I’ve been wanting to share some of our favorite day trips, restaurants, and beaches in Sicily because these places hold our best memories from the three years we’ve spent in this beautiful place. I hope new generations of visitors and Sigonella military families to enjoy them after we depart!
If you have questions or if my directions are wrong, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll be sure to get them updated. And if you have suggestions of your own, add them there too!
I love Taormina so much that I could go there every week, and Elliott thinks that I pretty much do. It is the prettiest town in Sicily, and it’s what you dream of when you hear the word “Italy.”
When you visit Taormina, you can park in two different places: at the bottom of town and ride the cable car up into the old town, or in the public garage right outside of the old town.
The cable car parking lot costs about 5 euro a day, and cable car tickets are 3 euro each way per person. (Small children ride for free.) The cable car drops you off right outside the city walls of Taormina.
If you prefer not to ride the cable car, follow the road signs from the toll booth to “Taormina” or “Porta Catania” (the name of the huge public garage). Once you park in the garage, you can walk up the hill and enter the city. I usually do this, and I pay about 8 euro to park for 5 hours.
Now you’re in Taormina! I always eat lunch at Da Cristina, which was written up in the New York Times and sells the best Sicilian street food I’ve ever eaten. We stop for mini cannoli at one of the little pastry shops along the way. We generally walk through the town until we reach the beautiful Villa Comunale gardens, which has stunning views, quiet benches, stone picnic tables (yes!), a fish pond, Amazon parrots that say “ciao!”, and a dilapidated playground that my kids love.
On our way back up the hill from the park, we always, always stop at Bam Bar for the best granita (Italian ice) in Taormina. Actually, it’s the best granita in the world. Get the lemon and raspberry (limone e lampone) or maybe the coffee granita with thick whipped cream on top. Order a brioche (sweet bun) and a cappuccino, and take a bite of everything for me!
Beach tip: The cable car parking lot is also a great place to park if you want to visit the beach in Taormina. You just have to walk out of the parking lot, turn right, climb the hill, and cross the street (follow the signs) to take a long flight of stairs down to the rocky beach. In April, this staircase is full of brilliant purple wisteria! On the rocky beach, you can also wade across to the beautiful little island of Isola Bella, where a Scottish heiress built herself a house when she escaped her unhappy marriage.
To inspire your visit, here are all our many Taormina adventures!
Cassibile Nature Reserve Beach
We love a lot of beaches in Sicily, but Cassibile is our favorite. It’s also called Fonda Pineta del Gelsomineto. It’s an hour drive from Sigonella, past Siracusa, so generally we make a day of it. The pin in this map indicates the beach. Admission costs 10-12 euro during the week and 12-15 euro on the weekend during the summer, and you pay the parking attendant when you turn at the new yellow building by the side of the road.
Bring food, a portable grill, a beach umbrella, a beach tent, your dog, whatever you like. There are virtually no rules. There is a tiny cafe, and sometimes a guy walks down the beach with a cooler full of fresh coconut, but otherwise no food for sale. There are public bathrooms, but nowhere else to change, so I come and go in my swimsuit.
My husband loves to take visitors and friends on a short walk/hike (shoes or flip flops are recommended) up the cliffs to a safe place to jump off into the water below. I’m always stuck on the beach with a baby, but he says it’s great! We’ve also explored the pillbox on the northern end of the beach; it was used by the Germans during WWII to watch for invaders by sea.
Siracusa & Ortigia
I love to take visitors to beautiful Ortigia, the little island connected by a short bridge to the city of Siracusa. I usually park at this large parking lot and then wander through the city towards the main piazza.
My absolute favorite place to eat is right there in the piazza at the delicious pizzeria called La Volpe e l’Uva (The Fox and the Grape). Their menu is trendy and their food is delicious, and I will dream about their four cheese pizza forever.
After lunch and a gelato cone, we wander down to the waterfront, where papyrus grows in a little freshwater pond. Sometimes we go swimming at the tiny little beach in the port. One summer my sister-in-law and I were so hot, and the teenagers in their mismatched bikinis looked so happy jumping off the pier into the sparkling water, that finally we just took off our shorts and jumped into the water with them!
While in Siracusa, I have also visited the Archeological Park several times. It’s about a 10-minute drive from Ortigia, and it’s possible to do both in the same day. Admission is 10 euro per person (buy your ticket across the street from the entrance), and there are three large archeological sites to see inside the gates: an amphitheater, a theater that is still in use during the summer, and a cave with a notorious echo.
Here are photos from three trips to Siracusa
I visit Catania at least once a month, mostly because I absolutely love the huge market. It’s open every day except Sunday from 8am-1pm, and the prices and produce are incomparable.
I park here underneath the arched bridge. My friend taught me to do this and I’ve been parking here for three years with no issues. The attendant (a friendly guy with gray hair) guides me to a parking spot and will watch my car until about 1:30pm for whatever I want to pay him. I usually give him two euro. Clearly it’s not “legal,” but it isn’t illegal either, a paradox that only makes sense in certain parts of the world.
Once I park, I walk through the main city gate into Elephant Square (Piazza Duomo/Fontane dell’Elefante). I then might:
- Ride the tourist train around the city (here are pictures and information from a trip we took)
- Walk into the huge and magnificent Cattedral Sant’Agata
- Stroll down the main street of Catania (Via Etnea) to get the best arancini in the city at Pasticceria Savia. I then walk across the street to eat them in the Giardino Bellini, the beautiful public gardens.
- Wander around the market for fresh produce and fish. When you’re in Elephant Square, look for the white marble fountain. The fish market is behind it (a must-see!), and the fresh fruits and vegetables start there. I buy fresh live mussels (three euro a kilo) for dinner almost every time I come here.
On our way out, the kids love to visit the playground right next to where we park. The playground is in pretty good condition and has a lot of equipment, which is unusual for Sicilian playgrounds.
It is possible to hike most of the way up Mt Etna, and we did it once as a family right after we moved to Sicily. It was an experience I don’t want to repeat — lava is not interesting scenery! — but I’m glad we did it. Mt Etna erupted while we were as high as we were allowed to climb, and that is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can read about that whole adventure (and get some advice) here.
These days when we hike on Mt Etna, we drive to Etna Sud (the South Station) and hike on a trail nearby. You can find the trail head by driving through the South Station, passing the Silvestri crater on your right, going down the hill, and parking at the T intersection at the bottom of that hill. There’s a little volcanic ash parking lot to your left at that intersection (here’s the location on Google Maps). A wonderful trail starts at that parking lot; just walk around the metal boom and start up the rocky path. The hike takes about 45 minutes for active adults and leads you around the side of Mt Etna to look down into the huge, black lava field. You can continue up the path from there to climb more of Etna if you’d like. Here are pictures from one of our hikes.
You can ski on Mt Etna, too! Here’s everything you need to know.
While you’re near Mt Etna, there is a lot to see and enjoy in Nicolosi. This beautiful mountain town is full of delicious restaurants, shops, cafes, parks, and B&Bs. Elliott and I have gone there twice for overnight getaways, staying in this lovely little B&B both times.
We’ve enjoyed delicious spreads at three restaurants and I recommend all of them: Antichi Proverbi, Antico Orto Dei Limone, and 1877 . We also love cappuccinos and gelato at La Dolce Vita and pre-dinner drinks at Santo Doca in the main piazza.
We also love to hike in Monti Rossi, which is a beautiful park on two small hills just outside the town of Nicolosi. There is a ropes course there that’s a lot of fun for kids’ birthday parties (Monti Rossi Adventure Park), and past that is a picnic and grill area. Elliott and I have hiked all over the two hills with and without our kids, and we always feel like we’re in another world when we step into the quiet pine forest.
Borgo Antico Agriturismo
There’s nothing like Sunday lunch at a Sicilian agriturismo! Our favorite farm-to-table restaurant is Borgo Antico Agriturismo, which is about 30 minutes from Sigonella. As of Summer 2014, the meal costs 30 euro per adult and it is worth every penny. There are four courses:
- Appetizers, which consists of about 15 different dishes, all more delicious than the last!
- Pasta, usually two different kinds with homemade pasta
- Meat, usually three different platters accompanied by a simple salad
- Dessert and seasonal fruit
The meal also includes as much wine and olive oil as you want to consume, and both are made from grapes and olives on Borgo’s land. The setting is lovely, and between courses the kids can run outside in the citrus groves. I’ve been there at least five times and each meal is better than the last.
We also enjoyed an incredible agriturismo meal in Randazzo on Mt Etna at Etna Quota Mille. where the meats were grilled instead of breaded and fried like at Borgo. A vineyard called Nanfro (also about an hour from Sigonella) serves an incredible agriturismo meal accompanied by their own delicious wines, and the tour of the vineyard is also fascinating.
Casa delle Farfalle (The Butterfly House)
We love to go here as a family on Sunday afternoons, which is when the butterfly garden is open to the public. We park for two euro for the day, and admission to the butterfly house costs 5 euro per adult. The employees will want to give you a tour in English if they can, and we’ve enjoyed that every time, although it is tedious with small children. Afterwards you’re left alone to enjoy the beautiful butterfly garden.
We picnic in the grass behind the butterfly garden, usually surrounded by other picnicking families. We’ve always been the only Americans there, so it’s a wonderful chance to mix quietly with Italian families enjoying the sunshine and outdoors on a Sunday afternoon.
The butterfly garden is also open on Saturdays and weekdays, but you will have to call and make a reservation. Only Sundays are public. It’s open from April to October during the year.
The Sigonella Inn Pool
There is a pool on base at Sigonella, but you have to pay to use it (usually $4 for adults and $3 for kids) and it is only open for recreational swimming from 12:30-6pm from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day. By 12:30, the baby pool is in the shade, and it gets cold for kids and moms.
So, because of sunshine, nap schedules, and general thriftiness, I head to the Sigonella Inn pool across the street from NAS 1 instead. This pool is free if you don’t rent a deck chair (which is 5 euro), and the shallow kids’ pool is beautiful and lit with sunshine. We usually leave by 2pm because apparently the pool party really heats up later in the day. On the weekends, it’s bustling with Italians and Americans together, and I love being a part of the melting pot.
Also, their restaurant makes pizza at the poolside for about six euro a pizza, and you can eat it in a take-out box right by the pool. This summer my friend Sarah have gotten into the habit of swimming with our kids and enjoying pizzas at least once a week!
Random mom tip: if you’re looking for a cool place to go on a hot day, IKEA is not a bad choice. During the week it’s not crowded, and there is a delicious restaurant to break up your browsing for everything you don’t need but are going home with anyway. The restaurant is also right by the kids’ section, which has a great play area. My kids play, eat the food I brought (hello thrifty), get a 50-cent ice cream cone from the super fabulous machine, and then play some more before we leave. I love the place so much that I’ve blogged about it here as a playdate and here with a brand new baby!
Home of Sicily’s traditional yellow-and-blue ceramics, Caltagirone is a lovely spot to browse take visitors, shop for souvenirs, and eat a delicious meal at a tucked-away restaurant. In addition to shopping for ceramics, I have visited during the Christmas season to see the many presepe (nativity) scenes set up in garages and little shops throughout the town. More details in these blog posts: pottery shopping and the presepe.
We have loved our three years in Sicily, but I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of cappuccino. If you’re about to move here, it will probably be a lot different from what you’re expecting. And those who have lived here for any length of time know that it’s easy to focus on the negatives, like the driving, or the trash, or everything that comes with living in a rural area.
What we have found is that it’s best to focus on what Sicily does best: deliciously fresh produce and seafood, rich red wine that’s cheap as water, the tallest active volcano in Europe, farm-to-table meals that last all afternoon, sparkling turquoise water by yellow sand beaches, warm and filling street food, and — of course! — sweet gelato cones on hot summer afternoons.
Combine this with Sicily’s warm, generous, welcoming, wonderful people, and you have a whole new world at your fingertips. I wish you a wonderful time in Sicily!