“To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for in Sicily lies the key to everything.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
For millennia, Sicily (or Sicilia, in Italian) has been at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Every society that has passed through or conquered the island has left fragments of their culture behind; much of which is still visible today. For the modern traveler this means that the last 3,000 years of western civilization is abundantly displayed and conveniently compressed into this 25,711 km2 (9,927 sq. mi) floating triangle at the very edge of the European Continent, making it an accessible microcosm of Italy in the extreme.
So if you’d like to experience this sumptuous adventure across epochs and cultures, what are some of the highlights that will impart the visitor with this sense of historical passage? The list is endless, no doubt; but if you start with these five things, you’ll have at least tasted a bit of it all.
- Greek Ruins. It is well documented that the Greek ruins in Sicily are more numerous and better preserved than those in Greece itself. The Greeks first settled the island (then known as “Magna Grecia,” or Greater Greece) by establishing the port of Naxos along the Straits of Messina in 735 B.C. A century later they settled the town of Syracuse on the southeastern edge of the island, which quickly became one of the most powerful city-states in all of ancient Greece, second only to Athens. However, to see the best ruins remaining today, you must travel to the Valley of the Temples in the province of Agrigento to the west.
- The Food and Wine. Every Italian believes that the best food in Italy comes from their own hometown (more specifically, from their own mother’s kitchen). But if you surveyed the entire country and asked “which region outside of your own has the best cuisine?” Sicily is everyone’s answer. And for good reason. Over the centuries, Sicilian cuisine has adopted the best ingredients from every other culture that has passed through. The Greeks brought grape vines which now produce the coveted Nero D’Avola wine. In many homes and restaurants in Palermo, you’re just as likely to find couscous on your plate as pasta, thanks to the Moorish rule from the 800’s to the 1100’s. And in the town of Modica, you can taste the raw chocolate brought there from Mexico by the Spanish in the 1500s.
- The Architecture. Probably the most famous style of architecture that you’ll see in Sicily is called “Sicilian Baroque,” defined by exaggerated features and grotesque characters embedded into the architectural elements. This style can be seen throughout the island, but is most abundant in the southeastern area in cities such as Ragusa, Noto, and Modica. Beyond the Baroque style, you’ll also find Roman, Arabic, Spanish, and Norman influences. A real treat for anybody who appreciates architecture.
- The Seaside. No matter what type of coastal destination you prefer, Sicily has them all. Cefalù is a small fishing village on the northern coast between Palermo and Messina where the seafood is fresh and the pace of life is slow. Taormina is a well-known resort town perched high up on a mountain and overlooking both the Ionian Sea and the ruins of an ancient Greek theater dating from 700 B.C. Mondello Lido is a popular beach area where the citizens of Palermo flock to in the summer months to escape the heat of the city. Here you can find comfortable accommodations to suit every type of group and budget.
- Mount Etna. Sicily’s Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanos in the world and the tallest in all of Europe. To the ancient Greeks it was the realm of Vulcan, the god of fire. Today, it presents opportunities for adventure no matter the season. In the summer you can hike to the rim and peer into the sweltering depths. (Be careful as your guide scoops up some hot lava and fashions it into souvenir ashtray for you.) In the winter months Etna is transformed into a popular skiing destination. The runs aren’t that numerous, but they’re long—it’s even possible to ski from the summit at 3,330 meters, all the way to the very base of the volcano.
So you see, Sicily has everything—all the greatest treasures found throughout ancient and modern world. Not only that, it’s much more affordable than most European destinations. Just bring a good camera, an open mind, and a healthy appetite and get ready to discover what travelers have known for thousands of years: Sicily offers the very best of the Mediterranean.