PERFECT FOR: Cultural mavens
WHY: Sicily packs an impressive seven UNESCO World Heritage sites into an area roughly the size of Vermont. The newest entry: the Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale inscribed in July 2015. Spring—before the summer crowds and hot summer weather arrives—is a good time to visit any of the sites. And May is one of the best months of the year to see Val di Noto (Noto Valley), eight late baroque towns in southeastern Sicily. During Noto’s annual l’infiorata (flower festival), the town’s picturesque Via Corrado Nicolaci is carpeted with elaborate flower-petal mosaics. See the floral mini-masterpieces and tour the impressive cathedrals open during the festival. From Noto, Sicily native Rossella Beaugié, a founding director of The Thinking Traveller villa rental company, recommends heading toward Sicily’s southernmost tip to take in one of the island’s less visited beaches. “The Vendicari Nature Reserve, a very short drive away, is then the perfect escape for a swim and some bird-watching,” she says.
WHERE: Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, is located off the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula. The two main airports are Palermo on the northern coast and Catania on the east-central coast.
HOW: From Palermo airport and Catania proper, you can connect to the convenient Trenitalia coastal train routes. Ride the train west to east along the northern coast from Palermo to Messina, and north to south along the eastern coast from Messina to Syracuse. To travel beyond the coast, rent a car at major train stations or at the airport. Cruises, ferries, and hydrofoils to the Aeolian Islands UNESCO World Heritage site leave from Milazzo on the northern coast.
STAY: Agritourism, or farm stays, are available in rural areas throughout Sicily, including areas in or near a World Heritage site. Options include the historic Villagrande Wine Resort on the eastern slope of Mount Etna and Borgo Levante, a six-bedroom farmhouse (open April to October). Or rent a private villa from Think Sicily, a division of The Thinking Traveller. Villas range in size from one to eight bedrooms or more, and many have pools. For an additional fee, villa guests can schedule guided Think Experiences such as hikes, tours, and workshops led by a local historian, architect, or archaeologist.
EAT: May to September, granita, Sicily’s sweet sugar-ice-fruit slush, is readily available in a rainbow of colors and flavors, such as traditional lemon, wild strawberry, toasted almond, pistachio, mulberry, and peach. Flavors vary based on what’s in season. The semifrozen dessert is served in a glass with a spoon and sweet brioche bun. Dip bite-size pieces of the brioche into the slush. And don’t wait to eat it for dessert. Locals eat granita for breakfast or a light lunch. Have at least one granita at Noto’s legendary Caffé Sicilia, opened in 1892.
DON’T MISS: Take a day trip to the southwestern coast to tour Selinunte, one of the largest archeological parks in Europe. Housing the ancient Greek city of Selinous, the visually stunning site sits on top of a cliff facing the sea. There are eight ruined temples and ancient acropolis, and, as London's Independent newspaper first reported in November 2015, the current excavation has unearthed a relatively well-preserved city buried under the sand. Surrounding the site are vineyards, olive groves, and fields dotted with wildflowers and the city’s namesake wild celery (selinon in Greek).
TRAVEL TIP: There’s volcanic activity across Sicily’s eight-island Aeolian archipelago, but only one island, Stromboli, sputters and spews swirling gases, ash, and incandescent lava fragments almost constantly. The more spectacular eruptions of hot lava can arc more than 1,200 feet into the air. Take a guided hike to the summit (before sunset) to peer down into the glowing crater.