Survival Tips for First-Time Sicily Visitors

My extensive travel planning I was telling you about a while ago finally led to a result: Sicily turned out to be the destination meeting most of the criteria. Actually, it has already been on our radar for some time, even the LP guide has been waiting on our “to-visit” book shelf between Brazil and Corsica for a couple of years. Somehow we just didn’t find the right time to go. And to be honest, I thought the main attractions of the island were ancient ruins which I’m not really a fan of. After our one week trip Sicily confirmed some of my expectations, but it also revealed some unexpected surprises. In the end it has somehow grown on me. But I’ve also learned a couple of important lessons worth considering if you are planning a visit:

  • Don’t start in Palermo – If you don’t want to start off on the wrong foot with Sicily, this tip may well save your whole trip. I’m still grateful to several of my friends who warned me of Palermo. Especially if you’re arriving late in the evening as we did you will want to save yourself the stress of driving into the city. Instead, head west. In half an hour you are in Castellammare del Golfo, a pleasant fishing town with its own long stretch of beach. We were staying at the B&B Tannur where we woke up to a view of the marina full of fishing boats. In Palermo it would probably be some noisy street instead. In the end we skipped Palermo altogether, just driving past it on the coastal road from west to east was overwhelming enough. And we’re not fans of big cities anyway.
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Waking up to this view on the first day was a nice touch. Well played, Sicily.
  • Rent an Italian car – By Italian I mean stylish and compact, but not necessarily comfortable. There’s a good reason why the majority of the cars on the island are Fiat Pandas (or so it seems) – the streets in most of smaller towns are ridiculously narrow. We made the mistake of choosing a Volvo V40 which we were offered at a discounted price at the rental office. This is wrong on so many levels – first of all, no amount of comfort could ever compensate the stress we experienced maneuvering between all other moving vehicles while not only avoiding passengers but also all the parked cars blocking each side of the road. Secondly, Scandinavian and Italian driving styles are so different that I believe it’s also philosophically wrong to rent a Swedish car in Sicily, it will get back to you one way or another.
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There’s still enough room for a scooter.
  • Learn basic Italian – Admittedly, most people we met showed their effort and tried to speak English. However, learning just some basic Italian will open completely new horizons for you. Besides, no matter how poor your knowledge, your hosts will shower you with compliments, so you don’t need to worry of making a fool of yourself. And every now and then you might be pleasantly surprised as we were in Ragusa. Well, shocked actually. While we were having an espresso at one of the cafes a good-natured 96-year old grandpa seating at the next table chatted us up in English! So we had a nice small talk about the weather – he trying his best in English, me trying to help him out in Italian. I understood half of what he was saying, but it was an experience to remember.
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He offered to take a photo of us, but I believe this one is more precious.
  • Avoid visiting in summer months – Unless your idea of a perfect vacation is to rub shoulders with total strangers in unbearable heat at your every step, then you should definitely avoid the island in summer. Judging by the crowd of people walking the streets of Taormina on a Sunday afternoon in November I don’t even want to imagine what it must be like in August, when all Italy is on holiday. It’s true that most of the bigger hotels close in November and some towns like Noto or Gangi seem a bit deserted. But there are still plenty B&Bs to choose from and the hotels that are open offer some nice deals. If you want some more tourists, higher temperatures and more stable weather, October or late spring might be an even better choice.
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Taormina on a slow day.
  • Get ready for climbing – It seems to me as if all Sicilian towns and villages were built on top of a hill or a rock. I don’t know the purpose of this, except that the ancient urban planners and builders wanted to show their skills in designing as many different types of steps as possible. So be prepared for some serious up- and downhill walking. On the other hand, this is a good way to burn some calories that you will definitely gather with all those incredibly sweet pastries you will be served for breakfast.
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Sometimes you can literally climb into fog like in Caltagirone.
  • Take it slow – You are guaranteed to enjoy your trip more if you get accustomed to a slower pace of life. You’re on holiday anyway, so just relax. This way even some unusual Sicilian practices are less likely to drive you mad. Like the fact that for some reason at most petrol stations you can’t top up your gas tank, but need to determine in advance how much money you want to spend. When you are trying to return your rental car with a full tank as required, this can be quite annoying. But from behind a café table with a glass of good wine in your hand, trouble like this looks really trivial. Besides, you don’t need to see all the ruins, so slow down and enjoy. This is the proper way to explore Sicily. How often can you do that in your daily life?
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Why hurry? When in Sicily, do as the Sicilians do.
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