Adi takes a family road-trip on the Italian island of Sicily and shares her slow travel highlights.
Our family tradition is to travel on our birthdays. Because mine is at the beginning of May, we always get to take advantage of the shoulder season, which means good enough weather, fewer tourists, and affordability. This year I chose the Italian island of Sicily. I have waited a long time for this opportunity, and you know what they say; good things happen to those who wait. Sicily was well worth the wait.
To understand Sicily and its people today, you need to know this part of the world was conquered and ruled by some of the most powerful civilisations in history. The Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, Normans, and Spanish took turns ruling over Sicily until, eventually, it became part of Italy. Each of these cultures left pieces of themselves behind making Sicily a diverse historical landscape.
I had a hard time finding affordable lodging in a suitable location. In the end, Airbnb came to the rescue, and I found Heather’s little townhouse in Caccamo, a tiny village 35km from Palermo, offering the perfect “like a local” experience.
Caccamo is one of those places where everybody knows each other. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a one horse town. For such a small village, it boasts one of the largest and best preserved Norman castles in Sicily, which happens to be one of the largest in Italy.
Caccamo Duomo looks impressive from the outside but step inside and marvel at the richly ornate interior.
If you choose to stay here, I strongly suggest trying the local food, and I do not mean restaurants. Step into a butcher shop and try the Sicilian sausages (made with loads of fennel, which grows wild all over the island) and the many types of Pecorino cheese, also made in Caccamo. Get a loaf of bread and some Sicilian tomatoes and you have a great meal, 100% locally grown. Filippo Canzone’s Maceleria will welcome you like family. My husband loved going here, as he is a charcuterie enthusiast. Filippo talked sausages with him, gave him a tour of the cold room and even showed him how they butcher the pigs. It doesn’t get more local than this.
Because we rented a car, we were able to drive to all the places on our “to see” list. I strongly recommend getting full coverage insurance for your rental, to skip the expensive deposit (1400 euro!!) and to have peace of mind in case you damage the car. The possibility of damaging the vehicle is high, as we discovered while driving on one of the impossibly narrow roads in Caccamo. You will see no cars without bumps or scratches all over Sicily.
Our first day-trip was Palermo. Palermo is Sicily’s largest city and its capital. At times, Palermo feels and looks unkempt but don’t let that deter you from discovering the historical richness of this ever-changing city.
Driving in Palermo is painful so find a place to park the car. You have the street option, for 1 euro/h or garages where you leave your car, and they park it for you for a similar price as parking in the street. Then walk, use public transportation, or private rickshaws to get around. Do negotiate with the rickshaw drivers, as they will initially ask for ridiculous prices. We had two day-trips in Palermo and walked an average of 9km each day. My son is old enough to do this now, and my daughter had my husband as her private ‘rickshaw.’ He carried her on his shoulders all over the city, which is not something I recommend you do unless you really want to.
There is so much to see and do in Palermo; it deserves its own article. Read all my tips for Palermo, Sicily in this post.
The big cities of Sicily are interesting but nothing compares to the smaller, picture-perfect towns and countryside. I did not expect the island to be so lush and green. Mother Nature has been generous to the Sicilians and gave them fertile lands covered in olive, peach, and orange orchards, vast grain fields, and vineyards as far as the eye can see.
The coastlines are dramatic in some areas, with furious waves breaking on jagged rocks, and wide sandy beaches meeting turquoise water in other regions. No matter where you turn, Sicily will impress so let me guide you through some of the highlights of our Sicilian road trip.
Segesta Temple and Amphitheatre
You can find the Doric Segesta Temple just outside the town of Segesta. It’s considered an unusual building in an area where, at the time, the population was not mainly Greek. The temple never had a roof and lacks any paintings or sculptures, an altar, and deity dedication, which only adds to the mystery of why a temple was built here at all.
A little over kilometre up the road, you will also find the amphitheatre. A shuttle bus is available, but we preferred to sweat a little. The effort was rewarded with beautiful views over the landscape and a well preserved Greek amphitheatre. Entrance costs 6 euro/pers and kids under 18 go free.
The Greek Archeological site of Selinunte
Once a mighty and progressive city in Magna Graecia, in 409BC Selinunte became, almost overnight, a large expanse of rubble. The reason was a siege from their old enemies, the Carthaginians. They came in with 100000 troops and destroyed much of the city, killing 16000 people and taking the rest as slaves.
Today, the Selinunte ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site that lay peacefully on the high plain flanked by golden beaches. To visit the entire site, it’s a 6 km walk one way. If you are like me and do not want to walk in the hot sun and 90% humidity, rent a spot on one of the electric shuttles provided. They take you to each temple and allow you 30 minutes to explore. Our kids loved the ride. Entrance to the archaeological site is 6 euro/pers and children under 18 go free.
The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Valley of the Temples is the largest archaeological site in the world, with 1,300 hectares of excavated and unexcavated land. Due to its excellent state of preservation, the Temple of Concordia is one of the most impressive remains of Greek civilisation existing today. The other ruins include the temples of Juno, Heracles, Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Heracles, Vulcan, and Asclepius.
Take a day to visit the entire site. Entrance is 6 euro and the kids under 18 go free. There is the option of renting seats on the electric shuttles, but we preferred to walk. The café on site provides refreshments, food and of course, gelato.
Villa Romana del Casale
Located in the village Piazza Armerina, Villa Romana del Casale is home to the richest, largest, and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Be warned – although the way the villa is set up for the visit is great (people move above the rooms and mosaics on a series of bridges), the numerous tour groups make the visit for the solo traveller a little painful. Despite this, don’t miss visiting the site, just be armed with patience. Entrance is 10 euro/pers and kids under 18 go free.
Because we travelled with kids, we could not make this trip all about what we wanted so we had some beach time too.
Mondello Beach, located in the town of Mondello, a 20-minute drive from Palermo, is one of the top five beaches in Sicily. During the summer, it’s a favourite spot for locals and tourists alike. However, in May the water is still cold and the beach is quite empty, so we had a great time enjoying the turquoise water, almost alone. Our kids and my husband did not care about the cold water; they dove in anyway.
Because Mondello is a fishing village, you can’t leave without dining at one of the restaurants in Piazza Mondello. I can’t speak more highly of Da Nicolo e Figli restaurant that specialises in all things fish. We ate out many times during our trip, but only here I felt like I was truly tasting Sicily.
The menu is unpretentious and has a lot of starter options I recommend you try and share. The owner recommended off-menu dishes (don’t worry they do not cost more than what is already on the starter menu), and we went with his suggestions. We tried swordfish caponata, grilled tuna with sautéed onions, sardine meatballs, and lightly battered, fried baby sardines. To hubby’s delight, this is where he finally got to try the pasta con le sarde (sardine pasta), a delicious, Sicilian pasta. Everything was perfect; the service, the food, the setting, and it did not break the bank.
Cefalú Beach is another one of the top five beaches in Sicily. Here too, we found an inviting and empty stretch of sand hit by turquoise waves, though visitors should be prepared to find the beach busy in the peak summer months of July and August. Cefalú was one of my top visits while in Sicily.
Admittedly a tourist destination, Cefalú did not feel overly touristy during our stay. The main attraction is the Duomo, an imposing two-towered Norman cathedral. Begun in 1131, this mighty church dominates the rooftops of the historical centre.
The only thing larger than the Duomo is the massive crag called La Rocca. It’s possible to hike the rock to the top, which we did. Although I felt like crying and giving up the whole time, reaching the top is well worth the effort. Near the top, you’ll reach the ruins of the Tempio di Diana (Diana’s Temple), an ancient megalithic stone structure. Around the summit of the Rocca, you will see various bits of old fortifications. The superb views alone are worth the blood, sweat, and tears of this one-and-a-half-hour hike. Our kids did amazingly well here, especially my five-year-old daughter, and complained a lot less than me. Entrance cost our family 10 euros.
No trip to Sicily is complete without a visit to Mount Etna. This impressive volcano is one of the most active in the world and the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy. A week after we visited, Etna erupted again so be sure to check advisories before visiting.
We drove to Etna Sud and took the funicular midway up the volcano. From here, we embarked massive jeeps that took us to the highest point visitors are permitted. The entire process was exciting, and the kids were in awe of being on top of an active volcano.
From here, a guide walked us around the lower craters. You could see steam coming out, and the ground felt warm in a few spots. This was the most expensive attraction of our whole trip. It costs 63 euro/pers to go all the way up the volcano. Another option is paying 31 euros and only going midway with the funicular and walking from there (not something I wanted to try, as the wind was blowing volcanic sand in all directions, but mostly in our faces). The last option is to pay nothing and just hike or walk around the volcano base, not far from where the shops and restaurants are.
One thing we learned was, during eruptions, some of the flows are extremely slow which permits lava tours. That is something I would love to do in the future.
Right after visiting Etna, we visited Taormina, a small town on the east coast of the island, midway between Messina and Catania. The stretch of highway from Messina to Catania has a toll, but the 90-cent fee was negligible. I wanted to visit this town for the most remarkable monument remaining here, the Ancient Theatre. This is one of the most celebrated ruins in Sicily, because of its excellent preservation and beautiful location. On a clear day, you can see the town and Mont Etna from here. Unfortunately, we got there on a foggy day, and the town was only barely visible while Etna was completely engulfed.
I feel the need to mention the downsides to Taormina. It’s completely overrun by tourists. It’s hard finding authentic restaurants (most cater to the tourists, with English breakfasts and the like) and the shops… some are too kitschy, some expensive, and some sell mostly foreign items. (Yankee Candles in Sicily??) It was the only place during our stay in Sicily that was packed this time of year. I imagine summer being a lot worse. But do visit, the town is beautiful, and the view from the Ancient Theater is worth a million bucks. For a special local treat, look for Nebrodi Black Pig products such as hams, salamis, sausages, while in the Mount Etna area.
In the seven days we spent in Sicily, we drove 2200km around the island and discovered ancient ruins, picturesque towns, perfect beaches and hiked an active volcano. Sicily is also the perfect foodie destination. Everything tastes incredible and the food, especially if you shop at the markets, is ridiculously inexpensive. Kids are welcome everywhere, and most of the attractions are free, as long as they are under 18. Whether you want history, food, city escapes, or relaxation on inviting beaches, Sicily will delight you so start planning.