The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily epitomises the hot, laidback and ancient culture of the Italian South. From the chaotic, bustling, faded and sometimes frankly terrifying capital of Palermo in the west, to the chichi upmarket towns of Catania and Syracuse in the east, everywhere in Sicily still maintains a pace and way of life that has changed little over centuries, despite a huge rise in tourism in recent times. The cities’ buildings give a glimpse of the island’s history: Greek and Roman architecture prevails in the towns, alongside buildings showing the influence of Gothic, Byzantine, Arabic and French design.
Beautiful though they are, there are many more reasons to book flights to Sicily than its architecturally stunning towns. A drive through the countryside, along winding hillside roads, can reveal citrus and olive groves, a spluttering Stromboli or views to a snow-clad Etna even at the height of summer. The island is surrounded by 620 miles of coastline. Swimming in the sea, particularly from the sandy beaches in the South, can be reason enough to visit.
Sicily flights arrive in one of two airports: Palermo or Catania. Transport within the island is less easy to use, however, and hiring a car is advisable if visiting more than one destination. Beware the notorious Sicilan drivers, especially in the big towns, who are every bit as unpredictable as their reputation.
Peak Season: The high season in Sicily is June to September. This is is when the weather is at is hottest, and the beaches are busiest. There are fewer crowds, however, in April, May and October. The temperatures should still be good and prices for flights to Sicily and hotels on the island will drop.
For those wishing to climb Mount Etna, travel during the warmer months is necessary. Even in the height of summer, it can be freezing at the top, so make sure you pack appropriate clothes.
Off Season: The off season is November to March when you will see few tourist crowds, but the weather can be chilly and damp.
Visit a living volcano. As long as there is no volcanic activity you can get to the crater at Mount Etna. There are tours from Catania and Taormina or you can go by car or bus. Buses leave from the railway station in Catania to the Rifugia Sapienza (1,862m) and then you have a three to four-hour walk to the crater along a rough road. Wear strong shoes and warm and waterproof clothing to make the most of the adventure.
Take the train round the fertile lower slopes of Etna. Join the Circumetnea railway at Catania and finish at Giarre-Riposto. On the way you will see thick forests as well as the orange, lemon and olive groves. A feast for the eyes and a treat for train-lovers.
See some of the best preserved Roman mosaics in Italy at Villa Casale, near Piazza Armerina in central Sicily. The Hunting Scene is nearly 60m in length and shows all the exotic animals birds and animals being captured and caged to be sent to the circus in Rome. There are 50 rooms in total and the quality of the mosaics is breathtaking. Don’t miss the ten women athletes in Roman bikinis, either.