Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, just off the southern coast of Italy. It’s separated from the southern tip of Italy by the Strait of Messina. While it’s an island, it’s still huge and will take a long time to discover it all. Around 5 million people call Sicily, home, and it’s nearly 10,000 sq miles in size. You find magnificent archeology, unique architecture and vast natural wonders. I traveled for 3 weeks around Sicily’s north and east coasts, and sometimes pictures say more than words. So what are the must-see, north east Sicily highlights?
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North east Sicily highlights via photos
In this photo story, I’ve included some of the best north east Sicily highlights. I include Catania, Taormina, Savoca, Mazzaro, Cefalu and the Aeolian Islands.
These are some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen, outside of the Amalfi Coast. I’m a sucker for scraggy rocks jutting out of the water, massive mountains, and quaint, traditional village life.
Show me crystal waters and stunning, mountainous landscapes with the Mediterranean Sea in sight. Or, who can resist a picturesque, hilltop village with gravity-defying structures? Sicily is truly a must-see destination.
Visit Sicily – what you need to know
Sicily is a stunning island with very diverse landscapes. You’ll find craggy rocks, pristine beaches, and beautiful National Parks. You find lush olive groves and numerous fruit trees all over the place. There are arid landscapes with beautiful temples and Amphitheaters. The architecture and culture truly reflect her diverse history.
Throughout history, Sicily has welcomed, or not, the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Spanish, the Normans, and the Arabs. You name it. And she proudly displays a delicious blend of all these cultures. Sicilians consider themselves Sicilian first and then Italian, while some insist they aren’t Italian at all.
Before you visit Sicily, read my Things to see and do in Catania. There’s plenty in Catania to keep you heavily steeped in history, opera and the local markets for a few days.
For Taormina, there is good information here: Things to do in Taormina Sicily.
Some absolutely must-see north east Sicily highlights are the Aeolian Islands. They are truly works of Mother Nature. Check out that article here: Visit the Aeolian Islands off Italy.
The islands are easy to get to via ferry, and are well worth exploring to see the active volcanoes and islands themselves. But, you can take an organized day tour from Catania or Taormina to see the islands if you are short on time.
Last, but not least, take a Sicilian Cooking course. These classes dig into the heart and soul of Sicilian heritage, cuisine, cooking and traditions.
From Sicily, plan to head up into Southern Italy to discover more of Italy’s gems. Here’s a great one week itinerary of Southern Italy.
Transport in Sicily
Sicily has a good bus and train network. Book your train travel via the Trenitalia website. The trains don’t cover all of Sicily, but where I was going, it was just fine. And you can even take a train from southern Italy to Sicily. The train slides into the ferry and spits you out on the other end. Very cool.
There are numerous buses too, so check when you arrive in your destination. You can also visit a variety of destinations in Sicily by boat, which is fun.
Living in Sicily
This is a topic I will expand on in this blog, as I think people are curious about life on the Mediterranean and living in Mediterranean destinations.
If you are retired, self-employed, a digital nomad, or want to get into farming, Sicily would be a great place to live. It has mild temperatures and is one of the first to warm up in the spring and last to cool off in the fall.
There is decent internet coverage and the cost of housing and food are relatively cheap.
Unemployment is high in Sicily, and they are suffering from ‘brain drain’ in that the educated young are emigrating to other places for work. The island survives on tourism and agriculture. Wine and olive oil are their biggest exports.
Yes, the mafia exists, but it also exists in NYC and Chicago…get over it. It’s not an issue unless you want to take on the garbage industry…
Catania and Palermo are the largest cities with 870,000 and 572,000 people, respectively. A big city might not be for everyone, and there are plenty of quaint towns and villages not far from these two that can give you the best of both worlds.
There are a few international airports so you can easily get back to mainland Europe, and they are served by low cost airlines, so it doesn’t break the bank. Ferry service is quite prevalent as well.
Sicily has one of the higher life expectancy rates at 79.2 (M) and 84.6 (W) years.
Catania Photo Tour
Catania is your starting point on the east side of Sicily. Fly into Catania’s international airport (Airport Code CTA) and start your tour to see the north east Sicily highlights here. It’s a lovely city worth spending a few days, and it’s very easy to walk around. Here are some of the highlights of Catania.
The most notable things to see in Catania are St Agata Duomo, which is the 3rd largest in Italy. Nearby is the Elephant Fountain, which is the symbol of Catania, and then the local Fish Market.
Mount Etna is within striking distance, and while I didn’t go up this time, I have been to Etna in the past. There are a variety of day trips up to Etna depending on the type of activity you want to do.
Other sites in Catania
Then, visit the Roman Amphitheater, the Bellini Gardens, the main market, and the Teatro Bellini. The Teatro is really a lovely north east Sicily highlight, dating from 1890. The interior is spectacular and you can regularly see an opera or a theatrical performance.
Use Catania as a base to tour Siracusa, Ortigia and Noto, which people love! These towns south of Catania are well worth a visit as well.
Other attractions in Catania include their main walking street, their various Porti or ‘doorways’, and interesting monuments.
Hotels in Catania
Use the search box below to get the best rates for hotels in Catania. The nice thing about Hotels Combined is that they will show you the cheapest hotels in Catania by scouring all the various booking engines, including Expedia and Booking.
Day Trips from Catania
There are a variety of day trips from Catania you can choose from. Below are just a sample. Go ahead and click through one and see the other options for day trips to Etna and around Catania.
Savoca Photo Tour
The name of this town might not mean much to you, but it’s where they filmed The Godfather movies. They have a museum dedicated to the trilogy, and you can’t but help feel the presence of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan. I took an organized Godfather tour from Taormina and it was truly a magical experience.
You can see the bar when they chatted in the movie, and the church where Michael Corleone married Apollonia. There is a lovely museum dedicated to the film, and the scenery on the drive there is amazing.
Stop at Bar Vitelli and have a lovely granita under the shaded terrace.
This is another great tour of the Godfather locations, which explains the influence of the Mafia, and comes with lunch.
I loved all the paraphernalia from The Godfather films, and visiting Savoca was a really memorable experience.
Hotels in Savoca
Savoca is quite a small place and people typically stay in Taormina instead of Savoca itself. But if you really want to stay, there is the 4* Resort Borgo San Rocco, with limited availability this summer. There are about a dozen other options to choose from.
Day Trips to Savoca
You can go to Savoca on a variety of day trips from Taormina and Catania. Click through the links below and see more options to have a tour of Savoca.
Taormina Photo Tour
Sicily is hilly and mountainous, and has seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These include Mount Etna, the Aeolian Islands, and the Cathedral in Cefalu. Then there are the ancient archeological sites of the Valley of the Temples, Erice, Selinunte, and the famous amphitheater of Taormina.
Taormina is a quick trip from Catania, and it can be quite busy depending on the time of year. You can even take a boat trip around Taormina and swim in the waters near Isola bella.
Time your visit earlier or later in the season to appreciate the best of what Taormina has to offer. May or September would be great months to visit Taormina.
Famous sites in Taormina
You’ll want to see the famous Amphitheater, the walls, the Duomo, the Clocktower and the botanical gardens.
There’s even a restaurant dedicated to Bruschetta in Taormina. Any kind you can dream of.
It’s a land where sometimes technology doesn’t matter. Frankly, the cats don’t mind either…
You’ll find lots of tourists and tour groups hanging around Cathedral Square in Taormina and the lovely fountain.
You can see for miles in any direction from Taormina. From there, you take the speedy funicular to Mazzaro to reach the sea.
I prefer the mornings in Taormina when it’s quieter and easier to navigate the town. Otherwise, the best time to see Taormina is in the shoulder seasons.
The Botanical Gardens in Taormina are a must see on the north east Sicily coast. An English woman, with a shady past, designed and maintained the gardens. The buildings within are quite unique, and it’s a great respite when the weather is scorching hot.
I also highly recommend taking a Sicilian cooking class in Taormina. I had a great cooking experience at the Osteria Santo Domenico learning how to make typical Sicilian dishes. It was a day-long course and I was stuffed for the entire day.
Hotels in Taormina
Taormina is not short on accommodation, but I do feel it’s overpriced for what it is. My suggestion would be to head down to Mazzaro or Letojanni on the seaside. But it is worth spending a least a night in Taormina to see how the village lights up at night. Check some options here.
Cooking Classes in Taormina
There are a variety of cooking classes to learn more about Sicilian cuisine. Click through the links below and check out these options.
Mazzaro Photo Tour
Mazzaro is at the base of the funicular when you go down from Taormina, and Isola Bella is the main attraction of Mazzaro.
It’s a small island you can reach on foot by following a slim strip of sand. It’s great for snorkeling and boating around, and you can easily explore the rocky edges. The beaches are lovely, and Mazzaro is quite a small resort area with a few hotels and restaurants. When you are booking hotels for Mazzaro, it is still considered Taormina.
I went out on a boat tour one day and went swimming. The waters were crystal clear and it was truly an amazing day out.
Hotels in Mazzaro
I spent a few days lounging around the Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay Hotel in Mazzaro. The 4* hotel is lovely and it’s a great place for lunch, or for taking a boat excursion. You don’t even need to be staying at the hotel.
Alex is the man to go to if you want an excursion to see Isola Bella and the Grotta Azzurra. You can book his services through the front desk at your hotel.
Check Mazzaro’s other hotels options here
Cefalu Photo Tour
Cefalu is a little over 40 miles east of Palermo on Sicily’s north coast. There are lovely beaches, historic monuments, and an adorable old town. It’s a step back in time, and you’ll be in good company since Cefalu gets lots of visitors.
One must-see attraction is the Cefalu Duomo. The Cathedral is in a Norman/Romanesque style and is one of the UNESCO Heritage sites, which dates from 1131. The piazza, out front, is a great place to sit and have a beverage or a meal, and admire the Duomo day or night.
Famous sites in Cefalu
There’s the Promontory of Hercules, which is the big rock that is iconic in Cefalu. Taormina hugs the base of the Promontory, and you have a great vantage point of what is going on in the sea below. Hike up here and wander around the ruins, then visit the Castello di Cefalù or Castello della Rocca. You also find the ruins of the Temple of Diana up here.
Cefalu has a lovely self-guided walking tour, and you can follow the commentary when you see these signs below. This sign is for the Medieval Wash House in Cefalu.
Cefalu’s Ancient Traditions
Cefalu is still a city of ancient traditions where you can still buy fruits and vegetables from local vendors. Trades such as leather making and fishing are still a part of daily life in Cefalu.
Cefalu is a place where the past is still in the present. A fisherman is fixing some netting.
You can still buy traditionally-made handicrafts in Sicily. It feels like a step back in time.
Hotels in Cefalu
The waters around Cefalu, on the northern side of Sicily, are extremely clear. You find beautiful rocks jutting out of the water. I stayed at the Hotel Kalura on the north side of Cefalu, and it was a real treat. You can read my review of Hotel Kalura Cefalu here.
This is a super hotel if you are a solo traveler or traveling as a couple. It has a very romantic feel and it’s in a quieter part of Cefalu.
Activities in Cefalu
Here are some great tours and activities to do while you are in Cefalu. There are many more. Click through some of these and see the other options.
Aeolian Islands Photo Tour
The Aeolian Islands off Italy are a group of 8 islands just off the north east tip of Sicily. They include Alicudi, Filicudi, Salina, Lipari, Panarea, Basiluzzo, and the two islands with active volcanos, Stromboli and Volcano. There are a few other smaller islands dotted along here.
You can easily do a day trip to the Aeolians from Catania, Taormina and Cefalu and many other towns in north east Sicily. It only takes about an hour from the port city of Milazzo. Don’t just do a day trip if you can help it. You really should take time to visit the Aeolian islands because they are truly special.
Base yourself in Lipari, the largest of the islands, and then take a boat trip to Panarea, past Basiluzzo and Stromboli on one day. Then day trip to Filicudi and Alicudi another day. You will pass Volcano with a quick stop to drop off passengers from Milazzo. It’s quite a stinky sulfuric smelling island. You can go here for a dip in the hot springs one day and then head up to Salina another. You can easily spend several weeks here, but you could see everything you wanted in one. I also strongly suggest spending one day on a boat going around Lipari. You’ll visit several beaches and have time for a swim.
Views of Lipari
Views of Stromboli
Views of Panarea
There are several hotels in Lipari Town and dotted around the other towns on the island, like Canneto where I stayed. If you want to be by a beach for swimming, I’d suggest Canneto or the others. I wasn’t impressed with the water by Lipari town for swimming since it’s a port area.
Activities on Lipari
Sicily produces lots of wine, which you can buy all over the world. The rich terrain nurtures some super, earthy wines that you should try while you are there.
Some of the most common Sicilian white wines are: Grillo, which is a lovely, light white wine; and Insolia, which is like a Chardonnay.
For red wines, there are Nero d’Avola and Primativo, which I compare to a Pinot Noir. Then there are the sweeter, dessert wines of Moscato and Malvasia. I’m not a wine connoisseur. I drink what I like and like what I drink. These were a variety I tried when I did my Sicilian cooking class.
Have you been to Sicily? What were your thoughts? I still want to visit the Scala dei Turchi and the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. Have you been? What do you think?
While I didn’t have a set itinerary, you might find this Sicily Itinerary helpful.
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