Located about 50 kilometres north of Catania on the east coast of Sicily, Taormina is a picture-perfect seaside town perched on the steep slopes of Mount Tauro. Popular with tourists from all over the world because it has so much to offer, in this post I highlight some of the best things to do in Taormina.
Located high on a rocky promontory overlooking the Ionian Sea, Taormina has a colourful history. Over the years it was invaded by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, French, Spanish…everyone had a go at coming, seeing and conquering. In later times, after it became a pit-stop in ‘the Grand Tour’, artists, writers and celebrities based themselves there, including D. H. Lawrence, whose infamous Lady Chatterley character was said to be inspired by the experiences of an Englishwoman he met in Taormina. Since 1955, Taormina has hosted an annual Film Festival which attracts many of the big names of international cinema.
It also, somewhat disconcertingly, sits in the shadow of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest and most active volcano.
So, with a few days to spend in town what are the best things to do in Taormina?
Taormina’s number one drawcard is this horse-shoe shaped Greek theatre, situated high on the hillside, with spectacular views across the Ionian Sea and to Mount Etna. It was built in the 3rd century BC, and is the second largest Greek-era theatre in Sicily (Syracuse has the largest). It has been fitted with seating and in summer, hosts performance events including screenings at the Taormina Film Festival. We were just a few weeks too late to see Duran Duran in concert here.
While the design of the theatre is Greek, some of the building techniques are more likely to be Roman, so it’s probable that this theatre underwent many revisions over the years.
Lido Mazzarò and Isola Bella
Most visitors to Taormina in warmer months spend at least some of their time at the nearby beaches. Lido Mazzaro is the nearest beach to the centre of Taormina, as it is directly beneath the town, and connected by a funiva (cable car). The beach is lined with bars, restaurants and ‘beach clubs’ where you can pay a daily rate for umbrellas and beach chairs. Many of Taormina’s hotels have arrangements with various beach clubs at Lido Mazzaro or other beaches, which offer a car to pick you up and return you at the end of the day, and/or a discounted daily beach club rate.
The walk down to Lido Mazzaro and Isola Bella from the funiva station is lined with stalls selling everything you could need for a day at the beach – hats, sunglasses, cover-ups, beach shoes, snorkles, inflatable toys… The only thing I didn’t see was swimwear, but they may have been there somewhere too.
Next to Lido Mazzaro is the Isola Bella Bay, a picturesque bay split in the middle by a narrow isthmus which connects the tiny island of Isola Bella itself to the beach. The island was owned privately up until the 1990s (including at one point by Lady Florence Trevelyan, see Villa Communale below). It was then bought by local government and has been created into a nature reserve.
The mountain-top village of Castelmola is high above Taormina, with incredible views back down to Taormina, the coastline and across to Mount Etna. As we drove north from Catania airport en route to Milazzo, we spied Castelmola impossibly perched on the top of its mountain, and we were fascinated. When we ended up with an unplanned night to find accommodation for, we headed straight to Castelmola where we had the most memorable of Saturday nights. However, you don’t need to stay in the town, it is easily visited from Taormina.
If you have mountain goat genes, you can walk up the winding, steep path to Castlemola from Taormina (about an hour). Alternatively, you can take one of the regular shuttle buses, or a taxi (both of which take around 10-15 minutes) from Taormina.
While you’re there, visit the ruined fortress above the town for breath-taking views, the Duomo of Castelmola (San Niccolo’ di Bari) which has a spectacular terrace/balcony overlooking Taormina, and definitely swing by Bar Turrisi to try their famous almond wine (and gawk at their equally infamous decor). There’s also great shopping in the town’s narrow laneways.
Arancini from da Cristina
Arancini are a Sicilian specialty, and for a delicious, cheap range of these snacks, it’s worth seeking out Da Cristina down a laneway leading off Piazza Duomo. These portable food morsels consist of deep-fried rice balls—made with a variety of fillings, including molten cheese, tomato, pesto or aubergine.
There’s a Da Cristina restaurant, which (if you’re coming from the Piazza) you’ll get to first. Keep walking – the simple takeaway outlet is at the back of the restaurant. There are a few tables scattered about the sloped outdoor space, where half the challenge of eating your arancini is stopping them rolling off the table.
Villa Comunale Public Gardens
On a warm day, the Villa Communale Public Gardens offer a welcome shady respite from both the crowds and the heat. They were created by an Englishwoman Lady Florence Trevelyan in the late 19th century. She’s quite a character. Rumoured to have been exiled to Taormina after an affair with the heir to the British throne, she married a local and dedicated herself to creating a lush garden full of quirky Victorian follies. She later donated these gardens to the people of Taormina. There is a walkway facing the sea and Mount Etna which offers very photogenic, panoramic views. Don’t miss the poignant sculpture of Lady Florence and her husband at the via Bagnoli Croci gate entrance.
Passeggiata on Corso Umberto I
Corso Umberto I is the pedestrian-only, main street of Taormina, running from one end of the historic town centre to the other. It is lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels, and cuts right through the pretty medieval quarter of Taormina. Halfway along this avenue is Piazza Aprile IX (see below) which is a very popular spot to hang out.
Avid shoppers will enjoy the range of high end fashion shops, souvenir, sandal, ceramic and jewelry stores, but there are also numerous gelato shops, bars and cafes. In the evening, tourists and locals alike take to the street for the passeggiata (a leisurely walk or stroll, especially one taken in the evening for the purpose of socializing), with street buskers and caricature artists adding to the lively atmosphere.
Piazza Duomo is located at the western end of the Corso Umberto I, in the medieval town. The Church of San Nicola, which dominates the Piazza, was built around 1400 AD on the site of an earlier church. It is a ‘fortress cathedral’ with a Latin-cross plan and three aisles. Pink marble columns hold up the nave. Like most of Taormina, the Duomo is a popular location for weddings and we watched as a bride and groom exited the church to a veritable pelting of rice. No gentle tossing in this town! In the centre of the Piazza is a Baroque fountain featuring a centaur which is the symbol of Taormina, and at one end of the Piazza is the Daiquiri Bar, a popular spot for aperitivo.
Piazza IX Aprile
Piazza IX Aprile (Square of the 9th April) was named after the 9th of April, 1860, when mass in the Taormina Duomo was interrupted to announce that Garibaldi had landed at Marsala to begin his conquest of Sicily (which ended up in it becoming part of Italy). The Piazza is the ‘living room’ of Taormina. Black and white pavers create a spectacular scene, and the terrace overlooking the water draws everyone to it at sunset for the obligatory Taormina sunset selfies.
The Piazza also contains two churches, St. Augustine’s and the Church of St. Joseph, and the Porta Di Mezzo (the bit with the clock tower) divides off the medieval end of the town. Piazza IX Aprile is the perfect spot for a bit of people-watching and it has a party atmosphere in the evenings when it is filled with musicians and artists.
One of my favourite aspects of Italy is its aperitivo tradition, or as the Fairlie Entourage calls it…’drinks dinner’. Each of Taormina’s local cafes and bars have own aperitivo traditions. Our favourite evening activity was to walk down one of the side lanes from Corso Umberto I to find a small bar for our aperitivo. The local piazzas had some of the best spots to watch the world go by. Of course, if you want to go all out, The Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo or the San Domenico Palace Hotel offer possibly the most luxurious of Taormina places to sit out on the terrace for aperitivo.
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