From its dramatic natural setting to its historic churches, Sicily has something to offer every traveler.
The island of Sicily is a unique part of Italy. The rugged mountains, wild vegetation and omnipresent sea have captured the imagination of poets, hikers and visitors alike.
Despite being one of 20 Italian regions, its history under the yoke of endless conquerors – particularly the Normans – has resulted in its own distinctive customs, traditions and even a language that make life on the island unique from that on the peninsula.
The island has a rich history. Archaeologists have already 12,000 BC. Evidence of a civilization identified. By the 5th century B.C. Sicily was a thriving part of Magna Graecia (Magna Graecia), as evidenced by numerous well-preserved Greek temples and theatres.
Under Norman rule in the second half of the 11th century, a golden age followed, in which diverse cultures, including Muslims, Jews, Western and Eastern Christians, lived together in harmony. Under the leadership of King Roger I there was a fusion of Arabic and Byzantine features in architecture and art in what is known as the Sicilian Romanesque.
Christianity came early to the island. By the time Saint Paul’s arrival in Malta, Sicily and Italy was recorded in Acts, there was already a community of fervent believers: “Three months later we put to sea in a ship that had wintered on the island. It was an Alexandrian ship with the Dioscurus as figurehead. We docked at Syracuse and stayed there three days” (28:11-12).
Today the Sicilians are known for their devout faith. Throughout the island, festivals of local patron saints are celebrated with rich pageantry and folk traditions.
Palermo is the main hub on the western side of the island. The main religious site is the majestic Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. Standing in Cathedral Square and contemplating its vibrant and striking exterior gives the impression of being somewhere in Southern Spain, North Africa or the Middle East.
Courtesy of Bret Thoman
While the interior is considerably simpler than the exterior, it is known for its imposing naves, tombs of Norman emperors, relics of St. Rosalia and the ‘Treasure of the Cathedral’.
Within the city of Palermo there are a number of other important churches including St. John of the Hermits (San Giovanni degli Eremiti), a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the Oratory of St. Cita (Oratorio di Santa Cita); the Palatine Chapel (Cappella Palatina); the Church of San Cataldo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the Church of St. Catherine (Santa Caterina); St. Mary of the Admiral (Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, also known as Martorana); and the Capuchin Catacombs (Catacombe dei Cappuccini).
A pilgrimage to Palermo must include up to a jaunt Mount Pellegrino (Monte Pellegrino), the sanctuary that houses Palermo’s patron saint, Santa Rosalia. Despite being just eight kilometers from central Palermo, it feels far removed from the urban crowds. Nestled in a humid grotto, it has a Lourdes-like vibe.
Photo courtesy of Bret Thoman
Born into a noble Norman family in the 12th century, Rosalia gave up everything to live as a hermit in a cave on Mount Pellegrino. She died there alone in 1166, and her remains are still kept in the sanctuary.
The people of Palermo celebrate the feast day of Saint Rosalia twice a year. On July 14, the city hosts lively celebrations, including a procession of her relics and a spectacular fireworks display. Later, on September 4, the day of her death, the faithful embark on a grueling pilgrimage to her sanctuary. At 606 meters (1990 feet) it’s really arduous to reach the chapel.
There are numerous important cathedrals throughout Sicily. Not far from Palermo is the municipality of Monreale with its extraordinary Cathedral of Santa Maria Nuova. Located on the slope of Monte Caputo, it offers an exceptional view of the city of Palermo. Ringed by the mountains to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the north, visitors can see why the city is known as the Golden Basin (Ita: conca d’oro).
Photo courtesy of Bret Thoman
Monreale Cathedral is one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture in all of Sicily. Begun in 1174 and completed four years later, it is famous for its rich Byzantine mosaics that adorn the interior and especially the apse.
Photo courtesy of Bret Thoman
In 2015, the Cathedral of Monreale was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as part of Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale. The church is a national monument of Italy and one of the most important sights in all of Sicily.
About 70 kilometers east of Palermo on the north side of the island is Cefalù. Its cathedral is another structure included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The church is believed to have been built between 1131 and 1240 in the Norman style and was the result of a vow made to the Holy Redeemer by King Roger II, who survived a storm and arrived safely at the nearby beach.
The building has a fortress-like character and dominates the silhouette of the surrounding medieval town from afar.
On the eastern side of Sicily lies the city of Catania. In the shadow of the active Etna volcano, pilgrims will want to pay homage to Saint Agatha (Sant’Agata). As the city’s early Roman virgin and martyr, she is one of seven female saints whose names are mentioned in the canon of the mass.
St. Agatha came from a noble family and took a vow of virginity. After refusing the advances of the Roman prefect Quintianus, he had her arrested during the persecutions of Decius. She was cruelly tortured (including having her breasts cut off) until she died in 251.
The remains of St. Agatha are kept in the chapel of Sant’Agata in the city’s cathedral in the historic center. Construction began in the early 11th century on the orders of King Roger I in the early years of Norman rule over the island. (The cathedral also houses the tomb of Catania’s famous opera composer, Bellini.)
At the beginning of February, more than a million faithful come to Catania for the feast of Sant’Agata (February 5th). The festivities include the traditional parade of the chandelierhuge candles with handmade decorations, cherubs in gilded wood, flowers and flags, and scenes from the martyrdom of Saint Agatha.
Other religious sites in Catania include the Basilica of San Nicola in Piazza Dante; the Benedictine Monastery, one of the largest monastic complexes in Europe; the Via dei Crociferi, whose name derives from the presence of four churches in close proximity to each other – the Church of San Benedetto with its marble staircase of the Angel and the homonymous cloister, the Church of San Francesco Borgia, the Jesuit College and its enchanting inner cloister and church San Giuliano.
Near Catania lies the ancient city of Syracuse (Siracusa). With its 2,800-year history, it is the only city in the world that boasts an ancient Greek theater and a Roman amphitheater just a few hundred meters apart.
On the island jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea is the Cathedral of the Nativity of Maria Santissima. Once a Greek temple dedicated to Minerva, the building now boasts one of the most beautiful baroque and rococo facades in Sicily. The interior houses statues, artwork, and relics of Syracuse saints, martyrs, and nobles.
Not far away is the Basilica of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, dedicated to the Virgin and Martyr and patron saint of the city, who was born here at the end of the 3rd century. The Baroque church features a painted ceramic floor and a famous painting by Caravaggio entitled ‘The Burial of Saint Lucy’.
As in other cities, the feast of St. Lucy in Syracuse is a big event. During the week of December 13-20, a statue of St. Lucia is ceremonially carried from the Cathedral to the Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro. The procession is followed by an 18th-century carriage with costumed characters. After the religious rites, a carnival-like atmosphere descends on the city, packed with stalls and vendors, festivities, local foods and treats, and games.
Also in Syracuse is the Church of St. John of the Catacombs (San Giovanni alle Catacombe) in Gothic-Norman style. The catacombs are part of the old underground Christian cemetery.
Located in Messina, in the northernmost part of Sicily across the Italian Straits of the same name, is the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, another well-preserved example of Norman architecture. Begun in 1120 by order of King Roger II, it took 77 years to finally consecrate.
Despite being damaged over the centuries by fire and earthquakes, Messina Cathedral has somehow managed to preserve its ancient Norman architectural structure. The adjacent bell tower features an astronomical clock, the largest such clock in the world.
Near Messina is the extraordinary sanctuary of Tindari overlooking the sea. Inside is a precious statue of a Black Madonna carved from cedar wood during the Byzantine period.
Finally, there’s Agrigento, a hilltop town on Sicily’s south-west coast. Worth seeing is the city’s cathedral, dedicated to the city’s patron saint, St. Gerland (San Gerlando). Noteworthy are the bell tower with Gothic and Catalan motifs and an Arab-Norman style balcony.
A visit to Agrigento naturally also includes a detour to the Valley of the Temples. Agrigento is famous for the ruins of the ancient city of Akragas, now a vast archaeological site with well-preserved Greek temples.