Referring to Italy, in addition to the powerful and mighty of Rome, the rich culture of Tuscany or the vibrant of Naples, surely the name Sicily or Sicilia will evoke lot of emotions to anyone. Sicily, not only has famous for the novel ‘The Godfather’, ‘specialty’ Mafia and Separatism but also owns a lot of great things that no other land in Italy can match, including the rich and diverse culture of the land with the oldest history in Italy after Rome. In terms of landscape, cultural identity and geographical location, Sicily is not inferior to any other place in Italy, but what has made this land stray from the image of a prosperous Europe that people often imagine? This Sicily blog not only shares with you Sicily travel experiences, but also provides a part of the social picture of the evil land in the pages of Mario Puzo’s books. So, what to do and how to plan a perfect budget trip to Sicily — The largest island of Italy for the first-time? Let’s check out our Sicily travel blog (Sicily blog) with the fullest Sicily travel guide (Sicily guide, Sicily tourist guide) from how to get there, best time to come, where to stay, best places to visit and top things to do to find out the answer!
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If you have read the world famous novel ‘The Godfather’ by Mario Puzo, you will surely know the legendary land of Sicily of Italy which is also the beautiful southernmost island with tradition of producing wine for more than a thousand years. Not only being the “land of Mafia”, this place also contains many interesting and strange things.
Unlike many other large cities and regions in Italy, Sicily is not dense with monumental or massive, majestic or high-rise buildings, but it has many palm trees and other rare trees and plants that evoke the feeling of being in a country of Middle East or North Africa. The streets of cities or towns in Sicily are also small, and there are many more flea markets, shops right on the streets, diverse markets from food markets selling meat, fish and vegetables, to clothing stalls, Chinese game electronics, to gas stoves and ovens.
Sicily travel guide: Overview of Sicily
Where is Sicily?
Well, if you imagine Italy as a boot or a high-heeled shoe, Sicily is like a kicked ball. Indeed, this image ironically compares Sicily’s position in the heart of Italy: Backward and isolated. Despite the distance from the mainland (ie Italy) to the port of Messina of Sicily is only 6.6km, but Sicily is already considered a remote island of Italy.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea with an area of up to 25,711 km² and a population of over 5 million (2022), it is separated from mainland Italy by the Strait of Messina, is one of five autonomous regions, officially known in Italian as Regione Siciliana. The most prominent landscape of the island is Mount Etna, the most famous volcano in Europe with the most frequent and powerful eruptions.
Sicily is 3km from Calabria (in mainland Italy), 160km from the coast of Africa, and to this day, it is still impossible to confirm whether Sicily was once attached to Africa or mainland Italy. Due to its geographical location, Sicily is the most important island in Mediterranean Sea.
A brief history of Sicily
Since the appearance of the first inhabitants, the ancient people of Sicanians, there have been many peoples to occupy, successively inhabiting this hilly and rich in flora and fauna island. After the primitive civilization of the Sicanians came the civilization of the people of Sicels (the origin of the name Sicily), then the people of Elymians originated from West Asia (now Turkey), and then continued to be assimilated by Greek army. For hundreds of years, people jostle against each other to occupy this vast and majestic island, Sicily was handed over from the Greeks to the Carthaginians, to the Roman Empire, to Arabia, to Norman, to France, to Spain, to Austria… until Giuseppe Garibaldi unified Italy and regained Sicily in 1860.
Due to its prime location with hundreds of years of changing thrones, Sicily is the cultural exchange of many different cultures, the Sicilian people are famous for their multi-racial diversity and colorful culture. Coming to Sicily, you can see a blending of ancient indigenous civilizations such as Sicanians, Sicels, Elymians, to the civilizations of invaders such as Roman, Greek, Arab, Norman, Albania, France, Spain. A lot of people in Sicily today are of Albanian origin because this people have occupied and settled here since the 16th century…
The Greeks also invaded the southern Italy and Sicily, so Sicily is so heavily influenced by Greek culture and its civilization, so there are a lot of Greeks here, more Greek-style temples than in Greece itself. The language of the Sicilian people therefore also has a lot of foreign elements mixed (there are even some Albanian-influenced communities who have occupied here since the sixteenth century and to day they still speak the ancient Albanian language). Even the eye color and hair color of a large number of people in Sicily (red hair and blue eyes) are also considered traits they inherited from the Normans. In addition, there also are many people with Arab surnames. So, many Italians sometimes joke that Sicily isn’t Italian, and many Sicilian themselves also don’t identify themselves as Italian.
Sicily travel guide: Is Sicily safe?
There is no country is absolutely safe but actually in Sicily you will be surprised because the security here is better than you think. I lived for a year in Sicily and have never been pickpocketed, stolen or cheated while in Rome I was scammed as soon as I arrived at the airport. The proud Sicilian are sincere, generous and respect to foreigners. What about the mafia? I didn’t see the influence of this criminal organization on the daily life here. However, you should not be too casual when talking about this topic or discuss it with natives because it is a rather complicated topic.
Generally, fewer pickpockets than other famous tourist cities such as: Rome, Barcelona, Paris… also not as many robbers as Naples, Sicily is much safer. There is also absolutely no gunfight like in the movies, probably because civilians, tourists are not the object of interest of mafia gangs. However, you should also be careful when wandering around in slums or suburbs, which may not be as safe as in downtown areas.
What about poverty and backwardness? Indeed, Sicily has poorer infrastructure than northern regions and high rates of unemployment, ghost towns and abandoned cities when young people move to the North to finding jobs that makes the cities become deserted, full of elderly people but in general people still have a comfortable life.
Sicily travel blog: When to visit?
Sicily is endowed with a mild Mediterranean climate, warm winters, cool summers, and little rain. The average temperature in winter is about 6-7 degrees Celsius, 18-20 degrees Celsius in summer.
The golden rule when traveling to countries with sea and islands is to go in sunny summer, even if it’s the peak season with higher costs. Summer in Italy is similar to Vietnam, lasting from the end of May to the end of August. The Mediterranean climate with hot and dry summers and due to its geographical location close to North Africa, summer in Sicily is hotter than other European regions. However, the European summer is very pleasant compared to the summer in the North or Central Vietnam.
You can also come to Sicily in spring with lush green trees, flowers blooming everywhere, it will be more beautiful but not as crowded as in summer, especially for ocean lovers. However, many hotels and restaurants only open in the summer when tourists flocking here.
Sicily travel guide: How to get to Sicily?
The simplest and most efficient way to get to Sicily is by plane. The island has two international airports: Palermo and Catania, connecting to many major cities in the world and the most famous airline is Alitalia – the national carrier of Italy.
There are no direct train routes from mainland cities to Sicily because there is no bridge connecting the island to the mainland. Due to the distance is too far from other regions of Italy, so taking a bus will takes a lot of time, so I do not recommend you to choose this option.
Traveling by boat also is a option to reach Sicily. There are many ferry companies such as Alicudi Palermo Ferry, Alicudi Milazzo Ferry, Civitavecchia Palermo Ferry, Civitavecchia Palermo Termini Imerese Ferry, Favignana Trapani Ferry… which are operating routes to Sicily, you can directly buy tickets at ticket counters at ferry piers or buy online in advance, refer to departture points, routes and timetables here.
Sicily guide: Getting around Sicily
Unlike other developed regions or cities in Italy, public transport in Sicily is even more backward. Usually, in order to save time and make the most comfortable, tourists often choose to travel by coach (passenger car) between tourist destinations on the island. You can refer to the website of the Etna Travel Service Company here or via Facebook, the web is not available in English, so please use Google Translate. According to my experience, you should look up the departure time on the website and then follow the address that listed on the website to buy tickets right on the spot, because online payment also is not available.
For trains you can book and pay online here. However, not every city in Sicily has a train station and the frequency of trains is not as much as that of passenger cars.
However, you should rent a private car if you want to freely explore the tourist attractions on the island. It is recommended to rent in advance online, especially to avoid the holidays or special occasions. The car rental price for a week ranges from €250 to €500. Large rental companies often offer better prices, should not be rented from small firms, they often offer cars with poor quality, prices are not fixed. All car rental companies have offices at the airports and in major cities in Sicily.
Sicily travel guide: What to do and where to go?
Trapani – Marsala, salt flats and ancient windmills
Since ancient times, salt has always played an extremely important role in human life. People get rich from salt, war for salt, even in Italy there are many roads named “Via Salaria” – Salt Route.
The hot winds from Africa, the long sunny summer days, the saltwater coastal lands are all the perfect conditions for the birth of immense salt fields. Here, natural sea salt is still crystallized from the evaporation of water, just as the ancient Phoenicians did 2,700 years ago. Salt was sold throughout the Mediterranean, as far away as the Nordic countries. Thanks to salt, in the mid-16th century it was one of the most important ports in Europe. Today, although there are many different substitutes, the salt here is still preferred by culinary experts because of its purity, no preservatives and the salty taste of natural sea salt.
Leaving the highway, driving along the highway from Trapani to Marsala you will encounter salt fields along both sides of the road. The scene of salt fields is adorned by scattered ancient windmills on the horizon. The first windmills were built in the Middle Ages, today most people use mechanical pumps, but sporadically, there are still 1-2 windmills that continue to lead into and drain water out of the salt fields.
Not available in Sicily tours, and if you want to go, you also have to rent a private car to get there, so not many tourists know this place. But if you have an opportunity to get here, remember to visit the Museum of Salt and the restaurant Trattoria del Sale. You can both visiting, admiring artifacts and documents regard the salt industry in Trapani, and you can also enjoy dishes using salt according to local recipes. And of course, you should also take advantage of buying a few bags of sea salt to use and give as gifts to friends.
Isola Di Vulcano – The Island of Volcanoes
The ancient Greeks named the island Thérmessa, meaning “Source of Heat”, and in Greek mythology it was known as the forge of God Hephaestus (Vulcano in Roman, the god of fire, blacksmiths, and craftsmen). The small island of only 21 square kilometers, 25 kilometers off the northern coast of Sicily, is the closest island to Sicily in the cluster of eight Aeolian Islands. From the main island of Sicily, there are many ports to catch a boat or ferry to the island, but you should go to the port of Messina, the port closest to the island cluster, from there, you can take ferries or boats to reach the island. Buying ticket is simple, just go to the port to see which boat preparing to depart, then go to its ticket counter right on the street and then get on the boat, it only takes 40 minutes to get to the island.
Currently there are 3 volcanoes on the island, of which the Gran volcano is still active. Rated as the most impressive attraction on the island, the scene of the crater is truly breathtaking. The smoldering columns of white smoke, the strong smell of sulfur. However, you should not reach too close, might will be suffocated.
Due to the volcanic terrain, an interesting place to visit is the natural hot mud bath area of Fanghi. The mineral mud here contains very high sulfur content (the smell is quite concentrated), especially good for people with rheumatism and skin diseases (oily skin, acne, psoriasis).
In addition, due to the formation of lava flows, there are many volcanic black sand beaches on the island. The best way to go around the island, stopping at any beach you like is to rent a motorbike, or an ATV, the rental price for a day is not too expensive, about 15-25 Euros depending on the season.
Besides tourist services, people on Vulcano island mainly live by goat farming and hunting. So there are also great local cheeses like goat ricotta, and traditional dishes like fried ricotta, pasta with ricotta, seasoned with local specialties including herbs and spices.
The medieval fishing village of Cefalu
With narrow winding cobblestone streets, small beaches and a lovely harbor, Cefalu is one of Sicily’s most beautiful and most popular medieval fishing villages. The most impressive thing in Cefalu is the Lavatoio – a public laundry area that dates back to the 16th century in the Middle Ages. The laundry area was built where the Cefalino estuary empties into the sea. A special thing is that this river originates in the mountains next to Cefalu, flows underground, slips under the small houses in the village before emptying into the sea. Legend has it that this murmuring stream is the tears of the river goddess, who mourns her beloved husband day and night. From the main street, gracefully curving stairs lead down to the laundry area carved out of monolithic blocks with cool water designed to flow into 22 small faucets, of which 15 are designed in the shape of a dragon’s head which still well preserved to this day.
Until the 60s and 70s of the last century, Cefalu women loved to gather to do laundry here, especially in the hot summer days of the southern Mediterranean because they loved the cool water here due to underground flow through several kilometers before being exposed and flowing into the sea.
Located on the Mediterranean coast, Palermo – the capital of the island of Sicily, is famous for its fresh food and the enthusiasm, generosity, hospitality and kindness of the coastal people. Visitors can return to the past and riding around streets on unique horse-drawn carriages that will not be disappear even when the most modern vehicles appear. Most Palermo people are proud to talk about their homeland, a peaceful coastal city with bold classical European architecture.
And having come to Palermo, it is impossible to ignore its markets. All you need is to walk along the Vucciria market (Mercato della Vucciria) to experience local life. This is a place where locals and tourists come to buy fresh fruit, seafood and fresh cheeses with the enthusiastic, soulful sales style of the Mediterranean people.
Aeonlian Islands is a must-go destination on the journey to Sicily, it is a volcanic archipelago of Sicily, Aeolian not only has pristine coastlines, volcanic black sand beaches, caves and cliffs, but also has a full range of amenities and tourist facilities such as mineral hotspring resorts, water sports, interesting relaxing fishing service.
Don’t miss the beautiful scenery in the town of Marzamemi which is one of the friendliest destinations for a summer vacation. If you want to relax, enjoy beautiful space, experience ancient Italian style, nice climate all year round and saving memories with your family, then Marzamemi is a good choice.
The town of Gangi was built on a small hill in central Sicily, about 80 kilometers to the southeast of Palermo, like a giant tortoise shell. About several years ago, very few people outside of Italy had heard of this village. Considered as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages, this 12th-century old town had a population of about 16,000 in the 1950s but today only 7,000 remain.
Located next to a mountainside outside the city of Agrigento, the valley of Sicily possesses seven Greek temples, so it is called the valley of the temples. The Temple of Concordia, built in the 5th century BC, is the best preserved in the valley and is one of the largest and best preserved Doric temples still standing. Doric columns with 7 m high, 1.3 m in diameter. Other temples include the Temple of Juno, used for wedding ceremonies, and the Temple of Heracles, the oldest temple in the area.
Town of Piazza Armerina
The people of Piazza Armerina speak a different language than in other parts of Sicily. Here, visitors have the opportunity to visit beautiful Gothic works and buildings, especially the Villa Romana del Casale, a palace built in ancient Roman times in the middle of the 4th Century AD with the extraordinary mosaics decoration.
This town located in the southeast of Sicily is known as the “town of Baroque culture”. The Baroque structures in Val di Noto were remodeled in 1693 after a terrible earthquake and were recognized by UNESCO in 2002. The best time to visit Val di Noto is spring, when there are many festivals are held.
In Greek mythology, Etna is the place where Zeus imprisoned the monster Typhon, ending the war that is considered the most terrible in the history of Greek mythology. Currently, Etna is one of the most active and powerful volcanoes in the world, each time the volcano erupts Italians often joke that it is the wrath of the monster Typhon to escape the captivity of Zeus. Etna is also considered a symbol of Sicily, if you are a person who likes challenges and adventure travel, you cannot miss the opportunity to witness firsthand this great volcano.
Taormina is an extremely famous mountain town in Sicily. From Taormina you can see ravishing pebble beaches below, the beautiful Isola Bella island as its name suggests, the old streets for walking and shopping.
You can get to Taormina by bus and if you want to go down to the pebble beaches at the foot of the mountain, you can choose the bus or cable car, in the peak seasons you can go early to get a seat or access to the private beaches of restaurants. Entrance fees will be charged per person.
In addition to beautiful beaches, Taormina is also famous for its Greek theater, this is a theater built by the Greeks in the 2nd century BC. You can also take a walk in the old town of Corso Umberto – a shopping and culinary paradise to explore every corner of Taormina.
The port city and economic center in Eastern Sicily. Although not as famous as the capital of Palermo, Catania is a city worth visiting due to its location right at the foot of Mount Etna – Europe’s largest active volcano. Due to its proximity to the volcano, the structures, buildings and houses here are built mainly of lava rock, creating a slightly sad gray color for the whole city.
Tourist activities of the city are concentrated along the Via Etnea avenue, where you can visit the Cathedral and Badia of Sant’Agata, the Central Square, the University of Catania – one of the oldest universities in the world, shopping street, fruit market, fish market and Ursino fortress. Just walk along the avenue and turn sideways and turn along the directions of the map. Catania is quite small, so it only takes one afternoon to visit its center. From afar, do not forget to watch the Etna volcano, which is still growling day and night to release smoke into the sky.
This is a small city on the Ionian coast, not as famous as Taormina but as beautiful as a gentle wave of the sea. Acireale has a very small and lovely Central square, not to mention the small and narrow alleys that go forever without seeing an end. Far away is the pale blue sea. We kept walking along small alleys to find that color of blue sea, but we forgot about our tired feet. In the past, Acireale used to be quite crowded with tourists, but due to the economic downturn, today the city is gradually deserted. I listened to uncle Grazia’s story and I saw that faint blue color become sadder.
The city is named for both its culture and architecture, so the beauty of Noto is truly overwhelming. The Baroque architectural style is famous for its sharp shapes, high contrast of colors and delicate curves of sculpture. In Noto, those elements are pushed to an astonishing level of sophistication and exquisition. I have visited many Baroque buildings in Vatican, Naples but Noto really is the most elegant. The cathedral here is not grandiose and the streets here are also small, but it is the honey yellow color of the stone that makes Noto really unique. We originally planned to go to Siracusa, the city where the famous Malena movie was set, but uncle Santi said Noto was equally beautiful without being touristized. Indeed, when traveling far, you have to ask the locals to know the real good places.
The last city before parting with Sicily and also the city with the most memories for me. Since I lived for 8 months in Ragusa Ibla, this is really my second home. Ragusa is also close to the southernmost point of the island, traveling so far away to meet my Italian friends when I was a student. I was really surrounded by the kind people of Sicily and taught me many things. Ragusa Ibla rose to prominence a few years back as the setting of an Italian TV series. From an average tourist city, it has become a trending destination for Italians. The city is located on a mountain, so just go from the lowest point to the highest peak to enjoy the beauty of the romantic mountain town.
Diving in Lampedusa
Lampedusa is voted by many travel sites as the most beautiful coast in Europe with a long coastline, many beautiful beaches with clear and blue sea water. This is also a very suitable spot for those who love diving and watching coral. In addition, you can also witness turtles come ashore to lay eggs in the evenings of early September, this must be an extremely interesting experience.
Whisper your secrets at the Ear of Dionysius cave
Even if you talk in a whisper in the Ear of Dionysius cave, be careful because any of your secrets can be exposed whether those around you are near or far away.
The Ear of Dionysius man-made rock cave located in the city of Syracuse (southern Sicily), has been designed so that even the slightest whisper is clearly amplified. Legend has it that this cave was created by Dionysius I – the famous abuser of Syracuse to eavesdrop on the whispers of prisoners locked inside.
Rafting and trekking in Gole Alcantara
Gole Alcantara is a botanical and geological park 40 minutes by car from the town of Taormina, Sicily. This park is an interesting destination for locals and tourists instead of crowded beaches, everyone enjoys spectacular gorges, towering cliffs with strange structures, even water can freeze even in summer time. In addition to activities such as rafting, group boating, water parks, etc. Adventurers can also try challenging adventure sports such as mountain climbing, canyoning, etc.
Tasting Sicilian fine wine
This beautiful island with a typical Mediterranean climate, fertile soil is very suitable for growing grapes, and this is the region with the oldest winemaking tradition in Italy with famous wines such as DOCG, DOC, white wine Moscato di Noto and other famous red wines.
Sicily travel guide: What to eat?
Sicily has many dishes using local products such as cheese, olive oil, tomatoes, especially the seafood here is very fresh and quite cheap. If you have time, you should visit the local markets as well as tasting specialties here with full of fresh vegetables and local produce such as Vucciria Market in Palermo or La Pescheria fish market in Catania.
Due to influenced by Arab cuisine, Sicily is flooding with pastries. First, you must try Arancina (Arancini), rice balls that are stuffed with, cheese and tomato sauce then coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. Next is Cannolo (Cannoli), an extremely seductive cream-filled pastry consisting fried pastry dough, stuffed with a sweet, creamy filling usually containing ricotta. It has crispy crust with sweet ricotta cream, soft at every bite. Don’t forget to try the almond milk from the province of Agrigento as well. In Catania, don’t forget to try grilled horse meat.
Smorgasbord is the popular type of serving here with many delightful mixing dishes which are influenced by Arabic, Greek, French, Spanish and North African with an Italian twist, giving it a speacial flavor and style that you should try!
Sarde a beccafico – The famous Sicilian stuffed sardines here.
The restaurant we dined in in Catania was Trattoria Da Zia Tanina (Address: Via Plebiscito, 428, 95122 Catania CT, Italy/Hours: 12–3:30PM, 7PM–12AM; Monday: 7PM–12AM), which specializes in horse meat dishes. There is another restaurant specializing in Sicilian cuisine called Giaca Ristorante Pizzeria (Address: Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, 245, 95029 Viagrande CT, Italy/Hours: 6PM–1AM; Wednesday:Closed), in the town of Viagrande near Catania. Here we tried pizza and pasta for dinner. If you spend the night in Ragusa Ibla, you can dine at U Saracinu and Da Nito Titos, two popular restaurants in the region.
Sicily travel blog: What to buy?
Definitely the world famous Marsala red wine. In addition, Caltagirone ceramics is also the pride of this dangerous land.
Sicily travel guide: How should I combine my Sicily travel itinerary?
Normally, tourists after finish their journeys to exploring famous destinations in the North of Italy such as Rome, Venice, Florence and then they will going to the South or making another trip to return Italy for the second time and want to explore more deeply the beauty of the boot-shaped country.
Because the island of Sicily is quite large and possesses so many tourists attractions as introduced above, so it will take at least a week or two week to explore all famous places here. For those of you who just want to explore the most famous places, there are two itinerary you can refer to as follows:
Explore the western part of the island:
- Day 1: Arrive in Palermo – Visit the capital city of Palermo
- Day 2: Traveling to Cefalù, a beautiful seaside city near Palermo
- Day 3: Traveling to Erice, a lovely little city and then return to Palermo, ending the trip.
Explore the eastern part of the Island
- Day 1: Arrive in Catania – Visit the port city of Catania
- Day 2: Traveling to Taormina – the most beautiful tourist city in Sicily – Traveling to Acireale – a lovely small city and back to Catania.
- Day 3: Traveling to Noto – A city that representing a school of architecture – Traveling to Ragusa Ibla, the emerging tourist city in Siclia – Return to Catania.
The East and West of Sicily has significant differences in landscape, culture and architecture, so choosing only one of the two is definitely not enough to fully understand this beautiful island. However, due to limited time, I chose the Eastern itinerary, also known as the Val di Noto journey to explore Sicily.
Sicily travel guide: Where to stay?
Some best day tours, trips, activities and transfer services, tickets in, from and to Sicily you can refer to
- Catania: Mount Etna Day Trip with Tasting and Cave Trip
- Etna: Summit Craters Trekking
- Lipari and Vulcano: Day Trip from Milazzo
- Mount Etna Summit and Crater Trek
- From Tropea: Day Tour to the Aeolian Islands
- Palermo 3-Hour Street Food and History Walking Tour
- Catania: Mount Etna Sunset Jeep Tour