The Assignment – Plan a 2-week vacation in Sicily around my birthday date in June.
Our Priorities – Spend the vacation money on food, wine and sightseeing; save on air travel and hotels. No rental car – public transportation only between cities. Sleep late whenever possible. Include vacation days from the vacation. Find places to go swing dancing anywhere in Sicily.
About us/Interests– A foodie couple who likes to dance, we seek out rooftop views and seaside dining. We like to walk and use our steps tracker to rack up the miles daily.
Crowdsourcing – use Facebook and Linkedin to get advice from friends and connections; Google and TripAdvisor for advice from the rest of the world.
Getting Started – Airfare first
Our dates were flexible around the end of May through mid-June so we sought out the best fare by any date and also our non-stop preference. Found the best rate (traveling from NYC’s JFK Airport) on Meridiana Airlines, non-stop round trip to Palermo (PMO) leaving Memorial Day (Monday, May 30), with a return on Monday June 13. Rate was $786 using Expedia to book. We considered a return from Catania but that airfare was $150 more and would have included a stop. Meridiana, (Air Italy is owned 100% by Meridiana) turned out to be a gem – a low-cost option I plan to use again for travel elsewhere in Europe, through Palermo. (Their flights from JFK are scheduled through October and at the rate of $599 rt!)
Now that we determined our trip would begin and end in Palermo, we filled the itinerary from there.
Birthday dinner next
By googling “best restaurant in Sicily” I picked Duomo Restaurant in Ragusa for my birthday dinner. An email to firstname.lastname@example.org confirmed our reservation for that date and then the entire trip was planned backwards from there.
Allow me to share the benefit of my 70-80 hours of research planning this trip. Ready for every detail you could possibly need to know? Read on for our logistics-oriented review.
Crowdsourcing the rest
Facebook – Cities to visit : I searched “#Sicily” for pages and ideas and also posted this query on my page: “Anyone been to #Sicily on vacation and have advice for us? hotel recommendations, restaurants, # of days in each city, getting around between cities, visiting #Lampedusa? just starting our planning so any info is welcome!” Replies from friends and connections steered us to the cities we ultimately chose, though we couldn’t squeeze in Lampedusa on this trip.
Where to Dance: a Facebook search for “swing dancing” led us to the fb pages for the groups Sicily In Swing, Swing Cats Italyand Sicily Swing Society and the website http://www.swingfever.it/eventi/ . Reaching out to the organizers and also members of the groups led us to Manuela from Catania who told us about the upcoming swing dance weekend in Palermo – The Swing Godfathers Swing Dance Festival – on the dates we would be there. We clicked we’re “Going” on Events pagehttps://www.facebook.com/events/1670968536509196/ and six weeks later met Manuela there! A swing band from France was the featured live band, completing our international experience.
TripAdvisor – having used TripAdvisor only a few times in the past, I knew the website only as a place to read the opinions posted by total strangers about a hotel or attraction. I had no idea that cities have destination experts. Reading the posts for Sicily under “Forum,” I found that a “Vagabonda” was replying to all the questions with specific answers and intelligent, helpful, friendly and optimistic advice. Who is this Vagabonda and would he/she reply to my questions? Yes! And I ended up getting the majority of the trip information I needed from exchanges with Vagabonda and also by reading her answers to other posted questions. The replies are posted non-stop day and night and so fast that, briefly, I suspected Vagabonda was an auto-reply robot with artificial intelligence capabilities to read the keywords and respond with pre-programmed replies. Not so! At the very least though, perhaps, Vagabonda is more than one person since she has contributed 87,000 posts. I watched as her posts calmed down many a frantic Sicily travel planner with her results-oriented answers and her courteous “Prego” with each reply. Very helpful resource when you are just getting started with your planning and you don’t know what you don’t know.
Booking the Hotels
Expedia offered a 25% discount on hotels booked through their website because we had used them to book our airfare. The hotels had to be booked in the next 8 days to get the discount so we had our work cut out for us to research cities, decide how many nights in each and select hotels. Then, even though we had booked each hotel via Expedia, I did email each hotel with various questions, whether it was to request early check in at our first hotel since our flight arrived to Palermo at 5:30 am, a request for city information, a question about the nearest airport bus stop, etc.
Palermo- 4 nights at beginning of trip; 2 nights at end
Hotel for arrival in Palermo
Eurostars Centrale Palace, Via Vittorio Emanuele, 327; email@example.com
We picked this hotel for our arrival days in Palermo, which taxi drivers knew as Centrale Palace, from the photos on the website showing a restaurant with a rooftop view, and its proximity to Cuattro Canti, in the historic area that we wanted to visit. It also was near the Tourist Office and a stop for the free historic center circular bus, the Navette gratuite. The Expedia price was $125 per night plus taxes and fees. Once I had found this hotel, I also cross referenced it on tour packages websites to find that it was a featured and recommended hotel on their itineraries. The tour companies I looked into included high end Tauck Tours, Europe travel expert Rick Steves and Sicily tour experts.
Transportation PMO Airport to Palermo Hotel – Airport shuttle Bus line called Prestia e Comandè www.prestiaecomande.it
Exiting the airport from the Arrivals area, turn right and walk a short distance to find the shuttle bus stop. A posted sign indicated the bus schedule which was every 30 minutes. The ticket window wasn’t open at 6 am, and contrary to what we had been told, the bus driver did not accept credit cards for the 6.30 euro trip. Back into the airport it was to get euros, which we had been planning to do later in the day in Palermo. Our bank cards were, inexplicably, not accepted in the cash machine (though we had notified our banks in advance of our international travel) so we secured euros at the money exchange counter. Later we were able to withdraw euros when we chose only from among the amounts offered on the ATM screen.
The airport bus makes 9 stops in Palermo, but our arrival hotel had advised us to ride to the last stop, the Central Bus and Train Station at Piazza Giulio Cesare (Staz. Centrale). They also suggested that we ask the driver to drop us at the corner of Via Roma and Via Vittorio Emanuelle, and since we were the only ones on the bus at that point he dropped us there.
No, we do not speak Italian. But having researched key Italian phrases and their pronunciation using http://www.fodors.com/language/italian, with its 150 phrases with audio clips, plus trying to get by using Spanish with an Italian accent, we were able to make ourselves understood much of the time.
Here are the highlights of what we enjoyed in Palermo during our 4 days at the beginning of the trip and 2 at the end:
Street Markets – Ballaro Market, Mercato Capo, Vucciria market and the flea market, Mercato delle Pulci
Cappuchin Monks catacomb visit Catacombe dei Capuccini http://www.catacombepalermo.it/
Palermo, International Puppet Museum
The Cathedral (SS. Maria Assunta)- Corso Vittorio Emanuele
Teatro Massimo Opera House – piazza G. Verdi firstname.lastname@example.org – Guided tours at 8 euros per person, lasting about 30 minutes, are offered on a rotating schedule of English and Italian, German, French and Spanish.
Restaurants in Palermo
Lunches and/or Dinners at:
Trattoria del Pesce Fresco, Foro Italico Umberto I, 3,- The last stop on the Navette gratuite, before its return on its circular line, left us at Porta Felice and that is where we found this outdoor restaurant for a delicious grilled swordfish drizzled with balsamic vinegar for me and gnocchi pesto for him. We ordered a liter of wine with lunch. Now we know – a liter of wine is more than a bottle. And always a good value. In fact, at another restaurant, wine was offered on the menu at either 3 euros per glass or 5 euros for a liter. Our choice for the rest of the trip.
Grilled swordfish drizzed with Balsamic Vinegar at Trattoria del Pesce Fresco
Perciasacchi Via del Monte Di Pieta’, 5 (Capo District) http://www.perciasacchi.it/en/ Via del Monte Di Pieta’, 5, email@example.com. Very pleased with this restaurant which we had learned about from The New York Times article, 36 Hours in Palermo at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/18/travel/what-to-do-in-36-hours-in-palermo-sicily.html?_r=0. The restaurant was in walking distance from our Eurostars Centrale Palace hotel. Hooray for individual pizzas!
Buatta, Corso Vittorio Emanuelle, 176, buattapalermo.it. The crowd gathered outside waiting for a free table was telling – this is a well known tourist place. But not many American tourists – I heard French, Spanish and Italian spoken. Later on in Catania, we saw that Buatta was a chain. We started with the tasting platter of appetizers including the crunchy sardines. I selected the Pasta Norma, a classic Sicilian dish with eggplant and ricotta cheese, the first of many times I ordered this on this trip. Service was s-l-o-w, the first of many times we experienced that on this trip.
Antica Focacceria San Francesco 58 Via Alessandro Paternostro. THE place to come for focaccia but the pizza also looked divine, and so was my Pasta Norma. Be sure to get the lemon granita – a kind of slushy sorbet that comes in a bowl!
Antica Focacceria San Francesco
Pasta Norma at Antica Focacceria San Francesco
Osteria Lo Bianco, Via Emerico Amari, 104, Neighborhood: Politeama. Down the block from our departure hotel, Hotel Garibaldi, we had our last night dinner here. I’m a big fan now of spaghetti with bread crumbs. Sounds like something you would feed a 5-year old! (There were a few of those there that night.) Also had our last night dessert of a cannolo (that’s how you order just one.)
Bellotero Ristorante, Via Giorgio Castriota, 3, Neighborhood: Politeama. The most non touristy restaurant of our trip. Not only were we the only non-Italians, the diners seemed to be like guests in a home. It didn’t look like they were ordering off the menu. Their food just started coming. The restaurant had an Upper-East-Side-NY clubby feel. We were treated to a post dinner moscato on the house.
Alla 59 Restaurant, Via Cavour- This restaurant, across the street from the Teatro Massimo, was the perfect spot for a late lunch while waiting for our English tour of the Opera House to begin. Consistently off sync with the Sicilian restaurant lunch and dinner meal hours throughout our entire 2 week trip, we constantly had to seek out tourist restaurants that remained open during off hours. Here we found lunch at 4 pm, while waiting for our 530 pm English language guided tour to begin. The menu offered a dozen different pizzas – easy to find one with ingredients you want.
Cocktails and “happy hour appetizers”:
Rooftop cocktails with a view at La Rinascente department store penthouse floor, Via Roma 289 Our 8 euro drinks (a Negroni and an Old Fashioned) came with an appetizer spread of meats, cheeses, olives, mini sandwich bites and more
Kursaal Kalhesa, 21 Foro Umberto I, Neighborhood: Tribunali http://www.kursaalkalhesa.com/ Nice quiet spot for pre dinner drinks in the outdoor garden. Next time we will have dinner. No dancing on the night we were there since it was pre-season early June. Will return on a Saturday on our next trip.
Kursaal Kalhesa restaurant, Palermo
Late Breakfast :
Antico Caffe Spinnato Via Principe di Belmonte 107-15, Palermo http://www.spinnato.it/ Neighborhood: Politeama. This historic café was still serving café latte and coronets (croissants) when we sought out our first repast way past breakfast time. At least we didn’t hear the waiters whisper amongst themselves like at other cafes (“They want colazione, at this hour!”). Walking distance from our Hotel Garibaldi.
Half – Day Trips from Palermo
Cefalù – one hour train ride from Central Station, schedule available at http://www.trenitalia.com/tcom-en , 5.60 euros each way. When we looked at the website the night before to select a departure time, we didn’t see any of the morning departures we had previously considered. Where was the 10 am, and noon departure? The only departure available was at 13:06. We went down to ask the front desk to help us look at the website and that is when we were informed that the next day was a holiday, June 2, Day of the Republic and a holiday schedule would be in effect. We were advised not to book our tickets online but to just go to the train station the next day to get our tickets. We arrived early enough in case there was a noon departure. There wasn’t but a good surprise was a rousing 4th of July style concert by the train employee band – The William Tell Overture was one I recognized. The first of many “bad to good” surprises this trip. Arrival at Cefalù shortly after 2 pm gave us just enough time to make our way to The Cathedral (Il Duomo), lunch at Al Porticciolo by 3 pm (fresh fish and a seaside table), a walk along the beach via Luongomare and 630 pm train return.
Mondello – city bus #806 leaves from Piazza Sturzo Square in the Politeama Neighborhood. Another day we did a late pm mini excursion to this beach area of Palermo. A 20 minute bus ride, a walk along the beach. Tried to go to bye bye blues, firstname.lastname@example.org but it was closed so return bus less than 2 hours later.
We considered but ruled out a visit to Mafia museum in Corleone because there was only one bus, at 8.15 am. (email@example.com) and that was too early for us.
Travel Palermo to Catania
Both bus and train were our options and we chose the 2 hr 50 min train at 13.50 euros for comfort. We bought the tickets at the station two days before departure, because we happened to be there on our return from Cefalù. http://www.trenitalia.com/tcom-en
Catania – 3 nights
Hotel Royal Catania Via A. Di Sangiuliano 337, firstname.lastname@example.org , http://win.hotelroyalcatania.it/eng/. The Expedia price was $111 per night plus taxes and fees. We were glad we were assigned room 305, with its private roof garden with a 360 degree view of Mt. Etna and the port, complete with sun lounge chairs and a small table and two chairs for our evening wine (purchased around the corner at a small store, MUSEO CROCIFERI – Art and Chocolate Via Crociferi 21). A hot tub on the roof garden was not yet in operation for the summer. (Note to self: email a hotel in advance and ask “Will the rooftop hot tub I see featured prominently on your website be in operation on the dates we will be at your hotel?) We took a taxi, immediately available at the taxi stand at the train station, to the hotel, a 15 minute ride for about 10 euros.
A roof top. A bottle of Sicilian wine (We discovered, enjoyed and then repeatedly chose the Nero d’avola). An evening nightcap tradition we started in Catania and continued at our next 2 hotels.
Sightseeing in Catania
WWII Museum (Museo Storico dello Sbarco in Sicilia 1943 (closed Mondays) 4 euros
Cinema Museum Museo Del Cinema 4 euros
Outdoor Fish Market – La Pescheria – Mercato del Pesce
Walk along Via Etnea shopping street
Villa Bellini, Catania’s public gardens
Teatro Greco Romano
Castello Ursino gallery exhibit
Restaurants in Catania
Lunches and/or Dinners at:
Sicilia in Bocca, just down from the outdoor fish market, enjoyed the whole fish, presented and deboned.
Ristorante La Paglia Antica Trattoria. Actually located within the outdoor fish market, so close to the vendors I wished I had worn my rubber boots as well! Had the fresh sardines appetizer
Cocktails and “happy hour appetizers”
Rooftop cocktails with a view:
Etnea Roof Bar & Restaurant in the UNA Hotel Palace, Via Etnea 218 – what better way to view Mt. Etna, than with a pair of bellini cocktails? If you feel like a bite, I would suggest the meat and cheese platter over the cheese toasts we ordered. That sounded like it would be a bruschetta but it was a cheese sandwich.
Bellini cocktails, view of Mt. Etna, Etnea Roof Bar, UNA Hotel Palace, Catania
Day Trip from Catania to Taormina
We took the Interbus line bus from Catania to Taormina, schedule at http://www.interbus.it/Home.aspx (4.9 euros) and made the return by train. (4.3 euros)
We used this website http://shipsofmessina.altervista.org/Scali_2016.pdf to view the cruise ship schedule and chose a day when no cruise ships would be calling at the time we were there.
Did I already mention we liked to walk? Our daily steps goal, established by our individual fitbits is 10,000. On Taormina day we reached 23,000! That’s ten miles. Starting with the 20 minute walk to the bus station from the Royal Hotel.
Sightseeing in Taormina
We used this website http://www.hotelvillaschuler.com/events/events-2016/ to learn about gallery shows and events around Taormina on the day we visited. Saw the wonderful Sicilian cart exhibit at the Palazzo dei Congressi Exhibit Hall and met the curator who had collected them all.
Visit to the Greek Theatre, 10 euros, or free if it is your birthday
Walk Corso Umberto to Piazza IX Aprile
Cable car down to the beach, 3 euros
Taormina, cable cars down to the beach
Taormina, view of beach from cable car
Then taxi to the train station for the return to Catania. The train station at Taormina/Giardini Naxos which apparently was a filming location for The Godfather.
Travel Catania to Ragusa
Catania to Ragusa by bus – hourly departures, direct, 1 h 55 min, 7.90 eur
Interbus service – http://www.interbus.it/
Buses arrive in Modern Ragusa (Ragusa Superiore) and from there took a taxi to the old section, Ragusa Ibla to our hotel.
Ragusa – 2 nights
HOTEL DELL’OROLOGIO, Via Ioppolo 12, email@example.com. This hotel had the biggest room of our stay, with a queen bed and also 2 twin beds in our room and a big walk-in shower. What we didn’t know was that the hotel was up a steep hill on a pedestrian street so our taxi driver could not drop us off in front of the hotel, only at the bottom of the hill. Luckily, I was able to enlist Claudia at the front desk to help us carry our suitcases up to the hotel and to our room. This hotel offered a rooftop seating area which turned out to be ours alone each evening for our nightcap. Bottle of wine in Ragusa purchased at the store within Gelati di Vini. The hotel room was equipped with a bottle opener and glasses! View of the hills with lights glittering from the homes. And a starry night.
Cucina e Vino Trattoria, cucinaevino.eu. This restaurant was recommended by a friend of a friend found on facebook who said it was her family’s favorite eatery of their entire Sicily trip. A cute corner outdoor restaurant on a lovely night was indeed a favorite of ours.
Al Borgo restaurant had the advantage of being the only restaurant open at our odd arrival time of 3 pm. Salads, pizzas, focaccia fit the bill for a fast lunch.
Gelati di Vini, Piazza Duomo 20 http://www.gelatidivini.it/, Recommended by another friend as their favorite place in Sicily for gelato. Had the Cioccolato al Peperoncino flavor (Chile infused chocolate) here and also picked up a bottle of wine for our rooftop evening.
Gelati di Vini, Piazza Duomo, Ragusa, gelato Cioccolato al Peperoncino flavor (Chile infused chocolate)
Birthday dinner at Ristorante Duomo, Via Capitano Bocchieri, 31, -our multi-course dinner with the wine pairings was a fitting meal for this destination restaurant. We chose the chef’s surprise option, which changes daily, depending on his whim.
Ristorante Duomo, Ragusa
A half day of wandering around was enough time to see the Duomo Cathedral, Museo di San Giorgio and enjoy the Giardini Iblei Gardens.
Half-Day Trip from Ragusa to Modica: The chocolate capital of Sicily
By Bus http://www.aziendasicilianatrasporti.it/ 4.2 euros round trip.
Trenino Barocco – A trenino, as they call it, a little tourist sightseeing train excursion, with departures from outside the Tourist Office, makes a 45-minute tour from Corso Umberto to Modica Alta. An open air train on wheels takes you up the steep steep hill to Upper Modica and back, or can leave you at Belvedere (the highest panoramic point in Modica) for the walk down. Teninobarocco.it, 5 euros
Then a visit to the Chocolate Museum
Italy, with Sicily, made out of Chocolate, Modica Chocolate Museum
Modica dining: Lunch at A putia ro vinu, Aputiarovinu.com, 15 euro lunch deal
Chocolates purchased at Motycafe and Antica Dolceria Bonajuto
Travel Ragusa to Siracusa/Ortigia
Interbus from Ragusa to Siracusa non stop or with one bus change, 7.2 euros
http://www.interbus.it/ A windy, steep road plus a Kamikaze driver intent on passing every truck, even 2 or 3 trucks at a time, even on blind curves, made for a very queasy ride.
Ortigia – 2 nights
The only hotel not booked through Expedia but directly by email. Rate 226 euros for 2 nights.
(Note to self: email a hotel in advance and ask “Will the rooftop 5 pm complimentary granita for guests, that I see featured prominently on your website be offered on the dates we will be at your hotel?). This hotel had a second floor outdoor rooftop seating area with a view of the sea where each evening we had our nightcap, as well – Vodka tonics purchased at the hotel bar and brought up to the roof!
Jewish Mikva, Guided tours, on the hour from 9 am to 7 pm, start at The Residenza Alla Giudecca, Via Alagona 52, where they were discovered during renovations of the hotel. www.allagiudecca.it/en/jewish-bath.html; firstname.lastname@example.org;
Jewish Mikva tour, The Residenza Alla Giudecca, Ortygia
Boat tour around the island and out to the caves- There are boats all along the two bridges as you enter and depart Ortigia. We took the one found on Ponte Nuovo
Boat tour around Ortygia
Papyrus Museum, Museo del Papiro, 5 euro entry
Ristorante Dioniso, via Claudio Maria Arezzo 29- friendly owner/host, fabulous meal. We were impressed by the couple dining next to us. From Chicago, they told us. They had appetizers, salad, a full size pasta course, steak and dessert.
Lemon Granita at Voglia Matta, Via Umberto – considered the best in the city
Punto G – Dinner with live music, puntogsiracusa.it, via Saverio Landolina, 1. I became suspicious of the mixed grill platter after I was made aware that elsewhere horsemeat was also on the menu
Travel Siracusa to Palermo
Syracuse to Palermo – took the Interbus line, http://www.interbus.it/ 12 euros, It’s a 3 H 25” trip so happily a rest stop is scheduled. On Saturdays there were only two options, 8 am and 2 pm.
Palermo – 2 nights
After our two week tour of Sicily we returned to Palermo for our last two nights of the vacation before our return flight and, indeed, the stop for the Airport shuttle bus was located across the Square from this hotel, in the Politeama district. The Expedia price was $97 per night plus taxes and fees. Out the door at 5 am for the 5:15 airport bus, departing from the Square just steps from the hotel.
The food was the standout for us on this 2-week Sicily trip. Pasta twice in one day, even! Apparently not an opinion shared by a fellow passenger on the return flight to New York. Heard upon deplaning “Finally, home to get some good Pizza.” And then a final pleasant surprise from the Customs agent looking at my passport upon re-entry into the U.S. His question: “Was this a birthday trip?”
Bone up on the metric system: many a directions were provided to us as “The hotel is 1000 meters down this road.” Is that close or far when wheeling luggage?
How to cross the street – A red traffic light does not necessarily mean the cars will stop. Even when crossing in the pedestrian crosswalk, try this procedure: Make eye contact with the driver. Indicate with your body language if you are going. Hope for the best. Or wait for a local to cross and follow close behind them.
Opening hours– The Museum of Cinema in Ortygia/Siracusa was never open during our 3 days in town, and we kept stopping by. Inquiring about it at the reception desk at the Inn down the street, they could not tell us when it would be open. Basically, like other things in Sicily: “It will be open when you see that it is open.”
Bus and train schedule websites – “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet” applies to schedules posted on the bus and train websites. The websites in Italian are more reliable than the schedules you see when clicking English. At the bus depot, the best way to know if the bus is going to your destination, no matter what the sign on the bus reads, is to ask the driver, \ “Modica?”. Same for the schedule. “Ragusa?” we asked the bus driver. 5: 15 he said. Sad news to us waiting since 3:30 (the time posted on the sign at the Modica bus station) and a different time than the 4 pm we had been told when we bought our tickets at the Ragusa bar/ticket and also different from the 4:20 time on the website.