ITALY, TRAVEL

Things to do in Taormina Sicily on Vacation

things-to-do-in-taormina-sicily

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 things to do in Taormina. How to go and when to visit.

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Botanical gardens in Taormina
Public Gardens in Taormina

How to get to Taormina from Catania

Taking the train from Catania to Taormina

The closest airport to Taormina is Catania – Fontanarossa, so you’ll more than likely start from there. Getting to Taormina from Catania is quite easy. First, take the airport bus from Catania Airport to the Central Train station in Catania. It takes about 20 minutes and costs around $1.25. Then there is a train that leaves from Catania’s Central Train Station and drops you at the base of Taormina, at the Gardini-Taormina train stop, for €4.30 ($5). The ride takes about an hour. Then take a local bus up to the Taormina bus terminal at the edge of town, which takes another 5 minutes.

Taking the bus from Catania to Taormina

An easier way to go from Catania to Taormina is via bus through Etna Transport. Catania’s bus station is near the Central Train Station and the bus drops you within walking distance of the center of Taormina. The bus leaves every 15-30 minutes for €5.20 for a scenic 1.5 hr ride.

How to get a bus ticket from Catania to Taormina

If going by bus, you have to buy your bus ticket from Catania to Taormina at the ticket office across the street from the Catania 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. Get in line, hold your place and don’t be afraid to assert yourself if someone cuts in line in front of you.

I finally bought my bus ticket to Taormina and went across the street to where the buses were waiting. Now, getting on the bus would be another line-less, pushing and shoving match.

Bus depot in Catania to Taormina
Dreadful bus terminal in Catania

Taking a private car transfer from Catania Airport to Taormina

If that’s still too much hassle, you can also arrange a private car transfer from Catania Airport to Taormina 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 from Catania to Taormina. 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.

 

Beautiful bougainvillea in Taormina heading toward the Amphitheater

My Impressions of Taormina

To be honest, if you like throngs of tourists, you’ll love Taormina in June, July and August. Taormina’s permanent population is around 8,500, but this beautiful village 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. Hotels in Taormina will be busier, more expensive, and getting a place in a restaurant will require a wait. This town thrives on tourism and reminds me slightly of a ‘duty-free’ cruise stop.

Taormina is quite small and you can see all you need to in one day, really. Keep that in mind when you plan your vacation to Taormina. I mention below where to stay near Taormina.

 

Things to do in Taormina

Visit the antique Greco-Romano Theatre

This is an absolute must. The beautiful Teatro Antico di Taormina dates from the 3rd century BC, and it’s an amazing site to see. It costs $11 to get in and you can see the Bay of Naxos, Mt Enta and all the way to the coast of Calabria on the continent.

The city of Taormina and the region have done lots to renovate the theater. Today, you can attend a wide variety of cultural events like an opera or even see popular musicians, like Andrea Bocelli, who will be there in August 2019.

view of the Antique Theater in Taormina toward the sea
Teatro Antico di Taormina

The Taormina Cathedral or Duomo

This beautiful church dates back to the 1200’s was rebuilt over the centuries on ruins of a church dedicated to St. Nicholas of Bari. It’s made of large blocks of stone and looks more like a fortress than a church.

I lucked out being there on a day of a wedding, and there was an extra special buzz in the air to see everyone decked out.

Cathedral of Taormina with the Duomo Fountain
Cathedral of Taormina with the Duomo Fountain

 

The Church of San Giuseppe

The Church of St. Joseph (San Giuseppe) is in Baroque style and was built in the 1600/1700s’ You’ll find it in Piazza IX Aprile near the old Clock Tower. You can walk into any of these churches for free and admire the architecture and chapels.

The Piazza is a cool place to hang out and watch the world go by. There are several nice restaurants there and there’s a terrace with amazing views over the countryside.

You’ll also see the clocktower gate in the photo on the left. This gate divides the Hellenic and Classic parts of Taormina. It’s also called the Porta di Mezzo and is one of the gateways into this Medieval city.

Taormina church of San Giuseppe
San Giuseppe church and the Clock Tower

The Public Gardens

The public gardens are free, and a welcomed respite from the hot stick air and all the tourists.

It was developed by a Scottish woman, Lady Florence Trevelyan, who left her homeland after they discovered she’d had an affair with Edward VII. Yikes! She later went on to marry the Mayor of Taormina.

The gardens are an ode to Victorian follies and it’s a lush haven. There are some funky structures in there, mixed with military statues, cannons, fountains, birds, a Koi pond, and plenty of flora.

Structure in Botanical Gardens Taormina
Unique structure in the public gardens

Views from the various terraces.

There is a lot to see in Taormina, but when it’s overrun with tourists, you can’t take the time you need to explore to really appreciate this area.

Gardens in Taormina overlooking the coast
Views from the terraces

 

I completely missed the Saracen Castle up on the hill, but I think by that time I was too tired, hot and sweaty to endure walking up the stairs to reach it. And good thing, because it’s closed! They believe it was an old Greek Acropolis in the times under Greek rule. But once it re-opens, it looks like a must-see in Taormina.

Corso Umberto 1 – the main drag of Taormina

Twenty-four hours in, and 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.

The streets in Taormina in the morning when it's quiet
Empty Corso Umberto 1 in the morning.  Best time to see the town.
A woman walking in Taormina at 5:30 in the morning
5:30 in the morning…

Ride the Funicular down to the sea

Taormina has a funicular system that quickly takes you down to the sea so you can enjoy the seaside villages. It costs $3.50 one way and you can enjoy the beaches for the day.

Ride down on the funicular in Taormina

Enjoy a swim at Isola Bella

Taormina was so sweltering hot, a day on the water was what was needed. You can easily find a place to park yourself and swim in the shallow, clear waters.

Views of Isola Bella in Mazzaro
Isola Bella is just a funicular ride away

Take a boat tour around Isola Bella

If you fancy a boat excursion to Isola Bella and the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto), Alex’s Excursions is who to go with. Escursioni Alex can be arranged through tourism offices and hotels. My friend, Gregorio, arranged it for me, and it’s a beautiful way to see the Sicilian coast from the water. The seas were a bit rough, but I had a fab time.

man on his tour boat
Alex, my boat driver
Rough seas with Alex Escursioni
Rough seas with Alex Escursioni
swimmers by Isola Bella Taormina
Swimmers at Isola Bella

Organize your day tours from Taormina early and book online

I tried to organize a few day tours from Taormina, but the timings were off, or they had already been booked up. So if you go in full summer, think about what you want to see, plan your activities, and book them online.

You will even get a discount if you book online. It’s much better than standing in line at the tourist offices in Taormina.

There are numerous companies offering day trips of Etna, trips to the Aeolian Islands, A ‘Godfather Tour,’ day trips to Siracusa and Noto, wine tasting tours and Sicilian cooking classes. Most of these leave from the main bus terminal at Via Luigi Pirandello in Taormina.

A sign showing day trips from Taormina
Day trips from Taormina can be booked from a number of different companies

A couple of good companies for sightseeing, cultural and hop-on, hop-off experiences are CitybySee tours, Prestelli tours and SiciIy Excursions.

Restaurants in Taormina

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.

I dined one night at an organic restaurant, Osteria Santa Domenica, where my friend Tony was a waiter. It was really super, then I heard the did Sicilian cooking classes, which I signed up for the next day. It was a fun day of shopping at the market, learning about fish and vegetables, and cooking with an excellent chef, Davide. I went home completely stuffed.

The Red & White Hosteria Taormina where they offer cooking classes
Why not take a cooking class at the Red and White Hostaria

For a cool, unique culinary experience, take a cooking class there, and you will learn how to make traditional Sicilian macaroni, Eggplant Parmigiana, Pasta Norma and baked fish. Read more about my Sicilian Cooking Class.

And speaking of food, there’s a cool Bruschetta Restaurant, called Arco Rosso, in the heart of Taormina. All they serve are different styles of Bruschetta. The place fills up and I went with some local friends who I met in the Philippines.

Arco Rosso Bruschetta Restaurant
Tasty Bruschetta at Arco Rosso

Then you do what the locals do and go sit out on some steps and admire the beautiful fountain the piazza.

Fountain at night in Taormina
Sitting with the locals admiring the fountain
My buddies Tony and Davide who I met on an in the Philippines

Best time to visit Taormina

You will have more of an authentic feel if you visit Taormina in the spring and fall. The prices will be a bit more appropriate and the locals will have more time to share with you their authentic Sicilian lives.

The best time to visit Taormina 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 visit Taormina early in the season for the ‘freshest’ staff and go later in the season to get the best deals on hotels.

Hotels in Taormina

Taormina 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 in Taormina can be quite pricey for what they are.


Find the best deal with HotelsCombined.com

I chose a simple hotel in Taormina for $88 a night without breakfast, and three nights was plenty. I don’t recommend it so I won’t add it here.

For a luxury hotel in Taormina, choose the 5* Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo, which sits right outside the Amphitheater in Taormina.

Rooms at the Grand Hotel Timeo in July 2019 are going for $935 a night for a city view! If you wait until November, you can get a super room there for $380, so well worth the wait.

Planning further in advance, in April 2020, you can have a 5* hotel in Taormina from $245 a night. Steal of a deal on 5* hotels in Taormina, but that also means that other hotel classes with be much more economical as well.

 

Entrance to the Grand Hotel Timeo, Taormina
Beautiful entrance to the Grand Hotel Timeo just outside the Amphitheater

Stay in Taormina’s seaside villages

This is my suggestion… 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 via the funicular, but you’ll have a quieter, more relaxing stay near the seaside.

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 $70 a night. Lesson well learned. Stay close to the beach and explore from there.

Another luxury hotel I recommend near Taormina is the Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay where my friend Gregorio works. It’s just around the bend from the Funicular to Taormina. It’s a beautiful hotel right on the sea, built into the rocks around it. Prices in August will run about $550 a night, but it’s better than the 5* in Taormina and you’ll have a much better experience.

Exterior of Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay
The Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay in Taormina Italy
Lounge area Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay Mazzaro Sicily
Views from the lounge at Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay
My buddy Gregorio who manages the pool and beach area at the Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay
They will organize boat excursions to Isola Bella, too

 

Views of the landscapes from Taormina from the funicular
Beautiful coastline from Taormina

 

You might be interested in reading about Things to do in Amalfi Coast if you are coming from the mainland down to Sicily first.

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Taormina, Sicily pin with woman at 5:30a

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Life On The Mediterranean

US expat living the life on the Mediterranean in the South of France. I regularly travel to Spain, Italy, Greece and other intriguing locations around the Mediterranean. Former Hyatt Corp Marketing Manager, student accommodation director and hotel photoshoot art director.

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