Unpredictable and exciting, epic and raw, tragic and beautiful, Sicily seems to offer its very soul to the visitor, imparting an experience that lingers in not only the mind, but the bloodstream. And more than gorgeous beaches, colorful fish markets, Greek temples and friendly people, Sicily is quickly becoming Italy’s of-the-moment wine-and-food destination. A new generation of creative chefs is revisiting and reworking their grandmothers’ secret recipes, and a new band of vintners is finally realizing the island’s enological potential.
Still, enotourism is still in its infancy. Limited “wine roads” or “tasting itineraries” do exist in pinpoint areas like Alcamo in southwestern Sicily, but there is no effective island-wide entity charged with creating wine road maps and guidebooks, or coordinating strategies between winery tasting rooms, restaurants and hotels. At the end of the day, wine tourists are left to explore Sicily on their own.
Have a rental car but don’t know where to start? Here are three itineraries that cover the island’s main attractions, wineries and most-hyped restaurants.
Itinerary One: Enotria
Seventy percent of Sicily’s winemaking potential is found in western Sicily. The best strategy for visiting the region is to make your base in the regional capital Palermo, with its Norman palace, mosaics, opera houses, unique Sicilian-Moorish architecture and new restaurant and wine bar scene.
Despite traffic in the city center, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you can reach most points in western Sicily from Palermo. Late starters can travel north of Palermo on the coastal road (113) for a leisurely drive past Capo Zafferano and Porticello (a fishing village with port-facing restaurants), and Casteldaccia, where Corvo’s headquarters are located. By appointment, you can visit Corvo’s old cellars and taste wines.
Follow the coastal road to Cefalù, with its lofty cathedral. Just 30 minutes away, nestled in the steep mountains behind Cefalù, is Abbazia di Santa Anastasia, a romantic place to spend the night. A former Benedictine abbey built in the 12th century, the Abbazia is both a luxury hotel and a great base from which to explore this part of the island.
An alternate route from Palermo is to take the faster A19 highway to Catania and visit Count Tasca d’Almerita’s impeccable Regaleali estate (take the Scillato exit). Cooking classes at the estate with traditional Sicilian ingredients are offered by appointment.
Western Sicily’s wine road extraordinaire is Route 624, which leaves Palermo from the south and cuts straight across the island to Sciacca. Over the course of this two- or three-hour drive, you cut across dramatic vineyard vistas, mountain corridors, stone farmhouses and green fields. The countryside is clean and undeveloped and although you won’t find noteworthy restaurants or hotels, you can arrange for many wine-tasting stops. Some of the well-known Sicilian wineries on or shortly off of Route 624 that you can visit by appointment are Calatrasi, Donnafugata (although their tasting room is in Marsala), Cusumano, Planeta and Feudo Arancio (they offer a complete cellar tour).
Start the next day among historic monuments and vineyards in Monreale, a mosaic-rich Norman cathedral and cloister 20 minutes outside Palermo. Take Route 186 (which becomes 113 after Partinico) to Alcamo. This is the capital of crisp, mineral-rich Sicilian whites made from Chardonnay, Catarratto, Grecanico, Inzolia. One of the most photogenic estates to visit in the area is Tenuta Rapitalà. Further along 113, don’t miss the majestic Greek temple and theater of Segesta.
There are at least two more spots in western Sicily that should be included in any wine and food lover’s travels. The first is the town of Erice, suspended some 2,500 feet above Trapani. On a clear day you can admire the rocky northern coastline to San Vito lo Capo and even make out Tunisia’s Cape Bon. The second must-visit is Marsala, home of the fortified wine of the same name. Though Marsala has fallen out of favor with contemporary palates, a tour of its historic Cantine Florio cellars offers a fascinating glimpse into the past of Sicilian winemaking. Visit Donnafugata’s tasting room for an experience of one of the most successful Sicilian wineries. They offer personal tours and lunches, and stage jazz concerts with wine-tasting events.
Enotria travel checklist
Food and Lodging:
Antica Focacceria San Francesco, (Palermo)
A veritable temple to the famous street foods.
Agrirelais Baglio di Pianetto (Santa Cristina Gela)
A charming country bed & breakfast with impeccable taste set among the vineyards and a working farm (no Web site).
Azienda Agricola Spadafora, Contrade Virzì (Palermo)
Winemaker Francesco Spadafora has opened a small hotel and restaurant on his estate near the Sicilian capital.
Da Calogero, Mondello (Palermo)
House specialties are warm octopus in a lemon/olive oil sauce and spaghetti with sea urchin roe
Da Vittorio, Porto Palo (Menfi)
Relax, and let Vittorio walk you through the fresh catches of the day.
Osteria dei Vespri, Palermo
Try the saffron potato dumplings with a quail and asparagus sauce.
Winery Visits by Appointment:
Itinerary Two: Baroque Sicily
On January 11, 1693, a powerful earthquake struck southeast Sicily, killing 50,000 people, leveling 50 towns and destroying a rich patrimony of Greek, Roman and Byzantine culture. A reconstruction project, fueled by the lucrative tuna trade, was so grand, it remains unmatched in Southern Italy. In just 100 years, the towns and cathedrals were rebuilt.
Because Sicily had fully embraced the artistic muse of 17th century Italian Baroque architecture, the construction born from the earthquake’s rubble appears remarkably extravagant and consistent in style today. Balconies and façades with carved rosettes and nymphs in white stone embroider the cityscapes. The Baroque corner of Sicily is the island’s least visited and, according to many, the most beautiful. Because this is also the most remote part of Sicily, a cursory visit should take three or four days.
Starting in Catania, take the coastal Route 114 directly to Syracuse. The archeological zone includes a celebrated Greek theater and a 70-foot-high, ear-shaped cavern called the “ear of Dionysius,” which is known for its excellent acoustics. This area’s highlight is accessible via the Ponte Nuovo: The island of Ortigia hosts the city’s historic center and Duomo cathedral.
Follow the coastal road (now Route 115) to Avola and on to Noto, a showcase of Sicilian Baroque and the capital of this unique architectural movement. About 30 minutes away is Modica—compact and beautifully preserved, it is best known for its artisan chocolate production. The last in the trio of Sicilian Baroque towns is Ragusa Ibla, home to two of Sicily’s hottest restaurants: Locanda Don Serafino and Ristorante Duomo..
From Ragusa you can head along Route 514 to Caltagirone, Sicily’s majolica (exquisite ceramics) mainstay. The town is noted for its 142-step Scala di Santa Maria; Sicilian history is portrayed in colorful tiles along each step. Not far is the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. This Roman villa, lavishly decorated in precious mosaics, is one of Italy’s most important archaeological sites.
Those with less time can continue straight from Ragusa along E45 past Gela to Butera, which is located slightly inland. An excellent wine tasting and touring venue is Feudo Principi di Butera. Sprawling and manicured vineyards lead the eye to a beautifully restored castle.
Returning to the coast, Licata boasts La Madia, one of Sicily’s most distinguished restaurants. Agrigento and its valley of temples is less than an hour away on Route 115. Founded by the Greeks in 581 BC, the temples were built facing the sea for everyone to admire. The Temple of Concord (among the world’s best preserved Greek temples) and the Temple of Olympian Zeus (among the largest in the world) continue to inspire awe.
Baroque Sicily TRAVEL CHECKLIST
Food and Lodging:
Don Camillo, Siracusa
The house specialty is zuppa dmucco: neonati (just-born fish larvae in broth).
Locanda Don Serafino, Ragusa Ibla
An epic Sicilian culinary adventure with romantic rooms carved within the stone for overnight stays.
Ristorante Duomo, Ragusa Ibla
The culinary hideaway of Sicily’s hottest chef, Ciccio Sultano.
Eremo della Giubiliana, Ragusa
A former ancient religious retreat that is now a picturesque luxury hotel.
Sleep under frescoed ceilings at this elegant bed and breakfast.
Caffè dell’Arte, Modica
La Madia, Licate (Agrigento)
This hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a monument to Sicilian culinary innovation.
Hotel Villa Athena, Agrigento
Sleep so close to Agrigento’s temples, you can almost hug the columns. Ask for a room with a view in the oldest part of the villa.
Winery Visits by Appointment:
Itinerary Three: Circumetnea
Of Sicily’s wine routes, the one that packs the most powerful panoramic punch is the Circumetnea, the ring road (also a railway) that circles the base of Mount Etna. This smoldering volcano rises nearly 11,000 feet from the sea and spans an area larger than metropolitan New York. If you start in Catania, you can easily complete the trek in one day, but try to extend your tour with one or two days in Taormina or on the beach.
Start at Paternò on the southern flank of Etna and continue along Route 284 towards Adrano. The fertile volcanic soils have created a viticultural wonderland where indigenous headpruned vines struggle to survive. Two of the best estates are Benanti and Cottanera.
The village of Bronte of the eastern flank is home to Italy’s best pistachio groves. The most attractive of Etna’s villages is Randazzo, which is built entirely of black volcanic stone and is remarkably preserved—it has never succumbed to an eruption. The Circumetnea continues onto Linguaglossa (named “great tongue” after a violent lava flow) where there are plenty of skiing and hiking opportunities. Or from Randazzo, you can take the more direct Route 185 to Taormina.
Grafted to a rocky peak, the romantic town of Taormina is sandwiched between blue seas and sky. With beautiful villas, hotels and cafés, this is one of Sicily’s must-see destinations. South of Toarmina are a succession of coves and beaches where huge rocks along the coastline are said to be the boulders hurled by the cyclops at Odysseus and his crew.
Nowhere along this course will you be able to escape from the presence of Mount Etna. And no place you visit in Sicily will you be able to forget, or regret having taken the time and effort to visit.
Circumetnea travel checklist
Food and Lodging:
Al Duomo, Taormina
House specialties here adhere to the culinary traditions of this side of Sicily. Try the goat stew.
Hotel Villa Ducale
A romantic hideaway with wide, sweeping views of the sea and volcano.
Il Riccio (Catania)
Catania’s signature dishes are prepared with modern, minimalist esthetic.
Locanda del Vinattiere, Valverde (Catania)
Full-course fish or meat-based menus are available and subject to the creative whims of the chef.
Pasticceria Santo Musumeci, Randazzo
Serves the best pistachio ice cream in the world (served inside a freshly baked sweet roll). Follow up with shaved ice flavored with almond milk (no Web site).
San Domenico Palace Hotel, Taormina
Sicily’s best hotel has views that contemplate Mount Etna’s every cough and hiccup.
Winery Visits by Appointment: