Sicily is one of my favourite places on earth. The combination of epic landscapes and heady individual freedom makes it a great place in which to adventure. Below is some advice which I wrote for my uncle, who is just about to go. I have laced it with some of my photos. Obviously, my advice is based around a set itinerary, but I thought I should post it here because what is the internet for, if not for sharing one’s experiences with others? [That is the most naive thing I have ever said]
We stayed in the historic quarter which is a good idea for several reasons: it is convenient for walking to the main attractions of the town; the area is overwhelmingly atmospheric; there is good accommodation there; it is very authentically Sicilian, not just a tourist zone.
We only stayed one night in Palermo, so are perhaps not the best advisors. We went for something a bit different to cap off the holiday http://www.palazzo-ajutamicristo.com/English/History1.htm . This place made for a bizarre and fascinating experience. It was hauntingly beautiful, shabby, and thickly aristocratic. It reminded me of that gothic building in Blade Runner. The room was comfortable enough, but not thoroughly clean and a bit pokey. We could park the car inside the the palazzo courtyard, which was very handy. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay there for more than one night at the price, but it was worth it just for the brief experience of feeling like a mediaeval Palermitan aristocrat! Perhaps you might find a more well appointed palazzo for the blend of comfort and character?
I would highly recommend visiting the markets amongst all the other sights, the produce is epic. Of course the cathedral at Monreale just north of the city is a must- the most breathtaking mosaics and tons of gold all over the walls.
It is a very touristy town, developed to accommodate the coach-loads of day-trippers who will be visiting the temples until the end of time. We stayed in a basic, functional hotel, and I get the impression that the rest of the accommodation there is not up to much (I might be wrong though). Apparently some people stay in nearby San Leone, but we were not terribly impressed. You might be able to find something nicer upmarket, or perhaps in the surrounding countryside.
My favourite town in Sicily. Definitely stay on the island part, Ortygia, which is very beautiful. The baroque streets are prettier, more friendly, and less ghostly than Palermo. The surrounding ocean is gorgeous – I loved wandering around the ports. Parking is totally hopeless on the streets, so you just leave your car in the car park just on the north of Ortygia and stroll back to your hotel – most of which are not too far away.
We stayed in Hotel Gran Bretagna http://www.hotelgranbretagna.it/ (just for the name of course) which boasted ancient frescoes in some of the rooms. I’m sure they were lying – most of the decor was a bit tired to be honest. However, I remember the place feeling spacious and comfortable, and being right in the middle of things with a nice Juliet balcony. I would recommend staying somewhere in that area but, mind, the one way system is hilarious and the driving is sociopathic as usual.
Ground zero for tourism in Sicily. The rolling hills have clearly been overdeveloped to accommodate the billions of tourists. In comparison to other places we had been to in Sicily, it seemed a bit hackneyed. On the other hand, we did say to each other while we were there that if we had just turned up on the plane straight from London, it would have seemed like paradise.
We stayed in the hills overlooking the town. It is one of those sketchy Italian coastal drives, like around Lake Como or the Amalfi coast, where you have to squeeze your car into improbable gaps between rocks and hard places at eye-watering speed. We found a charming guest house in a hill-top village which gave us great views over Taormina and an electrical storm that night.
I imagine there is no shortage of high-quality hostelry in Taormina, which would be much more appropriate if you want to spend a longer period there relaxing.
There is a restaurant along the coast from Taormina called Naomi. The food is good, but remarkable in its quantity. When we walked in we were sat down and, without a suggestion of menus, they started bringing food. I lost count after the twelfth course, I think. I admit that I started to become preoccupied with the possibility of splitting open. Nice drive to get there. Naomi is bizarrely high-lit by an enormous neon sign advertising itself to the coast. Vulgar but effective.
While the beach in Taormina is pretty enough with l’Isola Bella and such, it is nothing in comparison to the raw beauty of the wilder beaches. Lo Zingaro is a nature reserve near Castellammare del Golfo and San Vito lo Capo which has the most stunning white pebble beaches. The coves are lined with grottoes and the seas are light blue and warm, with lots of tropical fish. The rest of the reserve is rugged Sicilian countryside with ancient settlement caves and plenty of wild life. We stayed in a beautiful little place near the resort called Baglio La Porta, which I would heartily recommend to you, although many opt for the village Scopello.
Also, the Imperial villa at Casale is incredible. I think it was a Diocletian’s country retreat. It has vast mosaics intact, preserved by mud, or something. It is a good stop to make between Agrigento and Siracusa.
If you do venture that far out west, Erice is worthing visiting for the epic panorama.
The food is coarse, and less reliable than the north of Italy. The fruit is the best I have had anywhere in the world: plums that you suck out of their skins like honey nectar, and big grapes which are sweet and complex in flavour like dessert wine. Seriously, mind out for the prickly pears – the spines are tiny but impossible to get out of your skin. The locals call them ‘bastardi’ or even ‘bastardoni’.
I hope some of this is useful!