Traveling to Italy can be cost-effective if you know where to go. Sicily offers an alluring alternative to other destinations in Italy.
When I imagined what living in Italy would be like, I don’t think I could have prepared myself for the beautifully chaotic island just at the toe of the Italian boot (not the Ferragamo boots): Sicily. I still remember the feeling of awe I had landing in Palermo, frantically wondering how the pilot could differentiate the sky from the glittering, blue Mediterranean sea; and the moment of panic I had when I went to look for my ride who was driving a white Fiat, only to realize just about every car in the parking lot was a white Fiat; and especially the moment of calm satisfaction I had when I had my first bowl of homemade pasta with salsa pronta and pecorino cheese.
Now I’m sure initial impressions of Sicily in some way lead you back to “The Godfather”–”revenge is a dish best served cold.” However, Sicily is an island steeped in a tumultuous history dating back to the Phoenicians and is virtually the geographic center of the Mediterranean Sea. Having been invaded many times over its history by the likes of the Greek, Roman, Carthaginian, Moorish, and Norman kingdoms, it maintains vestiges of lost empires and prior glories through architecture, art, and, of course, cuisine.
Having moved here almost a year ago, I’ve come to not only appreciate the stunning landscapes, ample coastline, and Mediterranean climate, but also the warm albeit complicated Sicilian hospitality. Don’t get me wrong. Sicily has more than its fair share of problems–continued presence of Mafia, crumbling roads, and urban congestion–but peel back the layers just beyond the surface and you, dear navigator, will be led on an unparalleled journey.
Unlike other over-touristed parts of Italy, Sicily still maintains incredibly economic prices for even the thriftiest European traveler. Now let’s talk a bit more about why Sicily warrants your attention over other potential destinations.
Don’t sleep on the cuisine
I probably could have written this entire article about how wonderful Sicilian cuisine is. But since we’re here to discuss economic travel alternatives, I’ll spare you the tangential spiel of culinary aptitude.
Having spent my time living and working at a farm-to-table cooking school, I’ve had the privilege of trying much of the cuisine. From the tangy flavors of caponata, to the savory, fried arancina, to the sweet and delicate cassata, it seems like every dish has a story. What’s almost as impressive as the history of the food is the economic price point. Even in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, you can wander the open-air markets and sample the vibrant array of street foods with a handful of euros. However, if you’re not quite ready to brave a Pane con la Milza, the famous spleen sandwich of Palermo, let’s talk wallet-friendly alternatives.
For breakfast, head to Pasticceria Cappello for a coffee and pastry, which will cost you no more than €4-5 total ($5-6). If later in the day you’re craving something savory, a traditional plate of pasta alla norma will cost around €7-8. For an evening aperitivo, head to Arre Gusto to split a bottle of Sicilian wine, which includes a complimentary food bar of delicious homemade snacks. Among several unique winegrowing regions, especially around the volcanic soils near Mt. Etna, you’ll easily find bottles of Sicilian wine to split for less than €20-25 ($24-30).
If you aspire to do some cooking yourself, Sicily offers an incredible array of seasonal produce in open-air markets, so many delicious cheeses (pecorino, provola, ragusano, fiore sicano, and tuma persa to name a few…I could go on…), ample meat selections from local butchers, and, what we’re all looking for, artisanal pastas.
Adventure awaits on the island
To the south lay the Greek ruins of the Valle dei Templi and ancient Moorish citrus garden of Kolymbetra. And the baroque towns of Ragusa and Modica (also known for its local chocolate), and the picturesque seaside commune of Marzamemi.
To the west, the sea salt pans of Trapani, the nature reserve of il Zingaro (“The Gypsy”), and charming beach town of San Vito Lo Capo.
To the east, the active volcano of Mt. Etna, the mosaics of Taormina, the sprawling pistachio farms, and the medieval fish markets of Catania.
To the southeast, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Siracusa and Ortigia.
(This isn’t a poem; I’m just telling you about all the beauty that awaits in Sicily.)
Feeling like you want to get away during your island getaway? Sicily is also surrounded by a number of smaller islands like the Aeolian Islands, which can take you even farther off the grid (sorry mom, stop calling). With the main island containing two major airports in Palermo and Catania, as well as being completely connected by affordable trains (around €7-9 per ticket), it’s easy to craft an immersive itinerary that doesn’t break the bank.
Staying off the beaten path
Parco Statella Agriturismo, Randazzo, Sicily
Where you stay in Sicily will very much depend on your comfort level. I prefer to travel like a local and book Airbnbs, which typically cost no more than €50 per night on the higher end. I like it because the hosts typically have insider recommendations for local eats and activities. You often find that they’ll recommend someone they know personally, which helps take a lot of the anxiety out of travelling.
Stay outside of the cities and touristy areas, and the average price gets cut in half. If you’re looking for something a little more guided but with plenty of rustic charm, try an agriturismo. While typically located in the more rural landscapes of Sicily, agriturismo are essentially re-designed farmhouses made to host guests and offer meals. Typically using the produce they grow on the property, they’re an ideal option for those who want to venture a little off the beaten path and taste the local landscape. Not to mention, there are colorful narratives tied to these historic properties, which the proprietaires are usually more than happy to share. While the price of agriturismi varies depending on where on the island you are, you can expect to usually pay around €40-80 per night.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list of things to do and see in Sicily, hopefully it’s enough to at least whet your appetite for experiencing a less-trodden part of Italy. Come April to early-June or late-September to -October to avoid the tourist rushes, and save even more money on your plane ticket. And get ready to enjoy the Mediterranean sun shining high most the year.