Italy: Top 10 things to do in eastern Sicily

Millenia of history, culture and geography make it difficult to choose my top 10 things to do in eastern Sicily. We flew into Catania airport, an increasingly popular route for low cost airlines, and found this a good jumping off point to explore the east coast of Sicily.

DH Lawrence once said that “anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it…” and there is certainly something about Sicily that gets under your skin. I would have to agree after our week exploring eastern Sicily.

Taormina piazza Sicily

We split our week in Sicily, starting off in the Alcantara Valley near Taormina from where it was easy to explore the coast, the valley and Mt Etna. Then we moved down to Syracuse, staying in the old city of Ortygia and exploring the southeastern part of Sicily. So here are the 10 things you must see or do in eastern Sicily:

Taormina and Isola Bella

Taormina is one of those impossibly glamorous Italian towns, full of cafes, galleries and shops expressly open to please the tourists. It also boasts one of the best viewpoints for Mt Etna from its hillside vantage point. The town centre is largely medieval and car-free, with narrow streets. It can be a bit of a tourist trap but wandering along Corso Umberto I  to the Villa Communale gardens and the stunning ancient open-air theatre is a must do in Sicily.

Greek Theatre Taormina Sicily

The Greco-Roman theatre may be crumbling but is still in use for opera and other musical concerts in the summer.  Hanging between the mountains and the sea it was built by the Greeks and architecturally brutalised by the Romans (who turned it into a gladiatorial arena).

Down on the coast is Isola Bella – a tiny jewel of an island with an interesting history and protected marine environment. I lovely place to cool off on a hot day in Sicily.

Isola Bella Taormina Sicily

At the peak of Taormina’s hillside is the village of Castelmoro, an impossibly–perched place of stunning views. This is a great place for a drink, although I cannot recommend the drive up the road to get there!

Castel Moro Taormina Sicily

The Alcantara Valley and Castaglione

The northern slopes of Mt Etna are surprisingly green and lush, and the best place to base yourself for exploring this area is the Alcantara Valley. We stayed in a lovely agriturismo here called Tenuta Edone – Anna and her team looked after us very well. Make sure you visit the Gorge di Alcantara, where impressive rock formations mark the spot where lava from an eruption cooled quickly on contact with the Alcantara River.

Alcantara Gorge, Sicily

Further up the valley I loved visiting Castiglione, a precipitous hilltown with incredible views over the lush valley and snow-covered Mt Etna. The Norman castle dates from the beginning of the 17th century. We had a wonderful meal at La Dispensa dell’Etna, in the Piazza St Antonio Abate, where I had an incredible ravioli dish with mushroom, sausage and pumpkin.

View of Castiglione di Sicilia and Mt Etna

Climbing Mt Etna

Mt Etna dominated the horizon for most of my time in eastern Sicily. Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe, at almost 11,000 feet, where lava flows and vast plains of black sand at the summit contrast with the green and fertile lower slopes. Driving up from the Plain of Catania, the road winds in sharp hairpins through soft hillsides grey with olives, which quickly give way to harsh rocks and cactus thickets. It is a hot robust landscape, unchanging unless the mountain decides to make its mark. The last eruption was in December 2015, just four months before our visit. There had also been fresh snowfall a couple of days previously so the mountain was looking pretty spectacular.

Climbing Mt Etna Sicily

Leave your car at  Rifugio Sapienza (about 1,400m below the summit on the south side). From here a cable car – the Funivia dell’Etna – will take you to 2,500m (and costs 30 euros return per person). It is possible to walk up independently but you should allow around four hours for the return hike. With Wandering Kiwi Jr in tow this wasn’t an option for us so we paid another 30 euros each to ride from the top of the cable car on a 4X4 vehicle that took us about 800 metres near to the summit.

Mt Etna cable car Sicily

It was cold and windy up there so bring warm clothes even if it is hot down on the plain. A friendly guide took us for a walk around the most recent craters and we enjoyed learning about the history and geology of the volcano. He spoke in French and then English. This tour takes around 30 minutes. There is a small café and shop at the top of the cable car. This is a very expensive experience but in my view worthwhile. There wasn’t much to see either from Rifugio Sapienza or from the top of the cable car.

Craters and summit of Mt Etna Sicily

Ortygia

Ortygia is the old town of Syracuse and is set on an island joined to the mainland by two bridges. The ancient buildings are now a well-used palette of peach and apricot. We stayed in an apartment with a roof terrace overlooking the Temple of Apollo and the tall palm trees and clumps of papyrus remind one of how we are almost in Africa.

Ortygia fortress Sicily

This is where it is easy to get a feeling for Sicily’s three millennia of history. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and more have settled here and Ortygia is peppered with reminders of their presence. The 18th-century Duomo is perhaps even more magnificent for the fact its baroque façade is built upon the massive pillars of the original Greek temple.

Wandering the streets and getting lost is the order of the day in Ortygia, as well as the food. Osteria Mariano and Syraka restaurant are two recommendations. The daily market (near the Temple of Apollo) is wonderful for photography and picnic supplies.

Piazza Duomo Ortygia Syracuse Sicily

The Neapolis of Syracuse

This is an impressive archaeological park that is a pleasure to explore over the course of half a day. The nearby museum is stuffed with relics from around Sicily. If the Roman arena doesn’t blow your mind, then the hillside Greek theatre certainly will. The quarry of paradise is lush and fragrant with orange blossom, while the mysterious Ear of Dionysius is full of Italian school children yahooing.

Roman arena Neapolis Syracuse Sicily

It is easy to catch a bus (no.2) from Ortygia to the Neapolis of Syracuse. We caught this from the bus stop just across the bridge on mainland Syracuse. It was very well organised, only costs a couple of euros and the small electric bus does a circuit that takes visitors to the Neapolis and back to Ortygia.

The Quarry of Neapolis Syracuse Sicily

The Baroque Cities

In 2002 UNESCO placed the ‘Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto’ on the list of World Heritage Sites. In the south-eastern corner of Sicily, the towns  of Noto, Modica and Ragusa are famous for their striking architectural coherence due to being splendidly rebuilt following the devastating earthquake of 1693.

Noto baroque architecture Sicily

Noto is probably the most complete the towns and its crumbling Baroque palaces, churches and houses built in golden stone with fantastical facades and balconies make it a gorgeous place to wander. Follow the Corso Vittorio Emanuele from the imposing gateway of Porta Reale (close to the park and the bus stop) along past the Chiesa di San Francesco to the town’s central piazza to see the grand Duomo. Turn up Palazzo Nicolaci to see some of the fanciest balconies in town where chubby mythical beasts and cherubs stare down at passersby.

Noto Palazzo Villadorata Sicily

Best beaches in eastern Sicily

The eastern part of Sicily is a pale coastline, broken up here and there by gulfs and promontories. At   there are great black rocks that the Cyclops supposedly threw out of Mt Etna in his rage and pain at being blinded by Odysseus.

For a swimming and sunning beach with a marvellous backdrop of Taormina and Mt Etna, visit Giardini Naxos. The beach is a bit grubby and a mix of pebble and sand but the water is very clear and it even has some greek ruins! We had a marvellous dinner at La Sirene at the far point of the beach (try the swordfish pennette sprinkled with pistachio).

Playa, alongside the city of Catania is great for wide sand and is very popular with locals. Further south, about 20 minutes’ drive south of Syracuse is Fontana Bianche. This is a gentle curve of white sand with low key development and clear water.

Fontana Bianche beach in Sicily

Vendicari Nature Reserve

For a more remote, pristine beach experience head for the Vendicari Nature Reserve, a long strip of protected land in south-eastern Sicily, south of Syracuse. Here the fragrant maquis, sand dunes, lagoons and beaches of the coastline are remote and beautiful. Flamingos rest in the lagoons as they migrate from Africa and there are a number of beautiful beaches, including Cala Mosche, Ellora and Marienella.

Cala Mosche Beach Sicily Vendicari

Wine Tasting in Sicily

Sicily has more vineyards than any other region of Italy and spending a day taking in a couple of cantine (wineries) is highly recommended. Indeed the Etna region has become one of Italy’s most exciting wine regions thanks to the volcanic soil and intense climate. Head west to Marsala for the town’s famous fortified wine, or look out for Etna Rosso, a velvety red born on the volcano’s fertile slopes. Vineyards good for visiting include the Gambino Winery at Linguaglossa, Passopisciaro in Castiglione, and Feudo Ramaddini in Marzamemi.

Sicilian wine

Eating out in eastern Sicily

This shouldn’t really be the last item on my list because the food Sicily is such an eye-opener (or tongue-opener) that it must be a highlight for any visitor. I have mentioned a few recommendations above and look out for my full post on food in eastern Sicily coming soon.

Orange and Octopus salad Sicily food

I hope you enjoyed reading about my top 10 things to do in eastern Sicily. Have you travelled in this part of Italy and do you have any recommendations?

By Natasha von Geldern

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