The crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily is something of a tapestry woven with threads from numerous cultures.
Its Greek temples, Baroque style palazzi and Byzantine influenced churches offer a glimpse into its history, and its mild climate and idyllic beaches make it the perfect year-round destination.
Sites and seasides
It’s almost impossible to think about Sicily without bringing to mind Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest active volcano and, according to Greek myth, the location of Hephaestus’ forges. Its activity makes the surrounding land extremely fertile, and vineyards and orchards cover its lower slopes and the nearby Plain of Catania.
Visitors are seldom deterred from exploring the volcano, despite its recent activity; indeed this seems to make it an even more irresistible site for an excursion. Footpaths are rugged and poorly marked, so your journey should be made with a qualified guide. For those less inclined to brave the slopes on foot, there is a cable car that runs from Rifugio Sapienza and stops close to the summit. A trip to the top rewards you with spectacular views out across the Gulf of Taormina and the Aeolian Islands.
Taormina is one of Sicily’s more touristy towns, having been popular since the 18th century for its breathtaking position on the east coast. From the Greek amphitheatre you can see out along the coastline with its clear azure waters and over to Mount Etna, which is capped with snow for much of the year.
To the north is Palermo, Sicily’s capital and a melting pot of culture, having been under Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman rule before finally becoming a part of unified Italy, and being given autonomy in 1946. There’s no shortage of architecture; the city’s palazzi, churches and squares reveal various aspects of its history. Particularly impressive are the 12th century mosaics and Baroque facade of the Chiesa della Martorana, a church that overlooks the Piazza Bellini and is annexed to a Norman church. The magnificent Palazzo dei Normanii, once seat of the kings of Sicily, also merits a visit and houses the Cappella Palatina, an elegant royal chapel dating back to 1080.
Sicily’s coast is outlined with a vast array of beautiful sandy beaches, lapped by the warm waters of the Mediterranean sea. A visit to the south east wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Vendicari Nature Reserve, which has some of the best and least frequented beaches on the island, being a haunt more for migratory birds such as flamingos, herons and storks than for humans.
Where there are beaches, there are inevitably water sports, and adventurous visitors can try a range of activities, from scuba diving, fishing and kayaking to newer sports such as kitesurfing and wakeboarding. Many centres offer courses and equipment, so whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned enthusiast, you can enjoy the island from offshore.
Sicily has not earned the name ‘God’s Kitchen’ for nothing. Like its buildings, its gastronomy displays influences from the Arabs, Spanish, Greeks and Normans. Each region on the island has its own speciality, from biscotti ennesi (a sweet dish from Enna) to arancini (fried rice balls associated with Messina), and Sicily as a whole has a reputation for pasta as well as seafood, which is largely caught from the local waters.
Arab influences can be found in Sicilian food in the form of spices such as saffron, nutmeg and clove, while the Spanish introduced maize, cocoa and tomatoes. Dishes such as Pasta alle sarde (with anchovies) and manicotti are popular, while sea bass, tuna and swordfish are common local delicacies.
The island’s most famous culinary delights, however, are sweet. Native to Palermo is Cassata, a sponge cake moistened with fruit juice or liqueur and filled with layers of ricotta mixed with candied peel and vanilla or chocolate. The outside is covered with marzipan and icing and candied fruits are used to decorate the top. Other dishes include cannoli, cuccidati (fig cookies) and frutta martorana, marzipan that is shaped and coloured to look like fruit.
Sicily’s volcanic soil and warm climate make it ideal for wine making, and a tradition of viticulture has operated since the island was occupied by the Greeks. Particularly notable are the red wines, which include Nero d’Avola and Cerasuolo di Vittoria, and the dessert wines such as Marsala.
Don’t miss: Sicily has a wealth of festivals held throughout the year. If you’re visiting between March and September, don’t miss the colourful food festivals held across the island that show off local produce at its best. There are also some spectacular Christmas and Easter festivals, most notably those held during Easter week in Palermo and Catania.