With great food, history, beaches and outdoor adventures, working out the best ways to explore Sicily can be overwhelming. Here’s a top ten on what to see and do for the first time visitor to the Mediterranean’s largest island.
Best beach stay
On Sicily’s northern coast, Cefalù’s sprawling beach combines with a glorious Arab-Norman cathedral and a labyrinthine old town to make it one of the island’s most popular resorts.
Visit outside of the peak season – the balmier and quieter months of June or September are both recommended – and spend the morning along Cefalù’s crescent-shaped cove before decamping for a leisurely lunch at Mas Que Nada. Frequent trains take an hour to trundle west along the coastline to Palermo.
Best street food
Gritty street art and authentic street food make Palermo’s inner-city Vucciria neighbourhood a great destination for curious foodie travellers, and it’s a part of the Sicilian capital best explored on a walking tour with Streaty Street Food Tours.
Classic Palermo snacks include pane e panelle (crispy chickpea fritters), crocchè (croquettes, often flavoured with mint), and the only-in-Vucciria specialty of pane con la milza, fresh rolls with grilled cow’s spleen.
In the nearby Il Capo neighbourhood, Palermo’s main cathedral is another masterful synthesis of Arab and Norman architectural styles.
Step into the honey-coloured streets and plazas of the Baroque hill town of Noto to experience Sicily’s gelato wars.
Two historic cafes, less than 100m apart, are both regular inclusions on lists of the world’s best gelaterie (ice-cream shops).
Save yourself a tough decision and enjoy a morning treat of seasonal gelsi (mulberry) flavour at Caffe Sicilia, followed by an afternoon pick-me-up of an espresso and a mandarino (tangerine) ice-cream after lunch at Dolceria Corrado Costanzo.
For a sweet summertime snack, try a freshly baked brioche crammed with citrusy granita.
Towering above northeast Sicily, and providing the ultimate backdrop to life in Sicily’s second city, Catania, Mt Etna’s best explored by riding in a cable car high above the mountain’s lava-scarred slopes, and then continuing in one of Funivia dell’Etna’s 4WD shuttles for views of Etna’s southeast crater from Torre del Filosofo.
Wrap up warmly, even in a Sicilian spring or autumn. For leisurely volcano views, spend a day riding on the Circumetnea, a narrow gauge train travelling around the mountain from Catania to Riposto in around three hours.
Inland from Cefalù is a spectacular wilderness region largely unvisited by the speedo- and bikini-wearing crowds lining the main beach.
In the Madonie region, just 30km inland, there’s shaded walking along forested trails, and in spring the landscape is carpeted with wildflowers. Autumn sees local chefs foraging for mushrooms and forest herbs.
The regional capital of Castelbuono is a fine place to begin a Madonie driving tour around even sleepier smaller medieval-era villages. Combine a forest walk with lunch at the storied Ristorante Nangalarruni in Castelbuono.
Held near the northern tip of Syracuse’s walled old town of Ortygia, Sicily’s best morning market is a culinary riot of red-canopied stalls and tables overflowing with local produce.
Most stallholders are keen to offer samples, so after a few organic almonds or sun-dried tomatoes, continue the feasting with a cone of flash-fried calamari. Other seafood includes riccio di mare (sea urchin), oysters and glistening slabs of spada (swordfish).
Head to the Caseificio Borderi deli for the best freshly-made sandwich you’ll ever have, and don’t miss a glass of freshly squeezed juice from Sicily’s famous arancia rossa di sicilia (blood oranges).
Best hill town
Framed by the sunbaked plains and folded mountain ridges of central Sicily, the road to Enna’s hilltop town square is best managed in a diminutive Fiat 500 rental car.
That’s your best option for negotiating a few tight corners and hillside hairpins. Park up for the night at the family-owned B&B Centro Sicilia, and then ease into aperitivo cocktails at the Al Kenisa Literary Cafe, housed in a centuries-old church including its own spooky crypt.
For Sicily’s best arancini (fried rice balls), filled with organic ingredients like pistachios and mushrooms, descend to Umbriaco in more modern Enna Bassa (lower Enna). There’s a small onsite store selling local artisan produce.
Crossing to central Sicily’s northern coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea, views of the Aeolian Islands, including the often steaming profile of volcanic Stromboli on the far horizon, are a distraction while driving the winding roads of the forested Nebrodi Regional Park.
Reward comes once you reach the ocean, with local resorts – really only busy in July and August – enlivened by waterfront promenades lined with seafood restaurants.
Order the grilled octopus and seafood linguini at Capo d’Orlando’s Passaparola, and definitely consider staying the night. Local B&Bs go for around $150 per night.
Best Greek history
At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily’s been colonised by diverse cultures across the centuries, and the Valley of the Temples is astounding evidence of Greek rule for five centuries from around 800 BC.
Set against a cobalt ocean, the ancient hilltop site was once Akragas, the world’s fourth-largest city, and soaring structures include the Templo della Concordia, constructed in 430BC, and still remarkably intact.
At the base of the temple is a contemporary sculpture of Icarus by the Polish artist Igor Mitoraj.
Best Roman history
Fast-forward more than 700 years, and central Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale was the country retreat for Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, a co-emperor during the AD 286-305 reign of Diocletian.
A definite contender for Grand Designs Roman Empire, four interconnected buildings sprawl over a hillside, each filled with some of the world’s finest floor and wall mosaics.
Covered walkways provide intimate viewing of the still-vibrant mosaics, only uncovered in the 1950s after being protected by a mudslide in the 12th century.