Sicily is a gem of a island, with history rich in Greek and Roman architecture, fascinating ancient ruins and incredible natural wonders. Take a Sicily road trip and you’ll also find a modern day playground of superb hiking, water sports and vibrant cities ensuring there is something here for everyone.
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Things to Know About Sicily
Despite recent anti-mafia movements, particularly strong in Palermo, the Mafia has retained much of the power in administrative and rural Sicily.
However, there are strong signs now that the Sicilian people have had enough. Strong movements against the Cosa Nostra are gaining momentum and becoming visible across the island, especially in Palermo. Sicilain’s are daring to believe that things are changing.
If you’re fascinated by the Mafia, take a Godfather private tour which includes a visit to Castello Degli Schiavi, the beautiful and timeless villa used as a filming location for several Godfather films.
The Sicilians don’t conform to carefree southern Italian stereotypes. Life has long been too hard and is dominated by poverty. Sometimes, locals can seem sullen and rude towards visitors but if you persevere then you will see a different side of the Sicilian people, who are fiercely loyal and proud.
It helps to be able to speak even a little bit of the language, most Sicilian people really appreciate it when you make an effort even if you can’t pronounce ‘cinquecentocinquantacinque’ (five hundred and fifty five)!
Sicily is a stunningly beautiful country, apart from the piles of rubbish literally everywhere. Waste is dumped all along the sides of roads and on any rough ground. We were told it was a protest against the mafia control of administrative monies because no provision is made for the proper disposal of waste. Whatever the reason, you just have to learn to look past it.
Driving any around Sicily on a road trip can be challenging. You need to be a confident driver, especially if you’re in a rental car or campervan and intending to visit cities.
Driving routes in Sicily will often take you through small villages with narrow and twisting roads which can be disconcerting for visitors from the United States especially. Italy is not known for the skill or consideration of its’ drivers or the condition of the roads, make sure you’re comfortable driving in Sicily before you embark on a road trip.
Sicilian Road Trip Essentials
Getting to Sicily
There must be at least several dozen ways of getting to Sicily from the UK in a car or campervan. The best inbound Sicily route will depend on where you are arriving from. When planning your road trip, take some time to weight up the pros and cons, as which ever way you choose to arrive will be time-consuming and potentially costly.
Driving direct from Calais to Villa San Giovanni (the shortest ferry crossing) will take you around 23 hours over 2260km. It will cost approximately €100 in tolls and €250 in fuel, assuming 25mpg. If you are in a car you can check using the Via Michelin website, a handy resource. That is, if you want to go straight there and not meander down through France, the Alps and Italy, which is a whole other road trip.
Once you get to Villa San Giovanni, you will need to get a boat over, which cannot be booked in advance. There are crossings every hour or so from a number of providers, our observations were that many crossings were half empty. It takes around 30 minutes to cross to Messina and will cost around €60 for a 3 month open return in a car.
If you are already on the continent, there are boats to Sicily from all over Europe. You can go to Palermo from Naples, Genoa, Sardinia, Civitavecchia, Livorno, Salerno and Tunisia. You can also sail into other ports but there are too many to list here.
If you choose to fly, you can head to Trapani, Palermo or Catania airports. Catania, on the east coast, is the best choice and a good road trip starting point if you are renting a car or want to hire a motorhome or campervan on arrival. Check out Indie Campers, our choice for campervan hire.
When to Visit Sicily
April to early June and late September to October are the best times to visit Sicily and travel or road trip.. The temperatures are pleasant and you will have the added bonus of Sicily’s gorgeous wild flowers being in full bloom in the spring months. Avoid Easter as this is considered high season.
It becomes really busy around mid-June, when schools are closed. From July to mid-September, the coastal areas are extremely busy. Unless you plan to spend time at a seaside resort or on an island, avoid August; the heat is unbearable and most city businesses are closed as the locals take their holidays.
It is quieter from late October to mid-December. There are fewer tourists in the cities but sites and attractions do tend to close earlier and some will be closed altogether. Things pick up again briefly during the Christmas holidays, when many shops and museums have extended hours but it can be quite chilly at this time of year.
Sicilian Road Trip Map
DISTANCE | 900km
DURATION | 2 – 3 weeks
DRIVE TIME | 14 hours
WHEN TO GO | all year round
PLACES VISITED | 14
3. The Valley of the Temples
4. Scala Dei Turchi
5. Marsala Wine
6. Stagnone Nature Reserve
7. Sail Pans, Marsala
9. Monte Cofano
10. Temple of Segesta
14. Mount Etna
Syracuse (or Siracusa) is a city on the Ionian coast, known for its ruins. It also has a vibrant and modern cafe culture, with lots of great bars and restaurants and is perfect for an afternoons strolling.
Head for the old town of Ortigia, on an island connected to the new city by the Ponte Umbertino. Cross from new to old and you’ll find yourself in another world, with magnificent ancient churches, a temple, local markets and even a castle. There are also lots of small independent shops, bars and cafes where you can sit outside and indulge in people watching to your heart’s content.
Make sure to visit Piazza Duomo to see the Cathedral, a fascinating mix of pagan temple and Christian church. The Duomo stands on the ruins of a temple dedicated to Athena, built in 480BC. Behind the Baroque facade of the cathedral, Doric columns from the original temple are still visible.
Another must-see is the Fonte Aratuse, a fountain originating from a fresh water spring which creates a small semi-circular lake. Here there are fish, geese and ducks and the only naturally occurring Papyrus in Europe.
Ragusa is a hilltop city in southeast Sicily. Ragusa Ibla, the old town, is part of the Noto Valley World Heritage site listing. It is home to many baroque buildings, like the Duomo di San Giorgio a beautiful church with gorgeous paintings and colourful stained-glass windows.
There are impressive views from the Giardino Ibleo, a park with churches and fountains. In Ragusa Superiore, the city’s more modern part, is ornate Ragusa Cathedral, rebuilt in the centre of town after an earthquake in 1693 destroyed the original.
The Valley of the Temples, Agrigento
What an amazing entrance The Valley of the Temples has. Driving along the coast road heading west, you round a hill and there it is; perched along the top of a ridge, temples literally lined up waiting for you. It will be one of those ‘wow’ moments on your Sicily road trip, when shock and awe hits you in equal measure.
You can buy tickets for the whole site online here. You may wish to take a tour, if you are interested in understanding the history and architecture, this is by far the best way to visit and you will come away with so much fascinating knowledge about those who lived and built here.
Start at 8.30am and spend an idyllic morning when you’ll have this UNESCO World Heritage site to yourselves. Marvel at the fact that you can walk through and around the temples and ruins and touch stone that was quarried and chiseled thousands of years ago. As it gets later, it will become busier with day trip bus tours arriving although the site is so large it did not really detract from the peace and atmosphere.
Scala Dei Turchi
The Stair of the Turks, so called because marauding Turkish pirate ships were know to find shelter in the bay, is an incredible sight. On first inspection, the cliffs seem too perfect and too white to actually be real.
The cliffs are made of soft limestone and blinding white marl, shaped, smoothed and buffed over millenia by the sea and wind to look like a giant meringue, rising up from an impossibly blue surrounding sea.
It is possible to walk along the cliffs, situated to the south west of Agrigento. To access the cliffs, you can park on the road which runs along the coast. There is free parking on the sides of the road and paid parking in specific car parks, they all cost €5 for the day.
Once parked, you access Scala dei Turchi by following the signs and descending part path and part stairs to the beach below. There are many restaurants and cafes along the route. From the bottom of this path, turn right along the beach and walk for around 500m until you arrive at the bottom of the cliff. It is easy to walk along the cliff and quite safe but it is very chalky, so if you sit you will be covered.
If you are looking for the perfect photo opportunity, you will find it. Most people don’t stay on the cliff for long, so there are always times when there aren’t many people about; be patient and make sure you grab the opportunity, the colours will pop off your screen!
Italy Travel Ideas
If you haven’t tried Marsala wine, it will be a totally unexpected and delicious surprise. Made in much the same was as sherry and port but with a distinct flavour due to the requirement to use only certain varieties of grapes grown in and around Marsala. True Marsala contains flavours of vanilla, brown sugar, stewed apricot and tamarind.
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This delicious fortified wine can be dry or sweet and many things in-between depending on how much cooked must is introduced to the wine. It is possible to do a tour and tasting at all the large houses, with Florio having the most atmosphere and interest in the cantina (cellar). Florio offer one English speaking tour at 10.30am every day, it gets booked up quickly. The costs is usually around €10-15 for the tour and four tastings with local delicacies.
Stagnone Nature Reserve
Stagnone, part of the Regional Nature Reserve of the Islands of Stagnone di Marsala, is a lagoon characterized by shallow waters from 1-2m and in some places not more than 20-30cm.
The lagoon was formed relatively recently due to sand movements because of underwater currents. This has caused the closure of a part of the sea that was originally open and therefore, as there are no currents necessary for replacement, the water has become more stagnant, with a temperature above normal.
This makes the lagoon an ideal place for kite-surfing and its widely recognised as one of the best locations in Europe. There are approximately 30 kite schools along the northern coast of the lagoon, which are evident if there is any form of wind, just follow the 100’s of kites!
If you are interested in learning to kite-surf there are always three to five day kite camps and private lessons on offer. Ultimate Kite-Boarding is an established and local company who have a prime location on the lagoon and offer a variety of services from equipment rental to launch only for €7.
Salt Pans, Marsala
There have been salt pans in Sicily for over 2,500 years. The salt flats at Marsala have the perfect position; warm Saharan winds, shallow waters and hot summer sun. This is the perfect recipe to produce salt.
Production was at its peak in 1860, when 31 salt pans produced over 100,000 tonnes of salt a year. Much of this was exported across Europe and as far away as Russia and Norway. These days demand is diminished but there is still a market for salt produced in this way due to its 100% natural composition, which is said to enhance the flavour.
There is a small museum at one of the last working windmills and it is also possible to walk out amongst the pans, as part of a guided tour. Well worth doing at €15 per person for both windmill visit and guided tour.
Be inspired by the beauty of this immediately recognisable vista, with windmills dotting the horizon and piles of salt visible. It’s the perfect place for aerial photography if you have a drone.
Erice is a delightful and pretty medieval hill town which is a pleasure to wander through and the views are amazing. Standing at 751m high, on top of a huge lump of rock, Erice is know for the Castello di Venere and it’s numerous churches; there are rumoured to be 100 but is is definitely less than that!
All visits to Erice start at Porta Trapani at the top of the hill, where the car park and cable station are. If the drive up isn’t for you, then get the funierice (cable car) from Trapani and park in their car park. This will cost you €1.50 for the first three hours and the cost of the cable car is €9 return.
You will need three to four hours to wander through Erice’s medieval, cobbled streets, visit a few churches and the castle and throw in another hour or so for lunch. Try the reasonably priced pizzas at La Rustichella in Piazza del Loggia, where you will also receive excellent customer service.
The view from the castle ramparts and gardens is stunning. Trapani and the salt pans to one side, the tip of San Vito lo Capo the other. It goes without saying that you should try and go on a clear day.
Make sure to try some of Erice’s famous confectionary, made to ancient recipes of nuns in cloistered convents. If you like marzipan and have a sweet tooth you will be in heaven.
Monte Cofano is a distinctive, monolithic lump of limestone, which stands 659m high, sited in the Monte Cofano nature reserve.
As well as amazing hiking, the bay has two sandy beaches, crystal clear turquoise water and fantastic rock pools. You can snorkelled here as well as kayak and paddle board.
Temple of Segesta
Segesta is a glorious temple and Roman amphitheatre, incredibly well preserved and picturesque. Easily accessible and set in beautiful rolling countryside, The Temple of Segesta is a must-see in your road trip of Sicily.
It works well to head to Scopello for lunch or dinner after a visit to Segesta. Scopello is a charming village with a small but beautifully formed bay, about 30 minutes drive from Segesta. There are also a number of excellent restaurants but make sure you book if you want to eat at a specific place. If you’re looking for a lively and fun lunch, try Made ‘n Sicilia (no booking required) which specialises in Sicilian street food.
Palermo is a vibrant and busy city which you must visit on your road trip around Sicily. If you decide to visit and not stay at a hotel with the benefit of a car park, research parking thoroughly before you get there. Palermo is manically busy with very limited parking and its quite possible to drive around for hours without finding anywhere.
You must visit the food market which is on every day and situated in the area around Via Porta Carini. Here you can buy fish, meat, fruit, vegetables and pretty much everything else you can imagine. You can stop for a coffee and people watch, choose your fish and meat and have it cooked in front of you, to be eaten on a ramshackle table in the open air, or simply wander and take in the colours, sounds and smells of this fabulous market.
If you need any more convincing, then these six seasons why you HAVE to visit Sicily’s crazy capital city should help!
You should visit the cathedral, although it is a little soulless and much less attractive than some other Italian cathedrals. In contrast, the Catholic church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini just off the Quattro Canti is spectacular and and worth seeking out.
Quattro Canti is a busy and thriving area of the city with live music, street art and food stalls dominating the streets and lots of interesting shops and a great selection of geletaria. Grab a coffee and enjoy a bot of people watching.
If you decide to take a horse and carriage ride, make sure you agree the price and how long your trip will take before getting in. Negotiate on the first price given, even then you may well be asked at the end of the ride for an additional tip “for the horse”! A carriage ride was a good way of seeing the major sites of Palermo quickly, and you can decide which ones most interest you for a later visit.
Cefalù is a small town on the northern coast of Sicily. It is a must-see in all the guidebooks and has a fine 12th century Norman cathedral at the edge of an attractive square.
Cefalu is a modern day masterpiece of marketing over substance. It is pretty enough to wander round, and you could happily spend a day meandering and taking in the old cathedral and harbour; it would not be a hardship. But you will have to dodge the large number of over-priced restaurants, cafes and gift shops lining the streets which are thronged with guided tour parties.
Taormina is a stunning and popular town perched on a hill on the east coast of Sicily. It sits in the shadow of the active volcano Mount Etna.
Taormina is quite touristy but also very welcoming. Visit the Teatro Antico di Taormina, an ancient Greco-Roman theatre still in use today. Close by, cliffs drop to the sea forming coves with sandy beaches and a narrow spit of sand connects the mainland to Isola Bella, a beautiful tiny island and nature reserve.
Taormina is well known for it’s gastronomic delights, welcome and hospitality. Here would be a good place to try some authentic Sicilian food and take a wine tour.
Mount Etna is the biggest natural wonder of them all! She is Europe’s largest and most active volcano and stands a mighty 3,350m high. After Kilaueu on Hawaii, Mount Etna is considered the second most active volcano in the world.
If that doesn’t put you off, you can get to the summit of Mount Etna, look deep into her craters and hear the rumbling magma stirring. Getting to the top of Mount Etna will require a guided tour and will take a full day but the sense of achievement and wonder is worth the effort of getting there.
After your epic climb, head down the mountain to Catania, a city which is missed by many but is worth a visit; check out these eighteen awesome things to do in Catania for inspiration.