Sicily kicked my ass and nearly destroyed me.
I did not expect that. Italy is my zone. I go to Italy once or twice a year. I lived in Florence for four months. I speak Italian (not as well as I used to, yet more than enough to get by).
As a result, Italy is one of the countries where I’m most comfortable. I understand how things work. I know what to eat, what to wear, what to do at different times of day. I’m well versed in the passeggiatta and penalties of not validating your train ticket.
I thought I knew Italy — and then I got to Sicily.
The Wild Part of Italy
Sicily was my tenth region to visit in Italy (after Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Campania, Liguria, Lombardia, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, and Puglia). I would immediately designate it the region that has the least in common with other regions.
Sicily had a wildness in the way the overgrown plants spilled onto the highway, in the way gargoyle-like rocks rose out of the sea, in the way children rode their bikes around piazzas at 1:00 AM.
But most significantly, I had a lot of communication issues. English was only spoken in the most touristy areas, and in the more rural areas, the locals spoke Sicilian dialect.
As a result, even when I spoke Italian, we could barely understand each other. I would understand maybe one word, tops, out of the whole sentence.
I’ll admit that this was overwhelming and embarrassing for me on many occasions. Traveling seamlessly in Italy is a mark of pride for me, and I hated feeling so helpless.
I’m not the only one who felt this way. Amanda of Farsickness wrote in a comment on one of my earlier posts:
In a weird way I am so glad you felt that way about Sicily. I spent 2 weeks there in May and found it to be way more difficult than I imagined. I speak Italian and have lived in Italy and I felt lost and confused so, so, so many times. I kept thinking about how I wouldn’t recommend it as a destination to newbie independent travelers or anyone who doesn’t know at least some basic Italian. A beautiful island with killer food and wine, but easy and often, not relaxing.
I am so glad that Amanda said that. It made me feel like I wasn’t crazy after all.
That said, in spite of the difficulties, Sicily is an incredibly rewarding destination. It’s filled with so much natural beauty and so many cultural destinations. The people are warm and friendly. The food is delicious. Everything looks and tastes like sunshine.
Tips for Traveling in Sicily
If you’re planning a trip to Sicily, get ready to plan more than you would for a trip elsewhere in Italy.
Here are my top recommendations for Sicily:
Stick to the Beaten Path Unless You’re an Experienced Traveler
If you stay on the beaten path for foreign travelers, you won’t have most of the challenges that I had.
In Eastern Sicily, that means the Aeolian Islands, Taormina, Mount Etna, Siracusa, and the Baroque cities (Ragusa, Modica, Noto).
In Western Sicily, that means Trapani, Cefalù, Erice, and the western islands like Pantelleria.
In popular tourist destinations, Italian was spoken (not the dialect that I found in other places) and English was often spoken as well. They also had a more developed infrastructure for travelers and it was a less harried, more relaxed atmosphere.
Off the Beaten Path Has Its Own Challenges and Rewards
You absolutely can get off the beaten path if you’d like to. Just know that you’ll be dealing with things including but not limited to:
People speaking only the local dialect and not Italian, let alone English.
Limited tourism infrastructure.
Roads in very poor condition.
Limited opening hours and dining options.
That said, getting off the beaten path can be very rewarding. You can end up getting to know locals who rarely see foreign tourists and are eager to share the best parts of their town (and food!) with you.
Learn As Much Italian As You Can
Even in popular areas in Sicily, it will benefit your trip greatly if you learn as much Italian as you can in advance.
At minimum, I recommend learning buongiorno/arrivederci/ciao, per favore/grazie, numbers one through 10, mi scusi and permesso (“regular excuse me” and “please move out of my way excuse me”), vorrei (“I would like” — use when ordering in a restaurant), and parla inglese? (“Do you speak English?”). It helps to learn food words, too.
Keep a translation app on your phone so you can double-check translations on the fly.
My favorite way to learn a language? The DuoLingo app. It makes language learning a fun game!
Get On Sicilian Time
Like in Spain, you’ll find that most businesses in Sicily take a siesta in the afternoon, often from 1:00 PM until 5:00 PM or a bit later. Oh, and they might not be open when they say they’ll be open. Just know that if you have something important to buy at a shop, do it in the morning!
Dinner is eaten at a late hour — you’re best off waiting until 9:00 PM, and even then you’ll be among the earlier ones getting their aperitivo. People will be out having dinner well past midnight.
Also, make like a Sicilian and avoid being outside during the hottest part of the afternoon, unless you’re at the beach. Everyone stays inside and smaller towns start to feel creepy when you’re the only one out.
Get a SIM Card
I picked up a Vodafone SIM Card in the Rome airport en route to Catania, and I was beyond glad that I did. It gave us so much help when it came to navigation and translation.
I paid 40 EUR ($45) for 5 GB of data with calls and texting. I later ordered another gig of data online for 5 EUR ($6).
I was happy with the Vodafone coverage. It didn’t work on most of the land at our agriturismo (which wasn’t an issue, as they had good wifi), and we didn’t get coverage on some of the tiny roads from Avola to Ragusa, but other than that, it worked great. You can find Vodafone shops in most cities.
Rent a Car — A Small, Automatic Car
It is possible to travel around Sicily using only public transportation, but the quality, frequency, and connections aren’t as good as in the north. If you only have public transportation, you’re not going to see nearly as much of Sicily as you could with a car.
Traveling with a car was a very smart decision — one of the best of our trip. It gave us so much freedom to do day trips as we pleased without relying on public transit. Plus, when we stayed at our agriturismo, it was the only way we could leave the area.
Getting a tiny car should be a priority. Streets are narrow in many Sicilian towns and driving our regular-sized sedan felt like like driving a tank. (We survived, but we wish we had rented a smaller vehicle!)
I would only recommend renting a manual car if you’re very experienced with driving a manual. My mom drove a manual for most of her life, but she hasn’t in over a decade, and she was relieved that we had an automatic.
The reason? Sicily is very hilly. If you end up taking small streets, you’ll have tough driving ahead of you. This isn’t the kind of place to drive a manual if you’re iffy about it.
Also, book your car way in advance. Cars often sell out, especially automatics, and even after booking, we were told the night before our arrival (!) that our rental car provider didn’t have any more cars. We freaked out and booked last-minute with a more expensive provider.
Watch Out for Crazy Drivers
The driving in Italy gets crazier the further south you go. (And it doesn’t even stop once you leave Sicily — Malta is home to the most reckless driving I have ever seen.)
Sicily is a place where you should drive more conservatively. Stay out of the fast lane. Look in every direction a few times before driving through an intersection. Remember that many people ignore red lights and stop signs.
Driver super-defensively to maximize your safety.
Stay in an Agriturismo
An agriturismo is a farm that doubles as a guesthouse. It’s a very popular way to travel in Italy, both for locals and foreigners. You get to relax in the outdoors and sometimes you can help out in the garden if you want to!
We stayed at Agriturismo la Rocca della Rosa in Zafferana Etnea, the base for journeys to Mount Etna. This was a lovely place to stay and I highly recommend it for your time in Sicily.
The agriturismo is in such a convenient location — rural and slightly off the beaten path, but we were able to make easy day trips to Mount Etna, Taormina, Aci Trezza, and our great-grandfather’s hometown of Castanea delle Furie. If we had been more ambitious (or willing to drive 2.5 hours each way), we could have gone as far as Cefalù or Siracusa.
The three of us shared a comfortable two-bedroom suite. And the pool was very welcome on a hot day.
Give Yourself Downtime — and Beach Time
Sicily is the kind of destination that demands quite a bit of you and exhausts you. If you don’t give yourself ample downtime, you could very well lose your mind. Soon it became apparent that we couldn’t visit all the places I wanted to visit, which was disappointing, but the downtime made it worth it.
The perfect way to have downtime in Sicily? Head for the beach! You’re spoiled for choice on this island.
Avola was home to the nicest stretch of sand we saw in Sicily, while Aci Trezza was a low-key town on the water home to rocky beaches and beach clubs on overwater decks.
Dive into Delicious Food
Like the rest of Italy, both Sicily and the regions in Sicily have their own local specialties. Even the towns have their signature dishes!
Some dishes to try:
Arancini — Rice balls stuffed with anything from meat sauce to cheese and vegetables. The perfect snack food for any time of day (yes, I once had one for breakfast).
Pasta alla norma — Pasta with tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata.
Caponata — Fried eggplant with tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, capers, and other vegetables, on its own as a side dish or served on crostini or with other dishes.
All the fresh seafood you can find — It’s the Mediterranean — it’s good. Try everything. I once had a spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) that nearly made me cry, it was so good.
Frutta martorana — This is what Sicilians call marzipan. It comes from the town of Martora.
Cannoli — The world-famous pastry is from Sicily (which may be why you couldn’t find one in Venice). Keep in mind that cannolo is the singular form.
Oh, and granita. Which brings me to my next item…
Eat Granita Every Day
If you’re used to eating gelato in Italy, go Sicilian — it’s time for granita!
Granita is basically slush for adults, and I don’t know what they put in it, but it’s better than any slush I have ever had. It’s dairy-free, yet tastes so creamy! Sometimes it’s served with brioche. Some people even eat it for breakfast!
Try as many flavors as you can, but I especially recommend mandorla, or almond. Honestly, I have no words for how good mandorla granita is. You won’t find anything like that in your home country, that’s for sure! Simply heavenly.
I loved lemon and caffe, too. My favorite granita cafe was Bambar in Taormina. Try granita with cream at least once, too!
Count Your Change
I hate to say it, but my mom and I noticed on four different occasions that we weren’t given enough change — and most of the time we didn’t bother to check, so who knows how many other times it happened?
By the time the final incident happened, when a granita seller handed me back a 50-cent piece instead of a euro, I snapped, “É vero?” (“Seriously?”) and held up the coin. He shrugged like it was nothing and gave me a euro.
Keep an eye on your change.
Solo Travel in Sicily? It’s Not Easy.
After my experience, I’m not sure that I would recommend Sicily as a destination for most solo travelers. Of course, solo travelers (and solo female travelers) can go anywhere they’d like and have a great time; I just don’t think that Sicily would be one of the better choices within Italy or within Europe.
I say this mostly because of the driving. When my mother, sister, and I traveled together, driving was a three-person job. Mom drove, I navigated, and Sarah looked out for rogue drivers. Once Sarah left and I took on her job, it was still very difficult.
I could not imagine doing that driving on my own. If you drive alone, even with a GPS, know that you will be going down the wrong streets all the time.
Additionally, the communication difficulties mean that you may spend a lot of time feeling isolated and lonely. You may want to stay somewhere like a hostel or agriturismo in order to meet more people, including fellow travelers who speak English.
That said, Sicilians are very warm and friendly people. Even if you’re not able to communicate, they’ll welcome you with open arms. And the island is full of so many cultural treasures that you won’t lack for things to do and places to see.
Finally, if you’re traveling solo in Sicily, consider sticking to the beaten path. You’ll have an easier and more relaxing time. If you want to travel off the beaten path, I recommend getting more travel experience elsewhere in Italy first.
Essential Info: I got my SIM card at Vodafone in Rome’s airport. Vodafone shops are in most towns. I paid 40 EUR ($45) for a SIM card with 5 GB of data, calls and texting. When I ran out of data I got an extra gig for 5 EUR ($6). The coverage was great for Sicily and worked almost everywhere, though know you may not have coverage in more rural areas.
In Zafferana Etnea, Sicily, we stayed in a two-bedroom suite at Agriturismo La Rocca della Rosa, which can also be booked on Airbnb here, for $115 per night plus Airbnb fees. This is a wonderful agriturismo with a pool, great food, and the kindest owners, Maria and Franz. You’ll love it here. It’s in a perfect location for exploring Mount Etna and northeast Sicily; the town of Zafferana is lovely, too (don’t miss Blue Gel gelato!). If you stay there, please tell Maria and Franz that Kate, Deb and Sarah say hi!
We did the Etna Summer Sunset Experience excursion from Etna Experience, and it was a wonderful way to see the volcano up close and hike a small part of it, finishing with wine and snacks at a beautiful sunset spot. 54 EUR ($60) in summer, 44 EUR ($49) in other seasons.
While in Zafferana, we made easy day trips to Taormina and Aci Trezza as well as Etna and our great-grandfather’s village, Castanea delle Furie (the latter of which has zero tourist value and you should not visit). It’s best to have a car in Zafferana and vital if you want to do any day trips.
In Avola, Sicily, we stayed at this two-bedroom Airbnb apartment for $40 per night plus Airbnb fees. The apartment is clean, cool, modern, and located right by the main square downtown. Giovanni, the host, is an osteopath, has his office downstairs, and offers both massages and adjustments for very good prices!
Avola is a bit of an offbeat place, and you’ll be the one of very few non-Italians in town, but it has a great beach. Keep in mind that downtown Avola is dead during the day but comes to life at night. There is a wine bar on Piazza Umberto that makes a FABULOUS cheese and salume plate. Spend your days hanging at the beach or exploring cities nearby like Siracusa, Noto, Modica, and Ragusa; I visited Siracusa and Ragusa and recommend them both.
Have you ever been to a destination that challenged you as a traveler? Share away!
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