Sicily is located in the central Mediterranean Sea. It is an autonomous region of Italy and has a rich and unique culture. Its winters are warm and summers are hot.
Arrival in Sicily
We touched down in Palermo on the sunny island of Sicily one Friday afternoon in October 2018. With a small Renault Twingo rental car, we were ready to set off for our adventures around the island. I couldn’t wait to discover the blend of civilisations that once conquered and lived on this island. And of course, Sicilian food!
In case you’re counting on it, we could not find an ATM in the arrival area of Palermo Airport. In fact, the arrival area is quite limited in amenities other than a small café, toilets and a surprising number of rental car counters. Another tip – if you’re planning on exploring several Sicilian towns, I would recommend renting a car. You can get by using bus and train but a car is much easier and convenient.
Our first stop was Selinunte, mainly known for its archaeological site and small harbour by the sea. It was a smooth and easy drive down to the south of the island. The main roads in Sicily are very well maintained and relatively empty too. We passed plentiful olive groves that wove into the mountainous landscape. Lunch was a Sicilian delight. We stayed in Momentum Wellness Bio Resort and ordered a desgustazione platter to share. It was filled with local meats and cheeses, and Sicilian specialities including ‘panelle’ (chickpea fritters) and ‘croques’ (fried potato dumplings). We washed down our platter with a glass of lovely light red wine from Mount Etna. This was my favourite wine from the trip! Admittedly, Selinunte was a little boring but we chose this town to be an immediate oasis from our bustling home city in London. It also served as our base from which we discovered the surrounding sights to the East, in Agrigento, and to the West, in Marsala.
Valley of the Temples & The Turkish Steps
The next morning, we set off early to drive down to Agrigento to visit the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi). As we were leaving the hotel, our concierge recommended that we should visit a famous natural attraction on the way – Scala dei Turchi, or the Turkish Steps. We decided to go to the Valley of the Temples first in order to beat the crowds. Given that it was late October, we learned that the ‘crowds’ were very small and we didn’t have any issues with tickets, lines or taking photos! This rang true for our whole trip.
The Valley of the Temples was the first instance where we experienced one of the many civilisations that settled in Sicily. The Greeks ruled Sicily before the Roman Empire. The site is roughly three kilometres of Greek ancient ruins dating back to 6th century AD – over 2,000 years ago! We didn’t get an audio guide as we thought the information boards within the site would be sufficient. Although this didn’t bother us, we noticed that around a third of the boards are written in Italian only. This might disappoint some of you history buffs but let’s say that this gave us an opportunity to use our imagination.
Around the halfway mark, we came across the most impressive and incredibly well preserved Greek Temple of Concordia. We also passed burial holes dating from Roman and Byzantine eras. At the end of the site, the Temple of Juno stood tall. Both of these well preserved temples are from the Greek rule and of doric style. There are taxi services available that can drive you the length of the park for a price of €2. This avoids you walking the return journey but we were happy to stroll back downhill to the entrance. Also, a note for those with small bladders, there are no toilets within the site except those inside a café at the midway point. However, there are toilets at the entrance where we bought tickets.
After the Valley of the Temples, we hopped back in our Twingo and set off to Scala dei Turchi. Even though it was off peak season, we knew we had reached the sight from the number of cars parked on the side of the road. We did the same to avoid the unnecessary parking fee of €5. Can’t imagine that this would have been possible during peak season! It was a steep incline down to reach a beach which stretched to the Turkish Steps. From afar, it was obvious how the natural attraction has earned its name. The white cliffs had eroded to form the shape of steps going down into the sea.
Due to a recent landslide, the shore route to reach the steps was closed. There was only one way to get onto the rock – the sea! Without hesitation, we took off our shoes, tied them to our backpacks and hiked up our shorts. Following a somewhat invisible path in the sea guided by a makeshift rope, we made it to the Turkish Steps. It was worth every dodgy step! The weathered, eroded white rock was smooth to walk on and our unexpected path to the Turkish Steps turned out to be the highlight of the day.
If you’re like me, you may be wondering about the name of the landmark. The name comes from a local legend where, pirates (allegedly from Turkey) would dock their ships by the cliffs, climb the “scala” to reach the top of the cliff and raid the local villages.
Marsala & The Salt Pans
After an indulgent breakfast which included cannoli, we checked out of our hotel in Selinunte to begin the next part of our adventure. Today, our final destination was in the sunny town of Scopello. Our route included exploring Marsala and the Salt Pans before continuing to Scopello. Marsala is the furthest town west in Sicily and the closest to Northern Africa. The origin of the town’s name comes from Arabic “Marsa Allah” which translates as “God’s harbour”. The magic of the ancient civilisations is very much alive in this town. Many of the streets are cobbled and the land is relatively flat compared to the north.
After walking through the streets and a second breakfast of lemone granita, we visited a museum most famous for being home to the ruins of a Punic warship. The museum is known as Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi. We’re not huge museum buffs but we had a few hours before restaurants opened for lunch and the entry fee was a bargain at €3. The Punic warship was destroyed in the Battle of the Egadi Islands in 241 BC. What amazed me about this wreck was that the archaeologists used the same lettering that was etched onto the planks by the Punics to assemble the ship!
Through to the back of the museum, there is a large archaeological site featuring ruins and baths from the Roman period. Walking through the site was another step back into history. I was impressed by the detail of the mosaics in the Roman baths and the fact that they were still intact. Beware of mosquitoes in the archaeological park though! They took a fair share of my blood.
After lunch in Marsala, we drove north along the coast to Trapani to find the Salt Pans. The shallow water, intense summer heat and hot winds from Africa are perfect for sea salt harvesting. The sea salt here is harvested using the same traditional and labour intensive method as the Phoenicians used around 2,700 years ago. In ancient times, salt played a critical role in the preservation of food. This salt is entirely natural and untreated. It has a much higher concentration in minerals such as magnesium and potassium compared to common table salt. Like the rest of our trip, there were no crowds and we were the only people for the self-guided tour. The tickets were €12, a bit steep in my opinion but the opportunity to visit Salt Pans doesn’t come about every day. Especially those that look over the Egadi Islands and have such a rich history. After getting seasoned on some salt knowledge, we hopped back in the car to Scopello.
Scopello & Lo Zingaro Natural Reserve
Scopello is a beautiful little town in the mountains of North Western Sicily with cobbled roads, a small courtyard and unmarked trails leading to the Mediterranean Sea. We stayed in a charming B&B called Pensione Tranchina. I highly recommend staying in this B&B. The hostess is very welcoming and the homemade breakfasts and dinners at Pensione were some of the best meals from the trip!
Early the next morning, we packed our day bags with beach towels, extra clothes and some snacks before setting off for a hike in Lo Zingaro Natural Reserve. It was only a five minute drive away from Scopello. The most popular trail is a 7 km cliff trail that runs along the coast to San Vito Lo Capo. The park is full of life with lush flora and fauna, contrasting against the backdrop of the turquoise sea. Due to another landside, we could only go half the length of the park, but this meant more time to explore the hidden coves and pebble beaches. After exploring a few beaches, we laid down our towels on the mostly empty beach of Cala Disa. A few swims, snacks and snaps later, we packed up in search of some granita in Scopello. We recommend that you invest in a pair of water shoes as the pebbles are coarse; weathered rock can be quite painful to stand on!
After sneaking in a late afternoon nap like the locals, we made our way down to dinner at Pensione Tranchina. The three course meal was a homemade delight. It included a fresh, grilled local fish called “spigola”, pasta alla norma (traditional Sicilian pasta with aubergines and tomatoes) and a divine dolce! I still dream about the pasta alla norma. In the morning, we tucked into tomatoes topped on fresh ricotta, home baked bread and generously drizzled with olive oil. If you’re looking for something sweet in the middle of the day in Scopello, you’ll find a café in a corner of the square (Made ‘n Sicilia) that serves the most perfect, tart and sweet lemon granita, and a certifiably mouth-watering pistachio tiramisu. Still drooling…I mean dreaming.
In addition to Lo Zingaro Natural Reserve, there are many coves and beaches to discover along the coast near Scopello. Be warned, some aren’t as easy to find as they seem. We spent almost three hours off-roading in our Twingo in search for Fossa Dello Stinco. All part of the adventure! In the end, we never found Fossa Dello Stinco but stumbled upon another completely deserted cove, Cala Bianca. We reached it just before sunset and had a quick dip. Fossa Dello Stinco, I’ll be back.
Top tip! On the last morning in Scopello, I discovered that the fountain in the town is safe for drinking. I used this to refill the last big bottle we had, instead of buying another. Less plastic consumption.
Favignana – One of the Egadi Islands
We decided to visit one of the Egadi Islands, just off the coast of Sicily. The Egadi Islands consists of three islands – Favignana (the largest and most populated), Marettimo (the most isolated) and Levanzo (the smallest). These islands are famous for their stunning beauty, sparkling blue waters and ancient history. This cluster of islands is where the First Punic War ended and it is the same war that sunk the warship that lies in a museum in Marsala. We boarded a small boat in Trapani and propelled our way to Favignana. Our plan was to rent a couple of bikes to travel to the hidden coves and beaches.
The small harbour of Favignana is like from an old Italian movie. Small blue fishing boats rock in the water with an old tonnara (tuna factory) in the distance. A grand mansion, or palazzo, overlooks the harbour. All the streets in the town are cobbled and mostly pedestrianised with little cafes and artisan shops. When you arrive in the harbour, you’ll find a few bicycle rental shops. My tourist instinct told me that these shops were trying to rent for a price far higher than appropriate. I couldn’t have been more wrong! We rented a couple of electric bikes to whizz around the island for the day at a price of only €8 each. The roads were empty with very few cars and occasionally, another cyclist.
Our first stop was Cala Rossa. This is one of the most famous bays in Favignana, renowned for its crystalline waters. The name of the bay originated from one of the bloody naval battles from the First Punic War which turned the water red. Hard to imagine when you’re looking at electric blue water. As we cycled through the island, we passed quarries of tuff stone. Some homeowners have used these angular caves as their own secret gardens or extensions of their homes. After spending a few hours diving into the waters of Cala Rossa, we explored a few of the manmade caves surrounding the bay and continued our cycle around the coast. Be warned that mosquitoes are out and about in true form, so bring repellent.
Two days in Palermo
That evening, we made our way to the city of Palermo. We dropped off our rental Twingo off at the airport beforehand as we had heard that parking and driving in Palermo can be a nightmare. We wished farewell to our steed and took an easy airport bus to Palermo city for €11 round ticket. The bus stop is just a one minute walk from the arrivals hall (turn right) – simple!
Our first night was at a unique Airbnb – a beautiful 50ft sailing boat known as “Janabel” in the “La Cala” of Palermo Harbour. In the morning, we were able to see Janabel’s fine workmanship and finishing in full light. After hanging around the deck, we set off to do some sightseeing in Palermo. We discovered Palermo entirely on foot and came across a few treasures along the way. Palermo is another unique city in Sicily that many ancient civilisations have conquered and settled. The city was founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BC and since then has been under the rule of the ancient Catharginian civilisation, the Roman Empire and the Arabs. It is over 2,700 years old and teeming with history, culture and architecture.
We walked up Via Vittorio Emanuele II to reach Mercato Ballaro, Palermo’s oldest market known for its fresh produce, fish and all sorts. Via Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the most ancient streets in Palermo where the Phoenicians rooted their civilisation. It leads to several iconic sights including the Royal (or Norman) Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni) and the Palermo Cathedral. On the way, we stumbled across a local pasticceria and my love for the Sicilian ricotta croissant was born. Drawing closer to our destination, we made sure we stopped at Quattro Canti and Fontana Pretoria. Quatto Canti is a crossroads with large statues of four kings and patrons of Sicily in each corner. Fontana Pretoria is a monumental fountain around the corner full of statues of Greek deities and mythological creatures. Interestingly enough, it was actually built in Florence and then relocated to Palermo in the 16th century.
After admiring the fountain, we found ourselves in need of a break from the heat and dipped into Concattedrale Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, a Norman-era cathedral church known for its Byzantine mosaics. The entry fee was a small €3 per person. On the outside, the influence of Islamic architecture is evident on Norman Sicily. Entering the church, we were stunned by the unbelievable level of detail. 12th century mosaics of iconography can be found in every corner as you gaze up and down. After our impromptu stop, we headed to Mercato Ballaro.
The sounds and smells of Mercato Ballaro are unforgettable – noisy, strong, animated, and unapologetically Sicilian. The market is vibrant, colourful and full of the sound of merchants flocking their goods to passersby in their native tongue. We passed tables and piles of fresh vegetables, fruit, olives, herbs, cheese and seafood – even catching a glimpse of a swordfish head. Swordfish is a popular fish in Sicily and often served in pasta dishes. We continued past Mercato Ballaro up towards a pasticceria that I had bookmarked earlier. Another smaller market unexpectedly emerged a few streets around the corner. Old computers, hairdryers, children’s toys, keyboards, jewellery, mobile phones and clothes were sprawled on the pavements by the peddlers. I found the knick-knacks amusing and some of the items brought me back to my childhood. This area was a little less travelled though so we kept our momentum. After filling up on some cannoli, we made our way to the Palermo Cathedral. We ambled through tiny cobbled passage ways and worn down buildings in residential areas. Palermo is a fascinating, grungy and dynamic city. Areas that are more run down are a reminder of the Mafia’s influence in the region.
Palermo Cathedral is another incredible mixture of architecture from different cultures that resulted from the restorations, additions and alterations to the cathedral. From one perspective, the cathedral appears almost completely traditionally Roman Catholic. Walking around to the side of the cathedral, there is an unmistakable impression of Norman style architecture and design. We found this mix of cultures and civilisations time and time again in Palermo and it is what makes this city so unique to me. This cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and free to enter. It contains the tombs of emperors and royal figures around the aisles. The figurine of Santa Rosalia captured my attention with its ornamental bronze gate and extremely detailed painting gilded in gold. Santa Rosalia is the patron saint of Palermo and she can be found depicted in many cathedrals and the Royal Palace. Legend says that she appeared to a sick woman, then to a hunter. She told the hunter where her remains could be found and instructed him to carry her bones throughout the city to end one of the most devastating plagues in Palermo in 1624.
By mid-afternoon, we headed back to the boat with pistachio gelatos in hand to rest for a few hours before dinner. After a few hours lounging in the shade, we got ready to head back out for dinner at a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host. It did not disappoint. The restaurant is called Buatta and is located near the bottom of Vittorio Emanuele. We tucked into a pasta dish each – my favourite, Pasta Alla Norma, and Pasta Alla Trapanese. Pasta Alla Trapanese is a traditionally Sicilian pasta dish with ancient roots. The sailors of Trapani adapted the traditional pesto base to use their local products. It typically has tomato, garlic and almonds. As this was our last night, we indulged in a second course each, both divine! Grilled catch of the day and Cinisara cow meatballs (Cinisara are a breed of cattle from Palermo province). For the quality of our meal and the service, the price was very fair. We highly suggest booking if you are looking to come for dinner as the restaurant is buzzing with a mix of locals and visitors!
The next morning, we packed our bags and organised them for our flight that evening. We spent our last hours in Palermo strolling down Vittorio Emanule to visit Palazzo dei Normanni, the Royal (or Norman) Palace of Palermo, and Cappella Palatina, Palatine Chapel. The Royal Palace was constructed at the highest point of Palermo and it is a result of additions and reconstruction dating back to the 9th century. After the crowning of the first Norman king of Sicily in 1130, the Palatine Chapel was constructed. The chapel is another example of the coexistence of cultures and religions in Palermo. It was designed and constructed by Byzantine, Muslim and Latin handcraft masters.
We debated going in as the tickets were notably more expensive than the other attractions that we visited and there were mixed reviews. However, as it was our last day and the chapel was renowned, we cashed out for our tickets at €16 each. I must add, the toilets are plush inside but you have to pay 50 cents for use! Although the Royal Palace itself did not impress us much, the Palatine Chapel stood out. It was similar to the chapel near Fontana Pretoria but even further adorned with gold paint and mosaics. No corner of the chapel has been forgotten. Other than the chapel, I was not sure if it warranted the €16 ticket.
We took a long walk through Palermo before it was time to pick up our bags and head to the airport. After sneaking in some panelle and soaking up the last of the Sicilian sun, we took the bus to the airport using the return portion of the bus ticket. Palermo is an energetic city with a unique blend of ancient civilisations and perfectly Sicilian cuisine. I would highly recommend a visit it if the opportunity arises!
It was late October, so we did not have high expectations for the weather. As my Italian friend insisted, the south Mediterranean climate pulled through, however. We comfortably enjoyed our Sicilian adventure in a temperate average of 25 °C. With the exception of one torrential downpour, we had sunny breaks throughout our week and the sea was just warm enough to dip into!
Overall, Sicily is a beautiful and historic holiday destination. There are a multitude of sights to see, places to eat and no shortage of areas to relax and enjoy the quietness. For most of our trip, there was no sign of nightlife but we visited the island late, after the end of peak season, and that wasn’t our main reason for being there.
As a value-for-money destination, Sicily doesn’t do so well. Many of the accommodation and activity prices reflect those you would expect in more upmarket areas of Italy. Throughout most of the trip, we couldn’t get away from the feeling that we were paying over the odds for many things. The only exception was, surprisingly, Palermo. Prices in Palermo were altogether more reasonable than in other areas and we received a warmer reception from the local people too. Not normally what you would expect from the most built up area around.