Finding honest opinions about a place can be trying at times. Guide books make any place sound good – they have to. Saying somewhere isn’t a fabulous place to visit is no way to sell guidebooks. Personal recommendations are often just as bad. Who is going to admit that they didn’t have a great vacation? Then there is the subjectiveness of it all. What makes a great trip for you? Are you a luxury resort person, a cultural traveler, a shopper or an outdoor adventure seeker? With all that in mind here is my attempt at some honest answers.
Is it worth going? For me, yes. Personally I lean towards being a cultural traveler with light outdoor adventure tendencies. On this particular trip I wanted to experience Sicilian markets and food, learn a little Italian, visit the Greek and Roman ruins, and tour the medieval towns. I’m not much of beach person or shopper. In general Sicily met my expectations and I would highly recommend it for those wanting a cultural experience and who don’t mind a few inconveniences. I would not recommend it for those seeking a luxury beach vacation. Beach vacation mixed with cultural adventure, OK.
I’ve traveled through various parts of Europe, Asia and South America and place Sicily somewhere between mainland Italy and Argentina in terms of infrastructure and ease of travel. Things work OK, but are not generally well marked or explained. You can think of this as a travel challenge or hassle depending on your level of tolerance. People are generally friendly and speak enough English in tourist areas to get what you need. It seemed that tourism drops off quite a bit in the fall with many restaurants in the less touristed areas closed at lunch time.
Here are my thoughts and recommendations after spending five weeks in Sicily – three weeks studying Italian in Taormina, one week driving around the island and one week in a rented house near Mt. Etna. If you have any specific questions, leave me a comment and I will be happy to answer.
Taormina is a great place to study Italian. For a full review of the school Babilonia click here.
When to go – The guide books recommend April, May, September and October as the best months to visit Sicily. While this may generally be true, October is the rainiest month of the year, at just under 4” average for the month, with clouds hanging on Mt. Etna for days at a time. I would therefore not suggest home base near Mt. Etna in October.
Renting a car and driving around the island is a great way to see Sicily. The principle highways – autostradas – are generally in good shape with the secondary roads often not so. In some cases they are literally sliding down the hillsides. Traffic, as you would expect, is quite heavy in the cities, drivers are aggressive and roads are generally not well marked. If you are not used to driving in southern Europe, Sicily is probably not the place to start. If you are, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty.
Restaurants – Be prepared to eat Italian and only Italian. Restaurants are mostly Sicilian with occasional dishes from other regions of Italy. Great if you want to experience the local cuisine. While the variety of dishes can seem lacking after a while, the quality of the food is consistently good. Most restaurants are casual trattorie serving classic dishes. There are however, a few more upscale places in the bigger cities, and of course the Michelin starred Duomo, in Ragusa.
Mafia – What Mafia? The only evidence we saw of Mafia was perhaps that the relatively new roads were sliding down the hillsides. Where did the money go for a proper road bed? Personally we had no crime related problems of any kind nor did we ever feel uncomfortable. Yes, there are a lot of crumbly neighborhoods, especially in the cities, but no reason not visit. Be aware, take normal travel precautions and have a great time!
What to see:
- Beaches – I’m not a beach person so I can’t vouch for the beaches. I will say that they have a mix of pebble beaches and sandy beaches. It seems that there were nicer sandy beaches in the south around Agrigento. Unfortunately they often have unsightly structures, refineries or abandoned buildings near what would otherwise be a beautiful spot.
- Ruins – Sicily has a number of Greek and Roman ruin sites worth seeing. All the Greek temples are Doric, so while the settings for the different ruin sites are quite different, the temples are similar in style. The best preserved temples are at Segesta and Agrigento. However, one of my favorite sights was the impressive fields of fallen columns at Selinunte. At the Roman sites the mosaics are the thing to see. The best are at Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina (note that as of October 2010, a large part of this site was undergoing a major restoration.) Marsala also has a smaller Roman villa site at the archeological museum (as of October 2010, you must ask at the front desk to see it.) The Ear of Dionysius in Syracusa was also a favorite for its incredible size.
- Quaint historic towns – Taormina – northeast, Erice -northwest, Ragusa – southeast, are all charming towns perched on hills with dramatic vistas. Taormina is a lovely medieval town with plenty of shops, restaurants and gelaterias, but gets the most tourist traffic – lots of cruise ships. Both Erice and Ragusa have fewer tourists and are delightful places to wander through the narrow winding streets. Erice is medieval with stone structures while Ragusa, after an earthquake in 1693, was rebuilt in a colorful baroque style.
- Cities – The biggest cities are Palermo and Catania. Both are big sprawling cities with interesting city centers and lively markets. In Palermo we particularly liked the Palantine Chapel – fabulous mosaics – and the eerie Capuchin Catacombs. We went to the Vucciria market at noon on a Saturday and it was pretty dead. Hard to imagine it was very active earlier. According to the guidebooks it is supposed to be the liveliest market on the island. The Capo market, however, also in Palermo, was colorful with many stalls still open after lunch. The Catania market was my favorite, lively bustling market with all kinds of fish, meats, cheese, produce etc. What I was expecting the Vucciria market to be.
- Mt. Etna – an interesting volcanic area but looks pretty much like other volcanic areas around the world. We did not take the gondola to the top after reading in the guide books that it was probably not worth the 50€ ticket. In October Etna can be fogged in for days at a time. In fact it had a cloud hanging over it the entire week we were living at the base of it. I did see the top of it my first week in Sicily when it was clear. I went up again the following week when it was cloudy and can definitely say that while it is worth it when it’s clear; it is not when it is shrouded in clouds.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Sicily page.