From the ravishing views, to the captivating historic towns to the divine cuisine, Sicily has it all and then some. While Taormina and Catania seem to always top visitors’ must-see list, the Sicilian “Wild West” offers a beautifully authentic experience, minus the crowds. Heavily influenced by the Arabs and the Carthaginians, both of which have had their turn in ruling over this part of the island, the result is a colourful medley of architecture and traditions.
“There’s something magnetic about Palermo. I don’t know if it’s the air, the people, the history or a combination of these,” says Peppe Nicotera, who lived in the city for 35 years and has returned every summer since moving away. “Until this day, I stumble upon something new with every visit. An alley, a church, a market – there’s always something to discover.”
Awarded the prestigious title of Italian Capital of Culture for 2018, Palermo is a must for history lovers who can spend the day marvelling at the Palermo Cathedral and the Royal Palace of Palermo with the Palatine Chapel on the first floor. These masterpieces of architecture are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
As the capital city of Sicily, Palermo’s metropolitan area is home to over one million citizens. And the region’s largest city is not for the faint-hearted – it’s a bold and vibrant urban labyrinth of noisy streets and chaotic traffic. Palermo bustles with an array of outdoor markets (the most iconic being La Vucciria located near Piazza San Domenico) that sell everything from the catch of the day to knick-knacks to street food like panelle sandwiches (chickpea flour fritters), arancine (rice balls) and babbaluci (small snails in tomato sauce).
You can always take a break from the bustle and opt for some world-class opera. The city is considered to be one of Italy’s most advanced opera centres and boasts two stunning theatres. Teatro Massimo (featured in The Godfather III) dates back to 1897 and has the largest theatre stage in the country. A short walk away is Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, which in addition to operas, also features concerts and houses the Gallery of Modern Art.
For those seeking something completely out of the ordinary, the Capuchin Catacombs are a must. The chamber holds the remains of over 8,000 mummified corpses. Some are dressed in their finest attire, eerily displayed out in the open lining the halls, with many pinned against the wall standing upright, and others stacked in shelves, open coffins, or set in poses. The practice began in 1599 as the resting place for the Capuchin monks, but in time, being entombed in the Catacombs became a sort of status symbol for the Palermitano elite. While most may consider them to be macabre and frightening, it’s routine in Palermo, a city deeply rooted in Catholicism with an intense reverence for death.
Many visitors to Palermo take the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Monreale, which is accessible by bus. This small hill town is famous for the sparkling gold mosaics (no two are the same) housed in its Norman cathedral. The pure gold mosaics represent a fusion of Norman, Byzantine and Islamic artistic styles that date back to the 12th century.
An excellent home base from which to explore Western Sicily, the province of Trapani is closer to Tunisia than to the Italian mainland. It’s no wonder the couscous alla trapanese (fish couscous) is a local staple! The capital city of Trapani offers a myriad of points of interest for the monument-hoppers: the old town, the cathedral of San Lorenzo and the church of Sant’Agostino, to name a few. “The nearby medieval hill town of Erice can be reached by cable car from Trapani’s old town gate,” explains Nicotera. “It’s a 10-minute ride of breathtaking views over Trapani and the Egadi Islands. Also worth a day trip: the archaeological towns of Segesta and Selinunte.”
The Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is certainly the main reason to journey to Agrigento. This magnificent archaeological park encompasses seven Doric temples, each dedicated to a Greek deity. The seaside resort of San Leone is located near the Valley of the Temples and is surely the most popular choice for a beach break when in the area. With golden sandy beaches that stretch over several kilometres, a quiet spot away from the crowds can always be found.
Located 38 kilometres southeast of Palermo, the picturesque port city of Termini Imerese is a slow traveller’s kind of place. Away from most tourists’ radar, fans of historic sites can see the Cathedral of St. Nicola di Bari, the remains of the Roman amphitheatre and the aqueduct as well as San Leonardo Bridge. And a stroll along the charming monumental staircase in Via Roma takes you from the lower to the upper part of town. The presence of thermal waters is behind the ancient town name, Thermae Himerensis, and they remain an important attraction. The water of volcanic origin flows from two springs and has a temperature of 43 degrees Celcius. Whether it’s to relax or to treat a health-related issue, today the Grand Hotel delle Terme is the location of choice to take in some thermal-water goodness.