The best things to see and do in Sicily

Here is your guide to some of the very best things to do and places to visit when you travel to the incomparable Italian island of Sicily.

By Andy Stevens

Published 16 May 2024

If it's spectacular settings steeped in high, high drama you're after, then Sicily's picture-perfect mountainside town of Taormina is a world leader.

No place does views like Taormina. That's thanks chiefly to the brooding, snow-capped and strangely-familiar presence of Mount Etna as its backdrop to end all backdrops, always vying for another photo opportunity. But Taormina's nearby Bay of Naxos also gets in on the act, with its long sweep of sands a magnet for lovers of classic Mediterranean beach life.

Culture and (usually ancient) history are Sicilian ever-presents. And Taormina's evocative narrow streets and lovingly-restored medieval buildings tell their own remarkable tales, which through the centuries have drawn the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, French, Spanish and others to leave their mark on this gem of a place.

Taking top billing among these sites is is Taormina's 'ancient theatre' the Teatro antico di Taormina, the town's third century theatre, which is believed to have been finished off by the Romans.

The theatre still plays a big role in Taormina's cultural life, hosting regular concerts, plays and operas.

Did you know?

Taormina's ancient theatre was featured in the Woody Allen film Mighty Aphrodite (1995), starring Mira Sorvino, Helena Bonham Carter and F. Murray Abraham. It was also featured in the HBO series The White Lotus (2023).

This ancient city of centuries-old strategic dominance in Sicily's south-eastern corner bursts with archaeological wonders. And it's no wonder at all that those UNESCO chaps have long since given this must-visit destination a world heritage gong.

Syracuse (or Siracusa, in the local spelling) simply teems with ultra-significant archaeology and architecture, each example resonating with an unparalleled history from Greek mythology through to the area's Roman settlement and on to the Baroque period.

The people of Syracuse are rightly proud of the city's historic past and its sites, sights and stories. There remains a healthy and not unexpected rivalry with Sicily's capital city, Palermo, as a result.

Fact is, the two cities are markedly different in form and function, with Syracuse for our money more than shading the deal as - whisper it lightly - Sicily's best.

Syracuse's archaeological park - the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis - clinches it. Here you will enter a dream world of antiquity. But this is no theme park; all of it is real and, yes, really, really old.

Sites to savour on your visit include Syracuse's own 5th century BC theatre, the Teatro Greco.

Plus, be sure to see the dramatic, high-jutting grotto in a rockface known as the 'Ear of Dionysus', and witness the catacombs within the Latomia del Paradiso, which has a bloody history dating back to 413 BC, when the city state of Syracuse was at war with the Athenians.

At the heart of Syracuse is the delightful old town island area of Ortigia, also known as the Citta Vecchia. It's a beautifully atmospheric place to walk around and soak up the historic delights of the narrow streets and piazzas.

Then maybe stop off for a look around the cathedral and the feted Fountain of Arethusa, the latter having merited a mention in the literary works of Milton and Wordsworth, no less.

It would be easy to forget that Sicily, incredibly, can eclipse Greece itself when it comes to Grecian archaeological sites; a legacy of the island's torrid, much fought-over past as the most strategic of trading posts, slap-bang in the central Mediterranean.

But eclipse it does, no more so than at Agrigento, home to the Valle Dei Templi (Valley of the Temples). Why just have one temple from antiquity to visit, you might ask, when you can have eight in one go?

Perched across a long ridge, the temples of this UNESCO world heritage site are dotted along what is reputedly the world's largest archaeological park.

We'd recommend a whole day's excursion to the Valley of the Temples, so you can take in their full majesty at a leisurely pace; namely the temples of Concordia, Heracles, Zeus, Hera, Castor & Pollux, Asclepius, Demeter and Haphaestos, which archaeologists believe to have all been constructed in the period of 510 to 430 BC.

An earthquake put paid to eight towns in south-east Sicily's glorious Val di Noto. It wasn't recently, though - so not to worry. It was in 1693. And things have been looking up since then.

In a triumph of the human spirit of renewal and innovation in the face of natural adversity, the towns of Caltagirone, Militello, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli were all reborn and reconstructed after the earthquake.

They live on and flourish to this day as jewels of the Baroque era, with Noto and Scicli arguably the most eye-catchingly beautiful of them all.

Among the Val di Noto towns, special mention should also be given to Modica, famed for its magnificent chocolate, which comes as a pretty resounding recommendation in our book.

It must be written in some book of byelaws of the Mediterranean that it's not permitted to mention the places which fringe that magnificent big blue sea without the subject of food cropping up. Particularly Sicily, it should be said. And when it's Sicily, particularly seafood.

The city of Catania on Sicily's east coast is home to the most spectacular showcase you'll find celebrating the daily catch of the Med's peerless piscine plunder, namely its vast fish market, La Pescheria (or A' Piscaria).

The drama of the fishermen's lot out on the briny is echoed - loudly - on return to dry land in the sheer theatre of Catania fish market itself. The singsong hails of the stallholders are deployed with great gusto, as they attempt to lure the market's shoppers to purchase their own dazzling fruits of the sea, and not those of the stallholder next door!

Catania fish market isn't by far the only thing to recommend about the place. The city has a buzz all its own, with excellent restaurants and bars, Baroque architecture, and a lovely climate even in what passes for a Silician winter.

Plus, there's Catania's famous festival time every February, the Festa di Sant'Agata, when over the course of several days the city's patron saint is commemorated with spectacular processions, music and fireworks in an unforgettable outpouring of pure partying and pomp, Sicilian-style.

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