Exploring the south of Italy is like stepping back in time. It is simple, rustic and full of natural beauty. The people and places are welcoming, warm and unspoilt; the food is fresh, wholesome and tasty – and friends are family
Sicily is growing in popularity with tourists, but because of its distance from the country’s attractions of Rome, Milan or Venice, it doesn’t always get the acclaim it should. But that’s changing. Sicily isn’t just a region tacked onto the end of a European getaway – it has become a destination in itself. And once you get there, it’s easy to see why.
WHAT DOES IT HAVE THAT THE REST OF ITALY DOESN’T?
Sicily doesn’t have the hordes of tourists that swamp mainland Italy, and much of its countryside and coastline is undiscovered by the unknowing visitor. The region and its people are genuine in their approach to all the good things in life – family, food and fun. Life is balanced, beaches are pristine, and food is ritual. Really exploring Sicily – outside of the tourist area of Taormina – is good for the soul, and gives an insight into traditional Italia, which is a joy to experience.
WHERE SHOULD I GO?
Palermo is a stunning city that dates back 2700 years. The pebble-stoned paths, ancient churches and intricate architecture is well worth the trip. Even as recently as a few years ago, tourists avoided walking city streets for fear of petty theft and mafia urban myths, but all of that has changed. Locals mix happily with interested visitors, and welcome the passion and praise of excited foreigners.
From Palermo you can easily navigate the small island, moving east to experience Cefalu and Messina, before heading south to Taormina, Catania and the lesser known, but incredibly beautiful, Noto. Keep going west to swim the shores of Sciacca, the beach clubs of Marsala and back north to Trapani and the world-famous beach of San Vito Lo Capo.
WHAT SHOULDN’T I MISS?
It’s worth being in Sicily for August 15, the date of Italy’s famous Ferragosto festival. If you ask a local, they’re not quite sure why the festival exists, but the public holiday coincides with the Assumption of Mary. It makes for a huge party – streets close to cars, pedestrians mill at every corner, there’s market stalls, fireworks fill the sky and live entertainment and dancing is a must. The local custom is to swim at the beach at midnight so most popular beaches will have a party with food and drinks on the sand that continue into the early hours.
Taormina, Mt Etna, San Vito Lo Capo and Erice, a sacred medieval hilltop town in the island’s west, shouldn’t be missed.
WHAT TOPS THE THINGS-TO-DO LIST?
Citta Del Mare is a fun thing to do with children – there is a series of waterslides cascade down a mountain, each slide landing into a different pool until the last splash is into the ocean below. The all-inclusive resort is a four-star hotel. It used to allow day-trippers but you now have to stay the night to use the slides, and it is quick to book out, so plan ahead if you want to visit.
Climbing part of Mt Etna, the region’s active volcano on the island’s east coast, is a bucket-list experience, as is snorkelling in the clear waters of Isola Bella, an island off Taormina.
A horse-drawn cart is a memorable way to see the sights of Palermo, where you can enjoy a traditional dinner at Antica Focacceria di San Francesco, a dining institution since 1851.
WHAT FOOD IS FAMOUS?
Pizzas are a must – and for something really traditional, a local topping is fresh, sliced lemon, and some regions, including Palermo, serve a thicker, almost focaccia-like base called sfincione. Pasta is always on the menu, but try spaghetti with vongole, local clams in a white wine, garlic and herb sauce. Ricci, or sea urchin, is also a delicacy and served in a tasty pasta sauce. Fresh fish, pots of mussels, fried arancini, grilled veal schnitzel, and stuffed sardines are also famous in the area, for good reason.
For sweets, you can’t go past brioche-filled gelato, homemade cannoli, lemon or black mulberry shaved ice granita, and hot cassatelle – a moon-shaped ricotta-filled pastry that is the perfect way to wash down espresso at a late- night coffee bar.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
From Australia you must fly via Rome before heading south to Palermo, with local carrier Alitalia as a reliable airline. Alternately, you can fly direct from London or nearby Malta. You can also pick up a car at Rome Airport and drive south, stopping along the Amalfi Coast before getting an overnight ferry from Naples to Palermo.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
In Palermo, there is a range of hotels and pensiones. For an upmarket hotel, Grand Hotel Villa Igiea is a five-star celebrity haunt, and old-world in its traditional glamour. Other central, affordable options include Palazzo Brunaccini or Hotel Garibaldi.
Taormina has accommodation styles ranging from up in the town or down on the beaches, including Giardini Naxos to the south. The beach of Mazzaro is a short walk along the coast from Isola Bella and has a cable car to the night-life of Taormina town, where parking can be difficult.
In the beautiful region of Trapani, there are a number of private villas or apartments with pools for families looking for a longer, luxurious stay. These self-catering options allow you to eat local – visit farmers selling fresh fruit, tomatoes and vegetables on street corners, cheese makers tending to their ricotta at market stalls and sliced-to-order ham, prosciutto and cheese to fill fresh panini at the closest supermarket or deli.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO?
The Sicilian summer is in June, July and August, with July and August being their busiest months. Tourists tend to go home by August, but that’s when the locals are on holidays so towns and beaches remain busy.
While it is also beautiful in winter, exploring Sicily in summer lets you experience the beaches and warm weather for which the region’s known.
WHAT SHOULD I KNOW?
Most shops, cafes and bars will close from 1pm-3pm for the Italian “siesta” after lunch.
Dinner is usually timed around 10pm and afterwards, a walk around the local town to find a gelato or crepe with Nutella is customary.
Diners dress in their finest, meet friends and stroll through beachside markets – something locals call “passeggiata”, or “leisurely stroll taken in the evening to socialise”.
FIVE AMAZING BEACHES IN SICILY
San Vito Lo Capo
San Vito is where the sand is white and the water the clearest blue. Lidos, or paid beaches, run along the shoreline, with two lounge chairs and an umbrella costing about €30 /day (about $49). Have a mouth-watering lunch at Sabbione, attached to Lido San Vito.
Located just off famous Taormina’s beachline, Isola Bella is a famous Sicilian beach with a narrow, rocky path connecting the island to the mainland. A top pick for snorkelling.
Mondello is the perfect place to rent a boat and see the Island from the water. Anchor off The Island of the Women, a rocky uninhabited island that is a big drawcard for locals with boats.
Capo Rosello, near famous white rock formation Scala dei Turchi in Sicily’s south, is known for the red colour of the stone, which can make the water look a stunning shade of pink.
West of Messina, Cefalu is a picturesque, sandy beach that is popular with locals.
Lined by traditional restaurants and bars, the historic town is known for its stunning strip of beach.