Take a trip to Cefalù, about an hour’s drive east of Palermo, the capital of Sicily, and you’ll be in on the not-so-well-kept secret of one of the most beautiful towns on the island. Terracotta-capped, whitewashed houses are built onto narrow cobbled streets that weave down to the white sandy strip along the bay. Here, laundry hangs over balconies, wooden fishermen’s boats bob in the turquoise sea, and bathers wade in the warm shallows. All is set against the dramatic backdrop of La Rocca mountain, seemingly rising straight out of the rooftops and only slightly rivalled on the uniform skyline by the golden-brick Norman cathedral, whose two towers stand out against the cloudless sky.
Cefalù has a long and diverse history of conquering kingdoms and ancient civilisations. Founded by the ancient Greeks and occupied by the Romans and Byzantines, it was later taken over by the Saracens and then the Normans in the Middle Ages before eventually becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. These chapters of history can be traced through the archaeology and architecture in the area, such as the Tempio di Diana, a monolithic structure carved into limestone blocks cut from the mountain above Cefalù in the fourth or fifth century BCE. Then, for an unusual insight into Medieval Sicilian life, take a look at the Lavatoio – an old washhouse built into a small, urban stretch of the River Cefalino.
A 1.6km-long (1m) stretch of soft sand hugging the northern shoreline, Cefalù Beach is a dreamy spot for swimming and sunbathing thanks to its warm, clear waters and idyllic backdrop. There are plenty of options to rent a sun lounger and umbrella, or you can find a spot along the public beach to lay down your towel. Afterwards, float in the water and take in the mountain views.
There’s no shortage of good views in Cefalù, thanks to its resident rocky mountain and seemingly endless bay. For some of the best panoramas, head up to Bastione di Capo Marchiafava – a 17th-century fortress that provides stunning sea views, especially at sunset. It’s also a popular spot for sunbathing and taking a dip in the many swimming holes. To get even more altitude, hike up the 268m (879ft) La Rocca for sweeping views of the city.
It has some of the most precious mosaics in the world
Take a stroll through the old town to admire the varied architecture. Your first architectural pilgrimage should be to the Unesco-protected cathedral that dominates the town skyline. Built by the Normans in the 12th century, the site is famous for having the oldest and best-preserved Byzantine mosaics in Sicily. Marvel at the gilded Catholic imagery in the central apse before heading to Santo Stefano, a Medieval church visited for its interior cave holding a statue of the Virgin Mary.
The many restaurants in Cefalù showcase the rich regional cuisine and fresh local seafood that Sicily does best. For traditional fare – think pasta with sardines and fennel – with a sea view, visit a restaurant on the harbour, such as La Tavernetta. If you’re looking for an upscale take on Sicilian classics, head to Locanda del Marinaio and tuck into seared squid with fennel and orange. Blue-and-white seafront trattoria Sutt’a Ràvia is the place to go for fresh, cheap seafood on the beach.
You can see a different view of the town on a boat excursion
After exploring Cefalù by land, choose from one of the many boat tours available for a different perspective of the picturesque town. Spend an afternoon on a fishing boat and bring back dinner, or explore the grottos accessible only by water. When it gets to aperitivo hour, hop on one of the many boats that serve drinks and snacks along the way.
You can taste your way through the nearby vineyards
Escape into the hills outside Cefalù to learn about Sicilian winemaking traditions in one of the many vineyards dotting the area. On a high-altitude, hilly spot a 25-minute drive from town, Abbazia Santa Anastasia has been making wine since the 12th century. Its wine legacy was passed down by Benedictine monks and is now used to make organic and biodynamic wines, focussing on sustainability. Take a 40-minute tour of the historic abbey-winery, then taste the wine from Sicilian grape varieties, including nero d’avola and grillo.
While the main attractions in Cefalù might be the culture, history and stunning seaside views, there’s also plenty to do for those who seek a little more adventure. Piranha Sup Surf School offers guided paddleboarding excursions around the calm waters of the bay, and Cefalù Sailing offers half-day or full-day sailing trips complete with wine and local cuisine. Feeling brave? Get a bird’s-eye view of Cefalù on a paragliding excursion, or take it underwater by diving or snorkelling.