History tours in Sicily

Sicily is an island lying outside time, where past events endure in an external present, a beach on which the tides of successive civilizations have heaped in disorder their assorted treasure.
- Vincent Cronin, The Golden Honeycomb

An island lying outside time

Situated off the ‘boot’ of Italy, Sicily is the link between mainland Europe and Africa. The island bears the traces of many different civilizations: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arabian, Norman and Bourbon among others, each of which desired Sicily’s advantageous strategic location either for warfare or trade, or both. This age old mixing of cultures, some of which existed simultaneously, has granted Sicily a tolerant and independent outlook, as well as no fewer than seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Most of the notable historic sites are located along Sicily’s splendid coastline, so tours generally follow a circuit. Itineraries tend to begin and finish in Catania, on the east coast, which was built on the remains of ancient Greek and Roman settlements that have been buried over the centuries by multiple eruptions from nearby Mount Etna. The island is dotted with hundreds of castles, watch towers built to warn of pirates, temples, amphitheatres and villas, so that you might cover the highlights in a week, or take a longer trip for a deeper insight and visit lesser-known gems.
Trips can take the form either of a small group tour on set dates between March and October, or tailormade itineraries that can focus on your specific interests, with the option to visit in winter when even the most popular sites are practically deserted.

At the crossroads of history

“This was an extremely comprehensive tour of Sicily. Though the tour was busy the earliest start time was 8.30 so you did feel that the morning was not too much of a rush. Our guide gave us free time in most locations and this gave us time as individuals to explore the areas that we were particularly interested in... The locations of the temples at Agrigento and Selinunte were truly spectacular. Entering the Cathedral at Monreale made everyone go ‘wow!’” - Diana Grant reviews a Sicily history tour
Sicily is a cultural crossroads, its riveting history writ large across the landscape and impossible to ignore. Richly seductive for the classicist, Sicily is the land of the Cyclops, steeped in legend and myth but with an archaeological heritage that could scarcely be more real.
From the amphitheatre of Syracuse to the Baroque towns of Val di Noto and the stunning Roman mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale, history tours here take things to a higher level. And then of course there is Mount Etna, one of the island’s most sought after visitor attractions and at the same time a constant threat; an eternally active volcano that the Roman poet Virgil witnessed erupt all the way back in the 1st century BC.
Andrew Appleyard from our supplier Exodus on his historic highlights:
“The best-preserved temple is probably that of Segesta. It’s construction was never finished but for my money it’s the best example of 5th Century BC architecture in the Med. My favourite site on Sicily however is Selinunte, which was the largest Greek settlement in the Mediterranean region outside Greece itself, and is absolutely fascinating. The restored temple adjacent to one wrecked in an earthquake shows the destruction wrought on the site.”

Our top Sicily Holiday

Sicily history tour, Italy

Sicily history tour, Italy

One of the most fascinating islands in Europe

From £1399 to £1729 9 days inc UK flights
Small group travel:
2019: 30 Mar, 13 Apr, 20 Apr, 4 May, 11 May, 18 May, 25 May, 1 Jun, 8 Jun, 29 Jun, 24 Aug, 31 Aug, 7 Sep, 14 Sep, 21 Sep, 28 Sep, 5 Oct, 12 Oct, 19 Oct, 26 Oct
2020: 28 Mar, 11 Apr, 18 Apr, 2 May, 9 May, 16 May, 23 May, 6 Jun, 13 Jun, 27 Jun, 8 Aug, 15 Aug, 29 Aug, 5 Sep, 12 Sep, 19 Sep, 26 Sep, 10 Oct, 17 Oct
Helpdesk
Hello. If you'd like to chat about Sicily or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help. Rosy & team.

Key historic sites of Sicily

Agrigento

Renowned as the site of Akragas, among the greatest cities built during Greece’s Golden Age, Agrigento swells with a rich bounty of archaeological treasures, most notably the Valley of the Temples (actually a ridge). Seven Doric temples stand here, some of the best preserved Greek architecture in the world, with the temple dedicated to the goddess Concordia particularly impressive.

Mount Etna

Sicily’s most famous view, smouldering Mount Etna is the tallest volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world. Greek mythology has it that Zeus buried the fearsome monster Typhon beneath the mountain before becoming king of the Gods. Just outside Catania, the volcano’s snowcapped summit can be reached by a journey involving cable car, 4x4 and foot, with hikes sometimes led by a trained volcanologist.

Palermo

Founded in 734BC by the Phoenicians, the Sicilian capital has over the centuries been ruled by the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Arabs and the Normans, which has naturally resulted in an extraordinarily diverse architectural legacy. The city is ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its magnificent city walls, palaces, cathedrals, squares and churches. A short drive away is the Cathedral of Monreale, founded in 1174 by William the Good. It’s considered the greatest example of Norman architecture in the world, famous for its extensive mosaics.

Selinunte

This ancient Greek city, which centres on an acropolis surrounded by five temples, has yielded vast quantities of artworks already, and is still only partly explored. Without doubt one of the most significant archaeological sites in this part of the world, the ruins of Selinunte are also notable for their picturesque location, high up overlooking the sea.

Syracuse

Syracuse was the birthplace of Archimedes, and was once a powerful Greek city state and the capital of the Byzantine empire. Explore the superb Neapolis Archaelological Park, where notable landmarks include the vast Greek theatre, one of the largest ever built, and a well preserved Roman amphitheatre which once hosted gladiatorial combat.

Taormina

This elegant hilltop town close to Mount Etna ranks among Sicily’s most popular resorts, and was once a favoured haunt of DH Lawrence and Oscar Wilde. The best known attraction here is the 2nd century Greco-Roman amphitheatre, which is still frequently used for performances today.

Val di Noto

The eight towns of the Val di Noto, including Ragusa and Modica, are UNESCO-listed for their superb Baroque architecture. They were entirely rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in the late 17th century, with an impressive collective effort and an innovative approach to town planning. The charms of the Val di Noto make it an essential stopping point on any Sicily itinerary, and a must for architecture and history fans.

Villa Romana del Casale

There is little left of Roman-era Sicily, but the one notable ruin still standing is among the most significant landmarks on the island. The Villa Romana del Casale, just outside the town of Piazza Armerina, was buried by a landslide in the 12th century AD, and forgotten for centuries. When it was eventually rediscovered and excavated, its astonishing mosaics and frescoes were almost completely preserved, including the now famous bikini girls, fishing cupids and hunting scenes featuring tigers, rhinos and elephants.
“[The highlights were] visiting outstanding classical sights such as the quarry in Syracuse where 7000 Athenians were enslaved, or the temples of Akragas, the theatre of Segesta carved into the hillside, the island of Motya overrun by Dionysius. The Palatine Chapel in Palermo is breathtaking. A lightning tour of some fabulous sites in Sicily. A bit like a fine dining taster menu that leaves one wanting more.”
– Adam Patchett reviews a tour of classical Sicily
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: CucumbreLibre] [Top box: Pasquale Paolo Cardo] [Crossroads of history: Herbert Frank] [Palermo: Allie_Caufield] [Taormina : Daniel Enchev] [Adam Patchett quote (Palatine Chapel): Andrea Schaffer]
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