Sicily See And Do
Agrigento , Sicily
Agrigento, on Sicily's southwestern coast, was once an important center of Greek learning and culture. In fact, during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., this ancient city was considered as powerful and influential as the city-states of Athens, Corinth, and Sparta—and vestiges of this grand time are still visible today.
The Valley of the Temples, which sits below the scruffy modern city of Agrigento, was described by the Greek poet Pindar in the early fifth century B.C. as "the most beautiful city of mortals." And even today, the valley's ruined Doric temples, with their towering columns and eroded statuary, are stunning. The five major temples (there are eight in all) straddle a high, rocky ridge with a backdrop of the distant sea, and are surrounded by huge, centuries-old olive trees. The best preserved is the Temple of Concordia, which was converted to a church in the sixth century A.D., thus prolonging its upkeep and extending its lifespan; but the temples of Juno Lacinia, Hercules, and Castor and Pollux are all impressive, too. The best times to view the temples are at dawn, sunset, or night, when they are beautifully illuminated (bring your camera).
If you have time, it's worth taking the 45-minute drive northwest of Agrigento to the coastal ruins of Eraclea Minoa, where another Greek colony once flourished (it's been virtually deserted since the end of the first century B.C.). Built on a cliff above the beautiful beach of Capo Bianco, the city is today largely collapsed into the sea. But there are fragments of pottery everywhere—vase handles, the bases of pots, bits of amphorae—an astonishing experience for amateur archaeologists. You can actually pick up and touch the ancient objects, which anywhere else would be behind glass in a well-guarded museum.
Palermo , Sicily
Every era of Palermo's complex history has been stamped into the stone, making the city a palimpsest of Arabic, Norman, and Baroque architecture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Santa Maria Assunta cathedral in Quattro Canti (the city's central "Four Corners" crossroads). The cathedral incorporates a Norman apse, Gothic portico, neoclassical interior, Baroque cupola, and even remnants of the tenth-century mosque that predated it.
The magnificent Capella Palatina, in the Palazzo dei Normanni, is the city's most gorgeous example of Norman architecture. Within the Norman royal palazzo, this mid-12th-century chapel glitters with mosaics, gold, polished stone, and colored glass; its painted, coffered ceiling depicts scenes from the Old Testament. The nearby 12th-century ruined monastery of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, with its Norman bell tower and Islamic cupolas, is a lovely confluence of architectural styles—and surrounded by subtropical gardens of pomegranate and jasmine. And if you can't make it to the ruins of Selinunte, the city's Museo Archeologico, housed in a 16th-century convent, contains some beautiful carvings and statuary from the site (www.regione.sicilia.it).
If you're after a full sensory experience in a spectacular historic building, visit the 1897 Teatro Massimo, Italy's largest theater, for an operatic performance of Verdi or Puccini (www.teatromassimo.it). Another kind of sensory overload can be had at the casbah-like Vucciria Market, which fills the side streets of Piazza San Domenico every day but Sunday. Here, locals can be seen haggling with vendors over every imaginable kind of produce: cuts of meat, fish, octopus, giant piles of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It's not a relaxing place to wander (in Italian, vucciria means "clamor" or "hubbub," which is right on the money), but it's unforgettable.
Segesta , Sicily
The Doric temple of Segesta, about an hour's drive from Palermo, is one of the world's most magical ancient sites. Set on the edge of a deep canyon amid wild, desolate mountains, this huge, 2,500-year-old temple was never finished. On windy days, its 36 giant columns are said to act like an organ, producing mysterious and beautiful notes. The people of Segesta, the Elymians, claimed they were descendants of the defeated Trojans, and built a massive hilltop theater in Greek style above the temple. How it has survived 2,500 years of foreign invasions and earthquakes (it is situated in one of the most seismically active zones in Europe) is a puzzle. You'll need at least half a day to walk in and around the temple. The best view is from the hillside on the opposite side of the canyon, although this requires a 30-minute walk uphill.
Selinunte , Sicily
Spread over roughly a mile, this huge ruined city on Sicily's southwestern coast was founded in 628 B.C., and subsequently became one of the richest and most powerful in Ancient Greece. Today, the remains of its many temples (which are so ancient that their names are no longer known) are still astounding: Vast fragments of Doric columns have been hurled about in all directions, and colossal piles of carved marble lie where the temples once stood. Carvings from the Selinunte temples are now on display in the archaeological museum in Palermo; their quality is on a par with the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon in Athens. Before leaving the area, stroll along Selinunte's beach—the marvelous panoramas of the temples will leave you breathless.
Siracusa , Sicily
One of the most sophisticated cities in the ancient Greek world, Siracusa is also the most elegant in present-day Sicily. The historic center, located on the island of Ortygia, is connected by bridge to the mainland; among the remarkable ancient Greek monuments here is the almost-intact, fifth-century B.C. Temple of Apollo. The huge Doric columns of this temple actually lie inside the city's Byzantine cathedral; from inside it's obvious that the columns are, in fact, supporting the ceiling, roof, and structure of the church. A statue of the Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral is dedicated, stands above the altar in the same place where, 2,500 years ago, a massive statue of Athena stood.
Just down from the cathedral on Ortygia's winding main street, Corso Umberto, is the Fountain of Arethusa, where fresh water continues to bubble up in huge quantities, just as it did in ancient Siracusa, when it was the city's main water supply.
The vast, fifth-century-B.C. Greek theater, located on the mainland in the Archaeological Park of Neapolis, looks out over the city toward the sea. This was considered one of the most important centers of Greek theater and poetry; the last tragedies of Aeschylus, including The Persians, were first performed here in his presence. Now, every May and June, a theater festival of classical tragedies and comedies performed in ancient Greek takes place (800-380-0014).
Taormina , Sicily
High on a mountain with views over the Mediterranean Sea and Mount Etna, Taormina was founded by Greeks in 395 B.C. and quickly became a city-state of major importance. Its surviving theater, the second largest in Sicily after Siracusa's, is still intact today and one of the most dramatically situated ancient Greek theaters in existence. Every year in June, the Taormina International Film Festival takes place here, with movies shown on a giant screen inside the theater (www.taorminafilmfest.it/2007/).
Taormina has some of Sicily's best beaches, including the Lido Mazzarò—a favorite of Hollywood stars in the forties and fifties and still a hot spot today—and nearby Giardini-Naxos, where the beautiful Ionian waterfront is dotted with resort hotels and chic restaurants. Visitors wanting to get farther afield can drive northwest to the adjacent town of Milazzo, the jumping-off point for ferries to the Aeolian Islands. These volcanic islands—all home to extinct volcanoes, save Stromboli—are famous for their charming towns and villages, dramatic topography, and, in the case of Vulcano, therapeutic mud baths.