Sicily somewhat reminds me of the Texas of Italy. They are a proud people — boastful of both their Italian heritage, and their own Sicilian micro-culture and land (think Texas pride, or “Texas forever,” for those Friday Night Lights fans). They identify themselves as Sicilian first, Italian second. And even though Sicilians share a deeply-rooted loyalty to one another, they are equally welcoming to their guests, and never miss a chance to smile and say, “Ciao.” Their openness to people of all walks of life makes sense, as the island has been a lightning rod of cultural diffusion, with influence of Greek, Byzantine, Norman, Arab, and French cultures. As a lover of all things Italy, I knew my “Italian research” would never quite be complete until I experienced Sicilian culture — and not just through the lens of Hollywood movies portraying the mystique of the mafia. The way to learn about Sicily was by visiting its people, touring the local streets, understanding their love of pistachios, and of course…eating some cannoli.
This travel guide to Sicily's east coast --Syracuse and Taormina -- will detail everything you need to know for exploring this side of the island. To help you plan your own adventurous getaway, there are recommendations for where to eat, must-do activities, and the most luxurious places to sleep.
Cities in the Spotlight: Syracuse and Taormina
- Why Syracuse? Syracuse was one of the most important historical cities of the ancient world, serving as a major port for trade in the Roman Empire. Today the town consists of cobblestone streets where fishmongers yell out the day’s fresh catch. There are big open piazzas to relax in, and the city is built upon layers and layers of history -- literally! Some of the cathedrals rest upon old ancient temple ruins built by the Greeks.
- Why Taormina? Nestled high in the rocky cliffs above the Ionian Sea, this ancient city has a slightly different vibe than its sister to the south. Hotels sit adjacent to giant Greek temples. Boutiques hug the cliffside, and you’ll traverse up and down streets with steep inclines. Everywhere you turn there are sweeping views of the sparking blue waters. It’s no wonder everyone from Salvador Dali to Liz Taylor have vacationed here. It’s a summertime hotspot.
For your Planning Purposes
Getting there: There are two major airports in Sicily: Palermo Airport and Catania Airport. If you’re planning on an Eastern Sicily trip, then it’s best to fly into Catania. Syracuse is 50 minutes south of Catania. Taormina is 50 minutes north of Catania.
While you won’t need a car to explore downtown Syracuse, it will provide flexibility for daytrips. However, I recommend returning the car before heading to Taormina -- you won't need one. The roads of Taormina are steep, and winding with hairpin turns. Additionally, parking is not easy! To get from your car rental to Taormina you can use New Travel Services. For additional tips on car rentals, check out the below section, "Tips for Traveling to Syracuse and Taormina."
While there are public buses, schedules and routes can be unpredictable. Alternatively, you can take a train to Syracuse or Taormina. However, the station in Syracuse is a 20-30 minute walk outside the main city. The train station in Taormina is located at the bottom of the cliff, and shuttles operate back and forth.
When to visit: Sicilians enjoy some of the finest and warmest weather of the Mediterranean region. It’s a perfect destination for really any time of the year. Even the winter is mild, with temperatures in the 60’s; however, not all hotels, restaurants and shops may be open. Spring and fall are perfect 70-75 degree weather. Summer is the high season – prices are high, temperatures are high (90’s), and crowds are high!
What to do Syracuse and Taormina
Highlights if you're in a hurry!
- Visit the Greek Theater of Taormina: I wasn’t quite expecting the Greek theater of Taormina to be so breathtaking, but it really did just that — it took my breath away. The panoramic views of the sea below, and Mt. Etna in the distance, is a visual you just can't forget! My tip: arrive at 9 am when it opens, climb quickly to the top and just take it all in. By 9:30 am the tour buses will arrive, and the whole theater becomes very loud. The theater is still active with plays and concerts, which I wish I had time for! For local events, click here.
- Wander through the Ortigia food market and take a cooking class with Alessia: Have you ever wished you had a Sicilian aunt who would teach you the trade secrets of excellent Sicilian cooking? Alessia is a native Sicilian who welcomes guests into her home for a private cooking lesson. The day starts with her touring the local food market with you, stopping to taste Sicilian delicacies along the way. The Ortigia market is one of the most popular on the island. It’s small, but filled with the freshest food. She buys the ingredients, and then she teaches you how to cook up an unforgettable Sicilian feast. My family still raves about this experience!
- Take a boat ride on the Ionian Sea: One of our favorite experiences was the free boat ride offered by our hotel in Taormina. Ask your hotel if they offer a similar service, or inquire about nearby services. The views are spectacular and the water is the brightest blue. We were even able to jump out for a quick impromptu swim.
- Sign up for Jeep tour to Mt. Etna: Mt. Etna is an active volcano, but luckily hasn't been too active these days. I recommend taking a Jeep tour to the base, where your guide can show you recent lava flows, caves formed by the eruptions, and stunning scenery.
Luxury Accomodations in Syracuse and Taormina
As you scope out accommodation options in Sicily, keep a few points in mind. Syracuse is not the place for large 5-star luxury resorts; however, there are a few boutique style properties that are clean, have high standards of hospitality, and offer spacious accommodations. We really enjoyed Algilia Ortigia Charme Hotel, which is known as the most luxurious in that region. Taormina, on the other hand, has countless luxury resorts with hotel chains like Belmond and Four Seasons. There are also plenty of highly acclaimed boutique properties. Here are some accommodation options that I recommend.
- Algilia Ortigia Charme Hotel - Located in the heart of Ortigia’s historical district, adjacent to ancient temples, and palaces of the Medieval and Barooque periods, is the Algilia Ortigia Charme Hotel. The hotel itself recently underwent renovations, converting two former palaces into the luxury boutique hotel it is today. They have 54 rooms including family suites if you’re traveling with kids.
Tip for hotel booking in Syracuse
Syracuse refers to the surrounding city and Ortigia is the historical center. Therefore, if you want to book a hotel directly in the more ancient section, make sure you are in Ortigia. If you are Syracuse, you are still close to the action. The two areas are connected by a small bridge. Driving there, you won’t even know you’ve crossed from one to the other, so don't overthink it if you'd rather stay in Syracuse!
- The Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo is a 5-star luxury property nestled into the cliffs of Taormina. The pool is tucked into the rocks, the balconies and restaurant patio have views of Mt. Etna, and your “next door neighbor” is the famous Greek Theater of Taormina (my favorite spot). This is one of my favorite hotel properties I've stayed at during my travels.
Don't Miss This Related Compass Roam Article
Would you like to learn more about the hotels I visited? Here's an additional article you may find helpful:
I Also Considered These Hotels
- Ortea Palace Luxury Hotel- This former palace was renovated into an elegant property offering 75 rooms and suites. It is one of the larger hotel accommodations in Ortigia/Syracuse. You’re steps away from the historical district, and plenty of restaurants.
- Belmond Sant’Andrea - This is Belmond’s second luxury property in Taormina. Unlike its sister property located high in the hilltops, the Sant’Andrea sits adjacent to a private pebble beach. A shuttle service is available between the two hotels. If you’re staying at Belmond Timeo, you can use their beach and boat tour – a must do experience!
- San Domenico Palace, A Four Seasons Hotel - This hotel did not exist when I visited Sicily, but I had to add to my list for luxury travel seekers. The 5-star property resides in a former 14th century convent, and has panoramic views of the Ionian Sea. The have an infinity pool overlooking the water, and views of Mt. Etna.
- Hotel Villa Belvedere - The Bambara-Pècaut family has owned and operated this luxury boutique hotel since 1902! They are well known for providing spectacular service. The hotel has private gardens to stroll through, as well as a pool and restaurant. There are villa and apartment style suites for larger groups or families.
The Most Delicious Restaurants in Syracuse and Taormna
Sicily may technically be part of Italy, but the cuisine has its own distinct flavor profile reflecting the influence of Arab and French cuisine. Yes, there will be plenty of pizza and pasta to go around, but there are also uniquely Sicilian dishes that you must try when visiting the island. Cannoli, arancini, spaghetti alla norma, caponata, granita and pistachio pesto are some of the must-try’s. Here are some of my favorite restaurants, as well as other popular ones that were on my wish-list.
Restaurants in Syracuse
- Osteria da Seby - I’m not a huge pesto fan, but after having their pistachio pesto, I have fully converted. Try it over some homemade gnocchi.
- Timilia - Cozy pizza place with private garden and excellent food. They even have gluten free options.
- Cannoli de Re - Located off the Piazza Duomo, Cannoli de Re makes fresh made cannoli to order.
- Moon - This is a hugely popular vegan restaurant that I wish I had tried! They have vegan versions of favorite antipasti, primi, and secondi dishes.
- Caseficiio Borderi - Walking through Ortigia’s farmers market, you’ll quickly notice a long line at this place. As you get closer you’ll notice that everyone in line is actually watching someone make…a sandwich! The sandwich maker at this merchant shop is quite famous for his crafty creations.
- Osteria Sveva - This trattoria serves old-school Siclian food. You’ll enjoy your dinner looking out over the sea, while you sit next to a 13th century castle.
- Gelateria gusto - This ice cream shop is best known for serving the city’s best pistachio gelato.
- Contina con Cucina - This was my favorite meal of the trip! Located 35 minutes from Syracuse in the hilltop town of Noto, Contina con Cucina had mouth watering eggplant parm (my favorite), fresh swordfish and potatoes cooked to perfection.
Restaurants in Taormina
- Vicolo Stretto - The name of this restaurant translates to narrow passage, which is precisely where it’s located! You’ll have to wiggle your way through a narrow gap to reach the front doors. It’s kind of like the Sicilian version of platform 9 ¾ – if you blink, you’ll miss the entrance. The food and views were magical – make sure to request a table on the rooftop.
- Bam Bar - If you’d like to try some authentic Sicilian granita (fruit slushee) and the city’s best gelato, head over to Bam Bar
- Da Rosticceria Cristina- How would you like to try the island’s best arancini? What’s arancini you ask? Think of rice balls, cheese, tomato sauce, breadcrumbs…deep fried into an ooey gooey ball of deliciousness.
- Trattoria Tiramisu - This local fish and meat restaurant is known for having incredibly fresh ingredients. The fish you order is caught that day! Expect to experience unique takes on traditional Sicilian dishes.
- Andreas Restaurant - This Michelin Guide featured restaurant, has some of the best Mediterranean food in the city.
Tips for traveling to Sicily
- Choose one part of the island to explore: This is the largest island in the Mediterranean, and the cities and sights are spread out. If you only have a week to visit Sicily, then “divide and conquer.” We choose to only explore the eastern side of the island, as to see the entirety of Sicily would require at least 2 weeks.
- Rent a small car: Many of the streets in Sicily are narrow and tight. You don’t want to get stuck, so opt for a smaller vehicle if renting a car.
- Drive carefully: Unfortunately many Sicilans have the reputation of doing the opposite – they drive fast, pull out in front of others without warning, and aren’t the most “precise” when parking. With that in mind, carefully pull out into intersections and take it one step slower than you may be used too.
- Sicilians speak their own style of Italian: If you’ve taken Italian language lessons before departing, then bravo! However, it may still be difficult to communicate with Sicilians. They have their own dialect, but luckily many of them do speak English (in the main cities).
- Pack a scarf: Many churches require shoulders and knees to be properly covered. It’s a good idea to have a scarf to throw across your body, especially in the summertime when it’s incredibly hot outside, and you may not be naturally dressed with layers in mind.
- Use cash: Many shops, market stalls, and restaurants only accept cash. Therefore, have it on hand, but make sure not to flash it around!
- Everyone naps mid-day: Similar to the rest of mainland Italy, stores and restaurants typically close from 1-3pm for a mid day rest. Therefore, get your market shopping done earlier in the day.
- Don’t mention the mafia: While Hollywood has brought the stories of the mafia to life through film, many Sicilians are still affected by the influence of the mafia today. Organized crime still has some control over the island, with businesses having to pay a separate tax to avoid problems. At best, it's a touchy subject that you may want to avoid.
- Double check museum/sight timetables: Some places in Sicily are closed Sundays or Mondays, while others don’t close at all. Take note of opening hours before you head out the door for the day.
Day Trips From Syracuse
Vendicari Nature Preserve
Vendicari has somehow managed to still remain a secret to most tourists; locals use it for some of the best beaches, and there are endless walking trails that snake along the rocky coast. This is also a hot-spot for bird watching, as many species like flamingos and storks stop here before migrating to Africa. We ventured over for a quick hike on our way to Noto. If I had more time, I would’ve scouted out Calamosche Beach.
Noto was the place I wish I had budgeted more time to explore! An earthquake in 1693 completely destroyed this hilltop town, and it was rebuilt shortly after. While Taormina has the views, it also has the crowds; Noto, on the other hand has enough charm to lure tourists in, but you won’t find yourself shoulder to shoulder with other wanderlusters. You’ve gone off the beaten path, and it’s worth the effort. Make sure to order the eggplant parmigiana and swordfish at Contina con Cucina. A local guide recommended this gem and it was my favorite restaurant of the trip!
Modica was also destroyed in the 1693 Earthquake and rebuilt in Baroque style. The city consists of an upper and lower part connected by countless stairwells and passages. It’s a maze on a hill, and you’ll be equally aMAZED just driving past it. Modica is also world renown for its chocolate making, specializing in flavors such as cinnamon, chili pepper and vanilla. During the Age of Exploration, Modica fell under the territory of the Spanish empire; as explorers brought cacao back and knowledge of Aztec recipes, Modica became the center of what is now a 400 year old Siciilan chocolate making tradition.
After the earthquakes of 1693, which also leveled this ancient city, the wealthy townspeople competed to showcase their superiority through the construction of buildings and churches. These architectural masterpieces are now recognized as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is now known for having excellent restaurants, hotels, and festivals throughout the year.
That's a Wrap
Sicily is an island filled with history, adventure, beauty, and mystery. As I was only able to visit one coast, I am itching to return one day to explore other cities and regions, such as Palermo and Cefalu. We traveled as a pre-kids holiday (sigh), but can't wait to return with the kids to show them this breathtaking island.
I hope this article has inspired your own adventurous getaway to Eastern Sicily. If you have any questions, or your own travel tips, please leave them in the comments below. Also, don't forget to sign up for the monthly newsletter, packed with travel tips, upcoming news, and access to FREE destination itineraries.
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