Drive around and you’ll be soothed by palm trees and scented orange groves one minute, and exhilarated by exotic architecture the next: Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, French, Spanish, Austrian and Brit invaders have all planted their flags. Dominated by Mount Etna – Europe’s largest active volcano – the east is Sicily’s most built-up sweep. Punchy capital Palermo crowns the north coast with a glut of gutsy galleries and ornate churches, linked by a spaghetti-tangle of mediaeval streets. Due south, serene sandy beaches and pretty fishing villages quietly partner flourish-filled Baroque towns. Whether you venture up or down, on this isle, it’s easy to enjoy un poco di tutti.
See our separate guide to Sicily’s Aeolian Islands.
When to go
It’s textbook lovely throughout the year, although the beginning and the end of the summer months are ideal as the sun isn’t too scalding and the beaches less crowded. August is best avoided, as this is when the mainland Italians descend in their droves.
PlanesThere are three main airports: Palermo (gesap.it), Trapani (aeroportotrapani.com) and Catania (aeroporto.catania.it). For the south coast, Catania is 30 minutes nearer by car than Palermo, a little over two hours away.
BoatsSicily can be reached by boat from the Italian mainland. The shortest ferry crossing (20 minutes) leaves the mainland at Villa San Giovanni for Messina (carontetourist.it). Sailings from Naples and Salerno take more than eight hours; there are also occasional services to Sardinia (tirrenia.it).
TrainsThough the system is quintessentially Southern Italian – ie, unreliable and a bit haphazard – Sicily’s trains are an affordable and easy way to get between the island’s major towns and cities (trenitalia.com). It’s possible to take the train from mainland cities to Messina, via the train ferry from Villa San Giovanni in Reggio Calabria; island intercity trains link Messina, Palermo, Taormina, Catania and Siracuse (trenitalia.com).
AutomobilesThanks to mountain hairpins and a carefree regional attitude to bumps and scrapes, driving in Sicily is not for the faint-hearted. But wheels are essential for exploring, especially if you want to see the rugged interior, and well-maintained motorways link major towns.
TaxisCabs are cheap and easy to find in Palermo and the island’s major resorts, but you’re better off hiring a car if you plan to do any longer journeys around the island. For fares around Palma di Montechiaro, try Licata-based Agenzia Cafa’ Viaggi (+39 0922 770031).
Unwind for four nights at Azienda Agricola Mandranova, spectacularly poised along on Sicily’s rugged southern coast. More than just a charming guesthouse with welcoming proprietors, the hotel offers cooking classes that feature produce plucked from the olive trees and vegetable patches that fill the gardens and sets you on a grand tour of the geniality and gourmet cuisine at the heart of Sicilian life.
Worth getting out of bed for
– Spice up your culinary skills with the hotel's cookery class
– Hop on a 38-foot boat for a coastline and island cruise
– Bicycle through the rugged mountainous landscape
Italy's booted ball is a degustation-worthy destination in its own right. Plump olives, grapes and citrus fruit sprout from Sicily's fertile soil, there are few middlemen between the sea and your plate, and pistachios, marzipan and creamy cheese are worked into dreamy dessert creations.
Known for ricotta: piped into cannolis, encased in pasta or baked and eaten with a spoon, Sicilians love it. Capers from Salina, blood oranges from Catania and panelle chickpea fritters are very good; cannolis, gelato and Marsala wine cater for sweet-toothed Smiths.
Dishes here are tableaux vivants of star-turn ingredients. Fresh and flavourful fish sprinkled with herbs, and pasta with spare sauce: a dollop of ricotta, juicy tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and a jaunty basil leaf makes a perfect pasta alla nonna. Candied-fruit-dressed desserts are comparably flamboyant
• A humble but punch-packing ingredient, capers are liberally sprinkled over Sicilian dishes; those from Salina are the most revered. The Aeolian Island's caper buds, preserved with salt instead of brine, are the island's pride and joy, and they're infused into gelato and panna cotta during the caper festival in June. Salina's also the only place where Malvasia wine is produced.
• Prefer your wine honey-hued and sweet? Visit Marsala on the west coast, to drink your fill of its eponymous plonk. Take a cellar tour of Florio Winery, then stop at Donnafugata Winery for more Dionysian swigging and slugs of grappa. The famed vino was first produced by the English, but maybe it's best to keep schtum about this when mingling with Marsalesis.
• With iridescent swordfish, frilly-legged langoustines and surprised-looking skates, Catania's fish market is a dizzying, and pungent, experience. Dishes are simple – a smattering of squid tentacles, a squeeze of lemon – but oh so good. Wash down with very fresh orange juice from the stalls and finish with cannoli from Prestipino Cafè or chiacchiere biscuits at Savia pasticceria.
Stay at homestead Azienda Agricola Mandranova; here you'll find yourself drifting to the cucina frequently, whether to eat co-owner Silvia's home-made fare or to make your own in the excellent cookery school.
Check in for three nights to Monaci delle Terre Nere, a romantic and rustic former monastery on this photogenic island, sandwiched between Mount Etna and the Mediterranean coast. Scramble over lava-sculpted landscapes worthy of science fiction, amble through the 40-acre farm tasting vine-fresh fruits or settle into a Phillippe Starck chair and tuck into authentic Sicilian home cooking.
Worth getting out of bed for
– Climb one of the world's most active volcanoes, Mount Etna
– Sip Sicilian reds at the Benanti vineyard
– Visit Forza D'Agro, a village of The Godfather fame
Spend three nights in the former hilltop home of a prince at the Seven Rooms Villadorata hotel, in the town of Noto. This Baroque residence feels more private home than hotel, retaining relics of royalty (intricate tiled floors and frescoed ceilings) and offering a handful of rooms with balconies and views over the honey-hued rooftops.
Worth getting out of bed for
– Climb up to the bell tower of Chiesa di San Carlo al Corso
– Explore ruins of an ancient Syracusan colony
– Venture up to the coastal Vendicari Nature Reserve