Note before reading: there is a lot of information in this blog, so I have been careful to organize everything into subtitles organized by locations (PALERMO, AGRIGENTO, CEFALU, ETNA, TAORMINA + CATANIA, respectively), in the case you would like to skip to a particular section.
Sicily has been on my radar for a long time, beginning when I studied abroad in Rome in my early 20s. I’ve visited Italy about 1/2 dozen times since my study abroad program, yet have never made it all the way down to Sicily. It’s not a particularly easy spot to get to, and never quite had enough time on other trips to make it down there. I wanted to make sure I had time to fully explore the island, and was so glad we made a dedicated trip to just Sicily.
We traveled with my side of our family, including my brother, sister-in-law, and my parents. Because we were in such a large group, we opted for airbnb properties for most of our stay. And because Sicily is, well, less than convenient to get to, we also opted to stay on the island for two full weeks. We did a lot of traveling around Sicily during those two weeks, which is something I would absolutely recommend as there is so much to see in Sicily, yet the island is not terribly enormous so you can easily travel around without feeling like you’re in for long road trips each time. I should say, Sicily IS the largest Mediterranean island, but it is still an island and manageable to traverse it by car.
So, what did I think of Sicily after nearly two decades of simply dreaming up what it might be like? I’ll be honest, it wasn’t exactly what I expected (and I mean that both positively and negatively). Here is a quick summary of what surprised me about it:
- I learned the Italian language in undergrad/graduate school and picked it up a bit from my grandparents, too. I would say that I am comfortably conversational on the mainland, but always thought the dialect in Sicily would be incomprehensible to me (despite my one grandfather speaking in a very heavy Calabrese dialect that was not so dissimilar to Sicilian). While I did hear plenty of dialect, most people we encountered spoke traditional Italian and what surprised me perhaps even more was how many people spoke English. There were only a handful of times that we, as a group, had to lean on my translations (mostly when traveling outside of major cities/towns, but occasionally even within them).
- The weather was not nearly as hot as I had anticipated. In fact, the average high for the month of June is somewhere in the mid-70s. I will say that it felt much hotter than mid-70s, but the weather in June makes it a perfect time to travel to Sicily, before the height of the summer season but still with great weather (Sicily is not as hot year-round as many people might think and many places are only open seasonally from April-October).
- It’s not as expensive as some of the other islands of Italy. I remember Capri, Sardinia, and the Amalfi Coast all being generally more expensive.
- Sicily has a lot of influences from Greek, Islamic and Italian culture, making it quite distinct (architecturally) from the Italian mainland. This might not sound like a con (melting pots usually make for more interesting culture), but it felt a lot less colorful and a lot less architecturally interesting (overall) than the Italian mainland. If you’re looking to ogle over gorgeous buildings and interiors, you’d be much better off in Rome, Florence, Venice….well, nearly any major city on the Italian mainland. This is not to say that interesting buildings did not exist, but I did feel (overall) a bit disappointed by the architecture.
- Sicily is EXTREMELY hilly/mountainous. I knew this before going, but it was even more extreme than I had anticipated. I have a fairly intense fear of heights, so this was challenging for me (especially while driving). It is not unlike driving along the Amalfi Coast, and my brother likened it to his experience driving in Mallorca (a place I have yet to go). Some of the roads are narrow, sometimes not even paved, and we were driving up mountains that were several thousand feet tall at times. Pack your dramamine, too, as the roads are very, very windy with lots and lots of switch-backs. If you’re planning on renting a car, be sure to have someone extremely comfortable driving in such conditions. My brother and Billy (my husband) were our drivers and the other four adults we were traveling with (including myself) were all emphatically uncomfortable with even the idea of driving on Sicilian roads.
- It wasn’t an especially clean island. Even when we were boating/swimming in the waters around Taormina (a high-end resort town), we saw a decent amount of trash in the waters. Palermo and Catania are also both interesting cities to pop into for a day or two, but be particular about where you stay as even the nicer parts aren’t exactly paragons of cleanliness.
- The food wasn’t as impressive (overall) as the food on the mainland, though still very, very good. Most menus we encountered across the island were more or less the same (which is common, regionally, in Italy) and very heavy on seafood (to be expected, but for the non-seafood eaters in our group, the menus were challenging). The seafood was amazing, and we had wonderful meals with incredibly fresh ingredients, but the main complaint would be the monotony of the same dishes for two weeks.
Overall, Sicily is an incredibly beautiful island that is absolutely worth a visit. The people are warm and welcoming, the food fresh, and the landscape is both unique and breathtaking. Now, I’m going to share everything about our trip that I would recommend from hotels to restaurants to spots to visit, all organized by city:
WHERE TO STAY
This was one of the only spots we were all split up in different hotels/airbnb, but all three groups were extremely happy with our accommodations, which were:
Our family of four stayed here and the location was great and the host was probably the kindest, most knowledgeable, helpful and friendly person I have ever met. Our room was huge and gorgeous. We were also equipped with a fully stocked and fully equipped kitchen. I would highly recommend this spot, and the price point was also quite incredible, especially considering everything Palazzo Ventimiglia had to offer.
DIETRO SAN DOMENICO APARTMENT
My brother and his wife stayed in this airbnb apartment and it was, out of all three of our stays, the most impressive. The pictures will speak for themselves, and the price was really just out-of-this-world for such an epic spot to stay. The location, too, was wonderful.
My parents stayed at this hotel and we were able to see their room and eat at the restaurant. This spot has a beautiful lobby, a great central location, and the rooftop restaurant has incredible views, great drinks, and great food. I would say, though, that our location at Palazzo Ventimiglia was just as good and our room was much larger (and cheaper), though both were equally clean and beautiful.
HOW LONG TO STAY
Palermo has some really great restaurants, a fun outdoor market, a beautiful (though small) botanical garden and some interesting churches/buildings. I was glad we popped by this city to see what it was all about. We stayed two nights in Palermo and I think that was the perfect amount of time. I was happy to be there, and ready to move on after those two nights. That said, if you have one week or less to travel around Sicily, I don’t think I would prioritize a trip to Palermo.
I would also add that staying in the city center is definitely a good idea for Palermo for many reasons, but the main two being 1. it’s a large city and 2. driving in Palermo is terrifying, whether in a cab or driving yourself. As our host told us, “there is only one rule when driving in Palermo: there are no rules.” My brother, when about to order an Uber, was told by a sommelier, “do not ever order Uber in Palermo. Sometimes it will be mafia who pick you up, and they will rob you.” To be clear, I did not feel unsafe in Palermo at any time, but I do think staying in the city center is probably a smart idea for tourists.
WHERE TO EAT
Sud Bistrot – This spot is in a great courtyard and was the best pizza we had while in Sicily.
We had a quick visit while in Palermo, so I don’t have a ton of food recommendations, but Sud was a must-stop.
WHERE TO VISIT
The Botanical Gardens – these gardens were small but mighty, with an incredibly cute cafe, inspiring welcome center and wonderful plantings/trees/sculptures and greenhouses. This was my favorite spot in Palermo.
Vucciria Market – this plein air market is wild, so beware of pick pockets, but it’s also super fun with delectable food being sold at crazy low prices the entire way. If you are able to cook, I would highly recommend grabbing fresh seafood/meats/cheeses here. Even if you can’t cook, grab some freshly fried arancini, fruits and more as you walk.
The general area around Agrigento has a lot to see, and I wish we had spent more time in this area. We spent 1/2 day seeing the Temples and Scala dei Turchi, and both are absolutely worth a visit. Since we did not stay in Agrigento and since I would not recommend where we ate in Agrigento, all I will say is that both the Temples and Scala dei Turchi are mind-blowing and worth a visit. Another tip(s) for Scala dei Turchi is that the steps themselves are a little tricky to find, and there are also lots of restaurants/eating options right at the beach. The beach where Scala dei Turchi are was, to me, the most beautiful beach we saw in all of Sicily.
Cefalù was, overall, my favorite spot in Sicily. It was a little less touristy than Taormina, but every bit as charming and beautiful. Cefalù is a medieval city with plenty of historic churches/buildings to visit, wonderful restaurants and beaches and incredible scenery. I loved that the historic center did not allow cars (mostly, this is Italy and laws are generally a suggestion). That was a wonderful aspect of walking around with the kids, as I only had to worry about them getting hit by a Vespa passing by every 10 minutes or so. All kidding aside, walking around Cefalù is a magical experience and the kids loved it, too.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in an airbnb that was just outside the historic center of Cefalù (about a ten minute, but very scenic, drive). Every single one of us fell head-over-heels for this airbnb. The views were epic, the home was stunning and the location was top notch. But this home also had a tennis court with soccer nets, an orchard with figs, lemons, limes and olives, an outdoor kitchen and a swimming pool that was to die for. It was also very large and could house a very large group (five bedrooms in total, each capable of sleeping two). We even had a nightly visit from the neighbor’s donkey! We had high expectations as this airbnb looked incredible from the pictures but I will say, the pictures don’t even do it justice. Find the link for our Cefalù airbnb stay here.
WHAT TO SEE
TEMPLE OF DIANA + LA ROCCA
To be clear, we did not go up to the top to peruse these ruins. As mentioned earlier, I (and a handful of us on the trip) have a terrible fear of heights, and this hike was INTIMIDATING. But, even if you do not hike to the top, you can still appreciate the view of the castle/temple from many viewpoints in Cefalù.
VISIT THE BEACH
A lot of Sicily has very, very rocky beaches, including many around Cefalù. But, the beach in the center of town is nice and sandy, with fun spots to jump into the water from. There are also loungers/umbrellas to rent. This beach tends to get packed, so head there early or late in the day, and ideally not on a weekend.
Cefalù has so many great shops and we spent an entire day just popping in and out of them. Some favorites were:
Ortigia (for soaps, candles, robes, decorative trays and more. A perfect spot for gifts.)
Colori del Sole – for tablecloths and other linens. Truly beautiful and authentically Sicilian.
If you happen to miss these shops in Cefalù, they do have storefronts in most other major towns/cities around Sicily.
WHERE TO EAT
This was one of the best meals we had in Sicily. It is not an especially affordable spot to eat, but this same restaurant in New York would be at least twice the cost. The setting is stunning, whether you sit inside or outside in the cortile (the courtyard), the service amazing and the dishes were some of the most innovative and delicious we had during our two-week stay. Billy and I went to Cortile Pepe with just my brother and his wife (leaving the kids behind with the grandparents) and I would say without kids would be the best way to enjoy this killer spot (though some kids were dining there).
Locanda del Marinaio
This was also a really great spot and probably more kid-friendly than Cortile Pepe. The meal offerings were a bit more interesting than the stereotypical Sicilian menu, and everyone loved their meal from this authentic and not tourist-trappy spot.
La Playa del Tirreno
This is a spot that we literally stumbled upon and it doesn’t even show up on google maps, but was one of my favorite meals in all of Sicily. It is entirely outdoors (so good weather is a must) and very casual, but set right on the beach with beautiful views and is a GREAT spot for the kids. The food was also incredible and inexpensive. A car or a cab would be a must to reach this spot, but it’s absolutely worth stopping by for a meal if you can!
HOW LONG TO STAY
This depends on what you want to get out of Cefalù. It is possible to take a train for a day trip to Cefalù and it is possible to see a lot of this town in a single day. That said, we stayed for five days and it didn’t feel long enough. We did a lot of poolside relaxing, tennis playing, leisurely strolls through town and shopping for local ingredients to do our own cooking. Cefalù really does make for a perfect relaxing destination (though I would add, we did appreciate our views of Cefalù and our slight distance from the hustle and bustle of the town to be able to really truly relax).
We drove from Cefalù to Etna and this was, by far, the scariest drive we did our entire time in Sicily. If you are not afraid of narrow, cliffy roads, I would say that this drive was also incredibly scenic and beautiful. But driving aside, Etna is definitely worth a visit.
Etna is Europe’s most active volcano and had erupted just one week before our visit (we could still see it smoking during our entire visit). We have been told by Sicilians to not be afraid of Etna (they really do revere this majestic volcano). As the sommelier on our vineyard tour told us, “when Etna erupts, you take out your phone and take a selfie. Then you leisurely sip an espresso. And only THEN do you take your stroll down to safety). Of course, that was a very Italian explanation of how to deal with a massive volcanic eruption, but I will say that I didn’t feel unsafe at all being on Etna.
Etna has some up-and-coming, yet remarkable vineyards and we had the pleasure of getting a tour of one of them, Az. Agr. Frank Cornellisen. Volcanic soil has a reputation for creating some of the most nutrient-rich soil in the world, and many winemakers are flocking to the Etna region for this reason.
We also saw old lava streams from a 1980s eruption that were hardened into black volcanic rock. We saw snow at the top of Etna, with smoke billowing from the caldera. If you’re a big hiker, I would imagine hiking Etna would be quite amazing, too.
Ah, Taormina. The setting for White Lotus Season II and arguably the most sought-after resort town in all of Sicily. Was it all it is hyped to be?
Well, yes and no.
Taormina is incredibly majestic and beautiful, but it is also very overrun by tourists (I would imagine there was a White Lotus craze that contributed to this). We encountered more Americans in Taormina than anywhere else. We even ran into two different couples who saw Billy wearing a “Southdown Coffee” shirt and told us they were regular customers (Southdown is my brother’s boutique coffee business on Long Island).
Aside from the tourist craze, Taormina was pretty incredible. It was fairly close to heaven, other than very rocky beaches (that were beautiful, just not the best to swim/play on), crowds, and littered walkways and waters. There is a funicular that runs from lower Mazzarò up to Taormina, and we loved parking down in Mazzarò and taking the funicular up to the top (though definitely not the most cost effective option, it was most convenient for us).
We spent more time in Taormina than anywhere else (a full week) and I do think that was a good amount of time to be there. We also rented a large house on the outskirts of town in Taormina, and had plenty of time to relax/cook/swim, etc. The one thing I would add about Taormina is that, although I do think it’s also a great spot for kids, I think it would be an even better romantic getaway spot. Unlike Cefalù, where I preferred staying on the outskirts of town, I think I would have preferred to stay in one of Taormina’s beautiful resorts, with just Billy. It was hard to get reservations for large groups, and the crowds made it difficult to really stay together during this part of the trip. We also weren’t as crazy about our airbnb in Taormina, but I still have some good recommendations for where to stay:
WHERE TO STAY
Best Spot for Romantic Getaway: Grand Hotel Timeo
This historic hotel has been a favorite of Sophia Loren, DH Lawrence, and many other famous historical figures and it isn’t hard to see why. Set atop the steep slopes of Taormina, Hotel Timeo has panoramic views of the stunning waters surrounding the area and of Mount Etna. The hotel has a gorgeous pool, a Michelin restaurant (and a couple other incredible ones, too). The grounds and the hotel itself are absolutely stunningly designed and impeccably maintained. Not to mention, it is positioned directly adjacent to the incredible Ancient Theater (which hosts live concerts every night), and in the center of the historic district of Taormina. We ate at Bar Timeo twice during our stay and my only regret was not staying at least a night or two in this hotel.
Runner Up: The Four Seasons (the filming location for White Lotus): I think this speaks for itself, though I think I did have a slight preference for Grand Hotel Timeo.
Our Airbnb: I have so much to say about this airbnb, but I will try my best to be succinct:
PROS: It was a very convenient location to Taormina (a quick ten minute drive) with stunning views, privacy and very close to the downtown of Letojanni (which has plenty of places to grab food and big, sandy beaches). The airbnb was also large, clean and had a really incredible outdoor kitchen (that was nicer than the one in the house). The gardens around the property were also quite beautiful.
CONS: We believe this was originally built as a small hotel and, so, three of the rooms are not even connected to the main house. The furniture in the home was extremely dated and the sofas and dining room furniture, in particular, were really nasty/stained, etc. The pool had tiles coming off of it. And, I mean, it had hundreds of small tiles coming off the bottom that would scrape your feet. The pool situation was especially unfortunate because the pool itself is pretty epic (an infinity pool looking directly out to the ocean/Taormina).
If you’re interested in booking this stay (which I would neither heartily recommend, nor intensely discourage), you can find the listing here.
WHERE TO EAT
Bam Bar – this is an absolute must-stop in Taormina for their famous and fresh granita. The crowds and lines are intense, so get there early to snag a spot.
Gelatomania – I know, it’s a super cheesy name that you would not expect to have great gelato but it did, in fact, have the best gelato we had on the entire island of Sicily (and we ate a lot of it). Eva and Billy have still been talking about the vanilla and keep joking that they’re going to hop on a plane to Catania just to taste it.
Bar Timeo – This is the non-Michelin starred restaurant inside Grand Hotel Timeo and it was so exceptional we ate here twice. Not only is the food incredible and the wine list impressive, I would make a point of eating here just for the incredible interior design and epic views. It isn’t inexpensive, but feels like a really great option that doesn’t quite reach Michelin star prices.
WHAT TO DO
I love, love, love visiting ancient ruins and the ancient theater in Taormina was an incredibly well-preserved and impressive structure. They still host live concerts nearly every evening in the theater (which was built circa 3rd century BCE). If I had not been with my kids, I absolutely would have made a point of attending one of the concerts. The views from the theater are amazing, too, and I you had to choose one place to go in Taormina, this would be my pick.
In order to access Isola Bella, you must first walk down a whole lot of steps to a beach in Mazzarò and then walk across shallow waters to access the island. If you’d prefer to just enjoy the views of Isola Bella from afar, there are plenty of restaurants in Mazzarò that have direct views of this charming island. The island has some really interesting history and a very architecturally significant home, though for some reason, access to the island was prohibited during our stay. We were able to walk over to it, but not able to access it fully.
Explore the Waters
We chartered a sailboat and rented a jet ski while in Taormina and both were super fun, and a great way to gain a different perspective of Taormina/Etna and the surrounding areas. I would highly recommend getting out on the water one way or another, but I will also add that the waters were quite cold, and because of the temps, not especially swimming-friendly.
Taormina had the best shopping of anywhere we stayed in Sicily, including for food, ceramics, housewares and clothing. Some favorite shops were: La DoubleJ, Ortigia and all of the ceramic shops carrying the famed “teste di moro” (a must-purchase while in Sicily, IMO). It would be easy to kill a few days happily shopping the stores of Taormina.
We decided, at the last minute, to spend a day and night in Catania to make our early flights convenient (our hotel was 10 minutes from the airport) and I am glad we did! Catania and Palermo are really very similar cities and I wouldn’t spend more than a day or two in either, but I think it’s worth it to pop into them (especially considering the fact that Sicily’s main airports are located in these cities).
WHERE TO STAY
BASTIÒ Private Suites
I have to make a point of telling you about our hotel in Catania because it was AMAZING (though probably the most expensive per-person stay we had in Sicily). This hotel is housed inside a 15th century building and the incredibly tasteful renovations were done with immense respect for the history of the building. The rooms were large, beautiful and unique and the location was top notch. The host was incredible kind and helpful, and the hotel not only has a wonderful restaurant downstairs, but also has a stunning breakfast spread that can be enjoyed in a beautiful courtyard.
WHERE TO EAT
Acqualavica – this restaurant is directly downstairs from BASTIÒ suites and had a Michelin plaque (though no star). The arancini here was the best we had in all of Sicily, the interior incredible and overall, a must-stop spot in Catania.
Cuore Fresco – the best panini and best breads we had while in Sicily. The owner, Viola, is such a sweetheart, too. This spot (from the exterior) is one I may have otherwise just passed over but I am SO GLAD we didn’t. If you eat anywhere in Catania, eat here.
Be sure to check out the Duomo and the open air markets in Catania as well. If you leave Sicily without eating arancini or a cannolo, you didn’t do Sicily the right way! In closing, it’s also worth nothing that the airport in Catania is small, but mighty, with some great food and shopping once you’re inside.