While it’s perfectly possible to navigate Sicily independently, small group guided vacations are brilliant at zeroing in on one of the island’s key features – its history or food, say. Conveniently, Sicily’s most notable sites and towns are scattered around its coast, and organised tours often perform a loop, typically traveling between Palermo and Catania, which is achievable in eight days. Keen walkers can scale Etna and the volcanoes of the Aeolian Islands, using ferries and hydrofoils to zip between Milazzo on the mainland and Vulcano, Lipari and Stromboli. Or stick to one area for scenic cycling; the UNESCO recognised Noto Valley is a fine location for a two-wheel, week-long tour.
Aeolian Islands

1. Aeolian Islands

Venting fumaroles, dramatic coastlines and violent expulsions of molten rock have quite rightly made the Aeolian Islands, off Sicily’s northeast coast, one of the region’s most exciting attractions. Each one of the archipelago’s eight islands has its own unique terrain with moderate to challenging crater treks on Vulcano and Stromboli complemented by seafood suppers overlooking Lipari’s pretty harbour.

2. Agrigento

Agrigento is home to the remarkable Valle dei Templi, a valley packed with archaeological treasures including the beautiful Temple of Concordia, one of the best preserved examples of Greek architecture on the planet. Heracles, Juno and Zeus all feature amongst the ruined and not so ruined Doric style temples, with medieval and baroque architecture to be found closer to the main town.

3. Catania

Sicily’s second biggest city has a UNESCO-listed center bristling with Sicilian Baroque architecture, with the Duomo a fine example of this ornate, elegant style. There are also plenty of gritty, atmospheric streets to explore and amazing food to eat – the city is the birthplace of the iconic dish pasta alla Norma – with the towering presence of Mount Etna always in the background.

4. Cefalu

A small, unpretentious fishing village that’s now a popular resort, Cefalu packs a cultural punch, too, in the form of an impressive Norman cathedral, home to elaborate Byzantine mosaics. The historic old town center has Arab and Spanish influences wound through its maze of medieval streets and sits on a rocky headland overlooking good sandy beaches.
Mount Etna

5. Mount Etna

Once you’ve caught a glimpse of Etna from the cliff side town of Taormina, which overlooks the Ionian, it’s impossible to resist her charms. Expeditions up the stratovolcano’s southern slope are accessible to all and as you stroll through subterranean lava tubes and pass pine trees adorned with glowing lava baubles, keep an ear out for rolls of thunder – or was that…?

6. Palermo

Sicily’s capital lay at the center of the ancient world and is a place of diverse influences, where Byzantine churches stand alongside markets that feel more like souks. Today, it’s a hectic place of shady alleyways and busy streets, but there are quiet corners, too, including Piazza Pretoria with its beautiful fountain and Palermo Cathedral. Come hungry – Palermo is one of the best cities in the world for street food.

7. Selinunte

This is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, with ruins stretching over a huge area and including Greek temples, ancient town walls, the ruins of homes and commercial buildings, paths and areas that still await excavation. There’s no other development around them, so this is a step back in time moment in an isolated and beautiful spot overlooking the sea.

8. Syracuse

The Corinthians established a colony on the island of Ortygia in 734 BC; mainland Syracuse followed four years later. It was once the most powerful city state in the Greek world – the fantastic Greek theatre and Roman amphitheatre at Neapolis Archaelological Park testament to ancient glory. The city has its share of Baroque architecture, too, plus pretty lanes of honey coloured buildings dropping down to the sea.

9. Taormina

The Pearl of the Ionian Sea, Taormina has been a fashionable resort since the 18th century when Europeans on the Grand Tour came to sip coffee and gaze at Mount Etna, towering above. As a result, it’s a little pricey, but its hillside location and Greek-Roman theatre, built in the 3rd century BC and still used during the annual summer arts festival, repay a visit.

10. Trapani

Trapani was once at the heart of a trading network stretching from Venice to Carthage, in what is now Tunisia. Today, it’s a busy port town and an attractive historic center. Tuna and salt production defined the city until the 19th century, but the food is also influenced by the Arabs, who occupied the area before the Normans – think fish couscous, almonds, citrus and tuna testicles (yes really).
Val Di Noto

11. Val Di Noto

This region of southeastern Sicily earned UNESCO World Heritage status for the eight towns lying within its borders, which include Ragusa, Noto and Modica (famous for its chocolate). The original settlements here were flattened by a massive earthquake in 1693 and rebuilt in what came to be known as Sicilian Baroque style. Feast your eyes and your belly, trying the local ricotta, granita and wine.
Zingaro Nature Reserve

12. Zingaro Nature Reserve

A great place to walk off the arancini and gelato, Zingaro Nature Reserve stretches along the coast for 7km between the lovely village of Scopello in the east to San Vito Lo Capo in the west. There are excellent walking trails here giving long views out to the cliffs, azure sea, coves and pristine beaches of this idyllic stretch of Mediterranean coast.
Travel Team
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Full circuit history tour (9 days):

Catania, Mount Etna > Syracuse > Ragusa > Agrigento > Selinunte, Zingaro Nature Reserve > Palermo > Cefalu

Sicilian volcanoes walking tour (8 days):

Vulcano > Lipari > Stromboli > Taormina > Mount Etna

Sicily food tour (8 days):

Palemo > Trapani > Marsala > Agrigento > Piazza Armerina > Ragusa > Syracuse > Ortigia > Taormina

Sample travel times

Mount Etna to Syracuse: 1hr 20 mins by road
Ragusa to Agrigento: 2hrs 30 mins by road
Palermo to Cefalu: 1hr 15 mins by road
Milazzo to Vulcano: 1hr by ferry
Lipari to Stromboli: 2hrs by ferry
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Gandolfo Cannatella] [Sicily Maps and Highlights : Tommie Hansen ] [Aeolian islands: unukorno] [Agrigento : Andrea Schaffer] [Catania: SNappa2006] [Cefalu: Herbert Frank] [Mount Etna: Wilson44691 ] [Palermo: Tomas Anton Escobar] [Selinunte : zoutedrop] [Syracuse: Jerome Bon] [Taormina: Andrea Schaffer] [Trapani: Frederique Voisin-Demery] [Val Di Noto: Andrea Schaffer] [Zingsaro Natural reserve: Edmondo Lopez] [Itineraries (ampitheatre in Taormina): Allie_Caufield] [Itineraries (church in Taormina): Andrea Schaffer] [Itineraries (Cefalu): Herbert Frank] [Travel times: Terry Ott]