Around the region

Sicily is an almost perfect triangle, floating just off the toe of Italy. The east has some blockbuster attractions – chic Taormina, Mount Etna, ancient Syracuse (Siracusa), Baroque Noto, and the serene Aeolian Islands. In the northwest, the teeming capital of Palermo is curved around a craggy bay, while ethereal salt pans, fishing villages and ancient ruins are found at the quiet western tip. The south coast boasts long beaches and the magnificent Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.


Palermo, Sicily’s theatrical, bomb-blasted, anarchic capital, is tightly packed around a wide, curving bay. It was considered one of the loveliest cities of medieval Europe, but centuries of war, neglect and poverty have stripped it of much of its former beauty. Some spellbinding corners survive, particularly the glittering 12th-century Cappella Palatina, in the Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace), one of the great jewels of Arabic-Norman art. There are some interesting museums, but much of the city’s allure lies in exploring its crumbling alleys and squares, and visiting the eye-popping markets with their glistening offal and gaping fish. Palermo’s seaside suburb, elegant Mondello, is dotted with pretty art nouveau villas submerged in greenery. On a hill overlooking the city, the magnificent cathedral of Monreale is encrusted with dazzling Byzantine mosaics. To the east, the once-chic resort of Bagheria is still scattered with extraordinary follies and whimsical turn-of-the-century villas. Much of Palermo province is former bandit country, and even now towns like Corleone and Prizzi summon up visions of the Mafia (however much they wish they didn’t).

Northern Sicily

Cefalù, at the very centre of Sicily’s northern coast, is one of the prettiest seaside towns on the Mediterranean, with a red-roofed old quarter piled up beneath a cliff. Just inland, the Madonie and Nebrodi mountains, now two adjacent natural reserves, contain some of Sicily’s highest peaks, and are scattered with steep, stone villages where old traditions survive intact. The undulating coastline east of Cefalù offers dramatic capes and seductive coves of fine pebbles. Ancient Tyndaris (Tindari), high on a dramatic headland, is one of the most beautifully situated archaeological sites on the island, and the lagoons and beaches below are quiet, empty and utterly magical. From appealing, castle-topped Milazzo, ferries run to the idyllic Aeolian Islands, each of which boasts a different character, from firework-spitting Stromboli to the celebrity haven of Panerea.

Eastern Sicily

At the tip of the island, Messina is a big working port that sits just a few kilometres from mainland Italy. Sicily’s eastern coast is spectacularly beautiful, with undulating cliffs overlooking exquisite coves and the startlingly blue Ionian sea. Taormina, Sicily’s loveliest and best-preserved hill town, has been the island’s biggest tourist magnet since Goethe waxed lyrical about its charms in his 18th-century travelogue Italian Journey. One of Taormina’s biggest attractions is the superb view of Mount Etna afforded from its elegant squares and terraces. The huge volcano, the largest and most active in Europe, dominates the entire eastern coast – physically, and in other less tangible ways. Even when entirely hidden by cloud, its menacing, unpredictable presence is felt. The trip to the top – whether you choose to hike, take the cable car, or a jeep – is thrilling. The towns and villages that circle Etna’s base may be threatened by eruptions, but they are immersed in a sea of orchards, olive groves and vineyards. They are linked by a panoramic railway which culminates in Catania, Sicily’s flamboyant second city, where the elegant Baroque monuments of the historic centre are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Poverty and neglect may have taken their toll, but Catania remains a vibrant and engaging city.

Southeastern Sicily

The southeastern corner of Sicily is packed with enticing sights, including the superb archaeological remains of Syracuse at modern Siracusa and the exquisite little time-capsule island of Ortigia. Then there is the string of superb Baroque cities, awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, built in one glorious surge after a massive earthquake decimated the entire region three hundred years ago. Foremost among them is Noto, a golden city which has recently emerged from extensive restoration, but don’t miss nearby Ragusa and Modiza, where gastronomy vies with architecture as the main attraction. These cities are all firmly on most tourist itineraries, but inland, amid the gentle peaks and farmsteads of the Monti Iblei, you can escape the crowds in quiet villages and gorges. Along the coast, you’ll find a spectacular nature reserve at the Riserva Naturale Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari, a haven for migratory birds, which boasts some of the wildest and most beautiful beaches on the island.

Central & southern Sicily

There is only one blockbuster attraction in central Sicily, but it is a stunner: the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina. Built during the fourth century AD, this magnificent late Imperial villa was probably built for the Emperor Maximianus, and boasts the finest and most extensive Roman mosaic decoration to be found anywhere in the world. Nearby, the ruins of ancient Morgantina are serenely set overlooking the undulating hills of central Sicily, where few visitors penetrate. At the heart of this quiet region is Enna, a citadel city on a lofty crag with a smattering of churches and an enormous medieval castle. To the north, the rugged hills rise up sharply to join the Madonie mountains (see Northern Sicily), and are scattered with quiet, agricultural villages linked by panoramic small roads. The southern coast, an otherwise workaday region with gritty ports and low-key resorts, contains another of Sicily’s headlining attractions: the stunning Valle dei Templi in Agrigento. This magnificent and extraordinarily well preserved temple group, dating back to the sixth to fifth centuries BC, is the finest to be found outside mainland Greece. The far-flung Pelagie Islands, closer to Africa than Europe, are barren and windswept, but their glorious beaches draw huge crowds in summer.

Western Sicily

The western coast of Sicily is flat and ethereal, the coastline delicately etched with the pale outline of salt pans. The provincial capital Trapani, with its surprisingly elegant old quarter and an excellent reputation for its cuisine, occupies a slender promontory. Nearby, the magical, medieval hill town of Erice clings to the mountain-top, overlooking the craggy San Vito Lo Capo and the superb Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro. This reserve encompasses a long swathe of deliciously unspoilt, craggy coastline, with hiking trails and tiny coves. Lost in the hills inland, the great Doric temple of Segesta, erected in the fifth century BC, is heart-stoppingly beautiful. The west also boasts two lively and appealing port towns: Marsala, famous for its delicious fortified wine, and Mazara del Vallo, which has an attractive old quarter. There are more spectacular ancient ruins at Selinunte, romantically located on a clifftop amid a profusion of wild flowers. Celebrities in search of peace and seclusion head for the tiny and enchanting island of Pantelleria, closer to Africa than Sicily. The trio of Egadi Islands are more accessible, and the fishing villages, striking coastline and rocky coves draw floods of summer visitors.

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