An Insider’s Guide To Taormina, Sicily

Discover the Pearl of the Ionian Sea.
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View from Madonna della Rocca @Mazzarò Sea Palace

The ancient hilltop city of Taormina is arguably the most famous and popular destination in Sicily. Backdropped by the smoldering force of Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the city is a tapestry of winding cobblestone and marble streets.

Steep cliffs plunge down to coves with pebbled beaches surrounded by dense Mediterranean shrubs and sea grottos that dwell beneath the turquoise waves of the Ionian Sea. Numerous civilizations have left their imprint on Taormina over the millennia. As a result, traces of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish can still be seen and felt today.

The city and its hotels, restaurants, beaches, and cultural sites were recently featured as the setting for season two of Mike White’s award-winning series “The White Lotus.” While the show reinvigorated the city’s image as a dreamy and upscale seaside getaway, Taormina has been a resort town for hundreds, even thousands of years. When the city fell to the Romans after the Second Punic War in 212 BC, it became a favorite getaway for wealthy members of the Roman Republic, including senators and patricians.

It’s no wonder the city is known as the Pearl of the Ionian Sea. Read on to discover the best beaches, bars, restaurants, hotels, and activities Taormina has to offer.

A beach in Taormina on a sunny day with white and blue umbrellas lining the shore with sun loungers
©Mazzarò Sea Palace

The Best Beaches in Taormina

Mazzarò Beach

Mazzarò is the easiest beach to access from the town of Taormina. It is located directly in front of the parking lot and cable car that connects the area to the town. This crescent-shaped beach is made up of small pebbles and is freckled with stabilimenti. These beach clubs rent out loungers and umbrellas and supply bars and restaurants for their clients. The area of Mazzarò is surrounded by craggy hills, old palm trees, steep walkways, as well as budget and boutique hotels.

Isola Bella

Around the bend from Mazzaró Beach is Taormina’s most famous landmark – Isola Bella, or Isola Bedda in Sicilian dialect. Meaning “beautiful island” in English, the small island is connected to the coast by a narrow strip of sand that comes and goes with the tides. Lush vegetation sprouts from its rocky surface, and a former privately-owned villa teeters at its top. The island, surrounded by a number of sea grottos, has been a national nature reserve since the 1990s.

How To Reach The Beach

  • The Funivia Taormina is a cable car system that connects the city to Mazzarò Beach in just two minutes. Cables leave every 15 minutes, and in the summer the service operates until 1 a.m. Tickets cost €3 each way or €10 for a day ticket. The ride has great views of the rocky landscape and sea.
  • Taxis operate frequently between Mazzarò and Taormina. The 10-minute drive will cost at least €15.
  • InterBus is a Sicilian bus company that departs from Taormina to Mazzarò every hour for roughly €2 each way. Make sure to check the local bus timetable for a detailed schedule.
  • If you are feeling particularly daring, you can also reach Mazzarò (or the city of Taormina) through a steep walking path.
The ruins of the Greek amphitheater in Taormina with the coastline in the background on a sunny day
©Livia Hengel

What to See and Do in Taormina

Explore the Teatro Antico di Taormina

Located near the end of the city’s historic center is the ancient theater of Taormina. It’s one of the best preserved ancient Greco-Roman theaters in Italy. The ancient horseshoe-shaped structure is set on a hill slightly above the city and backdropped on one end by the imposing shadow of Mount Etna. On the other, it is surrounded by rolling green hills and stretches of azure Ionian sea coastline.

The theater was built in the 3rd century BC by the Greek tyrant Hiero II as a stage for theatrical performances. When the ancient Romans conquered the area in the 2nd century BC, they renovated and modified the Greek theater with bricks and marble columns. This transformed it into an amphitheater for bloody gladiator games and battles between exotic wild animals.

Today, the original Greek structure remains, as does a decent amount of the original bricks laid during the Roman era. At the height of its splendor, the structure could host up to 10,000 spectators. Today, it still hosts operas and theatrical performances alongside events such as the Taormina Film Fest. It can seat roughly 4,500 people. For €10, guests can explore the ancient structure and enjoy the theater’s expansive panoramic views of the city and coast.

Stroll through Town and Enjoy the Views

The cobblestoned street of Corso Umberto, which winds through the heart of Taormina, is a shopper’s paradise. Wander past artisan shops and upscale boutiques as well as restaurants, bars, and art galleries. Terraces dripping with succulents sprout from pastel-colored buildings while colorful flowers grow out of traditional moor’s head vases. The pedestrian thoroughfare stretches for roughly 1 km and feeds into Piazza IX Aprile, the city’s main square.

Located in the center of Corso Umberto, this black-and-white marble-tiled square is the very center of Taormina. Peppered with outdoor cafes and red oleander trees, it’s dominated by the 17th-century Chiesa di San Giuseppe. This faded pink Sicilian Baroque church is dramatically set against rocky cliffs. And the square is particularly notable for its stunning views of Mount Etna and the coastline.

Visit the Ancient Hilltop Town of Castelmola

Castemola is built atop a natural terrace and surrounded by the ruins of a 16th-century Norman castle. It’s perched on a hill just above Taormina. This lovely town can be reached by car or via a 15-minute bus ride from the Taormina bus station.

Castelmola’s tree-lined main square is composed of geometric black-and-white lava stones that open up to a belvedere. A panoramic vista of green hills snaked with dizzying winding paths, Mount Etna, and the vivid turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea. Narrow streets are freckled with pastel-colored buildings, shops, and cafes. Many of which, sell the town’s famous vino alle mandorle, a sweet almond dessert wine.

One of Castelmola’s most famous attractions is Bar Turrisi. Since 1947, this three-storied bar has been passed down from generation to generation. While the bar is a standout for its almond wine and terraces with views of Mount Etna, its fame comes less from its views and more from its decor. Bar Turrisi is entirely covered in wooden and ceramic phalluses – even faucets in bathrooms spout water from the male genitalia. While unusual, the purpose of these decorations is not to be crude. Rather it’s meant to embrace and celebrate male fertility, as phalluses have long been considered to be a sign of abundance and good luck. This symbolism echoes Hellenic tradition. After all, the ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped Priapus, the god of fertility, freedom, and good fortune.

Learn about Sicilian art at Palazzo Corvaja

Palazzo Corvaja is a historic palace located in the heart of Taormina’s city center. Built upon the ruins of an ancient Greek agora and Roman forum, it is distinctive for its mix of Arab, Norman, and Spanish architecture. This eclectic mix highlights Sicily’s centuries-long history of successive invasions. Its prominent cube-shaped Arab tower dates back to the 10th century. A wing was even added in the 13th century when the Normans invaded the area.

In the 15th century, under Spanish rule, the palace was further modified and yet another wing was added. In the 16th century, it became the residence of the wealthy Corvaja family, who owned it until the end of World War II. Today, the structure houses the Sicilian Museum of Popular Art and Traditions as well as Taormina’s tourist information office.

©Ristorante Da Giovanni

The Best Bars and Restaurants in Taormina

Da Giovanni

Da Giovanni has been a quaint, family-run restaurant since 1973. It is located in Mazzarò and has floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open for views of the beach and Isola Bella. The white tablecloth eatery serves up traditional Sicilian fare. This includes penne alla norma with tomato sauce and eggplants, spaghetti e bottarga, spaghetti with cured fish roe, as well as Zuppa di pesce, a tomato-based soup heaped with redfish, shrimp, clams, mussels, squid, and mackerel.

Trattoria Tiramisù Mimmo & Son

Trattoria Tiramisù Mimmo & Son, a father-son duo, was included in Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice for 2022 as one of the top restaurants in Taormina. Located in the historic city center, it’s just a stone’s throw away from the ancient Greek theater. This restaurant serves upscale bites with generous portions at budget-friendly prices. Order raw fish of the day such as tuna, prawns, and shrimp, or an au gratin mix of calamari, prawns, and swordfish sprinkled with almonds and pistachios. The first and second courses include Sicilian busiate noodles served with shrimp and pesto, and grigliata di pesce, a grilled mix of fish.

Laboratorio Pasticceria di Roberto

A trip to Sicily is never complete without eating a cannolo. And Laboratorio Pasticceria Roberto is one the best bakeries in Taormina to sample the traditional tube-shaped dessert. The family-run bakery also sells artisanal Sicilian treats like cassata cake, marzipan, and strudel stuffed with peaches, lemons, or tangerines.

Bam Bar

One of Sicily’s most iconic food addresses, Bam Bar serves up the best granita in town. This island specialty is made with fresh fruit or nut pastes, sugar, and water. As a result, it’s naturally gluten and dairy free! Not to mention, the perfect way to cool off on a hot summer day. Grab a seat at one of the quaint little tables outside and order a granita con brioche, a fluffy bun for dipping. There are dozens of flavors, from lemon and strawberry to almond and pistachio. Gelsi (mulberry) and fichi bianchi (white fig) are seasonal specialties only available in August.

Daiquiri

Daiquiri is one of the hottest cocktail bars in Taormina. This is thanks to its extensive cocktail menu which includes cucumber margaritas and various delicious fruit daiquiris. Most of the lounge’s seating is located outside in a charming courtyard overflowing with bougainvillea and palm and banana trees. In the busier summer months, the area almost feels like a block party.

The Best Hotels in Taormina

A view of San Domenico Palace's pool with white and grey umbrellas and sun loungers overlooking the coastline
©Four Seasons San Domenico Palace

San Domenico Palace

The set of “The White Lotus” season two, San Domenico Palace is a 5-star resort housed in a former 14th-century convent. Soaring on a rocky promontory overlooking the glittering Ionian sea, the sprawling Four Seasons hotel is decorated with original Renaissance-era frescoes. Additionally, it has two restaurants (including the Michelin-starred Principe Ceramian) an outdoor infinity pool, and a fitness center. Not to mention beautifully manicured gardens and two bars. Elegant rooms come with flat-screen TVs and minibars. The upgraded rooms feature terraces with sea views. And the suites have living rooms with private plunge pools as well as hot tubs.

An outdoor restaurant with tables beneath umbrellas overlooking the bay on a sunny day
©Mazzarò Sea Palace

Mazzarò Sea Palace

Mazzarò Sea Palace was recently added to the list of Leading Hotels of the World. As another upscale hotel, it promises a truly unforgettable stay in Taormina. Set in a pretty bay, it has its own private beach, swimming pool, al fresco restaurant, and fitness club. Basic rooms have flat screens and marbled balconies or terraces large enough for two sun loungers. Upgraded rooms and suites have terraces with beach and sea views, separate living rooms, marble bathrooms, as well as two-person private pools.

Mendolia Beach Hotel

Mendolia Beach Hotel is an ideal pick for budget travelers looking for a more affordable stay in Taormina. It is located right in front of the Mazzarò and Isola Bella’s beaches. So what the hotel may lack in amenities and services it makes up for in spectacular views. Almost every room in this 3-star hotel has a small terrace with a sweeping vista of the Ionian Sea and Isola Bella.

The hotel also offers complimentary access to their Mazzarò Mendolia Beach Club with sun loungers, umbrellas, and showers. The beach club has an excellent restaurant. Try the fried calamari and shrimp before enjoying a heaping bowl of spaghetti with clams. The snack bar also sells Sicilian classics like arancini (rice balls), pizza, and sandwiches.

©Hotel Continental Taormina

Hotel Continental Taormina

Hotel Continental Taormina is a casual 3-star, family-run hotel located in the historic center. It’s only a two-minute walk from Corso Umberto, the city’s main street, and a 13-minute walk from the city’s ancient Greek theater. As a result, the property is an ideal pick for those looking for an unpretentious stay in the city. Most rooms come with private balconies or small terraces with views of the sea, the city center, or the hotel’s gardens. Hotel Continental’s crown jewel is its rooftop terrace and Sky Bar. Here, you can sip on an Aperol Spritz and take in views of Mount Etna, the Ionian Sea, and Taormina’s historic center.

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