Sights: There is history everywhere in Sicily with evidence of multiple invasions and some of the finest Greek remains outside Greece.
We had an afternoon in the Valley of the Temples outside Agrigento; the scale of the temples gives an idea of the power and wealth of the Greeks on the island.
My parents visited the Roman villa near Piazza Armerina 25 years ago and have recommended visiting the vast mosaics there ever since. They were right: it really is worth a visit to the Villa Del Casale; the vast hunting scenes and bikini clad girls show the wealth in this part of the world nearly 2000 years ago.
For something more relaxing, the ancient centre of Siracusa has a lovely walled island, Ortigia, with promenades, little back streets and larger Piazzas. Lovely for an evening walk as the locals emerge once the tourists have left.
Take a picnic, perhaps a bottle of Prosecco, your swimming trunks and some walking shoes for a walk into the Cassibile Canyon near Siracusa with waterfalls and impressive rock formations. It’s a bit tricky to find: take the SP4 out of Avola and follow the signs for Cavagrande del Cassibile. It’s a spectacular drive and eventually you will come to some parking next to a shabby restaurant (this is the location in googlemaps). There is a kiosk to allow access to the valley; we were visiting in May and it was closed so we followed the locals, climbing over the wall and walking down the steep valley. Good walking shoes (not flip flops) are essential as it’s a good 30 minute, steep walk but eventually you will get to the lush valley below. Follow the river past several lakes (each one prettier than the last!) until you get to the last one with a waterfall. We celebrated my birthday here and it was lovely – though save some energy for the walk back!
Heading up the eastern coast, the Greek theatre in Taormina is expensive but worth a visit, if only for the views. The town generally is full of (other!) tourists but you can escape some of them at the Mazarro beach (access via cable car).
Throughout our travels in eastern Sicily, Mount Etna dominated the sky, sometimes spectacularly smoking. We took the cable car up and then walked for about 90minutes (although off road vehicles are available, at a cost). Good shoes are essential as the crumbly stone under foot is like walking on sand. However, the effort is worth it, offering some spectacular views and a sense of achievement!
Travel: We travelled via Catania Airport which is outside the island’s second city. It is fairly modern though queuing for security is a bit of a scramble.
We hired a car from InterRent which was nearly fully automated and very efficient. Their building is a two minute walk from the arrivals – turn right out of the terminal and the car hire block is a few hundred metres down the road.
Roads on Sicily are quiet though the traffic in the bigger towns (Siracusa, Taormina etc.) is a little mad and some of the rural roads can be littered with pot holes.
Accommodation: We stayed in three places:
Firstly near Agrigento at the Baia Di Ulisse Wellness & Spa (Via Lacco Ameno, 2, 92100 Agrigento) which was quiet and had good tourist bedrooms but there was nowhere near by for a quick drink other than the hotel. The beech on this part of the island is lovely. http://www.booking.com/hotel/it/baiadiulisseagrigento.html?aid=1222377&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1
We then travelled along the coast to Siracusa (Syracuse in English); we stayed on the central island of Ortigia (Ortygia in English) which is well worth it (even if finding parking is tricky!). We stayed at the Ortygia Inn (Ronco Sant’Agata, 11, 96100 Siracusa) which is a boutique hotel with white washed rooms, walk in showers and a comfy bed. It also has a good breakfast from their roof top balcony. Lovely place to stay. http://www.booking.com/hotel/it/ortygia-inn.html?aid=1222377&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1
Finally, we stayed in Taormina at Il Piccolo Giardino (Salita Lucio Denti, 4, 98039 Taormina) which was a quiet but nicely appointed hotel, a few streets away from the busy centre and has a roof top pool. It’s hard to find good mid-range accommodation in Taormina but this was a good example and at a good price. http://www.booking.com/hotel/it/il-piccolo-giardino-3-stelle-superior.html?aid=1222377&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1
Food & Drink: Italian food needs no introduction but Sicilian food is a little spicier with more fish and is generally very good. We loved picking up a picnic at a local shop and finding somewhere to eat it. Wine dominates here and there are some good Etna drops (very earthy reds) and some lighter whites.
For specific tips: we enjoyed beers on the Promenade in Ortigia and thought the best restaurants were along the tiny Via Cavour particularly at the bottom end away from the Piazza Duomo; we had a lovely meal city on the street at La Vineria Cafè eno’ntelodico (Via Cavour, 9), struggling to understand the menu and our waitress at an eatery which was targeted at locals as much as tourists.
In Taormina it was harder to find places that didn’t just cater for tourists: we had excellent drinks on the balcony of the Hotel Metropole which was lovely and worth the indulgence.
Further Reading & Listening:
Guide books: There is a very good Lonely Planet to cover Sicily which is nice and compact for even the smallest handbag. I also used the Freytag-Berndt maps which are about the best in my opinion, despite requiring origami expertise to turn it over.
Television Series/YoutTube: There have been some excellent series on Sicily over recent years. Dr Michael Scott presents an academic but accessible and engaging documentary of the island in “Sicily: Wonder of the Mediterranean”. Andrew Graham-Dixon and Giorgio Locatelli focus on art and food in “Sicily Unpacked”. Both are worth a watch. For something focussed on the food, there’s always Rick Stein’s visits to Palermo to watch.
There are links above to DVDs/downloads of the full series (where available) but clips can be found on YouTube (though it is worth watching the whole series!).
Sicily: Wonder of the Mediteranean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AF3w05EhFQw
Sicily Unpacked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Izu2Ny6kwxI
Stein in Palermo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7AUbk8tIh4