Funny. I hadn’t really heard all that much about Sicily but when we said we were going for a week there, I found it’s a regular destination for international tourists. And why did I think it’s a small place, being an island, and way at the bottom of Italy, when it is in fact an economic powerhouse for Italy, and well-populated?
I was worried that a week wouldn’t be enough, when I started to do my research, but in fact, we found it a good amount of time. I suppose our success was in not trying to do too much, but just enjoying what we saw.
What was wonderful for me was that Sicily was so varied. You can get the feel of some fairly big cities, metropolitan, and you can also get the sense of a rural, country village. With one week available to us, we started in Palermo, and drove around from there in a counterclockwise direction until we reached Messina, to grab the ferry to continue our journey in Puglia.
I think that people can really design their trip to Sicily according to how they like to travel. A more cosmopolitan adventure is available by spending time in Palermo, Catania and Siracusa. You could certainly find luxury resorts (Taormina, for example) and do a fine dining tour, or try to become an expert at the local markets and cook your own dinners! History and historical sites abound.
For us, we tried to do a few different things each day and settle into our accommodation. We caught some history but didn’t focus on it. We made sure we had one high-end meal (which was memorable and wonderful). We’re not beach people, and are not so crazy about crowds of tourist or wealth. We mostly drove around, listening to Italian pop music on the radio (RDS was our favourite), from place to place, enjoying ourselves. I can’t believe I managed to drag my husband to the Sicily Outlet Mall (not great and certainly no bargains, but fine for a change of pace, and wasn’t out of the way from our tour).
Where to stay: We really loved the Italian Agriturismo system where you stay on properties attached to farms (hobby or commercial) and slightly out of the way (but close enough to cities and other attractions). With some research, you can find some real gems: historic farmhouses and other old buildings. Many have pools and are nicely renovated. And they’re inexpensive. We had one miss: a rundown farmhouse without wireless at the foot of Mount Etna. Do your research! In retrospect though, it’s good to switch things up, so as much as I loved the agriturismo venues, it’s fun to stay in the old part of a city or town in a hotel.
Where and what to eat: Sicily is big enough that there are Michelin-starred restaurants all over the island. So, why not treat yourself to one? We loved Il Duomo in Ragusa (and we loved Ragusa). In terms of local specialties, there are lots. We liked the salads with oranges as their base. Gelato and brioche (for breakfast) is popular in Southern Italy. Seafood is everywhere of course (fresh sardines!). Fried things seem popular and while I tried the fried chickpea fritters, once was enough. Of course, the arancini are famous and delicious and you should try all varieties of them, as well as many helpings of granita (loved the pomegranate flavour) and gelato. There are a multitude of pastries to try, and we only sampled a few. I found the famous cassata cake too sweet, though loved the cannoli.
For drinking, aside from the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz (or Campari Spritz) as your evening aperitif, you could try a bitter (or amaro) to help your digestion after dinner. Local versions are available and I slowly downed a quite bitter Amaro from Etna while travelling. However, my favourite amaro was the Vecchio Amaro del Capo from Calabria. It tasted just right. I am open to being plied with other options to find a new favourite though.
I love the various versions of carbonated mineral water (frizzante) and take them over still, to accompany a meal, any time. And of course numerous coffees all morning should help get you through the day. My favourite was a caffè macchiato, an espresso with a small shot of milk. I love that these cost a euro or less, and you drink them at the counter with a little cup of water (although Italians love their environmentally unsound plastic cups for water). They’ll charge you more if you sit down. For wine, I barely nicked the surface of trying the local grapes: Nero d’Avola, Zibibbo, Inzolia, Grillo, Fiano and more.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ We preferred Selinunte over Agrigento (less tourists and easier to get close to the ruins) in terms of Greek ruins.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Loved all the hilltop cities, especially Ragusa.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Often, you are NOT allowed to drive into historic areas without a permit, so watch out. Also, don’t overstay your parking. We had a funny experience where we managed to chase down a parking inspector and pay her less than a euro for the time we were over; if we’d had to pay the ticket, it would have been 20 or 30 euros.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Both of us found Taormina too full on with so many tourists, and so many shops. It’s a scene though, and good for people watching, and the ancient theatre made it worth it: so beautiful, and especially at night.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I think I would have liked to spend longer in Siracusa. Loved the dark volcanic stones used in the buildings and streets.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Nothing much to shop for (which is good, since I shop too much anyways). Perhaps some souvenir olive oil, pasta or another food item (if your customs allows you to take them home), and a well-chosen piece of ceramics?
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Apparently, one of the best bakeries in Italy is in Erice… I didn’t read this advice until after we’d passed through!
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ And watch out for the prickly pear cactuses, nicknamed ‘Il Bastardone’, the ‘Big Bastards’. There are fields of them, so it’s evidently a crop of some sort (we only had a bit of sweet sauce at Duomo), but you’ll see them everywhere!
Questions? Your own travel tips? Leave them below in the comments!