Much has been written and talked about Sicily, Italy’s largest island but it’s nothing near to what I’ve expected. You see, I’m a city girl from the island city, Singapore, where one can reach the north south east west of the country within two hours on public transport. There are many things to do in Singapore but yet there are just these many things to do. Sicily is like an island country to me and impresses upon me as one that’s quite distinct from mainland Italy travel experience, especially with her rich and unique culture. Top it up with her charming cittas and ancient architectures, historical ruins and archaeological sites, abundant beaches with crystal clear turquoise waters, breathtaking panoramas, delectable local produces and cuisines, warmhearted locals, the list can go on and on. Not to mention that many places in Sicily are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There’s so much this island has to offer, it’s impossible to experience and appreciate within just days or weeks. We spent two weeks mostly in the eastern and southern part of the island, and now we can’t wait to go back again.
As we drove a good 11 hours from Le Marche, central Italy travel down the southern Italian coast line and ‘sailed’ (took a 20-minute ferry with the car) into this beautiful Mediterranean island with 5 million population, I can’t help but feel the adrenaline rush. It was the beginning of August, mid dry summer, the hottest and most popular month of the year when the Italians take their summer vacation. The island was experiencing a high of 49 degree celsius with long sunshine hours and zero rainfall. We had our suitcase packed with lots of swimwear, beach wear, sun protection cream, moisturisers. It’s definitely wise to keep hydrated. And since Covid-19 is still very much part of our daily lives, we got to keep note of the best practices, ie, social distancing, wearing masks when indoor or in crowded places, sanitising regularly.
We stayed in a villa in Augusta, made day trips to the charming villages and towns along the eastern and southern coastline. Most times we hunt down hidden beaches or mare (Italian for sea, the beaches are sand beaches but rather large limestone rocks) and hang round for a swim in the warm Mediterranean waters. Here’s a snapshot of the places we visited and things we do and eat. I’d find time to blog more in detail for my Italy travel stories.
Italy Travel: Ragusa
We spent a whole day visiting families and friends, roaming around Marina di Ragusa which is quite a modern Marina for boat berthing, and where you can find overcrowded sandy beaches.
We did manage to spend some time in the waters at a beach where it’s not so overcrowded. The temperature during the day was quite overbearing but it gets cooler towards the late afternoon.
Italy Travel: Noto
Noto is a real delight. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002, once razed by the 1693 Sicilian earthquake, occupied by the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans. I was fascinated by the magnificent Sicilian Baroque architecture. Along Noto’s main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, there are many churches and buildings with stunning Baroque designs combined with eclectic elements.
Italy Travel: Taormina
I love Taormina for its beautiful pebble beaches, its popular Isola Bella, as well as its ancient mountaintop sandstone villages. On it, the Antico Teatro di Taormina, an ancient Greek theatre has an unmatched backdrop of the Ionian sea and Mount Etna. Attending a concert in this theatre is a newfound dream yet to come true. If you are in Sicily Italy, travel even on a day trip to Taormina is absolutely worth it.
Italy Travel: Catania
Right at the base of Mount Etna, Catania IMHO is like any other main city, crowded, not so clean and slightly commercialised. However I was in awe by the beautiful Baroque styled Duomo di Catania, aka Cattedrale di Sant’Agata. Via Etnea, the main shopping street created with an eruption of Mount Etna is a great reminder of the great volcano’s presence. And oh, the Amphitheatre of Catania, a Roman amphitheatre built in the Roman Imperial period in the 2nd century AD, can be found right in the historic centre of the city. It’s below ground level, estimated to hold more than 15,000 spectators and rumoured that it used to hold naumachiae, a staged sea battles that uses the ancient aqueduct to fill the arena with water.
Italy Travel: Portopalo di Capo Passero
The southernmost part of Sicily is a windy hilly little town, offering a long stretch of sandy or rocky beaches, tonnes of space to spend a nice afternoon at.
Italy Travel: Ortigia
A historical centre of Syracuse, aka the Citta Vecchia (Old city) contains many historical landmarks. We took a long time to find a parking slot. Self reminder to be there earlier next time in order to avoid the evening crowd. This island that’s connected by two bridges is really touristic but you can find impressive churches, baroque styled architectures, elegant piazzas, ancient ruins in unexpected corners. The historical Greek influence on this island is for real but you can also find the most impressive and extravagant yachts at its berth.
Italy Travel: Syracuse
Within Syracuse, the Greek influence extends to the Archaeological Park of Neapolis. This park is rather rocky, I’d suggest you do a little reading to understand you are not just walking into some quarry, that’s the first impression I had. The Greek Theater of Syracuse first built in the 5th century BC is an impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site. Concerts and performances are being held here in modern days. The Ear of Dionisio, aka Orecchio di Dionisio, is an articifical limestone cave, linked to the acoustic effects within the cave. It’s really amazing how in those ancient times, people are able to carve out a cave with really high 23-metres ceiling like this one. The most impressive of all is perhaps the Roman amphitheatre of Syracuse, excavated out of the living rock, though in the form of ruins, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualise the location of the entrance, the centre of the arena, the vaulted corridor through which gladiators navigated.
Italy Travel: Brucoli
While in Sicily Italy, travel to mainstream tourist destinations is the norm. Yet Brucoli is really one-of-a-kind.
Speak of a cute little self-sufficient 3-lane town, Brucoli has a population of about 1,000 people, is extremely popular during summer, and has a church, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a castle, a post office, a beach corner, a marina for boats and many bars and restaurants. We came here a couple of times to buy fresh seafood and we had one of the best mussels bought here. And I can’t say I’m done with this quaint little town.
Italy Travel: Augusta
A place that’s unexpectedly homely to me. It’s not the mainstream tourist destination, in fact, one wouldn’t be here if not for families who still live here. The place feels like my hometown, my birthplace in Malaysia. The vibes are almost identical. This town is one of the main harbours in Italy, particularly for oil refineries. In some of the coastal part of the town, there are heavy oil refinery areas that makes you think you have landed yourself in some refinery oil rigs out in the ocean. Augusta consists of the old town which is an island and connected to the mainland by two bridges. You will find within the old town a couple of streets, a small beach area, a military base, a cityhall, duomo, a defunct castle fortress. I was under the impression that Noto has one of the most amazing Sicilian Baroque styled duomos and balconies. And that I found in the old town of Augusta too, albeit on a smaller scale.
Italy Travel: Gole Alcantara
If you think Sicily has only beautiful beaches to offer, you need to visit the gorges of Alcantara. About 20km from Taormina, we drove through mountain valleys to reach this amazing place. Parking is available near to the entrance, so are bars and restaurants. We bought the entrance ticket at 2 Euro per person. Then over 200 steps down, we reached an oasis of real canyons made from black lava walls and shaped like a prism. The water that flows through is not only crystal clear, but freezing cold at that time of summer. And here you can find many locals hanging around the gorge sun tanning or just soaking themselves in the ice cold water.
Italy Travel: Mount Etna
In Sicily Italy, travel to visit Mount Etna is almost the default itinerary. I didn’t do the full scale tour up to Mount Etna, I’m not sure if I can withstand that level of hiking. But just a drive up and around Mount Etna left me in awesome of this majestic volcano. Here’s a picture at one of the ‘dead’ eruption point. The drive within Mount Etna was magnificent, the black lava soil was so immense, I can only imagine the amount of lava that flows out during each eruption.
Golf in Mount Etna
I really enjoyed golf and it’s a dream to be able to golf at different vacation destinations. This time we brought along our own golf set. Playing golf in Italy is as expensive as playing in Singapore, but the experience and landscape is superb. Golfing in the higher altitude around Mount Etna in the midst of summer is not only extremely pleasurable, we are constantly distracted by what nature offers – natural mulberry trees within the golf course. In fact one family we met during the game were taking a break and savouring mulberries right from the trees.
There are many times we will just drive through some neighbourhoods on roads that are extremely tight. A tell-tale sign is when you see quite a number of cars parked in an ambiguous area, it simply means there’s a path that will lead you to some amazing beaches (usually rocky beaches).
But our favourite beach (again it’s a rocky beach) is one near to the family villa that we can almost call our private beach. There are very few people, the waters can sometimes be really rocky, but it’s an absolute delight to swim when the waves are gentler.
Granita as breakfast and late night supper
The Sicilian granita is almost like a cult. It’s a typical Sicilian breakfast, and it’s difficult not to like it. Plus the good thing as a Singaporean, I’m very open in terms of culinary exposure. Granita is a kind of semi frozen dessert served through the day from breakfast to late night. In the morning, we eat it with a hot brioche, aka freshly baked milk bread. Tear out the brioche and swipe it with a scoop of the granita. The typical granita comes in flavours of lemon, pistachio, almond, mulberries (this is really unique, it’s dark plum in colour with a tint of bitterness), chocolate, strawberry, coffee. Some bars may offer pineapples and coconut flavours. My favourites are coconut and lemon, to which the locals commented, the flavours do not complement each other, but who cares, I love them. Late at night after dinner (which typically starts at 9pm), it’s not unusual to find crowded bars with locals mingling around the tables with granitas and gelati. Much like the scene in a crowded bar with alcohols, here it’s just the local ice-creams.
Arancini, or rather rustici
The widely popular arancini, aka deep fried rice balls, is the pride of Sicilian cuisine. It can be eaten as a snack or served as an appetiser, first course, or even main course (for me). Commonly found everywhere in Sicily, at any time of day or year, always served hot and fragrant at the island’s many fried food shops. The arancini has many different variations with the most common filling with ragu and cheese, or pistachio. During the winter, you can also find arancini with squid ink. I really love arancini, it’s savoury and filling.
The Arancini is one type of rustici, a series of puff pastry that contains different stuffings, from ham, cheese, eggplant, and tomatoes. I kinda of like it in the morning as breakfast, with granita. Please, don’t tell the locals I’m mixing savoury and sweet for breakfast!
What is Sicily popular for?
A search on Google with Italy travel will return a list with ‘Where the Italian Mafia was originated’, ‘birthplace of Archimedes’, Renowned Greek Temples in The Valley of Temples’, ‘Mount Etna’, ‘Taormina’. While these are true, I was fortunate enough to experience beyond the typical tourist. I’d think a few must dos:
- Hangout and swim in the warm Mediterranean waters.
- Explore charming mountaintop sandstone villages and seaside towns.
- Admire the abundant ancient ruins, cittas, amphitheatres, and archaeological sites.
- Savour the local produce, the seafood, the granitas, the rustici.
- Marvel at the grandeur of Mount Etna, a cultural symbol and icon of Sicily. Now I’d even say she’s rather motherly to some natives.
What is the best month to visit Sicily?
The best month to visit Sicily is from May to June or September to October when the temperature is apt for the summer activities that the island is famous for, ie village visiting, beach lazing, or hiking. August is usually the month when most Italians take their summer holidays. In Italy, travel during these months would also mean prices will be higher compared to other months.
How long should you stay in Sicily?
We spent 16 days in Sicily and it’s not enough to even fully appreciate the entire island. It takes hours to drive or fly from one end of the island to the other or even from one city to another. I’d suggest to focus on a specific town or city depending on the number of days you have. Some main places to visit as a tourist will be Catania, Palermo, Taormina, Agrigento.
Like to visit another Italy travel destination? Check out my post on A surprise trip to Cascata delle Marmore, Umbria, Italy.