
That said, even if you don't have two weeks to spare, you can easily experience the best of Sicily in just seven days.
When to go
If you're coming to Sicily with the intention of soaking up the sun on the coast, then summer is the ideal time to visit. Be aware, though, that temperatures get hot on the island. Naturally August is the hottest month, with temps often exceeding 86°F (30°C). This can make outdoor excursions, such as hikes around Mt. Etna and elsewhere, a grueling endurance test as opposed to a brisk outing.
If you are planning many outdoor activities besides merely lazing on beaches, then spring is the best time to visit (April-June). Temps often hover around a breezy 68°F (20°C), plus the flowers are in bloom. The trade-off to this is that even in late spring you still might experience the occasional rain shower and the water will likely be too cold to really enjoy swimming. See more on Sicily's seasons in this article.
Air: The major cities of Sicily are easily accessible by air and tickets are relatively inexpensive. There are around a dozen flights per day from Rome to Sicily's capital of Palermo. You will find a similar abundance of flight options from any other major city in Italy, although the further north you are in the country the more likely it is your flight will have a connection en route to Sicily.
Train: Train travel between mainland Italy and Sicily is inefficient, but within the country, it is remarkably pleasant. If you do criss-cross the island between cities you'll pass by Sicily's famously rugged mountain ranges like the northern Madonie and the central-southern Sicani. Many of these mountains and valleys are blanketed with vineyards and wheat fields, and in spring the scenery is complimented with blooms of cherry-red poppies.
There are also historic hilltop mountain towns in inland Sicily. There's the old Roman/Byzantine/Norman fortress city of Enna, which sits at the island's highest point, 3,054 feet (931 meters) above sea level. Others include Petralia Soprana, Noto (famous for its baroque architecture), Ragusa, and more. You could also visit the town of Corleone, located in Sicily's northwest. You might know it as the real town that inspired the fictional Corleone family made famous in "The Godfather."
Rental Car: Sicily's long stretches of gorgeous coastline mean the island was practically meant for road trips. A network of highways and roads cover almost all of this coast, which means you can drive around the whole island if you so choose. Renting a vehicle here is easy and the highways and major routes are well signed and designated.
One popular excursion is to drive west from the city of Messina, located on the northeastern edge of Sicily, along the coast towards Palermo. There is no shortage of charming villages and historic port towns along this 139-mile (224 km) stretch of coast, and none is more famous than Cefalú. This ancient fortress town was founded by the Greeks on a rocky peninsula on the Tyrrhenian coast and is known for its Byzantine/Norman buildings and old white-washed dwellings.
Highlights & Activities
You don't have to be a geologist to know that Sicily's most famous volcano is active. All you need to do is glance up at its cone and see the perpetual stream of vapor emitting from the top like smoke billowing from the nostrils of a snarling dragon. That alone will tell you this 10,990-foot (3,350-meter) fissure is temperamental.
Despite Etna's proximity to the city of Catania, located on Sicily's west coast, the periodic eruptions do little damage. Instead, they offer furious displays of light and fire showcasing Mother Nature's raw power. Tour buses run day trips high up Etna, plus there are cable cars and even guided hikes up to the volcano. How high you can go depends on current volcanic activity, but typically you can safely travel up to just below the four summit craters, at around 9,200 feet (2,800 meters).
If you really want to do Mt. Etna differently, consider embarking on an off-roading adventure around the volcano in a 4x4. It's a decidedly more pulse-pounding experience than what you'll get on a tour bus. For this and other creative itinerary ideas, check out this list of unique experiences in Sicily.
Valle dei Templi
If you really want to see Sicily's rich history, experience it, and walk amongst it, you'll visit the "Valley of Temples," located near the city of Agrigento on the southwest coast of the island. Covering a space of 2,310 acres (934 hectares), the Valle dei Templi is the largest archeological site in the world.
In this valley are the remains of seven temples done in the Doric style of ancient Greece. Many date to around the 5th century BCE, including the most iconic ruin in the area, the Temple of Concordia. This was originally built as a pagan temple but was converted to a Christian Basilica in the 6th century. The Valle dei Templi is a must-visit not only because it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but because many ruins here are even better-preserved than similar relics in Greece.
Like Sicily in general, the capital of Palermo is something of an open-air museum home to historic sites. The historic center is a reliquary of ancient buildings constructed at various points in Sicily's long and storied history. There's the Cattedrale di Palermo, a basilica that was at different times both an ancient temple and a mosque, the Royal Palace of Palermo, which was the seat of Norman kings in the 11th century, and the 19th century Teatro Massimo, the grandest opera house in Italy outside of Verona.
It seems everywhere you look in Palermo's historic center, you'll discover rich history. Even right under your feet. That's because underground is an ancient sepulcher home to the corpses of thousands of monks of the Capuchin order of the Catholic church. Their mummified remains are displayed proudly along the walls of these labyrinthine underground tombs, and a tour is a fascinating experience for anyone with a taste for the macabre.
This historic town on Sicily's southern Ionian coast has it all, from unspoiled coastline to historic ruins. Like the Valle dei Templi, it was a large colony of the ancient Greek empire in Sicily. Ruins here include the Greek Theater of Syracuse (the largest ancient amphitheater in Sicily), plus the Doric Temple of Apollo, which dates to the 6th century BCE. Also nearby is the Necropolis of Pantalica, a group of ancient cemeteries with thousands of tombs carved out of rock and dating to the 7th century BCE.
Also note that they hold performances of the classics at the Greek theater during the summer season, often featuring internationally renown actors and directors.
An archeological site to rival Valle dei Templi is located on the western end of Sicily. It features an impressive main Doric temple that dates to the 5th century and was built by the Elymian indigenous group along with the Greeks. There's also a well-preserved amphitheater here that dates back to the fourth century BCE and rivals (although does not outdo) that found at Syracuse.
Festivals & Special Events
Italy is renowned for its holidays and religious events, and Sicily is no different. You'll be able to celebrate the major holidays, like Pasqua (Easter), Christmas, and Carnival, in Sicily just like you would anywhere else in Italy, but there are also some local festivals you should check out too.
Festa di Sant' Agata. This is by far the most popular festival in Catania, as it celebrates that city's patron saint, St. Agatha. Every Feb 3rd through the 5th, there is round the clock revelry. This includes not only grand religious processions and fireworks but also copious eating. That makes it a great excuse to chow down at Catania's famous Piazza Carlo Alberto street market.
Festa di Sant' Rosalia. Every year during the second week of July, the capital of Palermo, like Catania, honors its own patron saint. St. Rosalia helped ease the plight of plague victims in the 17th century, and this celebration in honor of her memory lasts two days. There's a religious procession in which people carry a statue of St. Rosalie through the streets of Palermo's historic center as onlookers and revelers indulge in much food and drink.
Sagra del Mandorlo in Fiore. Sicily's famous almond blossom festival is much more than a celebration of produce. This spring celebration (typically held at the start of March and lasting about a week) is also a rich cultural festival. During this occasion, there are folk dances, contemporary concerts, world music events, marathons, children's activities/performances, and of course many vendors selling almond-based treats. It's also a great excuse to visit the ruins around Agrigento.
Where to Stay
If you’re visiting during the summer months, many of the historic coastal villages, like Cefalú are worth visiting but will be packed. If you’d like to experience beach time like a local, head to Mondello, whose crystalline waters and white-sand crescent beach are a favorite weekend retreat for Sicilians from Palermo. And if you really want to get off the beaten path, stay at one of the whitewashed beach bungalows in San Vito lo Capo, located on the northeastern edge of Sicily.
In the big cities, if you want to be in the mix of the action, there are a number of cool neighborhoods to hang your hat. Palermo is comprised of a whopping 25 districts, but Libertà Quarter is a solid option because it's safe and within walking distance of the sights and attractions of Palermo’s historic Old Town.
In Catania, you'll want to stay in the historic center, anywhere near the Piazza Duomo, which is the city’s historic central square. Not only is the main shopping area of Via Etnea around here, but it’s also near to all the bars, restaurants, and street markets of the bohemian district. All around here you'll find an abundant mix of hostels plus boutique and luxury hotels.
What & Where to Eat
To sample the food of Italy is to travel the world in a single meal. Sicilian cuisine dates back millennia, starting in the 7th century BCE with the Corinthian settlers. It has adapted over the centuries to include ingredients brought to the island by traders and conquerors. Really, you could say that Sicilian food is one of the first fusion cuisines the world has ever known.
The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Normans introduced fruits like figs, dates, pomegranates and bitter oranges. They also brought pistachios, walnuts, even couscous. And this being an island, you'll find much fresh fish including bluefin tuna and swordfish. In fact, typical secondi (second) courses in Sicily served after the first pasta course include couscous al pesce (fish with couscous) and pesce spada alla ghiotta (swordfish in tomato sauce).
The best way to sample as much traditional Sicilian cuisine in the shortest time possible is by heading to Palermo and browsing the street markets. There are four ancient markets still in operation in this city, including Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria, and Borgo Vecchio. However, you can find comparable markets in other cities and towns throughout Sicily, with another great option being the daily Fera 'o Luni market at Piazza Carlo Alberto, in Catania.
If you really want to eat like a local, there are a number of typical dishes you must try when visiting Sicily. These include:
- Arancini (baked, stuffed rice balls)
- Panella (chickpea fritters)
- Ricotta infornata (baked ricotta cheese)
- Stigghiola (fried veal intestines)
- Pezzo de rosticceria (baked brioche roll stuffed with various savory fillings)
And it wouldn't be a trip to Sicily if you didn't indulge in that traditional dessert that has conquered the world: cannoli. These crispy rolled pastries filled with a sweet ricotta filling are even more delicious when eaten on the island on which they originated. Any halfway decent pasticerria (bakery/confectionary) in Sicily will do a solid cannoli, and some legendary spots include Pasticceria Savia, in Catania, Pasticceria Cappello, in Palermo, and Caffé Sicilia, in Syracuse.
For more on eating in Sicily, see this article.
More Expert Tips
Planning a summer holiday? The best month to visit is in June, because it's sandwiched in between the more crowded months of May and July. It's also not as hot in June as it is in the late summer months.
Expect many places in Sicily to close for the siesta hours after lunch. In the big cities, the siesta typically lasts from 1 pm to 4 pm, but the bigger chain stores do not close.
If you want to continue an Italy wine tour down into Sicily, be sure to sample some of this island's delicious regional wines. Popular varietals include Nero d'Avola and Cerasuolo di Vittoria (both reds), and the white Catarratto wine.