Siracusa and south-east Sicily Travel Guide

Siracusa and south-east Sicily Travel Guide

Kerry Murray

Evoking imagery of leather-faced fishermen, sun-baked coastlines, vineyards and prickly pears, Sicily has always been a place that captures the imagination. This island nation may, politically, belong to Italy but both in geography and in spirit, it is a world apart. Sandwiched between the bottom of Europe and the top of Africa, the island has always been a cultural crossroads and this melting pot of influences is nowhere more evident than in the architecture and culinary heritage of the Sicilian South East.

Things to do in Catania

On the east coast, Catania is a bustling port city famous for the volcano Mount Etna that looms on the skyline and for its fish market, one of the biggest street markets in Italy. The city itself is chaotic and busy, a typical ancient Italian metropolis that has repeatedly been destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt, resulting in architecture as eclectic as the people who inhabit it. Sicily is synonymous with fish, and the market is definitely a highlight, an authentic example of an ever-dwindling way of life. The atmosphere is crowded and noisy and exhilarating; as an outsider, you are as fascinating to the locals as they are to you and the entire experience is a window into an ancient culture.

Tucked away in the Mediterranean countryside to the north of the city, Zash Country Boutique Hotel is surrounded by vineyards and citrus groves with stunning views down the mountain towards the Ionian Sea. Located in a restored manor house, the hotel boasts a gourmet restaurant and an in-house wellness spa that incorporates elements of the local surroundings, such as volcanic rock and citrus essential oils to ensure a holistic and relaxing experience. If seaside living is more your thing, then right on the coast and a short drive south of Catania, Baia de Turchi is a luxurious and modern villa with lush gardens, amazing sea views and an infinity pool reminiscent of a mid-century modern tropical paradise. As if this wasn´t enough to convince you, the villa also boasts a sauna, hot tub, Turkish bath and fitness centre, and is a short stroll from the beach; assuming you ever decide to leave the property.

Ragusa | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Ragusa | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Things to do in Syracuse

Founded by the ancient Greeks, Syracuse (or Siracusa to the locals) is the capital of the southeastern region and a treasure trove of historical and architectural wonders, not to mention that this city is a hot pot of culinary influences, where it is virtually impossible not to eat well. The historical centre of the city is a small and densely built up island called Ortigia, and the best way to explore is on foot. Wander the medieval streets and marvel at the incredible mash-up of architecture and influences, some 2,500 years of culture packed into less than one square kilometre. The historic food market is a must visit; the best way to get to the heart of a culture is to see what people are eating, and the market is a daily event that takes over an entire street. The food here speaks directly to the Sicilian soul: fresh fish, locally grown produce: aubergines, peppers, chilli’s and lemons; all indispensable in Sicilian cuisine as well as typically Siracusan delicacies such as arancini (deep-fried rice balls stuffed with ragu) and the tiny sundried cherry tomatoes that the region is famous for.

Tucked in between the makeshift stalls are some of the best and most authentic restaurants in the city. Mostly unassuming places, their magic is in the use of fresh home-grown produce sourced from the market on their doorstep and prepared simply, but with respect for the integrity of their ingredients, as well as for the centuries of tradition behind every dish. Fratelli Burgio is a deli and restaurant at the end of the market street that sells an amazing array of local delicacies, a one-stop-shop for all your culinary desires and also a great place to grab a sandwich after browsing the market. Another great spot for breakfast or a quick coffee during the day is Angelina´s Bakery, serving all manner of delicious baked goodies and light meals. And, of course, no self-respecting traveller in Sicily would dare leave without having visited at least one wine estate and sampled the local vino. Pupillo Wines is well known for their Moscato di Siracusa, highly regarded as Sicily´s most ancient wine and almost lost until the early 1980´s when the Pupillo family began cultivating it again. Book a tasting and enjoy a guided tour of the cellar and vineyards as well as a delicious lunch to complement the wine.

Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

On the western side of Ortigia, Henry´s House is a small boutique hotel housed in a 17th-century heritage building. The hotel is quirky and full of character, much of the original architecture and interiors have been maintained, and you get the sense that if these ancient walls could talk, they would have many a story to tell. Making the most of the amazing views, the various rooms and patios all face the sea and on the ground level, directly below the hotel, Mi Ka Tu is a small bar perfectly situated to watch the sun slip below the horizon. Do as the locals do and sip on an Aperol Spritz before heading off for dinner. There are many exceptional restaurants within the old town. In fact, you´d have to try harder to find a bad place that to find a decent one, and the majority of them specialise quite strictly in traditional Sicilian fare. Which is great if that´s what you´re looking for, as most travellers are, but if you´re after something a little bit different, then head to Le Vin De L´Assassin. This romantic little bistro tucked away in the old town serves a fusion of Sicilian and French-inspired dishes, all made with locally sourced ingredients.

Things to do in Marzamemi

Heading south from Syracuse, the beaches get better and better, and these are some of Sicily´s prettiest stretches of coastline. If you´re looking for a spot to relax on a beach towel, then Calamosche and Fontane Bianche are gorgeous options. White sand beaches tucked into sheltered coves with crystal clear, balmy waters. A visit to the small fishing village of Marzamemi is like stepping back a few hundred years, where time passes slowly, and life revolves around the seasons and the bounty of the sea. The pretty central square is lined with colourful patios and restaurants. Grab a granita or a fruity cremolata and duck in under the umbrellas to escape the heat. Campisi is a small shop and deli specialising in Sicilian delicacies, particularly those that come from the sea. Stock up on wine, olive oil, pistachios grown on the slopes of Etna, the ubiquitous Sicilian tuna and Anthony Bourdain´s all-time favourite: bottarga, dried cod roe, which tastes a whole lot better than it sounds.

Fontane Bianche | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

Fontane Bianche | Photo: Emanuele Siracusa

The best hotels in south-east Sicily

Heading away from the coast, there is a series of small towns in this southeastern corner of Sicily that all share a similar history and architectural influences. A huge earthquake ripped through the area at the end of the 1600´s, leaving much destruction in its wake. This, in turn, gave local architects the opportunity to re-build using the Baroque style that was fashionable at the time in Rome, the result being that most of the towns in this area are flamboyant and richly ornamented with sculptures and wrought iron detailing. Three of the more prominent of these towns are Noto, Ragusa and Modica. Noto is closest to the coast and a great place to start your exploration of the region. Located on the main street running through the centre of town, Caffé Sicilia is an old school Italian institution, and although it doesn´t look like much, they have a reputation to uphold, and you´re guaranteed to find great pastries and coffee. We ate what was arguably the best cannoli of our lives here and recommend that you do the same.

Accommodation options are plentiful; the Seven Rooms Villadorata is located inside a Baroque palace right in the oldest part of Noto and her sister hotel, the Country House Villadorata, is a little further afield on an organic farm in amongst olive groves and almond trees. Both of these hotels are housed in heritage buildings, fully restored while simultaneously respecting the character of the original architecture. A perfect blend of ancient and modern, in keeping with the Sicilian culture. Along the same lines, Masseria Della Volpe is a 19th-century Sicilian manor house and farm that has been converted to a luxury boutique hotel. Set in the rolling hills of the Noto Valley and surrounded by citrus groves, the hotel also features a wellness centre and spa to ensure complete peace and relaxation during your stay.

Casa Talía

Casa Talía

Further inland, Modica is another classic example of Sicilian Baroque and like the other towns in this region is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The oldest part of town is perched on the top of a steep ridge and affords sweeping vistas down to the slightly newer section on the lower slopes. Narrow lanes and staircases run down the hillside and weave their way between the ancient buildings, definitely worth a few hours of wandering on foot. Modica is, surprisingly, famous for its chocolate; a dark and crumbly version quite unlike conventional modern chocolate. When cacao was first introduced to the New World, it was made according to the ancient Aztec traditions, a skill the local artisans never lost and over time became synonymous with the region. Visit the Antica Dolceria Rizza to see the chocolatiers at work and sample their delicious handiwork.

Casa Talía is a boutique hotel in the centre of Modica´s old town and is an Arabic style house, the original architecture influenced by the Moorish occupation of the island many centuries ago. Fully restored with typical Sicilian materials, each of the rooms faces out onto a lush communal garden, much like the riads of Morocco, with breath-taking views across the ancient town. Slow living is a way of life here, and Casa Talía is the ideal refuge from the frenetic modern lifestyle; a calming oasis of peace and tranquillity in which to relax and enjoy the simpler things in life.

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