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Sicily: The Cultural Mecca of the Mediterranean

by Patrick Szabo

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If you’re looking for a wide mix of cultural experiences, the Mediterranean island of Sicily should be your next Italian stop.

As the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has been inhabited for thousands of years by different cultures. This has given it the eclectic culture it now showcases.

As long ago as the 6th century BC, it wasn’t too dissimilar from Athens and Ancient Greek culture—exhibiting Greek temples all over the island. It wasn’t long after, the 3rd century BC, that the Romans took over control of the island. The Romans were followed by the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, and then Byzantines.

The Norman Era, which began in AD 1060, gave Sicily its elaborate cathedrals and distinct architecture. The Counter Reformation of the 17th and 18th centuries provided Sicily with its Baroque-Era churches.

Today, it’s common to hear people say that there is more Phoenician, Greek, Arabic, Norman, Spanish and French blood running through Sicilian veins than there is Italian.

There are dozens of small towns and large cities to visit on the island, each with its own historical background and culture.  Diversity flows from the many conquests and occupations of the island over the last 3,000 years.

Palermo, the largest city in Sicily, boasts a mix of Asian and European influences. This city is situated between two mountains, in a natural amphitheater, and is packed with churches displaying differing architectural styles. The Duomo was founded in AD 1184 and has a Norman interior, gothic exterior and Catalan-styled south porch. Inside are the tombs of Sicily’s kings. If you’re on the prowl for food in this richly cultivated city, stop by the Mercato della Vucciria, a city market, and try a buffitieri. These are hot snacks meant to be enjoyed right in the street.

On the far west coast of Sicily lies Marsala.  This town is the home to the strong wine named after the town itself, which has been made here since the 18th century. It is made from native grapes and has an alcohol content of around 20 percent. It was initially produced in warehouses, one of which is now host to the Museo Archeologico di Baglio Anselmi. Here, visitors can find important artifacts from the times when the Phoenicians ruled the island.

Perhaps one of the most famous and intriguing sights in all of Sicily is the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. Aside from Greece, this is one of the most remarkable areas harboring Ancient Greek buildings. Of course, it’s not in a valley. It actually is located on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea to the south. The complex contains six temples, a first century Roman tomb and a sanctuary where the Ancient Greeks worshipped the forces of nature. The Temple of Concord, built in BC 430, is the best-preserved building of them all. It was converted into a Christian Church in the 6th century AD, thus saving it from destruction.

Another necessary stop for ancient temple sightseeing is in Selinunte. This small town is to the northwest of Agrigento and contains one of the greatest Greek temples ever built. Erected in the late 6th century BC with 17 huge side columns, ‘Temple G’ is the nondescript name now given to the structure.

Just three miles off the coast of mainland Italy lies Messina, the first Sicilian city to be kicked by Italy’s boot. It is accessible by a ferry that runs to the city from Villa San Giovanni on the mainland.

To the south of Messina is the modern city of Taormina. Here, visitors can take advantage of the city’s many restaurants, hotels and sandy beaches. The Greek Theater in town, dating back to the 3rd century BC, is a main attraction and is still used to this day for different types of performances. Rebuilt by the Romans, it is well-preserved and even has an amazing view of Mount Etna from the seating area.

One of Sicily’s largest cities is Catania, which was completely destroyed in the 1693 earthquake. Rebuilt during the Baroque Era, it has a multitude of churches built from that time. The Piazza del Duomo displays a sculpture of an elephant made out of lava (the symbol of Catania) with an Egyptian obelisk on its back. La Pescheria, a market in town, is also an excellent place for tourists to work up an appetite.

Between Catania and Taormina, still close to Sicily’s eastern coast, is where Mount Etna can be found. Not at all difficult to spot, Etna is one of the world’s largest active volcanoes at 3,350 meters (10,991 feet) in elevation, encompassing 1,190 square kilometers (460 square miles) of land area. The last eruption occurred in 2001, threatening to wreak havoc on the town of Nicolosi. Yet, in the past 3,500 years, there have been less than 80 deaths attributed to the volcano.

If you’re specifically looking for traditional Sicilian food, seek out these dishes. For breakfast, try the chickpea fritters called Pane e Pannelle. For lunch, try a spongy and oily pizza topped with onions and caciocavallo cheese that the Sicilians call Sfincione. For dinner, sit down to have some Stigghiola, goat intestines filled with onions.

There’s more to Sicily than historical sights and exotic food, however. Since its annexation by Italy in 1860, the island has suffered a troubled and corrupt past.

When Sicily became Italian property, it transitioned out of feudalism—in which nobility owned most of the land and enforced the laws with its own military. Hence after, the Italian government redistributed land to citizens, increasing private land ownership immensely. Being new to this system, Sicilian landowners often found themselves in land disputes with neighbors. To aid this issue, many landowners employed the help of protectors—the Mafia.

Less than a century later, the Sicilian Mafia was spread vastly around the island. In 1925, Benito Mussolini tried to destroy the Mafia by asserting fascist control over Sicily. This somewhat worked, as the Mafia became fairly broken up during World War II. In 1943, the Allied troops invaded the island and began to remove fascist rulers, appointing replacement government officials who oftentimes turned out to be members of the Mafia.

Forty years later, the law began to hunt the Mafia down.  When Tommasco Buscetta—a Mafia member turned informant—was arrested, the Maxi Trial was organized to bring the Mafia to justice. From 1986-87, 342 Mafia members were convicted and thrown into prison.

Today, the Mafia still exists, but doesn’t aim its violence at tourists.


 "A Food Voyage Through Sicily." Lonely Planet, 28 Jan. 2011. Web. <>.

 "Mafia in Sicily." The Mafia. Weebly. Web. <>.

 Matthews, Georgina, ed. Eyewitness Travel Guides: Italy. London: DK, 1997. Print.

 "Mt. Etna." Mt. Etna, 1 Jan. 2010. Web. <>.

 "Piazza Del Duomo." Zainoo. Web. <>.

 Sardell, Jason. Economic Origins of the Mafia and Patronage System in Sicily. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 2009. Web.

 "Sicilian Wines." Best of Sicily, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. <>.

 "Taormina Greek Theatre." Villa Ducale, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. <>.

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