Although technically Italy, Sicily has its own unique character. It feels different from other parts of Italy. It is the football being kicked by the boot. It is ancient and charming. Chaotic, friendly, warm. It feels Greek, Arab, Norman and Spanish, all at the same time. Its cuisine is delicious and the sweets out of this world. Italians are friendly, but in Sicily even more so. We spent 9 days exploring the island by car. Some might say it is crazy to drive in Italy and wouldn’t even dare to drive in Sicily, but I say there is no better way to do it. If you want to explore beyond the major cities, in particular during the holidays when the public transportation runs a limited schedule, a car gives the flexibility to move around freely. If you are not afraid of driving and traffic in Italy doesn’t intimidate you, I recommend renting a car.
We were not able to rent a car before hand because we wanted to rent it in Palermo and return it in Pozzallo, our last stop before taking the ferry to Malta. Although we read online that Hertz had offices in Pozzallo, we were not able to make the reservations online, so we decided to just take the risk and wait until we got there. Unfortunately, Europcar and Hertz did not have cars available, nor an office in Pozzallo. Fortunately, we were able to get a very good deal with Sixt. They didn’t have offices in Pozzallo, but did in Catania which worked for us because Virtue Ferries (the company we used to book the tickets to Malta) offers a shuttle from Catania port to Pozzallo (for a fee).
We wandered through colorful markets in Palermo, saw beautiful ceramic tiles in Caltagirone. Indulged in Pasta alla Norma in Taormina and were in awe with the magnificent views in the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. In 8 nights and 9 days, we visited 9 cities: Palermo, Segesta, Erice, Trapani, Agrigento, Caltagirone, Taormina, Syracuse and Catania and did not feel we were rushing it at all. We went during Christmas season, so we did not spend time at the beach but more sightseeing. I tried to write a summary of the most impressive sites and, in my opinion, must see places, but during this time we saw so much and tried so many things that it will require a long blog post to make justice to this wonderful trip.
Day 1: Palermo
After arriving in Palermo airport and getting our car, we drove to the city. We stayed at Hotel Ambasciatori (58€ per night with Booking.com). They had one parking spot available for free (subject to availability) so we were lucky. The views from the terrace of this hotel are breathtaking, especially during sunset. We left the hotel right about the time of the passeggiata, an evening ritual for Italians who as the sun goes down, they dress up and go out for a stroll with their families before getting together for dinner. Every time we go to Italy we try to join the locals during the passeggiata. I like it because I feel like we are blending in with them and become locals, even if for a few hours. Entire families come out, parents, grandparents, children, babies in their stroll and even Fido joins them.
Day 2: Palermo
We began our own tour at Ballaro Market. While on our way there, we marveled through Sicily’s Baroque and Byzantine architecture, with traces of medieval. The market is loud, smelly, colorful and cheap. I loved listening to the vendors yelling in their dialect. It was the perfect place to have breakfast and try some of the Sicilian delicacies such as the panelle (fried batter made from chickpea) and cannolo (fried pastry filled with sweet ricotta and topped with pistachios or chocolate).
A morning at Ballaro Market in Palermo, Sicily
Do not miss: The Catacombs of the Capuchins. This is the final resting place of many Palermo natives from 1599 until the 1920’s. This burial site is macabre, impressive and evocative. Is where the living meet the dead. A place to contemplate how fragile life is. Here we see the bodies of people that lived in Palermo during different centuries and one can appreciate how they dressed according to the time period they lived. From monks to doctors to housewives to newborns, their bodies were carefully placed so they can forever rest in peace. Probably, the most famous corpse is the one from Rosalia Lombardo (1918-1920). This girl died of pneumonia when she was only 2 years old. Her father was devastated upon her dead and asked Alfredo Salafia, a renowned embalmer at the time, to preserve her. Salafia did such a good job that until today, her body is almost intact, giving the illusion that Rosalia is just sleeping peacefully. Upon his dead, Salafia took with him the secret formula he used for embalming bodies.
Day 3: Segesta, Erice and Trapani
We headed early towards the island’s western coast. We stayed at Relais Agimbé (62€ per night) in Calatafimi. The price of this hotel included breakfast, which was really good. It included sweets, cheeses, a variety of cold cuts, coffee and juice. The reason we wanted to stay here was to go to Segesta, home of a magnificent Doric Greek temple, one of the best preserved anywhere and a must see.
After that, we went to the enchanting medieval mountaintop town of Erice. The castle was closed and the fog was very dense so we did not spend too much time there. Instead, we headed to Trapani to have dinner before heading back to the hotel.
Where to eat?
Cantina Siciliana in Trapani. Great service and delicious seafood. Also traditional desserts, like cassata.
Day 4: Agrigento
Stayed at B&B Valle dei Templi (63€ per night). A modest accommodation, but very clean and outstanding service. Highly recommended.
After arriving at the wrong hotel since the GPS had a hard time finding the right one, we decided to just go straight to the Valley of the Temples, probably one of Sicily’s most popular sights. This place is magical and impressively well preserved, considering this archeological site was the home of Greek colonies over 2,500 years ago. Definitely a must see.
Day 5: Caltagirone and Taormina
It was Christmas Eve and we checked out early since we were heading to Taormina, a 2.5 hour drive from Agrigento. On our way there we took a small detour to climb the 142 steps of the monumental stairs of Santa Maria del Monte, decorated with different hand-painted ceramic tiles (the town is famous for its ceramic). We bought some local sweets and had lunch there. I felt a special atmosphere since families were getting ready for Natale (Christmas). Families carrying wrapped gifts with giant bows, grandmothers buying last minute ingredients for the dinner and children playing in the piazzas.
In Taormina we stayed at Villa Sirami (81.50€ per night). This was the most expensive hotel during our trip and it was not worth it. We always travel in budget, so this was the most reasonably priced place I found. The location was good, but Wifi did not work properly, parking was not included and the breakfast was terrible.
Day 6: Taormina
Since it was Christmas Day, almost everything was closed. We didn’t do much, except for eating and going on an evening stroll. Taormina is a fashionable resort, the Sicilian version of Saint-Tropez. The main street is filled with fashion boutiques and Christmas carols could be heard from speakers installed along the way. The views of the Mediterranean coastline leave anyone in awe and if the weather is nice, one can enjoy superb views of Mount Etna.
Day 7: Taormina
We didn’t go to Taormina for the shopping, we went because of the views and its history. Particularly, we went to see the famous Greek theatre, which was actually built by the Romans. We need to remember that the Romans worshipped the Greeks. They emulated their culture, architecture and way of living. This theatre was built in the 1st century AD and it is still used for performances during summer, when visitors can enjoy an opera or a concert on this ancient site.
Where to eat?
We LOVE sushi, and the best sushi we’ve had in a long time was from Caparena Sushi in Taormina. Very good quality and tasty. Highly recommended. I know, I know, this is not traditional Italian food, but after living in Switzerland for 2 years, you don’t find good sushi everywhere. Good sushi is something we miss from Seattle and California, and we are happy we found a good place in Sicily.
Day 8: Syracuse
Syracuse or Siracusa for the locals, is in the small fishing island of Ortygia. Founded in 733 BC by Greeks from Corinthos, Syracuse is la dolce vita. Syracuse was an important Greek port and now it feels the entire city is a museum, worth to explore. It is home of the biggest Roman temple in Sicily, which unfortunately we could not see because they closed early (a reminder of how important it is to check operation times before hand, especially during the holidays).
Probably the most memorable experience here was going to a traditional puppet theater, the Teatro dei Pupi. Something my husband was REALLY excited to see and I mean, REALLY. Young and not so young enjoy a marionette show, which story usually revolves around knights, ogres and ladies. The show is in Italian (of course) but the story is easy to follow and is quite entertaining.
Here is a clip of the show:
After the puppet show, stop by Taverna Giudecca, next door. It offers a great selection of local wines and some appetizers. The owner can prepared a cheese and meat platter, and even shared a slice of his birthday cake with us. He and his friend were very friendly and welcoming.
Also, another memorable experience was when I was almost hit by a motorcycle when the driver lost control and crashed on the table I was sitting. He was driving in a pedestrian only area (not good) and I heard a loud sound and when I looked, he was heading straight towards me. I had time to stand up, grab my cup of coffee and run. The coffee was safe. I was too. Alexis was buying some pastries came running to see what happened… this was the moment that made us realized how fragile life can be, just like when we went to the catacombs in Palermo.
Day 9: Syracuse and Catania
Our last day in Sicily. We said ciao to Syracuse and headed to Catania to return the car. We had plenty of time to grab lunch and a granita, which is like the younger and rebellious brother of the gelato, but made with water instead of milk. The legend says that the Greeks and Romans used snow from Mount Etna to chill their wine, but the Arabs who introduced the sugar (bless their hearts), used it to make sweet drinks. Later on, locals got creative and started making the granita and also the gelato. Mix almond and chocolate granita for an explosion of flavors. I was told to skip Catania because there was “nothing” to see there. I’m so disappointed we did not spend more time here because I got the opposite impression while there.
Bonus: Christmas Tradition, Presepi (Nativity Scenes)
In Sicily we did not see any Christmas market, like those in Germany, Switzerland or even northern Italy. We did not find any Glühwein either. But something we did see were the traditional Presepi, or nativity scenes everywhere. Step inside a church and most likely you will be able to see one. Most are free, others ask for a small donation.