Sicily is covered in gorgeous beaches, stunning architecture and scattered ruins, meaning visitors don’t have to spend much to experience it properly – perfect for backpackers! If visiting in the summer months – which I would definitely recommend – walking tours, historic structures and delicious, reasonably priced food are sure to make you and your wallet happy. It’s a small island that’s crammed full of culture and activities, so to make planning your trip a little easier, I have for you the top 10 things to do in Sicily.
1. Snack your way through the markets of Palermo
When it comes to exploring Sicily’s cities, it doesn’t get much better than Palermo. Located on the north-west side of the island, the city takes you back to a simpler, distinctly Sicilian way of living. Once you’ve dropped your backpack off at your hostel, head straight down to the Mercato di Ballarò, the city’s oldest, busiest street market. This bustling marketplace snakes its way around several of Palermo’s streets, and with vendors eager to make a sale, bartering and tasting the local produce is encouraged and enjoyed. This is the perfect way to start your tour of this beautiful island.
2. See a show at Taormina’s ancient Greek theatre
If you find yourself on the east side of the island, you should totally go to Taormina. The city is a travel hotspot, so expect busy streets and beware the usual overpriced attractions. However, the stunning views and beautiful beaches more than make up for it. Despite it being one of the main attractions of Taormina, it is well worth walking up to the Teatro Antico di Taormina, an ancient Greek theatre that’s still used today! The view reaches from the nearby Mt. Etna across the bay of Naxos – this view alone could be considered one of the top things to do in Sicily. Tickets to tour the theatre start at €10, but be sure to check in advance to see if your trip coincides with a live performance. You’d be devastated to miss a show by your favourite artist in this totally unique and stunning venue!
3. Enjoy the wine (and the view!) atop Castelmola
A stone’s throw away from the busy streets of Taormina is the beautiful village of Castelmola. On the top of a hill stands a ruined 16th century castle (open to visitors 9am-11pm), which is well worth the steep walk to have a look around. However, the best part of walking to the hilltop isn’t the castle, but the view.
One of the first places you’ll encounter atop the hill is the Piazza San Antonio, beautifully tiled and providing gorgeous views of the nearby Mt. Etna, the stunning countryside and the gorgeous coastline reaching out of the ocean. While you’re here, be sure to step inside the famous bar Caffè San Giorgio for a glass of their traditional almond wine, which they’ve been serving to visitors since it first opened in 1700. It’s worth noting that Castelmola is a popular day excursion in the high season, so can get very busy!
4. Explore the layered history of Catania
A little further south on the east coast of the island, you’ll find the next stop on our list of the top ten things to do in Sicily. Located at the base of Mt. Etna, Catania is the second largest city on the island and has been transformed over the years by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, resulting in a city that champions its history and resilience.
The standout attraction of Catania, the thing that sets it apart from the rest of the island’s many cities, is its intricate network of subterranean tunnels. These underground routes take you through Catania’s history in fascinating layers and have created perfectly preserved time capsules of the city’s expansive history. I recommend taking a guided tour, which can set you back about €30, but with four stops to explore and snacks at a traditional Catanian kiosk, this is a great way to learn about the city’s fascinating past.
5. Ski down an active volcano
After experiencing city life along the Ionian coast, it would be a shame to not visit Mount Etna, a dominating landmark on this side of the island. The volcano is the highest in Europe and one of the most active in the world!
Etna is surrounded by a national park that provides an escape to nature regardless of the season. In the summertime, enjoy a hike along the nature trails that lead up to the volcano’s summit. If you’re visiting in the winter months, you’ll find locals and travellers alike skiing and snowboarding their way down the volcano. Ski lifts are located on the north and south side of the volcano, and with passes starting at €13, even backpackers on the tightest budget can take advantage of this unique setting. Be sure to check Etna’s temperament before you go though, as access can be closed to the public if it’s thought she might pop off!
6. Stroll around the ancient capital of Ortigia
Another key destination on this wonderful island is the city of Syracuse. Located on the south east coast of Sicily, it’s no exception to the island’s rich history and culture. Syracuse is the proud host of the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi, one of the leading archaeology museums in Europe (open 9am-6pm with tickets around €10, depending on when you’re visiting). Additionally, the city’s historic centre is located on the small island of Ortigia and is well worth a visit. A short walk across Ponte Santa Lucia, here you’ll find ancient markets and ruined structures from as far back as 6 BC. Make sure you visit Piazza Duomo, one of the most beautiful public squares in all of Italy. Sit back, relax and soak up the atmosphere.
7. Hike through the Valley of the Temples
Argigento is one of the oldest towns in the region and a visit here is one of my essential things to do in Sicily. Founded in 850 BC Argigento has seen it all, but the town’s unmatched beauty has meant it has always been a valued location to any and all rulers that have settled on the island. Home to many ancient ruins and cathedrals, none live up to the famous Valley of the Temples. Located just outside of Argigento, the ancient Greek monuments have become a cultural icon for Sicilians, especially the immaculately preserved Temple of Concordia, one of the most breathtaking examples of Greater Greek architecture still standing. The park is open to visitors from 8:30am-8:00pm, with last entry being an hour before closing. Ticket prices start at €10.
8. Take in Noto’s stunning architecture
If you’re looking to get away from the crowds of the bigger Sicilian cities, I highly recommend Noto. Located on the southern tip of the island, a short (and cheap, tickets are €2-5) train ride away from Syracuse, Noto is home to all of what makes Sicily great: Greek ruins, delicious food and beautiful beaches, just without the crowds. The unofficial capital of Baroque architecture, Noto is full of grand buildings and beautiful piazzas. For the best view of Noto, climb the tower of the Church of Montevergini for only €2!
9. Island hop from the coastal town of Marsala
Most commonly known for its wine (the appropriately named Marsala wine), this pretty town is situated on the western point of the island. Marsala is one of the busiest spots in the Trapani province, boasting all the features of a typical Sicilian coastal town: beaches, ruins and a rich history. However, what makes Marsala unique is the access it provides to the stunning Aegadian Islands that lay just off its coastline. This group of five islands, ranging in size and distance from the mainland, provide diverse landscapes and some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Ferries can take you from island to island, but if you’ve got your heart set on pure, idyllic beach vibes then visit Favignana. A return ferry ticket can set you back €20 and I’d suggest checking the online timetables before setting sail.
10. Climb the Scala dei Turchi
Dubbed the ‘most romantic beaches in Sicily’, these limestone cliffs get their name from their stair-like structure that cascades down to the crystal-clear waters below. The insane beaches at the base of the cliffs provide a different experience to the more common sandy beaches around the island. Don’t be surprised if you see beach goers covered in wet marl from the cliffs – locals insist the clay has unique benefits for your skin! Once you’ve washed your troubles away in the warm Mediterranean water, be sure to take a walk across the smooth white rocks that form the Scala, but be careful, they can be slippery when wet so it’s best to go barefoot! The beaches combined with the impressive cliffs and out of this world views make a visit to this unique spot one of the top things to do in Sicily.
Note: this landmark can be a little tricky to get to for backpackers, but if you’re visiting Sicily in the summer months there are frequent buses from Porto Empedocle that go straight to the Scala. Just be prepared for it to be busy!
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About the author:
Elissa is a freelance creative living in London. She primarily works in set design for TV and film, but spends much of her free time travelling. Armed with her trusty 35mm cameras, she’s always on the look out for the most beautiful places at the most reasonable prices.