These idyllic volcanic islands north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea are a beautiful getaway from the bustle of urban Italy. Most visitors will stay on the main island Lipari, which has plenty of hotels and ferry connections to the other islands.
Vulcano is a popular destination for its splendid beaches and its sulfuric mud baths, said to have rejuvenating qualities. The ground and shoreline of Vulcano is full of vents that release steam and sulfur gas from beneath the earth’s crust creating jacuzzi-like jets in the sea, and spectacular sulfuric crystals on the land. The main volcano is a steep climb – and watch out for steam vents and scalding rocks – but worth it for the spectacular views over the other islands.
The most famous of the islands is the remote active volcano Stromboli, the only volcano in the world known to be active throughout recorded history. Guided trips near the crater are popular at night, when the glowing magma spewing out makes for fantastic and eerie images.
From Palermo the Ustica Lines June through September hydrofoil crossings take just shy of 4 hours. There are also SNAV hydrofoils from Naples in season, and year-round Siremar ferries from Naples and Milazzo. Book ahead in high season.
Dominating the sky through much of Sicily is the imposing bulk of Mount Etna, a 3323-meter/11,000-foot active volcano. For active travelers, Etna poses an irresistible challenge. A guided climb (it is prohibited to climb without a guide) can be a fantastic adventure – you’ll see solidified lava rivers, fields of volcanic ash and rock, plumes of volcanic smoke rising from the crater, and stunning views of the Sicilian countryside and Mediterranean Sea.
This fourteenth century Palermo castle erected by Manfredi, first of the Chiaramonte, during the wars between Sicilian nobles against the Angevin French, became the Sicilian headquarters of the Inquisition (1601-1782). Executions were held in what is now Garibaldi Garden in Piazza Marina. Graffiti tags, drawings and poems left by those arrested and/or condemned can be seen on the walls of cells in Philip's prison at Steri Palace, and at the penitenziati prisons next door. Now used by the University of Palermo the building contains galleries with works that include Renato Guttuso’s famous painting of the Vucciria market. The wooden ceiling of the Hall of the Barons has ornately decorated beams with Biblical scenes, and other mythological and chivalric stories of medieval times.
Palazzo Abbatellis (Palazzo Patella), an 1488 Catalan Gothic-style palace with castle-like battlements just east of Piazza Marina at Via Alloro 4, is now home to the Regional Art Gallery (Galleria Regionale della Sicilia). Paintings, sculptures and frescos of note include the Virgin Annunciate, by Antonello da Messina (15th century), considered among the best Renaissance paintings of Italy.
This small island, situated between Sicily and Tunisia on the coast of Africa, is a geologically intriguing place formed by volcanic activity. It once served as a place of banishment for out-of-favor imperial family members and other prominent Romans. Today it's noted for its sweet wines, hot springs, picturesque beaches, and the large Pleistocene caldera, Lago di Venere - a lake with brilliant turquoise waters. The volcanic mud here is said to be very therapeutic and rejuvenating for skin.
From Trapani, Sicily to Pantelleria the Ustica Lines hydrofoil takes 2.5 hours, and the Siremar ferries about double that. Meridiana flies here 3 times per day from Trapani, and twice daily from Palermo.
Syracuse was founded by the ancient Greeks and was once described as the greatest and most beautiful of Greek cities. Many majestic Greek buildings still stand in the Neapolis (the ironically named old city) and the city is an important archaeological site. The Greek Theatre was built in 470 BC and thanks to some recent renovations it once again presents Greek dramas (in Italian). There’s also a younger Roman Theatre nearby. The nearby quarries and caves include presentations on how the ancient people dug, carved, and transported the stones used to create their buildings.
Another highlight of the old town is the Fonte Aretusa, a freshwater spring where the poets went to be inspired. Legend had it that the spring was created when the nymph Aretusa fled into the sea to escape the unwanted affections of Alpheus, Son of Oceanus. The gods took pity on Aretusa and turned her into a spring so she could live on and later turned Alpheus into a river so they would eventually meet again.
Sitting on a stunning ridge along the south of the city of Agrigento is complex of five Greek temples whose dramatic setting has earned it comparisons to Athens’ Acropolis. The temples were built between the 5th and 6th centuries BC to honor the Greek gods (although they’re now referred to by their Roman counterparts’ names). The temples of Hercules and Concord are the most preserved and impressive, although the Temple of Juno is best positioned for views down the ridge to the other temples. The city’s Archaeological Museum has exhibits that help put the temples in context and includes artifacts and statues that were removed from the temple sites for preservation.
The Villa Romana del Casale, located 3 km/1.8 miles from the town of Piazza Armerina is an exquisitely preserved Roman villa, only relatively recently rediscovered. The exquisite villa complex is believed to have been built around 340 AD and to have been owned by a senatorial family. What sets the Villa Romana del Casale apart from other Roman ruins are the 3500 square meters/4200 square yards of intricate mosaic floor tiling. These mosaics are famous around the world for their depictions of Roman life, from agricultural and nautical scenes to social gatherings and baths.