Road tripping the Sicilian coast
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.