Whether you are a history buff, a fan of grandiose landscapes or a lover of gourmet cuisine, the Italian island has something to please everyone. From its flamboyant capital, Palermo, to the slopes of Mount Etna, there are a thousand reasons to be carried away!
"To understand Italy, you have to know Sicily," Goethe said. Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs and Normans shaped this Mediterranean land for 4000 years, leaving behind architectural treasures and a mosaic of cultures. But beware: it is a big island, 300 km long. You will have to make choices if you are unable to get round to admiring all its treasures.
As in the past, conquering starts with the cities. In the north of Sicily, bordered by a beautiful gulf, Palermo is an essential point of passage. Churches and palaces (by the hundreds!), facades and fountains, bear witness to past invasions and set the stage, sometimes with faded colours and fissured walls, which only add to its timeless charm. Yet the capital is not frozen in the past; it’s worth lingering there for several days. In the shade of the imposing Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace), the streets hung with laundry resonate with local gossip. At the end of the afternoon, the inhabitants settle down on the pavements to talk about football or politics, get angry and then make up!
But the most exceptional of Sicilian treasures are to be found at the gates of the city: Monreale Cathedral, dating from the 12th century; a monument rich in periods and influences, between Byzantine mosaics, an enchanting cloister and oriental gardens. A must see, if only because legend has it that women who dip their fingers in its fountains get younger!
This foretaste cannot do justice to the many beauties of Sicily. You have to follow the lacey coastline that plunges into the cobalt blue of the sea, skirt around the creeks and gullies to discover its sunny cities, before reaching Syracuse, in the south-east of the island. From Cicero to Maupassant, it has inspired the dreams of many! Including Yves Montand who sang of it. Boats bobbing in the harbour, a bustling market in a leafy square, fountains, temple ruins and a Roman amphitheatre complete the scene...
But it is only by taking the side roads that one discovers the true Sicilian soul, in the sun-scorched lands or in the mountains that cover 4/5 of the territory. Divided up by low stone walls, the countryside is proud and austere, but endearing once you explore its many villages with their steep alleys, tightly packed houses and rich churches crumbling away under the cherubs...
You need to take the time to sample the mixed cuisine before setting off to conquer Etna. From the height of 3350 m, it "watches" over Sicily with benevolence, sometimes with anger. Don't worry! At the slightest sign of activity, access to Europe's largest volcano is closed. The road leading to the crater starts by winding its way through luxuriant mountains, passing through villages built of lava stones. Then come the black stone screes, the smell of sulphur teasing the nostrils and the fumaroles escaping from the bowels of the volcano... the landscape is straight out of Dante.
Taormina crowns this emotionally charged discovery. Clinging to the cliff overlooking the sea, seeped in flowers and filled with pottery shops, the medieval city with its rich baroque palaces and churches embodies the fatal beauty and romanticism of Sicily. From the terraces of the Greco-Roman theatre that illuminates its heart, the panorama runs on and on, as far as Catania, the other great Sicilian city that has been destroyed many times by the whims of Mount Etna and by earthquakes, but rebuilt each time. Another story, another journey...
Sites and monuments
- Quattro Canti - the main square with its elegant harmony, adorned with fountains and statues and surrounded by beautiful buildings.
- Martorana or the Co-Cathedral of St. Mary of the Admiral - one of the most beautiful churches in the city, famous for its Byzantine mosaics.
- Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi - a gallery of mirrors, precious woods and porcelain. The tour offers a journey into Sicilian aristocracy. Here Visconti shot the ball scene of the "The Leopard"...
- The Cathedral - erected on the ruins of a mosque, it is striking in its varied styles, symbolized by a columned porch and a large dome.
- Palazzo dei Normanni - arranged around a courtyard decorated with galleries, this opulent fortress built by the Arabs and enlarged by the Normans houses the Sicilian Parliament.
- Palazzo Mirto - a chic decor for this 18th century palace, revealing period furniture
- Teatro Massimo - a theatre with a huge stage, beautiful ceiling and rich Murano chandeliers
- Monreale Cathedral (10 km from Palermo) - Founded in the 12th century, an exceptional testimony of Arab-Norman art, with its massive towers, its baroque chapel...
- Botanical Garden - 10 hectares of greenery where subtropical species grow (cactus, palm trees...), brought back from expeditions to the other side of the world.
- Villa Giulia Garden - a poetic Italian garden of neoclassical inspiration, a stone's throw from the Botanical Garden
- La Favorita Park - a former hunting reserve transformed into a large park which houses a strange palace of Chinese inspiration.
- Gallery of Modern Art - In a Gothic palace, featuring paintings and sculptures from the 18th to the 20th centuries
- Galleria Della Sicilia - the museum houses many objects of Sicilian religious art as well as Flemish paintings
- Archaeological Museum Antonino Salinas - Surronding a cloister, the rooms display the findings of excavations carried out in Sicily.
- Antonio Pasqualino Puppet Museum - dedicated to puppetry, a popular Sicilian tradition. The visit is combined with a show, performed on the premises.
- March 18 - St. Joseph's Day, a popular festival during which old objects are burned on bonfires
- March/April - Holy Week, marked by the processions of the old religious brotherhoods
- 25 April - Liberation Day 1945
- 2 June - Feast of the Proclamation of the Republic
- June - Mediterranean countries fair
- 10/15 July - Festival of St. Rosalia - performances, processions and fireworks to celebrate the Patron Saint of Palermo
- Summer - the city's theatres and open-air theatres host operas, classical and jazz concerts
- 2 November - Feast of the Dead, a joyful All Saints' Day during which children wait for the dead to give them presents!
To the west of the island, Trojans and Phocaeans built Greek theatres and Doric temples in the cities of Segeste and Selinunte. Encroached by grasses rustling to the song of cicadas, surrounded by gentle mountains planted with olive trees, the two archaeological sites are among the most beautiful in Sicily.
On the south coast, the archaeological park of Agrigento is classified by Unesco... From its sumptuous Greek period, the small town has inherited seven well-preserved temples, including those of Concord and Juno, which are aflame at sunset. A must for lovers of old stone!
The disturbing and fascinating Stromboli (Aeolian Islands) emerges offshore, some sixty km from the Sicilian coast. The active volcano spits out lava at regular intervals. Boat trips are available from Milazzo to approach the "monster", and sometimes even to climb it.
- Antipasti - hors d'oeuvres to share, mixing seafood, vegetables, cheese...
- Bruschetta - a slice of bread, rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes, grilled peppers, hams, cheese...
- Schiacciata - a local variation of focaccia.
- Spaghetti, tagliatelle, penne, rigatonis... there are dozens of ways to prepare pasta!
- Risotto - with shellfish or fish, it remains a must in Sicilian cuisine.
- Fish - from sardines to tuna, grilled or in couscous, the choice is wide. Swordfish caught in the Strait of Messina is the star of the markets, prepared in rolls.
- Arancini - rice balls, breaded and stuffed with meat and vegetables
- Farsumagru - an opulent stuffed veal dish, spiced up with a spicy sauce
- Provolone - an oval-shaped cow's milk cheese
- Ricotta - a soft sheep's milk cheese
- Cassata - a sponge cake, filled with ricotta, candied fruits...
- Gelati - ice cream for every taste is an Italian institution!
- Granita - a mixture of crushed ice and fruit syrup or purée, both a drink and a dessert.
- Wine - vines are cultivated all over Sicily, especially around Trapani (in the west). Marsala is the island's most prestigious nectar. Its alcohol level varies between 17 and 19°.
- Coffee - especially espresso, which is drunk very strong (ristretto) in Sicily.
- Cappuccino – a long, black coffee topped with frothy milk and sprinkled with cocoa
- Limoncello - a lemon-based liqueur from southern Italy, to be tasted chilled.
- Beer - Massina is brewed with barley from Sicily