Your visit can be fully customizable . If you take a private tour with us, that is, using our guide / host the whole way, then the tour can be tailored to you: number of days, itinerary, kinds of hotel and restaurant you want, kinds of things you want to see and do in the way you want to see and do them. However, being a tour guiding company, we don't do concierge service only, that is, making arrangements for folks not otherwise using one of us as full-time guide.
If you need ideas about what you want on your private tour, below is a list of the some of the main attractions of Sicily to tickle your thinking. And if you'd like to do something that isn't on this list, we'd be more than happy to oblige.
This city is why we live in Sicily. One needs three days to come to grips with Siracusa (but we are experts in visiting the highlights in one day if that is all the time available).
Day 1 – Greek Superpower
Siracusa was most powerful city in the Greek world after Athens. Established as a colony of Corinth in the 8th century BCE, Siracusa eventually came to dominate the central Mediterranean. She fought Carthage to a draw and crushed Athens, whose "Siracusan Expedition" of the late 5th century, told so poignantly by Thucydides, ended the first Golden Age of Western Civilization in the harbor of Syracuse.
Together we can walk the matchless island-peninsula of Ortigia, redolent of ancient Greek myth and history, visit one of the two greatest Greek theaters in the world, an altar the length of two football fields, temples turned into cathedrals, and a cavern quarried by ancient war prisoners large enough to fit a cathedral. We'll tell you stories of Dionysius the Great, Plato, Archimedes, Theocritus, Cicero, wonders ancient and modern.
Day 2 – Jewish and Christian Siracusa
Siracusa was a important center of Jewish life in late classical through early medieval Mediterranean, following the first disapora. We'll spend a few hours touring the ancient Jewish quarter including a visit a ritual mikveh bath (hewn 30 feet into bedrock), the best preserved pre-modern mikveh anywhere.
Siracusa today is a Roman Catholic town, home of Santa Lucia. Her festivals (December 13-20, May 7) are marked with beautiful parades. Together we will visit the Siracusan catacombs, the largest in Italy outside of Rome, a chamber where St. Paul is said to have met with early Christians, more than one Norman church, and the medieval Church of Santa Lucia outside the walls.
Day 3 – Spanish Baroque
Siracusa has never taken kindly to foreign invaders: her citizens assassinated a Byzantine Emperor naked in the public baths, defied the Arabs for fifty years, held off the Normans for thirty-five, and massacred the French. Twice. But under 17th century Spanish rule, even as the peasants in the countryside suffered under terrible oppression, Sicilian cities like Siracusa bloomed with splendid buildings of the aristocracy. A massive earthquake in 1693 forced the Spanish to rebuild the historic center of Siracusa, the island of Ortigia, which now is crowded with massive Baroque palaces overlooking twisting medieval streets. Colorful laundry and flowers adorn balconies and stylish boutiques sit beside tiny shops where master woodworkers and puppet makers labour at their craft.
The heart of Christian Siracusa is the Piazza Duomo, where prehistoric Sikel altars lie under a Temple to Athena, whose original columns still embrace what became a Christian church become a 9th century mosque, become a medieval then baroque cathedral. This history makes Piazza Duomo the site of longest continuous worship in world.
Inside the cathedral deep within under the magnificent juxtaposition of ancient temple and Spanish baroque is where to tell the story of Santa Lucia, martyred by the Romans, while visiting her arm. Next door is the medieval Archbishop's Library.
One can visit the cathedral and discuss the complex history while enjoying a coffee or granita (traditional lemon-ice treat) in a cafe looking at its celebrated Baroque facade. At dusk the square is transformed into a swirl of nightlife, as locals fill outdoor restaurants and promenade in their best attire in the sea air.
We could have lived anywhere in Siracusa, for that matter anywhere in Sicily, for that matter anywhere in Italy, for that matter anywhere. We chose Ortigia, in old Siracusa, in old Sicily. Come and let us show you why.
2) GREEKS AND ROMANS
Besides the magnificent ruins in Siracusa (discussed above), Sicily is home to most of the most dramatic and best preserved classical (pre-Hellenistic) Greek ruins in the world, among the following UNESCO World Heritage sites:
Agrigento is home to the finest collection of Greek temples in the world. A row of Doric temples were built along a ridge overlooking the sea in the 5th century BCE, making a city that Pindar called "the most beautiful city constructed by men." Empedocles developed the philosophy of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire here, and helped introduce democracy. Agrigento's 20th Century produced Nobel Prize-winner Luigi Pirandello and Andrea Camilleri, author of the Inspector Montalbano series. Add a magnificent museum and a fascinating (& almost impenetrable) medieval town, and Agrigento becomes one of the most visited sites in Sicily.
Perhaps the single most evocative Greek temple in the world, Segesta stands alone in the countryside, ringed with mountains, in western Sicily. In 1777 Swinburne wrote, "Nothing could be more judiciously chosen than the situation of Segesta” and Guy de Maupassant: “It seems to have been placed at the foot of the mountain by a genius". Today Segesta is still delightful, and in the Spring the valley is filled with wildflowers, while in the fall mists on the nearby hills add to the drama.
Western Sicily is home to the ruins of the once-grand Greek city of Selinus. Today we can walk among the columns of seven different temples on a windy section of the western Sicilian coast, so remote we often have the temples to ourselves.
ROMAN VILLA AT CASALE (Piazza Armerina)
Just outside of Piazza Armerina in the heart of Sicily sits a stupendous Roman villa (ca. 4th century CE), whose floor mosaics are the greatest yet discovered in sitù. No museum display of mosaics can match the experience of seeing them in the rooms where they were placed, woven into the domestic life of an ancient Roman family
3) UNESCO World Heritage Sicilian Baroque Sites
After the worst earthquake in the history of Italy devastated eastern Sicily in 1693, the ruling Spanish used local architects, sculptors, and stone to rebuild the local towns, achieving a remarkable expression of local character in Baroque style. Eight towns were recognized in 2002 with a UNESCO World Heritage designation for their Sicilian Baroque.
In addition to Siracusa, these include:
Noto is the jewel of this group, famous for its honey-colored limestone that glows in the evening sun. Catania is Sicily's second largest city, full of reasons to visit. But well worth visiting as well are Ragusa and Modica, whose buildings rise splendidly on steep sites, and Caltagirone, Sicily's ceramics center. Then there are Scicli and Militello Val di Catania, and Palazzolo, with its rarely visited ancient Greek town and Cybele worship sites, all are gems well off the tourist track similarly gorgeous.
Sicily’s capital and largest city, Palermo sits on the northern coast of Sicily in its generous bay. Palermo first bloomed under Arab rule, becoming 9th and 10th centuries among the great intellectual centers of the Western World, after with Islamic Baghdad and Cordoba. After Norman conquest new splendor arrived in the form of the Norman Palace, Monreale Cathedrale, and Palatine Chapel which exemplify a unique style Arab-Norman art and architecture that attracts visitors from around the world and has earned UNESCO World Heritage designation. Its final flowering came with the matchless court of Frederick II (13th century), where arguably both the Italian language and the Renaissance were born.
Palermo made a name for itself in the Spanish and Bourbon periods as a place aristocratic elegance and stasis. The nineteenth century brought grand opera, the Mafia, and decadence. Lately, the city of nearly a million has become increasingly less Mafia-controlled since the 1980s thanks to a series of crusading judges and mayors, and the proud citizens are enjoying a the longest period of prosperity and optimism since the unification of Italy in 1860 (forever to be considered a disaster by Sicilians).
Palermo is to be visited today for the Arabo-Norman churches, baroque palaces, colorful markets, notable museums, numerous world-class restaurants, and, just outside the city, Monreale Cathedral.
5) Taormina, Catania, and Mt. Etna
Taormina is Sicily's most popular tourist destination. From the Roman period to the present day it has been a destination for the rich and famous. The Greco-Roman theater that overlooks the town has one of the finest views in all of Sicily, the shopping is world class, and the beach has some of the clearest water on the island.
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily and sits just under the active volcano of Mt. Etna. It has occasionally been erased by lava flows from this very volcano and has been rebuilt with black lava stone, giving it a unique appearance. It is home to the splendid Bellini Opera House, Roman amphitheatre and baths, some delicate baroque churches, an excellent WWII museum, and some of the most lively street markets, cafes, and nightlife in Sicily, and the Fontana dell'Elefante, a silly black lavastone elephant fountain (1736).
Mt. Etna, Europe's largest active volcano is the great grumpy grandfather/grandmother of Sicily, and a font of myths since before the ancient Greeks. It can be visited easily by car 2/3rds of the way up, then by cable car or 4WD to near the top. Of course, anyone with a day, sturdy shoes, and good lungs can walk up. Even though she is always steaming.
6) Aeolian Islands
In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus approaches the kingdom of Aeolus, God of the Winds, and sees, "a floating island, an entire wall of bronze, indestructible, stark".
Just off the Northern Coast of Sicily, the Aeolian Islands are a chain of rugged and beautiful volcanic islands jutting out of the Mediterranean. Brilliant yellow sulfur crystals dot the black lava fields, and spring flowers cover the hillsides above white sand beaches and the sapphire sea. A popular holiday destination for Italians themselves, the Aeolian Islands still offer solitude and opportunities remote getaways if you have several days. Featured in the much-loved film Il Postino, the Aeolian Islands are some of the most stunning islands in the Mediterranean. Accessible by ferry.
7) Cruising the Cuisine – Gastronomic Highlights of Sicily
Led by our master gourmand, Stefano, we offer a customized tour of the best of Sicilian cuisine, from world-class restaurants to places that specialize in the best of Palermo and Catania street food, to remote cheese farm cooking, to the renowned masters of Sicily pastries and gelato, to winery visits, to Alessia's cooking class (see small-group tours).
For fine dining,there are fantastic Michelin-starred restaurants in Palermo and Ragusa. In the countryside, the Slow Foods movement has taken root, which we are eager to support, and agriturismi (farmhouse B&Bs) offer delicious traditional cooking with the freshest, locally foraged ingredients.
Our profession has allowed us to find the best restaurant owners, farmers, and winemakers across the island. Italy is famously regional, each region jealously guarding its uniqueness. This is true within regions as well. In the Siracusa region we focus on the huge variety of seafood dishes (swordfish, octopus, and specializing in mussels) and the Pachino cherry tomatoes (best in Italy). In the rolling interior of the island, we'll explore Sicily's incomparable ricotta, including the process of ricotta-making, and, as central Sicily is wheat country, an infinite variety of breads. The Plain of Catania has award-winning oranges and lemons, which appear in a surprising varieties of recipes. The slopes Etna grows most of Italy's pistachios and their the lava-soil influenced wines are increasingly famous. In the Southwest we'll discover the Arab and Spanish influence on Sicilian cuisine, especially couscous. And then there is Palermo, where all the richness of Sicilian cuisine comes to its fullest glory.
Come in season, and we can attend the vendemmia, the grape harvest, or, a month later, the pressing of olives, where olive oil quality is as carefully scrutinized as wine. Southeast Sicilian olive oil won best in show in Milan in 2015.
The uniqueness of Sicilian cooking largely comes thanks to the medieval Arab occupation a thousand years ago. Their legacy is evident in many things, from citrus and dried fruit in many dishes, to nut sauces on pasta, to the famous Sicilian desserts. By the way, forget what you've heard about Marco Polo bringing pasta from China, we have contemporary accounts of the Arabs inventing pasta in Sicily in the 9th century.
This tour customized to your schedule and your specific culinary interest. , tailored to your Contact us to set this up.
8) Rugged Highlands and Soft Beaches – PAntalica and the Southern Coast
South and west of Siracusa we find some of the most unpopulated and rugged landscape in all of Italy. In the spring, wildflowers cover the hills in a stunning array of color. The rocky gorges of Pantalica National Park are home to thousands of Neolithic tombs. There are the ruins of Greek theaters and Byzantine frescoes in caves that are never visited by tourists, as well as tiny towns with baroque churches next to ancient battlefields, all less than an hour from Siracusa by car. The town of Buscemi is preserved as a living museum of traditional rural Sicilan Life. In October, the Sortino Honey Festival celebrates the variety of honey made from the local wildflowers, and the Avola almond festival celebrates the almond blossoms in Spring.
South of Siracusa we find some of the finest white sand beaches in the Mediterranean. Although we're happy to offer the full Club Med, Beach Umbrella, and Margarita treatment, we specialize in taking you to off-the-beaten track beaches where you can sun and swim without the thump of Eurodisco.
There are fantastic snorkeling and diving sites around the island, as well as on the Aeolian Islands. We are happy to arrange snorkeling trips and we know diving guides around Sicily and would be happy arrange a diving trip.
Madonie Mountains National Park in the Northeast is home to the elusive North African Crested Porcupine (hard to spot!) as well as 65% of all nesting birds and mammals in Sicily. Martens, Ravens, Golden Eagles, and the rare Madonie Fir Tree (only 29 specimens in the world) make their home in this stunning preserve. The Nebrodi mountains in the North feature sea-hugging cliffs, remote valleys, and some of the best hiking.
Birding & COASTAL WILDLIFE PARKS
Vendicari, south of Siracusa, is a Ramsar Convention wetland and attracts birders from across Europe as 20,000+ waterfowl pass through during the Spring migration period.
On the southern coast Biviere de Gela National Park features a series of freshwater lagoons and beautiful dunes and is an important staging area for numerous species of migratory birds, including Great Cormorants.
In the northwest, Zingaro National Park is home to two very rare birds: the Bonelli Eagle, one of the rarest European birds of prey, and the Greek Partridge of Sicily.
For divers, Ustica Island is a protect marine reserve with Mediterranean coral reefs.
10) Mafia Tourism
Yes, and we believe that we invented it.
We will take you to sites of historical Mafia activity Palermo, Corleone (home of The Godfather), Siracusa, and many other small towns. In fact there are examples of Mafia activity everywhere, including the very roadways under our van (all and more will be explained). We will discuss the Mafia, their roots in ancient Roman agricultural policy, their role as alternative local government, and what they are up to now. We will also discuss the anti–Mafia movement and visit the anti–Mafia museum in Corleone. Tour leader Douglas Kenning has lectured on the Mafia at universities around the San Francisco area.
You can also stay overnight in the estate of a Mafia Don, now turned into a beautiful organic farmhouse B&B run by Libera, the national anti-Mafia organization.
11) "On Location" – Film site tours
Many great films have been shot in Sicily, including "The Godfather" (all three parts), "Il Postino", "The Leopard", "Cinema Paradiso", "Malena", "Divorce, Italian Style", and others. We will take you to where the scenes were filmed, We know where the directors stayed and their favorite restaurants, and know people who knew the actors, and some locals who were extras on screen. Furthermore, we have lived in Tunisia and take tours there regularly and can do a "Star Wars" tour in a country rich in sites and images from the film.
12) Museums, Galleries, Exhibitions
Some of the most important:
The Archaeological Museum of Agrigento is Sicily's most visited (one of Italy's top ten), and lays out the story of this beautiful Greek city with splendid openness. A gigantic towering telemon gives a sense of the former massiveness of the Greek world's largest temple and alone is worth the trip.
The Archaeological Museum of Siracusa takes us through the chronology of eastern Sicily with absolute clarity. Modern, beautifully organized, it is one of the best archaeological museums in Europe. Caravaggio fans will want to visit the Church of Santa Lucia della Badia in Piazza Duomo, where his housed his masterpiece The Burial of Saint Lucy.
The Museo del Papiro looks into the fascinating history of papyrus in Siracusa, the only place in all Europe where it grows. You can participate in papyrus making there. There is also a world class collection of ancient coins in Siracusa.
Messina's city museum houses two other Caravaggios as well as a fine collection of medieval work.
Palermo is home to the flagship of Sicily's matchless collection of archaeological museums, Museo Archeologico Regionale di A.Salinas. Its main art collection, the Galleria Regionale di Sicilia, is housed in the old Arabic Kalsa Quarter, and is home to Renaissance painting, sculpture, and archeological treasures from around the island. The Pitrè Ethnographical Museum is Sicily's best display of traditional culture as well.
For lovers of archaeology, Lipari, the largest Aeolian Island, boasts one of the clearest and most thorough collections of the rich underwater detritus of three millennia of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and everyone else who has sailed the Western Mediterranean. There is also an interesting vulcanology museum.
Some of the most charming museums are scattered around the small towns. We track temporary exhibitions around the island continually and will be happy to share the latest information with you.
13) Naples, Rome, Puglia, etc.
We've been leading tours to Naples, Rome, and places across Mezzogiorno (southern Italy) for twenty years. Check the "small group tours" page or contact us directly for details.