Taormina is a city I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I missed it last time I was in Sicily, so when I booked this trip, Taormina was definitely on my list. So many people rave about it. The main selling points are it’s charm, history and the famous Greco-Roman Amphitheatre overlooking the sea. Here are my suggestions on Taormina. How to get there and when to visit.
Flying into Catania
The closest airport to Taormina is Catania – Fontanarossa, and getting to Taormina is quite easy. There is a train that leaves from central Catania and drops you at the base of Taormina, at the Gardini-Taormina stop, for €4.30 ($5). The ride takes about an hour. Then take a local bus up to the centre of Taormina, which takes another 5 minutes.
You can also take a bus through Etna Transport. The bus station is near Catania’s train station and that drops you within walking distance to the center of Taormina. The bus leaves every 15-30 minutes for €5.20 for a scenic 1.5 hr ride.
If that’s too much hassle, you can also arrange a private transfer through Catania Airport Transfer which will cost €77 ($91) door-to-door. Knowing I was schlepping a suitcase, I preferred to be dropped as close to the center of Taormina as possible, which meant I was taking the bus. I really suggest spending a few days in Catania to discover this jewel before heading up the coast. Read my post about Things to see and do in Catania.
Getting a bus ticket in Catania
If going by bus, you have to buy your bus ticket at the ticket office across the street from the bus terminal before getting on the bus. All this can be very taxing if you don’t understand the Italian mentality of ‘lines’. Italians don’t do lines. They will happily step in front of you if they perceive you don’t know the game.
There were two ticket sellers at the ticket office; a guy was helping two girls, and a woman was dilly-dallying, helping no one. I didn’t know if she was going to help the next person, so I waited patiently between the two sellers.
All of a sudden, a guy steps behind the two girls who were starting to walk away, and I immediately piped up in Italian, ‘Excuse me, sir, I was here before you. I was waiting to see whether it was he or she who would be serving me.’
He looked at me extremely surprised that this obvious foreigner was speaking to him in his own language, and my choice of words were polite, but very much of the ilk, ‘Get behind me. I know how this works.’ And it did. I got my ticket and went along my way. Now, getting on the bus would be another line-less, pushing and shoving match.
To be honest, if you like throngs of tourists, you’ll love Taormina in June, July and August. This beautiful village with a permanent population of around 8,500 swells during the summer to nearly 150,000. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful town, but in the summer months, it can be taxing on your nerves.
This town thrives on tourism and reminds me slightly of a ‘duty-free’ cruise stop. It’s great for a few days to see what you need to see – the antique Greco-Romano theatre, the cathedral, the botanical gardens, the castle, and the views from the various terraces. There is a lot to see here, but when it’s overrun with people, you can’t take the time you need to explore to really appreciate this area. It felt more like a ‘box tick.’
Twenty-four hours in, I was ready to leave. I was purposely finding restaurants and cafes that were clearly hidden, frequented mainly by locals, so I could breathe, think and write. And I made a point of getting up around 5:30 so I could have the town to myself for a few hours to walk around, appreciate and take pictures.
Organise your tours early and do it online
I tried to organize a few tours, but the timings were off or they had already been booked up. So if you go in full summer, give some serious thought to what you want to see, plan your activities, and book them in advance. You will even get a discount if you book online. It’s much better than standing in line to wait your turn at the tourist offices. There are numerous companies offering tours of Etna, trips to the Aeolian Islands, A ‘Godfather Tour,’ Siracusa and Noto day trips, wine tastings and cooking classes. Most of these leave from the main bus terminal at Via Luigi Pirandello.
A couple of good companies for sightseeing, cultural and hop-on, hop-off experiences are CitybySee tours, www.CitybySee.com, Prestelli tours, www.prestelli.com, and SiciIy Excursions at www.sicilyexcursions.it. I arranged a local cooking class at the organic Red & the White Hosteria, which was great, but I actually fell onto that by overhearing a conversation during dinner.
For a cool, unique culinary experience, take a cooking class at Red & White Hostaria, and you will learn how to make traditional macaroni, Eggplant Parmigiana, Pasta Norma and baked fish. Read more about my Sicilian Cooking Class.
Best time to visit Taormina
Outside of the summer months, you’ll have more of an authentic feel, the prices will be a bit more appropriate and the locals will have more time to share with you their authentic selves. In my opinion the best time to go is April/May and Sept/October. The weather will be nice, but not as scorching hot as full summer.
And I’d go as far as to suggest April and May are the best times to visit Taormina. In Italy, the season typically starts just after Easter and the hotels and restaurants aren’t yet exhausted like they will be in September and October. Several places shut for the winter as well, so go early in the season for the ‘freshest’ staff and go later in the season to get the best deals on hotels.
Hotel prices during the summer reflect the allure of this perched village that saw the likes of Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, Winston Churchill, John Steinbeck, and others as visitors or residents. Even modest hotels can be quite pricey for what they are. I chose a simple hotel for €75 ($88) a night without breakfast, and three nights was plenty. For a splurge, I’d choose the Grand Hotel Timeo, which sits right outside the Amphitheater. Rooms in August are going for €472 ($550) a night for a city view. If you wait until the end of October, just before they close for the season, rooms start at €354 ($417), so well worth the wait. In the spring of 2018 the same room starts at €600 ($707).
Stay in Taormina’s seaside villages
Better yet, during the summer you could consider staying in the quieter, seaside villages of Gardini Naxos, Spisone, Mazzaro or Letojanni, just below Taormina. There is quick and easy transport up to Taormina and then return to sanity at the end of the day. I chose a cute place in Letojanni, the Hotel Sylesia, and it was 1-block off the beach with beach access. It has a nice, private terrace, is very clean and modern, and offers a copious breakfast for €60 ($70) a night. Lesson well learned. Stay close to the beach and explore from there.
The restaurants on Corso Umberto in Taormina offer a variety of similar, and in my opinion, overpriced tourist options. I did go a couple times to Ristorante Varo, which is up about 20 steps off the main street. There are only 10-15 people at a time in a very tranquil environment. The steps to get up there are steep which impedes the hoards from bothering to climb. Nothing fancy, but decent, reasonably priced pizza, pasta and main dishes. And as mentioned, treat yourself to the lovely, organic Red & White Hostaria and sign up for their Sicilian Cooking Class.