The Joys and Challenges of Traveling in Sicily

Sicily travel kicked my ass and nearly destroyed me.

I did not expect that. Italy is my zone. I go to Italy once or twice a year. I’ve visited 17 of Italy’s 20 regions. I lived in Florence for four months. I speak Italian (not as well as I used to, yet more than enough to get by).

As a result, Italy is one of the countries where I’m most comfortable. I understand how things work. I know what to eat, what to wear, what to do at different times of day. I’m well versed in the passeggiatta and penalties of not validating your train ticket.

I thought I knew Italy — and then I got to Sicily.

This post was last updated in February 2020.

Sicily Travel

Sicily was the tenth region I visited in Italy (after Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Campania, Liguria, Lombardia, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, and Puglia). Since then I’ve visited seven more regions (Trentino-Alto Adige, Piemonte, Basilicata, Molise, Abruzzo, Le Marche, Friuli Venezia-Giulia) and traveled extensively throughout the country.

To this day, I think Sicily is the Italian region that has the least in common with Italy’s other regions. Yes, even more so than Austrian-looking Alto Adige.

Sicily had a wildness in the way the overgrown plants spill onto the highway, in the way gargoyle-like rocks rise out of the sea, in the way children ride their bikes around piazzas at 1:00 AM.

But most significantly, I had a lot of communication issues. English was only spoken in the most touristy areas, and in the more rural areas, the locals spoke Sicilian dialect, which is very different from mainstream Italian.

As a result, even when I spoke Italian, we could barely understand each other. I would understand maybe one word, tops, out of the whole sentence.

I’ll admit that this was overwhelming and embarrassing for me on many occasions. Traveling seamlessly in Italy is a mark of pride for me, and I hated feeling so helpless during my Sicily travel.

I’m not the only one who felt this way. Amanda of Farsickness wrote in a comment on one of my earlier posts:

In a weird way I am so glad you felt that way about Sicily. I spent 2 weeks there in May and found it to be way more difficult than I imagined. I speak Italian and have lived in Italy and I felt lost and confused so, so, so many times. I kept thinking about how I wouldn’t recommend it as a destination to newbie independent travelers or anyone who doesn’t know at least some basic Italian. A beautiful island with killer food and wine, but easy and often, not relaxing.

I am so glad that Amanda said that. It made me feel like I wasn’t crazy after all.

That said, in spite of the difficulties, Sicily is an incredibly rewarding destination. It’s filled with so much natural beauty and so many cultural destinations. The people are warm and friendly. The food is delicious. Everything looks and tastes like sunshine.

Is Sicily worth visiting? Absolutely. Let me show you what it’s like.

The Joys and Challenges of Traveling in Sicily

Tips for Traveling in Sicily

If you’re planning to visit Sicily, get ready to plan more than you would for a trip elsewhere in Italy.

Here are my top recommendations for Sicily:

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Stick to the Beaten Path Unless You’re an Experienced Traveler

If you stay on the beaten path, visiting Sicily’s most popular destinations for foreign travelers, you won’t have most of the challenges that I had.

In Eastern Sicily, that means sticking to the Aeolian Islands, Taormina, Mount Etna, Siracusa, and the Baroque cities (Ragusa, Modica, Noto).

In Western Sicily, that means sticking to Trapani, Cefalù, Erice, Agrigento, and the western islands like Pantelleria.

In popular tourist destinations, Italian is spoken (not the Sicilian dialect that I found in other places) and English is often spoken as well. These destinations also have a more developed infrastructure for travelers and have a less harried, more relaxed atmosphere.

If you’re a less-experienced traveler, you’ll have a much easier time visiting Sicily on the beaten path.


READ MORE:

Where to Go in Eastern Sicily


Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa

Off the Beaten Path Has Its Own Challenges and Rewards

You absolutely can get off the beaten path in Sicily if you’d like to. Just know that it will be tougher in lots of ways. You’ll be dealing with things including but not limited to:

People speaking only the local Sicilian dialect, not Italian, and definitely not English.

Limited tourism infrastructure.

Roads in very poor condition.

Limited opening hours and dining options.

That said, getting off the beaten path can be very rewarding. You can end up getting to know locals who rarely see foreign tourists and are eager to share the best parts of their town (and food!) with you. It gives you a glimpse of what Sicilian life is like today, where Sicilians live their lives without catering to foreign tourists.

Taormina Shop

Learn As Much Italian As You Can

Even in popular areas in Sicily, it will benefit your trip greatly if you learn as much Italian as you can in advance. Just speaking the local language can put a smile on people’s faces and result in a smoother trip for you.

Before you visit Sicily, at minimum, I recommend learning buongiorno/buonasera/arrivederci/ciao, per favore/grazie, numbers one through 10, mi scusi and permesso (“regular excuse me” and “please move out of my way excuse me”), vorrei (“I would like” — use when ordering in a restaurant), and parla inglese? (“Do you speak English?”).

It helps to learn food words, too. Delizioso is always appreciated by chefs!

Keep a translation app on your phone so you can double-check translations on the fly.

My favorite way to learn a language? The DuoLingo app. It makes language learning a fun game!

Aci Trezza

Understand “Sicilian Time”

Like in Spain, you’ll find that most businesses in Sicily take a siesta in the afternoon, often from 1:00 PM until 5:00 PM or a bit later. Oh, and they might not be open when they say they’ll be open. Opening hours are often more like suggestions. Just know that if you have something important to buy at a shop, do it in the morning!

Dinner is eaten at a late hour — you’re best off waiting until 9:00 PM, and even then you’ll be among the earlier ones getting their aperitivo. People will be out having dinner well past midnight, even families with young children.

Also, make like a Sicilian and avoid being outside during the hottest part of the afternoon, unless you’re at the beach. Everyone stays inside and smaller towns start to feel creepy when you’re the only one out.

Sicily is very laid back. If you’re meeting up with a Sicilian, plan on a 15-minute grace period; if you need something repaired, it might take days. Know this going in and you won’t be disappointed.

Siracusa

Get a SIM Card for Sicily

What’s a good SIM card for Sicily? I recommend Vodafone. I picked up my Vodafone SIM Card at a shop in the Rome airport en route to Catania, but there are Vodafone shops in cities and towns throughout Sicily.

Getting a SIM card makes Sicily travel so much easier. I was beyond glad that I did. It gave us so much help when it came to navigation and translation, and wifi isn’t as common as it is in other parts of Italy.

I paid 40 EUR ($45) for 5 GB of data with calls and texting. I later ordered another gig of data online for 5 EUR ($6).

I was happy with the Vodafone coverage. It didn’t work on most of the land at our agriturismo (which wasn’t an issue, as they had good wifi), and we didn’t get coverage on some of the tiny roa ds from Avola to Ragusa, but other than that, it worked great.

One last thing — you need your passport in order to get a SIM card in Italy. Don’t forget to bring it with you.

Taormina

Rent a Car in Sicily

It is possible to travel around Sicily using only public transportation, but the quality, frequency, and connections aren’t as good as in the north. If you only have public transportation, you’re not going to see nearly as much of Sicily as you could with a car.

Renting a car in Sicily was a very smart decision — one of the best of our trip. It gave us so much freedom to do day trips as we pleased without relying on public transit. Plus, when we stayed at our agriturismo, it was the only way we could leave the area.

Getting a tiny car should be a priority. Streets are narrow in many Sicilian towns and driving our regular-sized sedan felt like like driving a tank. (We survived, but we wish we had rented a smaller vehicle!)

I would only recommend renting a manual car if you’re very experienced with driving a manual. My mom drove a manual for most of her life, but she hadn’t driven one in over a decade, and she was relieved that we had an automatic.

The reason? Sicily is very hilly. If you end up taking small streets, you’ll have tough driving ahead of you. This isn’t the kind of place to drive a manual if you’re iffy about it.

Also, book your car way in advance. Cars often sell out, especially automatics, and even after booking, we were told the night before our arrival (!) that our rental car provider didn’t have any more cars. We freaked out and booked last-minute with a more expensive provider.

If you’re looking to save money on your Sicily car rental, I recommend using RentalCars.com. They comb the rental sites to find you the best rates overall.

Sicily has some train lines and the rest of the country is accessible by bus. I recommend using Omio to plan out your Sicily travel by public transportation.

Siracusa

Watch Out for Crazy Drivers

The driving in Italy gets crazier the further south you go. The driving in Sicily is wild, fast, and often reckless. (And it doesn’t even stop once you leave Sicily — Malta is home to the most reckless driving I have seen, and I’ve been to more than 80 countries.)

Sicily is a place where you should drive more conservatively. Stay out of the fast lane. Look in every direction a few times before driving through an intersection. Remember that many people ignore red lights and stop signs.

Driver super-defensively to maximize your safety.

Sunset at Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa

Stay in an Agriturismo in Sicily

An agriturismo is a farm that doubles as a guesthouse. It’s a very popular way to travel in Italy, both for locals and foreigners. You get to relax in the outdoors, eat local food, and sometimes you can even help out in the garden if you want to!

Agriturismi (plural form) can vary enormously. They are available at all price ranges, from budget to luxury; some serve breakfast only, some serve basic local food, and some serve sumptuous feasts; some are designed for long, relaxed stays and others are simply local stopovers. It’s important to do your research when choosing your Sicily agriturismo.

If you’re looking for an agriturismo on Sicily, I recommend looking at farm stay listings in Sicily on Airbnb. (You can select “farm stay” as an option on the “unique stays” menu, and in Italy, a farm stay is an agriturismo.)

We stayed at Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa in Zafferana Etnea, the base for journeys to Mount Etna. This was a lovely place to stay and I highly recommend it for your time in Sicily.

The agriturismo is in such a convenient location — rural and slightly off the beaten path, but we were able to make easy day trips to Mount Etna, Taormina, Aci Trezza, and our great-grandfather’s hometown of Castanea delle Furie. If we had been more ambitious (or willing to drive 2.5 hours each way), we could have gone as far as Cefalù or Siracusa.

The three of us shared a comfortable two-bedroom suite. And the pool was very welcome on a hot day. Best of all, the people that run this agriturismo are lovely.

See all Sicily agriturismo stays on Airbnb here.

Avola Beach

Give Yourself Downtime

Sicily travel can be exhausting — it’s the kind of destination that demands quite a bit of you. If you don’t give yourself ample downtime, you could become irritable. I’m glad I figured that out before it was to late. Soon it became apparent that we didn’t have time to go everywhere I wanted, which was disappointing, but the downtime made it worth it.

The perfect way to have downtime in Sicily? Head for the beach! You’re spoiled for choice on this island. Avola was home to the nicest stretch of sand we saw in Sicily, but there were many others.

Our best day of downtime, however, was in Aci Trezza — a low-key town on the water with rocky beaches and beach clubs on overwater decks. If you want a REALLY Sicilian day, relaxing at a beach club is the way to do it!


READ MORE:

Aci Trezza: A Laid-Back Seaside Town in Sicily


Mussels in Siracusa

Dive into Delicious Sicilian Food

What’s the food like in Sicily? It’s incredible. Like everywhere else in Italy, both Sicily and the regions in Sicily have their own local specialties. Even the towns have their signature dishes!

Here are some Sicilian dishes to try:

Arancini — Rice balls stuffed with anything from meat sauce to cheese and vegetables. The perfect snack food for any time of day (yes, I once had one for breakfast).

Pasta alla norma — Pasta with tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata.

Caponata — Fried eggplant with tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, capers, and other vegetables, on its own as a side dish or served on crostini or with other dishes.

All the fresh seafood you can find — It’s the Mediterranean — it’s good. Try everything. I once had a spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) that nearly made me cry, it was so good.

Frutta martorana — This is what Sicilians call marzipan. It comes from the town of Martora.

Cannoli — The world-famous pastry is from Sicily (which may be why you couldn’t find one in Venice). Keep in mind that cannolo is the singular form.

Oh, and granita. Which brings me to my next item…

Taormina Granita and Cocktails

Eat Granita Every Day

If you’re used to eating gelato in Italy, go Sicilian — it’s time for granita!

Granita is basically slush for adults, and I don’t know what they put in it, but it’s better than any slush I have ever had. It’s dairy-free, yet tastes so creamy! Sometimes it’s served with brioche. Some people even eat it for breakfast!

Try as many granita flavors as you can, but I especially recommend mandorla, or almond. Honestly, I have no words for how good mandorla granita is. You won’t find anything like that in your home country, that’s for sure! Simply heavenly.

I loved lemon and caffe, too. My favorite granita cafe was Bambar in Taormina, pictured above. Try granita with cream at least once, too!

Nuts in Sicily

Count Your Change

I hate to say it, but my mom and I noticed on four different occasions when visiting Sicily that we weren’t given enough change — and most of the time we didn’t bother to check, so who knows how many other times it happened?

Soon we were counting our change after every cash transaction, and we couldn’t believe how often we were given the wrong amount back.

By the time the final incident happened, when a granita seller handed me back a 50-cent piece instead of a euro, I snapped, “É vero?” (“Seriously?”) and held up the coin. He shrugged like it was nothing and gave me a euro.

Keep an eye on your change.

People sunbathing on the rocky coastline of Aci Trezza, Sicily, boulders in the water rising in the distance.

When to Visit Sicily

While it’s important to take the weather into consideration when you travel in Italy, it’s even more important when you visit Sicily. Sicily has some of the highest temperatures in all of Italy.

High season in Sicily is during the summer months: June to August. This is when Sicily’s destinations are at their most crowded, expensive, and hot. Low-to-high temperatures range from about 71-87 F (22-31 C), and it often feels blisteringly hotter.

Sicily is a popular beach getaway destination for Italians, and August is the month when Italians take a month off, shut their businesses down, and head for the sea (Ferragosto). I recommend travelers don’t visit Italy in August if they can help it for this reason.

If you know you have a hard time tolerating heat, I strongly recommend you visit Sicily between October and April. The weather will be a million times more pleasant.

Shoulder season in Sicily is roughly April, May, September, and October. Low-to-high temperatures range from about 53-82 F (11-28 C). Late spring and early fall feel like summer in Sicily. September and even October are still good beach months, as the water is warmed up, but they’re less crowded, as the kids have gone back to school.

I love shoulder season because temperatures are much more pleasant and popular destinations are less crowded and less expensive. It’s the best of both worlds.

Winter in Sicily never gets too cold — even in January, temperatures are 48-58 F (9-15 C). This might be light jacket weather for you — though know that Sicilians will be bundled up against the “cold” in their thick coats! Lots of tourists from Northern Europe visit Sicily in the winter to get a bit of sunshine.

If you’re interested in visiting Sicily for its culture, food, wine, architecture, ruins, and history — and have less of an interest in beaches — winter is a great time to visit. And you can even ski on Mount Etna! It’s not the greatest skiing in the world, but how cool is it to say you’ve skied on a volcano in Italy?!

One important thing to know: many resort-y destinations in Sicily shut down in the winter. The Aeolian Islands are essentially shut down; many hotels and restaurants in Taormina and Cefalù close for the season.

Overall, I recommend visiting Sicily in shoulder season if possible, but you can enjoy the island 12 months out of the year.

Mount Etna Sunset

Solo Travel in Sicily

Is Sicily a good destination for solo travel? It depends. After my experience, I’m not sure that I would recommend Sicily as a destination for most solo travelers. Of course, solo travelers (and solo female travelers) can go anywhere they’d like and have a great time; I just don’t think that Sicily would be one of the better choices — not within Italy, not within Europe.

I say this mostly because of the driving. When my mother, sister, and I traveled together, driving was a three-person job. Mom drove, I navigated, and Sarah looked out for rogue drivers. Once Sarah left and I took on her job, it was still very difficult.

I could not imagine doing that driving on my own. If you drive alone, even with a GPS, know that you will be going down the wrong streets all the time.

Additionally, the communication difficulties mean that you may spend a lot of time feeling isolated and lonely. You may want to stay somewhere like a hostel or agriturismo in order to meet more people, including fellow travelers who speak English.

That said, Sicilians are very warm and friendly people. Even if you’re not able to communicate, they’ll welcome you with open arms. And the island is full of so many cultural treasures that you won’t lack for things to do and places to see.

Finally, if you’re traveling solo in Sicily, consider sticking to the beaten path. You’ll have an easier and more relaxing time. If you want to travel off the beaten path, I recommend getting more travel experience elsewhere in Italy first.


READ MORE:

Solo Female Travel in Italy — Is it Safe?


Rows of boats in front of the pastel village of Aci Trezza

How to Make Sicily Travel Easier

If you’re interested in traveling to Sicily but are a bit nervous about its challenges, I have a few recommendations to make your trip better. Sicily is the kind of destination where it helps to have locals help you with your trip.

First off, consider booking a Sicily trip with JayWay Travel. JayWay Travel books custom private trips in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. Sicily is one of their specialties and they know the island backwards and forwards.

JayWay organizes your trip and hooks you up with activities like cooking classes and winery visits, as well as private transfers. After you chat about what kind of trip you want, they’ll know which hotels and agriturismi in Sicily will fit your needs best. They give you a SIM card or phone to stay connected. Basically, they build you a great trip and handle all the hard parts of Sicily travel.

JayWay’s Highlights of Eastern Sicily itinerary gives you eight days basing in Taormina, Ragusa, and Siracusa and doing excursions from there. JayWay’s Best of Sicily itinerary gives you 11 days in Palermo, Agrigento, Ragusa, Siracusa, Mount Etna, and Catania. And each itinerary is customizable.

Another option is to visit Sicily on a group tour. I recommend traveling with G Adventures, who organize small, sustainability-minded group tours all over the world.

G’s Best of Sicily tour takes you around the island in eight days, visiting Catania, Palermo, Monreale, Ragusa, Modica, Scicli, Siracusa, Randazzo, and Mount Etna.

Kate leaning on a fence, looking to the side, in front of the skyline of Siracusa.

Is Sicily Worth Visiting?

I hope this post has given you clarity about what it’s really like to travel in Sicily. This is a wonderful, vibrant, unforgettable part of Italy — but if you’re not prepared for its challenges, it can be disappointing.

In case you’re wondering whether it’s still worth visiting Sicily, my answer is a resounding YES. Sicily redefined what Italy could be, in my mind. It has a delightful mischief that I found tough to find in other parts of Italy, and I want to recapture that joy again.

I love Sicily — and I want to go back. As I write this update, I’m wondering where I’ll go on my next Sicily trip. Definitely Cefalù (it broke my heart missing it the first time!), the Aeolian Islands, diving into Palermo’s craziness, and I can’t resist a return visit to my beloved Siracusa, my favorite place in Sicily.


READ NEXT:

Where to Go in Eastern Sicily


Essential Info: I got my SIM card at Vodafone in Rome’s airport. Vodafone shops are in most towns. The coverage was great for Sicily and worked almost everywhere, though you may not have coverage in more rural areas.

In Zafferana Etnea, Sicily, we stayed in a two-bedroom suite at Agriturismo La Rocca della Rosa. This is a wonderful agriturismo with a pool, great food, and the kindest owners, Maria and Franz. You’ll love it here. It’s in a perfect location for exploring Mount Etna and northeast Sicily; the town of Zafferana is lovely, too (don’t miss Blue Gel gelato!). If you stay there, please tell Maria and Franz that Kate, Deb and Sarah say hi!

Find and book agriturismi in Sicily by selecting “farm stay” under “unique stays” on Airbnb. You can see all the farm stays in Sicily here.

We did the Etna Summer Sunset Experience excursion from Etna Experience, and it was a wonderful way to see the volcano up close and hike a small part of it, finishing with wine and snacks at a beautiful sunset spot. 54 EUR ($60) in summer, 44 EUR ($49) in other seasons.

While in Zafferana, we made easy day trips to Taormina and Aci Trezza as well as Etna and my great-grandfather’s village, Castanea delle Furie (the latter of which has zero tourist value and you should not visit). It’s best to have a car in Zafferana and vital if you want to do any day trips.

In Avola, Sicily, we stayed at this two-bedroom Airbnb apartment for $40 per night plus Airbnb fees. The apartment is clean, cool, modern, and located right by the main square downtown. Giovanni, the host, is an osteopath, has his office downstairs, and offers both massages and adjustments for very good prices! Compare rates on hotels in Avola here.

Avola is a bit of an offbeat place, and you’ll be the one of very few non-Italians in town, but it has a great beach. Keep in mind that downtown Avola is dead during the day but comes to life at night. There is a wine bar on Piazza Umberto that makes a FABULOUS cheese and salume plate. Spend your days hanging at the beach or exploring cities nearby like Siracusa, Noto, Modica, and Ragusa; I visited Siracusa and Ragusa and recommend them both.

Travel insurance is vital for Sicily travel — it could save your life or your finances if you have an emergency on your trip. I use and recommend World Nomads for trips to Sicily.

Have you ever been to a destination that challenged you as a traveler? Share away!

The post The Joys and Challenges of Traveling in Sicily appeared first on Adventurous Kate.