Sicily is the largest island in Italy and in the whole Mediterranean. It is also one of Europe’s culturally richest regions. Gorgeous historical cities and towns dot the lush green landscape that extends between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, and several European Empires ruled Sicily. Everybody wanted to own this beautiful piece of land! Since outstanding architecture and archeological sites are everywhere, how do you choose where to go? If it’s your first time in the region, we recommend the following quick East Sicily itinerary. It includes the extravagant cities of Catania, Taormina, and Syracuse (Siracusa). This will give you a hint of what this gorgeous piece of land is all about.
Catania, Taormina or Syracuse – How to Choose?
Depending on how many days you’ll spend in East Sicily, the perfect itinerary must include one, two, or the three cities. Bear in mind that a very quick introduction to the area requires at least one day in each city. Of course, you won’t get to know them well, but one day is enough to see each city’s main sites. Therefore, if you only have a weekend in Sicily, don’t try to see all three cities. If such is the case, limit yourself to Catania, and either Taormina or Syracuse. In all honesty, the architecture and landscape in Taormina and Syracuse are more spectacular. However, Catania’s vibe is unique and is perfectly connected to the entire island. Of course, if you have more time, you should definitely visit Mount Etna and the baroque towns of the Val di Noto.
Traveling between Catania, Taormina and Syracuse
As mentioned above, Catania is the best connected city of this Sicily itinerary. The Catania Fontanarossa International Airport is 4 kilometers southwest from the city, with flights to many European destinations. Since it’s almost halfway between Taormina and Syracuse, Catania is also the main transport hub in East Sicily. Several trains connect Catania to both cities. From Catania to Taormina it takes anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes. From Catania to Syracuse it takes a little over an hour. There are also a few direct trains from Taormina to Syracuse. Take note that Taormina’s train station Giardini is 2 kilometers below the center, so you have to take a bus or a taxi to reach the city. In Syracuse (Siracusa), you can walk to both the historic center and the archeological site from the train station. Catania’s train station is in the city center.
Located right under the mighty Etna, eruptions and subsequent catastrophic earthquakes destroyed Catania several times throughout its history. Ashes covered Catania at least 7 times! Nevertheless, the city always managed to recover, and today it’s one of the best examples of late baroque towns. That’s why in 2002, UNESCO included Catania’s baroque city center in its World Heritage Sites list. But Catania is so much more. There are important ancient ruins all around the city, a medieval castle, a fabulous tailored park, a super authentic fish market, and even a cool post-industrial exhibition center. Night owls won’t be disappointed either since there is a cool alternative neighborhood, the San Berillo district.
Most of Catania’s historic center dates back to the early 18th century. The devastating earthquake of 1693 destroyed the city completely, killing about 2/3 of its population. The whole city was reconstructed after the earthquake, and many new churches and palaces built. Though the original Cathedral of Catania dates back to the 11th century, its current appearance is mostly from 1711 (the dome was added a century later). The epicenter of the cathedral square, Piazza del Duomo, is the unique Elephant Fountain. The mysterious fountain is from the 18th century, but the basalt elephant is probably from Roman times. Baroque palaces, such as the City Hall and the University, pack the area next to the Cathedral.
Other Places to See in Catania
Catania offers a plethora of interesting places to visit. Hence, you need at least two days to see its main highlights. The famous fish market, La Pescheria, is right next to the main square. Do not miss it! Among the various ancient ruins, the Roman Theater is the most interesting one. The Ursino Castle from the 13th century was the royal home of the Kingdom of Sicily. Walk along the Via dei Crociferi to admire some of the nicest historic buildings in town. Don’t forget to visit the Monastero dei Benedettini and the attached San Nicoló l’Arena church. Climb to the top for outstanding views of the city and Mount Etna. Catania’s oldest and nicest park is the lavish Bellini Garden. For a touch of art, head over to the Le Ciminiere exhibition center.
Where to Stay in Catania
In Catania, we stayed at the lovely Aida in the city center. Located just minutes away from the Teatro Massimo Bellini, between the cathedral and the train station, it is a great base to explore East Sicily. Our room was comfortable and spacious, with a balcony offering wonderful views. We had homemade cakes for breakfast at the roof terrace with direct views of Mount Etna. If you rather stay in a bit more modern hotel, Habitat is a great option in the same area. If you want to splurge a little, stay at the gorgeous Duomo Suites & Spa. Located right next to the main square, it has a roof terrace with views and a nice spa.
Surrounded by green forests, Taormina is all about nature. The old town is on the top of Mount Tauro, high above the Ionian Sea. Charming villas, elegant churches, and ancient ruins complete the skyline. No wonder great powers fought so hard to conquer it. Taormina’s history goes back to the 8th century BC when the italic tribe Siculi settled here. Since then, its rulers changed constantly. In the 19th century, it became a major tourist center of international fame. It was the holiday destination of choice of many important people, including kings and queens, artists, writers, and actors. Without a doubt, every East Sicily itinerary must include Taormina.
Taormina’s historical center follows the main street of Corso Umberto. This atmospheric pedestrian street starts at the Porta Catania and ends at the Porta Messina. Hotels, shops, and restaurants line the street. Here you’ll also find the fortress alike Cathedral of Taormina. The early 15th-century church has a typical Sicilian-Romanesque-Gothic appearance. Approximately halfway between the two entrances, you won’t miss the lovely Piazza 9 Aprile. The views from Taormina’s main square are incredible. The Ancient theater of Taormina is the city’s most famous landmark. Though its size and shape are clearly Greek, the materials used (brick) suggest it’s from Roman times. An outstanding place of unbelievable views!
Other Places to See in Taormina
The best thing to do in Taormina is to walk along the cliff to admire the views of the Ionian coast. As soon as you exit Porta Messina, turn right to Via Luigi Pirandello and loop around the ancient theater. After a few moments, you’ll reach the Belvedere di Via Pirandello from where you can see the beautiful Isola Bella. Shortly after, the street changes its name to Via Bagnoli Croci. This is where you’ll find Taormina’s public gardens, Giardini della Villa Comunale. This fabulous park from the late 19th century is an imitation of English parks. Once you are back in the city center, search for the hidden Naumachie. This little courtyard is where Romans used to play games simulating battles. Among the several gorgeous churches, the Chiesa di San Pancrazio is the nicest.
Where to Stay in Taormina
You can either base yourself in Catania and go on day trips to Taormina and Syracuse, or spend a night in each place. However, bear in mind that most places in Taormina are quite pricey! If you don’t mind walking a bit, the lovely Villa Sirami is 5 minutes away from Porta Messina. They have everything you need: comfortable rooms and nice views. Another great hotel close to the public garden is Taormina Park Hotel. Their rooms have balconies, and they have a small spa. If you rather stay in a historic hotel, do not hesitate to book a room at the superb Excelsior Palace Hotel. This oriental style palace has been welcoming guests since 1904. Apart from its privileged location on a cliff next to Porta Catania, it has a private park and possibly the nicest views of the area.
Located at the Southeastern corner of Sicily, Syracuse’s history is glorious. Ancient Greeks found it in the 8th century BC and it soon became a powerful city. In fact, at the height of its power, it rivaled only Athens. It was the capital of the Sicilian governorate during Roman times. In the following centuries, it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire for a short period of time and later on, the Emirate of Sicily. During medieval times Syracuse continued to flourish, but the terrible earthquake of 1693 destroyed everything. That’s why its current appearance is dominantly baroque (just like Catania). UNESCO included the whole city of Syracuse and its historical layers in its List of World Heritage Sites.
Unlike Catania and Taormina, where most sites are close to each other, there are two main areas in Syracuse: the Archeological Park Neapolis and the Isola di Ortigia. The well preserved Greek Theater is the main sight in the Archaeological Park. Built in 470 BC, it is one of the largest of its kind. Through the centuries, it has hosted important plays, including works by Sophocles and Aischylos. Besides, the archeological park has a Roman Amphitheater and a unique quarry, Atomia dei Paraiso, with the famous Ear of Dionysius Cave. On the Island Ortigia, the hotspot is the elegant Piazza del Duomo, dominated by the spectacular Cathedral of Santa Maria delle Colonne. This lavish baroque church contains the remains of an ancient temple from the 5th century BC.
Other Places to See in Syracuse
You should spend a couple of hours exploring the archeological park. The place is so worth it. On your way to the Island, you’ll notice a strange conic tower. It belongs to the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime, a shrine commemorating a 1953 miracle. Once on the island, don’t miss the remains of the Temple of Apollo, the oldest Doric temple in Sicily. Continue straight until you reach the lovely Piazza di Archimede, with the beautiful fountain of Artemide. If you walk along the western coast, you’ll bump into the Fonte Aretusa, a place full of legends and home to Europe’s only papyrus plants. Walk until the tip of the island, and you’ll spot the Maniace Castle, an impressive medieval fortress. Don’t forget to check the colorful Ortigia Market.
Where to Stay in Syracuse
There are plenty of great hotels to stay in Syracuse. Since the majority of sights are in Ortigia Island, and the atmosphere is unique, stay here. One of our favorite hotels is the charming Maison Ortigia. Located just 200 meters from the cathedral, its rooms have balconies and great views. Another fabulous place on the island is the renowned Grand Hotel Ortigia. This elegant historic hotel offers first-class amenities, including a magnificent roof terrace with possibly the nicest vies in town. In summer you can spend time on their private beach! If you want to stay in the city center, between the island and the archeological park, then B&B Nostos is the place for you. Again, great rooms and even better views.