Once blackballed by tourism, Sicily has more than just survived harsh reviews. Filled with stunning beauty the island is climbing up to become a top, must see destination. Whether you are looking for gold studded churches, spectacular ancient ruins, trendy nightlife, or just relax on the azure laden beaches, Sicily is a Mecca for fun-loving travelers. Visiting Sicily in 4 days is barely touching this interesting island, so here is a quick itinerary for those without much time.
Getting to Sicily is easy. Fly into Palermo, or take an overnight ferry from Naples. If you have the time, the ferry is a nice addition to your trip. The cabins are tiny but the nightlife is quite lively and the food is good. Pricing starts around 50 Euro per person for deck passage and about 179 Euro for a double cabin with Tirrenia Lines. SNAV Lines starts at 30 Euro for an economy cabin low season. Vehicles start at 50 Euro.
Arriving in Palermo as the sun is rising over the waving coastal hills is a welcome like no other. Sharing a taxi into town is economical and takes less time than the bus. If arriving by air into Palermo, the train is quick and leaves hourly. Tickets are only 8 Euro, each direction.
Sicily Day 1
Visit the hilltop village of Monreale. Wander up the winding walkway that leads alongside tiny shops. Intricately painted Sicilian ceramics, colorful jewelry and interesting local crafts face the small road steering you to the piazza that shares Monreale’s main attraction, the Cathedral of Monreale.
Although the cathedral displays an ordinary facade, a walk through the marble and mosaic doorway reveals artwork that rivals Venice’s Saint Mark’s Basilica. Glistening Byzantine mosaic tiles depict biblical stories across interior walls and ceilings. Some of the representations leave viewers pondering these historical tabloids. Notice the mosaic of Adam and Eve how much larger Eve’s feet are than Adam’s.
Children enjoy the story of Noah’s Ark as each animal disembarked to its new home on Mount Ararat. Bright lights highlight the altar apse that displays an immense mosaic masterpiece of Christ pouring out blessings upon the church. Underneath are saints of the past.
Norseman King William II, who dedicated the church to the Virgin Mary, built tiny alcoves that glimmer with golden tiles in this 12th century structure. The Cathedral was once the seat of the Archbishop of Sicily.
Drenched in archways, don’t miss the elaborate Cloister area where each deeply etched hand carved column is twirling in delightful patterns. Each one is unique, flowing in gold tiles and marble that carries a Middle Eastern influence which depicts more stories. One that is easily recognized, Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, deceived by his brothers, sold as a slave to Egypt, spent years in prison under false charges, came to be the most powerful person just under Pharaoh.
Be sure you have your camera handy as you leave Monreale. Sicily is well-known for its elaborately painted carts and large ornate wheels. Pony’s pulling the carts are adorned with large colored feathers on their heads and harnesses embellished with multi-colored tassels and brocade. You are encouraged to take pictures for a small donation, well worth the memory.
Finding your way to Monreale
Getting to Monreale is easy, take bus 389, departing from Piazza Independenza in Palermo or bus 109 from the main station. The ride takes 20-30 minutes depending on traffic. (Beware of pickpockets) Bus prices are 4 Euro for a 24 hour ticket. If you want to get there quickly a taxi runs approximately 30 Euro one way, caution: a return taxi can be difficult to find. You can also book a tour through your hotel or via internet before leaving home. Monreale is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon-Sat, 9a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sundays. There is no charge to enter.
Piazza della Vittoria
Next, take some time to roam Piazza della Vittoria, in the heart of political activities past and present. Stroll through the meticulously tended gardens lined with thick leafy palm trees and fragrant tropical flowers.
Monreale one of the most stunning churches in Italy
Historic artworks of Muslim and Norman origins are in abundance at Cappella Palatina. You get the best Byzantine mosaics starting with the spectacular cupola in the central apse. The Middle East influence is seen in the main ceiling, made from decorative woods and creatively patterned with stars that transforms into a cross. Gold encrusted archways have a flamboyant Muslim style that dominates the church.
Wrap up your first day at the Cathedral, a mishmash of Christian, Muslim and Gothic styles. Looking more like a palace than a basilica, this building is an assortment of additions and alterations; basically the Cathedral has been pieced together throughout the centuries. The observatory is of particular interest. The late 1600’s architects planned for a small hole to project sunlight on the floor at noon. Besides the numerous art works and mosaics that make Cappella Palatina an interesting stop, visitors will discover the location of King Rogers II’s burial crypt along with other notable patriarchs.
Sicily Day 2
Wake up early to walk around largest fruit and vegetable market in Sicily. Again make sure you bring your camera. Even on the main street it’s an adventure. Watch out for small cars and trucks edging between each other to offload their commodities. The streets bustle with vendors setting up stalls to sell every fruit and vegetable imaginable, while buyers meander through the aisles of this outdoor market. Freshly picked blood oranges are sweet and juicy, locally grown grapes so sweet you would think its candy.
Lemons used for the famous liqueur Limoncello are in abundance. But more than just snacking, watch the people as they negotiate for a good deal through a hand language known only to Italians. Spend about an hour here.
Cefalù, time for a little beach time fun
Drive less than an hour to the ancient seaside village of Cefalù (chef-a-loo), a popular vacation spot with European families for years. The romantic setting is perched on a rocky knoll just above the calming sea. Narrow streets from medieval days boast intimate restaurants and interesting shops. The atmosphere is laid back with a double dose of charm. It’s not uncommon to see a festive wedding taking place here.
Two places of interest are the Cathedral, a smaller replica of Monreale. Across from the cathedral is a small outdoor restaurant, Osteria del Duomo, sit at one of the many outdoor tables under a wrought iron awning crawling with leafy green foliage. Try their luscious Seafood Salad or savory Bruschette, and then top it off with a creamy cold Gelato. The chocolate is exceptional or if you are into coffee, the Tiramisu is absolutely heavenly.
An interesting piece of history
Take a short walk down to the sea to find the ancient washing quarter, a long past version of our modern Laundromats. Women would take their clothes and linens, then while scrubbing catch up on local gossip of the day. The wash area has different levels of rock walls, containing fresh water pools. Streams of water then flow down a small aqueduct, ducking through a roman archway that empties into the sea. The idea was very ingenious for its time.
If you like to hike, trek up the hillside where you can see the small ruins of what was once the Temple of Diana, one of the oldest structures built in Sicily. Keep walking to the top of the hill and enjoy a marvelous view of the village and seaside. You can see Cefalu in just a couple hours.
The ruins of Selinunte
Drive to the west coast to the tiny seaside village of Selinunte (sell-a-none-tay) for a late lunch then take the easy walk amongst the ancient Grecian and Carthaginian ruins. Less known than Agrigento it’s quite the hidden treasure, not to mention the quiet seaside village would be the perfect overnight weekend getaway. Passing Doric columns dismantled and spewed along the ancient main road leads to all 5 temples. Selinunte started construction around 650 B.C. and had the 4th largest Grecian Temple ever built.
The well-preserved Acropolis Temple, perched high on the cliffs, has a commanding view of the Mediterranean and tiny fishing town of Selinunte. Once saturated with all the important treasures of the city, it was also a political capital of the Grecian Empire. The structure was flanked by 2 rivers that eventually played a part in bringing the temple to a ruinous state. This archeological Park is one of the largest in Europe and unlike most ruins you can walk throughout the buildings as you please.
Marsala is good with more than chicken
Selinunte is part of the world-famous Marsala Wine region so no visit would be complete without trying some of the best as you leave town. The sweet fragrance of Marsala grapes greet you the second you walk through the door. The bar is lined with sparkling wine glasses waiting to be filled with your choice of Marsala. The wine is intertwined with brandy to give its distinct flavor and long shelf life.
Allow yourself 2-3 hours to explore. If you have time there is a small museum with ancient artifacts found in Selinunte. If you have not eaten yet try the seaside restaurant Da Vittorio. The fresh fish is grilled with caramelized onions, and flavorful Italian seasonings, the pasta is tantalizingly Sicilian.
Finally enjoy the scenic drive to Agrigento, where you will stay the night.
I was going to try to do the 4 days in Sicily in just one post but there is way to much to read. Stay tuned for part 2!
Check out day 3 and 4 here