HomeJournalWhy Visit Now: Sicily
28 Apr, 2024

Why Visit Now: Sicily

Author
Angelo Zinna
Angelo Zinna, Florence-based writer/photographer, authored 'Un Altro Bicchiere di Arak,' contributes to Lonely Planet, BBC, New Lines, Condé Nast Traveler, and has explored Europe, Asia, Oceania, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Boasting some of Italy’s best beaches and one of the most diverse regional cuisines, Sicily has long drawn visitors to its pristine coastline and historic cities blending traces of Greek, Roman and Arab culture.

But recent years have not been favorable for Italy’s largest island — following the pandemic, the effects of climate change have become as visible as ever in Sicily, which has experienced increased risks of wildfires, water shortages and record temperatures. In 2023, a fire in Catania’s airport, the island’s largest, provoked a huge drop in tourism flows. Sicily is recovering fast and is expected to be back with a large offering of cultural events in 2024 — take as much time as possible to explore the rich heritage of this unique island.

1. Greek Myths Come to Life at Festival del Teatro Greco

Signs of Greek presence in Sicily date back to the 8th century BCE, when the first colonies were founded in the eastern parts of the island. Sicily’s vast collection of temples and theatres testifies to these historic settlements, making each trip a journey through an open-air museum of ancient architecture few other places in Italy can challenge.

Still, there is no better time to experience the cultural relationship with Greece than during the Festival del Teatro Greco, organized by the National Institute of Ancient Drama (INDA) and held in Siracusa each year in May and June.

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During this important festival, world-class acting crews take over the stage of the city’s amphitheater, dating back to the 5th century BCE, to perform millennia-old tragedies. The theme for the 2024 edition will be “passions and illusions” — see ancient myths come to life in this fantastic setting of Siracusa’s 2,500-year-old amphitheater.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

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2. Food Festivals for All

It’s no secret that Sicily boasts one of the most flavorful, intriguing and rich cuisines in Italy. The diversity of the island’s geography reflects the different foods traditionally prepared in the many subregions, from the seafood-centric coastal areas to the traditional sweets.

Each dish seems to have its own dedicated festival.

One of the largest is CousCous Fest held in San Vito Lo Capo in late September, celebrating one of the most locally-loved dishes of the Trapani province. But there are also many minor sagre, local festivals tributing key ingredients of the Sicilian tradition, such as the historic Sagra della Ricotta in Vizzini, held in late April, of Castelbuono’s Funghi Fest, where mushrooms take centerstage in October. Plan your itinerary right and you’ll be sure to encounter one of these mouthwatering events on your route.

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Cannoli

April: Festival of the Ricotta Cannoli in Piana degli Albanesi. [Photo: Vincenzo Scarantino/Shutterstock]

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Artichoke

April: Artichoke Festival in Cerda, Palermo. [This photo of carciofi alla brace, simple artichokes roasted with garlic and parsley by Teresa Sabga / Shutterstock]

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Couscous

September: CousCous Fest in San Vito Lo Capo near Trapani. [Photo of Trapanese fish couscous: FVPhotography/Shutterstock]

3. Taormina Arte Brings Contemporary Performances to its Ancient Theater

Placing a spotlight on contemporary arts, Taormina Arte is one of Sicily’s most awaited cultural events, bringing dance, theater performances, live concerts and exhibitions to the coastal city each year in June and July. Running since 1983, the festival has grown year after year becoming an influential stage for both national and international artists — previous editions have hosted bands of the likes of Jethro Tull, Simple Minds, Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals. The full program for the 2024 season is yet to be announced, keep an eye on the official website for updates on the upcoming edition.

4. Volcanic Wine Routes

As Italy’s second wine-producing region, Sicily boasts a variety of intense reds and sweet wines that are often little known outside of national borders.

Still, they are worth discovering by visiting the many small-scale wineries that dot the island from east to west. One opportunity to do so is by following the Strada del Vino dell’Etna, a wine route that links dozens of wineries, farms and agriturismi located around Italy’s tallest active volcano, Etna.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on UnsplashMount Etna, a testament to nature's enduring power and beauty. [Photo: Jonas Tebbe]

Starting from Catania, you can travel north and experience the impact of volcanic soils on the flavors of the many family-operated wineries that line up all the way to Randazzo, stopping at the many towns and villages perched on the slopes of this natural wonder.

5. Sicilia Jazz Festival Celebrates Experimentation

Palermo’s Sicilia Jazz Festival offers a unique chance to discover the region’s capital through sound. Jazz lovers can immerse themselves in the rhythms and melodies of experimental and classic jazz, surrounded by the beautiful backdrop of the city’s architecture — the festival is not your usual open-air concert, but a celebration of cultural heritage that blends the historic and the contemporary.

International stars are invited to Palermo to perform next to the Sicilian Jazz Orchestra, which will support the guests in historic palaces, squares and courtyards scattered around the city. Taking place in September, the festival is part of a larger, island-wide celebration known as Le Vie dei Tesori in which dozens of venues across Sicily open their doors to the public, allowing for the discovery of monuments that are normally closed through tours run by specialized guides, journalists and historians.

IMG 0601La festa dei Giudei (the festival of the Jews), San Fratello, Sicily. [Photo: Claudia Emanuel]

6. Religious Celebrations Are Living Traditions

Ancient traditions are kept alive in many Sicilian cities, through rituals that have been performed for centuries.

In September, up to one million people gather in Catania to follow the reliquary of Sant’Agata in a procession that runs through the city center’s streets to celebrate the locally-loved martyr and saint. Something similar happens in Trapani, where 20 life-sized wooden statues of the Virgin Mary are brought to a parade during the Processione dei Misteri — the event, held on Good Friday, has been running continuously for 400 years. Palermo’s Festino di Santa Rosalia is Sicily’s capital's biggest annual festival, celebrating the city’s patron saint with a huge parade followed by spectacular fireworks.

7. Taormina Film Festival Showcases the Best of Independent Cinema

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Scenic Sicily has provided the backdrop for many famous film productions, both Italian and international, and it’s only natural that the medium is celebrated throughout the island via various festivals.

Taormina Film Festival is the island’s most important event dedicated to international cinema, held since 1955 and taking place in conjunction with Taormina Arte and drawing stars to the beautiful setting of the city’s ancient Greek theatre of Taormina, providing a spectacular setting with Mt. Etna as a backdrop. [Photo: Vinitaa Jayson]

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In recent years, the festival has expanded to include screenings not only in Taormina but also in other Sicilian towns like Palermo, Siracusa and Palma di Montechiaro, allowing more viewers across the island to access the event.  Palermo also hosts the Sicilia Queer International Film Festival, the first international festival of LGBT in Sicily held each year in May, awarding independent productions in the island’s capital.

8. Ypsigrock Festival, Castelbuono’s Boutique Indie Festival

Sicily’s largest music festival draws thousands of people to Castelbuono to listen to international indie rock bands and DJs each August. The Ypsigrock Music Festival takes place against the stunning backdrop of the Madonie Mountains and Sicily’s northern coast, offering a series of intimate shows in the town’s central square under the shadow of the medieval Castle of Castelbuono. The lineup for the 2024 edition has yet to be announced, but seeing from past years it seems only fair to have high expectations.

The National, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Editors, Mogwai, Dinosaur Jr. and Cigarettes After Sex are just some of the bands that have performed in this “boutique” festival which allows guest artists to play only once in their lifetime.

9. Festa di Teatro Eco Logico Does Without Electricity

The island of Stromboli, off Sicily’s northern coast, is home to a festival like no other — the Festa del Teatro Eco Logico is the world’s only theater festival run without the use of electricity.

Held yearly since 2013, invites actors, dancers, authors and critics to celebrate a changing theme for 10 days, usually between June and July, under the natural light of the Sicilian sun. No artificial lighting or sound system is made available to performers, who interact with the public from stages set up in natural caves, open squares, the port’s piers or ancient churches for the duration of this eco-friendly festival.

10. Agrigento, Italy’s New Capital of Culture

Agrigento has been recently named Italian Capital of Culture for 2025 — the title will translate into numerous cultural initiatives that will take place in this city of 55,000 people inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage list thanks to its vast collection of Greek structures dotting the so-called Valley of the Temples.

IMG 4255Temple of Juno in Agrigento. [Photo: Gualtiero Boffi/Shutterstock]

Already an important tourist attraction in Sicily, Agrigento will transform in the coming year to become the host of a long list of events that will provide plenty of good excuses to return and experience the historic city with new eyes. ||