I have extremely fond memories of our 4-day road trip through Southeast Sicily. We went in late January 2019 as part of what I dubbed “Operation Flee Winter”: as the name suggests, we were fleeing the harsh grey winter of our then-home Bucharest, Romania. You may be thinking that Sicily is more of summer hotspot – and you’d be right to think that, but thousands of tourists think that too. We found that Sicily basked in its 55-degree-winter glory with none of the summertime crowds – exactly what we were looking for. Besides the sunny weather, highlights of the trip included breathtaking Baroque churches, ocean breezes, ancient ruins, and tasty Sicilian cuisine. For anyone looking to recreate our road trip through Southeast Sicily – I’d recommend it – I outline our itinerary below with a few pro tips.
Our Road Trip Through Southeast Sicily
Morning Arrival in Catania
We arrived at Catania’s airport at about 10 am. We rented a car and set out to Syracuse (aka Siracusa if you don’t want to get mixed up with New York) right away to embark on our road trip through Southeast Sicily. The drive to Siracusa took about an hour.
Afternoon & Evening in Siracusa
We then checked into our hotel on Ortigia Island – this is Siracusa’s charming historical heart. We stayed at a B&B called La Via della Giudecca, a cozy, nicely decorated hotel that was well-located in the center of the island. I enjoyed our stay!
After a quick stroll, we sat down for lunch at A Putia delle Cose Buone. My mouth is watering at the thought of this snug little restaurant and its delicious food. We started with an appetizer of assorted bruschetta. For the main course, we went with the waitress’s recs: I got the pesto di pistacchio (a creamy pistachio pesto pasta dish with bits of ham) and Pepe had a pistachio-crusted tuna filet. Can you tell from our orders that pistachios are grown in Sicily? Pepe vowed that this was one of the best meals he had ever eaten – and mine was pretty damn good, too. This lunch was an ideal way to start our road trip through Southeast Sicily.
We walked off lunch by appreciating the particularly ornate balconies that line Ortigia’s atmospheric streets. Then we hit up the Baroque Duomo, the city’s cathedral set in a beautiful piazza. My favorite part about the Duomo was its intricate facade and exterior, where you can still see the original columns from the original 5th-century BC Greek temple. The interior wasn’t particularly mind-blowing for me, though.
Close out the evening with a drink and snacks at Sunset Ortigia – if you time your happy hour right, you’ll see why this place gets its name.
Morning in Siracusa
Then we arrived at Castello Maniace, the remains of a 13th-century castle that’s worth a visit for its pleasant views over the water.
We enjoyed the remainder of our time in Ortigia strolling by the ruins of the Temple of Apollo and through the open-air market, sampling savory sun-dried tomatoes and sweet mini cannoli.
One of the most interesting visits on our road trip through Southeast Sicily was back on mainland Siracusa: the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis. Although I don’t consider myself an archaeology kinda gal, I do love me some well-preserved Roman and Greek ruins. This park has several archaeological attractions, but I found the white Teatro Greco particularly stunning in its ancient 5th-century BC elegance. Another must-see in the park is the Orecchio di Dionisio, which translates to Dionysius’s Ear. This huge cave-like rock formation gets its curious name from Dionysius I, the Greek tyrant of Syracuse who would use the acoustics of the cave to listen in on prisoners within – you’ll get a sense for the creepy acoustics in the short vid below. Less impressive was the Anfiteatro Romano, which is not in a particularly good state of conservation.
Afternoon in Noto
When planning our road trip through Southeast Sicily, we almost left out the little town of Noto. THANK GOD WE DIDN’T. This UNESCO site is a true Baroque beauty and easy to cover in a few hours. Most of the town’s sights are on the main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, what Lonely Planet claims is “arguably Sicily’s most beautiful street.” I don’t disagree. To appreciate Noto’s grandeur, I recommend your first stop be Chiesa di San Carlo. Note the impeccable facade, then enter the church. The star of the show is the bell tower – its views over Noto are simply perfect (see the main pic for this post above). This was definitely a highlight of the trip for me!
Other gorgeous Baroque churches that you’ll stumble upon include the cathedral, Chiesa di San Domenico, and Chiesa di San Francesco. In many cases, we found that the people working in the churches were notably friendly and kindly offered pamphlets or their own explanations of their church’s treasures – which often entailed a lot of gesticulation, since we don’t speak Italian, haha.
I must also recommend stopping into Palazzo Nicolaci. The facade of the palace offers another fine example of Sicily’s strong balcony game, and the interior is a dream for anyone who follows #ihavethisthingwithfloors, lol. In all seriousness, I thought this was a worthwhile visit and an intriguing glance into the world of bygone Sicilian nobility.
We left Noto as the sun was setting to get to our next stop, Modica, for dinner. I recommend visiting Noto in the late afternoon like we did – it was perfect timing to catch the sun’s rays hitting the honey-colored stone of the buildings.
Evening in Modica
We spent the second night of our road trip through Southeast Sicily at Palazzo Failla, a palace-turned-hotel in Modica Alta, the part of town higher up on the hillside. For dinner, we went to a nearby local restaurant recommended by the reception. I gotta say, we went to sleep extremely satisfied with our day – it was damn near perfect 😊.
Morning in Modica
Our morning consisted of winding through Modica Alta on our way down to Modica Bassa, lower Modica. Our first impressions of Modica weren’t immediately positive – some of the town seems a bit dilapidated and almost crumbling. However, Modica and its old-world charm quickly grew on us, especially as we descended toward Modica Bassa. On our way, we stopped into a few churches, including the pretty Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista, and took in nice views from the lookout point at Pizzo Belvedere.
The real show-stopper in Modica is the UNESCO-listed Duomo di San Giorgio. Talk about Baroque beauty! Both the interior and exterior of the church are detailed and extravagant, and you’ll get an equally photogenic view of the town from the church’s steps!
My research had indicated that Modica was famed for its chocolate, and my quest began upon arrival in Modica Bassa. The chocolate in Modica has its origins in ancient Aztec chocolate recipes, which were brought back to the region by the Spanish, who ruled Sicily at the time of their conquests in the Americas. This chocolate is processed “cold,” meaning that the sugar does not melt and thus creates a granular and rustic texture. The taste of this chocolate is quite strong – even the most formidable chocolate lovers would only be able to eat small amounts at a time. All along Corso Umberto I, Modica Bassa’s main boulevard, you’ll find shops selling this traditional chocolate with an assortment of flavors, from chili to cinnamon to fruit and more.
Our last stop in Modica was Chiesa di San Pietro, another good-looking church that stands out for its characteristic Sicilian Baroque facade and rather Rococo interior. The view of town from the steps, lined with statues of the Apostles, is also picturesque.
Afternoon in Ragusa
Next stop on this road trip through southeast Sicily is Ragusa. One of the best ways to appreciate Ragusa is on the drive in, when you get a majestic view of the town. The churches were closed when we visited Ragusa, so our visit was dedicated to strollin’, eatin,’ and drinkin’. My favorite street in town quickly became Via Capitano Bocchieri, a postcard-worthy alley with lovely facades and the sight of a stately church dome visible in the background.
We were ready for some outdoor brews in the sunny weather, and we found the perfect spot in the plaza along Giardino Ibleo. We ordered our birra along with pizza and the Sicilian specialty caponata, a dish made with marinated vegetables like eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, akin to a ratatouille or a Spanish pisto.
After a few rounds of post-lunch strolling, we were ready to head back to Catania, where we spent the last night of this road trip through Southeast Sicily.
Evening in Catania
We hadn’t heard great things about Catania, so we weren’t sure what to expect. We were flying out of Catania on our last day, so we inevitably had to spend some time there. I gotta say the city met our fairy low expectations. It wasn’t very pretty and felt gritty and dirty. In addition, something peculiar happened the night we were there: the weather forecast didn’t read “clear,” or “cloudy” – it read “dust.” We later found out that the nearby volcano Mt. Etna had spewed volcanic ash into the air, lol. You could sometimes feel the dust particles get in your eyes and it kind of reminded me of a bad pollution day in China. Weird vibes aside, we did enjoy our dinner at Trattoria La Canonica, a cozy, knickknacky restaurant serving prawns so fresh they were jumping before being served on our plates. I also had pasta with pesto genovese – what most people would consider typical pesto – that was tasty but did not surpass the deliciousness of my pistachio pesto in Siracusa.
Morning in Catania
We started our morning in Catania by heading to the Piazza Duomo, featuring the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata and the Fontana dell’Elefante (exactly what it sounds like). This quirky fountain gets its name from the cheery elephant made from black lava that supposedly dates from Roman times. In fact, you’ll notice a lot of this gritty black lava rock around the city.
Next we paid a visit to the Parco Archeologico Greco Romano, the remains of a Roman theatre from the 2nd century. I gotta say this place doesn’t compare with its counterpart in Siracusa – I’d say this one is skippable.
My favorite visit in this not-so-favorite city was the Chiesa di San Giuliano. Although this church is pretty on the inside, it’s real claim to fame is the view from its rooftop terrace: you can see everything from the billowing smoke of Mt. Etna in the distance to the nearby ocean. I recommend it!
By late afternoon, our road trip through Southeast Sicily had sadly come to a close as we headed to the Catania airport. We loved exploring this corner of Italy!