Forget about Times Square.
Sicily, the largest and most densely populated island in the Mediterranean, has been the crossroads of civilizations since 10 thousand years ago.
Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans had wrestled through the centuries over it until the 12th century, when it became part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
In the 19th century, after being liberated from the Bourbons, it became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
In its current incarnation, along with Egadi, Lipari, Pelagie and Pantelleria, it’s an autonomous region of Italy.
The island’s multicultural heritage lives on in Catania, the second-largest city after the capital Palermo, situated on the east coast at the base of Mount Etna.
In the mid-12th century, cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi recorded that the locals venerated an elephant made out of volcanic rock, which could predict Mount Etna’s eruptions.
Fontana dell’Elefante, the city’s symbol, sits in the middle of Piazza del Duomo, across the Catania Cathedral and near La Pescheria (a market with the best fruits of the sea, surrounded by even better restaurants).
A twenty-minute walk through a lovely boulevard will take you to the Amphitheater of Catania, built in the Roman Imperial Period around the 2nd century AD.
In its heyday, it could seat 15 thousand spectators, making it one of the largest theaters in the Roman Empire.
We discovered Bohéme Mixology Bar right on time for Happy Hour.
This lovely place with “mismatched” vintage furniture and a hipstery vibe doesn’t have a menu.
Instead, you tell the bartenders your favorite spirits, mixers and garnishes and they’ll create a cocktail for you.
We went back the next day. I highly recommend it.
We went on the first of our day trips the next day to Europe’s highest active volcano: Mount Etna, a truly otherworldly experience.
Towering 11 thousand feet, the volcano has been growing for about 500 thousand years thanks to a series of uninterrupted eruptions and explosions.
We parked on the south side of the crater (Sapienza Refuge). From where the cable car reaches as high as 8 thousand feet (where you can see ruins from previous eruptions).
A 4×4 bus then drives you about a thousand more feet to the start of the crater area. I believe guides can take you further by foot, but 9 thousand feet it’s the closest we could stand.
Back at sea level, we ventured to the nearby province of Syracuse and explored the lovely villages of Noto, Bruccoli and Ortigia.
The towns are full of charming piazzas with delicious restaurants, gelaterias and bars—unfortunately, we misread the parking rules, and our car was towed away!
The legacy is evidenced by a trove of archeological treasures—including the Temple of Apollo.
We had heard Taormina was one of the most beautiful parts of Sicily, and the place more than lived up to its expectations.
Situated 32 miles to the north of Catania, we arrived eager to explore the beautiful Ionian Sea beaches—especially Giardini Naxos and Isola Bella.
Like the rest of Sicily, Taormina has a rich history spanning civilizations: Greek, Roman and even Norman (as shown by the castle that crowns the old town’s hill).
The Ancient Theater of Taormina’s material (brick) suggests Roman origins, but the plan and arrangement align with those of Greek structures.
The Romans probably rebuilt the original Greek site.
But, as impressive as these cultural vestiges may be, nothing rivals Mother Nature’s beauty—especially in this part of the world.
Taormina towers Giardini Naxos, a former sleepy fishing village now a global tourist destination thanks to its stunning beaches and the panoramic view of the bay and surrounding hills.
Popular among Italian and foreign visitors, its seafront is lined with hotels, restaurants, pizzerias, churches, an archeological park and private vacation homes.
Taormina also sits above the Pearl of the Ionian Sea: Isola Bella.
Located within a small bay on the Ionian Sea, it was a private property owned by English pioneering wildlife conservationist Florence Trevelyan.
In 1990, the Region of Sicily acquired it and converted it into a nature reserve.
A narrow path that connects the island to the mainland beach can be seen at low tide.
Surrounded by sea caves, Isola Bella has a small, rocky beach popular with sunbathers.
The name says it all.