A view of  Taormna and Mt. etna

Best of Sicily Travel Guide

This article is not a mere list of the best things to do in Sicily, but rather a guide about understanding who Sicilians are and where they come from. Along with this article, I will give you tips and information about Sicily

A Sicily travel guide written by a Sicilian.

This article is not a mere list of the best things to do in Sicily, but rather a guide about understanding who Sicilians are and where they come from. Along with this article, I will give you tips and information about Sicily, on how to move, save money, and avoid being scammed during your holiday. So if you plan a trip to Sicily, keep on reading. I'm going to share a series of important advice, curiosity, bust some myths, and disclose some cultural aspects of everyday life on this ancient and beautiful island. Feel free to get in touch with us at vera@sicilyactiive.com. We will be pleased to help you. Instead, if you want a list of the best places to see in Sicily, read our dedicated article.

Where is Sicily? How Big is Sicily?

A map of Sicily
A Map of Sicily's nine districts.

Sicily is the largest and most southern region of the Republic of Italy. This beautiful island lies in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. To the west, it looks to Spain, to the east to Greece, to the south to Tunisia, and to the north to Italy's mainland. The island's total surface is 25711 km2 (9.9270726 sq. miles), roughly like Massachusetts. It has 19 minor islands spread in three archipelagoes. It has a population of 5 million people. The coastline accounts for 1600 km, hosting some of the most spectacular bays and beaches of the mediterranean sea. Two third of the island surface is made of Mountain regions. Sicily houses two of the most active volcanoes in the world; Mount Etna, the highest active volcano of Europe, and Stromboli island in the Aeolian archipelago. The island's dry inner part is scarcely populated; the rolling hills are used as grazing ground and for wheat production. Sicily is divided into nine districts: Catania, Palermo, Messina, Syracuse, Ragusa, Agrigento, Enna, Caltanissetta, and Trapani. Sicily has seven sites enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage, not bad for a small island.

A brief recap of the Sicilian History

The island of Sicily has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic between 35000 and 10000 years ago, but the events that truly shaped the character of us, Sicilians, and built our historical and architectonic heritage, coincide with the arrival of the first Phoenicians (Lebanon) and Greeks settlers in the 8th century B.C. on the shores of the Sicilian coastal town of Giardini Naxos. The Greeks and the natives developed one of the most sophisticated and complex cultures of the ancient classical world, The "Magna Grecia," which lasted for six hundred years. Sicilian Philosophers and Mathematicians like Archimede from Siracusa and Empedocle are regarded as leading scientists of classical antiquity. The stunning ruins in the Temple Valley in Agrigento and the Greek-Roman theatre of Taormina are among the best-preserved piece of Greek architecture in the world. In the epic tale of the Odissea, written in the 7-century B.c. by Omero, one of the most famous chapters where the one eye giant the "Cyclope" trap Ulisse inside a cave is set on the est coast of Sicily at the feet of Mount Etna in the town of "Acitrezza" In the 276 B.c. Rome, the new rising power of the Mediterranean, conquer Sicily and use its strategic position to defeat their most dangerous competitors that posed a threat to their hegemony on the Mediterranean sea, the Carthaginians (Tunisians). For the next six hundred years, Sicily becomes one of the richest provinces of the Roman empire. The large forests of Sicily were used to build a new Roman naval fleet. Simultaneously, the land was farmed to produce most of the wheat for the Italian peninsula. Is famous the saying of Cato the Censor (234-139 BC), according to which Sicily was "the granary of the republic, the nurse in whose bosom the Roman people fed." The barbarian invasions of the 5th-century a.c. represented the end of the Roman empire and the start of a new turbulent time of wars, lootings, and invasions by a series of barbarian tribes. In 554 a.c with the end of the war between the barbarian tribes and the eastern Roman Empire, the whole of Sicily was annexed to the Byzantine Empire (nowadays Instabul, in Turkey). In the 827 a.c., the Byzantine are ousted from Sicily's coveted throne by the Arabs; their military campaign to conquer Sicily lasted seventy-five years. With the Arab conquest, Sicily flourished both economically and culturally and enjoyed a long period of prosperity. Innovative techniques were introduced in agriculture. The monoculture of wheat dating back to the late Roman Empire was abolished, and the variety of crops was changed. The island was included in an extensive maritime network, becoming the Mediterranean trade nerve center in trade. The Norman (Vikings/Gallic) conquest of the island began in 1061 with the landing in Messina. In 1029 the Roger II Norman Kingdom of Sicily was characterized by its multi-ethnic nature and religious tolerance. Normans, Jews, Muslims, Latins, Byzantine Greeks, Provencal, Lombard populations, and native Sicilians lived in discreet harmony under Norman power. For at least a century, Arabic remained the language of government and administration in the Norman state, and traces remain today in the island's language. However, when the Normans conquered the island, the Muslims had to choose between voluntary departure or submission to Christian authority. Many Muslims chose to leave, provided they had the means to do so. The Islamic religion prohibits Muslims from living under a non-Muslim government if this can be avoided. However, a part of the Islamic community remained, also in the light of an important fatwā of Imam al-Māzarī which legitimized the stay of Muslims in Dār al-ḥarb as long as they were allowed to enjoy Islamic law. At the end of the 13th century, with the War of the Sicilian Vespers between Anjou and Aragon's crowns, the island passed to the latter. In the following centuries, the Kingdom entered into the personal union with the Spaniard and Bourbon crowns, preserving its substantial independence until 1816. In 1865 Sicily become part of Italy. Although today an Autonomous Region of the Republic of Italy, it has its own distinct culture.

Tip: Try to visit some villages away from the main tourist circuit. Check our guide to the best Sicilian villages.

Who are Modern Sicilians?

Even though both at school and on T.V., the official language is Italian, and the new generations are less fluent in Sicilians, the use of the native language is still wide. So if you are fluent in Italian but struggle to understand what locals are saying, do not worry; there is nothing wrong with you; it's just that they speak a different language. Most of the Sicilians would love to see the island become independent. At the same time, they are conscious that a highly corrupted and incapable local political class would worsen the already fragile economy and widen the gap between rich and poor. One of the regional pass times is to complain about how public things are badly run. Still, at the end of the day, everybody gets back home without making much effort to change things. As long as there is some pasta on the table, problems are forgotten. Sicilians are not very environmentally friendly and rely heavily on their cars even cause public transports out of the main cities are not well developed. The island's economy strongly relies on the tourism industry's revenues; agriculture plays an important role. Sicily still one of Italy's poorest regions with an average yearly income of €25000, even though the average Sicilian worker earns about €1000 a month and works just during the long touristic season. At the end of it, he has to manage to leave with an unemployment benefit. The lack of working opportunity pushes thousands of young educated Sicilians to emigrate to northern Italy and Europe to find a job. These phenomena deprive the island of talented young Sicilians that export their expertise to other countries. Obtaining a job as a civil servant in public administration is the most coveted aspiration for many Sicilians. Even though the wage is not high but is guaranteed, plus inside a public office, the working rhythm is very bland; everybody does as little as possible to get to the end of the day. In general, Sicilians love to spend time outdoors, enjoying the mild climate, and are welcoming and hospitable with foreigners. It is not unusual to be invited home to join a meal. The lifestyle of Sicilians is much more relaxed than their northern countrymen. Even inside the island, Sicilians' character is different. The people living on the east coast and in big cities are open-minded and are used to see hundreds of thousands of foreigners every year. In contrast, Sicilians living in some mountain regions and in the island's inner part tend to be less open.

Tip: if you plan to use the same restaurant more than once, a tip to the waiters will make a big difference in the service you'll get.  

Tip: Local people are very keen on helping foreigners who need help, so do not be afraid to approach somebody if you need anything.

Sicilian food

Like the rest of Italy, food is an important part of the Sicilian culture; people are often talking at lunchtime about what they are going to eat for dinner. For Sicilian precooked food is blasphemy; they spend an average of three hours per day preparing their meals. Still, even when they are short of time, they prepare food at home. On the island of Sicily, there are just six Mac Donalds (for 5 million people). Sicilians have their own fast food known as "Tavola Calda" that can cost as little as €1,30 ($1,70). If they have to eat something fast, they can choose among lots of street food. One of Sicily's most delicious fast food is the arancino, a rice ball stuffed with tomatoes, cheese, and meat and then deep-fried. On a Sicilian table, there will always be plenty of veggies and fish. Horse meat, like donkey meat and rabbit, are widely used by Sicilians. In Catania, there is a long road "Via Plebiscito" dotted with smoking homemade barbeques that cook horse meat and meatballs cooked in between two fresh lemon leaves. Aubergines are prepared in many different ways, even though the most famous dish made with aubergines is the "Parmigiana," not to confuse the famous Parmigiano cheese. Sicilians love raw fish; long before, sushi was famous in the mainstream. A real specialty is of the Sicilian cuisine the boiled octopus, the marinated anchovies, the raw shrimps, and the raw sea urchins on top of spaghetti. If you travel to Sicily, be open mind when it comes to food and remember that Carbonara, Lasagna, Parma ham, Balsamic vinegar, and most of the famous Italian food known abroad is not Sicilian. The Sicilian wines  have risen to international fame. One of the best place in Sicily where to enjoy a wine tasting paired with some exceptional delicious food are the flanks of Mount Etna. 

Tip: Try some pasta with cuttlefish black ink. Try the Caponatina is a delicious vegetarian dish. Try Sea urchins pasta!

Check our top ten of Sicilian dishes.

Do not underestimate the size of Sicily

The historical heritage and the nature of Sicily are large. A single visit to this Mediterranean island is not enough to explore and discover the many mountain ranges and villages, the idyllic beaches, the active volcanoes, the three archipelagoes, the rolling golden hills of the inner land, and the exotic west coast around Trapani. So if you are planning to travel to Sicily, make sure to be aware of the distances between each location on your itinerary, check the road conditions. If you travel by train or bus, remember that they are cheap, but they move slowly. Make sure to gather as much information as you can and to compare different guides. If you have just seven days to travel through the island, stick to one coast of Sicily. I see people traveling just for one day to the Aeolian island from Taormina. They end up traveling ten hours on a bus and a ferry boat, just to spend three hours in one of the islands. The Aeolian islands are seven. Hence, if you think of visiting them, consider that three days of your vacation should be dedicated to one of the seven Islands. In broad terms, Sicily can be divided into four main areas: The east coast with Mount Etna the active volcano, the Alcantara Canyon, the Marine park of Isola Bella, and the Baroque district. The south coast with the best-preserved Greek ruins in the temple Valley, Scala Dei Turchi, Selinunte, the many beaches, and Ragusa Ibla. The west coast of Trapani, the Egadi Islands, and San Vito Lo Capo. The North Coast with Palermo, Messina (is on the border between the east and north coast), and Aeoliands Island. 

Tip: Check our article on itineraries. Taormina or Giardini Naxos are two good locations to explore the east coast. 

Train travel around sicily tips and suggestions

Two things are undeniable about Sicilian trains; They are cheap and slow! To give you an idea, a "fast train" covering 160 km, between Catania and Palermo, the two most important Sicilian cities, takes 3 hours! But if you are one of those travelers on a budget and you have more than seven days to tour the island, plan to get to some destinations and attractions using the railway, you will get to know locals, you save money, and you will see some spectacular landscape including the rolling hills of the inner part of Sicily between the district of Catania and Palermo. The railway in Sicily extends for about 1369 km. Regional trains are managed by the railway company Trenitalia. The line crosses the whole region and also covers the connections between Palermo Airport and the city center. The area surrounding the Etna volcano is managed by the private company Ferrovia Circumetnea. The available destinations can be found through the following link   https://www.thetrainline.com/it/treni/regionali/sicilia#destinazioni. T... can be bought through the "Treni Italia" app(https://www.thetrainline.com/it/informazioni/trainline-app) or directly to the train station. Remember that small stations sell tickets just through a machine.

Tip Make sure to mark your ticket before boarding the train in one of the machines on the platform; otherwise, you might get a fine onboard.

Tip If you are not in a rush, board a "Treno locale" it coast less and goes slowly. If you are in a rush, choose a "Treno Rapido."

Tip If you are around Taormina or Catania, try the fantastic ride on the "Circumetnea" train. It goes around the volcano.

Bus Travel in Sicily

The roads of Sicily are in bad shape. The main motorways that connect the major cities were built in the 60 and have received a minimum amount of maintenance, while the secondary roads are small. Sicilians behind the steering wheel are nervous, stressed, and dangerous. In the last few years, buses have been implementing a system that does not allow them to go over 100 km per hour. But suppose you are flexible with your travel schedule, you are a patient person, and you are ready to experience some major delay, do not hesitate to travel by bus. Traveling by bus is cheap and surely faster than trains. There is no official regional company serving all the island but rather a series of private bus companies. Buses are fairly small, not particularly new, and air conditioning is not always working well. 

Tip: From Catania and Palermo's airport, Buses are serving the city center and near towns.

Tip: If you can, avoid catching a taxi from airports or Train stations, if you have to, try to lower the price or tell them to use the meter.

Taxi in sicily

Keep in mind that taxis are costly in Sicily. For local people using a taxi is not part of everyday life; catching a taxi in Sicily is seen as a luxury. Most Sicilian taxi drivers are not to be trusted. They often do not use the meter and charge astronomical prices for short distances. To give an idea from Catania airport to Taormina, the distance is 45km, and some taxi drivers ask up to €130. At the same time, an "honest" fare would be €65-70. 

Tips: Always ask if they use the meters. Tip: If they do not use the meter, be ready to bargain on the price.

Tip: Do not book through the hotel reception; you are going to pay more. 

Where to eat in Sicily?

From small villages to major tourist towns, a restaurant or a bar is never too far. In the next few lines, I'm not going to give you a list of places where to eat in Sicily or what to eat, but I'll tell you what to look for when you sit in a restaurant. For Sicilians but more in general for Italians eating is something serious, is not a mere question of filling the belly. If you are traveling on a budget or want to try some typical fast food from Sicily, look for a sign outside bars saying "Tavola Calda." With little more than €1, you can eat some delicious local fast food; vegetarian and not. Street food can be another great alternative; cities like Catania and Palermo have a long tradition of food stalls selling their goods in the street. In the restaurants, menu ingredients mark with a * "Asterix" are frozen. Avoid going for the typical King prawns, Calamari, and swordfish dishes; nine out of ten times, the fish is frozen, especially in touristic towns. Remember that Restaurants charge you for "Coperto," service charge. Expensive restaurants can charge as much as five euros per person. Wines are recharged at least 120% of their wholesale value. If you go for the house wine, do not be shy to ask to taste it before ordering; some house wines are truly disgusting. In the last ten years in Sicily, local breweries produce some excellent beer; check the menù and see if they offer some local beer. Finding good ice cream is becoming harder; most of the "Gelateria" use premixed products. Look at the scoop they use to get the ice cream; if you see the logo of some company like "Pregel" or others, you can be sure that ice cream is not artisanal.

Tips: Birra Messina is not longer Sicilians; it belongs to Heineken.  if you want a Sicilian beer, try "Birra dello stretto." o "Birra del sole"

Crime in Sicily; is it safe to travel to Sicily?

As I take guests around Sicily, sooner o Later, the question will come up "Is Mafia still existing"? Yes, it does; it is not nearly as powerful as it was until the late nineties, but it still cancer for Sicily. But tourists should not be concerned about organized crime since the Mafia Families do not commit petty crimes. So once we have ruled out the Mafia as a threat to tourists, we can say that Sicily is a fairly safe place, especially in small towns. Of course be always careful when in train stations in big cities, especially at night time, do not flash money in front of people. 

Shall I use Cash in Sicily?

Yes, Yes and again, Yes! Sicilians love cash. Most restaurants and shops accept credit cards, but in small towns and when paying for an excursion, people prefer cash. Make sure to carry always some cash with you.

Tips: When booking an excursion, ask to get a discount if you pay cash. 

When to go to Sicily?

The high tourist season coincides with June, July, and August. All accommodation facilities are open and fully functional. Prices are higher during this period, especially in August when they are skyrocketing. The two central weeks of August are considered very high season. To spend much less and enjoy one of the best moments to fully appreciate Sicily, the months of April, May, June, September, and October are recommended. Many hotels close for renovation or winter break, while hotels and bed and breakfasts are always opened. The winter prices are very low, even if you can hardly take advantage of this season for a dip in the sea.

Tip: Mount Etna has two ski lifts. Tip October is one of the best months to visit Sicily.

What is the climate like in Sicily?

Sicily's climate is typically Mediterranean. Along the coasts, winters are mild, with little rain and short duration (in March, there are already spring temperatures), while summers are hot and sunny. Rainfall is concentrated mainly in autumn and winter. However, it rains very little along the coasts than the region's interior, where the landscape is more arid and barren. In Palermo, on the north coast, there are average winter temperatures around 14 ° C in the coldest months. While in Catania and Syracuse, it can drop even below 12 ° C. Much lower are the temperatures recorded in the towns in the center of Sicily, such as Enna, where in winter it freezes, snows and the seasonal average settles at around 4 ° C. As we have mentioned, spring begins very early: in March there are temperatures around 20 ° C and the rains are scarce if not absent, especially along the coasts. Very high temperatures, always around 17 ° - 18 ° are recorded in autumn: in Sicily, it normal to continue swimming in the sea even in late October. Summer is hot, with temperatures often above 36 ° C, especially when the Scirocco wind, coming from Africa, reaches the Sicilian coasts. At these times, in the towns and cities located in the region's center, the temperatures become almost unbearable. It practically never rains in summer, and the amount of sunshine is excellent from May to mid-October. The sea temperature rises from May onwards, and there is a substantial difference from winter (around 15 ° C) to summer (25 ° C). In general, the best time to visit Sicily is from April to the end of October, remembering, however, that the central summer months are very hot. If we had to choose an ideal month, both for beach life and visiting the cities, we would choose September. The days are always long, the sunshine is good, it is not very hot as in July and August, there are far fewer tourists, and the sea temperature is pleasant.

Tip: May, September, and October are the best months to visit Sicily.

Tip: In November, the foliage on the mountain region is stunning.