Sicily is a mountainous island dotted with lemon, orange, almond and pistachio orchards—an extension of the Apennine Mountains separated from the mainland by the Strait of Messina. La Sicilia is the largest island in the central Mediterranean, with some 9,927 sq mi/25,711 sq km of variegated terrain.
Many powers have occupied and governed this strategically important area 310 mi/500 km south of Rome: Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Muslims (Arabs), Phoenicians, Normans, Spanish, the royal houses of Hohenstaufen, Savoy, Habsburg, the Aragon and, for brief periods, the U.K. and the U.S. Historic sites related to these powers are part of the island's attraction.
For touring, the island can be roughly divided into the north-shore and south-shore areas. The north shore has reefs, olive groves, secluded coves and countless seaside resorts, including Cefalu, a gorgeous Arab-Norman city with good beaches. Also on the north coast is Palermo, the ancient (and current) capital, and the island's largest city. About 50 mi/80 km west of Palermo lies the ancient village of Erice, atop a mountain: It still has remains of a temple dedicated to Venus.
The southern coast has an even milder climate, so there's swimming most of the year (although it can get cold there November-March). Among the areas not to be missed are Agrigento, Acireale and Taormina, a distinctive, beautiful town perched on cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.
Mount Etna is a 10,902-ft-/3,323-m-high active volcano on the east coast—its crater is difficult to reach, so join a guided tour and dress warmly. There are great ocean views from the mountain, and (depending on volcanic activity) it's possible to ski there in winter. You can also drive or take a train along the 120-mi/200-km route around its base to see a wide variety of scenery.
It's also possible to visit various island groups that surround Sicily. The Aeolian Islands lie off the northeast coast, the Egadi Islands are to the west and the Pantelleria Islands and Pelagian Islands are to the south.
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