The small Baroque island of Ortigia, the historic center of Syracuse, is widely considered one of the most beautiful destinations in Sicily. Inhabited for over 3,000 years and renowned for its Greek heritage, it is a UNESCO landmark for its “remarkable testimony of the Mediterranean cultures over the centuries” and makes for a perfect weekend escape in any season. Dotted with impressive church facades, outdoor restaurants, elegant piazzas and surrounded by a crystalline sea, Ortigia is more manicured than Catania, less overrun that Taormina and as delicious as Palermo. Here’s everything you need to see, do and eat on the island in 48 hours.
Start your day in Syracuse at Voglia Matta, a gelateria and pasticceria that serves a tantalizing array of Sicilian sweets and some of the best granita in town. Granita, a semi-frozen dessert, is a classic Sicilian breakfast and comes in a variety of classic and seasonal flavors like pistachio, almond, lemon, coffee or gelsi (mulberry). It is traditionally served with a sweet brioche and the perfect morning fuel to explore the Neapolis Archeological Park of Siracusa. Home to a spectacular 5th century BC Greek Theater – the largest in Sicily – a Roman Amphitheater and the Ear of Dionysus, a large cave with excellent acoustics, it’s worth spending a couple hours marveling at the ancient sites. The INDA Foundation also holds performances of Greek classics in the outdoor theater from May through July each year.
After you’ve toured the archeological site, head back to into town to peruse the bustling Mercato di Ortigia filled with colorful fruit and vegetable stands, fish vendors and stalls selling spices of all types. Be sure to pick up a few local specialties for your pantry, including pistachios from Bronte, almonds from Avola, sun-dried tomatoes from Pachino and capers from Pantelleria. Then grab a bite to eat at Fratelli Burgio, a buzzing deli and wine bar that assembles mouthwatering meat and cheese boards, fish platters and sandwiches stuffed with marinated vegetables.
After lunch, spend your afternoon soaking in the Sicilian sunshine on one of Ortigia’s sundecks, the beach or on a boat. The only beach located in Ortigia is the small, pebbled Spiaggia di Cala Rossa located on the southern end of the island: it has free access but is best in the morning hours before shadows creep in the early afternoon. With a car, you can also reach the nearby beaches at Arenella, Fontane Bianche or Vendicari Natural Reserve.
Another option is to lay out at one of the solariums, or sundecks, erected around the island during the summer months: the Solarium Forte Vigilena is free, while the Solarium Ortigia Nettuno and the Zefiro Solarium & Lounge Bar are more stylish establishments with paid entrance to use the sun loungers. It’s also worth admiring Ortigia from the sea and companies like Dolci Escursioni also take visitors into nearby grottos for a dip in aquamarine waters.
In the evening, make your way over to the Fountain of Arethusa before strolling down the Lungomare Alfeo to admire the changing colors in the skyline. Enjoy an aperitivo at MIKATù, a quirky café where you can sip a spritz while you watch the sunset. For dinner, you have several stellar options right nearby.
Le Vin de L’Assassin, a French-inspired bistro, serves comfort food in an intimate setting. Here, you’ll find dishes like Lasagna with tuna ragù, Burrata with tomato gazpacho and Duck with a berry compote on the handwritten menu. Set within Piazza Duomo, the elegant Ristorante Regina Lucia is a more refined option in a uniquely romantic setting: taste Swordfish rolls filled with cherry tomatoes, dggplant and salted ricotta or Potato gnocchi with lobster sauce while admiring Ortigia’s duomo illuminated in the evening.
Vegans, vegetarians and anyone with a curious palate will welcome the creative options of Moon, an art gallery and social kitchen whose name stands for “Move Ortigia Out of Normality”. Try Zucchini noodles tossed with cherry tomatos and cashew cream or Balsamic-glazed tempeh with a crunchy pistachio crust. Save room for delicious dairy-free desserts, including Coconut chocolate mousse and Passionfruit tiramisu. Stick around for a DJ-set or slip into Barcollo, an intimate cocktail bar tucked within a secret courtyard near the Duomo, to end your night.
Begin your second day in Ortigia at Pasticceria Artale for your morning café, granita and a pastry. Founded in 1980, it exudes old-school charm and sells freshly-baked goodies like buccellati cookies with fig jam and giuggiulena nougats with sesame and honey. After breakfast, it’s time to do some sightseeing.
Pop into the Cathedral of Syracuse, a Baroque church built upon the site of a Greek Temple dedicated to Athena, before taking a quick peek at the next-door Church of Santa Lucia Alla Badia which houses one of Caravaggio’s artworks, the Burial of Saint Lucy (this painting has now been moved to the Basilica di Santa Lucia in Siracusa itself). If you have time, it’s also worth visiting the Palazzo Borgia del Casale, an 18th century Rococo building that demonstrates the wealth and taste of Sicilian aristocratic families through the ages. The self-guided audio tour walks you through a series of grand, frescoed halls and you can admire an aerial view of Piazza Duomo from the palazzo’s elegant, wrought-iron balconies.
From here, head east to wander around Ortigia’s Giudecca, or Jewish quarter, one of the most picturesque parts of the island. You can learn about one of Sicily’s longstanding artisans at the Museo dei Pupi, the Puppet Museum, which highlights the importance of this folk tradition and how puppeters told stories about legendary heroes and gods to keep the public entertained in the 19th century. You can also watch a live performance at the nearby Teatro dei Pupi, head backstage into the puppet laboratory or even try your hand at making your own puppet under the guidance of a local craftsman.
For lunch, follow the locals to Antica Giudecca, a friendly hole-in-the-wall that serves up the city’s best street food. Sicily’s famous oversized arancini rice balls, filled with ragù, spinach or eggplant, come freshly fried for only €2, and the counter features a variety of savory pies and pizzas with various toppings. You’ll also find some daily specials, including a pasta, meat dish and vegetables.
After you’ve eaten your fill, spend some time shopping for artisanal products at Ortigia’s many quaint boutiques and art studios. Stop by Cool de Sac, a sartoria and showroom filled with hand-made jewelry, leather purses and funky prêt-à-porter pieces, for fashionable items that make a statement. Nearby, Chiodo is a multifunctional shop, café and event space that sells clothes and accessories with a focus on sustainability and recycled materials – you can also pop-in for the occasional concert in the evening. Owned by a Dutch transplant, Circo Fortuna is a treasure trove of Sicilian arts and crafts including hand-painted ceramics, playing cards, t-shirts and posters. For edible souvenirs, Olive stocks some of the best food, organic wines and extra virgin olive oil to bring back in your suitcase.
As the sun starts to set, make your way over to Cortile Verga, an evocative cocktail bar and raw bistro set within the courtyard of a 17th century Baroque palazzo. Order a craft cocktail and bruschetta to whet your appetite before you head over to dinner at Macallè Sicilian Bistrot. A contemporary restaurant in a retro setting, Macallè serves modern interpretations of classic dishes like Parmigiana di Melanzane with zucchini, Paccheri alla Norma with a fried eggplant cream and Tagliolini noodles with fresh fish, roe and lemon zest. Opt for the four-course tasting menu to sample dishes selected by the chef (€50). Then end your evening with a nightcap at Boats, a new bar that overlooks Ortigia’s 6th century Temple of Apollo.
Where To Stay
Located along Ortigia’s waterfront, Hotel Gutkowski is a delightful boutique hotel and restaurant with breezy, sea-view bedrooms and pared-down, vintage décor. Opened in 1999 by a group of friends, the name pays homage to Jurek Gutkowski, a Polish nobleman and lifelong traveler, and draws a travel-savvy crowd. The hotel is set within old fisherman homes that have been restored and redecorated by a local artist, lending them a nautical feel. Enjoy an aperitivo on the outdoor terrace and a delicious meal at Gutkowskino, the hotel’s modern restaurant with a menu that changes weekly.
Il Salotto di Maria Pia
Just steps from Piazza Duomo, Il Salotto di Maria Pia is a hidden gem in the heart of Ortigia that will transport you back in time. A converted family home, this quirky B&B is run by Maria Pia’s daughter Paola and features three bedrooms with vintage furnishings, thoughtful design touches and the comfort of en-suite bathrooms. Two rooms have balconies that look out onto Piazza Roma and its elegant outdoor cafes, while the third has an interior garden that is perfect for enjoying your in-room breakfast. Each morning, Paola prepares a basket filled with pastries, fresh juice, yogurt and toast waiting for you outside your door.