By Jim Ferri
I’d been aching to drive around Sicily for a long time.
Two long-ago Sicily tours, to Siracusa and Palermo, had wet my appetite. I had found the island and its people so different from the rest of the country that I knew I had to return.
In Sicily, you find the differences with the rest of Italy great. In fact, people here don’t identify themselves as Italian but as Sicilian, likely because so many different cultures have dominated this largest and most important island in the Mediterranean.
At one time or other Sicily has been conquered by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. And each conquering people left its cultural legacy on the island, which is still seen today.
The east and south (with the most ancient Greek temples in the world – more than Athens, in fact) are decidedly Greek.
The western half of Sicily is a mash-up of Arab and Norman, readily seen in its dazzling architecture. In the south-central area, the Romans left their footprint in a villa with the most exceptional Roman mosaics in the world.
East, west, north and south, Sicily is a place still relatively unknown to travelers, that’s begging you to explore.
Planning / Budgeting a Tour of Sicily
The total cost of my car (an economy from Avis in Catania, prepaid in the U.S.) was $223. Gas was an additional $143.
Hotel costs for eight nights totaled $1,120. I selected only hotels with free wi-fi, free breakfast, and a parking area. All were booked online (non-refundable to get the lowest price) before leaving the U.S. In each section below you’ll find their names, addresses, and my comments.
Many guidebooks suggest a tour of Sicily lasting a week or so, carving out a section or two of the island to dig into deeply. I, on the other hand, wanted to drive around the entire in about the same amount of time.
I was able to complete my tour of Sicily – driving approximately 900 miles around the entire island in nine days and eight nights. There were early mornings, of course, and, at times, long stretches between stops. But since the main roads are well maintained, you can move about fairly quickly.
You will need GPS when driving in Sicily, either built into the rental or a portable one brought from home. As a backup, you can also use your cell phone and Google maps.
An 8-Day Driving Tour of Sicily
This map depicts a driving tour of the main places mentioned in this article. Press +/- to enlarge it or make it smaller. It can also be viewed, and the route followed, on your smartphone.
Car Rentals at Airports in Sicily
There are two airports in Sicily, Fontanarossa in Catania, and Falcone Borsellino in Palermo, the two largest cities in Sicily. Some guides suggest renting a car in one city and leaving it in the other.
A much better idea is to rent your car in Catania, make a full circuit of the island and then return it in Catania. Then you’ll not miss some must-sees, plus you‘ll save on the rental since you’ll be returning it to where you rented it. Another consideration is that you’ll be familiar with where to return your vehicle, which can be a nightmare in some Italian airports.
Skip Catania and Make Syracuse Your First City in Sicily
Since time is tight I suggest you skip Catania altogether since it’s an industrial city with little to see. It’s best to concentrate on more fertile areas.
After renting my car at the airport in Catania, I made the hour drive to Syracuse, which, along with Catania and Messina, was the center of Magna Graecia. You’ll find a lot of Grecian history in Sicily, which, architecturally speaking is more Greek than Greece.
Home to Plato, Pythagoras, and Archimedes, Syracuse was once the most powerful city in the Mediterranean. You see vestiges of its heritage in the Greek and Roman Theaters and in the Museo Archeologico Regionale, which holds the mother load of items found in archaeological digs in the area, 18,000 pieces in all.
If you’re short on time stick to the area of Ortygia, the island connected to the city by a small bridge. Wander its streets and alleyways and don’t miss the Piazza del Duomo. Visit the church, which encompasses a 5th-century BC temple to Athena behind its Doric columns, one of the most spectacular in Sicily. The piazza is also a good place to stop for a drink at the cafe across from the Duomo.
My hotel was the Grande Albergo Alfeo, Via Nino Bixio 5 Syracuse. Just a few blocks walk to Ortygia, but street parking was a problem. Cost $147.17 per night.
The following morning I set out early for Noto, the central city in the Valley of Noto, further south.
For the most part, I found Noto only moderately interesting, nothing near what I expected after all the guidebook raves about it being the most Baroque city in Italy. I discovered its small-ish Old Town did have Baroque character, but it was nothing like Lecce in Puglia where the Baroque old town is quite expansive.
It was mid-morning and already quite hot when I headed for the Duomo, which opened at 10am (it’s open only from 10 to 12 and from 4 to 6:30 pm).
The Cathedral was worth both the wait and the climb up its three flights of stairs to see the beautiful frescos inside. Although women are forbidden entry if they have bare shoulders or are wearing shorts, you’re given a shawl to drape around yourself. There’s no entry fee although there is a little basket for offerings at the door when you exit.
Ragusa, A Beautiful City In Sicily
I was soon off to Ragusa, which along with Modica, is part of the Noto Valley. During the one-hour drive, I was captivated by the countryside flecked with olive groves and vineyards, with stonewalls running across hillsides in every direction. It was June, and there were flowers everywhere you looked. Although the countryside was rugged, everything seemed quite orderly, as if it was painted on canvas.
I loved Ragusa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s split into two distinct cities. Following a devastating 17th-century earthquake, some inhabitants decided to build a new town in Baroque style on the plateau above the old. Others chose to stay put and rebuild the old town, now called Ragusa Ibla, the atmospheric city in the valley below. It’s a beautiful place to walk and climb around for an afternoon.
My hotel was the Villa Boscarino (Via L.A. Muratori, 63 Ragusa), a modern hotel built inside a small historic building. You’d likely never find it without GPS (but you shouldn’t be driving around Sicily without GPS anyway) since it’s outside the normal tourist area of the “new” city. On the other hand, it’s only 10 minutes from Ragusa Ibla. It was very comfortable with a good staff, although breakfast was a bit spartan. Cost: $96.44 per night.
Soon after leaving Ragusa on the two-hour drive to Piazza Armerina, I found myself in wine country. The numerous vineyards, their vines covered with netting as protection from birds, gave the area the look of a giant checkerboard.
Turning further inland to Piazza Armerina, I was soon surprised to find that the many little cutouts on the road were littered with garbage, something I hadn’t seen elsewhere (in fact, this was the only area in all of Sicily I found this).
The drivers also seemed to be more aggressive, riding close behind awaiting the opportunity to pass. The torrid summer sun has also baked many of the old road signs here beyond recognition. (No one, it seems, removes and replaces them—they merely plant a new sign further down the road.)
On secondary roads you often come across large tractors crawling along the roadway, reminding you that you’re in serious farm and wine country. All about you little-abandoned stone homes seem to be everywhere, while every so often a little village pops up out of nowhere on the monochromatic hillside.
I was not staying in Piazza Armerina, only making a detour there en route to Agrigento to see the famous Villa Romana del Casale, the hunting lodge of an important Roman. It has the most extensive and best-preserved Roman mosaics in the world, including the famous “bikini girls.”
Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples
Agrigento, a 1½-hour drive southwest of the villa, should be included for every tour of Sicily. Visit it, and you quickly understand why.
At one time it was a town of 200,000, Agrigento’s crown jewel is a valley containing the spectacular ruins of five Greek temples, which in their day rivaled those of Athens. Park your car and take the three-mile walk along the main avenue. There’s also a small shuttle tram.
It’s a beautiful and interesting site that contrasts significantly with the view of the unappealing modern city in the distance.
My hotel was B&B Via Dei Templi, Via Panoramica Della Valle Dei Templi 5 Agrigento. It’s well positioned in a small apartment right as you enter the town, so you don’t get caught up in city traffic. Next door is a good restaurant, the Trattoria Dei Templi. The rate for the B&B was $76.92.
From Agrigento, I set out early on the longest leg of the trip, a six-hour, 200-mile drive to Palermo, with stops along the way. It wasn’t as daunting as it might see; in fact, it was an enjoyable and exciting day.
My first stop was in Selinunte, a 1½-hour drive westward. Once the most westerly settlement of Magna Graecia, it was settled about 600BC but was later destroyed by the Carthaginians. What remains today are the ruins of five temples and an acropolis.
One of the temples, the Temple of Hera, has been reconstructed from the ruins. Although the remainder of the site appears to be a jumble of ruins, Selinunte is actually one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe.
Saltpans and Erice
I took the coastal road to Trapani, another 1½-hour drive because I wanted to see the salt pans and windmills that dot the salt marshes near the town of Nubia. I expected to be one of the few there, but when I arrived, I found several dozen people as inquisitive as me. Some, obviously coming directly from the airport by taxi, had their luggage with them.
It is still a working area harvesting salt from the sea. It’s peppered with windmills used to pump water in and out of the saltpans, and there’s also a small museum worth the €3 entrance fee. The small restaurant attached to it would seem to be a good place to stop for lunch.
I spent about an hour there, and another half-hour driving to Erice, a little medieval village with its head in the clouds – literally.
Erice sits on a mountaintop above Trapani, and it’s reached via cable car (€9 round trip / €4 under 16) or a severely winding road going up the steep side of a mountain. I chose the latter and found a crowded parking lot outside the city gate at the end of the road. I also found a village entirely enveloped in fog, with a temperature 14° lower than at sea level.
Erice survives on tourism and a fledgling wine industry. Walking along its medieval stone streets, it felt ethereal in the fog. I stopped in the popular Michelle’s pastry shop (check name) for some treats and a cup of cappuccino before heading back to my car.
Palermo: Chaos, Culture and Charm
My target that afternoon was Palermo, the capital, most significant, and the best-known city in Sicily. It was about a 2½ –hour drive, not counting the time I spent en route at Segesta, often described as the best-preserved Greek temple in the world. Right off the Autostrade, Segesta is quite easy to get to.
Raucous Palermo was the diametric opposite of serene Segesta. As soon as you enter the city, you’re met with a torrent of traffic rarely experienced elsewhere.
Despite its traffic woes, Palermo is a fabulous city with a lot to offer. Both the Normans and Arabs have left great cultural and artistic legacies through the town. Don’t miss the Arab-Norman art in the Cappella Palatina, the Cathedral, the Norman Palace, Ballarò Market in the Albergheria Quarter, and Quattro Canti at the intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda.
The incredible Cathedral at Monreale, a half-hour from the central city, is the epitome of Norman-Arab art and architecture. It is one of the most spectacular places you’ll see in all of Italy. And there’s plenty more, too much, in fact, to list here.
I had been warned not to drive in Palermo, which turned out to be valid advice. In addition to the incredible traffic, street signs are lacking, and a GPS within the city is often useless. On one occasion I wound up driving through the city’s busy Ballarò Market where the crowded walkways were only inches wider than my car.
But I needed my car in Palermo not only to continue onward in two days but also to reach sites outside the city limit. My solution was to find a hotel where I could leave my car for most of the time, and then depart the city early on Sunday morning when traffic was light. The strategy worked quite well.
I had initially booked a room at the Hotel Garibaldi, but when I arrived, I found they had overbooked, and they moved me to the Hotel Vecchio Borgo, a few blocks away at Via Quintino Sella, 1. My room was comfortable, but I had to pay €18 per day for parking right in front of the hotel. Cost of the hotels was $403.24 for two nights (excluding parking).
After leaving the chaos of Palermo, arriving in Cefalù was like a dream. Calm, green, clean and quiet, it’s more like the French Riviera than the rest of Sicily.
The beaches along the aquamarine and cobalt-blue sea along the north coast of Sicily are beautiful and much cleaner than elsewhere. It’s the beach that attracts many to popular Cefalù, although the village still retains its medieval character.
In addition to its beach, Cefalù is renown for the Byzantine mosaics in its Norman cathedral, built by Norman King Roger II after he landed at the village after a tumultuous sea crossing.
I would have liked to stay in Cefalù longer, even another day, but I needed to drive to Taormina and Mt. Etna, a three-hour drive across the interior.
Taormina, a Requisite Stop on the Grand Tour
The drive on the Autostrade across central Sicily, from Cefalu to Catania, took me through both valleys below craggy mountains and soft rolling hills covered with olive trees and grazing cows. From Catania, it was an easy one-hour drive north to Taormina.
Once a colony of Syracuse, Taormina remains the most popular holiday destination in Sicily. It can trace that popularity back to the 19th century when it was a requisite stop on the Grand Tour of Europe, most likely thanks to its mountain-top location with superb views of the sea, coastline, and Mt. Etna. It’s still a very charming place.
As you walk down Corso Umberto, the main street of Taormina, little alleyways climb up and down the hills on both side of the street. Everywhere you turn you see nothing but shops and restaurants and gelaterias and cafés. Midway, at Piazza IX Aprile, the view down to the sea and the coast is spectacular. Just as dramatic is the view of, and from, the 3rd-century BC Greek Theater.
My hotel in Taormina, where I stayed two nights, was the Hotel Condor at Via Dietro Cappuccini 25. The cost was $68.73 per night. The room was simple but comfortable and the breakfast good. There was an added fee for parking in a secure nearby lot, which you’re required to pay in cash at check-out.
Mt. Etna, the Highlight of My Tour of Sicily
Few volcanoes on earth are as well known as Sicily’s Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano.
It’s a massive mountain that’s so large it generates its own weather patterns. That can be problematic since weather at the top can change quickly, resulting in canceled tours. Nevertheless, I had made up my mind I was going to see it up close near the top. It turned out to be the highlight of my tour of Sicily.
I had gotten directions from my hotel on how to reach Rifugio Sapienza at 5,900 feet. Sapienza is the base from which one sets off up the mountain; it is also the base for skiers when Mt. Etna is covered with snow in the winter.
From Sapienza you take a six-person cable car higher up the mountain and then a four-wheel-drive bus up to the south crater for a cost of €64; the fee for the guide to take you on the short walk to and around the small crater is an additional €9. If you instead want to make the 2½-hour hike up to the top to view the active volcano, the fee is €62 or €68.
The crater we went to was formed during the last eruption in 2002. It was a fantastic site, like nothing I had ever seen anywhere in Europe. It was also a bit cool – 2°C on a hot June day, ensuring a brisk business for ski jacket rentals for €4 each.
The best time to go to Mt. Etna is early in the morning when the sky is clearest. By late morning clouds drift in, increasing the possibility for inclement weather. If you’re driving, it will also ensure you’ll find parking available in the parking lot. Park on the roadway, and you can be ticketed.
After my tour of Mt. Etna, I drove on to Syracuse to overnight before my morning flight from Catania to Rome. This time I had chosen the Hotel Posta at Via Trieste 33 in Syracuse with a rate of $95.12. Parking was in a public lot next to the hotel. Breakfast was good, although for dinner I visited one of the outdoor cafes around the corner.