Breath-taking beaches, spectacular piazzas, luscious lemon groves, magnificent architecture, moreish gelato and, of course, one gigantic volcano – Sicily is a truly has-it-all travel destination. Too large to fully explore in one short break, the Ionian Coast offers a sample of the island’s delights.
Why go? Despite its increasing popularity, visiting Sicily still feels as though you are experiencing an undiscovered gem. Holiday-goers tend to fall into three categories: those flying into Palermo to visit the majestic city and its nearby nature reserves, hilltop villages, and spectacular beaches (such as San Vito lo Capo), those looking to hop between the dazzling, unspoilt Aeolian Islands, and Catania-bound tourists planning to make their way down the Ionian Coast from Taormina. This latter journey offers the greatest taster of what the island has to offer. Here, we shine a light on must-visit towns that make for a manageable itinerary with which to sample Sicily’s culture and natural wonder…
Having flown into Catania airport, most travellers bypass the city and head straight for the chic resort town of Taormina. Once a summer hotspot for Hollywood’s finest, the beautiful town has lost none of its glamour, with charming, pedestrianised streets to get lost in, sunny dining spots ideal for sampling granite (the Wunderbar Caffè has been a must visit since the dolce vita 1960s), and squares like the Piazza del Duomo to gaze upon, which look like a backdrop straight from a Dolce & Gabbana campaign. The designer’s citrus motifs are, in fact, inspired by traditional Sicilian emblems.
Visitors are advised to park their cars outside the town – Taormina is crammed in the summer season, making a touristy feel unavoidable, especially along the main avenue, Corso Umberto I. To this end, it is best to rise early to take in the many sights, such as the unmissable Teatro Greco – the most dramatically situated ancient Greek theatre in the world, with views of Mt Etna looming in the horizon. The windswept ruins of a Saracean Castle can be reached within a 20-minute climb of the town centre, and the tiny island of Isola Bella can be reached below via funivia (cable car). A day trip to Mount Etna can be organised with a number of agencies, such as SAT, operating within the town.
Eating: Predictably, prices here are higher than in the rest of Sicily, but if you avoid the obvious tourist traps food is excellent. For unrivalled pizza head to La Piazzetta (Via Paladini 5) located in a quiet spot away from the main square. Maffeis’, meanwhile, is an old-school Italian eaterie – all wooden panelling and white-jacketed waiters – that serves delicious local specialities such as Pasta alla Norma and swordfish. A top drinking spot is the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo – find a seat and watch the sun set over Mount Etna.
Sleeping: Myriad options abound, from low to high budgets. Among the purse-friendly hotels, Piccolo Giardino is a great choice. Located off the central drag it has a small rooftop pool, sunning deck and quiet gardens. For those feeling flush, the imposing San Domenico Palace (a one-time monastery and reputedly Manolo Blahnik’s favourite hotel) offers both luxury and history.
Ancient Greek ruins and baroque piazzas abound in this vibrant city. Mainland Syracuse boasts a number of acclaimed archaeological sites, such as the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, a vast park built from the nearby limestone quarry and riddled with a network of catacombs that date from the Roman era. It is the picturesque Ortygia, however, which is the main draw – a mini-peninsula dotted with romantically distressed houses that look out onto a wild-looking sea. Within this rich framework lies a beautiful, aged maze of narrow alleyways sprinkled with trattorias and glowing gold-stoned piazzas, among them the jewel in Sicily’s crown – the Piazza del Duomo. Built in the 5th-century BC, it is surrounded by equally stunning palazzi, making the entire square seriously Instagram-worthy.
The old Jewish Quarter La Guidecca is also worth exploring, especially the ancient underground Miqwe, or bathing house, that was blocked when the Jewish were expelled from the island in 1492, and only recently uncovered. Once you’ve had your fill of culture, turn to Ortygia’s many artisan shops selling everything from traditional pottery to olive oil; there’s even an entire store dedicated to decorative fish handmade by local artists, Fish House.
Eating: The dramatic lanes lend themselves to atmospheric al fresco dining. Sample first class seafood in the cavernous Don Camillo (think king prawns in thick almond cream soup, a Sicilian favourite), or be lured by the quirky charm of La Foglia an eclectic vegetarian eaterie (all mismatched chairs and antique furniture) serving classics such as ricotta cakes and stuffed sardines. Looking to sup with a sea view? Try one of the many seafood restaurants that line the Via Castello Maniace.
Sleeping: It’s easy to travel here from Taormina as a daytrip, but if you’re looking to journey on further down the coast rest your head at Palazzo del Sale, a former salt sellers home that contains six airy rooms decorated in a clean, crisp style with exposed stone wall detailing.
An incredible UNESCO-listed baroque hillside town, on a grander scale than the others, is Noto – entirely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693. Sicilians often cite the Corso Vittorio Emanuele as the island’s most impressive street – the heart of the historic centre. Flanked by the Cattedrale di San Nicolo and its monumental staircase (come evening the building gives off a peachy glow), as well as the Palazzo Landolina, it is the perfect place for a leisurely stroll to take in the endless wrought-iron balconies, gnarled cherubs and time-worn facades.
Enjoy what is often dubbed the best gelato in the world at the Caffè Sicilia (flavours include unsual combinations such as saffron, pine nut, and salad leaves) before discovering how the Sicilian nobles lived at Palazzo Nicolaci di Valladorata. Cast your eyes over sumptuous brocade walls, elaborate frescoed ceilings and colourful mosaic tiles for a glimpse at aristocratic opulence in the 1700s. If visiting in May, try not to miss out on the Flower Festival, held on the third Sunday each year – locals carpet the streets with hundreds of fresh blooms.
Eating: Ristorante Mastra – a favourite with locals – offers a light, fresh, contemporary take on traditional fare with predominantly seafood dishes. A more modern interpretation still can be sampled at Crocifisso, where chef Marco Baglieri is gaining accolades for his pared-back dining style and new twists on classic Sicilian flavours.
Sleeping: Most choose to stay in the Ragusa province, driving into Noto or nearby Modica. Masseria della Volpe is one of the new wave of luxe Agriturismo establishments changing the face of Sicily’s hotel scene. A rustic setting, sustainable ethos and chic country style, plus a pristine pool, spa and first rate restaurant, make this a winning choice. The nearby spiaggia de San Lorenzo is a regular on ‘Italy’s best beach’ lists.