written by
Joe Boone

If wanderlust has caught hold and you find yourself yearning for adventure, an extended holiday on the sunny island of Sicily is the perfect cure. For thousands of years, Sicily’s seductive lure has attracted millions of wandering explorers to its shores. Spanning 9,927 square miles, it’s an autonomous region of Italy and the largest island in the Mediterranean. Home to 5 million inhabitants, the irregular triangular-shaped island sits two miles off the tip of the toe of Italy’s boot, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Just 87 miles from Tunisia’s north shore in North Africa, it dominates the sea lanes from east to west and north to south.


Lapped by three seas – the Ionian, Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean – Sicily’s strategic location, ideal sub-tropical climate, and diverse and fertile landscape have made it the prime target of many a conquest over the last three millennia. Sicily has seen more conquering foes than most other regions of the world, having fallen under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Austrian, French, German, Spanish, British and Italian rule. 


Each invading conqueror left an indelible impression on today’s Sicily, and nowhere is it more evident after 2,700 years than in Palermo, its capital city. Founded by Phoenicians in 734 BC, today it’s one of Italy’s oldest cities. And with 1.2 million inhabitants it is the island’s largest metropolis. Palermo’s rich history reflects a cultural heritage that few other European cities can compare, and exploring its streets is a favorite pastime of more than 1 million annual visitors. 


The Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, and Art Nouveau churches and palaces are Palermo’s crowning achievements. Two are “must see” UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Norman Palace and its beautiful Palatine Chapel, a masterpiece of Arab-Norman-Byzantine style, and Sicily’s largest church, Palermo Cathedral. Founded in 1185 AD, its Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Swabian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque influences make it the world's most architecturally diverse, multicultural place of worship. 


Walk along Palermo’s cobbled streets and evidence of Greek, Roman, Norman, and Arab reign is everywhere, not just in the architecture. Courtesy of Sicily’s Arab roots, the outdoor markets, souks and bazaars are legendary, dating back to the ninth century. Bustling, crowded, and full of hidden treasures, a day at a market is a unique and memorable way to connect with the real lifestyle of the locals. Fresh produce, fruit and seafood vendors abound and the street food is as memorable as the island’s ancient artifacts. If you want to experience some of the best that Sicily has to offer, just follow your nose. The sumptuous smell of garlic, oregano, and chilis fill the air, together with fried foods like panelle (chickpea fritters) and cazzilli (potato croquettes). But the highlight of your journey will be the sweets, with cannoli taking center stage.


Another of Sicily’s top attractions, the Cathedral of Monreale is just a few miles southwest of Palermo in the town of Monreale. Completed in 1189 AD, it too is a UNESCO World Heritage site. One of the richest, most beautiful churches in the world, its interior is replete with 70,000 square feet of stunning gold-ground mosaics. 


The island’s most well-known UNESCO site is the ever present Mt. Etna. Towering 10,800 feet high, it’s the world’s second most active volcano. Frequent eruptions created large tracts of fertile soil below,  perfect for growing lemons, oranges, tomatoes, grapes, almonds, citron, wheat, and prickly pears. Adventurers hike up to Etna’s summit or arrive by cable car and four-wheel drive. The faint of heart can climb aboard the Circumetnea, a historic 1898 train line, still offering 68 mile long excursions around Etna’s base.


Catania, Sicily’s second largest city, lies at Etna’s feet, some 20 miles southeast on the coast. Founded by Greeks in 729 BC and overlooking the Mediterranean, Catania has survived eruptions and earthquakes including one that completely destroyed the city in 1693. Rebuilt in the 18th century in beautiful Sicilian Baroque style, traces of 2nd and 3rd century Roman rule still exist, including ancient ruins of a Roman Theatre, Amphitheater, aqueducts, and Roman baths.


Agrigento, a hilltop city on Sicily's southwest shore is another of Sicily’s oldest regions. The Valley of Temples, an epicenter of ancient ruin sites dots the landscape, including well-preserved Greek temples dating as far back as 510 BC.


Sicily’s beaches are world famous for their turquoise-blue waters and stunning, rugged coastline that constantly changes as it laps the island’s 922 miles of shore. Soft white sandy beaches make way to small inlets and hidden coves, cliff-lined beaches and small pebbled ones, with vineyards, olive groves, small coastal towns, ancient ruins, medieval castles, hundreds of coastal watchtowers, mountains, and Mt. Etna acting as backdrops.


For lovers of the grape, Sicily has more vineyards than any other region in Italy, producing wine on the island since the 8th century BC. Wine travel continues to grow in popularity, especially in the west, and ancient varieties are still used in producing some of Sicily’s top wines.

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