Catania // Noto // Naro // Zafferana Etna // Taormina // Isola Bella // Valley of the Temples // Baglio Occhipinti // Mondello
After our week in Crete, we flew to Sicily for another beautiful week in the Mediterranean. We loved getting to see another beautiful, culturally rich island in our favorite region in the world. There were a few things that met our expectations in Sicily - amazing food, wine, architecture, culture, gelato. However there were a few interesting and pleasant surprises as well. There were some pretty clear differences in both landscape and architecture as you move across the island. For example: Palermo is more of an Arabic style city, while Catania has more of a Baroque style. There are very dry areas as well as areas that are more lush and green. As with Crete, many of the more tourist-friendly areas were very touristy, at times to the point of not feeling authentic. However, overall we really enjoyed Sicily and wish we had more time to explore! Below I've included some photos of the places we went as well as a little information about each experience.
First, some general recommendations:
While there are some very pretty beaches, I would say the best part about Sicily was the food, wine, and architecture. If you're more interested in lots of gorgeous beaches I might lean towards Crete or Menorca.
We stayed in Catania most of the time and took day trips around the East side of the island. I'm really glad we did this - it gave us a chance to get to know one (large) city while also seeing more of the island.
Like many places in this region, it seems, driving is very scary. However renting a car really is necessary if you want to be able to do a lot around the island. Many of the local roads were 1.5 lanes, windy, and people drove really fast. We actually got hit twice - nothing serious, thank goodness! My only advice is to be super careful!
Even though everything was in Italian, it was easy to get around, and most everyone knows at least a little English (especially in the more tourist-friendly areas).
Food we really enjoyed: Pastries (cannoli, arancini, and anything else you can get your hands on), pizza, wine, olives, cheese, gelato, anything lemon, pistachio, or hazelnut flavored. They are known for their lemons and pistachios!
Catania is a beautiful, Baroque-style city on the East side of Sicily. I could walk the streets of Catania for hours! Everywhere you look there is a giant, impressive, gorgeous, intricate building with an immense amount of history. While there were a lot of tourists around, it didn't feel too touristy, which we really appreciated. We found a few great restaurants, but honestly I don't think you could go wrong! Lots of options for seafood, pizza, pastries and cakes, tapas - the list goes on.
AirBnB - we stayed in two AirBnBs in Catania, and both were lovely! Highly recommend.
Al Vicolo Pizza & Vino - An AMAZING pizza place. We sat outside under their impressive string lights. I would definitely recommend going really (really) early - the line of people waiting was huge!
A Putia Dell'Ostello- good food, and definitely ask to see the cave if you can (there is a super old cave underneath the restaurant!).
Fish Market - MUST DO! The fish market was really, really cool - it was where the locals buy and sell their fish. There are some produce stands as well.. May not be the best place to go if you are squeamish or hate the smell of fish, though!
Pastries from cafes (we liked Bar Pasticceria Spinella, which is right near the big park below), a casual glass of wine, gelato every day. Yes.
Villa Bellini - a beautiful park with lots of walking paths right in the middle of Catania. There are a lot of shops and restaurants around it too. I purchased a pair of earrings from a man selling jewelry right outside the park - so special!
This is a beach just south of Catania. It has nice sand and a beautiful view of Mount Etna - you can see it smoking in the photo below! It had erupted just before we got there. We had an interesting experience getting on the beach - a very large man in a speedo carrying a coin purse charged us a few euros to access the beach - it seemed very sketchy but once we paid he gave us no issues. What a cultural experience! It's a good place to go for a little sand and sun, but it definitely wasn't our favorite beach that we visited.
We loved Noto! My favorite thing about this city (town?) was the consistency in color of the buildings - they were all a sandy color that seemed to melt into the landscape, but most of the buildings had really beautiful colored doors and windows. We walked around for an afternoon, and we felt like that was enough to get a good feel for the little city. The main stretch had some cute shops and restaurants, and while there were a few touristy things it felt pretty genuine to us. The big churches (there were multiple) were open to the public as well - definitely worth a look!
If you want to visit a town that is not touristy whatsoever, Naro is your place! We felt like two sore thumbs walking around here - clearly this was not a touristy place. The man in the gelato shop was really friendly to us, but otherwise we felt a bit gawked at (they were probably just confused as to why we were there). The reason we visited is because Cary's grandfather is from this town. He actually still has family here but unfortunately we didn't get a chance to meet them. It was really cool to see where his roots are, though. It was a pretty town and we are glad we went - but we recommend not going in the middle of the day because everything was closed!
Mount Etna is the active volcano on Sicily that can be seen from miles around. It was really cool to see the smoke billowing out on our drive from Palermo to Catania. If it's not erupting, you can actually go climb it and walk around - it is very steep and rocky so I would recommend hardy shoes (preferably not sandals - the rocks are pretty sharp!). We stayed in a beautiful AirBnB on the side of Etna and really enjoyed seeing this area - it's amazing how much the volcano impacted the landscape around it. Would definitely recommend visiting (and climbing to the top!).
We went to this little town during our stay on Etna - it was so sweet! We had lunch and then had one of our favorite experiences in this little wine shop, Enoteca Vin-Canto. The woman who was running the shop spoke very good English and was able to tell us all about the wines of Etna and we got to taste some of them as well. They have a large variety of both Etna and Sicilian wines. We didn't realize that Etna has unique variety of grapes that they use to make wines - they have a minerally-taste. If you ever find yourself in this little town please go here!
Isola Bella is a little island connected to the shoreline by a path of rocks and pebbles. As you can see from the photos, it gets pretty busy, especially due to its size. There isn't much space in terms of a beach. There is also no sand - just pebbles, but they are smooth enough to sit on comfortably. There is a place that rents out beach chairs, but we preferred going to the far end where there was less people. I think you can also tour the little island for a fee. It's worth checking out but it was pretty touristy. The best part was the walking path up to Taormina - see below!
Taormina is a little town on the cliffs overlooking Isola Bella. While the town itself was packed of tourist-friendly shops and restaurants, the walk up from the coast was amazing - beautiful views all the way up! Lots of stairs but very doable if you are in decent shape. Most of it is shaded as well. We only spent about an hour walking around the town - if you like shopping you would probably enjoy it but otherwise it wasn't our favorite. The buildings were beautiful but people tried to sell us lots of things and it didn't feel very authentic (we did see some shops with beautiful traditional pottery, though). The walk up and down for the views was definitely worth the trip!
Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples)
I feel like the Valley of the Temples is just one of those things you have to do when you're in Sicily. It is a stretch of land on top of a ridge outside of the town on Agrigento, and includes the remains of seven ancient Greek temples (some have parts still standing). They have made it into a really nice attraction, with a beautiful walking trail, without taking too much away from it. It got pretty hot on the walk (we went in early June), so I would recommend bringing a hat/sunscreen/water/snacks, but I would definitely go if you get the chance!
Oasis of Vendicari Nature Reserve
This was one of our favorite places, and definitely our favorite beach! All of the mediterranean islands we've visited have nature reserves, and we've found that they are some of the best places to go to get a little nature and time away from the hustle and bustle of the cities. We came to this particular one in search for a nice beach (which we found), but to get there you have to walk a ways on a trail that has gorgeous views of the countryside. The first beach we came to was in a little cove and had a good stretch of sand to lay on. The water was beautiful and it wasn't too crowded. There were a lot of trails in the reserve - one of them goes along the coast and connects a few different beaches. I walked along it for a ways and wish we had more time to explore it because it was absolutely breathtaking. This would be on the top of my list if we ever go back!
Baglio Occhipinti Resort
I have a separate entry for this BnB we stayed at because of how incredibly special it is. It is a six-room resort located in a rural area in southeast Sicily that was designed by a landscape architecture professor from the area (her sister is a wine maker from down the road - more on that later). I felt like I was in heaven during our stay. The building itself was gorgeous. I believe it was converted from an old farmhouse, and she was able to preserve the place where they used to press wine as a display in the lounge area! There is a beautiful pool and a neighboring garden where they grow much of the produce to use in their cooking. Scattered around the place are fruit and nut trees that they also harvest from and use for their meals. We had the most romantic, and delicious, dinner on the terrace paired with wine from the owner's sister's winery, which was amazing. The only thing about this place is it was a bit of a drive to get there and I'm not sure what all is around to do, but if you just want a relaxing and peaceful few days this is the place.
We stayed here our last night in Sicily because we needed a place close to the Palermo airport for our morning flight. It was great for that purpose, but otherwise I might not recommend going here. It was very touristy and the beach was not very nice - it seemed like more of a party town (which is fine if you're into that!). However, the hotel we stayed in was great (Unico Boutique Hotel d'Arte) and had a roof-top deck with a hot tub! I put two photos of it below so you can see the views from each side, which is a good visual of the little town. We had a decent meal and some good gelato, but otherwise we mainly hung out at the hotel.