Skip to main content

I’ve just wrapped up a long season of guiding Sicily trips and tours. If you don’t know much about Sicily, you’re not alone. Even if it’s the largest province in Italy, it is a place that seasoned travelers to Italy overlook. But that would be a mistake, this island is richer and more historic than Rome itself.In my many years of working in Italy, I had also overlooked this magical island. I had heard all of the scary urban travel legends, mafia tales and, more than anything, it was just not an easy place to go. A train to get down here takes a full day. Why bother when there’s so much to see on the mainland?

Why did I Go to Sicily to Begin With

Some years ago, I was planning on spending a week in Greece, but changed my mind as a crisis there had just started and things seemed a little uncertain for a girl traveling alone. A colleague persuaded me to try Sicily instead. I was skeptical, but decided to go. It was cheap and I had friends on the island to show me around. That was a fateful decision because I came to Sicily and fell in love.

What’s so special about this island? The list is too long, but a start would be the diversity. This is not Italy, my friends. It’s something very different. In the past 3000 years, there have been 12 different cultures that have come, conquered, then left their mark on the island. Unravelling that rich history and making sense of it is my main task, trying to convey it simply to people can be a challenge. So here’s a basic idea of the historical picture…

A Complicated History in a Nutshell

About 2000 BC we find the Sicens, an ancient native people. The Sicels (a different tribe) arrive here in 1200 BC. About 100 years later, the Elymians come, who are possibly refugees from the fall of Troy.

In 735 BC, about the time of the founding of the city of Rome, the Greeks arrive and settle in the east at Naxos, near Mt Etna. The Greeks will settle large parts of the east, making Sicily Magna Grecia, greater Greece, a place that becomes as important as Athens itself.

Phoenicians arrive soon after and settle in the east, which sets up a rivalry. The Phoenicians also settle in North Africa and become know as the Carthaginians. They start to fight with Rome. Rome dominates the island after the Punic wars, and after 200 BC the island is their colony.

Fast forward to the fall of Rome around 400 AD, the barbarians take control of Sicily in theory but not really in practice. The next masters are the Byzantines from the east who rule for roughly 300 years.

The Arabs come in the 800s, and bring sugar, irrigation and agriculture, turning the island into a paradise. They are replaced by the Normans soon after the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Yes, those Normans, the ones from France! Normans build castles and cathedrals and allow the establishment of a parliament, the oldest in the world.

Eventually through a complicated inheritance, the Normans are replaced by Germans, the most famous being Frederick II. The French come back in the form of the Angevins in the 1200s, but are soon tossed out and replaced by the Spanish. Whew! The Spanish left their mark on the island in the form of architecture and culture.

The Spanish will dominate the island for more or less 600 years. In the 1800s, the island is up for grabs again but is eventually joined into the new state of Italy in the 1860s. Got all of that?

But Wait, There’s More!

The main point is this: this island is about so much more than the Godfather and cannoli. It is one of the most diverse and fascinating places in Europe, and possibly the oldest in terms of human habitation.

And why have people fought over this island for 5000 years? The location, a convenient base in the Mediterranean is part of it. The fertility of the island is also part. Everything grows bigger and better here, and the lush landscape is something beautiful to behold.

But there is so much more than that to this island. And the food, oh the food. This cross-pollination of culture has made an amazingly original culinary tradition which turns any casual visitor into a foodie.

From souk-like fragrant markets to golden beaches, to elaborate Baroque architecture to a magical, steaming chain of active volcanoes, Sicily has it all.

The craziest part is that nobody else seems to know about it. You can have all the travel thrills of a top-notch destination with none of the crowds.

After my initial trip, I trained to lead the Sicily tour for Rick Steves and have spent months every year on the island, eventually co-authoring the Sicily guidebook. I find new and exciting things every time I come, and tourism is starting to develop in a region that badly needs an economic boost.

What started as a vacation has taken on a life of its own. The love has turned into a mission, to share this precious island with the world and to educate about the noble history of the Sicilian people. You shouldn’t take my word for it, though. You should come. Ammunini!

Join us on an adventure in Sicily!

Complicated, misunderstood, generous, outrageous, sensual and seductive, Sicily is pure opera. If you think you know Italy but haven’t been to Sicily, you are in for a mind-bending treat. 3000 years of history piled up like a sweet cassata cake is waiting for your exploration. Andiamo!

Sarah Murdoch

This post was written by Sarah Murdoch, founder and director of Adventures of Sarah. Sarah has been guiding around the world for 20+ years, after catching the travel bug while studying in Italy in 1995. Between guiding she is also a journalist, travel guidebook writer, occasional architect, and full-time mom to Nicola and Lucca. Click here to find out more about Sarah.

16 Comments

  • Sherrie L Hitchcock says:

    I went on the RS tour with the fabulous Tomasso as our guide in late Feb/early March of this year. Sicily was all I hoped for and more. We did a Streaty food tour in Palermo a day before the tour started and really enjoyed that as well. Only down to Sicily was the horrendous, and I mean horrendous, litter. Palermo was the worst, but even in the countryside we would drive by beautiful fields and then see a ditch overflowing with all kinds of debris and garbage. THey need to address this if they hope to become a strong tourism destination.

  • Paul David says:

    We are taking the RS tour with the family next April and can’t wait. I’m very excited to try as much of the multitude of great Sicilian wines as I can while there. Sicily is just now being “discovered “ globally as a fine wine destination. Much deserved and under appreciated. Also, Café Sicilia in Noto is a must destination…Chef Corado is featured in Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” season 4. It will be special day trip for us for his world class gelato!

  • Ladene says:

    Si, si, si! I love Sicilia for all the reasons that you mentioned – the history, the architecture, the art – there’s also the people, who are so genuinely friendly, and just the feel of the various places. A man even stopped his car and motioned to me to cross the street. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else in Italy. And the food, wonderful seafood, unique sauces, and the best bread in Italy. Hmmm, I need to go back. I’m hungry!

  • In the past 12 years I have been to Sicily 3 times and I can’t wait to go back. I absolutely love it. It’s like Italy but on steroids!

  • Fran says:

    When will the RS Sicily book be available for purchase ?

  • Dora Rice says:

    I was diverted to Sicily as a college student on a summer abroad study of Ancient Greek and Romans’. We were to go to the Greek Islands but due to political unrest had to leave Greece and return to Italy. This was 1974. Sicily was so amazing to all of us. Everything was wonderful and I will return if I can. Never have seen the Acropolis or the Green Isles though ?

  • Peggy and Tom Duffy says:

    We would return to Sicily with you in a heartbeat!

  • Peggy and Tom Duffy says:

    We would return to Sicily with you in a heartbeat! Happy travels, Sarah!

  • Jan says:

    Great blog post!

  • Theresa S. says:

    I can imagine as soon as that RST Sicily guidebook you and Alfio contributed to is out, tourism in Sicily is going to have a ‘bump’! I had the good fortune to enjoy the last incarnation of an ‘off-season’ Sicily tour April 2017 led by cheeky Mr. “Put It In Your Review” Jamie Gould Blair. Must. Have. More. Brioche. Con. Pistacchio. Gelato.

  • Theresa S. says:

    Oof, my memory. That’s Jamie Blair Gould, among the fab RST guide extraordinaires.

  • Kay Coonrod says:

    We visited Sicily three years ago. It was absolutely wonderful. And I do agree that the highlight is the diversity. So glad we went there. Loved it.Thank you for your enjoyable blog.

  • Laurie B. Willard says:

    I went to Sicily in 2009 with Rick Steves tours. I was fortunate to have Alfio as my guide. I really loved this fabulous country and he taught me so much about this wonderful place.

  • Frances Webb says:

    We just returned from a self-scheduled trip through Italy & Sicily (September 2018). We took the Rick Steves Italy book with us and referred to it often. In Palermo, we were blessed to be introduced to a good & honest taxi driver, Alessandro. With his minimal English, my minimal Italian & googletranslate, he took us to Syracusa, then back to Palermo via Cefalù, Monreale, & Montepellegrino. What a beautiful island! We are so glad Rick Steves selected you to research & co-author a book on Sicily. We look forward to purchasing it for our next trip!

Leave a Reply