48 hours in . . . Sicily, an insider guide to Italy's island of rich history, food and culture

Lee Marshall
Explore Sicily's Etna region with its volcanic landscapes, fertile wine country and picture-perfect Taormina

A crossroads and crucible of Mediterranean culture

Through the ages Sicily has been a crossroads and crucible of Mediterranean culture. The island today is a fascinating palimpsest, its history and abundant natural wonders ensuring that there’s something for everyone: the historic cities of Palermo, Catania and Siracusa; the Etna region with its volcanic landscapes, fertile wine country and picture-perfect Taormina; Ragusa, Modica and the other honey-hued Baroque towns of the south; the Greek temples of Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta; Roman sites like Piazza Armerina; miles of sandy beaches and secret rocky coves. And don’t get us started on the food – from the couscous of Trapani to the pastries of Noto, it’s a reason to visit in itself.

With parts of the island on the same latitude as the north African coast, Sicily has a mild climate that makes it an attractive destination for much of the year: spring and autumn are a sheer delight and though high summer (July and August) temperatures really do soar, though sea breezes in coastal areas take the edge off the heat.

Hot right now . . .

Lee Marshall and Anne Hanley, our destination experts, offers their top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat and stay this season. 

Do

Forget 1066 and all that. The Normans were on the move before then, fighting their way down Italy from 999, scoring victory upon victory in Sicily from 1061, and reigning over the island from 1130-1194 – just time to build the magnificentPalazzo Nuovo (Palazzo Reale; Piazza Indipendenza 1, Palermo; 00 39 091 6262833) for their glittering court. The Castrum superius – The Royal Palace exhibition tracks the building of the palace, and the expertise of Norman work in Italy. Until 10 January 2020.

The best things to do in Sicily

Visit the magnificent Palazzo Nuovo for a fascinating exhibition that tracks the building of the palace Credit: DAMIANO5D

Eat

Le Cattive (Passeggiata delle Cattive, piazza Santo Spirito, Palermo; 00 39 091 6198374), in the Palazzo Butero and with a remarkable view over the old port of Palermo, is a chic new venture by the wine-making Tasca d'Almerita family. It serves breakfast, lunch, drinks and dinner – all prepared with local products of the highest quality. But though the food is great and the service is professional, it's the venue that takes top billing. The long port-facing walkway where tables are set out is simply stunning. 

The best restaurants in Sicily

Le Cattive is a chic new venture by the wine-making Tasca d'Almerita family Credit: Antonio Chinnici - A. Chinnici

Stay

New-for-2019 hotel a.d.1768(Via Cabrera 6; 00 39 0932 663133) in lovely Ragusa Ibla has three suites and seven rooms, all of which perfectly blend the splendid features of a noble 18th-century palazzo with the best of Sicilian modernism and contemporary design. The palace’s former carriage house provides a spacious breakfast room, which during the day becomes a coffee bar and the perfect place to relax.

The best hotels in Sicily

New hotel a.d.1768 perfectly blends the splendid features of a noble 18th-century palazzo

48 hours in . . . Sicily

Day one

MORNING

You'll need your own transport for exploring. On the east of the island, there’s no getting away from the snowcapped silhouette of Sicily's very active volcano, Mount Etna. Its fertile lower skirts are a patchwork of drystone-walled vineyards, orchards and citrus groves sloping seawards. The excellent Etna Finder (00 39 350 0624987) offers a range of customisable excursions on the mountain. Opt for the half-day jeep-and-walking 'Etna tour' (€60/£55 per person), which provides a fascinating introduction to the rumbling giant.

In the warmer months, visitors can walk across Mount Etna's eerie black lava fields Credit: fotografiche

AFTERNOON

There's a meaty theme to restaurant Dai Pennisi (via Umberto 9; 00 39 0965 643160;) in Linguaglossa, which calls itself a 'butcher's with kitchen'. Since 1960 the delightful Pennisi family has been a neighbourhood purveyor of some excellent locally produced meats. Now, they serve scrumptious steaks and the kind of hamburgers that put anything else peddled under that label to shame.

Etna Rosso wine has come on apace in recent years, earning itself the moniker ‘the Burgundy of Italy’. Explore its volcanic charms with knowledgeable American sommelier Benjamin Spenser of the Etna Wine School who leads winery visits and tastings but will also bring his Etna master classes to clients’ hotels or rental villas.

Dai Pennisi is a butcher's with a kitchen that turns out scrumptious steaks and burgers Credit: PAOLA LICCIARDELLO

LATE

If anyone's still standing after the afternoon's wine experience, head into Taormina and splash out on a Bellini cocktail on the terrace of elegant Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo (Via Teatro Greco; 00 39 0942 6270200) – gents, wear that linen suit for the full effect. Afterwards, head to one Michelin-starred Tischi Toschi (Vico Cuscona-Paladini; 00 39 339 3642088), which serves authentic island dishes such as caponata (a sort of Sicilian ratatouille) and pasta con le sarde(with sardines, wild fennel and raisins).

A sunset Bellini on Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo's terrace is a must

• The best restaurants in Sicily

Day two

MORNING

The archeological site of Selinunte (piazzale I B Marconi 1, Frazione Marinella di Selinunte; 00 39 338 7832705) – a Greek city overthrown by Carthage in 409BC – occupies an extraordinary spot on the south-western coast. The tumbled ruins (the only standing temple is a reconstruction) are best visited with a guide: book one of the highly qualified art, archaeology and history specialists from island-wide network Passage to Sicily (00 39 340 3079819).

If you're feeling adventurous, seek out the poorly sign-posted Cave di Cusa (via Ugo Bassi 35, Campobello di Mazara) 11km north-east of Selinunte. This was the city's abruptly abandoned quarry, where part-hewn and carved column sections stand in a romantic flower-strewn landscape.

The tumbled ruins at Selinunte are best visited with a guide Credit: leonori

AFTERNOON

For lunch, indulge in some well prepared seafood at the super-friendly Ristorante Boomerang (Piazza delle Metope; 00 39 335 6563751) in Marinella di Selinunte: the menu consists of whatever came off the fishing boat that morning.

The beach in the nature reserve of Foce del Belice, east of Selinunte, is a marvel – kilometres of golden sand and azure water. There are few beach bars, and no ranks of umbrellas and deckchairs. The further you’re prepared to walk along the coast, the fewer people you’ll encounter.

The beach in the nature reserve of Foce del Belice, east of Selinunte, is a marvel Credit: Carsten Behme, Cologne, Germany/Travel_Nerd

LATE

Nearby Sciacca is a lively port town with a glorious Baroque centro storico. The evening passeggiata brings the whole town out into the main drag. Dine at the excellent Hostaria del Vicolo(Vicolo Sammaritano 10; 00 39 0925 230 71), where you can try Grandma's sardine soup; taglietelle with red mullet, roe, saffron, fennel and pinenuts; or cod au gratin with purée of Jerusalem artichokes. Finish up with a superlative lemon granita at the Bar Roma (piazza della Dogana 12).

Sciacca is a lively port town with a glorious Baroque centro storico. Credit: Roberto Moiola

The best nightlife in Sicily

Where to stay . . .

Luxury Living

The best spa in Sicily sprawls across 4,000 modernist metres in the swish Verdura Resort on the little-visited south coast. There are also two 18-hole golf courses. West of the charming baroque town of Sciacca, the hotel is ideally placed for visiting two of Sicily’s most impressive Greek temple complexes: Agrigento and Selinunte.

Double rooms from €500 (£449). Ss 115 Km 131, Ribera; 00 39 0925 998180

Verdura Resort, in the charming baroque town of Sciacca, is home to the best spa in Sicily Credit: Adrian Houston Limited/Adrian Houston

Boutique Bolthole

Seven Rooms Villadorata is a devastatingly gorgeous feast for the senses housed in a wing of the most extravagant Baroque palazzo in Sicily. Expect high ceilings, soaring windows with white shutter doors and heavy linen curtains, original encaustic tiled floors, and on your supremely comfortable beds, delicately puckered white silk quilts and blue alpaca throws. 

Double rooms from €299 (£264). Via Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour 53, Noto; 00 39 342 305 0877

Seven Rooms Villadorata is housed in a wing of the most extravagant Baroque palazzo in Sicily

Budget Beauty

Palazzo Failla Hotel is a small, stately and rather quaint hotel created by aristocratic owners in their family’s 18th-century palazzo at the slowly gentrifying core of Modica’s upper town. It is a fascinating place to stay, the owners are charming and the food is superb, with traditional Sicilian ingredients are used in unthought-of ways.

Double rooms from €65 (£56). Via Blandini 5, Modica; 00 39 0932 941 059

Palazzo Failla Hotel is a quaint hotel created by aristocratic owners in their family's 18th-century home

• A complete guide to the best hotels in Sicily

What to bring home . . .

The flat peasant cap known as la coppola has been reclaimed by Sicilian hipsters, shaking off its Mafia associations. Find yours at the old-school Palermo hatmaker Coppola Mascari (Via Giuseppe Garibaldi 42 Palermo; 00 39 091 616 3044).

Sicilian sweets and pastries are to die for. If you’ve left it until late never fear, Palermo cake king Palazzolo has an outlet at the city's Punta Raisi airport, while I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza performs an equally heroic task at Catania Fontanarossa airport.

I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza offers a range of delectable Sicilian sweets and pastries

When to go . . .

Sicily has a mild climate that makes it an attractive destination for much of the year. Bear in mind that Sicily has a much longer warm-weather season than northern and central Italy. If you’re lucky, it’s possible to sunbathe and swim in the sea well into November, and spring starts early: in many areas, the ground is carpeted with wild flowers at the end of February.

Know before you go . . .

Essential Information

British embassy in Rome: 00 39 06 4220 0001; ukinitaly.fco.gov.uk

Tourist offices and information: The official Regione Sicilia tourism website is at regione.sicilia.it/turismo. Tourist information offices can be found at all three Sicilian airports, at ferry ports, and in the main towns. Three of the more useful are: Palermo (00 39 091 605 8111; turismo.comune.palermo.it), Piazza Castelnuovo 34; Catania (00 39 095 401 4070; turismo.provincia.ct.it  via Etnea 65; and Taormina (00 39 0942 23 243; comune.taormina.me.it, Piazza Santa Caterina.

Emergency services: dial 112 (Carabinieri); 113 (State Police)

The basics

Currency: Euro

Telephone codes: from the UK, dial 00 39 plus the area code with the zero

Time difference: +1 hour

Flight time: from London to all three Sicilian airports is just under three hours

Local laws and etiquette

• Organised crime is, regrettably, in Sicily’s DNA but most visitors to the island will never be aware of it. It’s the locals – and especially local businesses – who suffer most, and protection rackets are a harsh reality. AddioPizzo (farewell to protection payments, ) is a civil society groups grouping businesses, organisations and individuals who refuse to hand over money to the Mafia. There’s a handy map of participating companies on the website.

• Drivers are required to keep a reflective yellow/orange bib inside the car, to be worn if they break down or have an accident and need to get out of the car (they come as standard with hire cars).

• When driving outside of built-up areas, you are legally required to keep your headlights on at all times, even during the day.

• Italians always say hello and goodbye in social situations – including when entering or leaving shops, bars etc. A simple “buon giorno” in the morning or “buona sera” in the afternoon or evening goes a long way (and it covers both hello and goodbye).

• If you’re invited to dinner, flowers or chocolates for the hostess are a more usual gift than a bottle of wine.

Author bio 

Anne Hanley and Lee Marshall have lived in Italy for 35 years, first in Rome and now in the Umbrian countryside. Anne designs gardens and writes; Lee writes and cycles. They are both passionate about Sicily – its wine, its food and its extraordinary culture.

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