48 Hours in Sicily
For those who prefer the ancient world to the modern one, vibrant old towns over flashy tourist traps, and inexpensive, consistently high quality traditional Sicilian cuisine instead of trendy restaurant cooking, Syracuse will feel similar to visiting an old friend who knows you better than yourself.
In this blog, we'll share some of Syracuse's genuine spirit with these hand-picked essentials for an unforgettable 48 hours in Sicily.
Setting foot on the shores of Mount Etna backdropped Syracuse is to follow in the footsteps of Corinthian settlers some 2,700 years ago, those of the Romans, and of course the Greeks, who under the rule of the tyrant Dionysius, made Syracuse one of its mightiest colonies.
The city on Sicily's Ionian coast remains a mesmerizing window into the past. From the old quarter islet of Ortygia — which links the mainland via Ponte Umbertino bridge — to Syracuse's rural outskirts lie Baroque churches, Byzantine castles, Roman amphitheaters, Greek temples, and multiple other historically significant wonders of the UNESCO World Heritage Site city.
Life enjoyed slower
Syracuse is, however, a magnet for holidaymakers and remote workers. It feels more traditional and connected to the land and sea than bustling Palermo and chaotic Catania, which also makes the locals more relaxed and welcoming.
Add quaint cafés spilling out onto sun-laced piazzas, artisanal gelaterie, a choice between many a sandy beach and rocky lido, and you have a destination grown used to living the good life after thousands of years' practice.
Escape to the Ranch
Give your Syracuse getaway an authentic Sicilian twist with a stay at the luxurious Pantalica Ranch in the medieval Syracuse town of Sortino. Set in the hills of Sortino, Pantalica Ranch is an agritourism fan's dream, with amazing views of nature and fresh produce grown on the ranch and cooked to perfection by the well-loved chef.
You'll find accommodation in natural-set cabins surrounded by lovely gardens, complete with an enormous pool with a swim-up bar. Must-visit day trip ideas nearby are the Azienda Agricola Oliva (traditional working olive oil farm), Basilica di San Sebastiano and the Museo Civico dell'Opera dei Pupi (puppet theatre), while an ascent of Mt Etna is great if you have the time and don't mind the crowds.
The Greek Neopolis, Roman Amphitheatre & Jewish Miqwe
The Neapolis is a classicist's wonderland. Within this famous archaeological park is the breathtaking Teatro Greco, an impressive 16,000 capacity amphitheatre chiselled out of the white-rock hillside in the 5th-century BC.
Feel a connection with the past in the catacomb riddled quarry of Latomia del Paradiso, or try to visualize the bloody gladiatorial games hosted in the oval-shaped Anfiteatro Romano.
The ancient ruins of the Temple of Apollo are also in the area, and are considered one of Sicily's most important Greek monuments. Well worth visiting is a treasure buried some 20 metres beneath Ortygia's former Jewish ghetto. Here, Europe's oldest miqwe-ritual baths-continue to bubble melodiously with fresh water.
Ear of Dionysius
When inside the winding paths of the Neopolis, you'll come to a massive, dark and eerie man-made grotto hewn out of stone. Known as the Ear of Dionysius, this huge cavern is a natural amplifier, where the squeak of a mouse seems to belong to a much bigger creature.
Legend has it that the tyrant Dionysius I locked up enemy captives here. From a crevice that runs deep into the cliff side, he would eavesdrop on the prisoners' talk, supposedly gaining precious knowledge on his enemies. A guided tour will fill you in its many fascinating secrets.
Armies wage glorious battles on land and on the Ionian Sea over Sicily. Love-struck chevaliers croon ballads to blushing maidens. And master swordsmiths slice each other open limb to limb. Welcome to your typically colourful and wildly entertaining Opera dei Pupi, the stage on which puppets have been strutting their stuff in the old town since the early 1800s.
The story goes it all began with roaming troubadours started using puppets to embellish their tales and ballads. Performing from the back of intricately painted donkey carts, the puppet shows soon gained immense popularity. While Sicily's great puppet troupe families are no more, the marionettes still play a handful of dedicated theatres around the island. Syracuse hosts two of the finer ones, the Compagnia dei Pupari Vaccaro Mauceri, and the Compagnia Marionette Don Ignazio Puglisi.
The only gripe about Syracuse on a Sunday is that the Ortygia Market (Mercato di Ortigia) on Via de Benedictis is shut. For the rest of the week from 7:00am to 2:00pm it's a non-stop riot of colourful fruit and vegetables and freshly caught seafood in all shapes and sizes. Most of the merchants in the market think they are on stage, bellowing out bargains, serenading passers by with jolly ditties, and gesticulating with all the theatricality of a teleshopping spinsmith.
Sample the sweet, dark red cherries, the olives and focaccia, or stock up on those expensive pasta condiments like bottarga or nduja for a fraction of the retail price.
For an extra special treat and a bit of showmanship, head to make a beeline for Caseificio Borderi a little sandwich shop run by the Burgio brothers. One of the brothers will fill your giant, wonderfully textured bread roll to perfection with a variety of cured meats, cheeses, pickles, and much more.
Castello Maniace & Grotto Marine
Explore the best things about Syracuse's shoreline on an eye-opening boat tour departing from Ortygia's old harbour. First, you'll pass the imposing Castello Maniace that guards the island's southern tip and formidable 16th-century Spanish bastions to reach a secluded marine grotto. Descending forests of stalactites combine with the glistening walls of these marble sea caves to give off otherworldly hues of greens, blues, and purples. Be sure to admire parazoanthus axillae, an amber, coral flower that shimmers like a pot of gold on the seabed.
Fountain of Arethusa
Italians believe Syracuse boasts some of the best ice cream parlours in the world. Judge for yourself. Try scoops of typically Sicilian flavours such as creamy cassata sprinkled with a jewel box of dried fruits, or a subtly sweet ricotta and pear fusion. To best enjoy your ice-cream with the undivided attention it deserves, stroll to the Fountain of Arethusa.
This cool, green oasis with its papyrus sheltered pool centerpiece is of godly origins. According to Greek myth, when the nymph Arethusa ran away from her home beneath the sea, she surfaced here, in the fresh waters of the Ortygia fountain. No wonder it has been immortalised in classic poems by Virgil, John Milton and William Wordsworth.
From its living history and ancient ruins to its life-affirming markets and incredible cuisine, Sicily brings even the most jaded traveller untold joys even for just a 48 hour stay. Contact your XP representative to book a Sicily break now while 2022 availability still lasts.