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Are you planning a one-week roadtrip to Sicily? Here are all my tips to make the best out of it.
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In my family, Italy is kind of the go-to european destination. I mean, that country has the whole package: a fascinating history, a cuisine that is beloved around the globe, passionate people and a certain nonchalant way of life that we deeply envy, up in the North…
I had been thinking about heading South for a while. Where the italian, arabic and spanish cultures mingle together, where the arid mountains hide picturesque villages and green vineyards, where the frenetic cities rub shoulders with quiet millenia-old ruins… So pack your suitcase and let’s board to Sicily.
Before we start, keep in mind that you won’t visit Sicily in 2 days! The island is 300 km long (186 miles), making it the biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea. If you’re spending a week there like me, you’ll have to make some choices. This article only focuses on the West coast, that is to say Palermo’s side.
Day 1 to 3: diving in Palermo’s bustle
Beautiful blue skies greet us as we land at Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino airport. This is where our journey begins. The airport is located 35 km from the city and you can easily get there with the shuttle. You can buy the tickets diretcly at the airport or online. Here’s the link to the shuttle’s official website (in English!).
As we got there in the late afternoon, we had decided to spend the first evening and the two following days in the Sicilian capital city, to truly immerse ourselves in the culture of this fantastic place. As the air gets cooler during that first evening, we take a stroll in our Airbnb’s neighborhood. We quickly end up in the English Garden (Giardino Inglese), which is worth the visit if you have time. We also discover the renowned Via della Libertà, that could be qualified as the palermitan Champs Elysées.
Ready for the good stuff? We kick things off with the Teatro Massimo, which actually is an opera – and not any opera, mind you: one of Europe’s largest. Its majestic stairways leading to colossal Roman-style columns will surely blow your mind. If you have an eye for detail, you’ll recognize the set for The Godfather 3‘s final scene! You’re allowed to get emotional if you’re a fan of the trilogy. We go on straight ahead along the Via Ruggero Settimo and finally end up on the Quattro Canti. The magnificent octagonal, baroque-style piazza marking the center of the old town will leave you speachless. The melody of the tarentella musicians leads us to our next stop: the Fontana Pretoria, hiding right behind the piazza. Can you imagine that this monumental fountain was first built in Florence before being moved here?
After a quick lunch, we head to the Santa Caterina church. Even if you’re not digging religious monuments, I recommand to visit the beautiful monastery full of orange trees (and also the cloister’s pastry that locals love!) and to go on the rooftop of the church, that offers a spectacular view of the city. The ticket combining the church, the monastery and the rooftop costs 10€. From there, you’ll see the Piazza Bellini and the very intriguing San Cataldo church. With its three orange domes, it’s a perfect example of Arab-Norman architecture. Between this and the branches of the palmtrees swinging gently in the wind, we get the exquisite feeling of being somewhere in the Middle-East.
Our day ends with the visit of the No Mafia Memorial that caught my attention as we walked past it. As you already know, the mafia unfortunately holds a major role in sicilian society… The place pays tribute to all the men and women who lost their lives fighting this menace. I encourage you to see the exhibition (it’s free), but avoid it if you’re travelling with children as some images are graphic…
This time, we’re jumping on a bus to head to the center. Our wonderful Airbnb host gave us tickets (Tata, you’re the best), but if you aren’t as lucky, you can buy them in the tobacco stores (tabaccheria). This morning’s plan: get lost in the mercato del Capo, aka the market that takes place in the eponymous neighborhood. Everywhere, the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables, of local spices and of the best street food… Grab the occasion to try some of Sicily’s delicacies!
By the way, for some delicious (and extremely cheap!) local food, head to the Focacceria Basile close to the Teatro Massimo. Perfect for a typical experience! Be aware that it’s only open for luch.
It is then time to discover the city’s main attraction: the famous cathedral, or « Duomo di Palermo » if you want to play it like a local! This Arab-Norman church was built on the site of a former Roman basilica, which had itself been turned into a mosque by the Arabs. I won’t get in the details of the chronology, but one thing is sure: this is a history geek’s paradise! The others will enjoy it too, since the monument is simply spectacular (I particularly loved the crypt and the view from the rooftop). A 10-minute walk will then take you to the Norman Palace and its must-see Cappella Palatina (palatine chapel). We found the visit surprisingly short, but I’d still consider it as an essential landmark of the city.
Where to stay in Palermo?
We stayed in a pretty original and artsy Airbnb! Although it was located a bit far from the historical center (about 30 min. walking), the host was adorable and it was a real bargain: 44€/night for 3 people, breakfast included!
Day 4: unravelling Agrigento’s mystery
Let the roadtrip begin! This morning, we head South to Agrigento in our little Fiat Panda (to make this sound classier, let’s say it was a collector’s Fiat 500). The local rental agency I had found online was a pretty good deal (55€/day, insurance included) and the customer service team was great. Link to their website
You can also use websites such as kayak.com if you wish to compare prices.
From Palermo to Agrigento, the journey took about 3h. We – and by « we », I mean good old Google maps – expected it to be shorter, but for some reason, the road that perfectly seemed like a highway had a speed limit of 70km/h (43 miles/h)! Well, that surely gave us enough time to discover Sicily’s inland… Which sincerely was unexpected. Maybe it was the time of the year, particularly hot? In any case, we found the aridity and the emptiness of the lands (let’s not say desolation…) quite striking. We barely saw any village and the vast majority of the fields were burnt; it even crossed our mind that it was done on purpose, to let the ground regenerate, maybe?
In contrast to that, Agrigento really exceeded our expectations. First, the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi), hiding 2 km downhill from the town, is simply magical. How can you not feel tiny and insignificant while standing by this army of colossal temples that proudly stand against the sea? Listen to the peaceful melody of the cicadas and let your imagination bring you back to 582 BC, when this superb Greek city was thriving. On a practical note, the best way to get there is to leave your car at the porta Quinta parking lot, take the shuttle that takes you to the opposite side of the park (10€ for 4 passengers if I remember well) and do the rest on foot, starting by the Temple of Juno. This way, you’re avoiding to go back and forth on foot under the heat – not even mentionning that the visit takes at least 2h. A ticket costs 12€ (-50% for young people), but you can get cut-the-line tickets ahead of time on websites such as this one.
Once you’re fed up with old stones, do like we did and enjoy a nice evening in the town of Agrigento. Sure, the Valley of the Temples is impressive, but Agrigento itself is very charming nevertheless! Wander along the Via Atenea, lung of the old town, where you’ll find both old churches and lively bars and restaurants. My tip: the old town is up on a hill, so why not find a restaurant with a panoramic view? Try a local specialty and watch the sunset igniting the sea and awakening the souls of the temples… Sounds magical, right?
Where to stay in Agrigento?
We spent the night in this lovely Guest House, located in a beautiful ancient building in the heart of the old town. We payed 54€/night for 3 people. No breakfast, but there’s a small snack bar.
Day 5: Scala dei Turchi’s crystal-clear waters and Selinunte
We say goodbye to Agrigento – it was short but intense! This morning, we feel like lazing around at the beach. And not any beach: the one that’s at the foot of the famous Scala dei Turchi, « the Turk’s stairway ». It actually refers to a massive white limestone cliff which layers gradually fall into the sea. Its name comes from the Saracen pirates (called « Turks » by the locals) who used to seek refuge here. I highly recommend this place! Not only is the clear water perfect for a swim, but most of all, the view of the Scala is almost unreal. From afar, it almost looks like an iceberg got lost on the hot sicilian shore!
Back on the road. After a lunch break made of seafood, we get to the next archeological park of our itinerary: Selinunte. Since the sun was hitting hard and we were all a bit sleepy, our visit was short, but still worth it. I found the atmosphere even more fascinating than the day before in Agrigento. Although we are less informed about the history of the temples (as archaeologists ignore to which deities they are dedicated, they simply named them « temple A », « temple B » ect…), visitors are allowed to get closer to the ruins, making the whole experience more immersive. If I can give you one tip: come early in the morning or in the late afternoon if you don’t want to boil (we learnt the lesson!) and if you get really tired, hop aboard the little train that takes you to the different temples. One ticket costs 6€ (3€ for students – don’t forget your student card) and you can buy it directly there.
Where to stay in Selinunte?
We decided to take some advance on the itinerary and to spend the night 30 minutes West from Selinunte, in the little town of Mazara del Vallo. Although the outskirst of the town didn’t seem nice at first, we absolutely loved the lively historical center! Perfect stop for one night. Our Airbnb in Vito’s brand new house.
Day 6: Trapani and Erice, its imposing neighbor
One capuccino for the road and off we go! Our little Fiat Panda heads North. On the way there, we notice that the arid mountains have turned into green vineyards. It later makes sense as we drive past Marsala, where the famous wine is produced! Rocked by this infinity of green waves, we get to Trapani in about 1h. We enjoy some cool drinks and arancini (wait, you don’t know what they are? These delicious rice balls are a must-try) on the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, beautiful street of the historical center. While we’re there, we stop at the San Lorenzo Cathedral, one of the city’s baroque landmarks.
As we don’t have much time, we decide to cut short the visit of Trapani and go directly to Erice, which has been taunting us from up there. Erice is sort of the gem of the region. In my opinion, it is to Trapani what Napolitan pizza is to Domino’s (no offense, Domino’s). The medieval village stands in all its splendour on top of the Erix rock, defying the wind since thousands of years. You can get there by car in 30 minutes from Trapani or, if you don’t trust your brake, take the cable-car that connects the two towns (be aware: it closes in case of strong winds)! A round-trip ticket will cost you 9€.
An enchanted world is waiting for you up there. The medieval center is really well preserved, which isn’t common in Sicily. Get lost in the numerous paved streets, treat yourself to a lemon or almond granita in one of the little piazzas and above all, get ready to have your mind blown at one of the viewpoints. From the Castello di Venere, the landscape at your feet is incredible. The sea kissing the feet of the mountains, the wind making the tree canopies dance, the manors playing hide-and-seek in the mist… the scenery is straight out of a fairy tale.
After some beautiful panoramic views on the way down, we go chasing the sun at Trapani’s Salt marsh nature reserve. The marsh’s horizon merging with the orange sky is a georgous scene.
As you can tell, our visit here was pretty quick. If you have more time, add a stopover at the Scurati prehistoric caves, located 40 minutes from Trapani.
Where to stay in Trapani?
We stayed in Francesco’s Airbnb for only 42€ (3 people).
Day 7: chilling and souvenir shopping in Palermo
Is this the last day already? Times flies so fast on this beautiful island! In the morning, we return the car at the same agency in Palermo after a 1h30 drive. In fact, we had decided to spend our last day in the sicilian capital again, because we truly loved its vibe. And let’s be honest: my brother was also looking forward to get rid of the car! Driving in a foreign country can be pretty exhausting, guys… Regardless, we stop at the Botanical Garden, which abundance of plants from across the globe nearly transported us to the tropics. It’s a nice and peaceful place if you need a break from the city’s bustle. The gardens aren’t that well maintained (it’s a shame, since there’s an entrance fee of 5€), but the plant enthusiasts will really enjoy the place.
We later do some souvenir shopping in the streets near the Quattro Canti and resist taking a very cliché T-shirt “Il padrino sono io” (“I am the Godfather”). We finally choose a charming little street facing the Teatro Massimo for the last supper to the sound of the guitars. We leave very early the next morning – and thus I won’t mention the 8th day in the article.
Beautiful Sicily, the smiles of your people, your complex story and your thousand and one facets put a spell on me. I can’t wait to find out the secrets of your East coast some day!
What about you? What are you waiting for to take off?