Having just watched the entirety of HBO hit show The White Lotus in less than a week, I am an utter convert. Matt and I spent three weeks in Sicily for our “Honeymoon” in 2020 (we had to postpone the wedding but couldn’t change the Honeymoon), including a whole 6 days in Taormina, and we absolutely loved it. So if you’ve just watched Season 2 of The White Lotus and want to know more about its Sicilian backdrop, you’ve come to the right place.
The White Lotus Resort & Spa
Just as the Season 1 White Lotus Resort in Hawaii was a Four Seasons hotel (Maui at Wailea), Season 2 brings us to another Four Seasons, this time at San Domenico Palace in Taormina. (Hey Google, is The White Lotus a massive ad campaign for the Four Seasons hotel group?). In lots of shots you can see the real sign for the hotel on the wall in the courtyard, above the front door.
The building itself is a 14th-century former convent and monastery, becoming a hotel in 1896 by converting the monks’ cells into bedrooms. A lot of building’s original features were preserved including frescoes, carved fireplaces, fountains and sculptures. Since then the hotel has hosted everyone from Audrey Hepburn to King Edward VII, and now, the cast of The White Lotus.
The hotel’s private beach is, I’m afraid to say, fictional. The beaches immediately around Taormina – Spiaggia La Pigna and Spiaggia di Isola Bella – are in an area called Mazzarò, a fair distance from the hotel. It would take you 35 minutes to walk according to Google maps, although you’d be scaling a very steep hill so probably longer going back up. These are also pebble beaches, not sand. Apparently not what the show was after.
Obviously the beach they use does exist, but it’s a combination of two locations. The beach itself with its attractive blue and white parasols is Baia Naxos, and the white washed bar (the one where Ethan watches Harper flirting with Cameron) is La Cambusa beach restaurant. The city you can see in the background isn’t actually there. That’s the view from the beach in Cefalù near Palermo, comped in. The towers you can see are the belltowers of Cefalù cathedral, and the cliff is the Rocca di Cefalù, which you climb to visit the Castello at the peak (just out of shot).
Ethan’s running route
Having walked this route, I am nothing short of astounded that Ethan’s character is meant to have run up it. Not only that, but when he gets to the top, he takes just a second to admire the view before sprinting off again. Salita al Castello translates to the stairs to the castle, and they do exactly what it says on the tin.
This staircase zigzags right from the centre of Taormina all the way up to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca. This is a tiny church embedded in the rock at the very top of the hill, with a stone terrace looking out over the Ionian sea and spectacular views of Mount Etna.
After his quick breather, Ethan turns and runs through the pathway next to the church and out the other side, where he will have seen views of western Toarmina with Etna in the background and Castelmola on the peak to the right. There’s an excellent restaurant right here called Al Saraceno, if you enjoy pasta with a view.
In other scenes of Ethan’s run, he makes his way through the streets of Taormina and comes out into the sunshine on Piazza IX Aprile, the famous checkerboard square with incredible views of the sea.
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 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 (clock tower) and Porta di mezzo (the stone gate). Not to mention the Chiesa di San Giuseppe, the beautiful pale facade a stark contrast to the rocky green hillside behind.
If you go up to the railings, this is where you get a fabulous view of Palazzo San Domenico (the building with the scaffolding), with Naxos in the background to the left, and Etna to the right.
The streets of Taormina
Speaking of the Taormina streets, they appear many times throughout the show, mainly when Lucia and her friend Mia are walking through them. Did I say streets? It’s pretty much one street that acts as the spine of old town Taormina – Corso Umberto. It runs from Porta Catania in the east to Porta Messina in the west, the two stone gates at either end, with Piazza IX Aprile right at the centre point.
In fact, this exact shot is in front of Hotel Metropole looking west down Corso Umberto, opposite a Liu Jo (where Lucia goes on her shopping spree) – although this is a souvenir shop in real life.
For more photos of the beautiful old town, and recommendations on where to eat and what to do, check out my post 28 Things To Do In Taormina, Sicily.
The Roman amphitheatre
In Episode 4, Albie takes his father and grandfather to the Teatro Antico, bringing Portia along for the ride. I would argue this is maybe the number one thing to do in Taormina. With a diameter of 390 ft, it’s the second largest in the whole of Sicily (the largest being the one in Syracuse). It’s regularly used for performances and concerts, so 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, perfectly framing Etna in the distance.
Valentina’s coffee bar
Another must-visit of Taormina is Bam Bar. This is where Valentina goes for her morning coffee before work, and shouts at men who hit on her.
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. To enjoy it in the most traditional way, order it with brioche to dip into it.
If you’re wanting to eat some arancini (rice balls) à la Portia and Jack, head to Antica Rosticceria Da Cristina just down the road from Bam Bar. Be warned, Sicilian arancini is 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 stuffed with meat and cheese, on par with a kebab.
Daphne’s Noto Palazzo
Fancy staying in Daphne’s Noto palazzo? Well you can! But it’s not in Noto. Villa Tasca where these scenes are shot, is rentable, but is actually in Palermo. Ironically, Quentin’s Palermo villa, also rentable, is actually in Noto.
Villa Tasca, originally built in the 1500s, is surrounded by Victorian-era Romantic gardens dotted with English-style lawns. Inside you’ll find original frescos that look extremely familiar. This is because they were used to create the opening sequence of the show (with some tweaks). The production studio who created it spent two days taking photos of every vignette, fountain, moulding and painting. Then they sat down and tied it all together.
“If you went to the villa, you could do a scavenger hunt and be like, ‘Oh, here’s this staircase, but over here is where the horse came from. Everything’s a hybrid.’” Read more about the process in this article from Elle Decor, including a breakdown of all the allegories and hidden clues.
More good news, Daphne and Harper do go to the real Noto to shoot these scenes. They walk down the steps of the Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi all’Immacolata, and Harper leans against them to wait for Daphne as she goes to a cashpoint to get money out – a cashpoint that is also actually there in real life I might add. The little sequence here – where Harper is oggled at by seemingly every man in town – is a shot-for-shot homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film L’avventura, starring none other than Tanya’s fave, Monica Vitti. If you’re interested you can read more about why they chose to do this in this Variety article.
Noto is a beautiful town with a fascinating history. It lies 8km south of its original site, now called Noto Antica, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, killing half its population. The fact that the remaining townsfolk were so dedicated to their home that they picked it up and moved it 8km further south to safer ground is really quite remarkable. Its Sicilian baroque architecture is held as some of the best on the island. At only 212 square miles, this little town is a perfect day trip activity, with plenty to see and lots of delicious food to sample – including some of the best gelato in the world. You can read more about our trip there (including where to get that famous gelato) in my post An Afternoon in Noto, Sicily.
Daphne and Harper have aperitivi (and edibles) in a non-existent bar opposite the steps of the cathedral, so I imagine they put tables out in the walkway in front of the Palazzo Ducezio. If you’re looking for the same experience, try one of the bars in the square in front of Teatro Comunale “Tina di Lorenzo”, which has an amazing view of Chiesa di San Domenico.
You might be able to tell already, there are a lot of Baroque churches in Noto. 35, to be exact. Chiesa di San Domenico on Piazza XVI Maggio has to be one of the most beautiful, the warm tones of the curvaceous facade offset by the greenery outside, with a huge pine tree, a fountain, and numerous statues and memorials. The cosy wine bars on the piazza has to be the perfect place to enjoy aperitivo.
The Beach Club
The beach club that sees Portia and Jack’s fling start up in earnest is none other than Le Grand Bleu, which is the private beach club and restaurant of a different hotel in Taormina – UNA. From the terraces of loungers and the balcony of the restaurant you can spot the rocky outlet with the metal crucifix on top, used throughout the show between scenes.
Excellent news for wine fans – the foursome’s day on the slopes of Etna tasting the finest local wines full of volcanic minerals is filmed in a real Etna winery that you can visit. Specifically, Planeta Sciaranuova.
Planeta has a few wineries around Sicily. Matt and I had the pleasure of visiting the Buonivini winery near Noto and it really was everything you see in the TV show. We tried wines from all over the island, along with a platter of delicious morsels to accompany them, including multiple different olive oils also made on site.
And last but not least, after hearing about the mysterious backstory of Isola Bella from Quentin earlier in the show, in the finale of The White Lotus we finally get to go there with Ethan and Daphne.
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 it’s a nature reserve run by the WWF, its only inhabitants being rare birds and lizards.
When the tide is out you can walk along the pebbles to get to it, just as Ethan and Daphne do. Reality check though, you definitely won’t be the only people doing so and you’ll have to buy a fairly pricey ticket to actually get 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.
Instead of walking around Isola Bella, you’re much better off renting a deckchair and parasol from Mendolia beach club and admiring the view of it from the shore. These cost €10 for as long as you want – you just have to be prepared to ignore pushy salespeople trying to get you to buy sunglasses every 5 minutes. Make sure you swim in the sea – 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.
The beach club also does food, which doesn’t look like much, but our ciabatta sandwiches were absolutely delicious, with thick crunchy crusts and fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and ham, seasoned liberally with herbs. What a treat.
Aside from all the shots of the sea used to break up the scenes of The White Lotus (does the sea symbolise sex? or death? or both?), they also use shots from around Taormina, mainly the grottos and follies in Giardini della Villa Comunale, and the delapidated sculptures in the Naumachia di Taormina.
Created in the late 19th century by the aforementioned Florence Trevelyan, Giardini della Villa Comunale are public gardens with more beautiful views 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.
Discovered in 1943, the Naumachie is the 130m long remains of an old Roman wall in the centre of town – running parallel to Corso Umberto. 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.
Whether or not you’re a fan of The White Lotus, Taormina is an excellent holiday destination. It’s in the perfect place to act as a homebase for visiting islands, towns and of course Etna, or you can even just jaunt up there on the train from Catania on a day trip. I for one was thrilled to relive our holiday as the characters from The White Lotus explored Taormina and beyond, and I’m really glad they stayed so true to the towns actual layout and features. If you wanted you could recreate their exact holiday! Minus the kidnappings.
If you love film locations, check out my Self-Guided Game Of Thrones Tour Of Dubrovnik!