Start Planning Your Sicilian Trip Pronto

Caltagirone staircase

Lately it seems everyone I talk to has a mild obsession with Sicily. The Southern Italian island for years was forgotten in favor of more glamorous places like Amalfi, Rome and Lake Como. But something interesting happened in the last decade or so: the casual, less polished nature of Sicily has become more interesting to travelers as the world has become more globalized and every city starts to feel like it has the same 30 stores. I was excited this year to finally get a chance to see this unique part of the country.

So like any set of recommendations, this one comes from too-short a time and not possibly having all the information. But I can tell you what I liked from my trip and what are the safe bets that I enjoyed. 

Modica from the hilltop

While Palermo and its environs are definitely on my list, for this trip we focused on the Eastern portion of Sicily. You can certainly drive around the entire island but if you only have a week or so I would try and stick to one general area, otherwise you'll be in a car the entire time.  You can rent a house or stay in a hotel - there are great options for both. We did a hotel in Taormina and then we were in a house the rest of the time. 

Sicily (and Italy in general) is extremely child friendly, so you can do all of this with children and everything will be accommodating. 

From a planning perspective I would say you can fly into Catania and divide your trip into halves or thirds. You will want a few days in Taormina, which is about an hour north of Catania. And then you can drive south to Syracuse and Noto and then hit up the slightly more inland Ragusa and Modica. For that portion you can decide to stay put in one town and then drive (it's not far- Syracuse to Ragusa is about an hour and a half so you could theoretically just stay in one and see it all) or you can stay a few days in one and then move to the other. 

I will say - and again, this is based on one afternoon, so I am open to being wrong - that I wouldn't spend time in Catania. We were seduced by a recent New York Times profile that made it out to be up-and-coming and frankly on limited time it just did not seem worthy of time less-spent elsewhere. The amount of graffiti and blight kind of overwhelmed the beauty of the old buildings underneath. We had a great meal, but I do wish we had spent more time in one of the better-maintained towns instead of even just an afternoon in Catania (and we took an open-air train around the whole city so we saw a lot in a short time span). 

 

the Taormina skyline

Taormina

With that out of the way, let's start with Taormina. It's probably the most picturesque of all the towns and it certainly has the tourists to go with it. If you are a fan of the Godfather a lot of sites are within driving distance and they have a big famous ancient greek amphitheater. Mostly though you can just wander through the streets and enjoy the beautiful architecture and views from above. 

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Belvedere which is mid-range priced and absolutely charming. They have a pool, a view of the ocean, and are quite central to town. I highly recommend it.

 The view from the Belmond

The view from the Belmond

If you want to go for a crazy splurge the Belmond is absolutely stunning (and very central). But you can also do what we did, which is take a drink and snack on the patio and enjoy their top-notch service and view without the exorbitant overnight stay.

In terms of meals we had two that really stood out:

For lunch the view and food at Vicolo Stretto was one of the best meals we had in Sicily. Ask to sit upstairs where you have an incredible view of a church steeple and the town below. It is such a lovely place to sit. They specialize in fish and pasta and both do not disappoint. We ordered only from the classic menu and Sicilian essentials like caponata were delicious and every possible pasta was perfectly al dente with the freshest ingredients. 

 The meal and view from Vicolo Stretto

The meal and view from Vicolo Stretto

The other standout meal was at I Giardini di Babilonia. Under olive and orange trees you can have waiters come bring you a giant plate of the freshest catch and give you advice on what seafood to order. It was delightful. 

  I Giardini di Babilonia . raw seafood platter

I Giardini di Babilonia. raw seafood platter

 

Siracusa

From Taormina you can head down to Siracusa. It is the other beautiful old city to get lost in and walk around. It also has both a Greek and Roman amphitheater - among the more impressive versions standing. 

 ortegia fish bar octopus

ortegia fish bar octopus

There is a really charming food market in the mornings in Ortigia, which is the main old section of Siracusa (it is literally an island off of the city where all of the historic sites are). It has a lot of fish and fruit and general Italian market flair. 

 The only meal we had of note was the Ortegia Fish Bar - don't go here for the setting because this is really take-away (we got the one seat outside which was lovely, but obviously that part could be hit or miss). But it had some of the best casual seafood from our trip. I usually hate fried seafood but their version was as light as air. They also had a version of caponata and octopus salad - two Sicilian staples you see everywhere - that were standouts. 

 

Noto

 Caffe Sicilia ice cream

Caffe Sicilia ice cream

Noto is the first of three towns (including Modica and Ragusa) that were all flattened in a 16th century earthquake and rebuilt in a very distinctive baroque style. The towns are all built up onto a hill and then go fully down into the valley. It's quite striking visually.

There were two food spots of note for us in Noto. Caffe Sicilia is on everyone's list and for good reason. It has among the best desserts around and it was far and away the best gelato we had on our trip. And while a lot of Sicily is about the casual food, if you want a splurge (that still isn't a splurge compared to spots in other parts of Sicily) Crocifisso is a great choice. Creative takes on local seafood, excellent pasta and high end service make it a great spot.

A short drive from Noto is another cute town, worth an afternoon. Marzamemi has a seaside dining and shopping area that sort of feels like a hipster market with an Italian vibe. It's not very big but there are a lot of very charming restaurants on the water that make for a nice drink or meal if you want something seaside. 

 

Modica and Ragusa

 The main cathedral in Ragusa

The main cathedral in Ragusa

I'm putting these towns together because while they can be done separately (or over more time) you could also do them as a single day trip together from Noto or Siracusa. 

They also have the beautiful towns up on a hill and a lot of the same style as Noto. One thing we did that I would highly recommend is the little trains that go around the city. They are open air and only 45 minutes, so you can get a sense of the whole town without too much of a treacherous walk up and down. If you have a kid it's an extra bonus because they will be excited to be on a train.

In Modica, stop by Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. The city is famed for its chocolate and this is one of the best stops to by handmade chocolate for yourself or as a souvenir. They also have the best cannoli, which is sort of a must in Sicily. 

 The cannoli from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto.

The cannoli from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto.

Our biggest splurge was Ciccio Sultano Duomo in Ragusa. They have a tasting menu but you can also do a la carte - and if you do a la carte you still get all of the incredible amuse bouches that they serve that are spectacular - like a savory cannoli with caviar and a raw shrimp on top. Amazing. And you wouldn't expect it, but even they had a kids menu. 

Also a drive outside Ragusa is Azienda Agricola Magazze, which is a farm that makes buffalo mozzarella and they also have a restaurant. You can see the buffalos and then taste the mozzarella and I will assure you that there is nothing fresher. It is well worth a detour, and if you are staying in a house where you are cooking for yourself you could spend a few breakfasts and lunches eating tomato mozzarella and wondering why you don't just live in Sicily. 

 Buffalos at  Azienda Agricola Magazze

Buffalos at Azienda Agricola Magazze

 

* Caltagirone

I mention Caltagirone only if you are interested in purchasing some of Sicily's famed ceramics. You can buy the handmade Caltagirone items all over Sicily (literally in almost every store) but if you want to bring more than a few items home the town itself is well worth the stop. It's a little out of the way of the other sites, but the gorgeous steps, the unique cathedral dome, and all the little shops make for a lovely little town. 

 

Overall the thing I would say about Sicily is this: pick a few places and go slow. There is a lot to see but you can also pick and choose and not feel like you are missing anything. Eat a lot, walk a lot and enjoy it all. 

IMG_1548.JPG