What comes to mind when you think of Sicily? Cannolis? The Mafia? Mount Etna? To be sure all those things are part of Sicily’s identity, but as I discovered recently, Italy’s iconic island has so much more to offer.
Deciding where to spend our first Italian vacation was not easy. There are so many beautiful places in Italy, so many within a short drive of where we live in Milan. I knew I wanted to head south and spend some time on a sandy beach. My Southern Californian blood was aching for the ocean. In conversations with my Italian friends, one place kept being recommended…Sicily. So back in January, before the COVID chaos, I booked our flights and hotel and looked forward to discovering Sicily.
As summer began and travel restrictions were lifted, it was still unclear if we could travel. Thankfully, by July travel within Europe was allowed and flights had resumed.
On the advice of friends, we decided to explore the northwest corner of Sicily so we flew from Milan to Palermo (only an hour and fifteen minute flight). I have to admit that flying was a bit unnerving for me. I know there are many who still doubt the severity of the Coronavirus but for those of us in Northern Italy, we know it is very real. Everyone I know can name someone who has been sick or worse, who has died. Being in Malpensa airport with a crowd of people waiting to board a flight was more anxiety-inducing than I imagined. Everyone was, of course, wearing masks, but social distancing was impossible. I sanitized every surface I touched on the plane, said a prayer, and tried to relax.
We arrived in Palermo, got our rental car and headed to Trapani to the apartment we rented for the week. Our apartment did not disappoint. It was in the historic part of Trapani facing the harbor. We had an amazing view and a lovely terrace to enjoy. Over the course of a week we explored the island and made it our mission to try the local food. Here are some of the highlights:
Trapani is an ancient port town, known for its fishing industry and salt fields. It’s a sprawling city with a beautiful, historic downtown that has a very Baroque feel to it. It’s amazing to me just how much this little island has been through. They have been conquered so many times throughout the ages that their culture and architecture, especially in Trapani, is a grand mix of their conquered past.
Things to see in Trapani:
- The Cathedral of Trapani (San Lorenzo) sits in the historic downtown of the city. Built in the 1400s.
- Ligony Tower and Museum, a 17th century watchtower that’s now a museum.
- Castello di Terra, a ruined 12th century castle.
- Pedestrian area of historic downtown. Lots of architecture to admire, window shopping and gelato tasting available.
- Just south of the city, along the coast, you can visit the salt flats (Le Saline).
What to eat and drink in Trapani:
- Seafood, seafood, and more seafood. Every morning boats pull into the harbor with their catch where crowds of restaurant owners and locals wait, so it’s no wonder the seafood is spectacular. Italians in general keep their seafood preparations very simple. They want to taste the fish and don’t want to obscure the flavor with spices or sauces. You’ll find simple dishes, spaghetti al Vongole (spaghetti with clams), fritto misto (deep fried seafood mix), grigliata mista (grilled seafood), and my personal favorite, pistachio-crusted swordfish steak. What makes the food spectacular is the freshness and quality of the products.
- Sicilians wines. There’s a dizzying array of Sicilian wines to choose from! My favorites are Nero d’Avola (red wine) and chilled, crisp Grillo white wine to accompany all that seafood.
- The town of Marsala, where Marsala wine is from, is just thirty minutes south of Trapani. Marsala wine is served as an after-dinner drink (digestivo) with sesame seed cookies (biscotti Regina) for dunking into the wine.
- Granita. In Sicily, summer is synonymous with granita, a semi-frozen dessert made from sugar, water, and lemons. It’s the perfect treat on a warm summer day.
San Vito lo Capo
San Vito lo Capo has one of the island’s most famous beaches. It is a small, rustic beachside town on the northwest tip of Sicily, about an hour drive from Trapani. It has a natural half moon bay, overlooked by Mount Monaco. San Vito has a lovely pedestrian main street full of restaurants, gelaterias, and shops catering to the tourist crowd. We spent two days enjoying the beach, swimming and just relaxing on the white sand beach. The water is crystal clear and there are plenty of water sports to enjoy. In my opinion it is the perfect town to choose if you’re looking for a relaxing, beach vacation.
Things to see in San Vito lo Capo:
- Santuario di San Vito la Capo. The history of this little town goes back to Roman times when in the 4th century a place of worship was built where the fortress/church of the sanctuary of San Vito now sits. This imposing stone fortress/church was built by the Normans in the middle ages and can still be visited today.
Things to do in San Vito lo Capo:
- The beach of San Vito – The beach is the highlight of this picturesque town. It’s white sand and aqua blue clear water is so inviting. You can rent two beach lounge chairs and an umbrella for 15-25 euros (they also offer cheaper weekly rates). Kayak, paddleboard, and boat rentals are available and are affordable. We paid 11 euros for an hour paddleboard rental.
- Zingaro Nature Reserve – Created in 1981, this 7k stretch of unspoiled coast boasts the most beautiful coves and grottos in Sicily. From the harbor of town, many local companies offer boat day trips to visit the national marine reserve. If you prefer to drive, you can park at the entrance and hike from cove to cove. There is a small entrance fee of 5 euro per person.
What to eat in San Vito lo Capo:
- Couscous is a specialty of San Vito. In fact, every September the town hosts an international couscous festival where chefs from all over the world compete. Sicilian couscous is cooked for hours and served with either chunks of fish or fried seafood medley (calamari, shrimp, octopus). It’s served with a delicious fish broth that you pour over the couscous. It’s a unique and delicious dish!
The town of Erice sits atop Mount Erice above Trapani. Founded by the Phoenicians then inhabited by the Greeks, it was a sacred place to the Greeks as many would make their way there to worship at the temple of Venus. Today, the town is an example of medieval architecture with part of the city walls still intact. It’s a beautiful town that looks like it has been frozen in time. We strolled down the cobblestone streets and tried to imagine what it must have been like to live in one of the picturesque stone houses.
Things to see in Erice:
- Duomo e Torre di Federico (Cathedral and Frederick’s Tower) – There are various churches to visit, the best being the Chiesa Madre and neighboring tower built in the 13th century.
- Castello Venere (Venere Castle) – Built by the Normans in the 12th century it can be visited for a small fee. It’s amazing to me that this castle was built on the site of the Temple of Venus (Aphrodite). Other than the walls, not much of the castle remains but the views from the castle wall are astounding.
- Torre Pepoli (Pepoli Tower) – Built in the 1800s as a meeting place for culture and arts, it’s now a museum and observatory.
- “Walk around Erice Route” – Pick up a map at the tourist office and take a self-guided walk around the town to see the most historic sites.
To get there you can either drive, which is a hair raising experience or take the cable car. Unfortunately, for us, the cable car was closed due to COVID restrictions so we had to brave the narrow, windy road up the mountain. My cool-as-a-cucumber husband endured my sighs and gasps as we drove and in the end, I lived to see Erice.
What to eat in Erice:
- Pastries! We were told by Italian friends that we could not visit Erice without stopping at Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, a historic pastry shop along the main road of the town. The selection of freshly made, classic Sicilian sweets here is mind-boggling. We sampled a variety of goodies which were all delicious, my favorite being the cannoli made with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta…..so good I shed a tear.
Favignana is the largest of three islands that make up the Aegadian Islands off the coast of Sicily. It’s 11 miles from the west coast Sicily, a short 30 minute Hydrofoil ride from Trapani. Founded by the Phoenicians as an outpost, this beautiful little island, like the rest of Sicily, has a long and complicated past. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination and famous for its tuna fish industry. There are so many beautiful coves to explore and inviting white-sand beaches.
If you enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving, this is the place for you! In addition to the crystal clear water and abundant sea life, there are ruins and relics on the seafloor that can be explored. Getting around is easy on a rented bike or moped. There are also lots of boat tours that will take you around the island exploring the most idyllic coves.
How to get to Favignana Island:
- Liberty Lines runs hydrofoils from Trapani and Marsala. I recommend buying your tickets online in advance to avoid the long lines at the ticket counter.
What to eat on Favignana Island:
- Duh, seafood! Like the rest of Sicily, the seafood is fresh and amazing. I had the best tuna sandwich I ever tasted and my husband ate deep fried octopus. Yum!!
Valley of the Temples
Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) – You don’t have to travel to Greece to see Greek temples! Sicily was colonized by the Greeks in the 8th century B.C. Just outside of the city of Agrigento sits one of the best preserved examples of Greek temples built in the 5th century B.C. The remains of seven Doric style temples make up this UNESCO World Heritage site. The entrance fee is 10 euro a person. This place was a hit with my son who proclaimed, “This is the coolest place in Italy!” He seriously did not want to leave.
Getting to the Valley of the Temples:
Unless you take a tour, you’ll have to drive there. Public transit in Sicily is not exactly convenient. It’s about a 2.5-hour car ride from Palermo or Trapani. The drive is absolutely stunning. Rolling hills of olive groves and vineyards make for a relaxing car ride. There are two parking lots on each end of the valley.
What Not to Expect in Sicily
If you read the paragraphs above, you might have noticed that I used the adjective “rustic” in various places to describe Sicily. There is a lot of poverty in Sicily and the infrastructure of the island is not up to par with the rest of Europe. There is trash on the streets, dilapidated buildings, and a lack of landscaping. Don’t expect perfection. This island has a host of complicated problems that have no easy answers. The Mafia is alive and well here and they have a lot to do with the state of affairs. If you can get past your own expectations, you’ll be able to enjoy and appreciate all the island has to offer.
By now you might be thinking, “Yes, that all looks lovely, but what about Palermo?” We had grand plans to spend a day exploring the city but sometimes things don’t go as planned and that’s ok. I’m grateful for all that we saw (and ate!). In fact, Sicily has won my heart. Its rustic charm is so inviting, its food is so delicious, and its people are so warm and welcoming that I will be back soon to discover more.