The island of Sicily is famous the world over for its amazing food, stunning countryside, unique culture, and rich history. It’s the largest island in the Mediterranean sea and boasts one of Europe’s tallest volcanoes – Mount Etna – in its eastern half.
Sicily, as we know it today, is the product of a long and checkered history. It was an ancient Greek colony, part of the Phoenician, Roman and then Byzantine empire, became a Moorish emirate, was conquered by the Normans, and then passed through the hands of many European powers.
Map of the best places to stay in Sicily
These various cultures have exerted significant influences on the Italian island, all evident today in the unique culture of Sicily, including its language and arts – ancient historical sites abound. This culminates in arguably the island’s most famous archaeological region – Valley of the Temples – where the ruins of seven magnificent Greek temples continue to amaze visitors.
The towns and cities are picturesque affairs. They’re nestled in mountains or set along the island’s jagged, rocky coastline. Hiking, snorkeling, or simply eating your way through the incredible amount of quality food on offer in this unique Italian region is the order for any trip to its shores.
Whether you’re into history and culture, you’re a total foodie, or you simply want to relax, there’s a place in Sicily for you.
Set on Sicily’s northwest coast, Palermo is the island’s capital and is a grand showcase of the region’s history. It’s nestled between the folds of a mountainside landscape and boasts the big, crescent-shaped Mondello Beach, where the town meets the sea. Full of history, it’s the perfect place to begin any journey to this beautiful island – especially to witness Sicilian architecture. A good example can be found at the 16th Century Church of Casa Professa, whose Baroque interior is like a lesson in stunning opulence.
Palermo also boasts the Lyric Opera – Italy’s largest theater and, in fact, the third largest in Europe (after the famous Paris Opera and Vienna State Opera). Street food and ancient markets abound in town and it’s easy to spot a bit of local culture by just wandering around these lively areas. Stay in a ritzy hotel in the older neighborhood or something more affordable near the beach.
Practically in the shadow of the towering Mount Etna, Catania – set on the island’s west coast – is the second largest city in Sicily. But it certainly doesn’t come second in the number of historical sites on offer. In fact, Catania’s old town is Italy’s largest example of Baroque architecture.
The central square of Piazza del Duomo is home to the city’s marvel of a cathedral, built by the first Norman king of Sicily in the 11th Century on the site of Roman baths. The square also hosts the fish market – La Pescheria – which is a bustling spectacle of life and food.
Being so close to Etna, it’s possible to hike up trails that lead up the volcano’s slopes, making Catania a great destination for keen fans of the outdoors. Accommodation is more spread out and more affordable than in Palermo, giving you more options to choose where you want to stay in the city.
Founded as an ancient Greek colony 2,700 years ago, Syracuse was once a powerful city-state in its own right and is one of the best places to visit in Sicily if ancient history is what you’re interested in.
The ruins of a temple dedicated to Apollo can be found on the small island of Ortygia – the city’s historic heart and where it was originally founded – the temple became a church under Byzantine rule and a mosque under the Moors. The ancient Greek theater features one of the largest cavea (tiered seating) ever constructed and is a spectacle to see.
Just further south from Catania, there are a number of budget hotels in Syracuse, even on the heritage-filled island of Ortygia, meaning a stay in this Sicilian city can be very affordable.
Set to the north of Catania, the hilltop town of Taormina is another Sicilian settlement located near Mount Etna. Hiking opportunities in the surrounding hills abound as a result, making it great for anybody who likes getting out into nature. The town is also known for Isola Bella, a tiny island just off the coast; it’s an iconic sight of Taormina and a nature reserve in its own right.
Beaches dot the bottom of the rocky cliffs at Taormina but it’s easy to get to them thanks to a cable car system that opened up in 1992. Tours of grottos that carve out holes in the bottom of the cliffs are available, too. This all adds up to a great location for nature lovers.
There are only a few hotels in picturesque Taormina; most are upscale and offer spas and swimming pools.
On the western tip of Sicily, set on a sweeping crescent-shaped stretch of coastline, is the town of Trapani. Known for its Baroque center on a small peninsula, the city is teeming with history. For instance, the Mura di Tramontana – a boulevard that’s pleasant to walk along – leads to the historic Torre Ligny, formerly a defensive structure. It’s also easy to get a cable car up to the small hill town of Erice, a great example of a medieval Sicilian settlement complete with fantastic views.
The accommodation on offer in Trapani consists mainly of affordable budget hotels and B&Bs – of which there are many – making it great for those who aren’t prepared to splash out on their lodgings.
Trapani is also a gateway to the nearby Egadi Islands, a collection of three main islands easily reached by hydrofoil, known for their fishing and picturesque beaches.
Cefalu, situated on the northern coast of Sicily, is just about as picturesque as this island’s cities get. It’s a collection of buildings all gathered beneath La Rocca – or simply, ‘The Rock’. During the city’s Moorish rule, there was a fortress here, but when the Normans arrived it was transformed according to their style. The ruins of this still stand atop the imposing rock that looks over the city. Other Norman heritage in the city of Cefalu can be found in its Sicilian Romanesque-style cathedral, which is certainly a sight to behold. Elsewhere, beaches lie to the west of The Rock.
The main concentration of hotels in Cefalu lies at the foot of La Rocca and consist of mid-range to high-end lodgings. Slightly out of town, the prices stay similarly high. Getting in and out of Cefalu is easy thanks to Sicily’s train network.
Agrigento is a relatively small hilltop city on the southwest coast of Italy, but it is arguably the most famous settlement on the island of Sicily. This is mainly due to the fact that it’s home to the best-known tourist attraction in Sicily – the Valle dei Templi, or Valley of Temples. It’s here where visitors will find seven extremely well-preserved ancient Greek temples to marvel at and explore – a definite highlight of any trip to Sicily.
A train station lies in the center of town, making it easy to arrive and depart. In terms of hotels, the lack of a beach or proper coastal area means that there are plenty of budget offerings, mainly in the form of homely B&B and guesthouse style hotels.
Set in southeastern Sicily, the city of Noto gives its name to the Val di Noto, a geographical and historic region around the Iblean Mountains in southeast Sicily. This setting provides ample chances to hike around the hills; specifically, you can head up to Cavagrande del Cassibile, a nature reserve following the River Cassibile and a great place for canyon hiking. To the south is Vendicari Nature Reserve, an awesome spot for hiking, discovering idyllic beaches and birdwatching – there are even flamingos here!
Towards the coast, at Lido di Noto there are a number of mid-range hotels and B&Bs on offer for those who like to be near a beach, but in Noto, there are quite a few mid-range guesthouses, better for a more central location.
Ragusa is set on a hill in southeast Sicily, in the same historic region in the Iblean Mountains as Noto (Val di Noto). This city is famous for its numerous examples of Baroque architecture, specifically in the ‘old town’ or Ragusa Ibla – there’s the stunning 18th Century Cathedral of St Giorgio and the 17th Century Church of the Purgatory, amongst many, many other buildings that will easily wow visitors to this historically rich city. Giardino Ibleo is a charming spot to wander around – a 19th Century public garden with tree-lined pathways and beautiful fountains, complete with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Hotels in Ragusa range from budget to just about mid-range, making it a very affordable city to visit – you can choose to situate yourself in Ragusa Superiore (the more modern part of town) or in amongst the Baroque beauty of Ragusa Ibla – the choice is yours!