Lipari is the largest, busiest and most accessible of the Aeolian Islands. Visitors arriving from the mainland will likely experience it as a relaxing introduction to island life; on the other hand, if you've just come from the outer Aeolians, it may feel a bit like the big city!
The main focus is Lipari Town, the archipelago's principal transport hub and the nearest thing that islanders have to a capital city. A busy little port with a pretty, pastel-coloured seafront and plenty of accommodation, it makes the most convenient base for island hopping. Away from the town, Lipari reveals a rugged and typically Mediterranean landscape of low-lying macchia (dense shrubland), silent, windswept highlands, precipitous cliffs and dreamy blue waters.
Named after Liparus, the father-in-law of Aeolus (the Greek god of the winds), Lipari was settled in the 4th millennium BC by the Stentillenians, Sicily's first known inhabitants. These early islanders developed a flourishing economy based on obsidian, a glassy volcanic rock used to make primitive tools.
Commerce continued under the Greeks, but the arrival of the Romans in the 3rd century BC signalled the end of the islanders' good fortunes. The Roman authorities were in a vengeful mood after the islanders had sided against them in the First Punic War, and reduced the island to a state of poverty through punitive taxation.
Over the ensuing centuries, volcanic eruptions and pirate attacks – most famously in 1544, when Barbarossa burnt Lipari Town to the ground and took off with most of its female population – kept the islanders in a state of constant fear.
Unremitting poverty ensured large-scale emigration, which continued until well into the 20th century, leaving the island remote and unwanted. During Italy's fascist period in the 1930s, Mussolini used Lipari Town's castle to imprison his political opponents. Things gradually started to improve with the onset of tourism in the 1950s, and now Lipari sits at the heart of one of Sicily's most revered holiday destinations.