The island of Sicily is surrounded by smaller islands off its shores, most of which are volcanic and many of which form groups. The island of Ustica sits off Sicily’s northern coast, and while it is volcanic in origin it sits by itself away from other nearby islands of the Aeolian archipelago.
Ustica is roughly 35 miles off the coast from Palermo, and is sometimes known as “The Black Pearl” because of its black volcanic rocks. The volcanic nature of the island makes it an excellent spot for diving - the International Festival of Underwater Activities is held here annually, there are a few grottoes you can reach by boat for snorkeling, and there are several diving schools and diving tour companies on the island.
The island of Ustica was designated a marine reserve in 1986, making it Italy’s first marine reserve, so there’s a long history of this being a great getaway from Palermo for anyone who wants to explore the sea. But underwater activities aren’t the only activities on Ustica.
Excavations on the island of Ustica in the 1980s have revealed evidence of settlements dating from the 14th century B.C.E. - you can visit the site at Faraglioni to see the remains of a village that once had more than 300 homes. The ruins of a Bourbon castle sit over the main town, along with a cave in which people lived during the 3rd century B.C.E. and a 5th century B.C.E. necropolis. Ustica was used as a penal colony until the 1950s.
The island’s main town - also called Ustica - makes a good base and is worth exploring on its own. Many buildings are decorated with distinctive murals, including landscapes and trompe l’oeil scenes, and the town’s archaeological museum houses many of the historic artifacts removed from the Faraglioni excavation site.
Ustica is a very small island, so unless you’re keen on diving for days you can probably do everything you’d like to do in a leisurely overnight trip from Palermo.