Taormina and Mount Etna

Sicily has always been on my list of places to visit, given that my great-grandparents came from Sicily and Southern Italy. It was planned for Spring 2020 but Covid cancelled it. I was so grateful that my husband, mother, and I could travel to Sicily for 8 amazing days in March 2022! We started in Palermo, spending a few days there, before renting a car to drive to other parts of the island. Our goal was to see as much as possible, without checking into a different hotel every day. Driving in Sicily is not for the faint of heart… it was quite the experience, and let’s just say I’m so glad it was my husband behind the wheel, and not me!

The drive from Palermo to Taormina takes a little over 3 hours normally. However, we were stopping in Messina for a few hours so our route was slightly longer. Messina is where one of my great grandfathers emigrated to America from! It’s also a big port city, which has ferries and cruise ships that pull in. The straight of Messina is a narrow strip of water dividing Sicily and mainland Italy. It is the closest part of the island to mainland. There are regular ferries to Calabria, but no bridge or tunnel.

We weren’t sure what to expect in Messina, but wanted to grab lunch and walk around. Driving in was incredible; coming from higher land, with a view of the coast and houses dotting the landscape. The surrounding areas were larger than expected, and I wish we had more time to explore. Our stop was intended for lunch and a walk around. Honestly, our lunch experience in Messina was the most authentic experience of the trip, and one of my favorites. We found an off the beaten path restaurant frequented by locals – it was small, cozy, and perfect! For Monday at lunch, there was quite a lively crowd all enjoying good food, wine, and the company of loved ones. We were so glad to have discovered Trattoria Morello – all the food was outstanding, and the service was excellent. The lady who took care of us, I think was the owner. She was excited to have Americans eat at her restaurant and kept telling us how happy she was! She spent time living in the US when she was younger, and has a sister living there. Our meal was outstanding! I had busiatti with sausage, and my husband and mother had homemade gnocchi. We had Cassatta Nero (or chocolate cassata) to share for dessert, and they also brought cookies and liqueur as part of our copertif. This was the best meal of the trip, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience!

The city of Messina was rather quiet on the day of our visit. We weren’t sure what to expect, but I wanted to visit the Piazza with the Duomo. The astronomical clock and bell tower are one of the main attractions in the city. A rather recent addition to the Cathedral, it was constructed in 1933. We admired the clock, and took a quick peek inside the Cathedral as well. The components of the clock are symbolic. Animals represent the days of the week, and stages of life are also depicted, along with biblical scenes. See if you can recognize any in the photos below! After stopping at the Cathedral and a gift shop, we really just wandered down to the water. The city is beautiful, but there didn’t seem to be much to do, so we headed back to the car.

Bell Tower in Messina

We ended up with a bit of parking drama. Despite all warnings about Sicily and Southern Italy, we still fell victim. We parked in a spot where you pay by app – no problem, we are used to that in England. I downloaded the app, did everything correctly, or so I thought. I used the license plate # that was on the key chain of the keys to our rental car. Turns out they added an additional letter to the license plate. We came back to the parking police ticketing our car. They claimed the car was not in the system, even though we showed them proof on the app that we had paid, they still insisted it was incorrect and ticketed us. My mother chose that moment to use the little Italian her grandparents taught her (all insults). A surprise to no one – that was not helpful. We ended up going to a post office in Taormina, which is apparently where you pay tickets. A kind woman in line translated for us, so we could pay 18 euros to the parking Gods of Messina. Did we learn our lesson? Probably not; it’ll likely happen again. (Edited to add, when we rented a car in Holland, we triple checked our license plate number when paying by app. So maybe we learned.)

Taormina was our second stop on our trip, where we spent 3 nights at Hotel Bel Soggiorno. We absolutely LOVED this hotel! It was in a beautiful location, with amazing views. We had a small patio with ocean views from our room. From the outside patios, you can see the long strip of beach, and Mount Etna in the distance. Everyone was friendly and helpful, and the breakfast was phenomenal (they even had tiramisu with breakfast!). There was parking out front, and while it isn’t on the main strip of Taormina, it was about a 10-15 minute walk to town. I’d stay here again for sure. This place was perfect for our needs, and without the price tag of a city center stay. Plus, we got to walk off that tiramisu, by walking to town.

If you love shopping, Taormina is the place in Sicily to go! There are a variety of shops, bakeries, restaurants, souvenirs, clothing, and Italian leather purses. Plus, the architecture is pretty, and many of the streets are beautiful. Taormina is the type of place you just wander and get lost in the little alleyways, and then stop for gelato or an Aperol Spritz. There is no shortage of restaurants, many with amazing sea views. Living in England, we don’t see the sun much, so we loved the beautiful sunshine and gorgeous blue ocean views.

Successful afternoon of shopping!

A main attraction in Taormina is the Greek Theatre. It’s the second largest in Sicily (the one in Siracusa is bigger), and boasts stunning sea views. The setting and photo opportunities are worth visiting alone. Tickets are 13.50 (euros) to visit, and it’s easy to get to from town (there are signs everywhere). The setting and views of the sea and town, are worth it alone! Once in you can explore the theatre site, and walk to the top. It dates back to the 3rd century BC, and the Greeks originally used it for theatre performances. Sicily has an interesting past, it was originally colonized by the Greeks in the 8th century BC. The Romans later defeated the Greeks in Sicily, and they modified the theatre to accommodate gladiator battles. They also added columns. It was amazing to be surrounded by all this history! The ancient theatre is a must do in Taormina.

Taormina is also a great launchpad for another Sicilian must do – Mount Etna! Mount Etna is between Taormina and Catania, so if you’re exploring further south on the island of Sicily, you’ll likely go by it. Mount Etna is a very active volcano, erupting an average of 200 times a year. It also has the longest recorded history of eruptions out of any volcano on earth! Etna is also one of the largest volcanoes in Europe and Africa, surpassed only by Mount Teide in Tenerife. The volcano is in a constant state of activity, and it’s fertile soil makes it a good place for vineyards, orchards, and other agriculture. From Taormina, visiting Etna takes just over an hour by car. We had a rental car, so this was easy for us; public transportation looked like an expensive option.

We drove to the area around Silvestri Craters. As expected, it was significantly colder and windier. We were glad to have brought hats and gloves (well, my Mom and husband were glad, I forgot mine and bought a headband in one of the shops). There looks to be plenty of parking, but it’s a bit vague. You have to go in a shop and ask to pay for parking, and then put the parking pass in your car. The signs weren’t clear on that, so we were glad we asked. This area of Etna is quite touristy, with many shops, and a few cafes. On a clear day, the view from the lookout is supposed to be amazing, but it was very foggy and we didn’t see much. There are also hiking paths in the area. We did the short Silvestri Craters walk (it’s only 1km). The craters are inactive, and a result of a 1892 eruption. The area was beautiful with patches of snow; I wish it was a clearer day so we could have seen the ocean in the background. We mostly explored the area around the craters; the weather wasn’t our friend that day. After our walk, the hot chocolate tasted amazing!

On the way back, we stopped at Murgo Vineyards for a tasting. We arrived just as the kitchen was closing, but they were friendly and accommodated us. For our tasting, we sampled 5 different Sicilian wines. The tasting was 25 euros a person and included a platter of cheese, meats, and crackers, along with some other appetizers. The location looked beautiful, and we enjoyed the experience. They do have other options as well. It was great to be able to fit this in, because the fertile soil around Etna makes it perfect for producing grapes (and eventually, wine!).

One of the best restaurants we enjoyed in Sicily was called Osteria da Rita, in Taormina. We were able to sit outside and enjoy the ambience. As usual, booking ahead is recommended, but we were able to get in without a reservation. The brought out complimentary bruschetta as part of the copertifo. We also enjoyed a delicious cheese and meat board to share. I went with the Sicilian classic – Pasta alla Norman, and it did not disappoint. This place is definitely worth checking out when you’re in Taormina.

Taormina is a must visit on your Sicilian adventure! I loved every second there, and I’d go back in a heartbeat. When is your next trip to Italy?

Don’t forget to try the Granita (lemon ice)!


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