The Best of Sicily
This tour of Sicilian highlights starts in Palermo, where we'll sing with the merchants in the markets, join locals in their passeggiata, drop in on a contessa, and marvel at the Romanesque cathedral of Monreale. Then we'll sip wine on the slopes of Mount Etna, munch cannoli, ponder Greek temples at Agrigento, admire Roman mosaics at the Villa of Casale, and marvel at the view from the Greek theater in Taormina.
Of all the street markets in Palermo, Ballarò is the oldest, most authentic, and liveliest, stretching from Piazza Ballarò (a few blocks east of Palermo Cathedral) to the train station. A thousand years ago, when Palermo was still bounded by its now-underground rivers, this market was here with its singing merchants. The market's neighborhood is multiethnic and unpolished, with immigrant families squatting in dilapidated buildings a few steps off the main shopping street…an authentic, pungent slice of Palermo. It's best to wear sturdy shoes on the broken pavement. While a visit here is not dangerous, pay close attention to your belongings.
This gritty dive bar, tucked amid the bustle of Palermo's Vucciria Market, cultivates a clientele that's an oddly harmonious mix of local blue-collar palermitani and gregarious tourists.
This elegant and extremely lived-in mansion, built upon the Carthaginian city wall, offers you the rare opportunity to tour a noble palace with a son of the count (Nicolo or Andreas) as your guide. It's a wonderful and personal way to get a glimpse into Sicilian aristocratic life.
Built between 1174 and 1189, this well-preserved cathedral is an amalgamation of Norman, Arab, and Byzantine elements in a Romanesque building — reflecting the intermingling cultures and religious tolerance of that period. Situated on the slopes of a mountain six miles west of Palermo and easily reached by car or public bus, it makes an easy day trip from Palermo.
Just outside Catania, in Viagrande, this family winery prides itself on its boutique approach, and its popularity with wine critics and enthusiasts lets it charge more than others. A tour here includes a vineyard walk (which climbs an extinct lateral crater) and a visit to their 18th-century cellar, as well as a guided tasting.
The Valley of the Temples sits between the modern city of Agrigento and the coastline; nondrivers can reach the convenient Temple of Juno park entrance via taxi or hourly bus. While most tourists come just for a few hours to see the ancient site, those who stay the night in Agrigento can also enjoy the city's historic center. A good plan is to arrive by midday, tour the Pietro Griffo Archaeological Museum, then see the temples (as it's cooling off and getting less crowded; the temples are floodlit after dark).
Villa Romana del Casale is special, as it's one of few surviving Roman sites in Sicily. It's also in what seems like the middle of Sicily's nowhere, but it's still doable without a car: The nearest town, Piazza Armerina, is about two hours by long-distance bus from Palermo or Catania, and sporadic local buses (and taxis) connect to the site itself. Between late spring and early fall, try to visit either first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, as it can be very crowded, especially at midday.
Sicily is home to many Greek theater ruins, but none has a setting quite like Taormina's: hanging off the edge of a cliff with expansive views of Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea. Since cruise crowds flood the theater at midday, it's best to go right when it opens or in the late afternoon.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. And this time, we're climbing to the summit…of Sicily — and hoping this volcano doesn't blow. Thanks for joining us.
Sicily is a fertile mix — both geologically and culturally. Eruptions from its volcano, lots of sun, generations of hard work — so many civilizations storming through over the centuries all combine…and what you get is a full-bodied and tasty travel experience. Salute!
Along with summiting an active volcano, we'll explore Palermo, be serenaded in its exuberant markets, [be] welcomed into a countess's palace, and join the passeggiata scene. Heading inland, we'll ponder an ancient Greek temple, marvel at Roman mosaics, and finish in a ritzy resort.
Sicily marks the center of the Mediterranean. It looks like a football being kicked by the Italian "boot." We start in Palermo, explore the Greek Temples at Agrigento, the Roman Villa at Piazza Armerina, scale Mount Etna, and finish in Taormina.
Palermo is a great starting point to untangle the story of Sicily. The island was a thriving Greek colony 500 years before Christ. Then came ancient Rome for a few centuries and it fell. After some chaos, Sicily flourished again in the ninth and 10th centuries under Arab rule. Then, in the 11th century, the Normans came. While that ushered in Sicily's glory days, the parade of conquerors just kept on coming.
Palermo, Sicily's main city and historic capital, is a busy port corralled by mountains. A noisy and energetic metropolis, its architecture reflects the rule of its many overlords as well as its rich heritage. Walking the lively streets, you're surrounded by a scruffy elegance. The city invites exploration.
You feel the city's boisterous spirit in its markets. Here at the gritty Ballarò Market, you wander among a commotion of stalls — all competing for the buyer's attention. It's an entertaining scene complete with singing salesmen — each with his own unique style.
Whether you understand the lyrics or not, this slice-of-life market action is some the best in Europe. And don't just gawk — adventure in…try something new.
Just like his father did, Pippo sells the odd bits of the cow — it's all boiled, from hoof to snout…and I'm picking its nose!
Pippo: Naso. [Nose.]
Rick: Naso — de…vitello.[Calf's nose.]
Pippo: Naso, bravo, bravo. [Nose, good, good.]
Pippo: Bollito, bollito magro.[Boiled, boiled thin.]
Rick: Grazie! Alright!
Pippo: Prego. [You're welcome.]
Pippo: Bollito! Bollito magro!
Rick: So you take a little cow, you cut off his nose, you boil it, sprinkle it [with] a little salt — you got a snack.
A thousand years ago, after Sicily was conquered by the Arabs in the ninth century, Palermo was one of Europe's leading cities. With a population of 100,000, it was second only to Córdoba in Spain. In its Arab days, it had about 300 mosques. Later, the Normans (from France) pushed out the Arabs, and it became Christian again, building great churches where grand mosques once stood.
Sicily's complicated history of domination — which scrambled the gene pool — can be seen in the faces of its people: Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, and Italians have all captured and ruled the island at some point.
Sicily's many rulers also left their mark with grand architecture. This gate was part of a once-foreboding Spanish wall, and the massive cathedral was funded by Normans from France. And what Italian city doesn't have a fine opera house. Conquerors also left their mark economically and socially.
A history of absentee landlords dating all the way back to the Romans left Sicily mired in a persistent poverty. And centuries of this top-down oppression left a culture inclined to accept corruption and to be cynical toward the law. Because of that, organized crime — called the "Mafia" here — became a part of Sicilian society. This made Palermo a dangerous place.
But the power of organized crime in Sicily has ebbed. In the 1990s, the government waged a vigorous campaign to finally rein in the mafia. These two leading judges, who led the charge, were assassinated. This tragedy finally turned the public against organized crime, and today it has nowhere near the power and influence it once had.
While Palermo certainly retains its rustic character, in the last generation, the city has renewed itself with gentrified neighborhoods and upscale shops and hotels. And today, Palermo feels as safe as any Italian city.
The Quattro Canti — that means "four corners" — is a Palermo landmark. The intersection of two main thoroughfares, it divides the city into its four historic neighborhoods. The niches hold statues of the four Spanish kings of Sicily — another reminder of this island's many-layered history. And from here, early each evening, springs the ritual of the passeggiata.
Strolling from here to the opera house is endlessly entertaining, offering vignettes of local life and culture.
As the workday ends, people gather at their favorite hangouts. Here at Taverna Azzurra, it's a colorful scene where the neighborhood gang enjoys the same old routine, but a never-boring conviviality.
Behind Palermo's rough facades hides some welcoming aristocratic elegance.
Rick: Buona sera! [Good evening!]
Countess Alwine: Buona sera.
We're joining a tour of the palace of a Sicilian noble family. Count Federico and his Austrian wife, like many nobles, need to open their world to the common masses in order to pay their bills. The charming Countess Alwine shows us around with an engaging joy.
Countess Alwine: So, this is where you came in and now we do the whole tour around the courtyard. You can see we here have a long line of rooms going through, but they're actually not straight, they're a bit curved, because we're here on top of the Punic Roman city wall. You must imagine more than 2,000 years of history under our feet. Look, these are some of my husband's ancestors. From the 16th century on, everybody lived here in the house and everybody was born in the house. Yeah, if you want to stay for dinner tonight, we have, we can do spaghetti aglio e olio. Look, we've got lots of aglio, garlic. And actually, this is where I love to, actually, to lie on the sofa, read my book, and look how beautiful to dream under fresco like this.
The Count has stolen me away into his private studio — a kind of aristocratic man cave — to share his passion for Italian racing cars. His enthusiasm overcomes any language barrier.
And our group's in luck, as Alwine's circle of musical friends has assembled to share their love of traditional Sicilian choral music.
In a small town above Palermo stands one of Sicily's art treasures — the Cathedral of Monreale. In the 11th century, when the Muslim Arabs were tossed out by the Christian Normans, the Normans made Sicilian civilization grander yet — building monumental Norman churches.
This massive church, so richly ornamented, shows the glory of that age. Ancient columns and capitals — gifted by the pope to bolster his southern border of Christendom — were shipped here all the way from Rome. The church was built to show off the power of the Norman king William II — shown here boldly standing while being crowned by Christ.
The interior is famous for its exquisite 12th-century mosaics. Each panel tells a story from the Bible. There's Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent…angels climbing Jacob's ladder…and Noah building his ark, and filling it with animals.
It was designed to function as a Bible storybook. For centuries, early Christians debated whether or not images were appropriate in church. To solve this controversy — called the "Iconoclastic Controversy" — a pope called a convention, the Council of Nicaea, in the eighth century. The result? Images are OK if they teach the Christian message. Here at the Cathedral of Monreale the art is laid out precisely as the council prescribed.
Sicily is small — the size of Vermont — and the autostrada makes it smaller yet.
In just three hours, we're clear across the island and heading toward the highest point in Sicily. At about 11,000 feet, Mount Etna, Europe's biggest volcano, towers majestically above the villages and farmland of the east coast. Ascending dramatic switchbacks, we pass a buried house, an eerie reminder of recent lava flows. While there's a serious eruption every few years, we should be OK today.
There are different ways to experience the mountain, and we're taking the easy route. A gondola sweeps us over an otherworldly land of lava. At the top of the lift, we board an all-terrain shuttle. Climbing higher yet up the rugged track, visitors marvel as views get ever more dramatic.
Finally, at the end of the road, we hike to the lip of a vast crater. Hiking the circular rim leaves us with unforgettable memories. Today, the mountain's quiet. But small plumes of smoke and steam remind us that this peaceful perch can change in a hurry.
Geologically speaking, Sicily is part Europe and part Africa. It's where two tectonic plates — the Eurasian plate and African plate — are slowly colliding. That's why there's lots of tremors and volcanic activity.
Today, the slopes of Etna are renowned for their fertile soil and some of the finest vineyards in Sicily. We're visiting the Benanti family estate — getting to know the father and his twin sons — for a taste of this dimension of the island.
Salvino: We're in the slopes of Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano, and actually a great wine region. What we have here is volcanic soil. The soil comes from lava. Eruptions from thousands of years ago have now become sand, mixed with rocks — and they provide minerality to our wines. The soil gives the minerality, the altitude keeps the vines fresh — therefore, wines from Etna are highly distinctive, and they're known for their elegance and finesse.
Etna, just like the rest of Sicily, has been producing grapes for thousands of years, but only in the last three decades has the quality of Etna wine achieved such great notoriety and prestige.
Wine has been made here for 200 years. The grapes will be gathered up there, on the top level, and be crushed by the workers' feet. They will then be crushed a second time in the central vat, using this very heavy chestnut tree trunk as a press.
Aided by this very heavy stone and the bar, which will be turned heavily to press the grapes. The juice will then flow in here, ferment, and after one year, you would have wine. But this time, you don't have to wait that long.
Rick: All right. Thank you.
We join our guide Alfio and Salvino's twin brother Antonio to taste some of the family's wine.
Rick: So, we all know Italian wine. What about Sicilian wine? It feels like it's the new kid on the block.
Antonio: Well, a lot of wine has always been made on Sicily, but again, Sicily was sort of [a] laid-back and somewhat poor region. But in the last couple of decades, new generations are more affluent, and more sophisticated, and that is showing in the wines.
Rick: So, as a Sicilian vintner, would you say, "look out, Tuscany"?
Antonio: Yes, you know, the whole world should keep an eye on what is happening in Sicily. The beauty of wine is diversity, and mirroring a culture in a glass. So, we are not trying to be like somebody else, or like some other regions. We are…we want to show the full potential of this region, and I think it's starting to show.
Rick: And, Antonio, to that, I would say…buon lavoro. [here's to your success]
Antonio: Buon lavoro. Grazie, grazie.
A two-hour drive takes us the city of Agrigento, and the most impressive ancient site in Sicily: Its ridge lined with Greek temples.
Little survives of ancient Agrigento beyond a few grand temples. In the fifth century BC, Agrigento was the third-largest city in the Greek world — after Athens and Syracuse, another Sicilian city. Its protective wall, carved right out of the hillside, was seven miles long, fortifying what was a huge city.
To think that 2,500 years ago, two of the top cities in the Greek world were here in Sicily, is another reminder of the importance of this island in ancient times. Back then, when tough times hit, Greek society basically told its landless sons, "Go west." And "west" was Sicily. This was their land of opportunity; they came here and created a new "greater Greece" — it was Magna Graecia.
Imagine the grand impression this ridge, lined with temples, must have made on sailors from all corners of the Mediterranean as they approached by sea.
It was a religious ensemble: about a dozen temples, for a dozen gods, each serving a different role. Here at Agrigento, you were fully covered.
The Temple of Concordia [inside the Valley of the Temples Archaeological Park] is the best preserved. Like all Greek temples, it followed the same basic layout: The temple always faced east. The design is called "peripteral," which means "ringed by columns." It sits on a raised base with steps. An inner room, the cella, was reserved for priests and gods. Regular worshippers gathered outside.
As there's no marble in Sicily, temples were built of limestone. Columns each consist of four drums — aligned by interior pegs — capped by a capital.
Once the drums were stacked, the grooves were carved — that's called fluting. And then, a layer of plaster was added to make it look like marble. Finally, the temple's decorative features were painted with bold colors.
The massive Temple of Zeus once stood here. The size of a football field, it was the largest Doric temple in the ancient world. As it was used as a quarry for its pre-cut stones, very little survives today.
These stones supported a massive sacrificial altar, always at the east end of the temple. It was said they could sacrifice 100 oxen at once, as thousands gathered — and with the meaty feast that followed, there was always a good turnout.
Wandering through the evocative remains of this huge temple, you can only marvel at how wealthy and developed this mysterious Greek world must have been 2,500 years ago.
But, of course, the ancient Greeks were muscled out by the ancient Romans. Up next, we're heading for a Roman villa. While 800 years younger, it's still ancient.
The Villa Romana del Casale, near the town of Piazza Armerina, was tucked away in a remote Sicilian valley, about midway between the city of Rome, and Africa.
This was the mansion of a wealthy Roman senator who traded in exotic animals. That was a big business back when Rome so creatively entertained its masses with arenas filled with wild beasts and gladiators.
In about the year AD 300, the senator built this lavish country escape right here in the middle of Sicily. Its splendor survives in some of the finest Roman mosaics anywhere. Each room had a theme, like this dining room with its scenes of Romans hunting game.
This room features cupids fishing. Far from the sea, only the very wealthy could afford seafood. Serving fish for dinner was showing off. This scene is as much an extravagant menu as a piece of art.
While today, tourists with cameras stroll on elevated walkways, imagine this place with big shots in togas wandering past fountains down colonnaded halls.
These mosaics, made of dozens of different kinds of multicolored marble and glass chips, give us a colorful peek at the lifestyle of Rome's elite. The expressive and realistic faces are a vivid reminder that it took a lot of people — real people — to run the empire.
The Corridor of the Great Hunt is 200 feet long. It shows off the merchant's animal importing business, and it illustrates Rome's fascination with wild animals. Exotic beasts were caught and transported alive by ship from distant lands. They were destined to battle each other, and slaves, to the delight of urbanites packing big-city Roman arenas. The details are instructive, entertaining, and flat-out beautiful.
Any top-end villa came with baths and a gym. These women athletes are demonstrating Olympic events: discus throwing, racing, and some kind of ball game. For the winner? A victory palm and a crown of roses. And I thought bikinis were an invention of the 1950s.
This countryside palace was built to impress, and today — 1,700 years later, with little more than its lavishly decorated floors surviving — it still does.
Taormina, Sicily's most spectacular resort, hangs high above the Mediterranean. Its handy cable car provides access to the beach. Its dramatic setting has an understandable allure. One of Europe's romantic Old World resorts, it takes full advantage of its breathtaking perch.
Taormina was a favorite aristocratic escape back in the 19th century. Today, it's clearly the domain of the masses, as visitors from far and wide pack its traffic-free historic center. It's a busy evening for the passeggiata, and everyone's out enjoying the relaxed parade of Italian life. The main drag connects a series of inviting piazzas. And the balcony rewards all with staggering views. But I'm hungry for dessert.
Many people travel all the way to Sicily for the cannoli. And I can understand why. It's a true local specialty.
Bakers proudly maintain the quality that comes with tradition, and bakers earn their reputation on the quality of their cannoli — on the crispiness of the crust, and on their mastery of ricotta cheese — soft, sweet, and fresh from sheep's milk. The best are filled by hand on location — never with cream or custard; it must be ricotta.
Taormina's setting impressed the ancient Greeks — probably more for its strategic location than the view. Still, this must be the most dramatically situated theater from the ancient world. 2,500 years ago, Greeks packed the house for live theater. Today, exploring these ruins, perched high on a mountain on an island in the Mediterranean, I marvel at the many layers of civilization we can enjoy here on Sicily.
The cultural diversity and historical richness of Sicily makes this island one of Europe's most fascinating corners. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao!