What a year! After postponing our wedding – twice – we were determined that 2020 wouldn’t get its quarantined fingers on our Honeymoon in Sicily. We couldn’t postpone it for a second time with the wedding, so we decided to extend it ahead of the predicted second wave. We spent a week working remotely in Catania, then a week of what was originally meant to be 4 days in Taormina, and ended with a week in a stunning villa near Rosolini.
We heard multiple times that Taormina was a destination best suited to a long weekend, but we were pretty sure we could fill those extra days with day trips, food and wine. As a result I’d say we know Taormina pretty well! And so I pass our knowledge onto you dear reader, whether you’re planning a trip or just looking for some escapism.
1. Arrive by train
We debated how to get from Catania to Taormina for a while. A taxi was too expensive. A bus was the most budget-friendly option but I get travel sick on coach rides. So we landed on the train, and I’m so glad we did! The train tracks go right up the coast line and through the foothills of Etna, with beautiful views of the sea and fields. Plus, buying our ticket couldn’t have been easier – we just ordered it on the trainline app and stored them on our Apple wallets.
Taormina proper is right up the hill, so the train station you want is Giardini, which is at sea level. When you exit there are taxis immediately to your right, and taxi rides into Taormina centre are set at €15, or €20 to go directly to your accommodation.
Once we’d deposited our bags at our airbnb, we headed straight into town!
2. Order pizza from Pizzeria Villa Zuccaro
This restaurant was recommended by loads of airbnb hosts (top tip, if you look for experiences on the airbnb app it has great restaurant and sightseeing recommendations from local hosts). Confusingly, there are two locations and google maps only knows about the one that’s up the hill near the duomo. The Villa Zuccaro we went to -and loved- was on the eastern end of Corso Umberto. The balcony at the back hangs over the Naumachia and is a really quiet sunny spot.
This was just the best way to start our holiday. The first level balcony was full so they opened up the second level for us and we were the only diners there. The sun was shining and we couldn’t have enjoyed our cold cokes more after travelling and walking up the steps into town.
The menu was pretty pricey, but the pizzas were extremely reasonable and insanely delicious. Matt’s palma ham pizza was, and I quote, the best he’s ever had. I ordered Pizza alla Norma. Norma is a Sicilian recipe with rich tomato sauce, fried aubergine and grated baked ricotta cheese. Pasta alla Norma was one of the main things I was looking forward to on this trip – little did I know it was a pizza topping too! After mopping up olive oil and balsamic with my pizza crusts, we rounded off our first meal in Taormina with two cappuccini.
3. Explore the streets
The streets of Taormina are nothing short of charming. Corso Umberto is the main road in the old town, drawing a line across the centre from Porta Catania to Porta Messina, the two stone gates at either end. Piazza IX Aprile lies on Corso Umberto in the middle, with other sights like the duomo and Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria dotted along it.
Walking along Corso Umberto is a great way to orientate yourself, as long as you try to resist getting lost down all the different side streets teeming with cafes, restaurants, bars, shops and gelaterias.
4. Marvel at Piazza IX Aprile
Piazza IX Aprile was one of my standout highlights of Sicily. I had seen photos of it while I was researching, but nothing prepared me for the real thing.
As we rounded the corner, the long street of Corso Umberto gave way to checker board tiles and open sky. I pretty much ran to the railings to see out over the Mediterranean, the view yawning over deep blue open sea, the green Bay of Naxos clinging to the edges, cut through by the train tracks and Giardini station where we’d just arrived hours before. And in the distance, but still dominating the skyline, was Mt Etna, her peak obscured by fluffy white clouds.
As if the view wasn’t good enough, the square itself does plenty to earn your attention too. On the right you’ll see the sunny Ex Chiesa Di Sant’Agostino (now a library). The left side has the warm red tones of the Hotel Metropole alongside the lofty stone Torre dell’orologio and Porta di mezzo. Not to mention the Chiesa di San Giuseppe, the beautiful pale facade a stark contrast to the rocky green hillside behind.
And if you want to stay and admire the view, there are plenty of restaurants and cafes. Cinque Archi was recommended to me as an excellent seafood restaurant, or you can grab something to take away from the pasticcheria under Ristorante Del Corso.
5. Walk around the Teatro Antico
We knew our first day in Taormina was going to be some of the best weather we got all week, so we did all the big hitters first, including the Teatro Antico. You can book your €10 tickets online, but we decided to risk the queue, which turned out to not be too long.
There are a few different routes around the teatro, we decided to start at the top and work our way around and down. And starting at the top means you’re greeted by this amazing view back towards the Italian mainland.
With a diameter of 390 ft, Taormina’s Teatro Antico is the second largest in the whole of Sicily (the largest being the one in Syracuse). Since it’s regularly used for performances and concerts, most of the original seats have been replaced with functional wooden ones, holding up to 5,400 spectators. The brick wall around the whole cavea is very well preserved, along with the structures behind the stage (which is quite unusual for this type of ruin).
It’s mostly built of brick, which is why historians think it’s Roman, even though the plan and arrangement are traditionally Greek. Because of this they say the original foundations are from an older Greek theatre, probably built in third century BC.
Aside from how amazingly intact it is, and how big it is, the most striking feature of the Teatro Antico has to be the view. Being so high on the hill you can see the Mediterranean all around the back and western sides. Then of course, there’s Etna. The original Greek architects must have built this theatre with Mt Etna as the focal point – rising between the two columns on stage. Imagine sitting in this theatre during one of the volcano’s eruptions. Terrifying and jaw dropping.
If you can tear your eyes away from Etna, the routes around the theatre take you all around the top, down the middle, around the back to more views over the sea, and finally onto the ground level. This is where you can have some fun with the acoustics if you don’t have an easily embarrassed partner who stops you from making silly echoey noises.
6. Visit the Duomo
Near Porto Catania on Corso Umberto you’ll find the Duomo di Taormina, or basilica cattedrale di San Nicolò di Bari. This cathedral is a fascinating hodgepodge of history, with Byzantine, Norman, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Inside you’ll find paintings, altars, tabernacles, statues, sarcophagi and other monuments, too many to name. Matt was in history heaven.
The piazza outside is gorgeous too, with an elevated fountain and cobbled side streets, all positively cosy compared to the Piazza IX Aprile.
7. Explore the Giardini della Villa Comunale
Created in the late 19th century by Englishwoman Florence Trevelyan, these public gardens are another great place to admire the view over the Bay of Naxos and Mt Etna. It was very quiet when we visited, a lovely escape from the crowds.
The cobbled brick path winds its way around the edge of the greenery, leaving the impression that you’re standing on a shelf over the sea. If you dive into the foliage you’ll find a children’s play area as well as secret statues and follies.
8. Climb the Salita Castello
This was an unplanned activity on a cloudy day, and it ended up being a Taormina highlight. I imagine this climb would be a different story on a hot summer’s day, but mild temperatures and cloudy skies are the perfect conditions.
Once we’d decided to make the climb (we were still in the public gardens when we made the decision to change our plans), it took us about half an hour to climb all the way up through Taormina proper and then up the stairs themselves. At each turn in the stairs we paused to take in the incredible view and take some photos. The zigzagging steps are very manageable, so don’t be daunted if you’re not super fit.
9. Visit the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca
The tiny church of Madonna della Rocca is built on the edge of the rock, and even out of the rock itself it seems. Founded around 1640, it sits next to an abandoned monastery, and has the best views of anywhere in Taormina.
10. Eat at Al Saraceno
We were a bit unsure of Al Saraceno at first. We climbed up the Salita Castello at breakneck speed so we could get to this hilltop restaurant in time for lunch, but when we got there it was totally empty. We took a chance and it paid off! We were thoroughly fussed over by the friendly staff, who brought us some of the most delicious pasta we’d had so far. The view from the big open windows didn’t disappoint either, and we were able to admire the freshly snowcapped Mt Etna while we ate.
11. Walk along the Naumachia di Taormina
Discovered in 1943, the Naumachie is the 130m long remains of an old Roman wall in the centre of town – just behind Pizzeria Zuccaro. They found a big water basin when excavating, and wrongly assumed it would have been used to stage sea battles, hence the name Naumachie which literally means “the sea battle”. They later realised the water basin would’ve just been used to supply water to the city.
Built in the 1st century BC, it’s the second oldest structure in Taormina, after the Teatro Antico.
12. Walk to Mazzaro
The walk from Taormina central to Mazzaro bay is a steep one, but nothing you can’t manage with a good pair of trainers. In fact, I walked down in flip flops on two occasions. The winding road before the narrow steps gets you a great view out towards Isola Bella, and then you can get the cable car back up again.
13. Order Aperol Spritz from the kiosk
The cable car leaves every 15 minutes, and we happened to have just missed one when we arrived. So we decided to order an Aperol Spritz each from the old lady at the tiny kiosk next to the station. She spoke no English, and free-poured our drinks, which ended up being about 50% Aperol, and she used white wine instead of prosecco, but as an experience it was up there.
14. Get the cable car back up
Now, the cable car isn’t the easiest thing to use. When you arrive at the station, there is a separate building to the right with self service ticket machines. They take cash or card, and you can select English instructions, but one of them is always broken which means there will be a queue for the other one. On one occasion they were both broken which caused total chaos. This is not a form of transport where you can be in a rush.
You can get a one way ticket for €3, or you can buy a day pass for €10. At the top you will exit onto Via Luigi Pirandello, where you can turn right and head up the road into town.
15. Go on a day trip to Mt Etna
This was an absolute triumph of a day trip. Etna People ticked our three criteria – reasonably priced, well reviewed, and would pick us up at a meeting place in Taormina. Our guide, Giuseppe, was so passionate about Mt Etna and told us all about the geological history of the area, including the most significant eruptions.
I was quite worried about what the weather would do, since it can be so changeable on the coast with a volcano adjacent. Luckily, even though heavy grey clouds were hanging overhead, the view stayed clear and we could see for miles, all the way back to Taormina where the sun was shining off the roofs and glittering off the sea.
Although there was a lot of climbing, it wasn’t nearly as strenuous as I had been expecting. We spent about an hour and a half at Mt Etna, but so much of that was admiring the scenery and listening to Giuseppe that there was more recovery time than there was activity time. If you’re worried about it too – the tour guides are really nice, and will even let you wait at the bottom of the really steep craters. Read more about it here!
16. Enjoy aperitivo at Franco Wine Bar
That evening we headed into town earlier than usual so we could watch the sunset from Piazza IX Aprile and then go for aperitivo. We chose a tiny wine bar right behind Porta Messina at the entrance to town, and settled in at the back with a pack of cards. The joy of aperitivo is that you get free snacks with your drinks! Our Aperol spritz came with crisps and peanuts, but at other bars on our trip we enjoyed dishes like bread and oil, breadsticks, and even mini pizza slices.
17. Find famous people at Pizzeria La Botte
Established in 1972, La Botte has a proper old Italian family restaurant vibe. It’s definitely one of the more touristy options in Taormina, with a menu that’s very explicit about allergens (which is obviously very helpful if you need it). We wished that we had chosen to visit at lunchtime so we could sit out on the greenery-covered patio, but we still enjoyed spotting all the famous people we knew on their walls of photos.
18. Order cappuccini from Ai Paladini
Obviously there are plenty of places to order a cappucino in Taormina, or even in Mazzaro, but the benefit of this one is that it’s right at the bottom of the steps you need to climb down, and right across the road from the beach.
19. Cross over to Isola Bella
Isola Bella is a small island in Mazzaro Bay, turned into a nature reserve by the WWF. When the tide is out you can walk along the pebbles to get to it, where you can stand on the little beach and admire the view back to Taormina. Note that you need to buy tickets to be allowed onto the island itself. I’ve been told by people who forked out for tickets that it’s not worth it, so we didn’t bother. If you’re interested in the grottos around the island, a boat trip around it is a far better option.
The island was gifted to Taormina by King Ferdinand I in 1806, then bought from the town by Florence Trevelyan (the English gardner responsible for the Giardini della Villa Comunale). She built a small house facing the sea and imported exotic plants, which thrived in the Mediterranean climate. Today its only inhabitants are rare birds and lizards.
20. Grab your deck chairs on the beach
For €10 you can nab yourself a deck chair and parasol for as long as you want. Matt was very skeptical about this, and was not a fan of being so close to other members of the public. After a dip in the sea however, he was a convert. The cool water is so crystal clear that you can watch the fish swim around you without even putting your head under. My main tip for this is to bring water shoes if you have them – the pebbles are punishingly sharp on your bare feet.
Determined to get our moneys worth, we stayed on the beach for most of the day, reading our books, sunbathing, and taking dips in the sea.
21. Have fresh ciabatta for lunch
At lunchtime I ventured into Mendolia, the open air beach restaurant responsible for the deck chairs. With my dodgy Italian I ordered drinks and ciabatta sandwiches, slightly unsure what would actually be inside them. They came wrapped in tin foil, so they were still lovely and warm by the time I got them back to the deck chairs. The crusts were thick and crunchy, and inside we found fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and ham, seasoned liberally with herbs. Delicious.
22. Eat dinner at Ristorante Al Duomo
Ristorante Al Duomo takes the crown for best pasta of our trip. Matt ordered seafood ragu, I had swordfish gnocchi, perfectly paired with a Sicilian white wine. The pasta was definitely homemade, and the swordfish was meaty but delicate. The restaurant itself was lovely, quite small and cosy with only 2 waiting staff and a few tables. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss this place.
23. Order arancini from Antica Rosticceria Da Cristina
Arancini in Sicily was very different to the arancini we’re used to in London. It’s not a dainty little snack with trendy flavours like kimchi. It’s a beast of a fried takeaway snack on par with a kebab. I would murder one of these after a night out.
The best ones we tried were from Antica Rosticceria Da Cristina, just down the road from La Botte. We ordered ragu, ham and cheese, and aubergine. They were all deliciously satisfying, but the ham and cheese won out because of the huge melted cheese centre.
24. Don’t miss granite from Bam Bar
This is the place. Recommended by airbnb hosts and tourists alike, Bam Bar is famously the best place to try the classic Sicilian breakfast, granite. Granite is the freshest, tastiest slushy you will ever have in your life. We went twice in two days, once for post-lunch dessert, and once for brunch.
Our post-lunch dessert order included a strawberry granite which tasted even more like fresh strawberries than actual strawberries, and chocolate with cream, which gave me a heart attack on the spot. It was so rich and yet light that I demolished the entire thing before I had time to ask myself whether that was a good idea. I would suggest to you dear reader that you share this granite with your holiday companion.
Our brunch order was much more civilised. We chose lemon granite with a brioche, the traditional Sicilian breakfast pairing. Giuseppe told us about this on our Etna day trip and Matt was incredulous to say the least, but after giving it a go himself he was a big fan!
25. Check out the Teatro Odeon
A little hidden gem for you – behind Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria on the corner of Corso Umberto and Via Teatrino Romano you’ll find a smaller echo of the Teatro Antico. The Teatro Odeon was built by the Romans in 21 BC as a stage for literary and musical performances. It was designed to be covered and fit less than 200 spectators on the curved rows of seats. If it seems like it’s squashed between buildings – that’s because it is! It was discovered by accident in 1892, and before then no one who built around it ever suspected it was there.
26. Send some postcards
Since we were away for three weeks, I was determined to send postcards to our family in the UK. This was more challenging than you might think, considering there are postcards sold in almost every shop in Taormina. The stamps you need to post them can only be bought at the post office next to Porta Catania, which has very limited opening hours.
27. Grab some cannoli from Pasticceria Minotauro
Matt and I are big believers in sampling all the local foods when we go on holiday, especially when those foods include rolls of crisp pastry full of cream. It took us a while to choose from the rainbow of cannoli flavours, and in the end we decided to share pistachio, and vanilla with strawberry. We agreed the strawberry was best, since the fresh fruit balanced the sweet cream and pastry so well.
28. Have dinner at Trattoria Da Nino
On our last night in Taormina we finally ate at a restaurant we’d walked past literally every day that week, Trattoria da Nino. This place had the same traditional family vibe as La Botte, with very reasonable prices. I enjoyed yet another Pasta Alla Norma, and then we finally managed to sample another Sicilian classic – Cassata. This traditional sponge cake is moist with fruit juice and layered with ricotta cheese, candied fruit, marzipan and pistachio, and is usually pink and green. Very simple, light and tasty.
Where we stayed
We chose our airbnb villa mainly for the big double bed and the amazing view over the Mediterranean sea, plus it also happened to have a pool.
The real benefit of our villa was the view. As you can see, we really enjoyed the sunsets. It was also in a great location, with a few steps to climb to get into town, but away from the madding crowd.
Staying anywhere for a whole week is always a gamble, and we were slightly underwhelmed by the pool (which was a bit dirty) and the kitchen (which wasn’t really designed for cooking in, more for breakfast and snacks). Those weren’t dealbreakers though, since the evenings weren’t really hot enough for swimming, and we ate out most nights.
If we were staying for only a few days I’d probably rather be in the town centre, but we knew we wanted somewhere we could relax more and we didn’t mind a bit of a walk.
Wow. Taormina is just stunning. Every corner you turn is more beautiful than the last! It’s packed with things to do, places to go and food to try, and it makes a great base to visit Etna or even Catania if you fancy it. It’s definitely up there with our favourite places we’ve travelled to, and home to the best pizza we’ve ever eaten.
If you’ve been to Taormina I’d love to hear about it! What was your favourite part?