This Italian island, where myth and history go hand in hand and traditions are kept alive, has something special to offer, something that conquers visitors coming from everywhere in the world.
Because of its strategic position at the crossroads of the Mediterranean sea, many different civilisations such as the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Arabs and the Normans have dominated it. You can find traces of them intertwined in every aspect of Sicilian culture - in its architecture, its gastronomy, its dialect and in its folklore.
After our itinerary on East Sicily, we’ll explore West Sicily. White-sand beaches, delicious street food, jaw-dropping landscapes, stunning art, everything in this land of contrasts and stunning beauty is startlingly charming and at the same time authentic. Let the colours, the smells, the flavours and the atmosphere of this part of the island seduce you. Get ready and amunì! (let’s go in Sicilian dialect)
Know before you go
The best option to get to Western Sicily would be to travel by plane. There are two choices: the Palermo Falcone-Borsellino airport (about one hour away from the centre of Palermo) and the smaller Trapani- Birgi airport. Some of the airlines that fly into both Palermo and Trapani are Ryanair, Volotea, easyJet, WizzAir and ITA airways.
In general, Sicily has a Mediterranean climate, with mild winters and hot, dry (and long) summers.
If you enjoy the sunshine and warm weather, go in July or August, the warmer months, where the temperature rarely gets below 30 °C. Those are also the most crowded months in terms of tourism.
If you want chiller weather and a more peaceful environment, go in the fall or in the spring: from May to June and from September to early November you’ll find milder temperatures (between 15 and 25 °C).
The winter is also a good option, as it rarely gets below the double digits in Sicily. However, remember that it could get quite windy or rainy.
A car would definitely be the best option to get around: Sicily is bigger than it looks (it’s almost the same size as Belgium) and public transport, unfortunately, is not that efficient.
Day 1-2: Palermo
Nestled in the Conca d'Oro valley, between the sea and the mountains, Palermo has something special about it. Chaotic, picturesque, cosmopolitan and yet full of tradition: in this city, there’s a very distinct atmosphere you can’t find anywhere else. As it’s quite big and there’s quite a lot to visit, feel free to spend more than one day exploring it.
The name “Palermo” reflects the city's complex history: The Greeks called the area Paleapolis (Old Town). They then switched to Pánormos, " harbour." The Arabs called it Bal' harm, and lastly, the Normans changed the name to Belarmus. The influence of these names was then combined into today's name: Palermo.
To get immersed into Palermo’s atmosphere right away, start with the Ballarò Market. Get ready to be swept away by a million different smells, flavours, colours and sounds. It can definitely get hectic in there, but that’s the beauty of it! Oh, and Palermo is also called the capital of street food, so you should definitely stop by and taste one of the many typical dishes or even get some fresh produce. Whether it’s pani cunzatu (bread seasoned with olive oil, sheep cheese, and anchovies), panino con le panelle (a sandwich with chickpea fritters) or panino ca meusa (a sandwich stuffed with spleen of veal- not for weak stomachs!), your tastebuds will thank you.
After delighting your palate, it’s time to delight your eyes and go see one of Palermo’s most beautiful treasures: The Norman Palace and the Palatine Chapel. Dating all the way back to the 12th century, the palace was once the seat of the Kingdom of Sicily and it’s still the oldest royal palace in Europe. The Chapel, with its jaw-dropping golden mosaics, is a true masterpiece of Norman-Byzantine art. However, of the influence other civilisations had on Palermo’s history, you can also see elements of Saracen and Arabic architecture. The intricate, vibrantly coloured designs interlock in a riot of magnificence, particularly in the complex geometries of the vaulted wooden structures of the roof called “muquarnas”.
And speaking of intricate, stunning architecture, the Cathedral of Palermo, just a few metres away, is another perfect example of that. You’ll notice that this opulent building, one of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Palermo, has a peculiar appearance: it’s almost “uneven”, it’s hard to associate it with a single style of architecture, but it’s rather a mixture of many different styles as a result of a tumultuous history. The cathedral was in fact originally built as a paleocristian Church in roman times. It later became a Byzantine church, a mosque and then a Norman church. It was ultimately embellished with baroque elements in the 17th century. You can still find verses of the Quran engraved in one of the cathedral’s columns. If you want to enjoy one of the best views of Palermo, then you should definitely get on the roof of the cathedral - it’s only 5 euros.
Continue walking on Via Vittorio Emanuele until you reach the Quattro Canti Square: it’s an intersection made up of 4 symmetrical facades. It's also called the "theatre of the sun" as the facades are lit up by the sun one at a time throughout the day. At this intersection are the corners of all four of the ancient quarters (Cantons or Canti) of Palermo: the Kalsa, the Seralcadi, Albergaria and Castellammare.
The Fontana pretoria, only a few steps away, is one of Palermo’s most famous landmarks. The statues around it represent different characters of Roman mythology.
Just behind it, you’ll find the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, known as La Martorana, Initially built as a private chapel, this church is strictly tied to the Italo-Albanian community in Sicily (Arbëreshë). The liturgy is still officiated according to the Byzantine rite and in the ancient Greek and Albanian languages. Once again, you’ll find traces of this cultural variety in the architecture: from Byzantine mosaics to baroque frescos, everything will leave you breathless.
Teatro Massimo, with its majestic staircase and its eclectic neoclassical façade dominating the iconic avenue via Maqueda and piazza Verdi, is the next must-see. This theatre is the biggest opera house in Italy and the third biggest opera house in Europe. The mobile wooden panels on the ceiling that look like frescoed petals of exquisite beauty and the extremely peculiar acoustic effect in the Pompeian room are among the characteristics that make this theatre so special.
To close it off, don’t forget to stop at the famous Spinnato bar and taste what is perhaps the most famous Sicilian dish: arancine (the name of the dish is feminine in Western Sicily and masculine, so arancini, on the East coast). This culinary masterpiece consists of rice balls that are stuffed, coated with bread crumbs and deep-fried.
Where to stay in Palermo:
Day 3: Riserva dello Zingaro
After immersing yourself in the hectic Palermo, it’s time to relax in a quieter natural environment. The Zingaro natural reserve is an oasis of peace and tranquillity enveloped between the blue of the immense sea and vast areas of green that include about 650 different species of plants.
Whether you choose the north entrance (near San Vito lo Capo) or the southern one (near Scopello) we suggest you hike along the 7km trail to admire the riserva in all its iridescent beauty. It’s an easy hike, but definitely make sure to wear comfortable shoes, a protective hat and plenty of sunscreen as well as bringing enough water and swimwear. Yes, because even if the view from the path is spectacular, you shouldn’t hesitate to stop at one of the many bays and have a swim and enjoy the sound of the waves crashing against the shore and the soothing , gentle sea breeze rustling through your hair.
Day 4: Segesta and Erice
Although all that’s left of the original Segesta are ruins (only the nearby municipality of Calatafimi-Segesta is still inhabited) it used to be a very important city at the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But its origins are far more remote and quite obscure too: it was one of the major cities of the Elymians, one of the three indigenous peoples of Sicily. You can see what this ancient civilization (as well as the Greeks and the Romans) left in the outstanding archaeological site.
The highlights are definitely the Temple and the amphitheatre, both well preserved and surrounded by dazzling hilltops and valleys. It’s hard to put into words how such majestic, ancient buildings can make you feel. You’re a tiny dot standing in front of something huge that has endured the passage of time for hundreds of centuries.
And speaking of history, the next place we’re guiding you to is Erice, an extremely well-preserved medieval hill-town high above the harbour of Trapani. You can reach it by taking the cable car (funivia) which climbs from the outskirts of Trapani to Porta Trapani, the gateway into Erice’s old town. This ten-minute panoramic journey with views back over the sea and the Egadi Islands is definitely the most fun way to reach it. Another option would be going by car or taking a bus in Trapani.
Just as Segesta, the town was founded by the Elymians, but given its naturally fortified position, it was conquered and reconquered multiple times: after the Greeks, the Carthaginians and the Romans, it was ruled by the Arabs and the Normans. As it’s often the case in Sicily, every civilisation left traces of its culture in the art, the architecture and even the local cuisine.
Get lost in the labyrinth of tiny medieval streets and let them lead you to Erice’s most famous attractions, such as the Pepoli tower, an eclectic mix of liberty and Arabic-inspired architecture, and the Venus Castle, built on the ruins of an Elymian-Phoenician-Roman temple. The architectural heritage of the town also includes more than 60 churches: the medieval San Giovanni Battista church and the gothic Duomo (or Chiesa Madre) are surely worth paying a visit.
As Erice is particularly renowned for its pastries, don’t forget to stop to have a taste of a “genovese” (a scrumptious buttery and flaky treat filled with lemon scented pastry cream) or a typical almond cookie.
Where to stay in Erice:
Day 5: Marsala and Stagnone
Marsala is well known for its amber-coloured sweet wine, named after the city, but it also has considerable cultural heritage. Built on the ruins of the ancient Carthaginian city of Lilybaeum, the city was later conquered by the Romans, the Arabic Berbers and Norman, Angevin and Aragonese troops.
In the archaeological Lilibeo Museum you can admire two different permanent exhibitions that branch off from the entrance: the first one, on the right, shows underwater finds, and the other, on the left, illustrates the history of the city of Lilybaeum through history. In the main hall, you’ll find a monumental view of the wreck of an ancient Punic Ship, the Museum's main attraction.
Other sights not to miss in the city centre are the Cathedral in Norman and Baroque style, and the Flemish tapestries museum.
After that, head to the outskirts of the city to discover one of the most suggestive places in Sicily, if not in Italy: the Natural reserve of the Stagnone islands. Start by exploring the small island of Mothia (also called San Pantaleo), only a few minutes away from the mainland. You can reach it by ferry.
The island has Phoenician roots, but it was later colonised by the Greeks and the Carthaginians. The Whitaker Museum, named after the archaeologist who bought the island in the early 1900s and financed its excavations, is the most prestigious attraction on the island thanks to the famous statue of “the young man from Mozia”. The House of the Mosaics, the Kothon (a water basin that might have been used for religious ritual), the Tophet (a sacred area where sacrifices were performed) and the remains of the Necropolis are other famous sights.
We strongly recommend taking the ferry back to the mainland, right on time for the sunset. Yes, because the sunset on the Stagnone natural reserve is a rare spectacle, something that seems straight out of an impressionistic painting. Since the water that separates the different islands is so shallow, there are salt pans enriched by beautiful mills in the whole area. As a result of this, the water acquires a peculiar pinkish hue that is enhanced even more as the evening approaches and the bright light of the Sicilian sun dims and melts everything into a pink, orange and red-toned picture.
Where to stay in Marsala:
Day 6: Mazara Del Vallo and Selinunte
After Marsala, it’s time to visit the neighbouring Mazara del Vallo. With its strong Tunesian community, Mazara is one of the most diverse cities in the Trapani province. You can see a tangible example of that in the Kasbah, the maze-like Arabic quarter in the heart of the city. Recently restored and redecorated with colourful tiles, the small, labyrinthic streets open up into squares and large spaces when you would least expect it.
That’s the case in San Francesco’s church, a true vision of Sicilian baroque. An unassuming exterior reveals a stunning interior that is purposefully overloaded with extremely elaborate statues, paintings and decor. Not as full but equally beautiful, Mazara’s cathedral is also a stunning piece of art and architecture. Take a moment to marvel at the intricate ceilings and the scenographic sculpted drapery.
Another spot you can’t miss in the city centre is the Museum of the Dancing Satyr: as the name suggests, the protagonist is the over-lifesize Greek bronze statue of the Dancing Satyr, which has become the symbol of the city because of its rather fascinating history. Casually found in the sandy sea floor of the southwestern coast of Sicily in 1998 by a local fishing boat, the statue represents the mythological figure of an ecstatic Greek satyr. After its recovery from the depths of the sea, the statue has been restored and exposed in Tokyo and in Paris, at the Louvre museum. If you still have time, close off your visit in Mazara by enjoying the white sand Tonnarella beach.
As the last stop on this tour, visit the ancient Greek village of Selinunte and its extensive archaeological site (one of the largest in Europe). The acropolis offers an impressive view of the sea, and temples in different states of ruin, mainly because of the effects of earthquakes throughout the centuries, are an extraordinary demonstration of the construction genius of past civilizations.
Where to stay in Mazara Del Vallo:
Extra Days: Aegadian Islands
If you have some extra time, the Aegadian Islands are definitely worth visiting. Only a few miles away from Trapani and Marsala, the rocky islands of Favignana, Levanzo and Marettimo are heavenly spikes of land nestled in turquoise and deep blue waters. The extraordinary variety of wildlife, both in the flora and in the fauna, make them a popular tourist destination for those who love snorkelling and hiking. However, things like the local fish market, and the fisherman sitting outside while they mend nests, are all resilient signs of the untamed wilderness of these special islands, which will surely steal your heart.
Map of West Sicily
Curious about all the spots and highlights in this West Sicily itinerary pinned and planned out? Check out our map of the western side of the island: