Last updated on August 24th, 2022
This is the story of an eleven-day, 1,073-kilometer road trip around Sicily. Also known as God’s Kitchen, Italy’s largest island is not only a culinary hub but also a diverse travel destination thanks to its rich history and exhilarating natural landscape.
Summer always seems to bring magic to southern Europe’s air. Everything comes to life, from the cicadas to the piazzas. After a couple of Europe-less summers due to Covid and fond memories from another Italian island, it was time to rekindle the flame and return to the Mediterranean coast. So, on the last day in June, I headed to Sicily on a couple’s trip with a combined mission to relax and explore the island. We started and ended the journey in Palermo, almost circling the island on the days in between.
Here are some of the trip’s highlights.
We started our road trip around Sicily in Palermo, the island’s largest city. Palermo has a tightly-packed historic center that showcases the city’s mix of cultural influences over the ages, including Byzantine, Arabic, and Baroque. Despite 40-degree weather, we spent almost two days exploring Palermo, hopping from one lavish cathedral to the next, shopping with the locals in outdoor markets, and enjoying the local cuisine.
Notable mentions go to the mosaic-covered 12th century Palatine Chapel, the vibrant Mercato del Capo and the working-class-oriented Mercato di Ballarò, and the Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria with its tranquil interior courtyard and rewarding rooftop views.
On the downside, once you leave the touristy historic center, some of Palermo’s (and Sicily’s) current challenges quickly surface. It appeared to us that there is a massive shortage in municipal resources to take care of basic “cosmetics,” such as clearing weeds from sidewalks, fixing sidewalk cracks, pumping water in the city’s extravagant fountains, and clearing trash.
Trash is a serious issue throughout Sicily, and there isn’t any apparent reason. Domestic waste is piling up on the roadside, both in the cities and the countryside. We heard this is not due to bad manners but rather to a killer combination of waste mismanagement and crippling EU environmental regulations. Nonetheless, we found it difficult to understand how local communities do not take action, especially in some areas where garbage is everywhere.
After a couple of days in Palermo, we rented a tiny Lancia Ypsilon for the next nine days to circle the island. Driving in Sicily is a challenge even for an experienced driver, not so much because of the manual gear but more due to the aggressive driving culture and poor state of many of the island’s intercity roads.
From Palermo, we made the customary pilgrimage to the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily’s most famous religious site, before meeting the coastline in the beautiful seaside village of Castellammare del Golfo with its picturesque harbor. Finally, we spent the night in the tiny community of Scopello at Pensione Tranchina, a highly-acclaimed family-owned bed and breakfast known throughout the region for its exceptional dinners.
Scopello sits in the heart of one of Siciliy’s tuna fishing regions, and its claim to fame is the historic Tonnara di Scopello. This former tuna cannery was in operation from the 13th century to 1984. Nowadays, the scenic spot is a popular wedding venue and snorkeling site.
The main reason for visiting this side of the island is to explore the beaches of the Zingaro Natural Reserve. Established in 1981, Zingaro is Sicily’s first nature preserve. Despite the extreme heat, we hiked halfway on the seven-kilometer trail wedged between the soaring mountains and the sea to Cala Marinella. The clear water in this secluded cove and its numerous “secret spots” proved worthwhile, though I did get a nasty jellyfish bite while snorkeling.
Our next stop was over two hours south in Agrigento. On the long drive from Zingaro, we stopped to check out the picturesque fishing port at Sciacca with its pastel-colored houses in the background and put the first gear into overdrive on the climb to one of Sicily’s most charming hilltop villages at Caltabellotta.
Agrigento is an optimal base for visiting some of Sicily’s finest beaches, but before hitting the beach, a dose of history is on the menu. Lying in the outskirts of Agrigento, the UNESCO-listed Valley of the Temples is Sicily’s most visited tourist site. The cluster of stunning ancient Greek temples is among Europe’s best preserved archeological sites from that era.
It’s hard to fathom how the ancient Greeks dealt with the extreme July heat. Perhaps they frequented the nearby beaches to cool off. We paid a quick visit to the Instagram-hyped Scala Dei Turchi (Turkish Steps) before getting off the beaten track (and the paved road) to find a private slice of paradise for the rest of the afternoon at Torre Salsa.
Torre Salsa is a natural park administered by the World Wildlife Fund, so there’s no development, including even basic amenities. The soft sand at Torre Salsa extends for miles in every direction, and the clear shallow waters are the perfect natural swimming pool to cool off from the scorching sun.
Our next base was over 200 kilometers east in the magnificent city of Syracuse. But instead of taking the highway, we used the opportunity to detour into the countryside and explore three of the region’s most famous hilltop towns.
Our first stop was Ragusa. After a devastating earthquake in 1693 that destroyed pretty much everything apart from a single church, the historic town was rebuilt along with a new section on the high ground. We made it to scenic Ragusa in the middle of the afternoon siesta, and there was hardly a cat roaming the streets in the heat of the day.
The next stop was Modica, a proper town whose residents are either excellent drivers or have seriously strong calves. Modica’s center is built inside a gorge while staircases and narrow roads climb steeply in every direction to neighborhoods where every resident enjoys fine views. Modica is a historic center of chocolate-making in Sicily, the perfect treat after putting your legs to work in exploring the town.
Known for its Baroque architecture and ice cream, Noto was the last hilltop town en route to Syracuse. Like Ragusa, Noto was rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, and its primarily flat historic center is easy to explore in a short time. Noto’s heart is centered around its main cathedral, best appreciated from the neighboring Chiesa di San Carlo al Corso rooftop.
We made it to Syracuse just in time for dinner reservations at Ristorante Sicilia in Tavola, which turned out to be one of the best meals on this road trip around Sicily. We then explored the streets, narrow alleys, and piazzas of Ortygia, the ancient island separated from Syracuse “proper” by a narrow strait.
In the morning, we set out to explore Syracuse, explicitly focusing on the sites and sounds of historic Ortygia. The city’s origins stretch back nearly 3,000 years when the ancient Greeks established what would become the largest city in the ancient world. We started with Ortygia’s vibrant market with its loud hawkers trying to stand out from the crowd. We then circled the small island, popping here and there into majestic cathedrals and enjoying the seafront.
At noon, we left Syracuse behind and headed south to San Lorenzo beach. Though we could have just laid on the sand, we opted to test the Italian “beach clubs,” sort of semi-private patches of sand where you pay for sunbeds and umbrellas. The closer you are to the waterline, the more pricey this luxury gets, but I must say it’s worth the price if you spend a few hours at the beach.
After some fun in the sun, we followed the coast due north to Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city. If Palermo resembles King’s Landing, Catania’s architecture is more reminiscent of Rome. Our accommodation for the next couple of nights was Let’s B&B. Located on the first floor of a former palazzo, descendants of the aristocratic family still occupy the top floors.
In the morning, we kicked things off at the nearby flea market, which also turned out to be quite a colorful fresh food market centered around Piazza Carlo Alberto di Savoia. Like in Syracuse, animated sellers do almost anything to attract customers to their attractively-organized stalls. The produce is so fresh, and it’s hard to miss the opportunity to stock up on peaches, apricots, and cherries at this time of the year.
We then headed to Catania’s main square, Piazza del Duomo, with its famous fountains and cathedrals. After paying respect at the tomb of famous Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini in the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, we climbed the tight staircase to the rooftop of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata for a bird’s eye view of the area, including Mount Etna which always looms in the distance. Just beyond the main square is Catania’s legendary fish market. If we thought we had seen animated street markets up to this point, we were in for a pleasant surprise. It’s hard to fathom how much bounty lies in the sea. Actually, just about at every meal, this reality sets.
In the afternoon, we made a very wise decision and drove to the charming seaside community of Aci Trezza. We camped at yet another “luxury” beach club, this time perfectly positioned in front of the town’s star attraction, the Cyclopean Islands. These jagged rocky outcrops are protected areas where many birds nest.
The vista from just about every angle and the clear water kept us from heading back to Catania until just before sunset. Back in town, Catania’s streets were buzzing. For dinner, we headed to A Putia Dell’Ostello. The food was good but the atmosphere even better. Before calling it a night, the owner sneaked us downstairs to the restaurant’s famous lava cave.
Our next stop was romantic Taormina. Despite the high tourist numbers, one cannot say they’ve been to Sicily without visiting Taormina. The picturesque mountainside town warrants a transportation network that resembles a game of “snakes and ladders.” A confusing web of elevated highways and narrow roads somehow snake their way from top to bottom, while steep staircases provide shortcuts, albeit with a hefty price on the legs. We checked into Villa le Terrazze, a perfect choice in the quieter “upper town,” high above the madness of the historic center with stunning views of Mount Etna.
Taking one of the staircase shortcuts from the mountain top, we walked from Port Messina to Port Catania, taking in the sites and sounds of the historic center, including the famous Greek Theater, which dates back to the third century BC and is still used as an entertainment venue. Both ancient and modern guests are treated to breathtaking views of the coastline and Mount Etna.
Taormina’s busy streets were lined with pastry shops specializing in marzipan, boutiques, and ceramic souvenirs. But no trip to Taormina is complete without a stop for some granita at Bam Bar. Choosing from 16 flavors is quite challenging, so you might come for a second visit. The secret, though, is to top your granita with some panna (whipped cream).
We took another steep staircase down to Taormina’s Isola Bella in the afternoon. Real estate is expensive at this pretty beach, with the price for beds and umbrellas in some beach clubs starting at 70€ per couple. We finally settled on something more reasonable and equally well-positioned. After a few hours in the sun, we returned to the upper town using the cable car only to come back for dinner with a view at Trattoria Il Barcaiolo.
Taormina and Catania are excellent jumping spots for visits to Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano and Italy’s second hotspot, together with Mount Vesuvius near Naples. During our visit in early July, there was a 15-degree swing in temperature between the coast and the lower parking lot.
An exhilarating cable car ride took us 600 meters in the air to 2,500m, where we climbed one of the cinder cones and almost melted our shoes from steam seeping through cracks in the ash-covered ground. It is possible to head further up the volcano using a 4X4 bus or hike to the volcano’s summit with a certified guide.
From Mount Etna, it was back to the coast, taking the long way through the heart of the island. The reason for this detour was to check out Enna, one of Sicily’s most charming hilltop towns. Our timing was a bit off, once again, having arrived in the middle of the weekend afternoon siesta. Nonetheless, we were impressed by the lavish interior of its main cathedral and the panoramic views of the surrounding hilltop towns.
Our final stop on the Sicily road trip was the beautiful seaside city of Cefalu. Built in the shadow of a massive fortified cliff, Cefalu is a popular destination both among foreign tourists and Italians. The town’s historic center is something out of Game of Thrones; just swap the brothels with restaurants and the horses with scooters.
Cefalu’s historic center is beautiful by day and really comes to life at night. We spent the morning getting lost in the town’s maze of narrow alleys, checking out majestic cathedrals, and climbing to the Temple of Diana for a bird’s eye view of the town and its coastline. In the afternoon, the beach provided an escape from the heat, and in the evening, it was time for a final Sicilian dinner before catching our flight in Palermo the next day.
This wraps up the account of our road trip around Sicily. Stay tuned for a detailed travel guide and sample Sicily itineraries over the coming months. In the meantime, check out other travel guides to Italy and plan your adventure in one of Europe’s most exciting and rewarding destinations.
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