Located in the heart of the Mediterranean lies an island filled with beautiful Baroque, vociferous locals and the most mouthwatering (fried) food your lips are ever likely to taste. There are plenty of things to do in Sicily to keep one busy for an entire lifetime. Find the ten most quintessential Sicilian to-do’s to ensure you get the most out of your visit!
Before delving into the various attractions, it is noteworthy to mention the island might seem small, but it is, in fact, much larger than one might think at first glance. Couple that with an underdeveloped network of public transportation, and travel time between locations increases exponentially.
Therefore, the choice of where to stay in Sicily is of the utmost importance. If looking to explore eastern Sicily, then consider basing yourself out of Catania or Noto; feel like seeing more of the rugged western Sicily, then Palermo is the place to be, and finally, if southern Sicily is where your heart is at, book a hotel in Agrigento.
1. Visit the Unesco Heritage Arab-Norman Architecture in Palermo
The beating heart of Sicily is, without a doubt, its chaotic capital Palermo. Travelers often overlook the city in favor of Catania, which has the largest international airport and is the jumping-off point for most tours to climb Mount Etna. A plethora of things to do in Palermo awaits the adventurous travelers who venture into the city. The most noteworthy of all is the UNESCO-classified Arab-Norman attractions.
The Arab-Norman sites in Palermo date back to the 12th century and beautifully showcase the harmonious fusion of Arab, Byzantine, and Norman architectural styles, reflecting the city’s complex history.
One of the standout attractions is the majestic Palermo Cathedral, which is slightly more impressive from the outside than the austere whitewashed interior. Said grand façade reflects a combination of Arab arches, Norman towers, and Gothic elements. Make sure to pay a small supplemental fee to be allowed access to the terraces of the Cathedral, which offer the very best views over Palermo.
Next on the itinerary is the Palazzo dei Normanni, or the Norman Palace. This iconic landmark was built by King Roger II of Sicily and, to this day, is still used by the local government. The highlight of the palace is the Palatine Chapel, adorned with shimmering golden mosaics depicting biblical scenes and Arab-inspired motifs. The chapel once served as a private place of worship to the King and is now itself worshipped by all that step foot inside.
A short walk down the main boulevard of Palermo, Via Vittorio Emanuele brings you the two prettiest Arab-Norman churches in Palermo: The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio and the Church of San Cataldo. The former is lavishly adorned with exquisite Byzantine mosaics, ornate frescoes, and an intricately carved wooden ceiling, the latter an austere bolthole.
2. Watch a Greek Tragedy in the Ancient Greek Temple of Taormina
The Greek Theatre in Taormina is a magnificent ancient amphitheater and an absolute must-visit in Sicily. Built in the 3rd century BC by the Greeks, it later underwent expansions and modifications by the Romans. This well-preserved theatre offers breathtaking views of Mount Etna and the entire Sicilian coast.
Today, it serves as a venue for various cultural events, including concerts, plays, and festivals which are held throughout the summer months. Tickets tend to sell out many months in advance, so be sure to book before you visit.
With its stunning acoustics and panoramic backdrop, the Greek Theatre attracts around 100,000 visitors annually, many of them exploring during the months of July and August. Truthfully this can take away a little of the magic. The best time of day to visit is right before closing when the day trippers have left.
Enjoy the most majestic sunset of your trip; as the sun starts to set right behind Mount Etna, the entire coastline and theater are enveloped in the most heartwarming golden glow.
3. Go Island Hopping Through the Aeolian Islands
Ask any Sicilian “what to see in Sicily,” and they will unequivocally point you in the direction of the Aeolian Islands. This picturesque archipelago off the northern coast of Sicily offers a stunning blend of natural beauty, volcanic landscapes, and idyllic Mediterranean charm.
Comprising seven main islands, each with its own unique allure, the Aeolian Islands are a paradise for lovers of the beach, whitewashed villages, and unspoiled nature. Getting there is simple enough; hop on a ferry from either Milazzo or Messina.
Lipari: The largest and most vibrant island, Lipari, boasts a bustling town with narrow streets, charming shops, and a fascinating archaeological museum. Don’t miss the imposing Castle of Lipari and the beautiful white sandy beaches.
Salina: Known for its lush greenery and vineyards, Salina offers a more tranquil escape. Explore the picturesque village of Santa Marina and indulge in the local Malvasia wine. Hike up to Monte Fossa delle Felci for panoramic views.
Vulcano: With its iconic sulfur mud baths and thermal hot springs, Vulcano is a slightly smelly haven for wellness and relaxation. Take a hike up to the Gran Cratere for breathtaking views of the volcanic landscape. This island is the most budget-friendly of the 7 Aeolian Islands.
Stromboli: Famous for its active volcano, Stromboli offers the unique opportunity to witness eruptions at night. Hike up to the summit and experience the awe-inspiring display of nature’s power.
Panarea: The smallest and most exclusive island, Panarea is a luxury retreat with pristine beaches, upscale restaurants, and a vibrant nightlife scene. It has very few options for accommodations; budget-conscious travelers might want to visit it as a day trip from Messina instead.
Alicudi and Filicudi: These remote islands offer an escape from the crowds and a chance to experience untouched natural beauty, with charming villages, hiking trails, and crystal-clear waters perfect for snorkeling.
4. Hunt Down White Lotus Season 2 Filming Locations
Unless you have been hanging out in the most remote corner of the planet, you will undoubtedly have heard about the wildly successful series The White Lotus. The second season takes viewers on a captivating journey around some of the prettiest places to visit in Sicily.
The most prominently featured is the little village of Taormina with the breathtaking San Domenico Palace, a luxury four seasons hotel.
Other important shooting locations include:
- The Baroque village of Noto.
- The capital city of Palermo.
- The little fishing village Cefalu.
The keen observer might recognize Castello degli Schiavi, right outside of Taormina, Noto Cathedral, Villa Tasca (privately owned), and the 17th-century Villa Elena monastery.
5. Climb Mount Etna
Stepping foot in Sicily and not heading to Mount Etna’s active volcano is a veritable faux pas. At 3.357 meters tall, Mount Etna is the highest peak in Sicily and dominates the eastern Sicilian coastline. Conquering Mount Etna can be done in a variety of different ways: either solo or with a guide.
Before clambering up the mountain, make sure to inquire if the conditions are safe to visit. Remember, this is a very active volcano, with the last eruption dating back to 2021.
Tours of Mount Etna take anywhere between 4 and 8 hours. Therefore it is perfectly feasible to combine your hike up the volcano with a relaxing afternoon in nearby Taormina.
The Practicalities of Visiting Mount Etna
The most important milestones on the slopes of Mount Etna include Rifugio Sapienza (1900 meters), a mountain hut (2500 meters), Torre del Filosofo (2900 meters), and finally, the very top of Etna (3350 meters).
Hiking up without a guide is possible up until the Torre del Filosofo, after which travelers are obligated to be accompanied for safety reasons. The last portion of the hike can be done either by 4X4 jeep or simply by walking up.
The various formulas for touring Mount Etna are the following:
1. Guided day tour: Includes a hotel pick-up and drop-off, entrance tickets, and a guide to the summit
2. Semi-Guided: Make your way to Rifugio Sapienza. From here, a guide will take you up to the summit.
3. Solo – until Torre del Folosofo: Start at Rifugio Sapienza and hike up to Torre del Folosofo. Once there, choose your preferred option to arrive at the summit.
6. Eat the Best Almond Granita in All of Sicily (Noto)
Granita traces back to the Arab influence during Sicily’s history. The Arabs introduced the art of making “sherbet,” a sweet fruit-based dessert, which eventually evolved into what is now known as granita. Thanks to the abundance of citrus fruit on the island, mainly lemons and oranges, and the natural ice reserves from Mount Etna, the favorite local dessert is still served in abundance!
Over time, granita expanded to include a variety of flavors, including almond, coffee, and strawberry. Savoring an ice-cold granita with a side of sweet brioche is one of the top things to do in Sicily during the hot summer months.
Almonds grow abundantly in and around the Baroque village of Noto, making this the very best place to try the local specialty: Almond Granita. Head to Café Sicilia bright and early and sit on its little terrace with views of the main Cathedral of Noto
7. Explore the Baroque City of Ortigia
Not many travelers make it to the Baroque capital of Sicily, the island of Ortigia. Yet, within the confines of this tiny hamlet off the coast of Syracuse lie a smattering of the region’s most jaw-dropping Baroque palaces. The Greeks founded Ortigia in the 8th century BC, and it quickly turned into a bustling center of trade and culture.
Sadly much of this ancient architecture was lost in a devastating earthquake that struck the region in 1693. The silver lining to this tragedy was that it led to the reconstruction of many buildings and monuments in the Baroque style, which was in vogue during that era. The rebuilding efforts transformed Ortigia into the stunning showcase of Baroque architecture today, characterized by ornate facades, intricate details, and dramatic flourishes.
Stroll through its labyrinthine streets and discover ancient ruins such as the Temple of Apollo and the Maniace Castle, one of the few remnants of the island’s Greek and Norman past. The Piazza Duomo, adorned with its magnificent Cathedral, showcases the architectural fusion of different periods.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Greek Columns hold up the roof of the Cathedral. These belong to the temple of Apollo, which stood here long before it was transformed into the Cathedral you see today
8. Try a Spleen Sandwich
Number 8 is not for the faint-hearted, nor for the vegetarians. Yet it is such an important traditional dish that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. This local specialty, called “pane con la milza” in Italian, originates in Palermo’s vibrant street food culture.
Dating back to the 19th century, when Jewish immigrants introduced it, the spleen sandwich quickly became a beloved Sicilian delicacy. It is said to have evolved from traditional Jewish recipes, merging with local flavors and techniques over time.
Thinly sliced beef or pork spleen is slow-cooked in lard, then placed between two slices of soft bread and generously topped with a zesty sauce made from lemon juice, garlic, and sometimes caciocavallo cheese. The result is a savory, flavourful combination that locals swear by.
Best tasted at 3 am after a night out on the town from one of the street vendors lining Via Vittorio Emanuele in Palermo.
9. Walk Through Greek Temples in Agrigento
The Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) in Agrigento is one of the top things to do in Sicily. This mesmerizing archaeological site will transport visitors back to the ancient Greek civilization. Founded in the 6th century BC, this UNESCO World Heritage site boasts a collection of remarkably preserved Doric temples set against a backdrop of rolling hills.
Among the major temples that can be explored today is the Temple of Concordia, an incredibly well-preserved structure dedicated to the Greek god of harmony. The Temple of Juno, characterized by its majestic columns, and the Temple of Heracles, known for its colossal remains, are other notable highlights. The Temple of Olympian Zeus, though incomplete, impresses with its colossal Telamons, giant male statues.
When visiting the Valley of the Temples, it is advisable to wear comfortable shoes and bring sunscreen and water, as the site covers a vast area. It is noteworthy to mention that the Valley of the Temples is the hottest place in the whole of Sicily.
In summer months, temperatures soar well over 40°C, and areas of shade are few and far between. Drinkable water flows readily from various fountains dotted around the site, so make sure to bring a refillable water bottle.
10. Explore the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena in Catania
With the largest international airport and, incidentally, the cheapest airfares, Catania is the hub through which most travelers pass. Therefore, spending a day exploring the Historical Center is an absolute must for first-time visitors to Sicily. The much lesser-known Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena is the prettiest of many attractions.
This fascinating gem of Sicilian Baroque architecture was originally established in the 16th century as a Benedictine monastery. Its life was sadly destinated to be short-lived as the devastating earthquake of 1693 destroyed much of the original complex, leaving behind only the monumental facade and a portion of the cloister.
Today, the monastery has been repurposed and is home to the Department of Humanities at the University of Catania. Its grand facade still stands proudly as it is undoubtedly one of the most magnificent examples of Baroque architecture in the entire city. Think of ornate decorations, statues, and intricately hand-carved reliefs.
Inside, visitors can explore the majestic halls, tranquil courtyards, and the gargantuan library, which houses a collection of ancient manuscripts and books.
Bonus Experience in Sicily – Wine Tasting
Time permitting, book yourself a wine tasting in Sicily. The grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Etna are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio, the former believed to be indigenous to Sicily.
The volcanic soil, rich in minerals, imparts a distinctiveness to the grapes, resulting in wines with exceptional complexity and depth as well as a bit of an earthy flavoring. If you are looking for an organic winery, head to Cantina Etnella in Catania and pair their delicious wine with some fragrant traditional Sicilian food.
Is Visiting Sicily Worth It?
From North to South and East to West, there are innumerable things to do in Sicily. Time permitting, give yourself at least one week to cruise around the island, explore ancient Greek Temples in Agrigento, go church hopping in Palermo, and indulge in all the wonderful street food Sicily has to offer.
Pack plenty of sunscreen, a healthy dose of patience, and iron nerves, the latter essential if you decide to rent a car. Enjoy!
Caroline is a full-time writer and photographer who spends her time between Belgium and Sicily. She advocates sustainable travel and finds the very best vegetarian restaurants on https://veggiewayfarer.com