La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily’s Rich History and Vibrant Culture
La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Wander Through Ancient Ruins in Syracuse
No trip to Sicily is complete without a visit to Syracuse, home to some of the most magnificent ancient Greek and Roman ruins in Europe. As one of the most powerful cities in the ancient world, Syracuse has ruins that rival those found in Athens and Rome.
Start your exploration of ancient Syracuse with a visit to the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, home to the sprawling Greek Theater. Dating back to the 5th century BCE, this theater could hold up to 16,000 spectators for dramas and comedies. Climb to the top tier of seats for an awe-inspiring view over the stage and orchestra below. Nearby, you can also explore remnants of altars and the latomia, or quarries, which provided stone for the city’s construction.
Just across from the theater lies Syracuse’s ancient quarries, home to the mysterious Ear of Dionysius. This tall, curled rock formation has an incredible acoustic echo. Legend has it that the Tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius I, used the space as a prison. He could eavesdrop on his captives through the cave’s unique auditory effect. While the legend is likely more myth than fact, whispering into the cave and hearing your voice reverberate is an ethereal experience.
From the Neapolis, head toward Ortygia, Syracuse’s mesmerizing old town situated on a slender island just offshore. Here you’ll discover the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, considered to be the oldest Doric temple in Sicily. While only fragments of columns remain intact, its existence is a powerful testament to the Greek influence in Sicily. Nearby, you can also explore the remains of the Temple of Athena guarded by the stately columns of the Catholic Church of Santa Maria della Concezione that was built above it.
No exploration of ancient Syracuse is complete without a visit to its catacombs. Dotted beneath the city, these underground paleo-Christian burial sites contain simple tombs and shrines decorated with frescoes. The catacombs of San Giovanni and Santa Maria del Gesù are two of the largest and most captivating to explore. But before entering the shadowy necropolis, be sure to bring a flashlight and sturdy shoes.
What else is in this post?
- La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Wander Through Ancient Ruins in Syracuse
- La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Savor Sicilian Street Food in Palermo
- La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Get Lost in Taormina's Charming Village Atmosphere
- La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Marvel at Byzantine Mosaics in Monreale Cathedral
- La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Soak Up the Sun at Cefalù Beach
- La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Sample Marsala Wines and More in Trapani
- La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Experience Vibrant Nightlife in Catania
La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Savor Sicilian Street Food in Palermo
No visit to Sicily is complete without savoring Palermo’s incredible street food scene. More than mere sustenance, the street food of Palermo provides a tantalizing taste of Sicilian history and culture with each bite.
Unlike the rest of Italy, Sicilian street food showcases influences from the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa resulting in an utterly unique culinary experience. Walking Palermo’s vibrant streets, you’ll encounter sizzling grills, tempting bakeries and crowded food carts dishing up classic Sicilian street fare.
Topping every foodie’s Palermo must-eat list is the iconic Sicilian street snack, the panelle. These golden chickpea fritters are fried to crispy perfection and typically enjoyed inside fluffy sesame seed buns. The panelle from Friggitoria Chiluzzo are among the city’s best - light and delicate on the inside with a perfectly crisp exterior. Pair it with a glass of Sicily’s famous blood orange juice for a heavenly experience.
No street food tour is complete without arancini – fried rice balls stuffed with ragù and melted mozzarella. Some of the city’s tastiest arancini can be found at Bar Touring Club, a historic Art Nouveau cafe. Try the unique pistachio version for a decadent twist.
For another Sicilian specialty, seek out sfincione, a thick, chewy Sicilian pizza loaded with tomatoes, onions and creamy ricotta. Franco U’Vastiddaru is legendary for its melt-in-your-mouth sfincione, cooked in a traditional wood-fired oven.
Palermo’s multicultural history shines through in street snacks like pani ca meusa, a sandwich stuffed with seasoned veal spleen and lungs. This dish reflects Sicily’s Arabic influences and Offelleria Del Massimo serves some of the most coveted in town.
End your food tour along Via Maccheronai, Palermo’s street devoted to all things sweet. Indulge your inner child with flaky cannoli filled with silky-smooth ricotta from Pasticceria Cappello or savor frozen cassata, a decadent slice of sponge cake layered with ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit.
La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Get Lost in Taormina's Charming Village Atmosphere
With its pastel-hued villas cascading down towards sapphire waters, Taormina looks as though it was plucked straight from the pages of a fairy tale. Perched high on a clifftop overlooking the Ionian Sea, this charming village transports visitors back in time with its winding medieval lanes, flowering balconies and ancient ruins. Once the playground of aristocrats, artists and other glamorous travelers, Taormina continues to enchant visitors today with its picturesque beauty and relaxed way of life.
While larger and more famous destinations can overwhelm, Taormina’s intimate size allows you to easily immerse yourself in local life. Meandering the pedestrian streets, you’ll brush shoulders with bicycle-riding children and elders gathered for friendly card games. Poke your head into tiny chapels adorned with ornate altars and paintings. Pluck blood-orange scented geraniums and cheery bougainvillea tumbling from garden walls and winding staircases. Listen for laughter from neighborhood trattorias while inhaling the comforting aromas of simmering ragus wafting through open doorways.
Get purposefully lost amid the village’s web of narrow lanes, admiring the colorful 17th and 18th century palazzi and tucked-away piazzas. Make your way to Piazza IX Aprile, the lively main square centered around the charming medieval Palazzo Corvaja. Order a chilled glass of Etna Bianco wine and watch the world go by from one of the bustling cafes. Then follow signs for the stunning Villa Comunale public garden, filled with vibrant tropical plants and panoramic views over the sea and Mount Etna. Don’t miss the chance for a photo-op at the Cape Taormina terrace overlooking iconic Isola Bella island and its tiny bay dotted with fishing boats.
History buffs will delight in the remarkably well-preserved Greek-Roman amphitheater dating back to the 3rd century BCE. Climb to the top stone seats for an unforgettable vista over the cobalt sea to Calabria on the mainland. Nearby, the 12th century Palazzo Corvaja, with its blend of Arab, Norman and Gothic architectural details, provides fascinating insight into Taormina’s multicultural past.
La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Marvel at Byzantine Mosaics in Monreale Cathedral
Among Sicily’s dazzling array of cultural and artistic treasures, few shine more brightly than the shimmering golden mosaics of Monreale Cathedral. Situated in a scenic hilltop village overlooking Palermo, this Norman-era cathedral contains one of the world’s most extensive and best-preserved collections of medieval mosaics, covering over 6,900 square meters in glittering Byzantine style. Stepping into the soaring interior, prepare to be overwhelmed by monumental biblical scenes depicting over 130 figures rendered in meticulous color and detail.
The cathedral’s pièce de résistance is located in the magnificent apse, where Christ Pantocrator gazes down benevolently from the towering half-dome, his right hand raised in blessing. Flanked by the Virgin Mary and angels along with depictions of the Apostles and saints, this majestic image intended to inspire awe and reverence upon entering the space. Along the walls, vivid scenes from the Old Testament unfold including the Creation, the Fall of Man, and the life of Abraham while the nave’s columns contain spirited portraits of saints and prophets against luxuriously patterned backdrops.
Unlike stationary frescoes, every tessera of these mosaics could be removed and replaced, allowing for incredibly nuanced designs. Examine the lifelike expressions and sinuous drapery carved in tiny cubes of glass backed by gold leaf. Marvel at how the smallest shift in color transforms a face, with delicate gradients used to shape cheeks and brows. The works pulse with energy and motion, transcending rigid Byzantine style through their dynamism and humanity.
While the cathedral’s origins stretch back to the 12th century, the mosaics were completed in glowing Byzantine style between 1176 and 1186 under the direction of Greek masters brought to Sicily specifically for this undertaking. Their works link Sicily to the splendor of Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine mosaic technique was already over 1000 years old, but reached its peak in finely gilded churches like Monreale.
Don't miss the cloister adjacent to the cathedral, enclosed by 228 columns carved with intricate designs. Here you'll discover elegant twin fountains and courtyard mosaics depicting monsters, wildlife, and scenes from everyday medieval life in Sicily. For bird's eye views over the mosaic-laden cloister and terra cotta rooftops, climb the 130 steps to the top of the cathedral's tower.
La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Soak Up the Sun at Cefalù Beach
With its crescent of golden sand backed by dramatic cliffs, Cefalù Beach offers a delightful seaside escape on Sicily’s northern coast. Located just steps from Cefalù’s postcard-perfect medieval core, this blue flag beach seamlessly blends convenience, natural beauty and crystalline waters perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
Arrive in the morning to secure lounge chairs and umbrellas near the water’s edge. The beach slopes gently into the sea, making it ideal for families with young children. Older kids will enjoy bodyboarding waves or snorkeling around rocky outcrops spotting colorful fish. When you need a break from the sun, grab a cone of gelato and explore Cefalù’s maze of narrow stone streets dotted with chic boutiques and cozy hole-in-the-wall eateries.
In the afternoon, the pace remains relaxed and laidback. This isn’t the place for boisterous beach clubs or rowdy bars. Instead, sip an Aperol spritz at a rustic beach bar, savoring sea views as you nibble on olives and foccacia. Make like a local by ordering a heaped plate of fresh sea urchins drizzled in lemon to slurp seaside. Continue your feast with tender grilled octopus or pasta topped with sweet prawns plucked straight from the sea that morning.
As the sun mellows in late afternoon, beachgoers emerge for a pre-dinner stroll along the water’s edge. Join locals practicing yoga or playing lively games of racchetball on the sand. For more serenity, head to the beach’s far eastern edge. Here you can nestle into the rocks while watching the sun sink towards the horizon in a blaze of orange and pink.
After dark, both locals and visitors flock to beachfront bars and restaurants glowing with strings of fairylights. Sip an ice-cold mug of Moretti beer or a bright Sicilian Nero d’Avola as you sway along to live music. For romance, snag a table at candlelit Ti Vitti. Feast on their sensational almond encrusted tuna steak served with Caponata on a flower-filled terrace overlooking the sea. End your evening with a moonlit passeggiata, or stroll, down the quiet beach holding hands – just as Italian lovers have for generations.
La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Sample Marsala Wines and More in Trapani
As birthplace of Marsala wine, no trip to Sicily is complete without a visit to Trapani to sip and savor this fortified nectar. Marsala offers a smooth, nuanced alternative to sherries and Madeiras, while remaining budget-friendly. Even those who claim not to love sweet wines will delight in Marsala's fruity, nutty notes layered with caramel and vanilla hints.
Base yourself in Trapani's atmospheric historic center filled with Baroque facades and crooked, cobblestone lanes. Then set out to explore local cantinas crafting distinctive Marsala wines. Don't just stick to large estates. Seek out small, family-run wineries like Rallo, where the warmly eccentric Filippo Rallo eagerly shares his handcrafted Marsalas from vineyards used since the 1700s. Set in a gracefully crumbling palace, Cantine Pellegrino provides fascinating insider's tours of their extensive cellars filled with giant oak casks. Learn how Marsalas are blended and aged through a carefully orchestrated process of oxidation.
While winery tours and tastings educate your palate, don't miss soaking up Trapani's vibrant local wine culture. Begin by joining the evening aperitivo ritual at cozy enotecas, or wine bars, like Enoteca Garibaldi. Sip chilled Marsala accompanied by cheeses, olives and artisanal salumi as you chat with a spirited mix of local characters. Continue your wine adventures at cantinas like Turtle do Vecchio Furno. Savor newfound Marsala friends over hearty plates of ricotta-stuffed ravioli in sage butter and slow braised rabbit cacciatore, all lovingly prepared by Signora Maria.
Between sips, work off vino-fueled munchies wandering sun-drenched medieval lanes lined with Baroque churches and regal palazzi. Duck into the gilded Cappella delle Anime del Purgatorio to view its eerie collection of mummified corpses and skeletons adorning the walls and ceilings. The ominous figures purportedly represent tortured souls trapped in purgatory, serving as a cautionary warning for viewers to follow a righteous path.
Get your sea legs with a boat tour of the Stagnone Lagoon, spotting vibrant salt flats and ancient Roman fish farms that harvested prized purple dye from mollusks. For more nautical action, take the hourly ferry over to Mozia Island just offshore. This was one of the Mediterranean’s most powerful Phoenician cities before being conquered by the Greeks. Wander Mozia’s archaeological park filled with evocative ruins like the imposing Whitaker Museum showcasing treasures discovered on site.
La Dolce Vita: How to Spend an Epic Long Weekend Exploring Sicily's Rich History and Vibrant Culture - Experience Vibrant Nightlife in Catania
As the pulsing heart of Sicily’s exhilarating east coast, Catania fires up after dark with vibrant nightlife reflecting its complex history and fiery spirit. Black lava-paved streets come alive with university students, hip young professionals and lively families seeking out the city’s abundant bars, pubs and nightclubs pulsing well into the wee hours.
Get started at MA of contemporary culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Sicily, housed in the former Monastery of Sant'Agata. Its chic café and roof terrace make an atmospheric spot for an Aperol spritz while taking in modern art and city views. Nearby, join a spirited mix of locals unwinding over craft beers andreadmezzos of Nero d’Avola at cozy Birreria Curtense. Their lengthy list of brews on tap spotlights Sicily’s emerging craft beer culture.
As evening unfurls, make your way to Piazza Bellini, the lively central square at Catania’s heart. Pull up a chair on the expansive terrace at Razmataz, a legendary jazz bar hosting nightly live music alongside artisanal cocktails and shared plates. For a taste of Catania’s university scene, head to the happening bars and pubs around Piazza Vincenzo Bellini. Mingle with students and artists choosing from 200+ whiskey varieties at The Shamrock or knock back pints at James Joyce among football scarf-draped walls.
Not ready to call it a night? Catania's nightclubs keep the party going into the wee hours. Head to mainstream Qube near the harbor for DJs and dancing or Le Capannine Beach Club during summer for full-moon beach parties. Enigma Club tempts with drag shows, themed parties and guest DJs spinning sounds to satisfy musical tastes from techno to Latin to hip hop. One of the area's largest LGBTQ+ nightclubs, New Ego Club welcomes everyone for wild drag extravaganzas and showstopping performances.