As the largest Mediterranean Sea island, at just under 10,000 square miles, there is plenty of ground to cover on a visit to Sicily. The southern Italian island is certainly part of its mother boot-shaped country, but a distinct culture makes this place detour-worthy. As the locals say, “Sicily is Sicily” (as opposed to Sicily is Italy). And as with most European destinations, Sicily has many regions to consider when planning a trip. However if you prioritize a great cuisine and a little bit of adventure, look no further than the Eastern side of the island where Mount Etna reigns. Here are the top 10 things to do when you get there.
Hike on Mount Etna
Mount Etna, the looming volcano that follows you around here, is the namesake of the entire region. History indicates that Mount Etna has been burping up lava and ash periodically since 425 BC—the last eruption on record was as recent as 2017. It is a powerful force to have on the landscape, with loads of mythical allure (Greek mythology says that this is the burial site of a giant killed by Zeus) and plenty to temp thrill seekers. Despite the fact that this volcano erupts all the time, folks still like to hike on it. And there are lots of routes up, from foot trails and jeep roads to helicopters and cable cars. Parco dell’Etna is the best place to start and lists several routes of varying difficulty as well as guide services and points of interest.
Go Wine Tasting
This region in Sicily is a favorite of many wine industry insiders. The volcanic soil and influence from Mount Etna and the southern Mediterranean climate make for distinct, complex and memorable wines. There are plenty of wineries and vineyards to choose from if you are interested in doing a little tasting tour. Most of the small, hillside towns that dot the landscape here are quite sleepy with not much nightlife. But you will likely run into some fellow oenophiles who are seeking out these wonderful wines. Those in the know like to cap off a day of tasting at Cave Ox restaurant in the little town of Solicchiata where local winemakers and wine tasters go to eat and drink some more. The extensive wine list and regional dishes further deepen the Etna experience, making it a great find when there are few options in these quiet mountain towns.
Start your wine tour down south in Milo at Barone di Villagrande, a 10th-generation family estate specializing in vibrant whites. Further north, near the town of Linguaglossa (which means big tongue, named for the tongues of lava coming down the hill from the volcano), stop at the very soon-to-open modern tasting room of Pietradolce, and get a behind the scenes peek of this magical property from agronomist Giuseppe Parlavecchio.
Visit a Fish Market
The city of Catania sits at the very Southern tip of the Mount Etna region and, compared to the other towns in the area, is a big and bustling city. Since Sicily is an island, seafood takes center stage in the cuisine here, and there’s no better place to get a feel for the bounty of the surrounding Mediterranean Sea than in the fish market of Catania. Open every weekday morning, the entrance to the market (or pescheria, in Italian) is tucked behind the famous Baroque Amenano Fountain and Piazza del Duomo, so you can get some sightseeing in while you shop for dinner.
Take a Cooking Class
An ancient Sicilian dessert, ricotta pancakes drenched in honey and cinnamon, inspired the chef owners of Cotumè to use food as a way to tell the story of Sicily. A cooking class with them is an interactive schooling on the flavors of this island and its rich and filling history. You will not only learn that most pastries here are fried but that lard is the key in making them shatter in your mouth without being oily. Or that the famous little cakes called Minni di Sant Aita, cloaked in green marzipan and topped with a maraschino cherry, are shaped as such in memory of the breasts of Saint Agatha—for real. You’ll get to make rolls of brioche filled with pastry cream, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried—a specialty of Catania called Iris. Then you’ll make fresh pasta, in various special shapes with very specific techniques, sauced with pesto alle mandorle (almond pesto).
Ride the Train
Imagine strolling down a centuries-old road, heading to a winery or church, and all of a sudden a tiny vintage train rounds the corner. The Ferrovia Circumetnea seems like it belongs in an amusement park, but it is actually a real, operating train. This narrow-gauge railway line, constructed in the late 1800s, almost completely encircles Mount Etna. What was once steam engine is now an updated diesel locomotive, but that’s as far as the modern era has influenced the train. Catch a ride for a very authentic journey around the volcano.
Eat Dessert for Breakfast
Sicily gets really hot. So in the summer, when the weather sizzles, folks start the day by eating something cold with their morning espresso. Granita, the ice cream-meets-slush concoction, originated in Sicily but is enjoyed all over Italy. However, depending on where you are, the texture is variable, from chunky and coarse to smooth like sorbet. The former style is how you’ll find it served in the Etna region, where legend has it that granita was originally made from the snow covering Mount Etna. For breakfast, you can order the cool treat along with a big brioche bun for dipping. Almond and lemon are perhaps the most traditional flavors, but go for the pistachio if you see it on offer.
Visit a Castle
From a distance, the rocky jumble of a village called Castiglione di Sicilia looks like it could crumble into the Alcantara river valley below at any moment. This small town holds a rich, varied history, starting when the Greeks established a fortress here. There are many monuments to see, and you can take a walking tour to view the various churches and towers and such. One of these historic sites is the Castello Di Lauria, which looks like it belongs in an episode of Game of Thrones. Hours can be erratic, so plan ahead if you want to get a closer look at the royal ruins.
Tour the Farms
The volcanic soil of Mount Etna affords fertile ground for more than just wine grapes. Each town in the region offers a delicious agricultural product and following a farm route is a fun, and delicious, way to get a feel for all that Sicily grows. Perhaps the most famous is Bronte, northwest of Etna—famous for the green gold pistachios that are incredibly expensive due to the difficulty of harvesting them. The trees grow on lava and only produce every two years, making it that much more special to grab a few when you can find them. The town of Maletto has strawberries and cherries are what you’ll get in Mascali, a little town that was completely destroyed by an Etna explosion in the beginning of the 20th century. The aptly named Zafferana Etnea is the saffron destination, but you can also get a nice jar of honey there too.
Experience a Palmento
Today’s modern winemaking facilities can be like clinical laboratories: sharp, clean and sterile. But in ancient times in Sicily, most winemaking took place in what is called a “Palmento”. Basically, it is a multi-roomed cellar, built out of lava stone, that varies in level so that gravity controls the flow of crushed grape juice, leading it into tanks for fermentation. While it is pretty common to come across a Palmento in Sicily, the current EU food safety laws prohibit actual winemaking to be done in them. But that is not stopping owners of these properties in their efforts to restore, revamp and utilize their special Palmenti. Several wineries show off the ancient spaces, using them as historical landmarks. Others are renovating them to be used as accommodation, restaurants or even spas. One beautiful example of a thoughtfully incorporated Palmento is at Tenuta Fessina in Castiglione di Sicilia. Owner Silvia Maestrelli has made this a one-stop destination where you can eat, drink and sleep in what was once a working 17th century Palmento.
Go to a Pasticceria
There’s no better way to get the jist of true Sicilian food than at a traditional pasticceria (pastry shop), found in any and every town you pass through. The very first pastry shops in Sicily were monasteries so even today, pasticceria are held sacred. Cannoli is what we all know best, but there are so many variations throughout the island that you could eat one a day and never have the same experience twice. In the Etna region, a common way to find cannoli is stuffed with sheep’s milk ricotta and dipped in those “green gold” pistachios from Bronte. But there are countless other desserts to try, and in real Sicilian style their names take cues from dramatic folklore. You already heard about Agatha’s breasts (sponge cake, green marzipan, sheep ricotta, cherry), but how about those Pali del Nonno or grandfather's testicles (fried ricotta balls)?