Explore the magical island of Sicily on this virtual tour
I’m often asked what my favorite travel destination is, and that is certainly a hard question to answer. The Italian island of Sicily is always at the top of my response, and more times than not, I always get a blank stare, especially from those who have watched too many “Godfather” movies over the years.
With a history that spans millennia, Sicily’s astonishingly preserved ruins from antiquity, breathtaking landscapes and beaches, ancient cities and charming towns, a warm and gracious population, and incomparable wine and cuisine are just a few of the reasons it is among the top of my favorites list.
First stop: ancient city of Palermo
Most travelers to Sicily either begin or end their tour in the ancient city of Palermo, the region’s capital founded in 736 BC. Blessed by a perfect climate, an amazing number of ancient and historical buildings, renowned gastronomy and restaurants, a vibrant nightlife as well as an international airport, Palermo has become one of the top tourist destinations in Italy and Europe.
This photo was captured from the top of Monte Caputo in Monreale, overlooking the fertile valley below.
A golden moment
Speaking of Monreale, you definitely want to include a visit to this historic site during your stay in Palermo. While the town’s charming streets and squares are picturesque enough, its claim to glory is its 12th century Norman-Byzantine cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Without exaggeration, the moment you walk through the portals (there is no entrance charge), you will be dazzled by the golden mosaics that line every inch of the walls of the cathedral. It ranks among the world’s most famous cathedrals for these exceptional adornments.
Colorful carts with a history
As you stroll through the cities and villages of Sicily, you may wonder at the colorful carts you see on the streets, many of them still pulled by donkeys or mules. These hand-painted carts were introduced to the island by the ancient Greeks, and portray scenes from Sicilian history and folklore as well as geometrical designs.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Sicily during a religious holiday, you’ll be sure to see these carts in a procession. Otherwise, you can visit many museums in Sicily during your travels that display this art form, which has been carried down through the centuries.
Flair for fashion
Italy is known for its flair for fashion, and its island of Sicily is no exception. You’ll find a wide variety of shopping options across the island, from high-end boutiques featuring international designer items to local shops offering quite a variety of Italian-made clothing.
Don’t forget the local markets along your travels, where you’ll be sure to find souvenirs to bring home at bargain prices.
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If you’re a lover of seafood, you’ll certainly be in culinary heaven during your travels through Sicily. From the best swordfish you’ll ever taste in your life, to exquisite shrimp that are harvested in the deepest depths of the sea, to fresh-caught tuna that melts in your mouth, there’s no shortage of delightful eats.
Vegans and carnivores needn’t worry either. You can easily find a restaurant or market that offers vegetarian and vegan items, as well as delicious meat entrees, that will more than satisfy any discerning palate.
Antiquity at your footsteps
The island of Sicily, due to its strategic location, was occupied by many diverse civilizations over the millennia – and monuments to these cultures pepper the landscape of the entire island. Ironically, some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world can be found in Sicily.
You can marvel at seven monumental 5th century BC Greek temples in the “Valley of the Temples” within the city of Agrigento, and also explore the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Selinunte.
Our favorite is the temple and theater of Segesta, one of the world’s best examples of Doric architecture, serenely nestled in the rolling countryside in the western tip of Sicily.
The ultimate road trip
The best way to explore and savor Sicily is by car, and it’s definitely a road trip you will never forget. You can circumnavigate the 900 miles around the island in a few days, to be sure, but you’ll want to take 7 days or more to truly soak in not only the historic highlights, but the life of its people.
In the smaller towns, you’ll be delighted to see a simple lifestyle that hasn’t changed for centuries.
Discover ancient sites like Erice
The Roman poet Virgil cites Erice in his epic poem, “The Aeneid,” so that’s a big clue that this ancient hilltop town is definitely a place to visit during your tour of Sicily. Perched high on a cliff overlooking the valley of the eastern Sicilian shoreline, you’ll feel as if you’ve gone back in time as you stroll through the town’s ancient streets.
By the way, you’ll be walking over cobblestones that were laid by the Romans in 100 BC!
Caffe latte, anyone?
We all know that vacation travel should not be a whirlwind event, especially when you try to cram in as many cities and experiences as possible in a few days. In Sicily – even in the big cities – there are always opportunities to relax and savor the moment.
On a leisurely afternoon in Erice, we stopped at a local café and were entertained by the owner (and obviously accomplished barista) as he prepared our caffe lattes in grand style. And what a moment we savored: both the delicious latte and the show.
Steeped in history
One of the most beautiful Sicilian coastal cities you can visit is Cefalù, located just an hour’s drive east of Palermo. You’ll find a lovely small city, filled with delightful shops and restaurants, but its history goes back to the 4th century BC. It was captured by the Normans in 1063.
The Norman king Roger II started construction on the truly magnificent Cefalù cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage site) in 1131. For a breathtaking view of this ancient city from above, follow the path (as we did) to the top of the hill for an expansive view over this ancient town.
Cannoli, Sicily’s classic dessert
Sicily is famous for its many desserts, the list of which is really too numerous to mention. Marzipan, confections made of ground almonds, are very popular in Sicily, as is granita, a light sorbet-like treat.
But the king of all Sicilian desserts is cannoli, which is made from freshly whipped ricotta cheese flavored with lemon and sugar, and piped into a crisp fried pastry shell. Cannoli have been exported around the world, but it’s a sure bet the best one you will have ever tasted is during your visit to Sicily.10BESTDiscover Andrea Bocelli’s backyard in the Tuscan countryside
A national symbol
As you travel through Sicily, you can’t help but notice the image of a three-legged Medusa, which is not only donned on the official Sicilian flag, but is also embedded in many artifacts that can be found in Sicilian shops and markets. Actually, a variation of this symbol dates back to the 3rd century BC. The symbol depicts the three promontories of the island.
It’s obvious an island would have unlimited beachfronts, which Sicily does, but some of the most pristine beaches can be found in the Lo Zingaro Nature Reserve, located a two-hour’s drive west of Palermo. Azure blue waters, white sandy alcoves, and a magnificent hiking path make this a trail – and beach – to remember.
As you travel through Sicily, you’ll be amazed at the photo opportunities that will greet you, especially at sunrise and sunset. Plan to make use of these photographic golden hours for the best images of the glorious scenes you’ll encounter as you explore this magnificent island.
In vino veritas
If you’re a wine lover, you’ve come to the right place. Sicilian wines have risen in popularity over the past decade, and no wonder. Many of the grapes that produce these excellent wines have their roots, literally, in the rich lava rock that surrounds the island.
Nero d’Avola is one of the most beloved red wines produced on the island, and the whites are equally as delicious. One of the most memorable whites we ever tasted originated on the slopes of Alcamo (and it cost well under $10 in the local grocery store). That being said, if you love wine-tasting, this is the place to do it.10BESTHow to make stuffed zucchini blossoms, Sicilian-style
Mighty Mount Etna
Views on Etna, Sicily’s active volcano, are visible from many areas of the island. This image, taken from the deck of an Oceania cruise ship, shows a scene of the majestic volcano hovering over the ancient town of Naxos.
One of the most romantic small towns in Sicily is Taormina, and it’s easy to see why. Perched on a hilltop above the blue Ionian sea, Taormina’s twisting ancient streets take you past imposing palaces, delightful shops and restaurants, and charming squares.
There’s no doubt that the Teatro Antico di Taormina, an ancient Greco-Roman theater with awe-inspiring views on Mount Etna, has propelled it to one of Sicily’s most visited destinations. It’s still used as a concert venue.
It’s a sure bet, once you get a taste of Sicily, you will want to return again and again.
By Joanne DiBona