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Sicily: Insider’s Guide

by Marcello Baglioni | September 10, 2019

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Sicily: Marcello Baglioni of Agave Travel Creative.

Trusted Travel Expert
Marcello Baglioni

While running a study-abroad program for Americans in Sicily, Marcello found himself orchestrating trips for the students’ visiting families—and thus his travel business was born. As a trained archaeologist and the son of Italian-American restaurateurs in California, Marcello’s own fascination with Sicily derives from the island’s important historic location at the crossroads of numerous Mediterranean cultures (Roman, Arabic, Spanish, Norman, to name a few), all of which left their mark on the region’s unique food, wine, culture, and language. After living on the island for 20 years, Marcello now splits his time between Sicily and the U.S., while his trusted deputy Matteo Rota, who speaks four languages, lives there year-round. They excel at forging deep personal connections and can arrange a hike up Mt. Etna with a volcanologist, a market tour and cooking class with a chef, a visit to Greek ruins with an archaeologist, a private lunch at an herb farm, or a tour on a lovingly restored sailboat, all hosted by passionate locals whom they consider family. From five-star palaces to rustic farm stays, they are so plugged into the hotel scene that they know which rooms will accommodate a wheelchair or, in the small properties, a late sleeper.

Trips have a 3-night minimum and start at $900 per day for two travelers.

What to See and Do

The view from the Cala Rossa, an open to the public swimming spot at the Ortigia Historical Center of Siracusa, Sicily.

The view from the Cala Rossa, an open to the public swimming spot at the Ortigia Historical Center of Siracusa, Sicily. Photo: Agave Creative

Most underrated place
The historic town of Ortigia in Siracusa (or Syracuse) makes for the ideal home base in the southeastern part of the island. The area features a compelling mix of 3,000-year-old monuments, wide-open piazzas where you can relax with a nice gelato, outdoor food markets, and an ancient, eminently walkable harbor. It’s also a convenient point of departure for day trips that explore ancient sites, Baroque towns, seaside villages, and hiking trails.

Most overrated place
Many visitors include the famous hilltop town of Taormina on their Sicily bucket list, and for some compelling reasons: The town features amazing views of both Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean, elite dining spots, and some of the best accommodations on the island. However, its tiny streets are frequently clogged with large tour groups on shore excursions from their cruise ships, and its geographical position limits day-trip options. If you stay here, you’ll end up isolated from local life and culture.

Mt. Etna, Sicily.

Mt. Etna is more than just a volcano. Photo: Pixabay

Hidden gem
Mt. Etna is much more than just a volcano (though it is the tallest and most active in Europe). In addition to checking out the recent and ancient lava flows with a volcanologist, take some time to explore the charming local towns nearby and their wide array of culinary traditions, which include pistachio cultivation, the invention of granita, and wineries that are making the most of the volcanic terroir.

Where to Stay and Eat

Granita was invented in Sicily. Photo: Marcello Baglioni

Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
When it comes to accommodations, I have found that the sweet spot in Sicily is with a selection of boutique hotels and farmhouses. Many of these properties are family run, serving locally grown organic meals and with a kind and helpful staff. Here are a few of my favorites that provide the right blend of location, luxury, and a unique experience:

Fontes Episcopi, located near the Agrigento/Valley of the Temple ruins, is an organic farmhouse owned by a pharmacist who decided to create a country resort that would heal and nourish his guests. The property features a small spa that uses healing muds and lotions, and the meals all come from the on-site gardens. The friendly staff will make you feel like part of the family.

Musciara Resort, a short walk or boat ride from Siracusa’s historic center on Ortigia Island, has amazing sea views and a private beach area. From here, you can be part of local life while enjoying a peaceful perspective on the ancient city and sea. The rooms and public spaces have been lovingly designed by the owners and provide for a joyful stay.

While Taormina can get quite overrun with tour groups and leave you feeling at times as if you were in a Sicilian Disneyland, the Ashbee Hotel is a private oasis amid the hubbub, just outside the main area of town. The hotel was constructed in the early 20th century as an English-style villa, and while the rooms have been meticulously restored and updated, they still reveal details of the original architecture. My favorites are the Deluxe Seaview rooms, which have large private terraces.

Restaurants the locals love
In Sicily, you can dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant one night, then possibly outdo the experience at a seaside osteria the next. The island’s complex history provides an almost endless choice of culinary traditions to explore, from ancient Greek and Roman to Arabic, Spanish, and French, all within the framework of Italian cuisine. Here are some of my favorites:

Bisso Bistrot. The setting couldn’t be better, in the Quattro Canti at the heart of Palermo’s city center, in what used to be an old family-owned bookstore. The menu features fresh takes on traditional Palermo street food, served with the bustling and frenetic energy (no reservations, shared tables) that best symbolizes the spirit of Sicily’s capital.

Ciacco Putia Gourmet. Few travelers take the time to explore remote and rustic western Sicily, but those who do are well rewarded for their efforts. Located in Marsala’s historic center, Ciacco Putia is the invention of a husband-and-wife team with both Tuscan and Sicilian culinary roots. Their simple yet creative dishes of seasonal items pair amazingly well with the Marsala wines for which the area is known and named.

Ristorante Manna Noto. In the heart of the Baroque town of Noto there is Manna, one of the few places that does an amazing job of serving contemporary takes on traditional dishes, alongside great interior design and impeccable service. This is a “must-dine” spot when visiting the area.

The Vendicari Nature Reserve, located near the baroque town of Noto in Sicily, is a spot for seeing birds—even flamingoes.

The Vendicari Nature Reserve, located near the baroque town of Noto in Sicily, is a spot for seeing birds—even flamingoes. Photo: Agave Creative

Must-have dish
“Pasta con le Sarde,” or pasta with anchovy filets. It is often made with wild fennel, fresh anchovies, raisins, pine nuts, and finished off with some toasted breadcrumbs, although each province in Sicily has a slight local variation. The dish features a contrast of seemingly conflicting flavors that somehow come together on the palate, giving you a strong sensorial sample of the culinary and cultural mosaic that is Sicily.

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Best Times to Go

April: The air is fresh and spring flowers abound. Easter week, when colorful processions take place all over Sicily, is a famously popular and festive time to visit.

May to mid July: The weather and the sea are warmer by the week, while the heat, humidity, and crowds don’t usually arrive until late July.

September to mid October: September is still summer weather, though if you wait until after the second week of the month, most of the crowds will have left. Swimming, sailing, and any outdoor activities are great until the second and even the third week of October. The end of September and first couple weeks of October are typically harvest time (for olives, almonds, and wine), which means any number of harvest festivals.

November: The weather gets colder, but there are few other travelers to be found, so it can feel as if you have the whole place to yourself.

Worst Time to Go

Culture never gets cold, so the sites, ruins, and culinary traditions are always in season. However, from late December to February, the weather gets cooler and a bit more unpredictable.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

People think of Sicily as a small island that can be seen easily in just a few days. Don’t be fooled by Google Maps: It can take several hours to cross from one side of the island to the other, or even to get from town to town. For shorter holidays, base yourself in one spot and don’t try to see or do too much. I think that seeing less and experiencing more is always a good rule of thumb. If you have a week to ten days, I suggest starting in Palermo, making your way through the heart of Sicily to the southeastern part of the island and departing from Catania. If you have two to three weeks, add in the “Wild West” of Sicily (Trapani, Marsala, and Menfi), or a few days in the Aeolian Islands.

Scam to Avoid

Taxi drivers at both the Palermo and Catania Airports tend to price their fares according to the weather, early or late hour of flight arrivals, or even their moods. If Mt. Etna is acting up or your flight gets delayed, their rates can soar. For peace of mind, we suggest arranging for one our trusted private drivers to provide the transfer service in relaxed comfort.

Tipping tip

Tipping is not expected of locals, but it is somewhat expected of foreigners—though well below the usual 15 to 20 percent range. Rounding up the bill at a restaurant or leaving some change at a café will suffice.

Don’t Forget to Pack

A pair of trail or light hiking shoes will prove invaluable when you’re walking around all of the archaeological and outdoor sites, which usually feature uneven and rocky terrain. Pack layers, as there can be drastic differences in the temperatures and weather in town, by the water, on Mt. Etna, and at a fully exposed archaeological site.

Must-have App

All of our drivers, guides, and office staff uses WhatsApp to communicate, so it’s a great way for you to stay in touch with all of us en-route as well.

Perfect Souvenir

If you are in Sicily during the olive oil harvest, you can visit one of our friend’s local olive farms, pick some olives, and have them pressed into your very own oil to take back home. You can also pick up some aged salted ricotta cheese at the outdoor food market and have it vacuum packed for the voyage home, using it sparingly over the pasta alla norma (a local recipe made with fried eggplant, red onions, and tomato sauce) that you learned to make during a cooking class.

Bragging Rights

I can organize a variety of experiences that connect you to the spirit and people of Sicily: private visits to an artist’s home studio, giving a deeper appreciation of the area that can’t be understood by visiting a ruin or museum alone; a visit to a family-run almond farm where you can meet with the owner, touch and taste the fruit of a 300-year-old almond tree, and learn how to make fresh almond milk and ricotta cheese in a traditional style; and more, depending on your interests.

Can't-Miss Photo Op

Sicily is an island of contrasts. The best shots capture these opposing elements in one frame: the seemingly chaotic mix of families and friends reuniting in Ortigia’s Piazza Duomo on a Sunday, or a sunrise on Mt. Etna with smoky clouds above, Mediterranean Sea below, and the darkness of cooled lava surrounded by lush vineyards and olive groves.

Prime Picnic Spot

A scampagnata is more than a picnic in Sicily, rather a family outing into the countryside at the first sign of springtime weather, or of relief from the summer heat and seaside crowds. In the medieval town of Buccheri, I can arrange for you to collect seasonal wild herbs and vegetables with a local chef, then transform them into an “urban picnic” at his local osteria. On the island of Salina, hike up to a local vineyard, cultivated on the slopes of an ancient volcano covered by lush vegetation. Under the shade of an olive tree, enjoy a rustic lunch accompanied by some local capers while overlooking the Aeolian Sea. Or cycle to the Vendicari Nature Reserve and set up a picnic under the cover of a bird-watching viewpoint, to breathe in the fresh Mediterranean air while you enjoy some local wine and cheese.

Reviews

Kept us from making errors in our…

Cameron Kennedy | August 26, 2019

From the volcanologist to the...

Judy Kay | July 2, 2019

We felt that we were…

Marci and Andy Shapiro | June 26, 2019
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