Top 10 Things to Do in Taormina, Sicily
Taormina is located on the east coast of Sicily about halfway between Messina and Catania on the Ionian Sea. The town itself is perched on a hill about 250 meters above the sea and this provides for some incredibly scenic views from almost anywhere in Taormina. It also has the dubious distinction of sitting practically in the shadow of Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest and most active volcano.
Taormina is often characterized as overly touristy and during the peak season it can get crowded, especially when the cruise ships are in port. While many folks may feel that Taormina can be done quickly in one day, I think a couple of days is more appropriate to cover not only Taormina, but some of the surrounding sites as well. Undoubtedly, Taormina is one of the most picturesque locations in all of Italy and can rival the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre for sheer natural beauty. If you’re planning on a couple of days in Taormina, this guide will help you to cover all of the must see sites and a few more for the more adventurous souls.
Open my heart and you will see,
Graved inside of it, "Italy."— Robert Browning
Taormina’s Greco Roman Theater is probably the most visited and photographed site is all of Sicily and for good reason. The site is simply spectacular. Perched on a hill overlooking the Ionian Sea, and with a perfect view of Mount Etna looming in the distance, it makes for an absolutely beautiful setting. The ancient theatre is built mostly of brick, which would indicate that it is of Roman origins, but its layout follows what is considered to be a Greek design so it is sometimes referred to as the Greco Roman Theatre. Most likely the theatre was of Greek origins and then rebuilt on its present site by the Romans. No matter its origin, the theatre is a must see on any visit to Taormina.
Because of its remarkable preservation the theatre is still used today for concerts and theatre performances. If you happen to be in Taormina during a performance look into attending a show here for an unforgettable experience.
Located on the top of a hill above Taormina is the quaint village of Castelmola. Considered one of the most beautiful towns in all of Italy its precarious setting high above Taormina provides for an amazing view of Taormina, the beaches of Giardini Naxos, and Mount Etna.
The Duomo of Castelmola, also known as the church of San Niccolo’ di Bari, is worth a visit and has a balcony which affords some great views. The remains of the castle itself are not much, but it is worth the few extra steps to climb to the ruins of the castle if for no other reason than the view. The village is a great spot for a mid day lunch break and some shopping.
Getting to Castelmola can be done with a short taxi ride or you can take the bus. The bus station is a ten minute walk from the center of Taormina and the bus trip takes about fifteen minutes. For the adventurous souls out there you can walk/hike up to Castelmola. Plan on at least an hour each way and possibly more depending on your physical condition.
View from Castelmola
This tiny island is located in a small bay on the coast just below Taormina. The island is connected to the mainland by a small and narrow path that depending on the tide may be submerged. The island itself was actually private property up until 1990 when the owners went bankrupt and auctioned the island, which was bought by the Region of Sicily. Since then it has been designated as a nature reserve and is home to numerous species of birds and lizards. The island also has a very small beach area that seems to be very popular with sun bathers. There is a larger beach area on the mainland side and folks seem to come and go from the island with relative ease.
To get to Isola Bella from Taormina you will have to take the cable car down to the coast. From here it is a short walk to the beach at Isola Bella. Please be forewarned that the beach here is not sand but pebbles so bring the necessary footwear.
Take the cable car down to the shore from Taormina then head to the right up the short hill. Isola Bella is just over the hill about a 5 minute walk from the cable car. Buy your return ticket before heading to the beach to avoid waiting in line when you want to head back up to Taormina.
The Alcantara Gorge is something that I highly recommend. As it’s about a 40 minute bus ride from Taormina you should probably dedicate at least half a day for a visit here. Located on the north side of Mount Etna, the Gorge was formed thousands of years ago when a lava flow from the volcano was cooled quickly by the flow of the Alcantara River. This quick cooling resulted in the lava forming columns through which the river eroded a channel, eventually resulting in the gorge that you see today.
There is a beautiful path that you can walk that follows the top of the gorge and you get some great views looking down into the gorge from this vantage point. You can also take an elevator down to the river where there is a small beach where you can swim, sunbathe, and walk the shallow river if you like. For the more adventurous, you can do some river trekking with a guide and the appropriate equipment can be rented here if you like.
A visit to the Alcantara Gorge is a great break from the crowds of Taormina. The site has facilities including a restaurant and the bus stop is right at the front gate to the Gorge site.
Be sure to bring your bathing suit, water shoes and a towel. The water is advertised as being very cold but we found it refreshing.
Many visitors either bypass the public gardens or are simply not aware that they are here. I found the gardens to be a beautiful shady respite from the crowded Corso Umberto. Also known as the Trevelyan Gardens, this English-style garden has a panoramic walkway that faces the sea and Mount Etna. Numerous flower beds, bushes, trees and finely trimmed hedges adorn the garden and make for a pleasant walk or a great spot to just sit and admire the view.
The garden also contains a few old artillery pieces from WWII, a play area for children and a few cottages and towers. A small terrace area is also found here and is used for small outdoor concerts or gatherings. If you’re looking for a break from the hustle and bustle of Taormina head to the public gardens for a little rest and relaxation.
This beautiful piazza is located at the western end of the Corso Umberto in the old section of Taormina, and is the site of the Church of San Nicola, otherwise known as the Duomo of Taormina. The church was built around 1400 AD and was constructed over the site of an older church.
At the center of the piazza is a Baroque fountain that contains a centaur (from Greek mythology – part human, part horse), which is the symbol of Taormina. This small but beautiful piazza is the perfect place to relax and unwind for a spell.
Be sure to take a drink from one of the horse fountains. Do you see them in the photo below?
Shop & Stroll the Corso Umberto
The Corso Umberto is the main pedestrian street through Taormina and is hard to miss. For the shoppers out there this is the place to be. The Corso Umberto is lined with numerous high end shops as well as gelato shops, produce vendors, café’s, souvenir and jewelry shops. No matter what you are looking for it’s a sure bet that you can find it somewhere along the Corso Umberto. At night the street comes alive with music and entertainment and can resemble a party atmosphere. It all makes for a fun and lively place to be.
When visiting Taormina, Mount Etna looks so close you’d think you could reach out and touch it. One of the things that helps make Taormina such a beautiful and picturesque place is the fact that you can get a great view of Mount Etna from pretty much anywhere in Taormina. Taking pictures and looking at Mount Etna is wonderful, but making a visit to Europe’s largest Volcano is an amazing adventure.
There are numerous tours available from Taormina that will pick you up and take to you the Sapienza Refuge area, which is 1910 meters up the mountain. This is the only one of the five refuge areas that is accessible by public transportation. Because of this it is the most popular of the five hubs for accessing Mount Etna. The refuge areas all have basic overnight accommodations and restaurants if you're looking to spend a night on the mountain.
From the Sapienza area you have a few options available to you. There are numerous trails from here where you can hike and explore the area. Or, you can take the cable car farther up the mountain to some of the more recent eruption sites. If you want to go still higher there are four-wheel drive buses that will take you as high as is permissible given the status of the mountain. Keep in mind that Mount Etna is not only Europe’s largest volcano but it is also it’s most active. Another consideration to keep in mind when planning a visit to Mount Etna is the cost. The cable car and four-wheel drive buses are very expensive so make sure you are prepared for the cost as well as the elements when making your visit. Even at the Sapienza Refuge area the weather can be extremely cold and windy so come prepared.
Be sure to bring warm clothing and sturdy shoes. The footing is loose, broken lava, so watch your step especially going downhill.
To be honest it wasn’t until just before we were to leave for Italy that I came across the BamBar. Apparently this place is somewhat of a local legend in Taormina. Famous for their Granita, which is a semi-frozen dessert that originated in Sicily, the establishment has been visited by numerous high-profile celebrities over the years. The owner, who may very well also be your server, will be glad to show you the long list of celebrities who have graced his little bar. It was clear to us that he is not only proud of his famous cliental but also of his world famous Granita.
Located off of the main street in a small piazza with outdoor seating, it’s a great place to relax for a few minutes while enjoying one of Taormina’s famous desserts. The BamBar's Granita is consistently ranked among the best in all of Sicily. It comes in numerous flavors and can be served with or without cream. I had the peach and it was wonderful.
Piazza IX Aprile
It would seem that Piazza IX Aprile (Square of the 9th April) is the epicenter of Taormina. This beautiful piazza with is black and white pavers seems to draw everyone in Taormina at sunset for a great photo opportunity. From here you have an unobstructed view of Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea. Standing guard to the piazza are two churches, St. Augustine’s and the Church of St. Joseph. At the western end of the piazza is the Porta Di Mezzo, which takes visitors under the Clock Tower and into the oldest part of Taormina.
The Piazza IX Aprile makes for a great meeting place and with its many benches is a perfect spot to sit and people watch or simply stare off into the stunning view. You may even be lucky enough to catch a wedding ceremony coming out of the Church. At night the square comes alive as musicians and artists fill the piazza with music and color.
If you find yourself planning a visit to Taormina, I hope you found this guide helpful. My opinion of Taormina is that it is certainly worth more than a day to fully enjoy all that the area has to offer. It is also possibly the most beautiful place that you will visit in Sicily. Enjoy your stay.
Ciao for now.
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© 2012 Bill De Giulio