DH Lawrence wasn’t the only literary luminary to fall for the charms of Taormina. Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck and Friedrich Nietzsche, to name but a few, all chose to linger here a while. A firm favourite on the Grand Tour itinerary – which saw young, upper-class European men devising an early form of tourism in the 17th and 18th centuries – Taormina has been one of Sicily’s most popular resorts for over 200 years. And it’s easy to see why. With enchanting coves, pretty medieval streets and intimate piazzas (squares) blooming with flowers, Taormina is the essence of Sicilian dolce vita. Try to visit out of peak season to avoid the worst of the hordes, and expect to pay higher prices than on the rest of the island – but it’s worth it.
To experience Taormina’s near-perfect, horseshoe-shaped Greek theatre at its best, it’s wise to visit in the early morning, before the crowds arrive. The Greeks’ architectural ingenuity makes it seem as though the theatre is floating endlessly between sea and sky, with a misty Mount Etna as a distant backdrop. Performances are still regularly held here, so if you can, bag yourself a ticket for what will undoubtedly be an unforgettable spectacle.
Fancy going for a drive around the largest active volcano in Europe? Eruptions occur almost constantly on Mount Etna, but don’t worry: all seismic activity is closely monitored to keep you safe. The 4×4 tour takes you on off-road routes through old lava flows, ancient woodland and surreal lunar landscapes. You also get the chance to explore a lava cave, complete with helmet and torch, and swim in the crystal clear water of the Alcantara Gorges. And, of course, feast on typical Sicilian food for lunch.
A narrow path connects the so-called Pearl of the Ionian Sea to the mainland beach, meaning that it’s not technically an island. But to criticise anything about this lovely spot would be shamefully pedantic. This rocky, tree-clustered islet once belonged to a rich English noblewoman, Lady Florence Trevelyan, but is now a protected nature reserve. A stroll around its secluded hidden corners is well worth the €4 entrance fee.
If you want to do granita – a Sicilian take on sorbet – properly, order it at Bam Bar. First off, order a fruit granita of the traditional variety (lemon will do nicely). This high-summer treat of ice, fruit and sugar is so much more than a sum of its parts. Coarse yet creamy, it’s never quite frozen but mixed constantly to produce its unique consistency. Make sure you order a warm brioche to accompany your granita, and either scoop the granita onto the soft dough, or simply dip the bread into the icy goodness. Bravissimo.
This is undoubtedly the town’s most arresting square, thanks to its black-and-white tiled flooring, chi-chi cafes, omnipresent caricature painters and the bold presence of the baroque-style Church of San Giuseppe, which looms over the square with its impressive double staircase. But the main reason to come here is for the splendid panoramic view out from the terrace, across to Mount Etna, the Bay of Naxos and the ancient Greek theatre. Take a sip of your cappuccino and savour every moment.
It would be a travesty to leave Taormina without visiting the beautiful Grotta Azzurra. The blue cave is named as such because of the dancing reflections that illuminate the cave walls. A boat trip is a great introduction, but snorkelling or scuba diving here is spectacular, with the incredible light creating an almost aquarium-esque quality to the water, where you can spot a wide variety of sea life.
These small, crispy, deep-fried balls of Sicilian rice, filled with your choice of ragu (meat sauce), pistachio or aubergine, are one of the most delicious, traditional Sicilian street foods. When you’re ready for a snack, make your way to small cafe Da Cristina on Via Strabone for some arancini. Just be prepared to wait in line – the locals need their fix of the most perfect arancini in Sicily, too.
Taormina is full of charming little piazzas, but perhaps the prettiest of all is the Piazza del Duomo, located along the main Corso Umberto I thoroughfare. The cathedral itself is rather austere, with a plain stone facade topped with rather fortress-like battlements. But this Romanesque-Gothic building is somehow perfectly juxtaposed with the 17th-century baroque fountain standing just in front of it, with the symbol of Taormina, a crowned centaur, sitting proudly in the centre.
Walk around the gardens of Villa Comunale di Taormina
Lady Florence Trevelyan, cousin of Queen Victoria, lived in Taormina from 1884 to 1907. During her time here, she created the Villa Comunale as a typical English garden, complete with eccentric Victorian follies and hundreds of varieties of tropical plants and exquisite flowers. Come here to escape the crowds and rest in a shaded corner, while admiring the magnificent view of Mount Etna and the Ionian coastline.
Treat yourself to a cocktail at Morgana Lounge Bar
The unique selling point of this upmarket cocktail bar is that it transforms its decor every year, with each incarnation becoming more stylish than the last. But what doesn’t change is the well-heeled crowd it attracts, or the quality of its inventive cocktails crafted from local island ingredients such as wild fennel, oranges and sage. Join the beautiful people as they schmooze the night away, grooving on the small dance floor and enjoying the warm night air in the open courtyard, drink in hand.