10 reasons to visit Sicily
If you want to feed every one of your senses, there’s nowhere on earth quite like Sicily. You’ll experience a cultural, gastronomical and historical high so addictive it should come with a health warning. The tricky part is knowing where to start, says Sicily addict Melanie O’Shea.
1. Explore Mount Etna
Start with an adrenaline thrill and, setting off from Taormina, spend a day exploring Mount Etna, the second-most active volcano in the world. Take a gondola and 4WD sand bus from Rifugio Sapienza up into an alien environment where dunes of black sand become giant peaks surrounding smoking craters. Book a guided tour, hold a hot lava stone and feel the power of what’s beneath your feet. Look up to the main crater with its vapour halo and down to an extraordinary view over the island.
2. Try the street food
Every town of any size, from Palermo to Syracuse, has its own variation on street food, and you have to try it. Start with arancine – fried balls of rice stuffed with various fillings. Pane con panelle is a divine sandwich of chickpea fritters; sfincione is a Sicilian pizza with a thick base topped with tomato, rich caciocavallo cheese and more. If you’re more adventurous try babbaluc – small snails, best sucked direct from the shell, served with a garlicky sauce; and Palermo speciality pani ca’ meusa – spleen burger… Try it!
3. Discover ancient ruins
Sicily has an abundance of well preserved Ancient Greek and Roman cities, temples and amphitheatres, in awe-inspiring settings and without the fencing-off you get elsewhere. On the southwest tip of the island, near Mazara del Vallo, Selinunte is the standout site to visit; or see the ancient theatre and ruins at Taormina, near Mount Etna.
4. Take a horse trek
Taste the best food on a gastronomic horse trek from the southwest coastal town of Sciacca inland to Burgio, with the equestrian school Centro Ippico La Criniera (+39 349 874 8658). Follow guides on Arabian horses along beaches and up mountains with stops for outdoor lunches of steak, wine and olives from the local countryside, along with traditional sweets such as ricotta-filled cannolini. A starlit dinner and sunrise breakfast at Hotel Feudo, in the mountains of Burgio, completes the experience (overnight treks cost around €200 per person per day).
5. Taste the wine
Sicily produces prodigious amounts of wine, much of it of excellent quality; a tasting tour to three of the main wine regions is worth doing. Start at Etna in the east where the volcanic soils and cooler temperatures produce great wines from red nerello mascalese and white carricante grapes. Next head to Menfi in the southwest, where the warm winds and rolling hills create supple reds from nero d’avola. Finally, head west to Marsala where Englishman John Woodhouse ‘discovered’ the local fortified wine in the late 1700s. It’s enjoying a renaissance, for good reason.
6. Indulge in gelato
Celebrate artisanal hand-made gelati at Sherbeth, a festival held every autumn in Palermo, where producers from around the world congregate to showcase their wares and tempt you to try them. Even if you miss the festival, Sicily is the home of gelato, so there are plenty of places all over the island where you can cool yourself down with locally made silky smooth ice cream.
7. Discover little-known islands
Find coastal beauty at its most sublime with a trip to the Aegadian Islands (Isole Egadi in Italian), accessible via boat from Trapani on Sicily’s western tip. Cycle along sandy tracks to bays of turquoise waters full of iridescent fish. At Cala Trono beach on Favignana island, stop for a cold granita or a glass of crisp, chilled wine at La Costa, a beautiful bar created entirely out of reclaimed fishing boats and nets.
8. Get close to nature
Sicily’s nature reserves are a chunk of heaven. Walk, ride or cycle the trails in the Nebrodi Mountains in the north, the largest national park on the island and
a haven of peace. Enjoy unspoilt beaches surrounded by migrating birds at Vendicari, south of Syracuse, or rent a refurbished tuna fisherman’s house in Scopello, in the northwest, and explore the cliffs and coves of the Lo Zingaro reserve.
9. Join a grape harvest
Visit between September and November and you can join in the grape harvest. Menfi is a good location to stay, as from there you can visit a range of wineries, from global to local. See the vines at Cantine Barbera (cantinebarbera.it), then lunch at Planeta Beach Club and sip a cool rosé among the sand dunes. If you’re there towards the end of summer, you might just see turtle hatchlings on sandy Lido Fiori beach.
10. Say yes to seafood
If you love seafood, Sicily is the island of plenty. Try chef Giorgio Locatelli’s favourite, Da Vittorio in Porto Palo (ristorante vittorio.it), near Menfi, where you eat the chef’s choice based on the best of the fishermen’s catch. Or feast on every sea delicacy you can think of at Ristorante La Terrazza in Scopello (+39 0924 541198), on a cliff-top high above Lo Zingaro.