Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Sicily
You don’t have to understand much Italian to guess that the Isola Bella attraction near Taormina in Sicily is a “pretty island” - but what you can’t guess from the name is that it’s not actually an island at all.
Isola Bella is a tiny, rocky outcropping just off the popular Lido Mazzarò beach in a small bay near Taormina. It looks like an island, but is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand. It’s sometimes covered by the sea, so there are times when it looks like an island. This islet was given to the town of Taormina as a gift in 1806 by the then-king of the region, and later purchased by Lady Florence Trevelyan - a Scottish woman who lived in Taormina in the late 1800s.
Lady Trevelyan built a house atop Isola Bella, which still stands today. Ownership of the islet changed hands several times over the years, until 1990 when Isola Bella went up for auction. It is now owned by Sicily and serves as a nature reserve.
Palermo’s beautiful opera house, the Teatro Massimo, is the largest opera house in the entire country. It’s an important landmark in the center of historic Palermo, and even if you don’t like opera you may be familiar with the theater’s imposing front staircase.
The Teatro Massimo was built in the late 1800s, opening in 1897 with a production of “Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi. The original plan called for seating for 3,000 in the audience, but the theater seats 1,350 today. There are seven levels of theater boxes in a semi-circle around the seats on the floor, all pointed toward the stage - a design very typical of opera houses at the time. As mentioned, it’s the largest opera house in Italy - and it ranks third in size in Europe.
Though the giant, craggy La Rocca may dominate the Cefalù skyline, the Cefalù Cathedral competes for that attention. The Norman-style church was constructed starting in 1131, prompted — according to legend — by Roger II, who, during a shipwreck at sea, promised God that if he survived, that he’d construct a church right in this very place. Today’s cathedral is noted for its fortress-like exterior, and for its interior mosaics, particularly the lavish Christ Pantokrator mosaic.
The grand mosaic is complemented by a relatively humble interior, which makes the contrast all the more striking. Almost just as important as seeing the inside of the church is experiencing it from the outside from the palm tree-filled plaza. It’s the perfect place to grab pizza, coffee or an ice cream — you might pay a premium for it, but the splendid views and free cathedral-entry more than make up for it.
The Sicilian town of Taormina has long been known as a popular beach resort destination, but it’s more than sparkling water and long stretches of sand that draw visitors. Taormina is also home to a spectacular ancient ruin - the Greek Theatre.
Despite its name, the Greek Theatre - or Teatro Greco in Italian - is actually an ancient Roman structure. The design is more akin to how the ancient Greeks designed their theaters, so it is believed the Roman theater was built over an existing Greek theater. The ruins you see today date primarily from the 2nd century A.D., although the theater was started in the 7th century B.C.E. Taormina’s Greek Theatre sits high above the town’s famous beaches, so visitors who climb uphill to see the ruin are rewarded with more than just an up close look at an ancient monument - the views can be fantastic. From the theater, you can see the town of Taormina, the beaches far below, and the Mt. Etna volcano. It’s one of the best views in Sicily.
In the hills just outside the city of Syracuse is a Greek theater, which dates from the fifth century BCE. The fairly well-preserved theatre was rebuilt in the 3rd century BCE and again during the Roman era, while the original theatre had 67 rows for audience members, making it one of the largest in the ancient Greek world. There are fewer rows today, as the site was modified over the centuries.
It wasn't until the 19th century that a real excavation of the site took place, and in the early 20th century the theatre became the site of annual performances. Today, it is sometimes used during the summer for music shows and theater.
There are a few outdoor markets in Palermo that are worth exploring - for the atmosphere as much as any actual shopping you want to do - but the most famous is the Vucciria Market in the city’s historic center.
The Vucciria Market is located in the historic center in the streets around the Piazza San Domenico, and the stalls that line the streets are predominantly selling fish, meat, and produce. While these kinds of outdoor markets used to be where all the locals did their shopping, the rise of all-in-one grocery stores has meant that some of these markets no longer draw the crowds they used to. The Vucciria Market is as much a tourist attraction as it is working market these days, so it can be busy in the high season - although many of those people are tourists, not shoppers.
The square in front of Taormina’s cathedral may have an obvious name - the Piazza del Duomo - but its primary decoration is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
The Duomo and the piazza are just off Taormina’s main street, the Corso Umberto I. The Duomo dates from the 13th century, although the main doorway was rebuilt in the 1630s. That’s also when the Baroque-style fountain was placed in the center of the Piazza del Duomo. The fountain was added to the square in 1635, and at the very top is a sculpture representing Taormina’s city symbol.
The symbol of Taormina is a centaur - half man, half horse - but for some reason the statue atop the fountain in the Piazza del Duomo isn’t a straightforward centaur. Not only is the figure female rather than male, it also only has two legs (the back two) rather than four. No one knows why the centaur isn’t quite “normal,” but the people of Taormina have adopted the statue as the town symbol.
Palermo’s most famous piazza, the Piazza Pretoria, is just a few steps from the busy Quattro Canti - but a world away in terms of the kind of piazza experience it delivers.
The centerpiece of the Piazza Pretoria is the fountain, known as the Fontana Pretoria. It’s huge, designed in the 1550s by a sculptor from Florence named Camilliani. The fountain was originally commissioned for a private villa in Tuscany, but was gifted to the city of Palermo in 1574. City officials had razed several homes to make way for a grand fountain, meant to show off Palermo’s impressive city plumbing, but locals weren’t quite prepared for the fountain’s decorations when it was unveiled.
There are 16 figures on the Fontana Pretoria, all of which are entirely or partially nude, that circle the fountain. There is no side from which you can simply enjoy the water itself without seeing a nude statue - which many Palermitans in the late 16th century found scandalous.
Taormina’s Medieval Quarter is one of the prettiest sections of the city, and Corso Umberto I cuts right through its middle. The clock tower that marks the start of the Medieval Quarter is actually in an arched tower that spans the Corso Umberto I. The particularly picturesque Piazza Aprile IX sits along the famous street, and it’s one of the most popular places to pause and do some people-watching. The view from the piazza over the water is lovely, and the piazza itself is a beautiful backdrop to whatever is going on.
More Things to Do in Sicily
The Sicilian town of Taormina, like the rest of Sicily, has changed hands many times over the centuries, the evidence of which can be seen in much of the island’s architecture. In Taormina, one building that captures the town’s history is the Palazzo Corvaja on the Piazza Badia.
The first part of the Palazzo Corvaja was the tower, built in the 10th century by the Arabs who ruled the area at the time. The tower was then part of the city’s fortifications, and the cube-shape was typical of Arab towers built in that era. In the 13th century when the Normans were in charge, they added to the palace, making the tower bigger and building a new wing.
Later, in the early 15th century, the Spanish ruled Sicily - and they added yet another wing to the existing construction at the Palazzo Corvaja. This time, the structure was designed to hold the Sicilian Parliament, formed in 1411.
Italy’s public squares come in all shapes and sizes, and some are decidedly more beautiful than others. Taormina’s main square, Piazza IX Aprile, is both popular and gorgeous - which is why it features so prominently in many Taormina photographs.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Piazza IX Aprile is the paving - rather than a simple gray stone surface, the piazza looks a bit like a giant chessboard with its oversized alternating black and white marble squares. The impact is striking, especially on a sunny day.
The ornate Church of St. Joseph, built in the 17th century, overlooks the square, and its bright pink and white facade gleams against the black and white squares. Another building on the piazza is the 15th century St. Augustine, a former church that now serves as Taormina’s library. The passageway in the 12th century clock tower on one side of the piazza leads to the Borgo Medievale, one of Taormina’s oldest districts.
The city’s most memorable architectural and navigational landmark, Piazza Duomo is the buzzing center of downtown Catania and a strategic starting point for walking tours of the city. The UNESCO-listed square is encircled with grand buildings, the creative vision of local architect Vaccarini and a prime example of the acclaimed Sicilian Baroque style.
Dominating the northern edge of the piazza is the ornate Palazzo Degli Elefanti, now housing the City Hall, while the palatial Cathedral of Sant’Agata looms to the east, flanked by the elegant Bishop’s Palace and the arched walkway of the Porta Uzeda. At the center of the square is Duomo’s star attraction - Giovanni Battista’s Fontana dell'Elefante, a monumental fountain crowned by the city’s emblem - a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk, sculpted from volcanic rock and dating back to 1736.
The most impressive vestige of medieval Catania is the formidable Castle Ursino (Castello Ursino), built by Emperor Frederick II in the early 13th century and now home to the Museo Civico (Civic Museum). Originally built high on the sea cliffs to guard the Sicilian coast, the castle was encircled by lava after the 17th century eruptions of the Mt Etna volcano and now stands 500 meters inland on the cusp of the modern city center.
Today, the landlocked castle houses an impressive array of artwork and artifacts, many taken from the personal collections of Prince of Biscari and including a series of Sicilian school paintings, a Hellenistic statue of Polyphemus, a Roman ‘Gladiators’ relief and sizable exhibitions of weaponry, sculptures and porcelain.
One of the most famous sights in Palermo - albeit an incredibly macabre one - is the extensive network of Catacombs under the Capuchin Monastery. These crypts hold thousands of mummified remains, some of which are spookily well-preserved.
The Capuchins began burying their own friars in the crypts underneath the monastery in the 16th century, and they soon discovered that the unique conditions in the catacombs - combined with their own burial traditions - preserved the bodies extremely well. It wasn’t long before Sicilians decided that being buried in the Capuchin Catacombs - and therefore being preserved after death - was a status symbol.
In total, there are more than 8,000 bodies interred in Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs, in varying states of preservation and from all walks of life. There are chambers dedicated to priests, monks, women, men, and children. Some are still encased in coffins, some are perched in standing positions on the walls.
The city of Syracuse on the eastern coast of Sicily is partly located on an island called Ortygia, where much of the city’s history can be found. The island figures into Greek mythology as the place where the Greek goddess Leto gave birth to Artemis, and its name comes from the ancient Greek word for quail; Leto's sister is said to have turned into a quail and become the island when she fell into the sea.
There are two islands that connect the island with mainland Sicily, and most of the city of Syracuse is on the mainland. Among the sights in the historic city on Ortygia are its seventh-century cathedral and the Fountain of Arethuse.
Some Italian piazzas are picturesque squares where locals stroll in the evenings, or watch their children play, or gossip with the neighbors. And sometimes, as is the case with Palermo’s Quattro Canti, they’re busy intersections.
Despite the fact that the Quattro Canti - also known as the Piazza Vigilena - is an intersection that’s often full of cars, it’s still one of the attractions visitors seek out in the city. This is largely because of the four buildings that sit at the four corners of the intersection - “quattro canti” means “four corners” - which are Baroque buildings dating from the early 17th century. The four buildings are almost identical, save for a few details.
Each of the four buildings is slightly curved, giving the piazza a rounded footprint, and there are statues in niches that represent the four seasons, the four Spanish kings of Sicily, and the four patron saints of Palermo. Each building is connected to a different Palermo neighborhood.
If you are looking to immerse yourself in the local culture of Palermo, Italy, the Ballaro Street Market is the place to go. As the city’s busiest street market and one of the most entertaining markets in Europe, Ballaro also provides a glimpse into Palermo’s past as a major commercial center and port. Said to be more than 1,000 years old, the market winds through the narrow medieval streets surrounding the Plaza Carmine in the Albergheria quarter of Palermo. While it is primarily a food market, it is also a great place to buy inexpensive clothing and other goods. Listen for vendors speaking a local dialect similar to Arabic and try to grab some food samples. Or, learn even more about Sicilian food by combining a walking tour of the market with a Sicilian cooking class.
You may have heard about the various cultures that have ruled Sicily over the centuries, right? When you look at the Palermo Cathedral, you can see the evidence of each one of them in the crazy assortment of architectural styles on the building.
The Palermo Cathedral (officially called Santa Maria Assunta, and sometimes known simply as the Duomo) dates from the late 12th century, built on the site of a temple dating from Ancient Rome. As later conquerors took over from the original Norman builders, they imprinted their own styles on the still-growing building. The exterior includes examples of Norman, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque architectural elements, and they seem to be slapped on top of one another rather than incorporated as parts of a whole. In other words, the cathedral has a somewhat strange patchwork appearance that makes it look like the designers couldn’t make up their minds.
One of the best ways to get to know a city is through its food and markets. Mercato di Capo, located near the old city walls, is one of the best markets in Palermo, Italy on the island of Sicily. The stalls in this market sell a wide variety of food including local specialties, fruits and vegetables, meat and fish. The vendors selling local delicacies can be found along Via Volturno. Non-food items can also be found here, such as clothing and souvenirs. When you walk through the market, you will hear vendors yelling or chanting in their Palermo dialect as they try to sell their goods.
It is said that the sounds, smells, and sights of this market are some of the best preserved of Sicily's Arab traditions. The market dates back to the times when there was a lot of Muslim influence in this port city, and it has become an important part of the culture. Exploring and shopping at this market is the perfect way to experience Palermo with all your senses.
The church known most commonly as “La Martorana” is an architectural example of Sicily’s changing allegiances over the centuries. The facade alone features three different architectural styles.
The Martorana (Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is the official name) dates back to 1141. You can no longer see the original Norman facade, but you can still see the typical Norman red dome from the exterior. Thankfully, once you’re inside the church, the original 12th century mosaics still shine in all their Byzantine glory. These mosaics are the highlight of a visit to La Martorana, and if you want to see them at their best, go first thing in the morning.
Back outside the church, you’ll notice that over the old Norman facade there is now a Baroque facade and a Romanesque bell tower. After the church was completed in the mid-12th century, it was later given to a Benedictine nun by the name of Eloisa Martorana.
Things to do near Sicily
- Things to do in Catania
- Things to do in Taormina
- Things to do in Palermo
- Things to do in Agrigento
- Things to do in Aeolian Islands
- Things to do in Syracuse
- Things to do in Messina
- Things to do in Trapani
- Things to do in Amalfi Coast
- Things to do in Puglia
- Things to do in Lazio
- Things to do in Mellieha
- Things to do in Valletta
- Things to do in Abruzzo
- Things to do in Ionian Islands