Sicily! The largest island in the Mediterranean off the southern tip of the Italian Peninsula – separated from mainland Italy by the narrow Messina Strait – is an autonomous region of Italy. “It looks like a football being kicked by the Italian boot,” as someone has so aptly described this beautiful, historic Mediterranean destination.
Before it became a part of Italy, Sicily was ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards over the last two and a half millennia and their influence is strikingly evident in the fascinating sights, attractions, and culture of the place.
It is this rather complex past that makes Sicily stand out as a separate entity rather than a part of Italy. The lifestyle here has a festive air about it, the food is spicier, and people are cool and carefree, and welcoming. Virtually, everything here has a Sicilian identity first and Italian afterward.
For visitors to this Mediterranean gem of a destination, we’re talking about amazing landmarks such as the ancient Greek temples, a crypt where dead monks were hung to dry, a live Volcano you can climb, the wonderful markets of Palermo, and to enhance the overall experience, a friendly and welcoming populace.
When talking about Italy and its regions it would be blasphemous not to mention Pizza. Sicily can give Naples a stiff competition as the pizza capital of the world. Locals like it cooked in a traditional wood-burning oven. Antipasto Buffets, are popular throughout Italy.
Without getting into the reasons that led to it, organized crime – called The Mafia here – is embedded in Sicily’s cultural soil. Locals refer to it as a phenomenon, like the weather, a force of nature that you just have to live with. However, today, law and order seem to be the prevailing trend.
Tax evasion has been a popular national pastime in Italy but the government is now coming down hard on evaders. Shopkeepers must give out receipts and customers must hang on to them until well clear of the shop, or face stiff fines.
Now, let’s begin our Sicilian journey from the town of Cefalù
This romantic coastal town in northern Sicily boasts some top attractions including a Norman Church, labyrinthine backstreets – a reminder of the Arab rule, medieval town walls with small Christian shrines built into them, and great food. To tell you the truth, food to Sicilians is what weather is to the English – an obsession!
Menus here are primarily seafood-based and the courses are just delightful: Mouth-watering appetizers – Antipasti to the Italians, a first course or Prima Piatt, which is generally pasta followed by the entrée, or Secondi.
People love to just hang out in this town and it’s a favorite with all ages – teenagers, old-timers, lovers, mothers with kids in strollers, everyone. People just amble around, basically enjoying a routine that appears to be a DNA thing with Sicilians, if you will.
Fishing has always played a big role in Sicily’s economy and culture. In times gone by, there used to be a gate through the city wall of Cefalù just overlooking the harbor. Today, it’s a hangout for the town’s fishermen who go by nicknames, with many not even knowing each other’s real names.
Top Cefalù attractions
Cefalù Cathedral – Built to serve the dual purpose of a fortress and a church, the Cefalù Cathedral is an important Norman landmark and is a popular tourist attraction in Cefalù.
Museo Mandralisca – The Museo Mandralisca is an art, archaeology & local heritage museum housing a noted portrait by Antonello da Messina, antiquities & regional artifacts.
Sanctuary of Gibilmanna – The Sanctuary of Gibilmanna is a serene mountaintop church with a great view of the surrounding areas.
Lavatorio Medieval – The Lavatorio Medievale Fiume Cefalino is a historical landmark where women would come to wash and rinse their family’s clothing centuries ago. The place simply transports you back in time.
Madonie Regional Natural Park –The 39,972-acre Madonie Regional Natural Park is located between Palermo and Cefalù.
So, that was Cefalù for you! It’s time, now, to head out to our next stop.
Segesta, once a major city of the indigenous Elymian people, is famous for the well-preserved Doric temple, a constant reminder to the locals that centuries before the Normans or Arabs were here, it was the Greeks who dominated the Sicilian scene.
Disinherited second sons in Greece, who were exiled to the west, often ended up in Sicily ultimately leading to a greater Greece. It was their land of opportunities.
Let’s take a look at all the important landmarks and attractions in and around Segesta.
Temple of Segesta – A well-preserved ancient Greek temple with a rural hillside setting, the Temple of Segesta dates back to the 5th century BC.
Tonnara di Scopello – The Tonnara di Scopello is a walled medieval tuna-fishing estate, in use until 1984. Today, it serves as a museum & inn, available for events.
Castle of the Counts of Modica – The Castle of the Counts of Modica is a medieval castle situated in the town center of Alcamo, about 23 km from Segesta.
Museum of Contemporary Art of Alcamo – The Museum of contemporary art of Alcamo is located in Piazza Ciullo in Alcamo, inside the Ex Collegio dei Gesuiti, near the majestic Church of Jesus
The Arab influence becomes immediately apparent in Palermo, Sicily’s main city, and historic capital. It’s a noisy and busy metropolis reflecting a complex twist. With the 9th century Arab conquest, Palermo soon had 200,000 people, 300 mosques, and several busy markets.
Top Palermo attractions
Palazzo dei Normanni – The Palazzo dei Normanni is an ornate 9
th-century palace and museum with a neo-classical facade, a historic chapel, and ornate royal apartments.
Palermo Cathedral – This 12th-century structure is an architecturally diverse church housing royal tombs.
Teatro Massimo – This lavish Opera house, known for its acoustics, was built in 1897 & remains Italy’s largest with a seating capacity of 1,387.
Cattedrale di Monreale – The Cattedrale di Monreale is an iconic Norman cathedral known for its ornate cloisters and bright golden mosaics depicting biblical stories – Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent, angels climbing Jacob’s ladder, and Noah, building his Ark, and filling it with animals. This place functions as the Bible’s storybook.
Quatro Canti – Quatro Canti or Four Corners is a Baroque octagonal square, the gritty intersection of Palermo’s two main thoroughfares. There are four fountains in the square holding statues of the four Spanish kings of Sicily in niches – another great reminder of the islands many-layered history.
Zisa – Zisa is the restored remains of a Moorish palace comprising 12th-century buildings housing collections of Islamic art & local historic artifacts.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti – A medieval church with striking red domes and a courtyard is the result of the combination of Arab-Norman architecture.
San Cataldo – This is a 12th-century church with three red domes and mosaic floors.
Orto botanico di Palermo – Just 10 meters above sea-level, the Orto botanico di Palermo serves as a botanical garden as well as a research and educational institution of the Department of Botany of the University of Palermo. Founded in 1779, this botanical garden on 10 hectares includes many tropical & exotic plant species.
The Capuchin Crypt – The Capuchin Crypt is one of Palermo’s most famous and memorable sights. For four centuries Capuchin monks here have hung their dead up to dry. This maze of corridors contains 8000 skeletons and mummies dressed in the clothing of their choice.
Taormina’s setting impressed the ancient Greeks, probably more for its strategic location then the view. Still, this must be one of the most dramatically situated spots from the ancient world.
A favorite escape for the aristocrats of the 19th century, Taormina is today made to order for good living.
Taormina landmarks and attractions
Sicily’s small size and the Autostrada, Sicily’s national network of freeways, make it even smaller. It takes just about two hours from Palermo to go across the island to the east coast where the ascent to Mount Etna begins.
At over 11000 feet, Etna is Europe’s biggest volcano and it’s active with a serious eruption about every three years.
Visitors are free to wander around and marvel at the raw beauty and power of this great force of nature. The occasional booms of the simmering mountain provide a rare travel thrill.
Ancient theatre of Taormina – This awesome spot with views of the coast and Mount Etna is the remains of an ancient Greco-Roman theater now used for entertainment events.
Badia Vecchia – Built in the 14th century, this stone tower was originally part of the city’s fortifications.
Palazzo Corvaja – The Palazzo Corvaja is a medieval palace featuring a courtyard decorated with Christian reliefs, plus an exhibition center.
Garden of Villa Comunale – The Garden of Villa Comunale is a great place for quiet walks amid landscaped gardens with picturesque views of the sea & city below.
Duomo di Taormina – The Duomo di Taormina Historic medieval Catholic church with a grand arched interior & elaborate statuary.