The recent publication of our easy-to-use, comprehensive Sicily road trip planner has brought our attention to this intriguing Mediterranean island. While cities on Italy's mainland like Rome, Florence, and Venice tend to be the more well-known and visited tourist destinations, the island of Sicily is a beautiful area that's definitely worth visiting, and it's rich and tempestuous history have captivated our imaginations. Today, vestiges of Sicily's past impart a myriad of flavors to Sicilian architecture, cuisine, and culture, and this mix of different influences make traveling in Sicily a one-of-a-kind experience.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and strategic location and fertile soil have made it a crucial and coveted location for many civilizations throughout history. A great number of wars have been fought to control the island, and for many centuries, Sicily's fortunes have swelled and faded due to events out of its control; at times, Sicily has been both the marrow of great civilizations and a neglected colonial outpost. Sicily's prehistoric tribes include the Elymians, the Sicani, and the Sicels, the last of which gave the island its name. The Ancient Greeks colonized Sicily in the 8th Century B.C., and although Greece's hold on Sicily was often threatened by native Sicels and foreign Carthaginians, Sicily was so important to Magna Graecia that Plato suggested it as a model for utopian society and Siracusa became the most populous Greek city in the world.
For the Ancient Greeks, Sicily was a land of myth and magic; they believed the monster Typhon was responsible for Mount Etna's fiery eruptions and that Odysseus outwitted the Cyclops Polyphemus off the island's eastern coast. Today, Greek influence is apparent is most every major Sicilian city. You can visit the Greek Theater in Taormina, whose impeccable design allows the over 2,000 year old theater to still be used today for plays and musical performances. The Greek temple at Selinunte, built in the 5th Century B.C. to honor the goddess Hera, is another impressive site to see.
After Sicily became the first Roman province in spite of a fifteen-year opposition from Siracusa, a much more neglected status was bestowed upon the island. The most notable result of the Roman occupation, particularly in economic and agricultural terms, was the establishment of enormous landed, feudal estates that were often owned by distant Roman nobles known as the latifundia. Nevertheless, Sicily was able to contribute to Roman culture, and the Ancient Romans left their mark on the area. You should definitely visit the mosaics in a nobleman's villa in present day Piazza Armerina, arguably the most important archeological remains from this time period, and the Roman amphitheater in Siracusa.
Over the next few centuries, various warring civilizations took and lost control of Sicily, each one leaving their mark before they were ousted. Though it took nearly a century, Islamic armies from northern Africa eventually gained control of the island in the 10th Century A.D. Their rule was short-lived, but they left much behind, including the beautiful domed architecture of the ancient Muslim world, evident in the San Giovanni degli Eremiti church in Palermo, and agricultural items such as oranges, lemons, and pistachios, now commonplace in Sicilian cuisine. Spain later directly ruled Sicily for about two centuries from the 1500s to the 1700s, and you can get your fill of Spanish-era architecture, particularly along Sicily's eastern coast, by visiting the ornate Porta Grazia in Messina or the breathtaking duomo with a car rental in Catania.
Having survived such a turbulent history, Sicily is today part of the Republic of Italy. However, Sicily is known for having its own distinct culture, and its inhabitants are known for being fiercely proud of their Sicilian heritage. The island may not be large, but there is so much fascinating history, delicious food, and lively culture packed into one small area that traveling in Sicily with the versatility and convenience of a rental car makes for an unforgettable vacation. Take the time to see all the sites with a rental car in Palermo or Siracusa, and check out any of our Italy road trip planners when you need some inspiration. Sicily is waiting for you!