Eternal crossroads of the Mediterranean, the gorgeous island of Sicily continues to seduce travellers with its dazzling diversity of landscapes and cultural treasures.
Seductively beautiful and perfectly placed in the heart of the Mediterranean, Sicily has been luring passersby since the time of legends. The land of the Cyclops has been praised by poets from Homer to Virgil and prized by the many ancient cultures – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Elymians, Romans and Greeks – whose bones lie buried here. Whether in the classical perfection of Agrigento's Concordia temple, the monumental rubble of Selinunte's columns or the rare grace of a dancing satyr statue rescued from Mazara del Vallo's watery depths, reminders of bygone civilisations are everywhere.
A delectable layer-cake of culinary influences, Sicily's ancient cuisine continues to rely on a few key island-grown ingredients: shellfish and citrus, tuna and swordfish, pistachios, almonds and ricotta. Talk to the septuagenarian chef at a Catania restaurant and she'll confide that she still uses her grandmother's recipe for pasta alla Norma, joyfully sharing the poetic imagery that links it to Mt Etna: the tomatoes are lava; the eggplant, cinders; the basil, leafy greenery; the ricotta, snow. Modern chefs may play with the details, but Sicily's timeless recipes – from the simplest cannolo to the most exquisite fish couscous – live on.
Sparkling Seas, Restless Mountains
Sicily's varied landscape makes a dramatic first impression. Fly into Catania and the smoking hulk of Etna greets you; arrive in Palermo and it's the sparkling Golfo di Castellammare. This juxtaposition of sea, volcano and mountain scenery makes a stunning backdrop for outdoor activities. Hikers can wind along precipitous coastlines, climb erupting volcanoes and traipse through flowery mountain meadows; birders benefit from the plethora of species on the Africa-Europe migration route; and divers and swimmers enjoy some of the Mediterranean's most pristine waters. Whatever your personal predilections, Sicily and its dozen-plus offshore islands offer enough activities to build an entire vacation around.
Byzantine to Baroque
As if its classical heritage weren't formidable enough, Sicily is bursting at the seams with later artistic and architectural gems. In a short walk around Palermo you'll see Arab domes and arches, Byzantine mosaics and Norman palace walls. Circle around to southeast Sicily and you'll find a stunning array of baroque architectural masterpieces, from the golden-hued domes and palaces of Noto to the multi-tiered cathedral facades of Ragusa and Modica. Meanwhile, throughout the island you'll find yourself stumbling upon the evocative remains of Arab and Norman castles. This embarrassment of cultural riches remains one of the island's most distinctive attractions.
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Villa Romana del Casale is sumptuous, even by decadent Roman standards, and is thought to have been the country retreat of Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, Rome's co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286–305). Certainly, the size of the complex – four interconnected groups of buildings spread over the hillside – and the 3535 sq metres of astoundingly well-preserved multicoloured floor mosaics suggest a palace of imperial standing.
Sicily's most enthralling archaeological site encompasses the ruined ancient city of Akragas, highlighted by the stunningly well-preserved Tempio della Concordia, one of several ridge-top temples that once served as beacons for homecoming sailors. The 13-sq-km park, 3km south of Agrigento, is split into eastern and western zones. Ticket offices with car parks are at the park's southwestern corner (the main Porta V entrance) and at the northeastern corner near the Temple of Hera (Eastern Entrance).
Inspired by a vision of the Virgin and determined to outdo his grandfather Roger II, who was responsible for the cathedral in Cefalù and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, William II set about building the Cattedrale di Monreale, 8km southwest of Palermo. Incorporating Norman, Arab, Byzantine and classical elements, the cathedral is considered the finest example of Norman architecture in Sicily. It's also one of the most impressive architectural legacies of the Italian Middle Ages.
Designed by Roger II in 1130, this extraordinary chapel is Palermo's top tourist attraction. Located on the middle level of Palazzo dei Normanni's three-tiered loggia, its glittering gold mosaics are complemented by inlaid marble floors and a wooden muqarnas ceiling, the latter a masterpiece of Arabic-style honeycomb carving reflecting Norman Sicily's cultural complexity. Note that queues are likely, and you'll be refused entry if you're wearing shorts, a short skirt or a low-cut top.
For nature lovers, climbing Stromboli is one of Sicily's not-to-be-missed experiences. Since 2005 access has been strictly regulated: you can walk freely to 400m, but need a guide to continue any higher. Organised treks depart daily (between 3.30pm and 6pm, depending on the season), timed to reach the summit (924m) at sunset and to allow 45 minutes to an hour to observe the crater's fireworks.
One of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples in existence, the Temple of Concordia has survived almost entirely intact since it was constructed in 430 BC. It was converted into a Christian basilica in the 6th century and the main structure reinforced, giving it a better chance of surviving earthquakes. In 1748 the temple was restored to its original form and given the name it is now known by.
Home to Sicily's regional parliament, this venerable palace dates back to the 9th century. However, it owes its current look (and name) to a major Norman makeover, during which spectacular mosaics were added to its royal apartments and magnificent chapel, the Cappella Palatina. Visits to the apartments, which are off-limits from Tuesday to Thursday, take in the mosaic-lined Sala dei Venti and King Roger's 12th-century bedroom, Sala di Ruggero II.
Lipari's best coastal views are from a celebrated viewpoint known as Quattrocchi (Four Eyes), 3km west of town. Follow the road for Pianoconte and look on your left as you approach a big hairpin bend about 300m beyond the turnoff for Spiaggia Valle Muria. Stretching off to the south, great cliffs plunge into the sea, while in the distance plumes of sinister smoke rise from the dark heights of neighbouring Vulcano.
Taormina's premier sight is this perfect horseshoe-shaped theatre, suspended between sea and sky, with Mt Etna looming on the southern horizon. Built in the 3rd century BC, it's the most dramatically situated Greek theatre in the world and the second largest in Sicily (after Syracuse). In summer, it's used to stage concerts and festival events. To avoid the high-season crowds, try to visit early in the morning.
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