In Sicily the summer is long and sybaritic—warm weather comes early and leaves late—and the travel experience especially rich: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, along with most every European power in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, left their mark on the island’s culture, art and architecture. If those aren’t excuses enough to add Sicily to your travel list, consider the seven reasons below.
1. It’s Palermo’s big year.
In addition to being named Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2018, Palermo will host Manifesta 12, a prestigious contemporary arts biennial starting June 16 (and running through November 4, 2018). The theme: The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence, which will explore concepts of cultural synthesis and other contemporary topics in a city that has long absorbed the influences of settlers and invaders from three continents. Numerous exhibits are planned throughout the city, a number in Palermo’s best known palazzi. One of the collateral events of note is Droog Design’s Serious Seduction – Sustainable Luxury for a New World.
2. All the dreamy beaches.
With 1000 kilometers of coastline Sicily offers plenty of beach options ranging from sandy smooth to dramatic rock formations. Scala dei Turchi, near Agrigento, with its swirl of limestone and marl cliffs offers one of the most striking coastal settings anywhere. Isola Bella close to Taormina, called the “pearl of the ionian Sea” is a nature reserve formerly owned by a British aristocrat, Frances Trevelyan, rumored to have been a very close friend of the future King Edward VII. Its beach is small and pebbly, but the location is idyllic. Close to Palermo and good for quick trips are the lovely seaside resorts of Mondello and Cefalù. (Mondello is 12 kilometers from the city; Celafù about an hour-and-a-half drive away).
3. You can stay in a palazzo or a castle and not break the bank.
When it comes to hotels, Sicily is more about independent properties, many in historic settings, than big-name international brands.
4. A hyper-locavore cuisine with Arab, Greek and Spanish influences.
Sicily’s cuisine may be regional, but no one can call it provincial. Invaders came and conquered but brought with them foodstuffs and cooking styles that richly enhanced the local diet. Ancient Greeks introduced figs, olive trees, artichokes and sheep’s milk cheeses. Arab settlers added citrus fruits, along with almonds and eggplants, and sweet-sour flavorings known as agrodolce in dishes like pasta with sardines or anchovies, raisins and pine nuts.
The Spaniards contributed the all-important tomato and chocolate. If you order a Sicilian cassata, it’s like eating your way through history—Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards all influenced the development of this tasty treat made of sponge cake, ricotta, fruit and liqueur.
5. Amazing wines.
Sicily has produced wines for thousands of years, but only in the last few decades has the island become known outside Italy for more than fortified wines, like Marsala. Innovative winemakers creating vintages from indigenous grapes like Nero d’Avola, Grillo and Zibibbo (brought by the Phoenicians) have added to the buzz as have wines produced from the unique terroir of Etna, found on the hillsides of the active volcano. Sicily has many wineries to visit, among them the renowned Tasca d’Almerita with estates throughout the island, including the Tenuta Tascante on Etna’s slopes.
6. Beautiful Borghi (very small towns).
Sicily has 19 villages that were designated among Italy’s most beautiful towns by I Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia, a private association dedicated to the preservation of small historic sites. Among the villages are Castelmola, a hill town with fabulous views of Taormina, and Sutera, 70 kilometers from Palermo, with many medieval structures, an Arab-era district, and a recent history that welcomed migrants fleeing Africa and the Middle East.
7. Fabulous archaeology.
Sicily has sometimes been described as an open-air museum because of its numerous archaeological treasures with several locations designated as UNESCO Word Heritage sites. In Siracusa, a powerful city when it was a Greek colony, there are many important ruins like the Temple of Apollo (6th century BC) and the Neapolis Archaeological Park. In Taormina there’s the splendid Greek Theatre dating from the third century BC with magnificent views of the coastline which sent Goethe into a swoon.
Sicily’s largest classical-era arena, dating from Roman times, is in Catania. Constructed with brick, marble and lava stone, the amphitheater had a rock-concert-level capacity for 15000 spectators. The Valley of Temples in Agrigento and the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Amerina about an hour-and-a-half drive from Agrigento, are also must stops. The villa in Casale is a spacious Roman-era dwelling with an extensive collection of 4th century AD mosaics. Its Sala delle Dieci Ragazze shows young athletic women practicing various sports like discus throwing, even weight lifting, wearing what looks like modern-day bikinis.