Visiting Siracusa, Sicily

Siracusa is a historic city on the island of Sicily, known for it’s ancient Greek ruins. And if you actually know me IRL, you understand why I’d want to visit the city of SYRACUSE. Like many who do a Sicily roadtrip, Siracusa was on our list. We stayed for a few days, and planned to drive to nearby villages as part of our stay. However, as this was the end of 9 days of traveling, we started to slow our pace a bit.

When I started researching Sicily for our trip, I was surprise to learn it was conquered by the Greeks. I have great grandparents that lived in Sicily, so I always considered our roots to be Italian, but never realized the diverse history this island holds. Siracusa, the capital of the province by the same name, is located on the eastern coast of the island. The city is 2,700 years old, and at one time was a powerful city in the Mediterranean. Siracusa is also the birth place of the mathematician, Archimedes. Siracusa was later taken over by the Romans and Byzantines. The city is packed with ancient ruins and historical sites. Like most of Sicily, it is not shiny and new; be prepared for it to feel a little gritty and worn. It’s all part of the charm!

Since we rented a car in Palermo to roadtrip around Sicily, we made the easy drive from Taormina to Siracusa. The drive was around 90 minutes, but it’s possible to get there by train or bus. We stayed at Nostos Rooms and Apartments, and were happy with the location, as it was close to Ortigia Island and near shops and restaurants. The rooms were modern, clean, and spacious. Instead of breakfast in the hotel, you headed right across the street for a coffee, juice, and pastry. There is free street parking in Siracusa, but after the mishap in Messina, we felt safer going to a pay lot.

If you’re like many, eating is a top priority in Italy! Siracusa does not disappoint in this regard. There are many small shops and bakeries to try the best pastries, and of course the Sicilian street food – Arancino. The cone shaped fried ball of rice and meat, gets it shape from the nearby Mount Etna. These are a must try in Sicily! (If you’re in Palermo, they are called Arancina, and are round like an orange). No matter what they’re called, this street food is delicious. Other local foods include caponata (an eggplant and tomato dish) and pasta with sardines. Being an island, you’ll find a lot of seafood dishes in Sicilian restaurants. Of course, the specialty from nearby Catania is Pasta Alla Norman, which is a must try while visiting Sicily! I can never resist a plate of gnocchi, regardless of what part of Italy I’m in, and it hit the spot!

An experience I was looking forward to, was eating at Caseificio Borderi, and it did not disappoint! We arrived hungry, and left full. Caseificio Borderi is on Ortigia Island, next to the market. It always has a crowd, and is worth the wait for the delicious sandwiches and cheese and meat trays. We ordered one cheese and meat plate, and two sandwiches to share among three people and it was the perfect amount of food. We even had the pleasure of watching a couple men physically pick up and move a car, in order to get out of a parking spot. Lunch and a show! As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, there are literally no rules when it comes to driving in Southern Italy, so be warned if you’re renting a car.

Attractions to Visit in Siracusa (in no particular order)

1. Temple of Apollo

Located on Ortigia Island, right as you cross over the bridge from Siracusa, is the Temple of Apollo. The temple dates back to the 6th Century BC, and is a great example of ancient Greek Doric architecture. It was later used by the Romans, during the Byzantine Empire, and also as a mosque during Islamic rule of Sicily. It is considered one of the most important ancient monuments on Ortigia Island. It’s hard to miss as you cross the bridge!

2. Duomo di Siracusa

Also on Ortigia Island, is the Cathedral of Syracuse. Not only is the Baroque facade of the cathedral beautiful, but it’s also one of the most unique Cathedrals we’ve ever visited! The Catholic Cathedral dates back to the 7th century. The interesting thing about this Cathedral is it was actually built over the Greek Temple of Athena from the 5th Century BC. When walking around inside the Cathedral, you see the exposed Doric columns from the Temple! It’s a stunning mix of ancient Greek ruins, and the paintings and architecture found in a typical cathedral. It’s a stunning mix of old and new, with the roof constructed in Norman times, and the front facade in the 1700s. Do not skip this Cathedral just because you’ve seen “hundreds already”.

3. Neapolis Archaelogical Park

Perhaps the “main attraction” in Siracusa is the Neapolis Archaelogical Park featuring a plethora of ancient Greek and Roman ruins, caves, and other sites. A full ticket to the park will cost 13 euros and can be purchased on site. It is easy to spend at least half day here; there is so much to see! There’s also a downloaded PDF version of the map of the park, making it easy to navigate.

One of the first sites you’ll see as you enter is the Altar of Hieron, the largest remaining altar of its kind, in the world. The grand altar was built by King Hiero II, during the 3rd century BC. The ruins you see today, are the foundations of the altar, and measures almost 21 meters by 196 meters. Some historians believe the altar was used for animal sacrifices, and possibly dedicated to Zeus.

Another site you’ll see when following the path through the park is the Orecchio di Dionisio, or Ear of Dionysius. The Ear of Dionysius is a large cave, shaped like an ear. The acoustic properties inside are pretty neat too! It is thought this cave was dug to store water during ancient times. There are a few theories behind the name.To be honest, the only thing I remembered about Dionysius from mythology, was “God of Wine”. And that seems pretty important, amiright?! However, the name likely comes from the Dionysius I of Syracuse, a tyrant. One legend states the cave was used as a prison for political enemies of Dionysius, and he was able to hear their plans through the echoing properties of the cave. Regardless of the story or legend behind the cave, it is worth checking out!

A main attraction of the archaelogical park are the ancient theatres – and there are two, one Greek, and one Roman! If you continue on the path from the Ear of Dionysius, you will reach the Greek Amphitheatre. The area was under renovation when we visited, but you can still see the theatre. From the top, there is a beautiful view of the sea! This ancient Greek Theatre is considered one of the best examples of architecture as it was carved into the rock. It was used for hundreds of years before being left to ruin. During the 16th century, stone from the theatre was taken by the Spanish explorers. The theatre was undergoing renovations when we visited, but you can still see it and walk around.

We also stopped at the Roman Theatre on the way out, located near the Altar of Hieron. Built around 300 BC, it was used for Gladiator games. It is considered the third largest in Italy. Again, this was plundered by the Spanish in the 16th century, but parts still remain and can be visited. Definitely check out the Neapolis Park when you visit Siracusa!

4. Fountain of Arethusa

The natural fountain is also located on Ortigia Island. According to Greek mythology, Arethusa fled her underwater home in Arcadia, and became a freshwater fountain. Another explanation for the fountain is that it’s from the river that crosses the main port, under a layer of clay. Regardless of how it was formed, it’s worth seeing, and you also get views of the sea.

5. Fontana Di Diana

The Fountain of Diana is also found on Ortigia Island, located in the Piazza Archimedes. The fountain was sculpted in 1906. Diana is the daughter of Zeus and the sister of Apollo. She is the Greek goddess of the hunt, wilderness, and wild animals. The fountain also features a triton, mermaid, and children. It’s worth a quick stop as you wander the streets of Ortigia Island.

6. Castello Maniace

Another attraction located on Ortigia Island, Castello Maniace is a castle and citadel on the far point of the island. It was built in the early 1200’s and named for Giorgio Maniace, the Byzantine General who conquered the city of Siracusa from the Arabs. We didn’t go inside, but it’s open daily and tickets cost 8 euros. The view of the castle from the shore is incredible to see, even if you don’t pay to enter the interior.

7. Technoparco Musee di Archimedes

The famous Greek mathematician, engineer, inventor, astronomer, and physicist, Archimedes, was born in Siracusa around 287 B.C. He is known for the Archimede’s Principle, as well credited with inventing the screw, lever, and pulley system. During the time of Archimede’s, Sicily was a Greek island. The island was being attacked by the Romans. Archimede’s is credited with using a curved mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays onto Roman ships, and starting them on fire. He was killed during the Siege of Siracusa circa 212 B.C. You can visit his tomb in Siracusa, as well as outdoor museum dedicated to him and his scientific learnings and principles. We regret not having time to visit these attractions.

We also took the time to spend a few hours in the nearby city of Noto, which boasts incredible architecture, and small town charm. As with most Italian cities, there is a stunning Cathedral, and large Piazza. The city gate/arch is also quite beautiful. If you’re renting a car, drive to Noto as well!

Siracusa was the perfect way to end our Sicilian roadtrip! Since we flew out of Palermo, we drove through the middle of the island to return. Unfortunately heavy rain and wind derailed our plans of stopping and exploring, but we did make a quick stop in Caltinisetta on when the sun was out. There is so much of the island we didn’t get to see (including parts of Siracusa), so maybe we will be back someday!

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