Sicily serves up a full-bodied and tasty travel experience. We'll dine on fresh seafood at the fisherman's harbor in Cefalù, ponder ancient Greek greatness in Siracusa, commune with monks — alive and departed — in a Capuchin crypt, sleep in an olive orchard at an agriturismo, and eat our way through a classic Sicilian banquet with a famous chef.
Ortigia Street Market
Via Emanuele de Benedictis, the main drag of Ortigia's outdoor market, hosts a lively market each morning (at 13:00, the activity begins to die down, and by 14:00, food vendors are gone). The eateries along this street are also fun to browse for a meal (the eateries along are all open at lunch, and about half are open for dinner; everything is closed Sunday). Options include the popular Caseificio Borderi, a touristy but tasty deli that's good for grabbing a sandwich to go.
Siracusa's cathedral is a delightful and engaging potpourri of the civilizations that have called Sicily home. The exterior (including the stately Baroque facade, and the ancient exoskeletal columns around the side) is fascinating enough, but the interior is well worth a visit for its surprising integration of architectural styles.
This charming 80-seat theater is run by the hardworking Mauceri family, who have a passion for this traditional art (and also run the small Puppet Museum a few blocks away). On most evenings, they perform an episode of a traditional saga, recounting the adventures of Charlemagne and the French knights. The stories are like old-time serial melodramas of good versus evil, with superhero characters that captivate children. The play is in Italian, but they provide an English introduction. While the storylines can be complex, the presentation and effects are entertaining beyond any language barrier. Advance tickets are smart for July and August.
The archaeological park with much of the ruins of ancient Syracuse is on the mainland, about 1.5 miles from Ortigia; it's quick and easy to reach by bus or taxi. It holds a big Greek theater, the remains of a water system, the footprint of a sacrificial altar, a (later) Roman amphitheater, and the immense quarry where thousands of slaves cut the stone that made it all. In summer the Greek theater hosts open-air performances.
This agriturismo, 20 minutes southeast of Agrigento, produces almonds and olive oil on their large working farm. Eleven posh rooms are housed in a cluster of elegantly restored farm buildings, and four country-style rooms fill a former train station.
Despite its lazy beach-town ambience, Cefalù has one of Sicily's most interesting cathedrals — a classic Norman fortified church, with stout towers, narrow windows, and zipper-toothed crenellations. The stern-looking church, built between 1131 and 1240, hides an elegant surprise: inside is a monumental, glittering mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, considered the most elegant in Sicily.
This is the place for a traditional and fancy seafood dinner on Cefalù's Via Bordonaro, where Nicola and Paolo take pride in their fish and meat dishes. The romantic seaside terrace is swoon-worthy at sunset.
The public is welcome to wander the halls of this collection of fully clothed and remarkably preserved bodies, but — out of respect for the dead — photography is not allowed (plenty of postcards are for sale). The crypt lies at the western edge of Palermo, about 1.5 miles from the center of town.
Erice's "mother church" stands at the town entrance, rather than in the central piazza, as it was built as a counterpoint to a much earlier Temple of Venus across town, and dedicated to a similar female divinity — just as paganism was falling out of favor. While the exterior of the church dates from the 1300s, the interior collapsed and was rebuilt in the late 1800s in a fanciful Neo-Gothic/Neo-Arabic fusion.
Maria's bakery is an Erice institution, and her almond-based sweets have become famous in Italy. As a child in the 1950s, Maria was sent to live in a convent, where she learned baking techniques from the nuns. When she was old enough to leave, she took the recipes she'd learned and opened her own pastry shop — a rare thing for a woman to do at the time. Specialties include tette delle monache ("nuns' breasts"), genovesi (pastries with custard or ricotta filling), and fresh cannoli. Maria and her assistants can assemble a sampler tray of indulgent sweets if you can't decide where to start.
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 filling up on some unforgettable culture. Holy cannoli! We're in Sicily. Thanks for joining us!
To better understand what you see here in Sicily, you need to understand its story. Over the last 2,500 years, the island of Sicily's been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards before becoming part of Italy. The island's complicated past makes it distinct from Italy: It's got its own cuisine, a more festive lifestyle — [and] people who are Sicilian first and Italians second.
In this episode, filled with Sicilian delights, we'll go backstage for some traditional puppetry, stay in a farmhouse B&B, and enjoy a gourmet local feast. We'll explore an ancient quarry, and venture to the isle of Mozia, with its ancient Carthaginian ruins. We'll ponder the meaning of life in an unforgettable crypt, before sipping cappuccino with a Capuchin.
The island of Sicily is the southernmost part of Italy. We start in Siracusa, visit Cefalù, stop in Palermo, [and] sail to the tiny isle of Mozia, before finishing in Trapani.
Like so much of Sicily, Siracusa has ancient Greek origins. The great city-states of Greece were expansive, searching the Mediterranean for more fertile lands. Athens and Sparta dominated, but lots of other Greek cities, like Corinth, were establishing colonies too. These new settlements created a broader Greek culture, known as Magna Graecia, or "Greater Greece."
Greek culture flourished here in Syracuse. Founded in 732 BC by the Corinthians, it grew to become an even greater, more important city than Athens. In fact, Syracuse eventually defeated the Athenians in battle in this very bay.
The Temple of Apollo, marking the center of old Syracuse, was the first stone Greek temple in Sicily. It dates from 600 BC.
And Syracuse nurtured the brightest minds of the ancient world — like Archimedes. The inventions of this scientist/physicist/philosopher/genius from the third century BC helped his hometown defend itself from invasions.
Modern Siracusa sprawls across the mainland. But the city was born on the fortified island of Ortigia. That's where you'll find many of the ancient sights and most of the medieval charm. With its shabby-chic vibe, delightful back lanes, and breezy sea views, old Siracusa is for me the most enjoyable urban environment anywhere in Sicily.
Just a generation ago, Ortigia was a rough and unwelcoming zone, almost empty of commerce. And today, stoked by its influx of tourism, it has a bohemian energy that fills it with a joyful and relaxed ambiance.
The long and narrow side lanes are part of a street plan dating way back to ancient times. Balconies festooned with laundry are reminders that this is still a real neighborhood.
I always say, "If you like Italy, you'll love Sicily" — and I especially feel that in its markets. Each morning this street hosts a lively fish and produce market. This shop [Borderi] is jam-packed for its beloved specialty: jam-packed panini.
To be sure we maximize the delights of our Sicilian experience, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Alfio Di Mauro. And Alfio is expert at connecting with the local characters.
Alfio: Quanda, quanda, Rick. [When, when]
Alfio: Buongiorno, Angelo!
Angelo: Ciao! Ciao! Come stai? [Hi! How are you?]
Alfio: Ti presento — bene! — ti presento Rick. [This is Rick.]
Angelo: Grazie! Angelo.
Rick: Piacere, piacere. [Nice to meet you.]
Alfio: The swordfish — Angelo always has the best swordfish…yeah, he just caught it. This was used until not long ago to make needles to mend the nets.
Rick: Oh, for knitting the nets together?
Alfio: Yes. And even to do knitting needle.
Rick: This is really remarkable!
Alfio: It is very resistant.
Rick: Look at that.
Alfio: Very resistant.
Rick: Ancora. [Again.] Wow!
Alfio: And when you have fresh fish like this, the meat is delicious.
Rick: Fantastic. Angelo!
Rick: Buon lavoro. [Nice work.]
Rick: OK? Ciao.
Angelo: Bye-bye, ciao!
Alfio: Grazie, Angelo. Bravissimo. Bravissimo. [Very good. ]
Sicily is brutally hot in the summer. I like to visit in spring or fall. And even in April — when we're here — a stop for a drink at the kiosk can be really refreshing.
Rick: What's this?
Alfio: It's a specialty…Ciao!
Barkeeper: Buonasera. [Good afternoon.]
Rick: Ciao! Buonasera.
Alfio: Due seltz limone e sale. [Two seltzer, lemon, and salt.]
Rick: So, what is the name again?
Alfio: It's a refreshing drink, OK? It's seltzer, lemon, and salt.
Rick: OK; good.
Alfio: Ideal in the summer. Molto rinfrescante — very refreshing. Then, with a spoon…salt. Rinfrescante.
Alfio: Perfetto! [Perfect!]
Rick: All right.
Nearby, the facade of the cathedral provides quite a contrast. Built in the 18th century, it was inspired by the great Baroque churches of Rome, but amped up with a Sicilian architectural razzle-dazzle. The apostles Peter and Paul greet you at street level while Mary blesses all from above.
Stepping inside, you see the church is a lot like Sicily itself — a layer cake of civilizations. It was built into an ancient Greek temple. The temple's 2,500-year-old colonnade survives as part of the church's walls. And because a pagan temple had no transepts, neither does this church. The fine workmanship of the capitals survives from ancient times.
In Sicily, you hear the same basic story of the parade of civilizations over and over — ancient temple, church, mosque, church. Here in Syracuse, this was originally a Greek temple built to honor Athena. Then, a thousand years later, with Byzantine rule, the temple was made into a church. Next, in the ninth century, the Arabs sweep in from just over there in North Africa — Christians out, Muslims in…and it became a mosque. Then it's a church again as the Normans from France conquer Sicily in the 11th century. After a huge earthquake hit in 1693, the cathedral was rebuilt in today's super-charged Baroque style. Whew!
The cathedral square, or "Piazza Duomo," is a mish-mash of architectural styles. It serves as a delightful stage upon which the story of this community plays out. Its graceful semi-circular design is a Baroque trick, designed to give the feeling that this is a theater for life in this community. It's the gathering place of the town — a magnet for all generations.
On one of the nearby narrow streets, Alfio is treating me to something I haven't seen since I was a kid. Puppetry is a strong tradition here in Sicily. This theater company puts on nearly nightly performances. Its young troupe of puppeteers takes their art seriously. The marionettes are lovingly made, and true to tradition. The puppeteers skillfully bring the characters to life as the plot unfolds. The melodrama of an old Sicilian tale fills the theater — captivating its audience as this folkloric art form has for centuries.
The ancient Greek city of Syracuse is long gone. But wandering through its scant remains in the city's archeological park, you pick up hints of its former power.
At its peak around the fifth century BC, Greek Syracuse had roughly the same population it has today: over 100,000 people. It was the dominant military and economic power in this corner of the Greek world.
With a commanding harbor view, the ancient Greek theater originally sat 15,000. While it dates from 500 BC, it's still in use today.
The terrace above the theater functioned as a grand lobby, covered by a wooden roof and decorated with fine statues. The waterfall is part of an aqueduct — a man-made underground river carved out of the rock — allowing fresh water to flow 15 miles from a mountain spring into the city.
The stone that built ancient Syracuse was quarried on-site by enslaved prisoners of war. Today that quarry's overgrown with lush vegetation, and, while it's called the "Garden of Paradise," it's filled with tragic memories.
It's easy to forget, when marveling at these ancient theaters and temples, that slave labor quarried and carried the stones that made it all possible. Back then, many soldiers willingly fought to the death because they knew that life as a prisoner of war — or slave — was even worse.
The quarry was like a huge underground concentration camp, a hellish place where slaves lived out their miserable lives cutting stone. Gazing at the one tower of stone still standing, imagine that this was a pillar helping support the roof of a giant man-made cavern. That roof collapsed with an earthquake in 1693.
A surviving quarry cavern is nicknamed "the Ear of Dionysus." Venturing in, you can still see the chisel lines showing how it was cut, over the generations, from the top…down.
A car is handy for exploring Sicily. Once in the countryside, traffic is sparse. Autostradas are top quality, and make getting around faster and less stressful than smaller roads [can]. While most of Italy's super-freeways come with tolls, Sicily's are generally toll-free — one of many economic subsidies from the more prosperous northern Italy.
We're heading across the island, and we're breaking the journey near the south coast at an agriturismo — an upscale B&B nestled in an olive and almond orchard.
Here in Italy, working farms with rooms to rent are called "agriturismos." Across Europe small farms supplement their income by renting rooms to travelers seeking a rural refuge from fast-paced urban scenes.
The Mandranova estate comes with a rustic-but-elegant dinner, offering a great chance for travelers to share stories from the road.
And we cap our day enjoying a convivial atmosphere, where, under palm trees and stars, our host enjoys sharing his olives and almonds while getting to know his guests.
Our next stop is Cefalù, beautifully situated on the north coast.
Cefalù is Sicily's most romantic port town. With a golden crescent beach and sitting safely under its dramatic rock — still capped by a fortress — Cefalù cradles its past in a way that's easy to enjoy. Since the town was founded, its streets have lined up with the prevailing wind to catch the cooling breeze. And, to this day, laundry flaps in that breeze.
And for a thousand years — whether ruled by Arabs, Normans, French, or Spanish — the women of the town gathered here on these very stones to scrub their laundry.
In Sicily, there's history everywhere. In the 11th century, Sicily's Arab rulers were booted out by the Normans from France. This cathedral is Norman. Built to double as a fortress, it's crenelated — like a castle — and it comes complete with slits for shooting arrows.
Inside, columns that 2,000 years ago supported a pagan Roman temple now support Norman arches. They lead to a serene mosaic portrayal of an Orthodox Christ. During this complicated age, it was intentionally Eastern in style to help make Norman rule easier for locals to accept.
Here in Cefalù, like anywhere in the Mediterranean, early evenings bring out a parade of people. It's like cruising without cars…a multi-generational scene — from [young] families to grandparents. Old-timers remain part of the action. And anyone's attention can be hijacked by tempting window displays.
All this strolling stokes my appetite, and we're ready for some Sicilian cuisine. Here [Ristorante al Porticciolo], surrounded by the Mediterranean, menus are rich in seafood, and courses come in waves: after the appetizers (or antipasti), the first course (or primo piatto) is generally pasta — we're having spaghetti with clams, risotto with mussels on flat bread, and the Sicilian favorite: pasta with sardines. The second course — secondo — is our entrée, and — no surprise — it's more seafood. Fresh local shrimp, calamari, and swordfish rolls. And, while I'm certainly enjoying my calamari, I'm not above a little shrimp thievery to make sure I enjoy everything Cefalù has to offer.
One of Sicily's quirkiest charms — nearby in the city of Palermo — is in a crypt below its Capuchin monastery. The Capuchins, a branch of the Franciscan order, have a passion for reminding people of their mortality. Historically, when their brothers died, their bones were saved and put on display. The Capuchins of Palermo took this tradition a step further: Rather than just saving bones, they preserved the bodies in their entirety.
Back in the 16th century, the monks here found that this particular crypt preserved bodies almost miraculously. They later realized that they could actually charge wealthy parishioners for the privilege of being mummified here with their brothers. And this helped raise money to support their monastery.
This maze of corridors contains thousands of skeletons and mummies dressed in the clothing of their choice. Each area features a different group: Monks in their brown robes, women with their favorite dresses, priests with their vestments, soldiers still in uniform, and children looking almost as if taking a long nap. The oldest body — brother Sylvester — has been hanging here since 1599.
One of the brothers gave me a lovely little sermon. He explained that our time on Earth is short, and what really matters is what comes next. These "bodies without souls," as they call them, are a reminder that we're all mortal. For this monk, being with all these bodies [has] brought him great joy and peace, as it [has] caused him to focus not on our earthly existence…but on eternity.
Today, the public's welcome to wander thoughtfully through these halls of haunting faces, which seem determined to tell us a truth that perhaps we've yet to learn.
I'm not quite ready for a Capuchin crypt, but I could go for a Capu-ccino. And I'm joined by my Capuchin friend — who, in good Franciscan style, enjoys embracing the moment as well.
Rick: So, we have the same colors?
Monk: Yes, same colors — this…
Rick: …and the white, and the robe. So, we've got the white and the brown.
Sicily comes with dramatic coastal scenery, and we're heading west. Distances are short, and the island is dotted with fascinations.
The shallow lagoon surrounding the island of Mozia is ideal for extracting salt from the sea. And, for thousands of years, locals have labored in salt pools like these as part of this essential industry. A short boat ride gives us a closer look.
Rick: So, Alfio, this is, like, a mountain of salt with tile to protect it from the wind.
Alfio: It is. It is.
Rick: Salt must have been a very important industry.
Alfio: It was a vital industry. In ancient times, if you didn't have salt, you'd die. There was no refrigeration, and the food was preserved mainly by salt.
Rick: How long did they have salt pools here?
Alfio: The Carthaginians, when they came here, they established this salt flats in the eighth century BC.
Rick: Until today — they're still getting the salt.
Alfio: Yes, as we can see.
We're heading for the tiny island of Mozia. Along with salt, this lagoon provided a safe haven for ancient mariners. In fact, 800 years before Christ, Carthaginians settled here. Today, this island is strewn with the scant but evocative ruins of a once-powerful trading outpost.
Rick: Why is Mozia so historic?
Alfio: Mozia was the base of the Carthaginians in western Sicily. They came in the eighth century BC and they had many trading posts around the Mediterranean, and Sicily sits in the middle. Sicily is the stepping stone.
Rick: Perfect place to establish a trade center.
Rick: Now, the Carthaginians came about 800 years before Christ. How long did they stay here?
Alfio: They stayed for 400 years, and eventually were destroyed by the Greeks.
Rick: We don't know very much about Carthage — why? Because they lost all the wars?
Alfio: They lost the important wars. We often say, "The winners write history." In this case, if you lose a war, you lose your right to say your side of the story.
Nearby, the town of Trapani, with its fortified promontory, marks the westernmost point of Sicily. Its port is a shipping and transportation hub. The old town is a salty, pedestrian-friendly delight with plenty of handy accommodations and fun places to eat. Trapani offers a chance to get to know a workaday Sicilian town with a charming historic quarter.
The town's main streets, lined with elegant facades, provide a showcase for today's urban scene. In the evening, locals enjoy a lazy passeggiata, which culminates with a sunset on the ramparts.
A gondola carries us above Trapani, to the mountaintop fortress town of Erice.
This stony town was protected by an imposing fortress, recalling a time when its strategic location was worth the climb. The stout medieval gate leads into a remarkably preserved old town. While a touristy shell today, the town is fun to explore.
The church [Chiesa Madre], like everything else here, is a stony gray. But, as we step inside, a late-19th-century interior dazzles visitors with the over-the-top frilliness so typical of Neo-Gothic architecture.
The main street leads to a humble main square
And hiding deep in Erice is the venerable pastry shop of Signora Grammatico. Her display case tempts all who enter with its vast array of Sicilian sweets, including, of course, enticing cannoli and colorfully painted marzipan treats.
But hold on. Let's not ruin our appetite. Signora Grammatico has prepared a banquet designed so we can enjoy an unforgettable education in Sicilian cuisine.
Rick: Indimenticabile. Mille grazie, Signora Grammatico. [Unforgettable. Thank you very much.]
Signora Grammatico: Prego. [You're welcome.]
Rick: And, complimenti. [My compliments.]
Signora Grammatico: Grazie.
Rick: So beautiful. Alfio, what are we eating here? Just gimme a quick tour.
Alfio: The most beautiful things we have in Sicily. Bruschetta —
Alfio: …with tomatoes and the good olive oil that we grow in Sicily; rice balls — arancini, filled with meat, deep-fried, a specialty from Palermo; tabbouleh — a reminder of the Arabs that once were here; pomodoro secchi — sun-dried tomatoes, a local specialty. Plenty of sun in Trapani. Stuffed red peppers —
Rick: Ooh, this looks good.
Alfio: …with breadcrumbs, pine nuts, and Pecorino and Parmesan cheese; local tuna, fished in the islands out here. This is one of my favorites — caponata, diced and fried eggplant; in Trapani only they put toasted almonds on it. Caprese salad — red, white, and green, the colors of the flag — a reminder we're Italians.
Rick: This is Sicily, and you even remember.
Alfio: Even in Sicily. Sometimes we forget.
Rick: Sono molto felice. [I'm very happy.]
Signora Grammatico: Grazie. Manco a tutto dire: Mangia, mangia. [Not that I need to tell you: eat, eat.]
Enjoying this feast with Alfio is a great way to celebrate all we've experienced in Sicily. And there's so much more — with its Greek temples, boisterous markets, Roman mosaics, and glorious churches, all capped by an active volcano — Sicily richly rewards those who venture this far south.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at the endearing charms of Sicily. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao!