Often categorized as a niche destination for local travelers, this gorgeous island—home to some of the best culinary and cultural experiences in the Mediterranean—is overdue for some attention.
After all, we can thank Sicily for cannoli, Nero d’Avola wines and a thriving agritourism industry—as well as some of the most stunning ruins, beaches and small towns in all of Europe. Not convinced you’re ready to book a flight? Keep reading to see for yourself why this destination should be at the top of your travel-planning short list for 2017.
1. Seafood & street food
When you dream about Italian food (everyone does this, right?), there’s a good chance dishes like pizza, pasta and anything coated in cheese come to mind. And while Sicily has its fair share of carbo-loading, the local cuisine is more based around fresh seafood than northern staples. Sardines and clams are particularly popular and make frequent menu appearances, but the most ubiquitous seafood dish is involtini di pesce spada, Sicilian swordfish rolls. Other favorite Sicilian dishes include caponata (eggplant stew) and pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines).
Sicily also has a robust street food scene, based around two local staples: arancini (stuffed rice balls) and granita (a semi-frozen dessert in various flavors). Indulging in some bites as you walk il corso—what locals call the “main street” of each Sicilian town—is one of the best ways to experience the culinary landscape of this southern region.
It’s impossible to discuss Sicily without talking about the long-standing wine traditions that have helped put this region on the epicurean map. After all, Sicily is the birthplace of Marsala. And while Marsala continues to be one of the viticultural region’s most popular wines, Sicily’s contemporary wine landscape is diverse; other favorites of the area include Nero d’Avola, a strong red often compared to Syrah, and those made from native Zibibbo grapes.
Perhaps the most striking Sicilian wines come from the slopes of Mount Etna, where resilient winemakers brave unpredictable conditions to make some of Italy’s most desirable bottles. Between frequent volcanic eruptions, high altitudes and cold temperatures, Mount Etna provides an almost incomparable series of challenges for local vineyards—and yet the region continues to draw ambitious makers to its steep slopes. Those who weather the challenges are rewarded with some of the most incredible wines in the world; visitors should be sure to check out Etna wines from Graci, Ciro Biondi, and Tascante vineyards.
3. Mediterranean beaches
As the largest Mediterranean island, Sicily is home to some of the most spectacular shorelines in the region—and some of the best Italian beach towns. Better yet, Sicilian beaches are often less crowded than those in places like Cinque Terre or the Amalfi Coast, offering a less touristy feel.
Coastal highlights include San Vito lo Capo beach in Trapani, Mondello Beach in Palermo and Calamosche Beach in Syracuse, as well as Isola Bella, a small islet in Taormina, the white cliffs at Scala dei Turchi and black-sand beaches in Vulcano. The best way to experience the Sicilian coast? Rent a car and drive along the shore to hit multiple oceanfront towns; many of the best beaches are concentrated in the northwest corner of the island, accessible to explore in just a couple of days.
Yes, you read that right—Sicily gets to take credit for introducing the world to cannoli. And if you haven’t had one of these pastries in Sicily, you’ve never really had one at all.
The dish, which consists of a fried tubular shell stuffed with a sweet ricotta filling, is pretty much everywhere in Sicily—in corner bakeries, shop windows and dessert menus. But if you’re looking for the best of the best, you’ll need to head to Piana degli Albanesi, a small town in Palermo known as the birthplace of this sweet delicacy; spots like ExtraBar dei fratelli Petta and Antico Bar Sport serve up some of the biggest and best cannoli in the world.
Sicilians drink coffee first thing when they wake up and last thing before they go to bed, and social lives in many ways revolve around the local cafe (called a bar). And they start young: It’s common for some of the youngest members of Sicilian families to gather around the kitchen table for a caffè at breakfast or after dinner, though they usually require a biscotti for dipping.
When visiting a Sicilian bar, fit in with the locals by standing at the counter (it often costs more to sit down) and staying a while (Italians see the bar not just as a place to refuel, but a place to socialize). Be warned: Sicilians like their coffee strong and dark; a standard caffè is similar to an American espresso.
6. Mount Etna
On the eastern side of Sicily, visitors can experience Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest active volcano. The Catania landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site still erupts frequently; thriving tourism and agricultural industries have developed in the towns located along its slopes.
While it’s possible to hike up the mountain, most opt out of the strenuous (and often hot and ashy) trail in favor of a more scenic route: Visitors can take a cable car to the halfway point and then take a 4×4 bus to the top. For those who are more interested in taking in Etna from afar, both Catania and Taormina offer breathtaking views of the natural landmark.
One of the best ways to explore Sicily’s colorful history is by visiting some of the island’s ancient ruins. Physical representations of the region’s past, the impressively preserved landmarks—concentrated in Agrigento, Syracuse and Taormina—are focal points of Sicilian tourism.
Visitors shouldn’t miss the Valley of Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and stunning example of Greek architecture in Agrigento, and the Archaeological Park Neapolis, a complex in Syracuse featuring a Roman amphitheater, Greek theater and the remains of several stone quarries. Another popular attraction is the Teatro Greco in Taormina, an ancient Greek theater still in operation; look at the calendar to catch a show at this one-of-a-kind venue. Most ruins cost a nominal fee to visit, but can be explored without a tour guide or permit.
8. Cultural events
Cultural events play a large part in the social lives of the Sicilian people. In fact, Sicily’s calendar is packed with celebrations of Italian holidays, arts and local foods; favorites include the Carnival of Acireale in Catania, the Cous Cous Festival in San Vito lo Capo, the Almond Blossom Festival in Agrigento, The Infiorata flower festival in Noto and La Festa di San Giuseppe. In many ways, these events offer a glimpse into the heart and soul of Sicily—and a deeper understanding of what matters most to locals.
Considering Sicily’s ancient history, unique geography and complex landscape, it’s no surprise that agritourism—or agriturismo—is one of the island’s biggest industries. A socially conscious way of traveling, agritourism offers a deeper understanding of Sicilian culture and the part that agriculture plays in the local economy, history and preservation efforts.
In Sicily, agritourism is mostly focused on bringing tourists to local farms, ranches and wineries; popular areas include those around Mount Etna, the ancient city of Syracuse and the waterfront town of Messina. Guests who choose to stay at these B&Bs or farmhouses are often rewarded with fresh products made on property, tours of the land and picturesque views of Sicily’s unspoiled natural beauty.
10. The views
Hilltop towns, cobblestone streets, a rugged coastline that hugs azure water…it feels like there’s a new photo opportunity around every corner. See you in Sicily!