6 Unique Experiences in Sicily

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Sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sicily has been a coveted piece of real estate for millennia. Every culture has left its mark, giving the island a flavor like no other. Thanks to its Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture, it is so unlike the rest of Italy that the island deserves its own separate travel guide. Yes, there are that many unique experiences in Sicily.

Blessed with rich scenery, historical hot spots, culture, tradition, and charming little towns, Sicily is full of treasures. Six of its sites have even earned UNESCO World Heritage status, and its food is a curious mix of African, Arab, Mediterranean and Norman flavors. Sicily will attack all your senses.

Where to stay in Sicily

Changing hotels wastes valuable time that could be better spent enjoying the brilliant sun, stunning and breathtaking sights, and remarkable food.

Staying in a villa in Sicily for holiday can be an economical and fun option, because you can self-cater and try all the local foods (and wines!). Palermo has wonderful markets, and it's a great base for seeing all the sights on the west side of the island without the need to change hotels. You can also stay near Taormina or Catania and enjoy everything on the Mount Etna side of the island.

TIP: For convenience and flexibility, we recommend renting a car rather than relying on public transportation. CHECK PRICES HERE.

Mount Etna lava flow text says sicily

How to get to Sicily

There are several ways to get to Sicily. You can fly, take a train or bus and, yes, even drive. If you're flying, Skyscanner lets you set an alert to get the best prices. Both Palermo (code: PMO) and Catania (code: CTA) have international airports.

If you plan to arrive by land, Omio (formerly Rome2Rio) is a fantastic resource. Plug in your TO: and FROM: and it will show you prices and travel times by train, bus, and plane.

You're one click away from booking your Sicilian adventure.

TIP: A travel guide is a great resource for finding local places to eat and Sicily experiences that will last a lifetime. We used this one.

Climb Mount Etna

No visit to Sicily is complete without a trip to the main tourist attraction, Mount Etna. UNESCO named it a World Heritage site in 2013, but the smoking volcanic cone has been a mainstay in historical and cultural Sicily for ages.

Mount Etna, an active volcano, is in an almost constant state of activity. Visitors are attracted to the release of both smoke and new lava flowing from this Sicilian giant.

Interesting facts:

  • Etna is dubbed a Decade Volcano because of the constant activity and the dense population surround its base.
  • Its base measures about 93 miles in circumference and is nearly 11,000 feet (3,350 m) high.
  • Etna is among the highest volcanoes in Europe.
  • Volcano aficionados will probably want to also visit its neighbor, Stromboli.
  • Etna is an Italian wine DOC. Rich volcanic soils in the area support extensive vineyards, orchards and other agricultural farming.

Mount Etna is on Sicily's eastern side, between the second largest city of Catania and Taormina.

TIP: Mount Etna tops the list of things to do in Sicily so there is no end to tour options. Find anything from half-day treks to full-day excursions, at a variety of price points. All give a wonderful perspective of the volcano and the history behind this legend. FIND TOURS HERE.

mount etna

The Catacombs of the Capuchin Friars in Palermo

Sicily is a region rich in history and culture, and there's evidence of that littered across the island (such as the temple ruins of the temples in Solunto, The Norman Palace or The Cathedral of Monreale).

But maybe the easiest one to visit is the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. They are is located in the Cuba district and attached to the church of Santa Maria Della Pace.

Begun in 1599 to house dead Capuchin friars, the catacombs now contain about 8000 corpses and 1252 mummies (which line the walls). It's an eerie experience, but a fascinating and unique window into the past with a unique Gothic style.

  • Admission: €3
  • Open: 9:00-13:00, 15:00-18:00 daily. Closed on Sunday afternoons from late October to late March.

TIP: This would be a nice way to end a Private 4-Hour Walking Tour of Palermo.

statues found in the catacombs of capuchin

The views at Taormina

Located on the top of a cliff at over 200 meters high, Taormina offers an incredible view of the sea and Mount Etna. This little mountaintop town is immensely charming, but its biggest draw is a beautiful ancient Greek amphitheater.

The Greek amphitheater's construction dates back to the third century BC and is still well preserved. The theater can accommodate over 5,000 people and is still used for the performance of plays and concerts.

In just 30 minutes you'll have just enough time to take some pictures. Then again, the main reason to visit the theater is because of the view it offers. So maybe not.

On a warm summer's day, there is a selection of lovely beaches nearby. Bring your suit and chill out on after a day of exploring.

TIP: Avoid visiting the theater on a day when concerts are scheduled. There will be a large stage in the middle of it, which may slightly spoil the atmosphere of the place.

street in taormina

The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento

Magna Graecia's most imposing remains may very well be sitting on a ridge full of flowering almond trees in Agrigento.

Founded in the 6th century BCE as a Greek colony called Akragas, it endured wars and fell into decay and disrepair. Eventually, the Romans conquered and renamed it “Agrigentum.” Still, they preserved its original Greek colonial design and many early buildings from an early period still stand. That's unusual, because people often convert structures to suit later tastes and cults.

No wonder the Valley of the Temples has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The ruins cover over 1,300 hectares, so unless you plan to take a tour like this one, be prepared to do a lot of walking. There's so much to see: 10 impressive temples, 3 sanctuaries; a large concentration of necropolises (necropoli?), two important meeting places, an Olympeion, a council hall, and more. And it hasn't all been excavated yet!

  • Admission: €10.00 
  • Open: daily from 08:30 to 20:00
greek temple in the valley of the temples

The great dilemma: Arancino vs Arancina

When it comes to food, these not-so-tiny morsels of deliciousness have been an icon of Sicily's culinary culture since the 10th century.

Arancini are filled spheres of risotto that have been coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried. They can be filled with just about anything – from cheese to meat to pistachios and more. You'll find them at street stalls and in cafes throughout the island.

While nobody disputes that arancini are a scrumptious Sicilian delicacy, we can't say that everyone agrees on the name and shape. Catania and Palermo – the island's two biggest cities – have always had a friendly rivalry as to who created it. They also disagree about what to call this delicacy, as well as what to call it.

  • In Palermo and the rest of western Sicily, locals insist that it should be called Arancina (the feminine form (Arancina). Here, it's prepared it the shape of a ball.
  • Yet in Catania and eastern Sicily, you'll need to ask for Arancino (the masculine form). Here, they are more oblong, shaped like an American football.

But it also was a fun experience having to remember what to call it depending on where we were. As tourists, you might be forgiven for mixing them up.

Maybe.

TIP: Regardless of shape and name, it's perfectly acceptable to eat one while walking through Sicily's ancient streets. So taste the flavor of Sicilian cuisine and watch life unfold around you at the same time.

arancino rice balls of sicily

The perfect summer breakfast: Granita and Brioche by the sea

Sicilians like to start the day with sweetness and freshness, and the summer breakfast is not to be missed. If you're coming on holiday here, you've got to try it.

Traditionally, a Sicilian breakfast includes two of the island's most delightful delicacies. The first is granita, a semi-frozen dessert. It is a little like sorbet, but it has a lighter, icier texture. The most popular flavors are pistachio, almond, lemon, and coffee, but also, strawberry and black mulberry.

The typical Sicilian ‘brioscia col tuppo' is a sweet brioche that's flavored with vanilla or citrus fruits. Two things make this leavened egg bread unique: its thin, soft crust, and its unusual shape. The briosche s topped with a smaller ball that rather looks like the traditional low bun that Sicilian women used to wear. The bun is known as a tuppo in Sicilian dialect. Hence the name.

The brioche is served hot and you're expected to eat it together with the granita. Sicilians like to use pieces of the hot brioche to soak up the icy, sweet granita.

TIP: You can find shops selling granita served in a brioche at all hours of the day.

Sicilian lemon granita and a typical warm brioche with blue sea and Mount Etna in the background

Final thoughts on Sicily

Sicily is on many bucket list because it's unlike anywhere else in Italy. Sicily is one-of-a-kind because the island has changed hands numerous times.

Sicilian life, history, and culture is the same, but different, so it's worth visiting this corner of Italy. Pizza, yes it's here. Special history? Of course! Sicily offers something for everyone.

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Written by Dan

Professional photographer specializing in street, food and travel shots at As We Saw It travel blog. “Photography is unique in that it captures light in all forms, and since the Bible says YHVH (God) is light, photography captures Him in many forms.”

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