Sicily (in Italian, it is Sicilia) is a place apart even in the context of Italy, with a distinct look and a turbulent history shaped by a number of different cultures.
This article covers Syracuse, the towns of Val di Noto, Catania, Taormina, and several standalone UNESCO World Heritage sites. Palermo enjoys a separate entry.
Syracuse ♥♥ is one of the major cities in Sicily, with the historic core, Ortygia Island ♥♥♥, that is a walkable delight. From its street market ♥ to the Temple of Apollo to the Fountain of Diana to Fonte Aretusa to viewpoints ♥ near Castello Maniace, there is plenty that you can see while staying outside. There are several important churches (for instance, the Cathedral ♥ and the nearby church of Santa Lucia alla Badia ♥) and a number of museums that may be worth going to (the aforementioned castle, Palazzo Bellomo, Jewish Mikveh, Papyrus Museum, Museo Archimede e Leonardo).
Ortygia shares the World Heritage designation with two other areas in and around Syracuse. Neapolis Archaeological Park anchors the area to the north of the town core which also includes Tecnoparco Archimede and Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi. Half an hour out of the city is yet another part of the WH inscription, the Necropolis of Pantalica.
One place worthy of a recommendation is Il Blu ♥♥ (on Via Nizza at the edge of the Old Jewish Quarter), with pleasant seating on a small square with a sea view and superb food.
Val di Noto
Seven towns in the southeastern area of Sicily known as Val di Noto (plus Catania on the coast) comprise a serial World Heritage property, inscribed for their Baroque reconstruction after the devastating earthquake of 1693.
Noto ♥♥ is both picturesque and monumental in its reasonably compact historic center which is built on a grid pattern. Lots of examples of Baroque architecture, although interestingly, the impressive church exteriors hide comparatively understated interiors; not without interesting details, but far from the exuberance of churches in Palermo. Step into the Cathedral ♥, San Carlo ♥, San Francesco d’Assisi ♥, or Montevergine ♥ for examples. At San Carlo, climbing the tower ♥♥ is an additional highlight.
A couple of palaces are worth a visit. Palazzo Nicolaci ♥ has a number of reasonably decorated rooms, headlined by the beautiful Ball Room. Look at the balconies when outside – the supports are varied and amazing. And make sure to step outside onto the balconies when visiting. The interior of Castelluccio Palace ♥ is actually more impressive, with a dozen of well-furnished rooms and a couple of outer spaces, but minus the balconies.
Late at night, quieter Noto is especially charming.
Ragusa ♥♥♥ may be the most impressive of all of the Val di Noto towns, especially if you consider the sight of Ragusa Ibla (the historic core) from the viewpoints of Ragusa Superiore (the newer town). It is not exactly compact, and walking around (especially going to Ragusa Superiore) requires quite a lot of stair climbing.
Ragusa Superiore is more modern and more Baroque, with a visible grid pattern in its central area. The Cathedral of Saint Giovanni ♥♥ is the highlight, as is the Santa Maria delle Scale ♥, which is part medieval and part Baroque. One of the best viewpoints ♥♥♥ is by the latter.
Ragusa Ibla is more medieval, with narrower streets, and many staircases as well. The Cathedral of San Giorgio ♥ is worth stepping into, and there are other points of interest, such as Palazzo della Rocca (check out its balconies even if you do not have time for a proper visit).
Scicli ♥ is a favorite of many, with a compact historic center full of Baroque buildings, much smaller than in Noto, and also relatively uncrowded; despite the WH designation, it is a bit off the beaten path. Palazzo Benevento offers an amazing exterior, but cannot be visited. Churches may be closed at midday, otherwise, as everywhere else, each merits a quick look. Palazzo Spadaro in the core zone is comparable to Palazzo Nicolaci in Noto.
Palazzolo Acreide ♥♥ is a great-looking small town, with an attractive Baroque-tinted core and two significant churches that are part of the Val di Noto WH site. Both churches – San Sebastiano ♥♥ and San Paolo ♥♥ – are very much worth the visit; in San Paolo, we were the only visitors on a midday morning, and a custodian offered to be our guide in exchange for a voluntary contribution to the church upkeep; he gave us a whirlwind tour and even interrupted a conversation between the padre and one of the parishioners to introduce the foreign visitors. San Michele ♥ is worth a look as well, as may be other churches in town. The central square, Piazza del Popolo ♥♥, is exactly what you would expect from a hilltop town.
Three more towns that are part of the same WH property did not make the final cut of our itinerary. Caltagirone is the ceramic capital of Sicily and offers a number of points of interest in addition to its Baroque center. Modica looked dramatically positioned in a mountain gorge from a distance. Both Modica and Militello in Val di Catania are not featured on the inscription as whole towns but rather with a couple of specific churches each, but I suspect are worthy of a visit on their own merits, similarly to Palazzolo Acreide.
In the “memorable stays” category, B&B Novecento Siciliano (link) is literally around the corner from the Noto Cathedral. The location is on the top floor of a historic building (manageable 53 steps): nice room with views and a mix of modern and vintage details; great fresh breakfast. Parking needs to be found on the streets a few blocks away (but we managed without much of a problem). Noise from the street is not too bad, but trash disposal operations of nearby cafes are certainly bothersome after midnight.
One place worthy of a dining recommendation is Geranio (on Via Ducezio), recommended by our B&B host and simply great.
The historic center of Catania ♥♥ is also part of the Val di Noto WH site, and there are truly many impressive Baroque churches and palaces around. The Cathedral Square ♥♥ is gorgeous, and the town looks a bit cleaner than Palermo. Attractions such as Castello Ursino, Palazzo Biscari, Museum of Contemporary Art in Sicily, Monastero dei Benedettini, and Teatro Romano, could all be worth visiting given sufficient time. Our plans allowed for just a few hours in town, and at midday, every single point of interest was closed. We did catch the tail end of the famous fish market, which is around the corner from the cathedral square.
Taormina ♥ is a resort town with the core part sitting on mountain slopes high above the sea. It is a bit overcommercialized – pretty, with lots of attractive buildings, and tons of picture-worthy angles, but every inch of the street level is taken by restaurants and shops. There are a few churches with minor interesting features (Santa Caterina ♥ is quite lovely, San Giuseppe on the main square is not bad, and the Duomo is not too special). Villa Comunale ♥ public gardens are worth some exploration. Roman Theater ♥♥ is the top sight, very impressive, especially the perspectives of its remaining structure combined with the town behind; it is also somewhat overpriced for what you get.
Late in the evening many of the restaurants in Taormina center offer live music. Passerby can easily get a concert-worth of entertainment.
Down by the sea level, several small bays are where the beaches are found, with dozens of hotels lining the main seaside road. Isola Bella is a minor attraction here, a small formerly private island that can be reached on foot at low tide.
Getting a couple of hours in the sea on a boat with aperitivo ♥ in the late afternoon is a very nice diversion. The sea may occasionally be a bit rough, but there are places where it remains tranquil. You go into a couple of caves, take a dip in a warm bay, and generally look at the shore points from the water.
Castelmole ♥ is a tiny picturesque village high above Taormina. You could probably see it all in 20 minutes or so, but the drive up and down demands that you linger for at least an hour at one of the belvederes or in a cafe or a shop.
Cable car by the Mazzaro Bay connects the sea level with the Taormina town core at the eastern edge of town (by the Messina Gate) – it is quite efficient and open until 1 am even in the shoulder season. If you want to drive up to town, Porta Catania parking is a large multi-level lot that puts you a few steps away from the western edge of the town core.
A couple of places worthy of dining recommendations are Trattoria Tiramisu (on Via Apollo Arcageta near the Catania Gate), probably the most accomplished restaurant we visited in Sicily in terms of food and service; and Il Ciclope (on Corso Umberto), with understated ambiance in a “cove” off the main pedestrian street and great food overall.
Other important sites in Sicily
If you come to Agrigento, most likely you are targeting a visit to the Valley of the Temples ♥♥♥, one of the unmissable highlights of Sicily and a World Heritage site. It offers a couple of relatively well-preserved temples, Juno and Concordia, plus a couple of less well-preserved, Hercules and Zeus, as well as a number of minor additional attractions. Not a small area to cover, the site requires quite a bit of walking (although, there is a shuttle from one end to the other at €3 one-way). The two main temples are very impressive, and the views from many spots are tremendous. Easily accessible parking, refreshments, and there are a few drinking water fountains on the premises.
Other attractions in the area include Museo Archeologico Regionale Pietro Griffo and Kolymbethra Gardens. About an hour westward on the coast can be found Stair of the Turks, an impressive natural feature.
I have done no research on the town of Agrigento proper, but I assume it can offer additional points of interest for those staying overnight.
Villa Romana del Casale ♥♥♥ is an entirely unique masterpiece of human endeavor on account of its well-preserved and varied floor mosaics. This World Heritage site is simply mind-blowing, and even a bit overwhelming, compared to many other places that have some remnants of ancient art. Unmissable on a Sicilian itinerary.
The villa is located outside of the town of Piazza Armerina, which comes up as a great sight from a distance, and possibly an interesting place to see.
A natural phenomenon that is very much worth exploring – and a World Heritage site on its own – Mount Etna ♥♥♥ can be toured in a variety of ways, with or without guidance. Silvestri Craters ♥, for instance, is a fairly easily reachable highlight. We actually hired a guide with a Jeep, which allowed us to visit some of the less accessible areas, including a lava tunnel called Grotta Cicirello.
Not a WH site, and a town that we explored quite literally in passing, Acireale boasts several impressive Baroque churches and palaces around Piazza Duomo ♥. Definitely, a place to come back to.