Visit Syracuse: what are the best things to do and see on the small town on the east coast of Sicily?
A small town of about 123,000 inhabitants located in the south-east of Sicily, 66 kilometres from Catania, Syracuse is an open-air archaeological museum and one of the most exciting places to visit in Sicily. An ancient city founded by Greek settlers from Corinth in the 8th century BC, it once rivaled the mighty Athens and even caused the downfall of the Athenian Empire. It is renowned for its historic center, built on an islet all in marble: the island of Ortygie – or Città Vecchia in Italian.
Syracuse, the birthplace of the famous scientist Archimedes, was one of the richest cities in western ancient Greece and as such was a target in many of wars opposing its neighbors, famously between the Carthage (modern day Tunis) and Rome. Cicero once said, before the Roman occupation of Syracuse and the end of its independence, that it was the most beautiful of all Greek cities. First Greek, then Roman, it became Byzantine, Muslim, Norman, Aragonese and finally became a part of Italy.
Syracuse is a small town whose center has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 2005. A major tourist site, which concentrates many things to see and do to visit Sicily, here is our modest selection.
Also read : The 17 best things to do in Sicily
1. The island of Ortygie, the historic center of Syracuse
Separated from the island of Sicily by a small strait called Darsena, the island of Ortygie was where the Greeks settled in the 8th century BC, and is therefore today the historic heart of the city of Syracuse. You will find remains of the temple of Apollo at the entrance of the island, though it is far from its original glory. If you want to see temples in better shape we can’t recommend the Valley of Temples in Agrigento quite enough, it makes for a nice day trip from Syracuse or you could always stay in Agrigento for the evening. Ortygie has many more monuments on display, such as the Aretusa fountain. It is a pleasure to stroll through the maze of alleys in the old city center where the style of the Spanish era still prevails. Go there especially in the morning before 9am, before the tourist crowd to discover the city when it is still asleep.
And then there are the small cafés, bars, restaurants, art galleries, souvenir shops. The daily market of Syracuse is held there, an ideal place to discover Sicilian cheese and delicacies. Plan to stay at least half a day to visit Ortygie.
2. Castello Maniace
While you are visiting the isle of Ortygie, you’ll eventually end up in fron of the Castello Maniace. Built in 1038 by the Byzantines as a military fort, it was eventually renovated and rebuilt in the 13th century into a livable and comfortable castle, before undergoing yet again another wave modifications in the 15th century turning in into a probably less than comfortable prison. Its affordable entrance price (2 €) is well worth it as you’ll benefit from its beautiful panoramic views of the sea.
3. Piazza del Duomo
The Piazza del Duomo was originally built around a Greek temple, though you wouldn’t guess it today as it has become eponymous with the graceful yet massive cathedral that dominates the area. The ornate and elegant Cathedral of Santa Maria delle Colonne is a fairly unique sight in Sicily as it bears little resemblance to either the older Norman churches and cathedrals with their sometimes square and rugged aspects, nor the Saracen or Spanish inspired buildings that have flourished in other parts of the Island. The inside of the cathedral is worth a look as well, its stained glass work is a marvel and you wouldn’t really have visited the Piazza del Duomo if you haven’t been inside the Duomo.
4. Mercato di Ortigia
The Ortygia market is a typical Sicilian market and one of the best preserved today. While you will you need to go early if you want to avoid the crowds and tourist tours, you can still enjoy an authentic area favored by locals and students, where prices haven’t been driven up too much and with the freshness and fantastic quality of products that is so deeply attached to Sicilian cuisine. Another option is to go there around noon as many places will have tables and chairs out if you want to have lunch out of fresh produce. The cheese in this market is particularly remarkable and the sandwiches sold in some of the shops are of the utmost quality.
5. The catacombs of San Giovanni
Not far from the archaeological park of Paolo Orsi, there is the Chiesa di San Giovanni alle Catacombe, the catacombs of San Giovanni. Of Greek origin, these catacombs are a vast underground necropolis. This site is not well known to tourists, so there are fewer people there than in other of the more popular things to do in Syracuse.
6. Neapolis Archaeological Park
Located north of the modern city of Syracuse – viale Paradiso -, the Neapolis Archaeological Park allows you to relive Gallo-Roman antiquity by walking on the Roman amphitheater – where gladiatorial battles were held, as well as an ancient Greek theater with 20,000 seats. You will also get to see the altar of Heron II, a temple dedicated to Zeus, as well as the famed ear of Dionysus, where the tyrant Dionysus, not the Greek God, would have listened to his prisoners’ conversations there. Similarly, favor early morning visits, especially in summer as it is very hot and the tourist traffic is very high.
7. The Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum
For those who love the historical remains of the Roman Empire, Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum, another archaeological venue, should seduce you: the museum houses a collection of statues, sculptures, ceramics from Sicilian prehistory to Greek colonization. But you will also have access to maps, schematics and models. It is one of the largest archaeological museums in Europe!
8. Beaches near Syracuse
How could you visit Syracuse without setting foot on its splendid beaches? What is there to do in Syracuse when you have already been in every corner of the city? Go swimming, of course! There are five or six beaches, two of which are really worth a visit, south of the city. Be careful, the north is polluted and industrial, especially in Augusta, near oil refineries at the foot of which you won’t want to swim. Go south from Syracuse instead, to Ognina – a secluded beach with small coves, our favorite spot -, Fontane Bianche, Avola, Vendicari, or Calamosche. You will immerse yourself in turquoise and crystal clear waters.
Also read : 20 Best beaches in Sicily
9. Riserva Naturale Orientata Cavagrande del Cassibile
One hour from Syracuse by car, you can find the gorges of the Cassibile river, one of Sicily’s natural jewels. We parked on the top of the massif and make an easy descent on the side of the mountain to natural pools. In 2014, a major fire destroyed the vegetation and the access stairs, following which the hike was closed to the public. During our visit in the summer of 2018, we had to climb a railing to start the descent – and wait for our turn as the crowds were large. A splendid view of the canyon is revealed, an ideal place to picnic in the middle of nature, but which is very popular. During our visit, the water was really cold, which is a big change from the warm beaches!
How to get to Syracuse?
The ideal way to visit Syracuse is to land at Catania airport. You will find direct flights from London, Glasgow or Manchester. To find a cheap flight to Catania, you can go to the website of our partner Skyscanner.
If you wish to visit the entirety of the island of Sicily during a single stay, we recommend that you use a car. You can bring your own car on a ferry or if you are flying in we suggest you rent a car directly at the airport.
If you rent a car, it will take you 1 hour on the road via E45 and SS114 to reach Syracuse. You also have a bus from Catania (€5.70 per single ticket), which leaves every hour from Monday to Saturday (only 6 departures on Sunday). Finally, there is a train, which is not recommended because it is very slow (2 hours of travel compared to 1h15 for the bus, and 6€ for a single ticket).
You can also reach Syracuse from Palermo or Catania after having gotten there via a ferry boat. It takes about 10 hours from France to reach Sicily by boat, which will allow you to travel freely on the island with your own car. Ferries leave from France and other Italian ports. You can book your ferry to Sicily online on the DirectFerries website.
Where to stay in Syracuse?
We found the old center of Syracuse, on the island of Ortygie, to be much more authentic and more pleasant to stay in than the rest of the city of Syracuse. So choose accommodation in this area, prices are not higher than in the rest of the city and you will have nicer surroundings. If you have a car, there is a cheap parking lot at the entrance of Ortygie. You can find a cheap hotel or accommodation in Syracuse by searching this online booking service.. You could also indulge yourself by renting out a villa in a surrounding village or a country house in the vicinity of Syracuse, such as the ones you can find on Airbnb.
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