Sicily is full of superlatives, many of them relating to treasures from the ancient world. In Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, for example, you can see one of the three most perfect temples in the Greek world. At Selinunte is one of the largest of all known Greek temples. With over 3,500 square meters of mosaics, Villa Romana del Casale in Enna is one of the best preserved villas anywhere in the Roman Empire and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just like the twin cities of Ragusa and Modica which represent the pinnacle of Baroque art in Europe. Both the stunning mosaics and the beautiful cloister at Monreale are considered pinnacles of European art, and the collections at the Archaeological Museum of Palermo rank it among the best in Italy. Natural wonders also have their place, with Etna ranking the highest active volcano on the continent. Besides the tourist sites, you will enjoy Sicily for its vibrant local culture and vibrant people.
1 Monreale Cathedral
The Cathedral of Monreale immediately reflects the politics, religion and artistic highlights of Sicily under the Normans. And with that, it also earned a place in the art history of Europe, all the more remarkable because it remains today just as it was built in the 1100s. The architecture represents the transition from the Eastern Byzantine forms, but the decoration with dazzling mosaics – considered the magnificent highlight of the church – keeps it firmly in Byzantine traditions. They cover every available surface, in intricate illustrations of biblical text and themes rendered in vibrant color and with exceptional artistic virtuosity.
Artistically, the cloister stands right next to the mosaics, a masterpiece of 228 double columns, with intricately carved capitals, set around a garden with a pretty fountain in one corner. Not only is the stone carving beautiful, but the motifs are a captivating mix of mythical, religious, animal, floral and human figures. Many of the columns are inlaid with colored stones and no two are the same.
Address: Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, Monreale
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Monreale
2 The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
The large complex of temples and tombs in Agrigento dates back as far as 500 BC and includes Sicily’s best-preserved Doric temple – Tempio di Concordia – one of the most perfect to survive anywhere. Together with it in the eastern group is the Tempio di Juno Lacinia , almost as large, and in the western group is Temple of Olympian Zeus , the largest of them at 40 meters but toppled by an earthquake. The circular Doric Tempio di Heracles , also in the western group, was destroyed by the Carthaginians and rebuilt by the Romans, but was partially destroyed by an earthquake. The entire group is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Adres: Valley of the Temples, Agrigento
Official Site: https://www.valleyofthetemples.com/
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Agrigento
3 Church mosaics in Palermo
Two of Palermo’s three main churches, the Cappella Palatina and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, commonly known as La Martorana, are famous for their mosaics. The ones in the chancel of the Normans’ court church, Cappella Palatina, are thought to be from 1143 and the mosaic of Christ between Peter and Paul from about 1350. Other highlights of the church include the Arabic stalactite ceiling, the pulpit on carved and inlaid pillars, and the high candelabra. La Martorana’s beautiful mosaics are also from the 12th century on a gold base and are the oldest of their kind in Sicily. The statue of Christ is the centerpiece, and elsewhere in the vaults, dome, apses and narthex are scenes from the New Testament. The third church, the Cathedral, is worth a visit for its 1453 Gothic-Catalan portico, monumental Norman tombs, and the jewel-encrusted crown of Constance of Aragon in the cathedral’s treasury.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Palermo
4 Eastern Temples on Selinunte
One of Sicily’s largest and most important sites, Selinunte has eight Greek temples dating back to the fifth century BC, plus the nearby Temple of Demeter. The most important are those known as the Eastern Group, labeled with the letter: Temple G for its impressive size and Temple E for its architectural grandeur, considered the pinnacle of the Classical period. Temple G, now in ruins, was one of the largest of all Greek temples. In a separate section, the great Acropolis is surrounded by defensive walls, some of which date back to the seventh century BC. Temple C is the largest and oldest, dating from about 550 BC, and sits at the highest point.
5 from Berg Etna
from berg Etna
Etna is an enigma; even its height is never certain, as it changes with each new eruption. But at over 10,000 feet, it rules the skyline with its often smoking cone. Volcanic vents, fumaroles, hot springs, and lava flows add to the changing landscape, much of which you can explore (though not too close to the central crater) on foot or in all-terrain vehicles designed for traction in the volcanic surface. Roads lead to the base of cable cars, which take you to the 2,500-meter point, an easy day trip from Catania or Taormina. In winter you can ski at the top.
A narrow-gauge railway, Ferrovia Circumetnea takes you almost all the way around the mountain, or you can circle it by car, passing through towns with castles, archaeological sites and beautiful scenery. Along the northern side of Mount Etna, the Alcantara River has carved a spectacular gorge through a long-ago lava flow to form the Gole dell’Alcántara (Alcantara Gorge).
6 Villa Romana del Casale in Enna
Roman Villa of Casale in Enna
A 12th-century landslide buried this sprawling Roman villa outside Enna, preserving it almost intact only to be discovered and excavated eight centuries later. One of the best preserved villas anywhere in the Roman Empire, it still retains most of its original decoration. The 50 chambers excavated to date contain over 3,500 square feet of mosaic floors depicting detailed scenes from mythology and contemporary life, including hunting wild animals for use in gladiatorial combat. The thermal baths with their columned courtyard and fountain are particularly beautiful. The villa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Address: Contrada Casale 1, Piazza Armerina, Enna
7 Neapolis Archaeological Park, Syracuse
One of the largest theaters in the ancient Greek Empire is a good reason, but not the only one, to visit the archaeological park in Syracuse. The view of the excavations as you approach Viale Rizzo gives you an idea of their size, which includes both the Greek theater and a large Roman amphitheatre . The huge Altar of Hiero II dates from the third century BC, a century later than the 15,000 spectator Greek theater. The Roman amphitheater dates from the third century AD and is partly carved out of the rock. An interesting feature of this archaeological park is the opportunity to see the quarries where the building stone was cut on site for the various structures. The largest of these is theLatomia del Paradiso , where limestone has been quarried since the sixth century BC. One of the underground galleries has such perfect acoustics that it is known as l’Orecchio di Dionisio, the Ear of Dionysius .
8 The townscape of Taormina and the Greek theatre
Competing with mountaintop Erice as Sicily’s most beautiful town, Taormina would be a tourist favorite even without its magnificent Greek theater and its iconic view of Mount Etna . The streets of Taormina open onto terraces, each with a picture-postcard view of the sea or the mountains. Corso Umbertois the main street that crosses the city in a series of squares and terraces and lined by venerable buildings, smart shops and open-air cafes. Lanes lead up and become long staircases leading higher and higher to more viewpoints and a castle. The most famous image, immortalized by painters for centuries, comes from the historic Greek theater, built in the third century BC by the Greeks and completely rebuilt by the Romans a century later. It is mostly intact and used for performances.
9 Aeolian Islands
These seven islands, all of volcanic origin and some still active, lie off the north coast of Sicily and are easily reached by boat from Messina or Milazzo. The best known is perhaps Stromboli, whose pyrotechnics light up the sky every night, to the delight of cruise ship passengers, who alternate their departures for the screen. The volcanic activity has created beautiful coastlines of rough, rugged rocks, as well as natural attractions – fumaroles and thermal and sulfur springs – to visit. Water sports of all kinds are another draw for tourists, who will find beaches, boat rentals, scuba diving and scenic boat excursions and ferry links between the islands. Prehistoric sites abound, as do later sites from Greek and Roman times.
10 Archaeological Museum of Palermo
In a place so filled with Greek, Roman and earlier sites, you would expect to find many impressive museums. And you’re right. But even among this abundance, the museum in Palermo surpasses them all and is one of the most beautiful in all of Italy. Among the highlights are the Palermo Stone with hieroglyphs depicting Egyptian pharaohs from the third and fourth millennia B.C., a colossal second-century B.C. statue of Zeus, and the exquisite sculptures and friezes of the temples at Selinunte. Also look out for the Etruscan Mercury Staff, the burial carvings of Chiusi, the funerary reliefs of the Attic, as well as tools and vessels from the Stone Age and the Copper Age.
11 Ragusa en Modica
Ragusa in Modica
The 1693 earthquake leveled much of the southern tip of Sicily, including the neighboring towns of Ragusa and Modica. Both cities were rebuilt in the then current Baroque style, with local interpretations that became known as Sicilian Baroque. Ragusa and Modica, along with six others, have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the ‘culmination and final flourishing of Baroque art in Europe’. Ragusa built a new city on a hill above the old one, but enough buildings remained in the old city to keep it active, with new baroque buildings replacing fallen ones. Modica is also built on two levels and the upper town is marked by the Church of San Giorgio, built with materials recovered from fallen buildings after the earthquake. In the lower town, look for the 15th-century Gothic rose window in the Chiesa del Carmine .
12 Cathedral of Cefalu
One of Sicily’s most interesting medieval buildings, the imposing cathedral was built, legend has it, by Norway’s King Roger II as a votive offering for surviving a storm at sea. The cathedral is a Sicilian history book, with architecture and decorations reflecting almost every wave of conquest in the island’s history. Look for Arab, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Norman elements. The semicircular dome of the apse is filled with a mosaic of Christ by Byzantine artists, one of the best preserved mosaics in Sicily. Along with the mosaics, spot the 12th-century baptismal font and the ornate plasterwork in the choir.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, Cefalù