Siracusa Sicily: guide to Ortigia and beyond
Here are my tips on what to see and do in Siracusa, Sicily, where I recently spent one week, running away from the urban summer in Rome. Siracusa (that´s “Syracuse” in English, and “Saraúsa” in the local Sicilian dialect) has something for everybody, and you should definitely stop by if you’re interested in authentic Sicilian cuisine and ancient history. Siracusa offers all the proofs of the multicultural heritage of Sicily: Greek, Roman, archaic Christian, Norman, Spanish and Suevian. This is an area rich in UNESCO World Heritage sites. Siracusa will also be a perfect destination for you if you have decided to take time for yourself and breathe in the brisk breeze of the Italian coast. Leave behind all your duties and worries and immerse yourself in the experience. I highly recommend traveling to Sicily in the off-season in order to avoid the extremely hot weather: May, June, September, and October have the perfect weather for your trip. As a base, I decided to get accommodation on Ortigia Island, which is the historical core of Siracusa. If for any reason you opt for staying off Ortigia, make sure you don’t go too far from it.
FAVORITE THINGS TO DO AND SEE IN ORTIGIA, SICILY
Explore Ortigia island on foot
Ortigia island is very small. Get lost in the alleys, enjoy the architecture of the residential houses in all their shades of white and ivory, explore the Cathedral of Syracuse (Cattedrale della Natività di Maria Santissima), and find beautiful old palaces in the alleys.
Visit the Cathedral of Syracuse
The history of the Cathedral of Siracusa is incredible. In very ancient times, before the Greeks had invaded Sicily, it was a place of worship for the indigenous population, the “Siculi”. During the 5th century BC, the Greeks rebuilt the temple and destined it to the worship of the goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, who had helped them to conquer the city of Carthage (also 5th century BC). You can still see the Greek columns in place inside and outside of the cathedral. Later, the temple became one of the first Christian sanctuaries in Europe, together with the Cathedral of San Giovanni, sometimes known as the Cathedral of San Marciano. Saint Peter sent his emissary, Marciano (later Saint Marcian), in the year 39 AD to start a Christian community in Sicily. The front facade of the cathedral was renovated in the Baroque period (17th century). The square surrounding the cathedral is the heart of Ortigia and hosts many beautiful mansions. Bright marbles dominate the scene, changing nuances as the sun travels through the sky. The cathedral’s square is even more beautiful after dark, inviting you to sit at one of the cafes and have a drink while sharing the magical atmosphere with the locals. Entrance to the cathedral is free.
Visiting hours: everyday 08:00 – 19:00
The Cathedral of Siracusa at night
Ipogeo di Piazza Duomo – the underground tunnels
This underground maze was re-discovered in 1869 during urban works. The main tunnel starts in the wall of the Palazzo Arcivescovile (Archbishop´s Palace) in the Cathedral Square and reaches to the Marina. The network is composed of a series of minor tunnels, one of which connects to the cistern of the Palazzo Arcivescovile. During the Second World War, it became an air-raid shelter. Now you can take a walk inside these hidden passages.
Address: Piazza Duomo, 14
Entrance ticket: €5 (includes guided tours at 11:00, 12:00, and 13:00.
Visiting hours: everyday 10:00 – 20:00
Enjoy the landscape at the Fonte Aretusa – the Fountain of Arethusa
The place looks like a pond filled with papyrus plants, and it’s one of the most fascinating historical landmarks in Siracusa. The locals also call it “the Fountain of Papyrus”, while the historical name refers to one of the nymphs who attended Diana, the goddess of the woods. One day, the nymph Arethusa took a walk on her own. She reached the crystal-clear waters of the Alfeo River and decided to take a bath there. The river was so attracted to the girl that it took a human appearance and tried getting close to her, but she was afraid of him. She run away, calling for the help of Diana, so the goddess was compelled to transmute the nymph into a spring in the exact point where the Alfeo River meets the sea on Ortigia Island. And this is why there’s a freshwater spring just a few steps from the sea.
Gaze at the ruins of the Tempio di Apollo – the Temple of Apollo
This temple overlooks the plaza known as the Largo XXV Luglio. Its foundations are a few meters lower than the pavement of the square. Only ruins are left, but they are preserved enough to let us know the structure of the temple and its history. It’s possible to see the remains of the monolithic columns, which were originally 46 in number. The temple was founded in the 6th century BC by Cleomenes, who was managing the Greek colony of Siracusa at that time. An inscription in the Corinthian language shows the name of the commissioner, the architect, and the god Apollo to whom the temple is dedicated. The amazing remains of one bas relief representing a Gorgon and another one with the figure of a knight are kept inside the famous Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum, not far away in mainland Siracusa.
Church of the Spirito Santo
Nestled among residential houses and overlooking the bay, this church was founded in the 17th century and renovated a century later. The facade in white limestone is a complex sequence of inventive outlines and shapes. After seeing the interiors, climb the narrow spiral staircase to the bell tower from where you can view the coast and the roofs of many other important buildings in Siracusa. This church had an important function in bringing people together and celebrating the local identity during the Easter Holidays. The tradition of representing the Way of the Cross has faded away in the last decade.
The Maniace Castle
This impressive square-based fortress lies at the southernmost tip of Ortigia Island. Its real purpose is rather mysterious. Federico II, who was first the King of Sicily and later Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, erected the castle between the years 1232 and 1240 on a pre-existing fort attributed to the Byzantine ruler Giorgio Maniace, who had served the empire against the Muslim seizure of Sicily. However, even if the Maniace Castle looks like a military fortress, the studies conducted have shown that its structure and position are odd: the location was too isolated and weak, lacking enough internal room in which to move the huge war machines. Its construction saw the massive employment of local manpower and the arrival in Siracusa of foreign experts. Later in history, the castle acted as a noble residence and as a prison. It is advisable to visit the Maniace Castle with the help of a registered guide, as the information available and directions are poor.
Visiting hours: Tue. thru Sun. 08:30 to 19:00; Mon. 1430 to 19:00
Entrance ticket: €4
Bellomo Palace and Gallery
The Bellomo Palace is a rare example of impeccably preserved Suevian architecture in Sicily. Built during the 13th century during the rule of Federico II, it was purchased by the Bellomo family in 1365. Today, it is a gallery that houses Sicilian art treasures from the 13th to the 19th centuries, included the 15th century painting “Annunciation” by Antonello da Messina.
Address: Via Giuseppe Maria Capodieci, 16
Visiting hours: Tue. thru Sat 09:00-18:30; Sun. 09:00-13:00
Further sites of historical and artistic interest on the Ortigia Island
Fountain of Diana
Chiesa di San Martino – Saint Martin’s Church
Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia – Caravaggio painting “The burial of Santa Lucia”
Where to eat in Ortigia, Sicily
There are plenty of places to sit and eat genuine Sicilian food in Ortigia. Treat yourself with granita & brioche, the traditional Sicilian summer breakfast. Try the granita in different cafeterias as flavours and prices vary (the mainland cafes off Ortigia Island are cheaper). If you’d like more consistent street food, get a sliced pizza (it’s made differently here than in other parts of Italy), arancino (balls of rice, green beans, ham, tomato sauce, ragu and mushrooms, fried in oil) or other street food specialties at “Pizza e Altro” (address: Piazza Archimede, 28).
Home-made fettuccine with herbs, cherry tomatoes and prawns at restaurant La Foglia
“La Foglia” Restaurant
When you wish to sit and have your meal in a very romantic, special place, head for the “Trattoria La Foglia”. This restaurant surprised me with the unique, handcrafted, colorful decoration of its interior. It’s a family-run restaurant, founded by a local hippy chef and her artist husband. The dishes are sensational, and for the quality offered, they´re more than affordable! You’ll find original variations of traditional Sicilian cuisine. Don’t miss the fettuccini with shrimp, walnuts, pachino tomatoes, and wild fennel, and the pudding made with local almond milk. I went back to this restaurant several times, charmed by the atmosphere and the delicious food.
This is one of the numerous eateries in the area of the Via Emmanuele de Benedictis and the Via del Mercato. I stopped by because it was packed with people who looked enthusiastic about the food! The protagonist is the catch of the day, of course! Try the “gamberoni“, “pasta alla siracusana“, the “frittura di pesce“, “caponata di tonno“, and for dessert, the oversized “cannoli“. This restaurant only serves seafood, and it´s all extremely fresh. There is also a wide choice of local wines.
FAVORITE ACTIVITIES IN SIRACUSA, SICILY
Relax on Ortigia Beach and swim
In Ortigia, there is one special spot where it’s nice to swim and relax, but it´s quite small. Once you reach Fontana Aretusa, walk to the left to a bay which is perfect for snorkeling, but unfortunately the beach is very tiny.
Take a bike to the Siracusa’s bike trail and swim some more.
Once you’re familiar with Ortigia, go ahead and explore the coast on the mainland. When the old railway line connecting northern Sicily to Syracuse was dismantled, a bike path was created which stretches for 6.6 kilometers along the wild landscape of the coastline. The bicycle paths are mostly unpaved, also shared by a few local runners, and they are most enjoyable in the hours before sunset. Your first sight of this part of the Sicilian coast will leave you breathless from the colours of the sea and the cliffs, the fragrances of the plants and the tranquillity.
I checked out a few bike rentals and found that the cheapest, with a super-friendly staff, was the Ortigia Service (address: Via Malta,12). They’ll give you a map together with your bike, which will help you reach the starting point of the bicycle track (near the Monumento ai Caduti d’Africa in the Piazza Cappuccini). Anyway, it’s very easy to find, and you can also get there in half an hour by walking from Ortigia.
Along the way, there are several rocks that have been made accessible in order to allow locals to get into the water. So be sure to wear your swimsuit!
Descend into the Catacombs of San Marciano
Christian tradition recounts that the Apostle Peter had sent his emissary Marcianus to Siracusa in Sicily in order to found the first Christian community of the Western world in the year 39. The location where he was buried became a place of worship. The Cathedral of San Giovanni was erected in the 6th century under the Byzantine rulers, upon the crypt of Saint Marcian. Damaged by several earthquakes, the church and the crypt were restored by the Normans, who created the frescoes in the crypt. The Catacombs of San Giovanni (also known as th Catacombs of San Marciano) are only second to the ones in Rome, in terms of size. A main, central tunnel gives way to ten side galleries that end with chapel-like rooms (those were destined to be the tombs of well-known figures). It’s possible to see the different kinds of tombs and to learn about the funeral customs of the times, like that of pouring water, wine, and milk over the deceased through holes in the coffin. The catacombs have brought to us many epigraphs which played crucial parts in the historical reconstruction. A sarcophagus with the first representation of the nativity and an inscription that documents the antiquity of the worship of Saint Lucia the martyr (Saint Lucia is the patron saint and guardian of the city of Syracuse) are kept in the Museum of Paolo Orsini.
Entrance ticket to the cathedral, crypt, and catacomb: €8 (includes a guided tour of 45 minutes)
Opening hours: Tue. thru Sun 09:30-12:30 and 14:30-17:30
Address: Largo San Marciano
The cave called Dyonisus’ Ear
Visit the Archaeological Park of Siracusa
Approximately a half hour by foot from Ortigia lies the Neapolis Archaeological Park (Parco Archeologico Neapolis), which is without a doubt the most visited historical site in Siracusa. The park includes the Greek theater, the Roman amphitheater, and the monumental cave called “Dionysus’ Ear”, from which begins an itinerary of caves (“latomie” or rock quarries) that ends with the tomb of Archimedes.
Address: Via del Teatro Greco
Entrance tickets: €10
Opening hours: everyday 08:30-17:30
The Greek Theater of Siracusa
Architectural activities on this site date back to the 6th century BC, while the theater as we see it today was built during the 3rd century BC, taking advantage of the shape of the hill. Besides theatrical performances, the theater hosted religious ceremonies, public gatherings and ceremonies, and, during the Roman Empire, the circus and variety shows. It had international fame, and it influenced Roman architecture tremendously. Harking back to bygone times, every year from spring to summer, the Greek theater hosts presentations of Greek tragedies, recreating the ancient atmosphere of the 5th century BC. Consider seeing one if you travel to Syracuse during the right season. You’ll find updated info on the INDA foundation website.
The Roman amphitheater
This amphitheater is one of the biggest in Italy (140 x 90 m). It was constructed during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. What remains today is the part dug in the rock, while all the blocks of harder stone above ground level where removed by the Spanish during the 16th century, in order to build the forts on Ortigia Island.
Dyonisus’ Ear and the “Latomie“
The cave known as Dionysus’ Ear is dug into the limestone wall in an “S” shape and it is still a mystery to archeologists. What was its purpose? How and why was the natural echoing quality of the limestone used? The acoustic qualities of this cave are extraordinary: sound is amplified 16 times beyond its normal volume. The other caves in the park were used to dig the rock for construction and to enclose prisoners. It’s said that the “latomie” were the safest and most horrible prisons in Italy: incredibly cold during winter and hot in summer, and prisoners used to die inside them all the time.
BEST DAY-TRIPS FROM SYRACUSE, SICILY
Renting a car is the most convenient way to explore the region surrounding Siracusa. There are interesting cities and villages to explore, and long stretches of sandy beaches to enjoy.
Fontane Bianche Bay
The town of Siracusa offers breathtaking views and interesting historical landmarks, but is missing a long stretch of sandy seashore. If you want to spend time on a stunning white beach, all you need to do is rent a car and head for the Fontane Bianche Bay, 18 km south on the coast from Ortigia. There, you’ll find one of the locals’ preferred holiday destinations: a paradise of white sand and blue water, with a quiet village and a few seafood restaurants by the beach.
The hill on which sits the city of Noto, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, towers above a plateau of citrus groves located 8 km from the coast. Noto is also considered the “capital of Baroque”: after the earthquake of 1693, the city was completely rebuilt, with the help of the main Sicilian artists of the time. They decided that the center had to be crossed by three main streets running East-to-West, in order to receive direct sunlight all day long. The highlights of the city are the Cathedral of San Nicolò, the Church of San Francesco all’Immacolata, the Nicolaci Palace, and the Ducezio Palace. If you visit Noto, don’t miss the granita and the gelato at the Caffè Sicilia (address: Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 125).
Vendicari Oasis and Calamosche Bay – among the best beaches in Sicily
About 45 km south of Syracuse, you’ll have the chance to hike and explore the Vendicari Nature Reserve. The area was made a reserve in order to protect several species of birds, and the coast is unspoiled for kilometers. The reserve stretches along this coast, and provides several small secluded bays where you can sunbathe and swim. Look at the photos to have an idea of how beautiful this natural oasis is. The Bay of Calamosche, which you can reach in 45 minutes on foot from the entrance of the reserve, has been listed many times among the most attractive beaches in Italy.
The fishermen’s village of Marzamemi
Roughly one hour by car from Siracusa lies the little fishing village of Marzamemi. Here there are plenty of spots where you can chill out by the sea and taste local dishes. The old town grew up around the central square with the church of San Francesco. As soon as you get out of the car, you’ll perceive the peaceful atmosphere that envelops this place. You’ll feel immediately more relaxed and serene.
Fishermen village of Marzamemi
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My virtual tour of Siracusa Sicily end here. If you have questions, please leave me a comment. Here’s more article you might be interested in:
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