In Spring 2016, I finally got the chance to visit Sicily – the exotic land of my ancestors and somewhere that’s been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember.
The whole trip was a sort of pilgrimage for me to discover my heritage and to meet family members I’d only ever heard stories about – so the fact that this all took place in what is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places I’ve ever visited was a huge bonus!
Sicily is located just off mainland Italy and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. With its stunning archaeological ruins, rugged coastal scenery and quaint, cobblestone towns, it is the perfect destination for anyone seeking a mixture of sun, sea, city break and adventure.
Why Taormina in Sicily?
The quaint hilltop town of Taormina on the Eastern coast of the island is an ideal base from which to explore some of Sicily’s most impressive highlights. Taormina is the picture-perfect version of Sicily you’ve day-dreamed about – a maze of alleyways, dotted with beautiful piazzas and historic buildings, and with a huge amount of things to see and do. Spring is the ideal time to visit, with temperatures in the early 20’s and the crowds much thinner.
Flights fly regularly into Catania-Fontanarossa Aiport (only 3 hours from the UK) and from here it’s only an hour’s drive to Taormina, making this the perfect short-break destination.
Whether you have a long weekend or a whole week to spare, here’s my fast-track guide to exploring some of Taormina’s top highlights.
Step back in time at the Greek Theatre
The ancient Greek Theatre (Teatro Greco) is just 10 minutes walk from the main town and is an absolute must-see for any first-time visitors. These stunning, ancient ruins date back to the 3rd century and are a remarkably well-preserved example of Greek archaeology.
Tickets are €10 (or €5 for EU citizens age 18-25) but it’s 100% worth it for the jaw-dropping views you get from the top. From here, you can see for miles across the island – from pretty pastel-coloured houses nestled in the hills to the volcanic peak of Mount Etna, rising up majestically in the distance. There’s also a small museum to explore if you want to find out more about the history of the site.
The theatre remains one of the most prestigious arts venues on the island, playing host to a range of well-known musicians and performers. This has to be one of the world’s most picturesque spots to enjoy a show, so be sure to check out the schedule to see what’s on during your visit.
Wander the pretty streets
There’s really no better way to explore Taormina than simply wandering through the charming cobbled streets and alleyways. The whole town is full of quaint boutique stores, art galleries, ornate churches and stunning piazzas. You really could spend several days just taking it all in (with a few gelato stops along the way, of course!)
All roads lead to the beautiful Piazza IX Aprile – Taormina’s main square, where you’ll be greeted with spectacular views across the Ionian Sea and towards Mount Etna. There are two beautiful churches located around the square – San Guiseppe and San Agostino – and a historic clock-tower and archway that leads you to the oldest part of the town.
I simply CAN’T talk about Sicily without mentioning the food… oh, the food!
Fresh pasta, pizza, arancini, caponata, seafood, cannolis, gelato… the list is endless. For dining with a view, head to Granduca Ristorante for spectacular sunset scenes (be sure to ask for a seat outside) but for a more traditional experience, head for one of the many side-streets where you’re certain to find buzzing little restaurants serving up delicious, authentic Italian food.
We loved the atmosphere at Gambero Rosso – a cute little restaurant with friendly staff, live music and a great value menu.
Take a bus to Castelmola
Perched even higher up the mountain, above Taormina, is the picturesque village of Castelmola. Many tourists overlook this little gem, so it’s a great place to escape the crowds for a few hours.
An hour’s uphill hike, or a 15 minute bus ride along some rather stomach-lurching roads, will bring you directly to this beautiful little historic village where you’ll be rewarded with some of the best panoramic views on the island.
As well as admiring the 360 views all around you, be sure to look out for the beautiful Palazzo Giovanni with its towering church and charming square, lined with al fresco restaurants and bars – the perfect place to stop for a glass of vino.
There are a number of great restaurants and bars to explore throughout the village. Bar Turissi is particularly popular due to its (ahem) “interesting” range of artefacts, as well as its world-famous almond wine.
But again, if you want something a bit more traditional, there are plenty of excellent family-run restaurants tucked along the side streets. We ended up in an elderly couple’s home/restaurant drinking cold beers in what I’m PRETTY SURE was their dining room…
Finally, don’t leave leave without checking out the old castle ruins that famously gave the village its name. From here, the views just get even better.
Visit the Botanic Gardens
The whole town of Taormina has a fairytale feel to it, but nowhere is quite as romantic as the Botanic Gardens. Entry is free and easily accessible from the main town (or you can make a stop on the way back from the Greek Theatre).
It’s worth spending an hour or so to wander through these beautifully landscaped gardens, with their sweeping ocean views and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ style villas.
Climb Mount Etna
Our plans to hike up Mount Etna were scuppered by the rather problematic fact that it was… ERUPTING! Or at least, billowing way too much smoke for tourists to be hanging around!
But if the conditions are right, a trip to the summit of Europe’s highest active volcano is rated as one of the best day trips from Taormina. As well as exploring other-worldly landscapes, many tour companies offer honey-tasting on the slopes, making this a unique experience not to be missed.
Take a day trip
Taormina is perfectly located to explore the Eastern and Central provinces of Sicily. Driving is the best way to get around and you can check the best rates for car hire on a price comparison website, such as Travel Supermarket. Just be prepared for a slightly hairy drive down the mountain (I’m assured there are road rules in Sicily but after 2 days on the road, we still couldn’t figure out for the life of us what they were!)
During our week-long stay, we made two day trips out of Taormina – one to the city of Syracuse, less than 2 hours south, where the old city meets the new. Famous for its stunning cathedral, fascinating archaeological ruins and beautiful waterfront, this city provides a unique contrast to Taormina and is worth a day to explore.
Another must-do road-trip is to the stunning central province of Enna, where the hills roll endlessly, interrupted only by sleepy villages and picturesque vineyards. This was the highlight of Sicily for me, seeing the beautiful countryside and a much more authentic side to this magnificent island. If you have time, consider staying a night in this beautiful region and add on a wine-tasting tour or some hiking.
Taormina is such a beautiful and unique place to explore and has a little bit of everything that Sicily has to offer. For more tips and advice on how to make the most of short breaks in Europe, subscribe now or check out the rest of my website!