How long was your stay?
How did you travel?
As a couple
Tell us why you traveled to this destination.
We started our Italy trip in Rome and knew we wanted to explore the south of Italy. Our plan was to make it all the way around the boot and then end in Sicily, a place my boyfriend has wanted to see for a while. We ended up skipping most of the boot because there was a really easy overnight ferry from Naples to Palermo.
Give us all the details! Tell us where you went and what you did on your trip.
We arrived in Palermo at about 6:30 or 7 am after taking an overnight ferry from Naples. We were pretty tired since we didn’t book beds on the ferry so we spent a large part of the day napping. The latter half of the day was spent taking a nice long walk around the main part of town to get our bearings. We walked to see Piazza Bellini, Prima Circoscrizione, and Villa Bonanno, all very close together on Via Vittorio Emanuele. On day two, we took a train to Cefalu where we spent the day on the beach. We heard this was one of the nicer beaches in the area so we were excited to see it, especially since the train was so easy to take straight there. When we arrived, we were happy to find that the town was very cute and had some really nice hills surrounding the center. We could have hiked up one of the hills to see Castello di Cefalu, but we were still tired from the travel the day before and wanted to spend as much time on the beach as we could. The beach itself was beautiful. Long and sandy with plenty of space to lay your towel. The water was clear, bright blue, and there is a big shelf of sand a few meters from the shore, meaning the water was shallow. This was actually pretty nice. To be honest, it was one of the nicest beaches we’ve been to. But it was very hot! You could rent umbrellas, beach chairs, and floaties if you wanted, so that could have made it better, but my boyfriend and I like to travel cheaply so we just wore a lot of sunscreen and our hats. It was a lovely day.
The next day, we jumped on a train all the way to Catania. We weren’t on any time crunch, but there weren’t very many options for budget hostels (they were all booked at the beginning of July) and we knew we would have time to see more of the city on the back end of our trip, so we hit the road. The train ride took about 4.5 hours and we had to change trains once, even though the drive only takes about 2.5 hours. Public transportation isn’t really the best in Sicily.
But when we made it to Catania, we found that we liked it a lot! There are a few great hostel options, the town has these big plazas in the center of town filled with street performers, people getting married, and locals spending time outdoors, and there are plenty of streets for shopping and eating good food. We stayed at Ostello degli Elefanti Hostel (https://www.ostellodeglielefanti.it/it/). It had these grand common rooms and they served dinner for free! The manager made the dinners– it was always a simple pasta dish but it was some of the best Italian food I’d had in all of Italy! We also enjoyed drinking Bloody Marys at the rooftop bar of the hostel which had amazing views of the Piazza Universita and Mt. Etna and was a great place to watch the sunset.
We spent two days exploring the city, mostly walking around aimlessly (one of our favorite things to do when traveling). Our favorite spot that we found along the way was Villa Bellini, a serene garden very well-architected. What blew me away the most was when we got just a block off of the touristy streets, suddenly the ground was covered in this black sand. We realized that the town is covered in the ash from Mt. Etna. It was surprisingly cool to see! Street sweepers must sweep this away from the main roads, but walk down any neighborhood street and you’ll find the black dust covering the roads in a thin but dark layer.
On day five of our trip, we took a train north up to the small town on the coast called Taormina. I don’t remember exactly how we found out about this town, but boy are we glad we went! This little town is definitely on the touristy side, but it is GORGEOUS! The city itself is located on the top of a big cliff so after you take the train to the base of the town, you have to take a bus that takes you up switchbacks into the town itself. The bus drops you off in a parking lot on the edge of town where you’ll start your walk around. The town has really cute shopping streets and incredible views of the Mediterranean. There were so many little food shops as well. I ate a traditional dish called Scacciata at L’Arco – About Pizza, which is kind of like an upside-down savory pie. Another way to describe it would be like a calzone but you buy just a slice of it and it’s less tomatoey inside. Anyways, it was delicious and it was vegetarian! Though you can get non-vegetarian as well.
We spent the day walking all around the town, along the touristy streets but also through the narrow and windy neighborhood streets (which I definitely recommend doing!). There is a very nice church set up even higher on the hill if you want to see some panoramic views, but we didn’t make it up all the way up there. One of the main attractions in the city is Teatro Antico di Taormina, a Greco-Roman amphitheater that is still used today. There’s a pretty steep entry ticket, so we didn’t go inside that either, but if we were to have stayed an extra day, I would have tried to catch an actual show. The biggest attraction in this town is the beach called Baia di Mazzarò, which is located below the town of Taormina and is apparently one of the most famous beaches in all of Sicily. We walked all the way down the hill rather than waiting for a bus because we wanted to see more of the area and we would have had to wait a while for the bus. The walk was gorgeous and easy, as long as you’re okay with lots of stairs. The shape of this beach is very unique because just offshore is a small island called Isola Bella. When the tide is low, the land connects the shore to the island, making it more of a peninsula. When the tide is up you can still walk across as the water only goes up to ankle-deep. Just to the north of this sometimes-island-sometimes-not is another peninsula, fully attached at all times. So the beach is shaped like a horseshoe.
Isola Bella has a nature reserve on it that you can visit for a small fee. Many people snorkel in this area or get a boat tour of a sea cave nearby. We opted for snorkeling just along the shore. The beach is pebbly so it’s not the best for relaxing for a long time. Better to sit at one of the restaurants if you want to chill. Or opt for a massage from one of the local women walking around offering their services. When I was snorkeling, I found a magnificent shell in the water with a silver shine inside. I would definitely recommend visiting this pretty little town.
To get back to the train station from the beach, you have to hail a taxi. We decided to walk it but then ended up catching a ride with a very nice local. But the Italy vs England Champions League Final was the next day and once the driver found out my boyfriend was English, he almost dropped us off early. But all in good fun. We spent the next day relaxing and shopping in Catania around Mercato di piazza Carlo Alberto where many flea markets set up shop. That night we watched the Champions League Final and Italy won! There were parades in the streets after the final penalty kick. It was a thrilling day to be in Italy.
On our last day in Catania, we set out to visit Castle Ursino, a 13th-century royal castle, and Porta Garibaldi, a triumph arch made from black lava stone and a special white stone from Syracuse. We took a long way around and passed by Chiesa Parracchiate di Sant’Euplius (Church of Saint Euplius) and I had to stop in awe of the fascinating building. It is a 16th-century church that had been mostly destroyed in WWII. All that had been left standing were a few walls, now withering away. One of the walls was rebuilt in the 19th century and adorned with a cast of 12 apostles which is just stunning to see. On the way back from our visit to the castle, we stopped by La Pescheria di Catania, the seafood market, and saw huge swordfish heads and small bags of snails to eat located next to the Elefanti Plaza. Overall, we enjoyed Catania a lot. We liked the vibes and the views of the small town and its elephant plazas, though we didn’t stop by a few of the main attractions like the Teatro Greco di Catania, Cantana’s own Greco amphitheater, and the sunken ruins of the Roman Amphitheater of Catania. Somehow we just passed them by without many thoughts.
The last stop of our trip before heading back to Palermo was Siracusa where we spent 6 days, including a day trip to Spiaggia di Fontaine Bianche. The main area where tourists congregate in Siracusa is around Isola di Ortigia, the historic center. It is a small island connected to the town by two bridges. The island has many historic sites like Tempio di Apollo, the Fountain of Arethusa, the Duomo di Siracusa, and Castello Maniace. We spent a lot of time working this week but every evening we went for a long walk around the island.
The little town is full of nice restaurants and little shops, but our favorite thing was to walk across the bridge at Ponte Umbertino, pass through Piazza Emanuele Pancali and Tempio di Apollo, to Fountain Piazza di Duomo and then turn a corner and head to the Fountain of Arethusa. Sometimes we would continue walking east around the coast and come back down through a random road. On Saturday that week, we spent a whole day at Cala Rosa. It’s a small pebble beach where locals hang out. We loved watching the way the beach evolved throughout the day. It seemed to be the preferred hang-out for the island’s older community in the mornings and then for small families later in the afternoon. There are large rocks that protect the inlet from the strong waves of the sea, so the water is shallow and rocky, but it’s a nice place to dip into and snorkel a little. You can go past the big rocks if you’re feeling up for it. The beach is located down a staircase from the road and if you look carefully, there are little lizards that crawl up and down the wall. They’re quite fun to watch.
We packed a lunch of leftover spaghetti and bruschetta for the beach and we really felt like Italians Sunday is when we took the day trip over to Spiaggia di Fontaine Bianche, a big sandy beach south of Siracusa. First, we grabbed some gelato and cannoli for breakfast and then took the local train to the small town. Many locals and travelers spend time on this beach, and for good reason. It takes about 10 minutes to walk down from the train station through some quiet neighborhoods. The town isn’t much here, but the beach is pristine. Beautifully clear water, fairly shallow, and had these neat rock formations peppering the shore. Little clear fish swim around near the rocks and are fun to search for.
On the last day that we were in Siracusa, we spend a few hours exploring the Neapolis Archaeological Park of Syracuse, and wow! This was much cooler than we expected. So much history is packed into this place. The park was originally a city center for the Greek Romans. Inside, there is a big Greek amphitheater, which was originally built in the 5th century and is still used today for different performances, though many parts have been rebuilt. There are also a few ancient caves, which were very cool to see. The entrance to one called Latomia del Paradiso is 76 feet high. It was apparently used to imprison slaves and war prisoners. There is another cave called Grotta die Corsair that had water flowing through it. The layout was almost home-like and the park had projectors set up. We had to wear helmets inside. Around other sections of the 26,000 sq meter park, there were many other ruins including a smaller Roman amphitheater we think was used for animal fighting, alters, and museums. The walk around the park took a few hours and was very entertaining. It was really cool to see all the ruins and especially the caves.
We returned to Palermo for two more nights before we planned to leave the island. On these last two nights, we spent time on the coast at Foro Italico, a nice park with a good viewpoint of the sea, and at Villa Giulia, a beautiful park with temples and gardens from the 18th century. In the evening, we went to Piazza Caracciolo to eat the local seafood and see the bustling nightlife the city has to offer. Overall, our trip to Sicily as backpackers went well. We enjoyed seeing the places we did and getting to know a few of the cities. But I don’t think it was really the best trip. Sicily is a difficult place to be a backpacker. Public transportation does get you around, but it’s not the best infrastructure. I think we missed out on a lot of really cool stuff, especially in the west because the transportation routes were very inconvenient. The island is pretty expensive as well, so it’s not an easy place to go on a budget.
Would you recommend this trip to a friend?
What was the highlight of your trip?
The first highlight of the trip was the Cefalu beach. It was so beautiful and the water was just perfect. I’d never been to a shallow beach like that before and it was pretty cool to float in the pristine water. This was our first experience with local coconut sellers singling “coco coco” on the beach, which we thought was pretty funny. The town was really pretty as well. The second highlight was the city of Taormina. Being set up so high on a cliff with the unique beach below was stunning. The narrow and windy streets were also so cute. It was romantic and peaceful, even with so many tourists around. The beach was kind of dangerous with rough waters and big rocks, but it was still a great place to snorkel around. The last highlight for me was the local beach in Siracusa. We had such a good day feeling like locals and seeing how the beach evolved throughout the day. Plus, we noticed the older locals who hung out here all day were always picking out the trash from the water. You could see how much they respect the area and care for the waters.
If you were to take this trip again, is there anything you would add or do differently?
If I were to do this trip again, I think I would make a lot of changes. First of all, I would come back with a much bigger budget. We missed out on a lot of things because the prices were too high and we couldn’t justify it in our budget. All the hostels in Palermo were sold out so it was even too expensive for us to stay in the city for too long. Everything is catered to richer European tourists, so it wasn’t really the best place to try and backpack around on a budget. Secondly, I would have rented a car if I knew how poor the public transportation would be. We missed out on the entire west half of the island because it was much too complicated to try and get there using trains and buses. Lastly, I regret not climbing Mt Etna. Being the tallest active volcano in Europe, it’s a pretty cool thing to see. But between the cost and the temperature at that time of the year, I didn’t make the journey. If I were to go back, I would definitely climb it.
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