All Articles 6 Sicilian hot spots you don’t want to miss

6 Sicilian hot spots you don’t want to miss

Consider this your go-to guide to the island’s cities.

Anna Staropoli
By Anna Staropoli15 Apr 2024 5 minutes read
Tourist walking on footpath by bell tower, in Ragusa, Sicily, Italy
Image: SimonSkafar/Getty Images

Sicily is having a moment, but where The White Lotus sparked curiosity, the island’s character keeps it alive. From Palermo to Catania, both heart and history infuse everything, from street corner stigghiole stands to centuries-old palaces. Every year or so, I visit Sicily: my grandfather’s and my past stomping grounds. Whenever the time comes to plan my trip, I’m torn between exploring new places in Italy and returning to my favorite island. But with boundless beaches, Baroque marvels, and all the arancine, Sicily—and its vast, varied cities—always wins.


Palermo

Piazza dei Quattro Canti
Palermo's Piazza dei Quattro Canti
Image: Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

Orient yourself in the Quattro Canti, which divides Palermo into four corners. In La Kalsa—my go-to neighborhood—artisan workshops, palaces-turned-museums, and Arab-Norman churches cluster. One standout, Palazzo Chiaromonte Steri, preserves the graffiti of Spanish Inquisition prisoners.

For postcard-perfect panoramas, the top of Palermo’s cathedral draws crowds, but I prefer the less-visited views from Santissimo Salvatore. When it comes to markets, however, the busier the better. You can’t miss lively, large Ballarò, though Vucciria beckons after the sun sets. I lived one street away and learned to sleep through the vibration of revelers, who turn the market into a communal, outdoor bar.

Where to eat: Start your day with a granita from Casa Stagnitta, or a tiramisu in Cioccolateria Lorenzo’s garden. Graze at the markets for lunch, but save room. Ai Bottai assembles a thorough pre-dinner apericena, where your drink comes with a platter of finger foods. For something heartier, Aja Mola serves fresh fish just a street away.

Hotel pick: Spend a night at the museum at Stanze al Genio—a bed and breakfast that houses nearly 5,000 majolica tiles. For a more traditional stay, consider Hotel Ambasciatori. The rooftop bar faces the mountains and makes my favorite Hugo spritz.

Tip: Base yourself in Palermo to swim at Mondello Beach; gaze at Monreale’s golden mosaics; and wander through Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples. You can also access Trapani—the gateway to Sicily’s Egadi Islands.

Cefalù

Pizza at Bastione & Costanza
Pizza at Bastione & Costanza
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Cefalù is only an hour from Palermo, but the romantic beach town begs to be savored, either in the water or while gazing at it. For the latter, head up La Rocca. The mountain trail intersects with ancient ruins and rewards hikers with coastline views—and the occasional clang of cowbell-clad goats.

Yet because my ideal day starts and ends along the beachfront promenade, I overlooked Cefalù’s cathedral until my third visit. Don’t make my mistake; the church contains some of Italy’s most significant, sparkling Byzantine mosaics.

Where to eat: As a beach town, Cefalù excels in small bites and large beers. For a more substantial meal, grab a table at Bastione and Costanza. I recommend any of the pizzas, which vary in dough thickness and toppings.

Hotel pick: Club Med Cefalù caters to activity-inclined travelers, with experiences that range from sailing trips to Vespa tours. Plus, the resort’s all-inclusive nature means you can sample Sicily’s full range of foods. If you’d rather make your own itinerary, book a room at B&B Agrodolce.

Syracuse

People walking outside the Ear of Dionysius at the Neopolis Archeological Park, Syracuse
The Ear of Dionysius at the Neopolis Archeological Park
Image: starmaro/Getty Images

In the Southeast, Syracuse is as Greek as Sicily gets. Of all the ruins, don’t miss the Neopolis Archeological Park’s Ear of Dionysius. You can walk right inside the cave—which, indeed, resembles an ear—and listen to the echoes. Afterward, cross the bridge into Ortigia, Syracuse’s island center. Stroll along the edges of the city, but take the time to stop—or swim—at any of the seaside alcoves. When the sky turns golden, veer inland to linger in La Piazza Duomo.

Where to eat: Overlooking the Temple of Apollo, Caffè Apollo combines two of Sicily’s greatest prides in one perfect ricotta granita. Nearby, Caseificio Borderi makes mouthwatering sandwiches. Rather than design your own, give creative freedom to whoever's in charge.

Hotel pick: Sleep seaside at Algilà Ortigia Charme Hotel, a higher-end option with an interior as detailed as its facade. A less costly accommodation, B&B Marina di Ortigia has just four guest rooms and a rooftop terrace.

Val di Noto’s Baroque towns

Noto Cathedral at sunset
Noto's cathedral at sunset
Image: Sergio Amiti/Getty Images

Sicily’s major cities border the coast, but several UNESCO-recognized Baroque towns congregate inland in the southeast. My favorite, Ragusa, splinters into two cities of two elevations: the work of a 17th-century earthquake and rebuilding efforts. The descent from modern Ragusa Superiore to historic Ragusa Ibla suspends you above, then amongst, the hills.

Another golden city, Noto is as known for its Baroque architecture as its almond granita, made famous by institution Caffé Sicilia. (Yes, the granita alone warrants a visit.) If the cafe only just satisfies your sweet tooth, however, head to Modica—a chocolate wonderland masquerading as a town. Historic chocolate factory Antica Dolceria Bonajuto runs tours and tastings.

Where to eat: Although I could subsist on granita and chocolate, the area doesn’t skimp on the savory. Ragusa’s Taberna dei Cinque Sensi epitomizes Italy’s slow food movement. You can’t go wrong with any of the dishes, so long as you order a glass of Nero d’Avola.

Hotel pick: For a stay in historic Ragusa, the San Giorgio Palace Hotel provides easy access to the city. Yet for maximum serenity, drive straight for the hills, where Eremo della Giubiliana offers spa services and cooking classes.

Tip: If you’re not renting a car, Sicily’s public transit can prove unreliable, especially between smaller towns. Build some wiggle room into your itinerary for delays.

Catania

Close up of stalls at the Fish Market of Catania
Catania's fish market
Image: Giacomo Augugliaro/Getty Images

In the shadow of Mount Etna, Catania is known as the “black city,” but through its dark architecture, a warmth emerges. I like to linger in Piazza Duomo, where the ornate basilica reflects the city’s grandeur. Just a few streets over, the open-air fish market bursts with energy and culture.

On a clear day, meander through Giardino Bellini for views of Etna. To see the volcano up close, consider an organized tour, which minimizes the stress of logistics. You can, alternatively, plan your own hike, or take a train around the volcano’s base.

Where to eat: With homemade noodles, La Pentolaccia makes my favorite pasta alla norma. I also suggest the horse meatball, a traditional—albeit controversial—food. Meanwhile, Pasticceria Savia is a one-stop shop for pastries, rice balls, and coffee.

Hotel pick: Airy bed and breakfast Il Leone Blu neighbors the Ursino Castle, while lower-priced B&B Liberty 900 ranks high in hospitality.

Taormina

The Greek theatre and Mount Etna
The Greek theatre and Mount Etna
Image: Frans Sellies/Getty Images

Taormina is Sicily’s answer to luxury—best exemplified by the cable car descent to the Isola Bella, which translates to “beautiful island.” The city’s ancient theater maintains this theme of beauty; it’s notable not only for its ruins but also for its stunning Mount Etna backdrop.

In the evening, I love a passeggiata—a meandering stroll—along Corso Umberto, where the city hums with energy. As you walk, duck into nearby galleries, antique shops, and museums like Casa Cuseni. I own two watercolors from a Taormina street painter and have my eye on a map from art gallery L’Agorà.

Where to eat: On my last trip, I found myself at Arco Rosso three nights in a row. The cozy wine bar shines at aperitivo, with local wines and an assortment of bruschetta. For a fancier dinner, try Teatro 44’s pasta and seafood.

Hotel pick: If you want a mid-priced stay that doesn’t skimp on amenities, Hotel Ariston comes with a sprawling buffet breakfast—prosecco included—and outdoor pools. On the more lavish end, Hotel Villa Belvedere embraces all things serene and pristine.

Anna Staropoli
Anna Staropoli is a freelance writer who splits her time between the Northeast U.S. and Southern Italy. She's written for National Geographic, Fodor's, Insider, and more. Find her words on her website.