Sicily Beyond the Highlights
You've toured Palermo's historic center, you went road-tripping from Messina to Cefalú, and you've snapped photos of Mt. Etna from a tour bus. What's left, then, now that you've checked the most famous sites in Sicily off your list? In a word: lots. Sicily is more than a region of Italy—it's like an island nation unto itself, one with many off-the-beaten-path travel routes and diverse options for active adventures.
It's time to go beyond the Roman ruins and do Sicily a little differently. Below we list everything from the lesser-known city sights to the most unique outdoor excursions. And if you've got extra time to spare and a thirst for adventure, let this 15-day road trip along the Sicilian coast inspire your itinerary.
Take a Food Tour of Palermo
Throughout the world, Italy enjoys a reputation for great food. The cuisine of Sicily, however, goes beyond pizza and pasta, incorporating influences from cultures far and wide over centuries of invasions, occupations, migration, and trade with other countries. This culinary timeline is a long one, too, going back to the first Corinthian settlers in the 7th century BCE and continuing through the Roman Empire and Norman invasion of Sicily. And all through the centuries, locals kept innovating and refining recipes.
This culminated with the food Sicily is famous for today, and which you can sample in all its glory on a street food tour in the heart of Sicily's capital of Palermo. Main dishes feature staple ingredients like fresh fish, seafood, local olive oils, wines, and fresh produce like robust tomatoes ripened to perfection under the intense southern sun.
The ingredients introduced by Greeks, Romans, and Arabs include everything from figs and pomegranates to dates and bitter oranges to nuts like pistachios and walnuts to bee honey and goat milk. The dishes in which they're used vary widely, from ricotta infornata (baked ricotta cheese), arancini (baked, stuffed rice balls), panella (chickpea fritters), stigghiola (fried veal intestines), and pezzo de rosticceria (a baked brioche roll stuffed with various fillings, including mozzarella, ham, sausage, or minced meat).
You definitely won't leave the tour hungry, and throughout the experience, the local guide will recount the history of Sicily as well as its influences on the food. If such a foodie tour is on your agenda for other parts of Italy, then take a look at this 14-day culinary tour of Italy's various regions.
Go Off-Roading Around Mt. Etna
Go beyond the typical hum-drum tour bus outing with an off-roading jeep excursion to a wide array of locales around Mt. Etna. This rugged adventure passes through the basaltic lava canyon of Alcantara Gorges and makes a stop in Castiglione di Sicilia, a medieval village perched on a hill overlooking the Alcantara Valley. It then goes further off the beaten path with a stop at a lava flow amid chestnut and pine forests.
One other thing: the volcanic soil around Mt. Etna is rich in nutrients, and thus makes an ideal patch of land to grow grapes. There are many vineyards in the region producing Sicily's most famous varietals like Malvasia and Novello. You'll get to sample them, as this off-roading Etna tour makes a couple of pit stops at local wineries to sample local cuisine paired with samplings of great wines.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Hike the Aeolian Islands and Take a Mud Bath
Located about 10 miles off the northeastern coast of Sicily, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, lies a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of seven volcanic islands perfect for exploring. These are the Aeolian Islands, an archipelago named after the Greek god of the winds, Aeolus. Most of the 10,000 residents of the Aeolians live on Lipari, the largest island, although on the second largest island—the aptly named Vulcano—there is a town and, naturally, an active volcano.
The volcanic activity here produces some dazzling fumaroles. More importantly for visitors to Vulcano, however, there's an abundance of baths in which to take a long soak in mineral-rich mud. It's the perfect cap to a day spent hiking up to the crater of the volcano. The route is about one kilometer and the ascent takes about an hour and requires durable hiking boots. Be aware that you'll smell like sulfur for a day or more afterward.
Go Tuna Fishing on Favignana Island
Speaking of islands, located a mile or so off Sicily's west coast is the island of Favignana, which is part of the Egadi Islands. It's a popular holiday spot due to its many white-sand beaches and clear waters. Plus, the main town (also named Favignana) is full of historic charm as it features architecture of Arab and Norman influences. However, instead of coming here to sunbathe and sightsee, you'll be actively taking part in the trade that's been the principal industry of this island since the mid-19th century: tuna fishing.
The Egadi Islands are home to the largest marine reserve and fishery in Europe, which makes them perfect for fishing excursions. You'll embark from Favignana on a day-long fishing tour, and make no mistake, this is sport-fishing at its most thrilling: the bluefin tuna you can catch in these waters are enormous, regularly outsizing humans. Tip: the best times to go fishing around Favignana are from Sep-Dec and March-June.
Visit the Ancient Catacombs of Palermo
The city center of Palermo is filled with awe-inspiring historic sites, from its Norman palaces and opulent gardens to its ornate cathedrals and that grandest of opera houses in southern Italy, the Teatro Massimo. But while folks are busy snapping photos of these landmarks above ground, just beneath their feet lies the best-kept secret in the city: the largest collection of mummies in the world. In these underground chambers are the catacombs of the Capuchin, an ancient order of friars within the Catholic Church.
This network of catacombs was built as a cemetery to inter the dead of the Capuchins in Palermo. They used a process of natural mummification (draining the bodies of fluids) to preserve the corpses, and these catacombs are home to the 8,000 mummified remains of people who lived between the 17th and 19th centuries. They line the corridor walls and are even organized into categories (men, women, virgins, monks, children, etc.) They're on full display to the public, although taking photos is prohibited.
Interestingly, while the spectacle is indeed a macabre one, the Capuchins and the Catholic Church don't view it as such. Instead, they view it as a reminder of the fleeting nature of mortality and of the transition from the physical world to the hereafter.
Go on a Road Trip of Northwest Sicily
Sicily's coastline has an earned reputation for beauty. This is particularly true of the northern stretch from the eastern city of Messina west through the historic port city of Cefalú and finally to Sicily's capital of Palermo. This route indeed makes for a great road trip; however, west of Palermo is another bit of coast equally as stunning yet mostly off the tourist trail.
The route passes beach resort towns like Mondello and ancient port cities like Castellammare del Golfo in the direction of the city of Trapani, located on the west end of Sicily. Along the route are secluded stretches of sand great for sunbathing/surfing plus, at the north end of the island, there's the crown jewel of Sicilian beach towns: San Vito lo Capo. Its white light sands, clear waters, and coastal mountains are like nothing else in Sicily.