Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean and home to over five million people. With an area of roughly 9925 square miles, Sicily is also the largest of the Italian regions, slightly bigger than Piemonte. Unlike Sardegna, which is a long way out to sea, Sicilia lies just off the 'toe' of the Italian mainland, separated from Calabria by the Strait of Messina. At its narrowest point, this stretch of water is only two miles wide. However, this is not to say Sicily is very much a part of Italy. Palermo is, in round figures, 260 miles from Rome and 550 miles from Milan, yet under 200 miles from Tunis. Malta and its sister island Gozo are about 60 miles to the south. Click here to see a Google map of Sicily and its context.
In many ways, Sicilia is a law - and a world - unto itself. Legally, Sicily is an autonomous region of Italy, keeping all the tax money levied on the island but also receiving extra financial support from the central Italian government, as well as from the European Union. Culturally, Sicily is a cosmopolitan mixture of influences from Europe, Africa and Asia, reflecting the diversity of invaders who have landed on the island's shores over the past three millennia, including Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, Germans and Spaniards.
This fertile island, in a strategically pivotal geographical position, has a turbulent and fascinating history. Time and again, it has been fought over, colonised and exploited; yet it has also had periods of huge wealth - intellectual and cultural as well as financial. The foreigners took what they wanted from Sicily but they left beneficial legacies too.
Contemporary Sicily, sadly, has a reputation for being characterised by poverty and crime. Although there is some truth in this, it's frequently exaggerated and you shouldn't let it put you off visiting this extraordinary place. It's worth being careful with your valuables (as it is when you travel pretty well anywhere these days) and bearing in mind that Sicilian society is generally more traditional than you may be accustomed to in the UK or even the north of Italy. If you're travelling alone and/or are not a very confident driver, I recommend you think carefully before renting any wheels. In the cities, both traffic and parking are a nightmare and, even in smaller towns and villages, I've heard some unsettling stories of vandalism and theft of hire cars.
While it is undeniably true that the Mafia controls a great deal of what goes on in Sicilia, this will not impinge upon you as a visitor to the island. You will undoubtedly see its effects, in the shape of unfinished buildings and so on, and if you talk to the locals you may detect an undercurrent of Mafia pressure on their lives, but you will not be directly affected yourself.
My experience of living in Milano, studying in Urbino and enjoying countless holidays in many other parts of Italy did not adequately prepare me for my trip to Sicilia. I went there for the first time in 2009 and was amazed and absorbed by a region that is so obviously Italian and yet so distinctly un-Italian in a myriad subtle ways. I suspect it would take years to get properly beneath of surface of Sicily (though there are some shortcuts: reading a book or two before you go can open your eyes to things you might not otherwise notice - see below for some suggestions) but a week was enough for me to realise I want to go back, often. The sun and sea, the mountains, the Greek temples, the food and wine... these are just the beginning.
Satellite islands around Sicilia
Around the big triangle that is Sicily are many other little islands, some more famous than others and several that constitute a summer holiday destination in themselves.
To the north-east of Sicilia, on the line between Mount Etna (see below) and Mount Vesuvius (see Campania) are the Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands): Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Alicudi, Filicudi and Panarea and the tiny Basiluzzo. This volcanic archipelago has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ustica is another volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, broadly north of Palermo, particularly good for scuba-diving.
To the north-west of Sicilia, off Trapani, are the Isole Egadi (Aegadian Islands), the most significant of which are Favignana, Levanzo and Marettimo.
Way out in the Mediterranean, closer to Tunisia than to Sicily and exposed to strong winds is Pantelleria. Measuring 8.5 by 5.5 miles, this is the biggest of the satellite islands. It offers layers of history, nature, thermal springs, capers and delicious dessert wines.
To the south of Sicilia, between Tunisia and Malta, are the Isole Pelagie (Pelagie Islands): Lampedusa, Linosa and Lampione.
The website Isole Sicilia (in English) gives you more info about all the Sicilian islands.
Language in Sicilia
Siciliano is recognised as a language in its own right, rather than a dialect of Italian. In fact, it has dialects of its own, varying across Sicily and on the satellite islands, as well as in Calabria, Campania and Puglia. Despite this, the Sicilian language has no official status and is spoken only in casual situations, among family members and close friends. The majority of Sicilians speak Siciliano, though fewer and fewer are able to write it.
You would be extremely unlucky these days to come across a Sicilian who didn't speak standard Italian. Virtually everybody who speaks the local language is bilingual in Italian. If you speak Italian, you will be able to make an educated guess at the meaning of a vast number of Sicilian words and you will, in any case, be able to talk to the Sicilians in Italian.
What to see and do in Sicilia
Enjoy the mountains
Sicily is made up mostly of mountains, the most famous being Mount Etna. This, the highest mountain on the island, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. More than twice the height of Mount Vesuvius, Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe. Fortunately, despite the frequency of eruptions, comparatively little damage has been done to the surrounding area over the centuries. Etna is popular with both hikers and skiers.
The Nebrodi mountains and natural park, in the north-east of the island, are covered in extensive forest and home to wild cats, foxes, giant toads and birds of prey. Further west are the Madonie mountains and nature reserve. Here you'll find Sicily's second highest peak, Pizzo Carbonara, medieval towns (and many much older), porcupines, deer, eagles and hawks, as well as some rare fir trees.
Enjoy the sea
In Sicilia, you have three seas to choose from! The northern coast is on the Tyrrhenian Sea, the eastern coast is on the Ionian Sea and the third side of the triangle, north-west to south-east, is on the Mediterranean.
There are many, many wonderful beaches on Sicily and the surrounding islands. On Sicily itself, some of the best beaches are to be found in the nature reserves of Zingaro (north-west corner of the island) and Vendicari (south-east corner).
On the satellite islands, a few beaches worth mentioning are:
- the Spiaggia di Sabbia Nera (Beach of Black Sand) on the Aeolian island of Vulcano
- the Balata dei Turchi on Pantelleria
- the Spiaggia dei Conigli on Lampedusa.
The waters around Sicilia are clean and pure, lovely for swimming, boating and scuba-diving.
Visit the archaeological sites
If you're interested in history, there is no end to the fun you can have in Sicily! You must certainly go to Siracusa but there are numerous other archaeological sites to be explored around the island. Among them are the Greek sites of Segesta, Selinunte and the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento. Then there are the predominantly Roman ruins at Tindari; the prehistoric necropolis at Pantalica; the Phoenician settlement of Mozia on the tiny island of San Pantaleo, just off Marsala, and many more.
Explore the modern-day cities and towns
The term 'modern-day' is perhaps not the most accurate one to use in this context. Because the many layers of Sicilian history are such an integral part of everyday life on the island, you don't have to go to a specific archaeological site in order to see ancient sights. Usually, you just can't miss them! Of course, this is the case, to varying extents, all over Italy but it's particularly true of Sicily.
Palermo, the capital of Sicilia, is an intriguing mixture of ancient and modern, rich and poor, scruffy and stunning. This is a city that wears its history casually. The Duomo is satisfying to look at, not especially big but with lots of interesting features, and there are scores of other churches, each with something unique to offer. When you need shade, there are several nice parks - and the botanical gardens are a peaceful place to rest for a while. (The trees are odd shapes in Palermo, either bulbous or with exposed, rather Dantesque roots.) The food is great, often with a north-African twist to it - for example, I had a delicious pizza tunisina at a ristorante italo-arabo called Al Duar. If you want to experience somewhere a bit different from the Italy you know and love, while still being in Italy, I recommend Palermo.
Catania, the second city of Sicily, is a port on the east coast, near Mount Etna. Vulnerable both to earthquakes and to attack from the volcano, Catania has been rebuilt several times and many of the buildings are actually made of black lava. It has a Baroque centre, two Roman amphitheatres, a medieval cathedral, a castle (now a museum) and many other historical treasures.
Taormina is a fashionable little coastal town north of Catania. This is a beautiful place for a day trip.
Syracuse (Siracusa), in the south-east of Sicily, was the most important city in Magna Graecia and its illustrious past is still very much in evidence. This is where Archimedes made his eureka! discovery and where Damocles learnt a lesson from a sword hanging over his head. As you walk around Siracusa today, it's easy to imagine the ancient Greeks living there and even to buy into some of their mythology (for example, how the goddess Artemis turned the nymph Arethusa into the freshwater spring that you can visit in Ortygia). As well as immersing yourself in living history, you can make some lovely boat trips from Syracuse and there are good beaches nearby. You'll find fabulous food, both in the restaurants (particularly the less touristy ones) and to buy in the market and cook yourself. The people are friendly and welcoming and, all in all, Siracusa is a marvellous place to visit.
Marinella di Selinunte, on the Mediterranean coast in the north-west of the island, is the little town next to the impressive archaeological site at Selinunte. I spent a fantastic few days here and definitely recommend it. Clean, sandy beach; wonderful, open sea; excellent food; atmospheric harbour with some nice bars to hang out in and watch the sun go down. And Greek ruins up the road.
Take a Montalbano tour
Commissario Montalbano is the detective hero of Andrea Camilleri's series of novels (see below). The stories tackle contemporary Sicilian issues head on, though always with compassion and humour, and they provide great insight into the island's life, as well as gripping entertainment.
The books have been made into an excellent series of films, starring acclaimed Italian actor Luca Zingaretti as Montalbano. These are hugely popular, not only in Italy but across the world, and deservedly so: they are intelligent, consistent, funny - and set in some of the most stunning scenery you'll find anywhere.
Partly because the places we see in the films are so exceptionally beautiful, but mainly because Salvo Montalbano and his team have a broad and devoted fan base, companies have started organising tours of the locations.
If you're not familiar with Commissario Montalbano, I suggest you put this right straightaway! The stories are accessible, relevant, human-interest dramas, set against a background of the ongoing struggles faced by twenty-first century Sicilians. And everybody is talking about them.
In the UK, you can buy the Montalbano films from Amazon. They're in the original Italian, with English subtitles.
Visit the surrounding islands
While you're in the area, you might like to visit one or more of the satellite islands around Sicily (see above). It's probably better to plan this, rather than doing it spontaneously, and do bear in mind that some of the islands are a long way from Sicily and can take several hours to reach by boat.
Eating and drinking in Sicilia
Since Sicily is so fertile, there is no shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables, including apricots, figs, watermelons, artichokes and aubergines. The olives are outstandingly good and are made into fabulous Sicilian olive oil.
Pasta, rice and pizza are staples of the Sicilian diet, though you'll also find lots of salads made with vegetables and/or fish. A dish that was new to me but I very much liked is arancini, which I expected to be oranges but are actually fried rice balls covered in breadcrumbs and filled with ragù or some other sauce.
Fish and seafood are plentiful in Sicilia, of course, particularly swordfish, cuttlefish and tuna. The most popular and widely available meats are lamb, goat, veal and game.
Sweet goodies are an important aspect of Sicilian cuisine. Cassata, a cake filled with ricotta and topped with sugared fruits, is a Palermitan speciality. Pastries and ice cream are ubiquitous and delicious.
Fruit and vegetables flourish in Sicily's volcanic soil and so do vines. There are many excellent Sicilian wines, both red and white. If you're in the area, do visit Marsala and try some of the fortified wine for which the town is famous.
Recommended reading from, about and set in Sicilia
If you're interested in Sicily and you like reading, you are definitely in luck!
Andrea Camilleri is a very popular contemporary Sicilian author. He is most famous for his detective novels featuring Commissario Montalbano - great stories with a strong sense of Sicily. The first in the series is La Forma dell'Acqua (The Shape of Water).
Leonardo Sciascia's hard-hitting anti-Mafia crime novels are also recommended. One of the best known is A Ciascuno il Suo (To Each His Own).
Lara Cardella caused a scandal in Sicily with her bestselling novel Volevo i Pantaloni (Good Girls Don't Wear Trousers) because of its portrayal of a chauvinist and hypocritical society. She was 19 when she wrote it, in 1989.
Luigi Pirandello was also from Sicilia and wrote thought-provoking novels and plays, including Sei Personaggi in Cerca d'Autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author) and Uno, Nessuno e Centomila (One, No-one and One Hundred Thousand).
Novels about Sicily
Insights into Sicily and Sicilian history
Three excellent books to teach you everything you wanted to know about Sicily, in a vivid, accessible, enjoyable way, are these:
Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb
Syracuse, City of Legends: A Glory of Sicily by Jeremy Dummett
Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily on a Vespa by Matthew Fort
... and a DVD in a similar vein:
Sicily Unpacked - Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli and British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon tour the island together, teaching each other - and us - about various aspects of Sicilian culinary and cultural life.
For more information about Sicilia...
Buy a guide book for travelling around Sicilia.
Check out these websites:
Sicilia - official tourism website