Floating off the toe of the Italian mainland, the island of Sicily is noticeably distinct from the rest of Italy. This is where Europe starts to take on a flavour of Greece, even of north Africa. It's not just the sometimes blisteringly hot weather - the unique history of Sicily, much invaded and an ancient centre of 'Magna Graecia' has given it a unique, hybrid culture. Sicily also has its own language, a close cousin of Italian, but with Greek and other influences. It's the first language of the island, though you'll find standard Italian (and indeed English) spoken in shops and hotels.
Sicily is an autonomous region, containing nine provinces; Agrigento, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Syracuse and Trapani. There are also small islands offshore, including Pantelleria, Ustica, the Aeolians, the Aegadians and the Pelagian Islands. Main towns on Sicily include Siracusa (Syracuse), Catania, Messina, Cefalu, Palermo, Trapani, Marsala, Agrigento, Ragusa, Noto and Enna. This is a volcanic region of course, with the massive bulk of Mount Etna dominating the east of the island, and the Aeolian islands having volcanic (though dormant) Vulcano, Vulcanello and Lipari, and active Stromboli.
Its position in the southern Mediterranean, with the city of Siracusa guarding the Strait of Messina, has made Sicily enormously strategically important since Classical times. The Greeks arrived around 750BC to displace the ancient inhabitants - the Sicani, the Elymians and the Ligures. They were overthrown in turn by the rise of Rome in the late pre-Christian era. Christianity arrived around 200AD, then a succession of invaders including the Vandals, the Goths, Byzantium, the Lombards, Normans, Spaniards, Persians, Aragon and others.
Sicily was an independent kingdom before the Unification of Italy in the 1800s. Little wonder then that the culture, language and cuisine is an eclectic mix. On the menu here you will find plenty of seafood - sardines, swordfish, tuna and anchovies. Cheeses are provolino, ricotta and pecorino. You'll find marvellous street food, similar to Naples, with rice balls, fritters and potato croquettes. Try 'cannoli', fried pastries stuffed with ricotta and rolled in chocolate. Wines include the red and white Corvo, and white Regaleali and the fortified Marsala, from the western tip of Sicily.
The island capital is Palermo, dating from an eighth century BC Phoenician settlement. It has superb Norman buildings, and standout sights include the Cathedral, the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Palazzo Abatellis and the Teatro Massimo. There are a number of fine churches, Norman and earlier. Make the time to head a few miles southwest of Palermo to Monreale - the little town's cathedral has a stunning collection of medieval mosaics.
The northern, Tyrrhenian coastline has the buzzing resort of Cefalu; head inland and you're quickly into the mountains of the Madonie and the Nebrodi, with charming little hill villages. This coast is also the jumping off point for the Aeolian Islands. Heading east, we come to the Ionian Coast. Messina is the main arrival point from Calabria and the mainland. Along the coast is Taormina, a real delight, climbing up from the seashore (a funicular railway gets you to and from the beach) and with its Greco-Roman amphitheatre. Heading south we come to the island's second largest city, Catania, in the shadow of Mount Etna, and built in the volcano's grey igneous rock. Catania has some superb Baroque architecture.
Head south and we come to the ancient city of Siracusa, or Syracuse in antiquity, which can trace its roots back to the Corinthians, who settled here in 733BC - it's safe to assume the town predated them though. It's a superb town, with the old centre being on the offshore (and very defensible) island of Ortygia. Ancient buildings include the Temple of Apollo, the Roman amphitheatre and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. So old is Siracusa that the seventh century Cathedral actually stands upon a much older temple, from the fifth century BC. You still see elements of the old walls within the 'modern' church.
Heading to the south coast we come to Ragusa, one of a host of towns destroyed by the great earthquake of 1693. The population's tragic loss was our gain, as the towns here, including Comiso, Modica and Noto, were rebuilt in an opulent Baroque style. Heading west we reach Agrigento - a nice enough town, but of real importance for the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) which lies below the town. An extraordinary collection of fifth century BC buildings.
As we reach the western tip of Sicily, there is a distinct sense of leaving Europe and heading for Africa. 'One hop and you're out of Europe,' as DH Lawrence said, and on a clear day you can see the coast of Tunisia, 100km or so to the west. Trapani is a pleasant regional centre, a hopping off point to the Egadi islands. It has a fine old town, and was a busy port during the Middle Ages, trading with ships from North Africa. Head up from Trapani to the marvellous mountain town of Erice. Near to Trapani we have another major Greek archaeological site in Selinunte. Marsala demands a visit too, with its pleasing 16th century grid forming the 'centro storico' and the local wine, Marsala, served chilled.
And if Sicily isn't far-flung enough for you, there are the outlying islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa, actually far closer to Africa than Sicily.
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FEATURED ACCOMMODATION IN SICILY
B and B I Cedri – rooms for rent in a villa overlooking mount Etna – Sicily, Italy
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Bed & Breakfast in Italy - B&B Ai Cartari - Vacation rooms and apartments in Palermo, Sicily