The Charm of Sicily Lies in the East

For as long as I can remember, I had wanted to visit Sicily. It’s the one place in the world where I can trace a certain genealogical connection, the food was supposed to be some of Italy’s best, and, of course, everyone raves about the island’s beaches.

So when I got to Palermo and didn’t fall in love with Sicily, I felt incredibly discouraged.  After being the only person staying in my hostel in Enna I was kind of over it. I wanted to go back to the Italy I knew and loved.

Then I went east and everything changed. I started to meet people and was charmed by the island’s beauty- both natural and manmade. While I still experienced some difficulty traveling here (I had to ask six different people where to buy a bus ticket while standing at Catania’s so called main bus station) but the cities, sights, and beaches of eastern Sicily made my overall feelings about this island a lot more positive.

Siracusa (Syracuse)

Siracusa, known as Syracuse to the English speaking world, is a city in the southeastern corner of the island known for its Greek influence. I didn’t actually end up seeing many of the famous Greek ruins, but Siracusa was an important destinations for me as it was where my solo travel groove started.


My first day there I had breakfast with my roommates and decided to explore the city with them before their night train. As they’d already seen everything major, we spend most of our days just wandering through old neighborhoods outside of the historical center and checking out the sea. Fine by me.


We also stopped for gelato in town and I found my absolute favorite gelato flavor, sapori di Sicilia, a mix of almond, pistachio, and hazelnut.


On my last day I made it to Ortigia, the island that houses Siracusa’s old city and the maybe birthplace of Artemis, only to find my camera battery completely dead. With its long shopping street anchored by popular piazzas, the island kind of reminded me of the area around Rome’s Via del Corso. It was that crowded as well. But the Duomo is an impressive site and if you get off the main streets you will find yourself nearly alone and in awe of the narrow alleys and impressive Italian architecture.

Ortigia as seen from across the sea.

Ortigia as seen from across the sea.

Where to Stay: I stayed a LoL Hostel which is conveniently located about 30 seconds walking from both the train and bus stations (and about 20 minutes from the old town). It was a little more expensive than other hostels in Sicily, but the staff were friendly and they bake fresh cornetti every morning that you can eat in their beautiful garden.


I had low expectations for Catania. Everyone I talked to said it was ugly, dirty, and not safe. It turns out, though, that I loved Catania. Maybe it’s because I only had s0-s0 feelings for Palermo that I fell for the island’s second biggest city, but whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoyed my five days there.


Catania might not be full of the most famous attractions, but there are plenty of classical buildings and Baroque churches that have managed to withstand Etna’s destruction over time. I loved finding out that a lava elephant that stands in the middle of Piazza del Duomo has become the symbol of Catania. While there’s a lot of debate about why exactly this elephant exists, it’s an absolute certainty that these lovable creatures are my favorite.


Mostly though, I loved Catania because I could just hang out and enjoy the city. I went for iced expressos and cannoli with a girl from my hostel, and ended nearly every night on the rooftop of my hostel watching the sunset over the historical city and Mount Etna. I used Catania as a jumping off point for a lot of exploration in the area, but I was always happy to return to the city in the evening.

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Where to Stay: Ostello degli Elefanti. No question. This was my favorite hostel in all of Sicily, and one of the best in all of Southern Italy. With the perfect location right in the center of the historical city, a rooftop terrace and bar with views of Mount Etna, and super friendly staff, this hostel was a huge reason why I loved this part of the island. The only downside is that there is no kitchen for guest use, but food in Sicily is cheap enough to where this isn’t a deal breaker. Check out their Facebook and Twitter for special events and photos from their terrace.

Mount Etna

I had two items on my must do list when I booked my flight to Sicily: eat street food in Palermo and visit Mount Etna. You can visit the Mount Etna independently, but I decided to go with a tour because, as with all public transportation in Sicily, the busses can be unreliable and infrequent.

I chose to go with Etna Experience because not only do they have the best reviews online, but they also offer an Etna & Wine tour that combines some light trekking with lunch and wine tasting at a vineyard on the slopes of the volcano. Sold.


The tour began in central Catania as we all piled into some Jeep type vehicles and began the hour long drive to Etna. Our guide, Alessandro, was not only extremely knowledgeable about Mount Etna, he was also obsessed with volcanos in general. His enthusiasm and passion was apparent the entire tour and we were able to learn a lot about the geology and science behind volcanic eruptions.


After a bit of off roading some history of Mount Etna and her many eruptions, we began our first trek. Seeing the summit crater up close for the first time was impressive, and as it was early May there was still snow on the higher elevations.

Because Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, there is always smoke coming out of the summit. In fact, a couple of days later I saw a small eruption from my hostel’s terrace. How cool is that?


We continued to another area of the volcano where we were able to trek around some of the smaller craters from past eruptions, and then visited an underground cave created by lava flow.

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Once we’d worked up enough of an appetite we moved onto one of the best parts of day: our lunch and tour at Cantine Don Saro. The soil around Mount Etna is extremely fertile because of the volcanic ask which makes it a great place to grow grapes for winemaking. We settled in for a traditional Sicilian lunch of antipasti followed by pasta all norma and a sampling of some of their wines.


While I liked them all, my favorite was the red called Ante (Etna spelled backward) which had a nice deep flavor. It was around this time that we got to meet Don Saro himself, a former race car driver who is quite the character. He kept pouring me large refills of the Ante and told me that I must have Sicilian family.


At the end of tour we stopped in a small village to try some more of Etna’s delicious products. If my backpack hadn’t already been stuffed full, there would’ve been a few jars of honey put in. Stay away from the local liquor though. I think I can still taste it.


I had considered staying in Taormina, but after hearing about how crowded it was with cruise ship passengers I decided to make it a day trip from Catania. After a couple hour bus ride and a short walk into town, I headed straight toward the Greek theater in order to try to ditch some of the crowds at Taormina’s most famous site.


Built in the 7th century BC, the most impressive part of this theater isn’t the ruins themselves, but the view looking out over Giardini Naxos, the Ionian Sea, and Mount Etna.

When I left the theater it was apparent that the day trippers (myself included were out in full force. Taormina’s touristy nature was especially apparent when I went to eat lunch and could only find overpriced cafes serving what was probably frozen food. After begrudgingly shoving down some mediocre tortellini, I knew I wanted to get away from the madness.


I hopped onto a cable car that brought me down to sea level. The area where the cable car ends is full of private beaches where you can rent a chair, change, or have something to eat. I forked over my 8 euro and spent the rest of the afternoon basking in the sun, reading, and dipping my toes into the freezing cold sea. Take note: the air temperatures in May might be warm enough for sunbathing in Sicily, but the water takes a few more months to catch up.


The little cove where I laid was quiet and the water was clear and at the end of the day, my last full day in Sicily, I finally felt like I’d discovered a slice of the beauty that is so often talked about.

Where to Stay: I only visited Taormina on a day trip from Catania, but on the way out of town I noticed a sign for Gianni House and kind of regretted my day trip decision. Wherever you stay in Taormina, be prepared for crowds and higher prices. 

Would you visit Eastern Sicily? Which destination interests you most?

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