Charming Sicilian villages you do not want to miss
Sicily is one of the most frequented islands in the Mediterranean, with over one million tourists setting out to explore each year. The large majority of visitors will flock to the main tourist sites of Palermo, Taormina, Ortigia & Agrigento before settling on one of the hundreds of spectacular beaches to sit back and relax. The wealth of charming Sicilian villages dotted across the island are often overlooked, which has allowed them to stay wonderfully true to their roots and the perfect place to catch a glimpse into Sicilian culture (not to be confused with Italian culture).
This guide will take you through the baroque Noto valley in the East of Sicily, allow you to explore one of the oldest Sicilian villages in Western Sicily, dramatically perched atop a cliff 750 meters above sea level and finally recommend you the most untouched islands around Sicily to languorously stroll around on.
Eastern Sicily: The enchanting
baroque Sicilian villages
The lesser visited Easter coast of Sicily is cut off from the rest of the island by mountains (Did someone say Etna?) and countless ravines, making it slightly more off the beaten path for most travellers. Rent a car and start your journey into the UNESCO classified heartland of Sicilian Baroque, which thanks its existence to a Spanish duke who rebuilt the villages and town that were razed to the ground by a devastating earthquake in the 17th century.
Aside from the beautiful baroque architecture, these charming little villages also offer some of the islands most spending remnants of ancient Greek architecture as well as the best almond granita to be found in Italy.
Possibly the most well-known of the four baroque beauties, Noto has become the posterchild for the baroque Sicilian villages and with good reason. Make a grand entrance through the Arco di Trionfo before strolling around the Corso Vittoria Emanuele, filled with genteel bars & restaurants. Devour an almond flavoured granita for breakfast at 1893 Caffè Sicilia and explore some of the gently fading baroque palazzos (Palazzo Ducezio, Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata) and lavish churches (Cathedrale di Noto) that put Noto on the map. Finish the evening on the steps of the famed, slightly crumbling Piazza Municipio, the place to see and be seen.
The name of the city is derived from the Arabic words Qal ‘at al Gharùn, loosely translated as “Fortress of Jars” – a reference to the artisanal ceramics made here at the time. To this day Caltagirone is one of the best villages in Sicily to visit if you are on the hunt for ceramics. The grandest display of ceramics is without a doubt the Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte – 142 steep stairs leading to the medieval part of Caltagirone. Catch your breath at the top while drinking in the sweeping views. Take the scenic way down by meandering through the many carrugi (little streets). Before jetting off, be sure to indulge in a cuddureddi (biscuit from honey, wine & almonds) from the local bakery.
The small baroque island of Ortigia, otherwise known as the historic centre of Siracusa is quite simply perfection. The small size of the island provides a carefree environment for even the most directionally challenged traveller (myself included) to leisurely stroll around: Somehow the sea is always just around the corner. Make sure to visit the bustling Mercato di Ortigia, get lost in the maze of narrow streets in the Jewish quarter and marvel at the Cathedral of Sircacusa – a baroque church built on the remnants of a Greek temple. Sunset can be enjoyed at the port of Ortigia or at the Greek Theater of Siracuse (Neapolis Archeological Park of Siracusa). When walking around town make sure you look up at the many balconies that are buttressed with plentiful carvings of faces, animals, fauna and flora.
One of the prettiest seaside Sicilian villages is without a doubt Marzamemi. Once the most important tuna-fishing village of the island, nowadays relegated to a picturesque stop for tourists and sun worshippers. The former buzzing 16th century tonnara underwent a transformation from from tuna processing factory to vibrant courtyard, filled with locally owned restaurants and bars. Make sure to try the Pomodoro di Pachino (tomatoes from the nearby town of Pachino) and indulge in a glass of Nero d’Avola wine. Bring your swimsuit, because the bright blue water will lure you in before you can think twice. In the winter this small village in the East Coast of Sicily is all but dormant, save from a few lone fishermen.
The village of Taoromina is widely known for its horseshoe shaped ancient amphitheatre (Theatro Greco) offering staggering views over Mount Etna. Spend a few hours walking up and down the hilly streets: make your way from Porta Catania all the way to Porta Messina over the central artery Corso Umberto. Get in a good workout as you hike up to the Santuario della Madonna della Rocca, a tiny church cut into the cliffs. Don’t forget to take in the views on your way up! Finish off the day in the Piazza IX Aprile, the best sunset spot in town.
Western Sicily: Sicilian villages
built on Arab and Norman foundations
Western Sicily contains some of the most well-known sites of the city including the capital – Palermo. This part of the island is categorised by strong Arab and Norman influences of which the Norman Palace & the Cathedrals of the Sicilian villages Monreale and Céfalu are the most famous remnants. The beauty in the architecture is how it forms a clear testimonial to the possibility of a fruitful coexistence of people with different cultures, religions and originals. This is one of the main reasons that The Arab-Norman Itinerary in Sicily received the UNESCO classification in 2015.
For this part of the island you will want to make sure to try out some famous Sicilian classics: Pasta con le sarde, sarde a beccafico and Palermitan streetfood (rosticceria).
On the coast between Palermo and Messina sits the colourful fishing village of Cefalù. What started out as a small Greek village worshipping in the temple of Diana, quickly grew into a densely populated fishing village under the Romans. Visit the UNESCO classified Arab-Norman cathedral decorated with glimmering golden mosaics by the hands of Byzantium masters. Weather permitting hike up to the Temple of Diana, for the best views over the village. Spend the warmest hours of the day relaxing on the long stretch of beach and end the day with a cold beer watching the sunset over the remains of the ancient Roman wall. Cefalù & Taoromina are the two most visited Sicilian villages on the island. If you are planning to go in high season, expect it to be bursting with energy & people
Far removed from the loud traffic-ridden streets of Palermo and the busy beaches of Cèfalu, lies the little village of Castelbueno whose name is derived from the main touristic highlight: The Castello del Buen Aire or Castle of Ventimiglia. The castle is a 13th century Arab-Norman structure with a surprisingly intricate Palatine Chapel – adorned with stucco and pure gold leaf decorations. Wander through the sun drenched streets, indulge in a pastry at Fiasconora and learn the art of dolce far niente, a skillset the small villages in Sicily all seem to have mastered beautifully.
Perched atop a prime hill-top position is the historical village of Monreale, best known for its UNESCO classified Arab-Norman Cathedral (Duomo di Monreale). A true architectural masterpiece, balancing a relatively robust exterior with a golden interior: 6000 square meters of dainty golden mosaics, crafted by the best Byzantine craftsmen. After visiting the Duomo, pop next door to the chiostro (cloisters) of the Benedictine monastery. Pay a few pennies to enter and feast your eye upon the 200 heavily decorated columns – each column adorned with a unique pattern of mosaics. Take in the sweeping views of the Conca d’Ora and see how the city of Palermo sprawls out across the valley.
Monreale is one of the best villages in Sicily to get to if you do not have a car but are still looking to experience the local village feel. The village can be reached by the Palermo urban Bus Service (AMAT). Take bus 389 from Piazza Indipendenza and purchase a standard single ticket.
With a resident population of 80, Scopello is one of the smallest Sicilian villages to visit. An old baglio (farmstead) in the centre of the village houses a set of restaurants, small shops and the obligatory bakery/gelateria. Drive up the winding roads of the Castellammare del Golfo towards the famous tonnara, a 13th century tuna fishery which these days serves as a museum & small bed & breakfast. The tonnara is set in an idyllic bay, surrounded by pristine waters and faraglioni (rock formations jutting from the sea), under the watchful eye of two medieval towers. If you have time, visit the nearby natural reserve of Lo Zingaro.
The little walled medieval village of Erice is perched atop Mount Erice. Although small in size, this is one of the Sicilian villages that might surprise you most. Make your way up through the Spanish Quarter towards the Castle di Venere. On a clear day views from the castle extend all the way over the Trapani Salt flats on to the Egadi islands in the distance. After visiting the castle try a genovesi pastry filled with pistachio crème at Pasticceria di Maria Grammatica (the most famous pastry chef in Sicily). Wander further down the cobblestone roads, and peek into the many ceramic stores offering colourful trinkets.
Aeolian & Egadi Islands : Authentic
Sicilian Fisherman Villages
Any article heralding charming Sicilian villages is incomplete without the mention of at least one of the islands surrounding Sicily (be it Aeolian or Egadi). Things move slow on the islands (even slower than Palermo), things happen when they need to and not according to your strict schedule. Leave your watch at home, pack a good book and a pair of swimming trunks because that is all you will need here.
Marettimo (Egadi Island)
Furthest away from Sicily lies the sleepy island of Marettimo. Rumoured to be the homeland of Oddyseus, this sacred Greek Island is home to around 600 people – most of which are clustered around the fishing village of Marettimo. Due to the remoteness of the island, it has been spared the large influx of tourists that flood the Egedy Islands each year. Divers and snorkelers will rejoice in the possibility to explore over 400 caves which offer great visibility thanks to the clear waters surrounding the island (only reachable by boat).
The island has a criss-cross of little hikes available taking you through the main highlights of the island: Punta Troai, Case Romane, the Semaforo and the lighthouse of Punta Libeccio. Marettimo offers a rare insight into the slow paced island life, the perfect spot to disconnect for a few days. Getting to Marettimo is relatively easy, ferries run daily from Trappani.
Levanzo (Egadi Island)
Levanzo is the smallest of the three Egadi Islands, it houses exactely one village aptly named Levanzo. True to any of the Sicilian villages on the mainland, Levanzo contains a passticceria, gelateria, bakery and a handful of little shops and restaurants. The island is a tranquil oasis, surrounded by crystal-clear waters all around: Relax at the Caletta del Faraglione, voted one of the top 20 beaches in Italy or take in the sunset at Cala Tramontana and spot archaeological finds at Cala Minnola. To get to Levanzo simply hop on one of ferries from Trapani.
San Pietro, Panarea (Aeolian Island)
Panarea is the most exclusive of the Aeolian Islands, home to both the Italian and foreign elite – Stefano Gabbana and the King of Belgium both own a house on the island. The island is picture perfect: beautiful white washed villa’s, carefully manicured gardens and a port full of private boats. Step off the boat, straight into the lively port of San Pietro where fish mongers sell the catch of the day and flocks of day trippers take shelter from the heat. Grab a gelato on the go and make your way over to any of the peers around San Pietro to hire a Gozo (a little boat).
Spend the day lounging on your boat, dipping in and out of the crystal clear waters. Contrary to first impressions, little San Pietro is one of the best villages in Sicily for a good night out! Have dinner at the rooftop bar and terrace of the Hotel Raya. If you happen to be there on a Saturday evening during summer, you are in luck! The hotel transform into Europe’s best outdoor nightclub attracting party goers from all over Sicily. To get to Panarea take a ferry from Milazo (Messina) or Palermo.
How to visit the Sicilian Islands
Visit Sicily with an open mind, there is no point in comparing it to the perfectly curated Milan or the grandeur of Rome because you will be setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead marvel at the authenticity of the gentle fading palazzos, bask in the warm glow of old-style streetlights which illuminate the many baroque balconies overflowing with flowers and hunt down the many forms of iconography that can be found aplenty in any of the hundreds of charming villages in Sicily.
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