Unusual Things to See and Do in Sicily, Italy

Marsala's windmills are emblematic of this ancient winegrowing region
Marsala's windmills are emblematic of this ancient winegrowing region | © Ivoha / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Joel Rabinowitz
7 September 2021

Sicily is an island rich in well-known tourist sights. The baroque towns and churches, incredible beaches and mouthwatering cuisine are more than likely already on your itinerary – but why not venture off the beaten track?

If you want to scratch beneath the surface of Sicily – and see the island through the eyes of a local – let us take you there on our immersive 10-day tour, curated by travel experts to ensure only the most authentic experience.

Skiing on Mount Etna

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Girl ski touring under the top of the crater of Mount Etna Sicily Italy
© Michelangelo Oprandi / Alamy Stock Photo

That’s right – you can actually ski down the slopes of Mount Etna, with two resorts (Piano Provenzana and Nicolosi) offering a variety of smooth, downhill pistes. They aren’t anywhere near as extensive as the ski resorts in the Italian Alps, but conditions tend to be consistently excellent from December through to February – without the dense crowds found at more renowned winter sports destinations. It’s not often you get the chance to ski down an active volcano with spectacular views of the sea in the distance. Try it out to see Sicily from a totally different vantage point.

Descend into the Hypogeum of Crispia Salvia

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The town of Marsala is well known for its wine, but not many people have heard of this 2nd-4th century BCE underground tomb in the Punic necropolis area. Created by a local resident, Julius Demetrius, for his beloved wife, Crispia, with whom he spent 15 years, it was only discovered in 1994. Identifiable by an epigraph with which Julius expressed his love for his wife, the tomb is beautifully decorated with Roman-style wall paintings. Visits are bookable only by appointment through the Baglio Anselmi Museum.

Creep around the Catacombe dei Cappuccini

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Not for the faint-hearted, these catacombs in Palermoare filled with the skulls, bones and preserved bodies of monks and local citizens. Literally thousands of mummified remains are housed in rooms underneath the Church of Santa Maria della Pace. You can learn about the process by which the bodies were preserved and the long history behind the practice during your visit. Photography is not allowed.

Wander past the Windmills of Mozia

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Windmill Marsala, Sicily, Italy, Europe.
© Ivoha / Alamy Stock Photo

You’re unlikely to think of traditional Dutch-style windmills when you think of Sicily, but along the shore of the tiny island of Mozia, they’re exactly what you’ll see. They were once used to filter the salt from the sea that makes this area so famous. Today, they no longer fulfil their original function, serving instead as props for a beautiful Instagram post.

Ride the Circumetnea Railway

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Take a spin around one of Europe’s only active volcanoes on this railway line. The single-track regional train line is a unique way to see the towns and villages that surround Mount Etna, either by taking the nearly 121km (75mi) journey from Station Borgo in Catania to Randazzo in one go or making various stops along the way. You’ll pass pistachio and olive groves, vineyards, lava fields and enchanting mountainside villages in abundance.

Visit the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto Chocolate Factory

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Founded by Francesco Bonajuto in 1880 as a confectionary shop called Caffè Roma in Modica, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily, producing a unique type of chocolate based on a recipe stretching back to the Aztecs. The thick slabs of chocolate are grainer, crumblier and more robust than standard chocolate you’ll be accustomed to, infused with aromatic flavours – traditionally cinnamon and vanilla, although you can find many other variations today. You can book a guided tour to learn all about the chocolate-making process and the factory’s Mesoamerican roots – and of course, you’ll get to taste some yourself!

Explore the Ear of Dionysius

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travel to Italy - tourists near Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysius) cave in Temenites Hill in latomie del paradiso area of Archaeological Park of
© Valery Voennyy / Alamy Stock Photo

Carved into the side of the Temenites hill in Syracuse during ancient times initially to store water, this man-made limestone cave was given its name in 1608 by renowned painter Caravaggio due to its resemblance to a human ear. Its extraordinary acoustics are said to echo human voices by up to 16 times and folklore has it that it was once used as a prison by Dionysius I of Syracuse (432-367BCE), whose guards could overhear the whispers of his captives as a result. Unfortunately, the focal point of this acoustic effect can no longer be accessed today, but visitors can still hear plenty of reverberations at ground level – and it’s an impressive sight to behold nonetheless.

Go to a Sicilian puppet theatre

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Sicilian Puppet Theatre (Opera dei Pupi) began to flourish in the early 19th century when family-run shows became a popular pastime for the island’s working classes – especially in Palermo and Catania. Original stories were largely based on chivalric literature and Frankish/Italian Renaissance poetry, featuring hand-made marionettes, an improvised dialogue (led by the puppeteer) and a range of colourful backdrops. In 2001, it was listed by Unesco with the aim of preserving the tradition for generations to come. Although it’s not quite as ubiquitous today as it was when it first emerged, there are still a number of theatres in Palermo where you can watch an authentic Sicilian puppet show.

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Tears

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Construction of the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Tears) began in Syracuse in 1966 to commemorate the miraculous event of an effigy of the Virgin Mary which supposedly wept for five consecutive days in 1953. Chemical tests at the time allegedly confirmed that the liquid in question was of a similar composition to human tears. Designed to represent a giant teardrop by French architects, Michel Arnault and Pierre Parat, it took 28 years to complete and has since attracted thousands of pilgrims every year. The unconventional 74m (243ft) conical structure is topped with a steel crown bearing a gilded bronze statue of the Madonna and dominates the city’s skyline.

Mavel at the Realmonte Salt Mine

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Iside the Realmonte's salt mine
© Giuseppe Fallica / Getty Images

Just outside the town of Realmonte is a vast mine that produces tons of salt. Deep underground, there are bold undulating stripes that range from white to dark grey formed millions of years ago by seasonal differences in the natural salt deposits. Carved into the salt and stone walls is a cathedral dedicated to the patron saint of miners, Santa Barbara.

This is an updated version of an article originally written by Gillian McGuire.

These recommendations were updated on September 7, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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