Sicilian port of Castellammare del Golfo

Trips to Sicily: The Complete Guide

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The island of Sicily is best known as the home of Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. However, it's also famous for its well-preserved Greek and Roman archaeological sites, Baroque architecture, vibrant cities, wild Mediterranean beaches, fascinating mix of cultures, and diverse cuisine. While many visitors to Italy tack on a few days in Sicily as part of a larger vacation, there's more than enough to see on this 9,653-square-mile (25,000-square-kilometer) island to merit a longer visit. Or even making Sicily the main focus of your Italy vacation. Read on for your complete planning guide to the largest island in the Mediterranean.

Planning Your Trip to Sicily

Best Time to Visit: When you decide to visit Sicily depends on what you want to do while you're there. If it's beaches you seek, July and August are peak season, though you can also sun and swim in June and into early September, when it's less hot and crowded. Otherwise, late spring and early autumn are the best times to visit Sicily for mild temperatures and thinner crowds.

Language: Italian is the primary language spoken in Sicily, though it's heavily influenced by regional dialects. Italian spoken here incorporates words and pronunciations from Sicilian, the native language of the island. English is widely spoken in hotels, restaurants, and stores in touristy cities and towns, but is less common in rural and inland areas.

Currency: As with the rest of Italy, Sicily uses the euro. Other currencies are not accepted. Credit cards are widely accepted, though some merchants may prefer cash for smaller purchases. American Express is not as widely accepted in Italy as it is in the U.S., so be sure to have a backup card or cash at the ready.

Getting Around in Sicily: Sicily is covered by a network of train and bus lines that reach most parts of the island. Trenitalia, Italy's national rail company, offers service between Sicily's major cities, secondary cities, and some smaller towns. However, it's worth noting that connections to smaller destinations can be infrequent and involve long wait times.

Buses also connect smaller coastal and interior towns, but service is sporadic and schedules are often complicated to figure out. Ferries not only connect Sicily to the mainland but also to the Aeolian and Aegadian islands, as well as the Pelagic islands of Lampedusa, Pantelleria, and Linosa. Ferries run more frequently in the summer months.

Many travelers to Sicily opt to rent a car in order to visit the interior and move about more freely without worrying about train or bus schedules and wait times.

Travel Tip: Unless you have a week or more to spend in Sicily, we recommend basing yourself in one section of the island and exploring just area. There are more than 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) of coastline in Sicily and there are only a few direct roads or train routes that cut through the island's center. This means that it can be very time-consuming to visit more than one region in a short trip. Save the rest of the island for when you have more time to enjoy it.

Things to Do in Sicily

There are a lot of reasons to visit Sicily. Primary among them are historic cities, ancient archaeological sites, beaches, and nature—especially around Mount Etna. Here's a closer look at some of the highlights:

  • Historic Cities: Palermo is Sicily's capital city, and offers Arab and Norman history alongside bustling markets overflowing with street food. The city Catania has Greek and Roman ruins and a Baroque center while the cities of the Val di Noto are known for their Sicilian Baroque architecture. Syracuse, Taormina, Trapani, and Cefalu are seaside cities and some beautiful beaches as well as notable ancient ruins.
  • Ancient Archaeology: The Valley of the Temples at Agrigento is one of the world's best-preserved Greek archaeological sites. Other important sites are located in Selinunte, Segesta, Taormina, Syracuse/Ortigia, and Messina. The stunning Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina preserves the remains of a vast Roman villa decorated with spectacular mosaics.
  • Beaches: The sand on Sicily's beaches ranges from black and volcanic to sugary and white, to no sand at all. (There are many beaches are formed of smooth pebbles that are hard on naked feet, so tread carefully!). While the sands vary widely, what all the beaches share is incredibly blue, clear seawater that's perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Look to Taormina, Trapani, San Vito Lo Capo and Cefalu, and the southeastern coast for . Sicily's islands offer dramatic, rocky coastlines interrupted by sandy coves or wide, crescent-shaped beaches.
  • Nature: Mount Etna is the geological star of Sicily and for many visitors, a hike or jeep ride on the active volcano is a must-do experience. To the northwest, the Zingaro Nature Reserve offers unspoiled coastline and Mediterranean woods and scrubs, plus some of Sicily's best beaches. The Trapani and Paceco Salt Pans Nature Reserve is a World Wildlife Foundation reserve for migrating birds.

Get more ideas for your trip itinerary with our articles on the top things to do in Sicily, the best beaches in Sicily, and the top things to do around Mount Etna

What to Eat and Drink

Throughout the millennia, Sicily has been influenced by cultures from across the Mediterranean. Those influences are still felt today in its cuisine, which is a mix of Italian, North African, Arab, and Spanish cuisine—much of it based on the bounty of the sea. Fried street food is big in Sicilian cities and can be found at one of the many markets. In coastal restaurants, heaping mounds of couscous or pasta studded with seafood appear on menus. Meanwhile, eggplant-based caponata and eggplant parmesan are staples further inland. Desserts range from light, refreshing granitas to sweet, dense favorites like cannoli and cassata.

Sicilian wine, once dismissed as regional swill, enjoyed a rebirth starting several decades ago, and the island is now home to many noteworthy varietals. Many wineries are clustered in the mineral-rich soils on the slopes of Mount Etna, from where Etna Bianco and Etna Rosso wines originate. Red Nero d'Avola grapes produce hearty table wines, while Marsala, passito, and moscato are enduring dessert wines. Learn more about the best wineries in Sicily, the best foods to try in Sicily with our longer articles.

Where to Stay in Sicily

Across Sicily, accommodation options run the gamut, from luxurious five-star hotels to functional three-star beachfront properties that don't have to try very hard to sell out their rooms. There are campgrounds, glamping options, and cottage rentals near the shore. Inland, agriturismos offer farmstays that range from rustic to deluxe, and that usually feature food grown on-property. You'll also find "vacation villages" in Sicily, Usually near a popular beach, these are large compounds that offer accommodations, restaurants, pools, and activities. Many offer all-inclusive services but book early if you want to stay in one during the peak summer season.

Wherever you stay in Sicily, if you're there from May to October, take our advice and book a room with air-conditioning. Summer temperatures are sweltering, and air conditioning isn't always a given.

Read more about your lodging options with our guide to the best hotels in Sicily.

Getting There

Sicily can be reached via airplane or ferry. Its major airports are at Catania and Palermo, with smaller airports at Trapani and Comiso. Frequent ferries make the quick trip across the Strait of Messina from Villa San Giovanni on the mainland to Messina. Other mainland ports include Rome-Civitavecchia, Naples, Salerno, Reggio-Calabria and, more seasonally, Livorno and Genoa. Note that not all ferries accept vehicles, so check ahead if you plan to bring a rental car onto the island.

Trains from the mainland also arrive at Messina and continue on to Palermo, Catania, and Siracusa, with stops along the way. Note that if you book a through-train from the mainland, the train cars will be loaded onto a ferry at Messina for crossing the Strait of Messina.

Culture and Customs of Sicily 

Visitors to Sicily may find the population more reserved and conservative compared to mainland Italy, especially once you're out of large cities. Despite this, greeting Sicilians with a friendly "buongiorno" will go a long way toward breaking the ice.

Here are some other Sicilian cultural norms to keep in mind:

  • Sicily is more religious than mainland Italy and religious holidays and festivals are piously observed.
  • Dress modestly to enter churches anywhere in Sicily. This means that legs should be covered above the knee and shoulders should be covered either by a scarf or a sleeved shirt. Men are also advised to remove any hats.
  • Don't be in a rush at lunchtime or dinner. Things move more slowly here, so just kick back and enjoy the languid pace. If you're in a hurry at mealtime, buy street food.
  • The Sicilian Mafia is still very much a presence here, though tourists are not likely to notice or be affected by it. Still, it's better not to try to initiate a discussion with locals about the Mafia, even in jest.

Money Saving Tips

A lot of money-saving tips for Italy are also true for Sicily. These include:

  • Travel in the off-season: The shoulder seasons of spring and fall are cheaper than the peak summer season. If you can forego warm weather and don't mind a little rain, winter is the cheapest time to visit Sicily.
  • Eat street food: Not only is it authentic and delicious, but Sicily's street food, including pizza, arancini (stuffed, deep-fried rice balls), and all sorts of sandwiches are some of the best bargains in the land.
  • Do the free stuff: Some of the best sightseeing in Sicily doesn't cost a thing. It's free to sit in a piazza and people watch, walk along seafront promenades, and poke around at colorful local markets. State museums are free to all on the first Sunday of each month.
Article Sources
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  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. "Sicily."

  2. Encyclopedia Britannica. "Palermo."

  3. BBC. "Viewpoint: Why Sicilians still turn to Mafia to settle scores." June 6, 2021.