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Photo: fazen

Where to go and what to see when you’ve got a car in Sicily, Italy.
Fly into Palermo

The highlights of Sicily’s coast take about a week to tour. Start by flying into Palermo, Sicily’s capital and largest city. You can rent a car at the airport and make Palermo your launching point for a day trip to Erice.

Palermo’s big and messy, but its tightly packed churches, squares, and palaces make it fun to just wander (which is something you’ll want to do on foot, not by car, as the streets are a nutty jumble of pick-up sticks).

Photo: Gianni D.

There’s Teatro Massimo, one of the largest opera houses in Europe and the on-location setting for the final scenes in The Godfather: Part III.

The narrow walls of Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini are lined with some 8,000 mummies, dressed in well-preserved clothes.

Also, check out La Vucciria, the location of a large market with fresh seafood. It’s adjacent to one of Palermo’s oldest neighborhoods, La Kalsa, which served as the Arab citadel when they captured Sicily in 831 A.D.

Erice

From Palermo, drive west an hour and a half to Trapani, where you’ll ride the gondola to Erice.

This town is all Middle Ages: stone walls, narrow streets, castles on the cliff overlooking the sea. The streets are still paved with smooth stones laid in ancient times. From the edge of the city you can see much of the northern coast of the island.

Apart from the architecture and the views, there are plenty of gelato shops in Erice.

Photo: _yamaneko

Cefalu

Cefalu’s got the charm that its sprawling neighbor, Palermo, lacks. It sits on the Tyrrhenian Sea at the base of steep brown cliffs.

The drive east from Palermo to Cefalu takes about an hour and gives a few good vistas of the town and its focal point, the cathedral.

Cefalu’s small beach is packed in summer, so if that’s when you’re there it might be best to spend your day like a local: lounging at a restaurant or café in the shadows of the cathedral’s towers.

Siracusa

Drive across the island (about 3 hours from Palermo) to another city with an ancient past, Siracusa. Founded by Corinthians, Siracusa was a powerful city-state.

The best evidence of Siracusa’s history is in the old district of Ortigia and its ruins of the Temple of Apollo — a few humble columns in the middle of a modern square.

The Duomo, built around the Greek temple to Athena, dominates Ortigia. Inside, you can see the temple’s original 12 columns absorbed by the newer church walls.

From there, head through the wide Piazza Archimede with its baroque fountain centerpiece and catch a cab to Neapolis, an archeological park with a well-preserved Greek theater. Plan ahead to catch a play.

Photo: giopuo

Taormina

Taormina, a resort town on multi-tiered cliffs overlooking the Ionian Sea, is an hour and a half north of Siracusa. This is where you can get a tour to Mt. Etna, and at night the volcano’s glowing lava is easily visible.

Taormina has plenty of pedestrian streets with shops and restaurants (which get very crowded, so go early in the day). There’s also the ancient ruins of the Teatro Greco, and you can climb the long staircase to the top of the mountain overlooking the town.

The beaches below are accessible via an aerial tramway, the funivia, which runs every 15 minutes.

Drive to nearby Catania (an hour from Taormina) to drop off your rental car and fly home.

More tips

Be prepared for fast, impatient drivers and for tolls on the autostrada, the equivalent of a U.S. interstate. You could also take the slower local roads that sometimes parallel the autostrada, but you may not always have a choice.

Traffic and parking are less ferocious than on the mainland, but still give yourself extra time when arriving at your destinations.

Photo: Daveness_98

Get a map from either the Automobile Club d’Italia or the Italian Touring Club before setting out.

Most major car rental companies operate in Sicily and you can shop around for the best rates on Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz.

There’s a charge for dropping off the rental car at a different airport, but depending on gas prices and currency conversion rates, it could be around the same price of driving back to Palermo. Plus, you’re saving yourself a couple hours by leaving from a closer airport (Catania).

For more information on the rules of the road in Italy, check InItaly.com.

Community Connection

Matador member Traveleze has more info on the island in her blog post Sicily or how to survive when travelling The Godfather’s land and experience the best of it.

Also, Matador’s Joshywashington has Notes on Trespassing as Travel in Taormina, Sicily.

About The Author

Megan Hill

Megan Hill is a freelance writer from New Orleans. She recently finished a year of service with AmeriCorps NCCC and is seeking representation for her memoir of her service. Read more from her on her website.

  • http://thepenandpaper.wordpress.com Alyssa

    Not going to Sicily during my semester abroad in Rome is one of my BIGGEST Italy-related regrets. This solidifies it. I’ve gotta go back…!

    Thanks for this piece.

  • http://www.candicedoestheworld.com Candice

    Would probably do something drastic to experience this. Seriously.

  • joshua johnson

    I wouldn’t mind getting back to Sicily *UNDERSTATEMENT*

    I stayed in a hostel in Catania that had a cavern below with an underground river snaking into the darkness…anybody stayed there? I don’t know the name….

  • http://nancythegnomette.com Nancy

    This article made me want to go to Sicily more than I already do. Cefalu sounds particularly amazing.

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/vagabonderz Carlo Alcos

    We went the other way as we took a ferry from the mainland. We were only in Palermo a day but made sure to check out the catacombs, those were cool. Didn’t care at all for Taormina…you can get a cool view of Etna from the amphitheatre there, but over all…meh.

    Rather than take a tour to Etna, just drive up to the parking lot and hike up, a very rewarding experience when you know you’ve reached the top craters while most everyone else took the gondola and the 4×4 buses!

    Would love to go back and spend more time on the island.

  • http://www.borgosanfrancesco.it Marta

    Charming and absolutely beautiful place, like “an agriturismo” called Borgo San Francesco that we used as a base to visiting other parts of Sicily.
    Great owners, speak english and will give you good tips and help you plan your travelling around…a wonderful pool and restaurant…very cheap but luxurious…we could not have found better…check out the website…www.borgosanfrancesco.it
    and call direct because they may give you a discount like they did us!!!
    also great town and beaches and real people not a tourist trap…and cheap because it is off the beaten path, but honestly the best kept secret…breathtaking views and very clean and cool little town with very friendly people and great ice creams and granitas.

  • Dario Palermo

    As sicilian I could suggest more places to visit.
    It dipends on how many days are you going to road tripping. In 5 days for example you can do a short road tripping through Palermo, Catania, Syracuse, Agrigento, Trapani.

    1 day and an half is enough to visit Palermo city center. Best places are:
    the Cathedral: it merges together different styles like Arabic, Baroque and Gothic.
    Porta Nuova & Palazzo dei Normanni: one of the various old city gates and the ancient royal palace, now venue of the Sicilian parliament.
    Orto Botanico: an huge botanical park, one of the biggest and most important in Europe.
    Piazza Pretorio & 4 Canti: in the street called Via Maqueda.
    Massimo Theatre & Politeama Theatre.
    Vucciria an Ballarò markets: in the morning open-air markets, during the night they becomes crowdy and cheap places where to drink or eat something.
    Cappuccini’s Catacombs.
    Mondello’s beach: sited few kilometers far from Palermo, it is very crowdy in summer-time.
    if you have the chance have a look also to the biggest religious fest of Palermo City, Festino di Santa Rosalia, usually on 14th of July.

    Catania is a beautiful city as well..
    Melior de Cinere Surgo is the motto for the city of Catania, due to natural disasters (earthquakes, lava flows), destroyed and rebuilt several times.
    Few traces remain of the greek period. The oldest remains are derived from the Roman era and they are:
    the Roman theater,
    the Odeon,
    the Roman amphitheater,
    Church of St. Agatha and the famous Ursino Castle, survived to many lava flown.
    The baroque monuments Catania are recorded since 2002 in the World Heritage List by UNESCO.
    Saint Agatha’s Cathedral,
    the Abbey of St. Agatha;
    the Church of St. Benedict,
    Biscari Palace, Palazzo Toscano and many other historical buildings which are one of the highest examples of the powerful taste of the era.
    One of the most popular features of Catania is the fish market, where they mix colors, sounds and smells. Piazza Carlo Alberto, better known as “Fera o Luni”, or the “Fair Monday”.
    the street called Via Etnea, crowdy at night, worth a visit.
    Do not miss the Festival of Saint Agatha, it takes place every year from 3 to 5 February and 17 August.

    Etna volcan: there aren’t enough words to explain the magic of that place. I suggest yo uto have a whole day with a guide that can drive you in ones of the exceptional places I have ever seen. There are many companies offering visits there, with a pick up service, lunch, different visits and so on. for this check on the net.

    About Siracusa has been written all that you can visit there.

    Agrigento is sited on the south coast of Sicily.
    The old city center is quite nice, visit it if you have enough time. But the most actractive place there is the Valley of the Temples, UNESCO heritage and clear example of the old greek culture of Sicily.
    The most striking part of the city is the magnificent that part, the ancient Akragas. Here it seems that time has stopped, the tourist is speechless. Among the many temples that there are, are: the Temple of Concordia, one of the most complete in the world greek temples and the Temple of Zeus, perhaps the greatest temple of the Magna Greece (the greek domain in Southern Italy).

    Trapani
    Churches and palaces… things to see in Trapani there!

    The churches in the city are many.
    In the historical center, a series of churches of great interest: the church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Cappuccini church, the church of St. Peter and that of Purgatory, located in the square.
    the very beautiful Cathedral, in Corso Vittorio Emanuele, dedicated to St. Lorenzo and built in the seventeenth century on an earlier fourteenth century building.
    One of the most attractive of the city is lined with palaces and Via Garibaldi eighteenth-century churches, such as the Palazzo Riccio di Morana, crowned by statues, Milo Palace and Badia Nuova (Santa Maria del Soccorso) one of the oldest churches in the city.
    From there you can take a boat or a ferry to Favignana or Levanzo islands.

    Other cities or places that worth a visit are: Selinunte archological park, Erice, Taormina, Modica, Marsala, Noto, Eolie Islands, Segesta, Madonie park. The hinterland of Sicily is full of beautiful landscapes and small cities, each of them interesting for something. Sicily is also full of old Castle. If you want to have more information contact me! Have a good Sicily road trip!

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