The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is beloved for its exquisite blue waters, vibrant cities, and delicious food. Not to mention the majestic Mount Etna. An island that has seen civilizations come and go over millennia, it is also home to some of the most extraordinary archaeological parks in Italy. While sites like the Colosseum and Pompeii see millions of visitors each year, the ancient sites of Sicily draw smaller crowds. Here are seven ancient ruins in Sicily that will bring you back in time.
Pro tip: be sure to bring comfortable shoes, a hat, sunscreen, and water to visit these sites because there’s little shade and Sicily can be sweltering in the summer!
1. Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
Our first stop is Agrigento’s Valle dei Templi (The Valley of the Temples) located along the southern coast of Sicily. Originally the site of the ancient city of Akragas, one of the most important Greek colonies in the Mediterranean, the park is a testament to the rich history of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations on the island.
The Valle dei Templi dates back to the 5th-6th centuries. It features 11 temples, 3 sanctuaries, a necropolis (ancient burial site), hydraulic works, fortifications and more. The Temple of Concordia, which is named for the Roman goddess of harmony, is one of the best-preserved Doric temples in the world. Doric refers to a style of columns that are characterized by a plain, unadorned column capital. Ionic and Corinthian columns are more ornamental. In front of the temple lies a colossal bronze statue of Icarus, the mythological figure who flew too close to the sun.
If you have time, pair your visit with the nearby Scala dei Turchi, a natural rock formation featuring white, stair-like cliffs that cascade into the sea. And if you’d like to stay in the vicinity, book a stay at Villa Athena Resort, a glamorous hotel that overlooks the ruins.
2. Teatro Antico di Taormina
These days, Taormina is best known as the filming location for HBO’s The White Lotus. However, this hilltop jewel is also home to one of the most beautiful monuments of the ancient world. Once you visit, you’ll know why this is one of the most spectacular ancient sites in Sicily.
Built in the 3rd century BC, the Greek Theater of Taormina is a large, scenic amphitheater. When it was first built it could hold up to 10,000 spectators. Perched above the Ionian Sea, its dramatic position provides breathtaking views of the coastline and Mount Etna in the distance. The site is so beautiful that Goethe once wrote, “Never has a theater audience had such a show before them” — and we couldn’t agree more.
The theater is still in use and hosts an annual film festival each summer which brings celebrities and other high-profile figures into town. You can also catch ballet, classical theater, and musical performances throughout the year. Find more tips in our Taormina travel guide.
3. The Mosaics at Piazza Armerina
Located right in the heart of Sicily, Piazza Armerina boasts one of the richest historical centers on the island. Built between three hills, this area has preserved its rich multicultural history through diverse architectural styles including Norman, Gothic and Baroque.
Piazza Armerina draws tourists thanks to the impressive mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its “bikini girls.” This is one of my favorite works of art from the ancient world! Officially known as the Coronation of the Winner, this mosaic gets its name from its depiction of 10 young women clad in bikini-like outfits. It’s an extremely rare depiction of ancient women participating in athletics or going to the gym: all the women are performing in athletic competition. One is throwing a discus, one is batting a ball and two of them seem to be racing each other. Another is crowned the victor with a head full of laurels.
The other mosaics in the villa depict hunting scenes, cupids fishing, chariot races, and myths like Ulysses and Polyphemus, as well as scenes from daily life. The mosaics may date back to the 4th century AD but they feel surprisingly contemporary. Art lovers shouldn’t miss a visit to this impressive site.
The Temple of Segesta is located one hour’s drive from Palermo, the capital of Sicily. Segesta, while culturally Greek, was the home of the Elymians, one of Sicily’s ancient indigenous peoples. The jewel of Segesta is the large, magnificently preserved Greek Doric Temple atop Mount Barbaro. The temple stands uncompleted and scholars today are still unsure about its function and dedication. Segesta also has a scenic Roman theater overlooking the Sicilian countryside.
5. Ruins of Syracuse
The city of Syracuse, which includes the island of Ortigia, was one of the one of the most important destinations of the Magna Graecia. Over 2,500 years old, its Neapolis Archaeological Park in Syracuse is home to several interesting sites including the Altar of Hieron, a large sacrificial altar, and a Greek theater. Though less scenic than the Greek Theater of Taormina, it is larger and could seat 16,000 people in its day. It is one of the best-preserved ancient theaters in the world and is also still used for performances today.
Nearby, the Latomie del Paradiso is a limestone quarry from which the stone to build the city was extracted. Riddled with catacombs, 7000 survivors of the war between Syracuse and Athens in 413 BC were imprisoned here. Today, it is a beautiful tropical garden full of local and exotic plants.
Walk through the park, past sumptuous blossoming citrus trees, as you head towards the Ear of Dionysus. Due to its unique shape, this limestone cave has incredible acoustics and even the smallest sound can echo over 16 times! Afterward, head to the island of Ortigia to explore one of Sicily’s most charming destinations.
Located along the southwestern coast of Sicily, Selinunte is another archeological park that is well worth a visit. Covering an area of over 270 hectares, it is said to be the largest archaeological park in Europe. In Selinunte you can see seven temples on the Acropolis and Eastern Hill (the earliest dating from 550 BC), the sanctuary of Malophoros, a necropolis, a residential area, and the quarries of Cusa. Be sure to climb to the Acropolis to admire the temples of the Dioscuri Castore and Polluce, and the ruins of the Temples of Apollo and Zeus, which overlook the sea. Once inside the park you can walk the area or rent private electric cars.
7. Necropolis of Pantalica
Together with the city of Syracuse, Pantalica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important protohistoric sites in Sicily. The Necropolis of Pantalica, a collection of cemeteries with rock-cut chamber tombs, goes back 70,000 years. The complex dates from the 13th to the 7th century BC and is thought to contain almost 5,000 tombs!
Pantalica has five cemeteries spread over a plateau surrounded by caves and nestled between two rivers: the Anapo and the Calcinara. The North Necropolis is a particularly spectacular cemetery of about 1000 tombs covering very steep slopes overlooking the Calcinara River. The South Necropolis extends along the Anapo River and is easily seen from the trackway at the bottom of the valley. The Anaktoron or “Palace of the Prince” (Mycenaean origin) located at the top of the hill is a large, multi-roomed building constructed using large blocks.
The Necropolis of Pantalica is an area completely immersed in history and natural beauty. Come for the caves, stay for the gorgeous hiking trails along the canyon, and take a dip in the glittering waters of the Anapo and Calcinara.