Sicily really has everything. You could easily spend months exploring Italy’s largest island, hiking its mountains and volcanoes, exploring beaches and smaller outlying islands. But there would still be plenty left to discover in the layers of history and culture that make Sicily what it is today– a diverse, culturally-rich destination.
Because of Sicily’s position on the edge of the Italian map, only few tourists ever make it this far. Those who do usually only visit Palermo and Catania for a few days, barely scratching the surface of everything this fascinating island has to offer.
Cruising Sicily is a fascinating way to discover the island. Most of the island’s prominent points of interest are located around the coast, and even those located further inland can be easily reached on a shore excursion. Road-tripping around Sicily can be stressful, with bad signage and roads often in poor conditions.
A cruise to Sicily takes all of the itinerary planning issues away. It also means you’ll having a comfortable place to retreat at the end of the day, as well as a team of knowledgeable guides and historians to introduce you to the island.
Zegrahm’s annual Circumnavigation of Sicily cruise takes place in September– when most tourists have left, but the weather is still warm and sunny. The journey starts and ends in Malta, and there will also be time to explore the town of Valletta, Europe’s 2018 culture capital. The expedition includes some of the best historical, cultural, and natural things to do in Sicily, including an opportunity to sample the delicious local cuisine.
The Greek History of Sicily
The Greeks began to settle in Southern Italy from the 8th century BC onwards, in an attempt to escape overcrowding, famine, and war in their homeland. It has been argued that the Ancient Greek archaeological sites in Sicily are in even better conditions than those in Greece. As a result, exploring the island’s Greek heritage is one of the best things to do in Sicily.
The Greek colony that included Sicily and Southern Italy was called Magna Graecia. This translates as “Great Greece,” a name related both to its size (which is larger than Greece itself) as well as the magnificence of its cities. The region was home to artists, mathematicians, and philosophers.
Both the East and West coast of Sicily were settled by the Greeks. The best known archaeological site is arguably Agrigento and its Valley of the Temples, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Temple of Concordia, built in the 5th century BC, is one of the best-preserved examples of Greek architecture in the world.
Sailing aboard the 95-passenger small ship, the Serenissima, Agrigento will be the cruise’s first port of call. Afterwards, there will also be a chance to visit nearby Segesta and Selinunte. The former was the largest city of the Elymian civilization (one of the three indigenous peoples of Sicily), while the latter is known for its spectacular Greek ruins (of which the Temple of Hera is the best known).
Syracuse was one of the largest and most culturally advanced Greek towns in Sicily. Among its citizens, we can remember Archimedes, the famous mathematician, inventor and astronomer. It is there that he uttered the famous exclamation “Eureka!” before running naked into the streets of the city. Nowadays, it’s possible to visit several sites related to Syracuse’s Greek history. First and foremost is the well-preserved Greek Theatre, where shows are still held in the summer.
Another stunning Greek theatre can be visited in Taormina, a town on the Ionian Coast of Sicily that is famous for being one of the favorites of the local jet set. The Greek theatre in Taormina is known for its excellent acoustics and its view over Mount Etna, and it is also used as an opera and concert venue in summer.
Arab-Norman Architecture in Sicily
After being conquered by the Romans and the subsequent fall of the Roman Empire, Sicily changed hands several times. It was ruled by the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, by the Arabs (between the 9th and 11th century AD), and by the Normans for the following two centuries.
The northern coast of Sicily is the best place to discover examples of Arab-Norman architecture, which is unique to Sicily. It combines traditional Islamic architectural features with the bare bones style typical of Northern Europe, where the Normans hailed from.
Palermo, Sicily’s capital and largest city, is full of examples of Arab-Norman architecture. The best known is the Palatine Chapel located within the Norman Castle, which is now the seat of the Sicilian regional government. Other Arab-Norman buildings can be found in Cefalù, a coastal city located near Palermo. Its cathedral also houses splendid examples of Byzantine mosaics.
Sicily’s Natural Attractions
Culture and history are definitely among the top reasons to visit Sicily. But the island and its surroundings also have a lot to offer when it comes to nature.
There are opportunities to hike around the coast and inland, as well as swim from pristine deserted beaches. Near Trapani you’ll find San Vito Lo Capo and the Riserva dello Zingaro, which are famous for being home to the best beaches on the island.
Sicily’s biggest claim to fame when it comes to nature is Mount Etna, which is the tallest and (arguably) most beautiful volcano in Europe. Its perfect conical frame rises to 10990 feet high, overlooking the town of Catania. Mount Etna is one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to ski while looking at the sea, and its summit craters are accessible to everyone thanks to a combination of cable cars and 4x4 trails.
In addition to Etna, volcano enthusiasts will be pleased to know that Zegrahm’s Sicilian cruise also includes a visit to Stromboli, a volcano on the island of the same name. Standing at 3031 feet, Stromboli is tiny compared to Etna. But it’s also one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to witness a volcanic eruption every half an hour or so. You’ll sail past Stromboli as darkness falls, allowing you to see the lava sparkling in the night.
No exploration of Sicily would be complete without trying some delicious, traditional Sicilian dishes. Palermo and Catania, the two largest cities on the island, are street food meccas.
Adventurous eaters will enjoy sampling pani ca meusa. This popular Palermo specialty consists of a soft sesame bread filled with veal lungs and spleen, and sometimes topped with cheese,. Less extreme alternatives include delicious chickpea fritters known as panelle, and arancine (also called arancini in Catania), fried rice balls stuffed with ham and cheese or meat.
In Catania, don’t miss visiting the fish market and Via Plebiscito at night. Its traditional barbecue restaurants offer a great opportunity to join the locals sitting outside, enjoying cold beer and grilled meat.
Sicilian desserts are also very famous. Two of the most beloved are cannoli (pastry tubes stuffed with a ricotta-based cream) and cassata (a sponge cake topped with ricotta cheese and candied fruit).
To truly feel like a local, start the day as the Sicilians do, with a glass of granita. This drink is made with crushed ice mixed with fruit, almond milk, pistachios, and/or coffee. It’s just the refreshing beverage you’ll need after a morning spent exploring the island in the warm Sicilian sun! –Margherita Ragg
BIO: Margherita is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.