December 17 , 2017

SICILY: Finding Historic Treasures & Family Heritage

The crossroads of the Mediterranean and its largest island, Sicily has an attractive climate to welcome visitors for most of the year. Especially for repeat travelers to Italy, who want to dive deeper into a less-explored region, Sicily is a rich destination in itself. The land is outrageously rich in historical and cultural jewels. Here are a few highlights from our recent trip around Sicilian cities and towns.

SICILY: Finding Historic Treasures & Family Heritage

If you arrive at Catania airport, you might want to spend the night in this charming city in the shadow of Mt Etna. Its highlight is the elegant Piazza del Duomo (a UNESCO World Heritage site), featuring beautiful limestone and lava architecture, as well as the city’s emblematic smiling elephant statue, sculpted from volcanic stone in the Roman era.





In Siracusa, you can concentrate your time in Ortigia, the island harboring the historical city. This is a perfect place for wandering slim alleyways featuring romantic facades, inviting doorways, historic churches and once-grand abandoned mansions. In Piazza Duomo, you encounter a wonderful spectacle of outdoor cafes and impressive architecture, particularly the Cathedral – you can still admire the massive Doric columns that once held up the Greek Temple of Athena.




Modica, Noto and Ragusa

In Sicily’s southwest corner, you come upon the honey and peach-hued towns that were rebuilt in stunning Baroque style after the 1693 earthquake. Noto is the model Baroque town, with the stately Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the interesting palazzo balconies, and the Cathedral of San Nicolo. Modica is known for chocolate, and you’ll want to make a stop here at legendary chocolate shop Antica Dolceria Bonajuto.





The city of Agrigento is pleasant enough, but the real draw here is the expansive Valley of the Temples, a must for those interested in historical monuments. Even if you’re not a history buff, you can’t help but be amazed by the Temple of Concordia, one of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world. Also in the area is Realmonte, famous for the whitecliff sea staircase called Scala dei Turchi. This is an amazing place to sit and watch the sunset as it reflects off the clear water and the pure polished limestone and marl.



Trapani, Erice and Marsala

In northwest Sicily, one can find a diverse range of attractions such as the wines and vineyards of Marsala, ancient ruins at Selinunte and Segesta, the ancient coastal salt pans, the medieval hilltop town of Erice, peaceful nature and excavations on the island of Mozia, and the busy markets and port at Trapani.





Palermo is striking for its mix of east and west cultures, seen in the extravagant buildings and Byzantine mosaics, the cuisine and the people. There’s a wonderful blend of ancient spaces and modern atmosphere in Sicily’s capital, humming with activity. The main landmarks are those left behind by the Norman kings: the 12th-century Palatine Chapel and the Norman Palace, as well as the ornate, mosaic-ed Cathedral in Monreale, just up the hill outside of Palermo. At the same time, you can discover Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house, and the city’s vibrant street life and markets.





In our opinion, you can save the best for last in Taormina, but it’s better to visit in the shoulder season. Clinging to a mountainside over a gorgeous coastline, this stunning city is a busy tourist destination in the summer especially. But just a few hours here and you’ll see why! The ancient Greek theatre has an unbeatable vibe – hanging between the sea and sky, with just the right mix of an intact u-shaped seating area framed by golden crumbling walls and columns with the Ionian Sea peeking through. Walk down the main avenue, Corso Umberto I, to reach another favorite spot, the Piazza IX Aprile with its checkerboard square and amazing panoramic views.





This little village deserves special mention, as we fell in love with its charming atmosphere and scenes, up in the hills with a fantastic view over a valley and out to the sea. Have you heard of this place? You might be more familiar with the name Bar Vitelli, the fantastic traditional cafe used in filming of The Godfather. Still a functioning cafe-bar, you can enjoy an espresso or a cannolo here, then walk up the curving street through town to the Church of Santa Lucia, where the character Michael was married.

Look below for a few favorite restaurant recommendations.




In addition to discovering all the delights of Sicily, CTCAdventures founder Mary Bai also had a personal misson for this trip – to find her Sicilian roots. Here is Mary’s story:

How did you find out where your family came from?

My mother knew the names and the area of Sicily that her Grandparents came from. Then my sister did some online Ancestry research, finding out when they came to America and even the name of the ship they sailed on.


So who were your ancestors, where did they live, and what did they do? 

James D. Russo was my great-grandfather; he came to the US at the age of 19 and owned a Barbershop in Boston. My grandmother was Angelina Ciccolo. She came to the USA at the age of 4.


Did you know if you have any living relatives in Sicily?

I don’t … but that is the next thing to be researched, with more time in that area of Sicily.


Did you find where they lived?

My great-grandparents came from two villages that were right next to each other in Sicily (near Messina): Spadafora & Venetico. One is a seafront village focused on fishing and the other is a hilltop farming village with great views over the ocean. 




How did you feel when you finally visited those towns?

It was fantastic to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, see the views they saw and to go into the unexpectedly beautiful 16th century church in Venetico. That really took my breath away. Knowing that my ancestors likely worshipped there was unbelievable.



Will you be going back?

Absolutely, I’d like to go back … this time with more time to spend in these villages and do research at the town halls and churches.


Do you have any suggestions for travelers looking to get in touch with their roots?

Even if you don’t know exact places, it’s always thrilling just to see the area.


How can CTCAdventures help ancestry travelers?

As we customize all our trips, we can give you time in out-of-the way villages and places that structured tours don’t go to. Our local staff can also help you with information on where to stay and what to do while “off the beaten path”.


Sicily Restaurant Favorites


Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is known as the oldest and best chocolate factory in Sicily.


After you’ve bought some treats from the chocoloate shop, you can go across the street for lunch at Cappero Bistro. They have high-quality, inventive food, and we really enjoyed the lamb and fresh pasta dish.



Trattoria da Pino in Marsala stood out for its homestyle food, with a Sicilian appetizer bar. The Busiata pasta with pistachio pesto and shrimp was divine. This place was filled with locals; we were the only tourists -- always a good sign!



One of the best meals we had in Sicily, Trattoria da Nino is a tasty and quiet option just outside the historic city center, near the Grand Hotel Miramare. Listen out for the day’s specials, freshly bought from the morning market.