|Sicily is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean, sitting off the Calabrian toe of the Italian Peninsula, separated from the mainland by a mere 5 km of water. It is a beautiful island endowed with rugged mountains, marvelous beaches, one of the world's most active volcanoes and a rich culture and history. Sicily is such an interesting and entertaining place that it can be thought of as a tourist destination in its own right, completely separate from Italy.
Modern Sicily is associated with Italy, of course, but its ancient heritage is thoroughly Greek. The greatest city on the island, Syracuse, was one of the leading Greek cities of the ancient world. Some of the most decisive events of Greek history took place there, and it was the home of the famous philosopher and inventor Archimedes. The island's ruins and archaeological heritage are therefore every bit as much Greek as they are Roman, with excellent Greek ruins dotting the entire island. Of particular note is the Valley of Temples in Agrigento, located on the southern coast of Sicily. This collection of temple ruins is easily a rival for anything on the Greek mainland, including Athens. Another major collection of Greek relics is at Syracuse, where there is the Temple of Apollo, the old Paradise Quarries, the tomb of Archimedes and the Greek Theatre, as well as the relics of the excellent National Archaeological Museum.
The ancient attractions do not end with the Greeks, however. Smack dab in the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily was the cross-roads of that sea's historic sea lanes. The Carthaginians also has a presence on Sicily, remnants of which can be found at the towns of Mozia and Solunto. The Romans came later, claiming the island in the Punic Wars. At Piazza Armerina in central Sicily there is the Villa Romana di Casale, a ruin that boasts the finest set of preserved Roman mosaics to be found anywhere in the world.
Another historical offering of Sicily is "mafia tourism." Sicily is infamous the motherland of the Mafia, since other parts of Italy have their own organized crime traditions. Some might be disappointed by what there is to see, but it is important to keep in mind that secretive criminal organizations do not leave much behind in the way of monuments. However, the little town of Corleone is real enough, and many seemingly mundane locations in the city of Palermo have their own stories of bloody, Mafia-directed mayhem to tell. For those who want to see where the real stories of the real Mafia took place, there are organized tours that visit all of the major sites.
Of course, many people come to Sicily to bask in the sunshine and enjoy the beautiful white sand beaches. Foremost among these is San Vito lo Capo, a striking beautiful beach backed by high mountains. Marina di Ragusa has also become a popular beach resort destination, with its clear azure waters and golden sands. However, if you are looking for a less developed beach stop, there is the beach inside the Natural Reserve at Vendicari.
Trekkers and mountain bikers will find that Sicily is just on the precipice of becoming a major destination for their respective sports. This starts with the perpetually rumbling volcanic wonder of Mount Etna (3,330 m), right next to Syracuse. Fans of vulcanology should not miss the opportunity enjoy the sights of this historic volcano, such as its fumaroles and its rivers of solidified lava. Parts of the mountain are also lushly vegetated, boasting deep green forests. Farther afield are the Nebrodi mountains, the Madonie mountains and the Alcantara river gorge.
Scuba diving and snorkeling is possible all around Sicily, but the main draw is the nearby island of Ustica. It's eastern, southern and western coasts are lined with 18 dive sites, and there are a few more off the north coast as well. These sites include the chance to see sunken archaeological relics and undersea caves, all in clear, warm waters with good visibility. It is a great place for both those who want to learn how to dive and for experienced recreational divers.
As the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily has its own gastronomic traditions that are quite separate from those of Italy. For example, whereas much of Italy is a lousy place to dine on seafood, Sicily has a rich seafood tradition. They are also much fonder of seasoning their food with jasmine, rosemary and mint than is the case on the Italian mainland, due to infusions of Greek, Arab, Spanish and even French influences. Sicilians are most notorious for their fondness for sweets. Cassata is a Sicilian dish, and the Sicilian cannolis are justifiably famous.
Enjoying a warm, sunny climate and a unique culture all its own, Sicily is a worthy destination that offers a bit of something for everyone. Beach lovers will be spoiled for choice, history buffs will have plenty of old stuff to look at, and outdoorsmen have a rugged and only semi-developed countryside to explore. A vacation can be set at a posh resort, amid the urban buzz of ancient Syracuse, or in a quiet and idyllic farm house. There is even skiing on the slopes of Etna during the winter. Whatever it is you want to do on holiday, you can find it in Sicily.