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Destinations

The Go Ahead Travel Guide to Sicily

Aug 18, 2020 by  Jasmine Schatz

Like everything we do here at Go Ahead Tours, this destination guide was handcrafted for you by our global team! Read on to get our staffers’ insider tips from their travels.

Whether you’ve already fallen in love with Italy or are planning your first trip to experience la dolce vita, Sicily will spoil you with some of the best the Mediterranean has to offer. From excellent cuisine to rich history and breathtaking views, Sicily has you covered for an unforgettable stay. In this Sicily Travel Guide, you’ll find the best things to do in Sicily, the top places to visit in Sicily on tour, and so much more.

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SICILY TRAVEL TIPS

Currency: Euro

Languages: Italian, regional dialects, and some English in larger cities. It may be helpful to download a translation app or bring a phrasebook to use when you travel to Sicily. If you want to learn a bit of the lingo before you take off, check out some Italian phrases to know before you go.

How to travel in Sicily: On foot or by private motor coach. Once you’re settled in a city, most sites will be within walking distance. When traveling between cities, taking a private bus offers views of Sicily’s beautiful countryside and allows for stops along the coast or in smaller, scenic towns.

Phrases to know: Picking up simple greetings is a great way to strike up a conversation with the locals. It’s also one of our favorite tips for traveling to Sicily. Using “buongiorno” for a quick good morning and “buonasera” for good evening will have you feeling like a local. “Grazie mille” goes a long way for many thanks to anyone who helps you along the way.

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WHEN TO TRAVEL TO SICILY

The island of Sicily has so much to offer year-round. We’ve outlined some of each season’s highlights in this Sicily Travel Guide so that you can plan for an incredible trip to Sicily any time of year!

  • Summer for warm weather. You guessed it, the Mediterranean is a popular summer destination, and for good reason. Sicily’s coastal cities offer plenty of opportunities to relax on some truly unique beaches. One of our best Sicily travel tips is to not visit the island in August, since most Italians are on vacation for the entire month, which means access to shops and restaurants will be limited. A visit to Palermo’s historic catacombs can provide relief from the heat in June and July. It also doesn’t hurt that the catacombs are one of the top historic places to visit in Sicily.
  • Spring for off-season delights. While Sicily can sometimes see spring rain, don’t let this discourage you from traveling during the off-season months of March and April. You’ll see fields of wildflowers divided by low, hand-built stone walls as you travel between cities. It’s just one of the Sicily attractions you won’t want to miss. This is a great time to visit any of Sicily’s outdoor archeological sites, as there are fewer crowds and milder weather (that’s when the attractions in Sicily really shine!). In May, Noto celebrates its Baroque Spring Festival by blanketing the city’s streets with flowers.
  • October and November for fall flavors. During the off-season, you’ll get to see Sicily’s cities at their finest. While September tends to be the busiest month, later fall means fewer crowds and better access to the best Sicily tourist attractions. October sees the height of the olive harvest season, and with Sicily’s numerous olive groves, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for an olive oil tasting—it’s one of the best things to do in Sicily. With cooler weather, you’ll also be able to enjoy a hike up Mount Etna, Sicily’s volcano (and one of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the island!). We can confirm that the view from the top is one of the top sights in Sicily.
  • Saints Days and Carnival. Another one of our Sicily travel tips is to check your calendar to see when you’re visiting each city on tour as you might overlap with one of Sicily’s unique festivals. Locals celebrate each city’s patron saint with processions, concerts, special foods, and fireworks. Some notable patrons are Saint Agatha of Catania, Saint Rosalia of Palermo, and Saint Lucy of Syracuse. Sicily hosts Carnival celebrations in both Acireale and Taormina with ostentatious floats, parades, and masked locals.

Check out our top-rated tour of Sicily

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WHAT TO PACK FOR A TRIP TO SICILY

Summer months call for lighter clothing, while off-season travel means packing layers. Even coastal cities can get quite hot, so you’ll want to be prepared for beach weather. Its proximity to the Mediterranean keeps Sicily’s weather relatively mild, but you’ll still want options in case of wind or rain in the off-season. Keep these tips in mind so you can spend less time packing and more time thinking about what to do in Sicily.

  • Scarf. In the summer, a light covering will protect you from the sun and allow entry to Sicily’s beautiful churches. A warm scarf will keep you comfortable as you explore the cities and top sights in Sicily throughout fall, winter, and early spring.
  • Sun protection. Pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat for summer!
  • Good walking shoes. Italy’s cobblestone streets add to the historical charm of each city, and Sicily is no different. Make sure you have comfortable shoes or sandals for your adventures, and especially if you plan to hike up Mount Etna.

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THINGS TO SEE IN SICILY

Visiting Sicily for the first time? You’ll want to catch some of the island’s historical highlights and incredible Mediterranean views. If you’ve been before, you know there’s so much left to discover. Sicily will have you returning for its history, culture, and cuisine as often as possible. Each city boasts unique sites to visit. Here are a few of our favorite things to see in Sicily on our Sicily tours or during free time.

  • Greek Theater and Ear of Dionysius in Syracuse. Sicily’s rich history can be seen through well-preserved sites such as Syracuse’s Greek Theater, which is still used for performances today. Under the theatre, you’ll be able to visit the Ear of Dionysius and learn of its legends while marveling at the ancient stone cave.
  • Ballarò Market and Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. Some of the best street food in Italy can be found in Palermo’s markets. You’ll be surrounded by unique architecture, influenced by Arab and Norman rule. Palermo’s Catacombs feature years of incredibly preserved history. While a visit may not be up everyone’s alley, they are certainly a memorable attraction, which is why they earned a spot on our Sicily travel guide.
  • Catania and Mount Etna. Catania’s Elephant Fountain is a popular spot and can be found in Piazza del Duomo, the main square, which is also home to patron saint Agatha’s cathedral. Sicily’s second-largest city sits at the foot of Mount Etna, an active volcano. Visitors can enjoy views of the mountain from afar or get a closer look by venturing all the way to the summit. In winter, you may have the unique opportunity to witness snowfall, volcanic smoke, and the Mediterranean Sea all at once.
  • Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. Here, you’ll find incredibly preserved Greek temples surrounded by fields and almond trees. In March, Agrigento celebrates the Almond Blossom Festival, marking the beginning of spring.
  • Noto, Modica, and Ragusa. These three cities are famous for their Baroque architecture and hillsides crowded with warm-colored stone homes. Noto’s main square is decorated during their Baroque Spring Festival. Modica is famous for its chocolate, which the locals celebrate during an annual event in December. The town of Ragusa Ibla hosts street artists from all over the world in October for a unique performing arts festival. Attending a festival is one of the top things to do in Sicily since it gives visitors a unique way to experience the city like a local.

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TOP THINGS TO DO IN SICILY DURING YOUR FREE TIME

One of the best ways to enjoy Sicily is to live like the locals. That means having an easygoing, open approach to your free time to see where the day takes you. No one will blame you for spending hours enjoying a meal, relaxing at a beach, or admiring ornately decorated churches and historic architecture. If you ask a local for things to do in Sicily, we guarantee they’ll suggest one or two of those laid-back activities. Here are some recommendations for free time in Sicily’s unique cities and natural attractions.

  • Stroll along Corso Umberto in Taormina. After you’ve visited the ancient Greek theater and taken in the incredible views of Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean, take a stroll down Corso Umberto, the main shopping street in Taormina. You’ll find many shops, cafes, and restaurants, and can typically communicate in English with shop owners as they do encounter quite a few international travelers. A stop in Piazza IX Aprile offers more stunning sea views. No visit to the island is complete until you can cross “snap a photo of the Mediterranean Sea” off your list of things to see in Sicily. Want more travel tips for Sicily? Check out of guide for how to spend free time in Taormina.
  • Stop by the Scala dei Turchi near Agrigento. The Valley of the Temples offers a spectacular look into Sicily’s rich history, but it’s not the only attraction that brings travelers and locals to the area. The Stair of the Turks is a unique geological formation on the seaside. White cliffs create a stunning contrast with azure waters. You should incorporate this into your free time, as it’s easiest to reach by car for a visit or just a quick stop at the top of the cliffs for photos.
  • Explore the Island of Ortygia. Staffer Gaelyn recommends taking time to walk around the historic center of Syracuse, noting its “picturesque and quiet” atmosphere. You can visit the Cathedral of Syracuse in the main square or wander the small streets along the waterfront. This is a perfect place for a relaxing stroll past historic landmarks.
  • Santa Caterina Bakery in Palermo. Found right in the historical center of Palermo, I Segreti del Chiostro was founded to preserve recipes from Sicilian convent bakeries. The ancient kitchens of Saint Catherine’s Monastery have been restored to produce traditional Sicilian pastries. Staffer Gaelyn insists that you must try their cannoli—you won’t be disappointed!

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  • Hike up Mount Etna. When was the last time you set foot on an active volcano? Well, here’s your chance! You won’t want to miss the unique opportunity to explore this natural landmark. Trails to the summit vary in intensity, so take one of the more challenging trails if you’re up for a hike. Otherwise, there are more accessible paths to the summit if you’re eager to take in the view. There’s even a ski lift for winter sports if you’re visiting in the off-season and are looking to take your adventure to the next level.

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WHAT TO EAT IN SICILY

In Sicily, they say si mangia bene, which means you’ll be eating well! So hopefully your list of things to do in Sicily involves eating lots and lots of food. In fact, the food may very well be one of the best things about your trip. We don’t blame you if you get nostalgic for some of these dishes once you’re back home. Pro tips for Sicily: Add the Sicilian villa lunch & Noto village excursion. It’s one of our travelers’ favorite things to do in Sicily—and your taste buds will thank you.

  • Granita. This summer spin on gelato is unique to Sicily. While you may find attempts to recreate it elsewhere in Italy, an authentic Sicilian granita cannot be beat. Lemon, coffee, and pistachio are some popular flavors of this shaved ice treat, often eaten as a summer breakfast and served with a brioche roll and fresh whipped cream.
  • Arancini. These are a must-try in Sicily. Cone-shaped fried risotto is filled with ragù or prosciutto and cheese for a flavorful, filling snack. How can this be called a snack, you ask? After you try one (or two), you’ll be convinced that arancini is the food to eat between meals!

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  • Pasta alla Norma. Native to Catania, this dish is known for a simple but exquisite combination of flavors. Eggplant, tomatoes, ricotta salata (salted, pressed ricotta cheese), and basil make for a perfect pasta dish. For an even more authentic culinary experience, pair Pasta alla Norma with the Sicilian Nero d’Avola red wine.
  • Cannoli. You’ve definitely heard of these before, but you haven’t had a real cannolo until you’ve tried one in Sicily. Cannoli are prepared fresh in many bakeries and pasticcerie, making it easy to find these fried pastry shells with a sweet ricotta filling. Pistachio is a popular topping, along with candied orange peel and chocolate chips. Don’t hesitate to try them all, you really can’t go wrong!
  • Orange salad. This simple dish can be made at home, but it’s better on an IRL trip to the island. Sicily’s citrus groves are extremely fruitful (see what we did there?), and any street market will carry the season’s fresh produce. Peeled, sliced oranges are dressed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Sliced fennel bulb is also a popular addition. This is a refreshing dish fit for any season.
  • Gelato. Want to know what to do in Sicily? Step 1: Eat all the gelato. You had to know that was going to be part of this Sicily travle guide. You can’t visit Italy without trying as many gelato flavors as possible, and Sicily has a couple you can’t miss. Pistachios are grown in the volcanic soil surrounding Mount Etna and find a perfect home in Sicily’s gelato shops. Keep an eye out for Pistacchio di Bronte, which denotes the origin of Sicilian pistachios. Another special flavor is Fichi d’India, or prickly pear. Fruiting cacti grow well in Sicily, which means the freshest flavors for your newfound gelato obsession. Staffer Gaelyn wisely notes that while in Sicily, “one must try gelato whenever they get the chance.”

Check out how to order gelato in our article here.

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WHAT TO DRINK IN SICILY

Whether you’re looking to start the day off strong with a classic espresso, or are winding down after a bountiful meal, Sicily has you covered with these traditional drinks.

  • Espresso. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all appropriate times to seek out this traditional pick-me-up. It will be served hot at the bar, and you’ll usually see locals taking a few minutes to socialize while stirring their coffee until cool enough to drink. After a large meal, an espresso is a great digestive aid!
  • Amaro or Zibibbo. After-dinner drinks extend the already lengthy Sicilian mealtime, and Amaro di Sicilia is a must-try. This digestivo liqueur is made from herbs and roots from the Mt. Etna region, giving it an authentic, local flavor. If you prefer something sweet, try a Zibibbo dessert wine, which is often served with a ricotta or fruit-based treat at the end of your meal.
  • Blood orange juice. A refreshing, non-alcoholic option comes from Sicily’s citrus groves. On a hot day, you’ll find this colorful addition to be a welcome treat, and in the cooler off-season months, it’s a great way to get a boost of vitamin C!

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SOUVENIRS TO BUY IN SICILY

It’s normal to be be a little sad about having to return home after experiencing Sicily’s natural beauty. Here are some souvenirs you can take with you that will keep you dreaming of your next trip!

  • Marsala and Nero d’Avola wines. The first is produced in the city of Marsala, with the dry varieties used in savory sauces, and sweet varieties used in classic Italian desserts. Nero d’Avola is a hearty red that will accompany you down memory lane as you reminisce on your treasured Sicily trip.
  • Ceramics. “Visiting local ceramic shops in the small towns and big cities was one of my favorite things to do in Sicily,” said staffer Emily. Sicily’s unique, hand-painted ceramics from Caltagirone and Taormina are wonderful décor pieces and make great gifts—just be sure to pack them carefully!
  • Flavored liqueurs. Chocolate, hazelnut, and pistachio liquors let you bring your favorite gelato flavors home (with an added kick!). You’ll be glad you bought some once you start thinking back on all your favorite Sicily travel moments.
  • Chocolate. Southern Sicily produces chocolate with an ancient recipe, making Cioccolato di Modica well-known throughout Italy. These special chocolate bars come in a variety of flavors including citrus, cinnamon, jasmine, red pepper, and coffee, just to name a few.

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About the author | Jasmine Schatz
Sicily became a home away from home for Jasmine during a year-long high school study abroad program. She has since returned to Italy as often as possible, taking opportunities to work at the 2015 EXPO in Milan and to teach English to Italian high school students. When not reminiscing about Sicilian food, Jasmine enjoys spending time with her dog, cooking, and visiting her family in Northern California.

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