Two week itinerary for Sicily
Why go to Sicily?
Sicily is a massively underrated travel destination. It’s home to the greatest population of extant Greek temples outside of Greece, the food is great, the countryside and coastline are beautiful, not to mention the pristine islands dotted around. Sicily’s historical importance has left it a patchwork of Greek, Norman, Byzantine and Moorish architecture and influences making it a fascinating destination for those who are fans or history, art and architecture. And did I mention that the food is great?
It’s been 10 years since I visited (and my photos are therefore not all that), but I always recommend it to people as a destination because there’s so much to see and it remains more off the beaten path than the typical hotspots of Rome, Florence and Venice. There’s also an extensive train network so it’s easy enough to get around cheaply on public transport. If you want to visit the interior, it’s still possible via bus, but you also have the option of hiring a car which will make travel more flexible.
When to go to Sicily?
Sicily isn’t far off the coast of North Africa and this southerly situation means it stays mild all year, only dropping to around 13 degrees on the coast in the winter, although it’s often cooler inland at higher altitudes.
In winter there are ski resorts on Etna’s slopes so you can spend a few days skiing and then hit the coast for sailing and basking in the sun without the need for a coat. Some destinations, such as Taormina, can get particularly busy in the summer high season (and the temperate can make wandering exposed archaeological sites uncomfortable) so a good time to visit are the shoulder seasons of late spring and early autumn. I visited in mid-September and had great weather.
How to get to Sicily
Flights from London take 3 hours and you have the choice of Easyjet from Gatwick, British Airways from Heathrow, or Ryanair from Stansted. Not all airlines fly to Palermo everyday, so you’ll have to plan your trip around their timetables. There’s better availability in high season, but it does also increase the price, although if you book far enough ahead, you’re still only looking at a little over £100 return.
Where to visit in Sicily?
Everywhere! Sicily is fairly compact and easy to get around so there’s no real need to tie yourself to one location.
You can plan your journey using the Trenitalia website. I’ve put together a two week itinerary below which will take you to the main cities and sites in Sicily. This is a trip around the whole island which you can either do by bus and train which is cheap and efficient, or you can rent a car. Cities and towns in Sicily can be tight and winding and parking difficult so having a car can sometimes be a burden and it will pay to plan ahead.
Two week Sicily itinerary
I spent 17 days seeing Sicily (and that only got me around the coast seeing little of the interior!). I’ve put together a suggested 14 day itinerary- this map shows the major sights on the route and I suggest the stopping points are laid out like this to allow you to see the major cities and day trip to other interesting places:
- Palermo 3 nights
- Messina 1 night
- Taormina 2 nights
- Syracuse 3 nights
- Agrigento 1 night
- Trapani 3 nights
What to see in Palermo
Palermo is a beautiful city with a fabulously rich history. There’s plenty to see and do and good food everywhere you look. It also makes a good base for visiting other parts of Sicily if you’d rather stay in Palermo and do day trips as it’s connected by train to most major towns and cities on the island.
- Palazzo Abatellis: home to the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia. The building dates from the 15th century starting life as a home and later becoming a monastery. The gallery contains a number of fine works including a large 15th century fresco of the Triumph of Death and Anontello da Messina’s 16th century Virgin Annunciate.
- Palermo Cathedral: built in 1185 on the site of a previous church (turned mosque during the conquest of the Saracens) the cathedral has been added to during the centuries including a large dome.
- Catacombe dei Cappuccin: a rather macabre tourist attraction of mummified monks and others in the 16th century catacombs below the Capuchin friary. Bodies in various states of preservation line the walls- not for the faint hearted.
- Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (La Martorana): standing on the PIazza Bellini, La Martorana is a jumble of various styles built and added to over the centuries, but its foundation charter dates it to 1143. Nearly every inch of the interior is covered with 12th century Byzantine mosaics which show stylistic similarities with the interiors of Cefalu and Monreale.
- Palazzo dei Normanni e Cappella Palatina: this was the palace of the kings of Sicily during Norman rule, when Palermo was established as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily, and remained the seat of power after the Norman period ended. It’s the oldest royal residence in Europe. It’s thought to date from the 9th century. It’s also the Astronomical Observatory of Palermo. Inside you can also visit the Capella Palatina built in the Arab-Normal Byzantine style and also filled with 12th century mosaics.
- Palermo archaeological museum: containing a large collection of Punic and Ancient Greek Art. Of note is the reconstruction of the east pediment of Temple C at Selinunte as well as metopes and reliefs from other temples as well as objects and sculptures from Solunto, Agrigento and other sites around Sicily. There’s also fabulous third century BC bronze ram, a roman copy of a sculpture by Lysippus and a Roman copy of a statues by Praxiteles.
Day trips from Palermo
Solunto Archaeological site
Soluntum was an ancient Sicilian city settled by the Phoenicians, although its foundation date is unknown. Its location above the coast gives it beautiful views out to sea making it a worthwhile destination of historical interest and stunning landscape. It was later also inhabited by the Romans but thought to have been finally destroyed by the Saracens.
Palermo to Solunto archaeological area is reached by taking the train to S. Flavia-Solunto-Porticello. Trains are hourly and take 20mins €2.50
Monreale is a must do trip from Palermo to see the cathedral. Every inch is covered in mosaic dating from the 12th century and it is overwhelmingly beautiful. It’s the largest extant Byzantine mosaic cycle in Italy (and that’s including the amazing mosaics in Ravenna). It has a charmingly simple façade which gives way to it’s gloriously ornate interior.
Monreale can be reached from Palermo by bus with the journey taking between 30 and 45 minutes depending on traffic. It costs just €1.50 one way. Bus N° 389 departs hourly from Piazza Indipendenza in Palermo and drops you near to the cathedral.
A small town on the north coast of Sicily it’s nevertheless a major tourist attraction on account of its charming medieval streets and Romanesque cathedral.
Visit the cathedral to see the beautiful 12th century mosaics including that of Christ Pantokrator in the apse. You should also visit the medieval laundry to see where clothes were washed in the medieval town.
If you have the energy you can also climb the mountain behind Cefalù, La Rocca, which includes remnants of some prehistoric habitation as well as remains of a temple from the 5th or 4th century BC. During the Byzantine period fortification walls and several buildings were built for protection from invasion but Cefalu ultimately fell to the Saracens in 857.
Palermo Centrale to Cefalu takes around 50mins with departures every 60 – 90 minutes and costs €5.60 for an adult.
Continuing East along Sicily’s north coast from Cefalu takes you to Messina which sits on a narrow strait opposite Reggio di Calabria in mainland Italy. The city features a number of interesting Byzantine churches, including its cathedral (almost entirely rebuilt after an earthquake in the 1920s) and the Church of the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani.
The direct train from Cefalu to Messina takes c.2 hours and departs roughly every two hours. The journey costs €9.90. From Palermo the train takes around 3 hours.
Taormina is noticeably more expensive than the rest of Sicily both in terms of accommodation and food. It’s far more touristy than the rest of the Island due to its breath-taking views, picturesque Greek ruins and cute town. It was founded in the 4th century BC but declined rapidly after the Norman conquest. It first became a tourist destination in the 17th century when it became part of the European Grand Tour. DH Lawrence lived there for three years in the 1920s.
Notable sites include the beautifully located amphitheatre with views over the surrounding countryside. It’s thought to be Roman rather than Greek on account of it being built of brick. It’s the second largest in Sicily after the one at Syracuse. There’s also a 10th century palace, Palazzo Corvaja and a number of pretty architectural features such as a Baroque fountain.
Messina to Taormina-Giardini by train takes around 45 minutes to an hour, departs roughly hourly and costs €4.30. If you go straight through to Taormina-Giardini from Palermo the train takes between 4 and 5 hours with a change in Messina and costs around €15 – 20 depending on the train.
Catania is well located for visiting a number of locations in Sicily. I haven’t made it an overnight stop in my suggested itinerary (I day tripped from Taormina), but if you’re keen to visit Etna then it’s a good base for Etna (although it can also be done from Taormina) as well as Piazza Armerina (which I visited from Syracuse).
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily but retains a pretty, intimate feel to the town centre making it a great place just to wander around and get yourself lost. It was founded in the 8th century BC and was the site of Sicily’s first university, founded in 1434. There are a number of both classical and Baroque buildings to visit, including:
- Greco-Roman theatre
- Roman thermal baths
- Catania Cathedral (originally 11th century but rebuilt in the Sicilian Baroque style following the 1693 earthquake)
- Castello Ursino (a 13th century royal castle of the Kingdom of Sicily- entrance is free and it’s open 9am – 7pm Mondays to Saturdays)
- Fontana dell’Elefante (an elephant statue with an Egyptian obelisk on its back which stands in the Piazza del Duomo and is a symbol of the city)
Catania is also a great foodie destination with lots of markets to visit and cooking classes you book onto. I actually had one of my most memorable meals of all my travels in Catania, a simple spaghetti alla Norma in Trattoria de Fiore (you can read about it here).
Trains from Taormina-Giardini to Catania leave several times an hour, cost €4.30 and take between 35 minutes and an hour.
Syracuse (or Siracusa to the locals) has a rich Greek history, including being home to the mathematician Archimedes and was an extremely powerful and important Greek city. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the nearby Necropolis of Pantalica.
- Archaeological museum: if you like your Greek pots, and I mean really like them, then you need to visit the archaeological museum which is overflowing with finds from Syracuse’s Greek past. I never saw so many Greek pots in my life, even in Athens! This is a wonderfully thorough and massive collection, don’t feel bad if you don’t see it all. Open Tuesday to Saturday 9am – 6pm, and Sundays and holidays 9am to 1pm. Closed on Mondays €8 for a ticket unless combined with the Archaeological Park (below).
- Archaeological Park: the park includes a number of key sites (below) as well as a quarry filled with catacombs and a monolithic altar. Opening hours 9am-1hr before sunset Mon-Sat, 9am-1pm Sun. €10/ or €13.50 with the Archaeological Museum included.
- Ear of Dionysius: this limestone cave in the Temenites Hill is a beautifully curved shape and has wonderful acoustics due to its shape. It’s unknown whether its shape is due to it being a quarry or dug as water storage by Greeks and Romans or whether it is naturally formed.
- Greek Theatre: first built in the 5th century BC and thought to have been renovated in the 3rd century BC, the theatre overlooks modern day Syracuse. It is remarkably intact and forms part of Syracuse’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. It had a capacity of 16,000.
- Temple of Apollo: standing in the Piazza Pancali this is thought to be the oldest temple in Sicily dating to the 6th century BC. Although it became a Byzantine church and later a mosque, only ruins remain today.
- Cathedral: the building is a pastiche of different architectural elements. It began life as a Doric temple, the columns of which can still be seen incorporated into the walls. It also features a Norman roof, Byzantine mosaics and a Baroque façade. Fascinating if you’re looking to learn more about architectural styles as you can see a great many under one roof!
Catania to Syracuse takes about one hour and 15 minutes departing roughly every two hours (although sometimes more frequently) and costing €6.90
I largely stayed on the coast during my time in Sicily but there’s plenty to see inland including the Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina.
The Villa Romana del Casale is a huge Roman Villa about 3km from the town of Piazza Armerina. It contains over 3,000 square metres of mosaic depicting elaborate scenes from Roman life including hunting and farming scenes, people exercising and battles. Mosaics in the villa date from the early 4th century AD and it is one of the largest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. There’s also a good collection of frescoes.
Although more difficult to get to without a car than many other parts of Sicily, it is possible to get a bus from the nearest cities of Catania and Siracusa. We hired a car to get there from Siracusa and it took around 2 and half hours to drive through the countryside. You can take a route via Caltagirone which is a beautiful medieval town of narrow, twisty streets.
Visit the Valley of the Temples, a huge archaeological park and yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site on Sicily. It’s also the world’s largest archaeological site covering some 1,300 hectares. There are a number of remarkably complete temples including the Temple of Concordia which is the best preserved of those in Agrigento and gives a striking impression of the size and grandeur of Greek temples.
Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am – 7:30pm and 9am to 1:30pm Sundays and holidays. A combined ticket for the site and museum is €10 or €8 for the museum only.
Near to Agrigento you can also visit the Turkish Steps, a rocky cliff with a striking white colour for instagrammable holiday snaps.
Agrigento can be reached from Syracuse by train. The journey takes between around 5 and 6 hours and involves a number of changes although it’s easy enough and reasonably priced at €14.30.
Trapani makes a good base for seeing a number of archaeological sites or day tripping to nearby Marsala. There’s an interesting collection in the Museo Regionale ‘Agostino Pepoli’ Trapani covering various periods in Sicily’s history as well as a number of interesting churches spanning several hundred years from the Renaissance to the Baroque. The Cathedral (built in the 15th century but later restored in the Baroque period) houses an Annunciation attributed to Anthony van Dyck.
You can also visit the nearby Museo delle Saline in Marsala which brings to life the history of salt production in the region, which started with the Phoenicians nearly 3,000 years ago. Open daily 9am to 7:30pm.
To get to Trapani from Agrigento is a bit of a convoluted journey which is one that might be easier by car. You can take a bus from Agrigento to Castelvetrano which takes around 2 and a half hours and costs around €10, and then a train from Castelvetrano which Trapani, which takes a little over an hour and costs €6.20.
Day trips from Trapani
Selinunte was an important Greek colony founded in 628BC. Five temples stood at Selinunte although just Temple E has been re-erected. Many of the decorations from the temples of Selinunte can be seen in Palermo’s archaeological museum. It’s a large and important site in Sicily’s history and well worth a visit.
The nearest train station is at nearby Castelvetrano and a number of buses run daily between the station and the archaeological site although the timetable is not always reliable so you may be in for a wait. The site is open daily 9am – 7pm and tickets cost €9 and also give you entry to Segesta within two days. The train to Castelvetrano (for Selinunte) takes between an hour and an hour and half and costs €6.20.
The ancient city of Segesta is marked by a well preserved Doric temple set amid an idyllic pastoral scene. There’s also a well preserved It is thought to have been built in the 420’s BC. The city was frequently in conflict with nearby Selinunte with Segesta requesting help from Carthage leading to the destruction of Selinunte (ancient Selinus) by the Carthaginians.
Tickets are €6 if not bought with tickets to Selinunte. Opening hours vary through the year from 9am – 5pm in winter and staying open until 7:30pm in summer. You can get the bus from Trapani several times a day which takes around half an hour.