It would have been nice to read a little more history before visiting Sicily. In addition to cannoli and sunshine, the island has well-preserved Greek temples, Arab-inspired infrastructure, fortresses and tombs for the Normans, and beautiful beaches with clear, deliciously cool water. It’s not all fun and games though—any money spent there has a small amount taken by an extortionist mafia (addiopizzo.org has a list of pizzo-free establishments, or those that decline to pay protection money, if you are so inclined). However, I’m very happy I took my time to savor this warm, friendly region.
Syracuse was, by far, my favorite place in Sicily. The island of Ortigia is full of historical sites and well-kept alleys begging to be explored. The archaeological park also hosts a huge cave, a well-preserved Greek theater, and a Roman amphitheater lacking the crowds of more famous sites.
The Cappucchini Catacombs in Palermo, filled with thousands of bodies, left a huge impression on me. The underground hallways, lined with semicircular niches from which many of the fully clothed bodies not in coffins were hung, contained sections for men, women, children, professionals, and priests, among others. The bodies themselves ranged from a fully preserved little girl who died in the 1920s to the many skeletons, all clothed but with many leaking the straw that added shape to their now-raggedy clothing. I was struck by the train conductor in his uniform and the banker in his suit staring at me 150 years after they passed away. If you take Via Cuba back to the historical town center (you should – the views are nicer and you can see Cuba Palace), the Quatro Canti, an intersection famous for its statues and fountains on all four corners, is definitely worth a look.
Daytrips are mandatory to see and enjoy some of the most impressive parts of Sicily. Agrigento, a mere two hours by train from Palermo, hosts several massive Greek temples. Cefalu, an hour from Palermo, is more touristy (I even saw a few oversized backpacks with Canadian flag patches) but for good reason—the views there are superb. As for Noto, once you look past TrenItalia’s policy of expecting you to have a ticket when they provide neither a ticket window nor an automated machine at the station (I had to buy my return to Syracuse online), it’s nice to amble around in.