Your Ultimate Island Breakdown Of Sicily

Sicily is a large island in the southernmost part of Italy and one of the most exciting destinations in the Mediterranean.

As the biggest island in the Mediterranean with almost 10,000 sq. miles of surface area and nearly 5 million inhabitants, Sicily can be overwhelming to plan for. We recommend choosing a few specific areas to travel to, based on what you want to see and do during your vacation. Whether you want to lounge at the beach, immerse yourself in nature or enjoy a coastal city break, Sicily offers all of the above with lots of charm and native flair.

PALERMO

Palermo is the fabulous capital of Sicily, where you can enjoy one of the most unique city breaks in the Mediterranean. There’s something about Palermo that’s joyful and a little gritty, that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a destination where the savviest jetsetters will have a great time mingling and living it up without any sense of pretentiousness.

There’s no shortage of historic sights to see in Palermo. The first is obviously the Cattedrale di Palermo, which is perhaps the most beautiful cathedral in Europe (in my humble opinion.) What makes Palermo’s cathedral outstanding is the stunning blend of Norman, Arab and Byzantine influences. Palazzo dei Normanni is another architectural wonder with a blend of cultural styles reflective of Sicily’s insanely rich history. Other must-sees include: Capella Palatina, San Giovani degli Eremiti and the Martorana of the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio.

Palermo Cattedrale
Palermo Cattedrale. PHOTO Nadia Cho

To experience local life, you only need to set foot in the sprawling Mercato Ballarò and join residents eating street food and socializing in makeshift bars at shop stalls. For drinks at night, the bohemian neighborhood of Kalsa is a great choice. Our favorite nightlife haunts are the bars in front of Piazza Magione, like Ballarak, where young locals are constantly buzzing and mingling boisterously outdoors.

From the colorful alleys of Mercato Ballarò to the busy thoroughfares leading to Teatro Massimo, Palermo is bursting with life from every corner. Cosmopolitan yet relaxed and welcoming, Palermo is a treat for savvy jetsetters looking for a unique Mediterranean destination to experience.

CEFALÙ

Everybody loves going to Cefalù, which isn’t surprising since it’s the most charming city on the island. What started as a Greek colony back in 395 BC has passed through Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Norman hands. Thanks to its whimsical streets, gorgeous beach and sunny disposition, Cefalù is a beloved destination for in-the-know jetsetters.

Cefalù’s old town is made up of warm honey-colored façades wrapped in vines set against the dramatic mountain range of La Rocca. The main cathedral is a handsome Norman masterpiece that really pops among palm trees and the rugged mountains right behind it. If you really want to dig into Cefalù’s history, hike up La Rocca to the megalithic Temple of Diana. Not only will you get to see ancient ruins from the fourth century BC, but you’ll also catch sweeping panoramic views of the city below. Another unique attraction is Lavatoio Medievale, the public laundry room from medieval times. It’s impossible to miss in the Old Quarter, as you’ll likely see a crowd of people descending a beautiful stone staircase in a dusty pink building. Below, you’ll find stone basins in the ground running with water from the ice cold Cefalino River.

But everyone knows that what you really go to Cefalù for is the beach. The glassy turquoise-green waters lapping against the rustic stone buildings of the old town is unlike any beach you’ve been to before. The lungomare, or boardwalk, is bustling with al fresco restaurants and terraces. If you want to rent a daybed with an umbrella, hit up one of the lidos, or beach clubs, set up along the boardwalk. Even though the main part of the beach gets really crowded, walking along the sand where the sea meets the city is nothing short of magic.

No visit to Sicily is complete without visiting Cefalù. The moment you step onto the streets of Cefalù, you’ll get swept up in a picture perfect postcard everywhere you look.

TRAPANI

Trapani has been an eminent port city since ancient Rome and it shows in the majestic cathedrals and palazzi surrounding the port. Strolling through the historic center along the sea is like being swept up in a romantic Italian dream. Trapani is where most travelers pass through in order to catch a boat to Favignana or Pantelleria. But you definitely won’t mind relaxing for a day in this bustling port city.

The historic area between the port and the beach is the main attraction in Trapani. You can see all of Trapani’s gorgeous architecture, such as Palazzo Cavarretta and Palazzo della Giudecca, simply by wandering the streets by foot. Via Giuseppe Garibaldi is the liveliest pedestrian thoroughfare where there’s no shortage of inviting al fresco cafés and restaurants.  We especially love the small rosticcerias, or bakeries, found on every street corner where you can quickly grab delicious snacks like arancini, cannolis, panelle and pizza breads.

Trapani
Trapani. PHOTO Nadia Cho

The real surprise comes when you reach the beach at the edge of the old city. Trapani’s beach is a scenic respite with shallow serene waters and soft sand. The old facades faded by the sea make you feel like you’re in a quiet fishing village rather than a bustling port city. Here you can rest and relax before continuing onto the next destination that brings you to Trapani in the first place.

FAVIGNANA

Picture the dreamiest beach you can possibly imagine. Now imagine it being twenty times more beautiful and that’s what Favignana looks like. Favignana is the most popular out of the three Aegadian Islands off the west coast of Sicily. Visitors flock to this little island paradise to jump into its crystalline waters that are an impossible shade of piercing cyan blue. Favignana is everybody’s favorite day-trip from Trapani, as it’s just a quick 30-minute ferry ride from the port.

Favignana
UNSPLASH Ignacio Brosa

Once you arrive in Favignana, renting a motorbike or car will make it much more convenient to check out all of the beaches and calas around the island. It goes without saying that most of your day should be spent at any of the spectacular beaches and grottos the island is famous for. The most popular beaches include Cala Rossa, Bue Marino, Cala Azzura and Lido Burrone.

The lovely town of Favignana is nice to stroll through, and even more charming is the port with rows and rows of colorful fishing boats. There’s a plethora of restaurants in town and seafood lovers are really in for a treat. Tuna fishing used to be big business on the island before tourism came about. So be sure to try any dish with tuna, such as tuna meatballs or couscous with fish, as they are the most typical dishes of Favignana.

For sun-worshippers and lovers of the beach, Favignana is a destination that needs to be checked off your bucket list.

PANTELLERIA

Pantelleria is a far flung destination that’s little-known to people outside of Italy. It’s a small island located between Sicily and Tunisia, that’s closer to Africa than it is to Italy. The fact that it’s a volcanic island that’s so remote automatically gives it an air of mystery. Its unique magnetic energy can be felt while you’re on the island. Pantelleria is a place of rampant wilderness with minimal development that will appease lovers of the outdoors and adventure.

When in Pantelleria, you’ll have a chance to visit one of the most impressive natural sights you’ll ever see, the Specchio di Venere, aka: the Mirror of Venus. When your eyes land on this lake inside a volcanic crater, the opaque surface of the cyan and turquoise waters will take your breath away. Part of the lake is still a hot spring where you can have a very warm relaxing soak. Visitors are also encouraged to slather on the mud that’s rich in minerals which will leave your skin feeling soft and supple. Another jaw dropping sight is the Arco dell’Elefante, named aptly after the rock arch that looks like the head of an elephant. It’s one of the most delicious places to have a swim in deep azure waters while marveling beneath the stunning natural arch from below.

Pantelleria
Pantelleria. PHOTO Nadia Cho

While visiting a volcanic island, bathing in a hot springs is essential. Gadir is the prime spot to experience the island’s hot springs as it’s where you can soak in a rock pool while looking at the sea. Sun rise or sunset are the best times to visit Gadir. There are also the magical hot springs of Cala Nikà, where the thermal waters meet the sea.

The main town of Pantelleria is small but charming. You’ll find all the provisions you need in the town’s shops and restaurants. The bakery café in the town square in front of the church has a wide variety of eye-popping delectable treats to die for. Be sure to pop in there at least once, or a few times, to have a pistachio croissant or arancini for breakfast.

Whether you’re in the mood for adventure or simply visiting somewhere far off the beaten path, Pantelleria, the Black Pearl of the Mediterranean, is the perfect place for a very remote getaway.

CANTANIA

Catania is a metropolis which sprawls from the foot of Mount Etna to the shores of the Ionian Sea. It’s the second biggest city in Sicily after Palermo, and the seventh largest in all of Italy. Mount Etna is a majestic presence over Catania. The city’s geography, architecture, history and agriculture has inevitably been shaped by the still-active volcano. The city has been decimated then rebuilt due to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes more than once. Catania’s rich history is visibly on display with countless historical sites and buildings.

Cantania
Image by Peter H from Pixabay 

As in any Italian city, the best place to start out is the splendid Duomo and the main piazza surrounding it. The Catanese are devoted to their patron saint, St. Agata, to whom the main cathedral and other churches around the city are dedicated. Catania is famous for its grand Baroque architecture, which was the style the city was rebuilt with after the catastrophic earthquake of 1693. Palazzo Biscari and Teatro Massimo Bellini are examples of grand Sicilian Baroque architecture. Teatro Romano, the open-air amphitheater in the middle of the city, remains in impressive condition considering it’s from the 2nd century. You also can’t miss the Benedictine Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the biggest monasteries in Europe, which is a dream to walk through.

When in Catania, you absolutely need to stop at a kiosk in a piazza and grab a freshly squeezed blood orange juice or soda water with citrus syrup and anise. Catania’s fish market is world-famous and reminiscent of the loud, crowded markets with enthusiastic hawkers from the Old World. Of course, if you’re looking to visit Mount Etna, Catania is the best place to leave from and there are tons of tours sold in tourist hotspots around the city.

Majestic, Baroque and in touch with their roots, Catania tells a story, waiting to be discovered by travelers.

SIRACUSA

Siracusa, in the southeast of Sicily, was founded by the ancient Greeks nearly 3,000 years ago and rivaled Athens in its size and splendor. Siracusa proudly boasts Greek ruins, UNESCO protected architecture and sea views that will make your heart stop. The rich blend of ancient and modern cultures that the city has always enjoyed makes a visit to Siracusa quite magical.

Siracusa
UNSPLASH Anna Auza

The gem of Siracusa is the stunning island of Ortygia. This is where you’ll find the historic Old Quarter packed with the city’s biggest attractions, as well as romantic piazzas where you can dine to your heart’s content. There are so many architectural wonders to see, starting with the Duomo, the Temple of Apollo, Castello Maniace, the Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo and Palazzo Borgia del Casale. The Fountain of Aretusa is a fresh water spring where the water nymph Aretusa took refuge from the river god, Alpheus, in Greek mythology. It’s now one of the most charming sites in Ortygia which has inspired many a writer from John Milton to Herman Melville. When you’re tired of all the historical sightseeing, you can always pop over to the sliver of sand on Cala Rossa beach or the Solarium Ortigia Nettuno for a bit of sun and sea.

Obviously, no trip to Siracusa is complete without visiting the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, the ultimate destination for classic history nerds. What was once the ancient district of Neapolis is now an archaeological park with ruins dating back to 5th century BC. Teatro Greco boasted one of the largest seating areas built by the ancient Greeks, which continues to be used for classical theater performances today. The Orecchio di Dionisio, or Ear of Dionysius, is the most famous latomia (limestone quarry), where the tyrant Dionysius eavesdropped on political prisoners. There’s also the Anfiteatro Romano, an amphitheater from the 2nd century, once used for gladiatorial combat and horse races.

For those who wish to immerse themselves in classical history and romantic backdrops, Siracusa definitely will not disappoint.

Nadia Cho

Communications Associate

Nadia reps Team JST traveling the world in search of exclusive features and online via JST's social media platforms. You can find her exploring metropolitan cities or lounging on tropical beaches.

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