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If you found yourself dreaming of a trip to Sicily this year, you are not alone. The island’s popularity soared this year thanks to its appearance on the popular HBO series, “The White Lotus,” as did one of its most luxurious staging posts, San Domenico Palace, a Four Seasons Hotel, where the show was filmed.
Part of a larger trend toward “set-jetting” — the phenomenon whereby movies and TV shows inspire travel itineraries — Sicily has dominated social media and Google searches this year. Hopper reported that Palermo was one of the top trending destinations for airfare searches this summer, with a 90% spike in interest.
While many travelers flocked to Sicily this year to indulge their White Lotus fantasies — facilitated by new luxe resorts like Rocco Forte’s Ville Igiea in Palermo and, of course, the aforementioned San Domenico Palace in Taormina — Sicily’s distinctive culture and traditions far and away transcend its moment in the media spotlight.
The largest island in the Mediterranean has long been something of a hidden gem, drawing European jet-setters in the know. It’s home to gorgeous, UNESCO-inscribed villages, dazzling beaches, a wine and cuisine scene that easily rivals Italy’s mainland, and even its Mount Etna volcano. Sicily is one of the best places in Europe to hire a car and explore without any prescribed agenda.
From the baroque towns of Val di Noto to villages with medieval castles and quaint beachfront fishing communities, Sicily’s sheer diversity of cultural and natural treasures enthralls travelers who want to experience the more authentic side of one of Europe’s hottest destinations.
Scicli is dramatically sited in a valley sandwiched between rocky cliffs. It’s situated in the southeast area of the island, and it’s one of the seven famed Val di Noto baroque towns.
Like many towns in the Val di Noto, it was heavily damaged by the 1693 earthquake and rebuilt in baroque style. It’s affectionately known as the setting for the hit Italian television series, “Commissario Montalbano.”
Plan to explore the city on foot, starting on Via Francisco Mormino Penna, a street with several baroque palaces and churches all constructed in local white stone. Don’t miss the emblematic baroque Palazzo Beneventano, an ornate 18th-century palace (the original building dates to the Middle Ages) with a courtyard hailed as the most beautiful in Sicily.
Draped over Mount Marone and dramatically framed by Mount Etna, Gangi is often called the most beautiful village in Italy. Crowned by the 14th-century Ventimiglia castle, the town’s charm lies in its authentic Sicilian ambience and evocative medieval alleyways photogenically lined with two- and three-story stone houses.
In the San Nicolo Church, you can visit the rather macabre “tomb of dead priests” (or fossa de parrini), where a crypt contains niches with about 100 mummified priests thought to have lived in Gangi from around 1720-1850.
One of Sicily’s most well-known beach towns, Cefalu has more than just golden sands and azure waters.
Visit the 12th-century cathedral, complete with Renaissance sculptures and Byzantine mosaics. If you have some energy to spare, hike the massive Rocca mountain that towers above the town until you reach the old castle remains. If it looks vaguely familiar, this former fishing village was the setting for the Oscar-winning movie “Cinema Paradiso.”
This stunning island, once inhabited by Greeks, is filled with ancient monuments and historic churches. Its picturesque squares are lined with elaborate palazzi, and its labyrinthine streets are dotted with shops, cafes, restaurants and bars.
Connected to Sicily’s mainland by two bridges, it’s best to park your car in Siracusa and walk over to Ortigia’s old town. Don’t miss the Piazza del Duomo, with its showstopping Duomo, the oldest church in Europe.
Another highlight is the town’s lively food markets (pick up some pistachios — Sicily has thousands of acres of pistachio trees). Fresh swordfish is a local delicacy that you’ll find on chalkboard menus in many restaurants.
Erice’s claim to fame is its Venere Castle, which sits atop the fabled mountain peak of Ertz and boasts expansive views of the Sicilian countryside and the sea.
Within the town’s 12th-century walls, you’ll find an array of churches — its moniker is the “city of 100 churches.” The most famous is the imposing Norman Erice cathedral, built with stones from Rome’s Temple of Venus; it’s distinctive for its freestanding bell tower and intricately carved vaulted ceiling. The church dates to 1314 but was rebuilt in its current Gothic style in 1865.
You’ll find the town’s greatest joys wandering its streets, which feature antique stores, craft shops, restaurants, cafes and bakeries (almond pastries are renowned here).
The second of what will be a few of the iconic UNESCO-designed Val di Noto baroque villages on this list, Modica’s never-ending rooftops rise along the surrounding hills. Before the earthquake of 1693, the medieval old town was carved into the rock face. Now built on top of the ridge, it’s an evocative maze of stunning baroque facades, extravagant churches and beautiful palaces connected by stairways.
Make sure to see the San Giorgio cathedral, and for an afternoon snack, sample some chocolate. The ancient recipe uses special grinding methods at frigid temperatures sans cocoa butter for a grainy and bold taste.
North of Taormina in the province of Messina, Savoca is set between Sicily’s aqua waters and the Peloritani mountain range. It’s surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
Another cinematic backdrop, iconic scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “The Godfather” were shot there — most memorably, the wedding of Michael Corleone and Apollonia at church of San Nicolo. Fans of the film should also stop into Bar Vitelli (another famous filming location) for a glass of local wine.
Nestled among craggy peaks, Ragusa’s old town (Ragusa Ibla) is one of the most spectacular spots to view from a distance.
The striking town sits upon a hilltop, complete with blue-domed churches and pink and yellowed crumbling baroque buildings. With its charming tangle of streets and elegant squares lined with gray stone houses and palaces, Ragusa is one of the best places on the island to just relax and watch Sicilian life unfold.
The town is divided into two distinct parts: Ragusa Superiore is the town’s more modern enclave with a more prosaic vibe, while Ragusa Ibla is the town’s beautifully preserved historic center that unfurls down the hillside. Don’t miss sites include the church of San Giorgio and the San Giovanni Cathedral.
Built right into the stone of the surrounding mountains, Sperlinga sounds suspiciously like the word spelunking — caving. As you might guess, there are numerous caves carved into the stone throughout the village, and you can explore them all. Find the best views can by hiking up to the Sperlinga castle, which overlooks the village.
Novara di Sicilia
Nestled between the two mountain ranges of Nebrodi and Peloritani, Novara di Sicilia has spectacular views from pretty much any angle. Built from local sandstone beneath the remnants of an ancient castle, most of the village dates to the 17th century. The oldest building is the small and unassuming 13th-century Church of St. Francis.
If you’re lucky, you’ll visit during one of the many food festivals this village has throughout the year, dedicated to local products such as hazelnuts, Maiorchino cheese and bread. If not, you can simply wander the village’s magical streets.
The town is steeped in myth — legend has it that Cyclops once lived in Novara di Sicilia.
San Vito Lo Capo
Shoulder season (May-June and September-October) is the best time to visit San Vito Lo Capo, one of Sicily’s most beautiful beach villages, to beat the crowds but still have perfect weather. You may not associate couscous as a Sicilian specialty, but the village has an entire festival dedicated to the food each September.
Castiglione di Sicilia
With views of the volcano Mount Etna, this village is similar to many other Sicilian towns in that it has a signature 12th-century castle and many churches. One of the most distinctive is the Santa Domenica chapel, a small stone structure built by Byzantine monks.
This tiny fishing village is famous for its tonnara or tuna fish. It’s also a popular beach spot for tourists and locals alike in the summer when the population increases exponentially. People-watching over a spritz in the main plaza, Piazza Regina Margherita, is the activity of choice for a warm, summery evening.
With so much to see and do in a beautiful country like Italy, it can be hard to figure out where to start. But if you end up in Sicily, the best way to explore the island is by car.
Taormina may have stolen the limelight this year thanks to “The White Lotus” effect, but once you get off the beaten path, you’ll find stunning villages with timeless cultural traditions at every turn. Make sure to add some of them to your Sicilian vacation itinerary.
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