More than any other city, Syracuse encapsulates Sicily's timeless beauty. Ancient Greek ruins rise out of lush citrus orchards, cafe tables spill onto dazzling baroque piazzas, and medieval lanes lead down to the sparkling blue sea. But handsome as it is, the city is no museum piece − life goes on here much as it has for 3000 years, as you'll soon see from the snarling mid-morning traffic and noisy markets.
It's difficult to imagine now but in its heyday Syracuse was the largest city in the ancient world, bigger even than Athens and Corinth. It was founded by Corinthian colonists, who landed on the island of Ortygia in 734 BC and set up the mainland city four years later. It quickly flourished, growing to become a rich commercial town and major regional powerhouse. Victory over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera in 480 BC paved the way for a golden age, during which art and culture thrived and the city's tyrannical kings commissioned an impressive program of public building. The finest intellectuals of the age flocked to Syracuse, cultivating the sophisticated urban culture that was to see the birth of comic Greek theatre.
Syracuse's independence abruptly came to an end in 211 BC when invading Romans breached the city's defences, ingeniously devised by Archimedes, and took control. Under Roman rule Syracuse remained Sicily's capital but the city's glory days were behind it and decline set in. It was briefly the capital of the Byzantine empire but was sacked by the Saracens in 878 and reduced to little more than a fortified provincial town. The population fell drastically, and famine, plague and earthquakes marked the next 800 years. It was the Val di Noto earthquake in 1693, though, that was the catalyst for energetic urban renewal as planners took advantage of the damaged city to undertake a massive program of baroque reconstruction.
Following the unification of Italy in 1865, Syracuse was made a provincial capital and the city began to expand once more, a trend that continued with the ugly urban development of the postwar years.