A true example of a metropolis of the classical age, a shining jewel among all precious treasures of Sicily, an essential destination for art, history, culture and traditions: welcome to Syracuse.
Syracuse: where and what
Splendid Sicily is almost like a continent rich in peoples, tastes, nature, sensibilities where everything expands to infinity. A sweet and harsh land, soft and rough, bright and veiled: a world full of art and history. And today I’m taking you with me to one of the unique places on the island. I’m talking about the spectacular Syracuse and their 10 wonders to see: let’s discover them!
Meanwhile, let’s define where we are: here we are on the coast by the Ionian Sea, in the south-eastern part of the island. It is almost 100% by the sea, and the oldest area of the city is located on the island of Ortygia: this is Syracuse. All around, any visitor can see a unique and incomparable scenery that seems to summarize the essence of Sicily: the Mediterranean scrub, the rocky promontories, the clear stones, the long beaches…
And now let’s discover some curiosities!
Did you know that it was one of the largest metropolises of the classical age, so much so that it excelled in power and wealth with Athens? And did you know that it has the historic center on an island connected by bridges to the modern city? And did you know that it was the capital of Sicily for centuries until the conquest by the Arabs in 878? Did you know that it was the first city in Sicily that put the Triskelion – that later became the main symbol of the island – on their coins? And that in their Greek theater, one of the largest and most important of ancient world, Aeschylus performed?
And did you know that the first Christian church in the West was founded here by St. Paul while he was on his way to Rome? You will be amazed to see Greek theaters, Baroque churches, Norman monasteries, ancient temples, legendary springs and colorful markets coexist!
Syracuse: how and when
Nowadays this city is one of the most famous and touristic places in Sicily but how and when did Syracuse become so popular? Historians are not sure about the origins of the name of Syracuse that maybe could refer to the Sicilian word Syraka that mean “abundance of water”. In 733 BC, the Corinthians founded a city that dominated a huge part of Sicily and influenced the Mediterranean right on the islet called Ortygia. Rome conquered it in 212 BC. and then turned it into the capital of Sicily. When Cicero visited Syracuse in the 1st century BC, he described it as “the most beautiful and the largest Greek city”.
The Arabs partially destroyed it, in fact, compared to other cities it did not have any particular stimuli from this domination that lasted about 200 years. So, in 1086, the Normans freed…and conquered it, of course! And now it began the bright (not always) period of the Kingdom of Sicily and the royal houses of the Normans, Swabians and Aragonese. In 1302 the Aragonese appointed Syracuse the seat of the queens of the Kingdom of Sicily. Charles V fortified it a lot, this is the reason why the city was known as ‘The fortress’.
During the 15th and the 16th centuries…
…plague and disastrous earthquakes made Syracuse less prestigious and many people left. It happened what was already happening in the rest of the island: the Bourbons founded the Kingdom of Sicily and in 1816 the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Later the Garibaldians arrived and in 1860 Italy was united. Just a tidbit: in 1943 the armistice of the Second World War between Italy and the Allied Anglo-American forces was signed in Cassibile that is very close to Syracuse.
10 wonders to see in Syracuse: let’s find out the top three!
Well now you know enough to go further and as I promised, I will list one by one 10 wonders to see in Syracuse: let’s discover them!
1 – Piazza Duomo and the Cathedral, the Church of Santa Lucia and Beneventano Palace
Piazza Duomo is in Ortygia and is one of the most famous places in Syracuse because it is a fantastic mix of Baroque architectural works. Let’s start from the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was a Ionian, Sicilian, then Doric temple dedicated to Athena, then a Roman temple, a mosque and finally the first Christian church in Europe in Norman style. Not enough? And in fact…after the earthquake in 1693, it was partly rebuilt in the Baroque style. Here is my advice: look at the façade that is considered the greatest expression of local baroque.
You will also notice the ancient inscription
“The church of Syracuse is the first daughter of St. Peter and the second behind the church of Antioch dedicated to Christ”.
We now discover that inside it is still entirely Norman with 9 columns part of the temple of Athena clearly visible in the main structure!
This beautiful square keeps some other treasures: let’s start from the baroque Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia. Even if it was reworked several times, this church and the monastery were already here in the mid-15th century. Moreover, don’t forget about Beneventano Palace, that in the past hosted King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies and the English admiral Nelson: do not miss the opportunity to visit the courtyard! Just in front of this Palace, you can see another Baroque pearl: Palazzo Senatorio, now the Town Hall…it’s incredible, isn’t it?
2 – Arethusa Fountain and the waterfront
Ortygia is about 1 square kilometer large and is connected to the mainland by two bridges. It is considered one of the most beautiful, inhabited islands in the world. The ancient heart of the city is a mix of temples, churches, palaces and fountains. So, let’s go to take an unmissable photo in front of the Arethusa Fountain, the true symbol of Ortygia. It is actually a huge pool in which the Egyptian papyrus grows, this is the only place in Europe.
Do you want to know the Greek mythological story? Arethusa was a beautiful nymph who, while she was bathing in the stream, was seen by Alpheus, the son of Oceanus. The nymph was not interested in the god’s offers and fled to the island of Ortygia. She asked the goddess Artemis to turn her into a spring. But Alpheus, who was desperately in love, asked the gods to become a river. Therefore, he crossed the sea and joined the nymph forever. Crazy love…
The Alpheus waterfront welcomes you with many restaurants, bars and clubs. Both in the morning and in the night, Ortygia is alive. Just a curiosity: enjoy the amazing sunsets due to the zenith points. They have been described over the millennia as the most beautiful sunsets in the world, take note!
3 – Castello Maniace (The Castle)
If you walk along the Alpheus waterfront, you’ll bump into Castello Maniace. The name of this castle comes from the Byzantine general who conquered Syracuse in 1038.
From an architectural point of view, it will be the only and perhaps appreciated exception to the Baroque. In 1232 Frederick II of Swabia rebuilt the fortress that we still see today, it consists of a square base and four cylindrical towers on the sides. This castle was built on the extreme part of Ortygia and seemed literally impregnable and threatening to each enemy coming from the sea.
Over the centuries, it has hosted Sicilian kings and queens but has been even a prison, an armory and a barracks of the Italian Army. Visit the magnificent hall with gothic pillars and walk among the towers and the ramparts that allow you to enjoy an incredible view of the city.
10 wonders to see in Syracuse: let’s find out four more!
4 – Archaeological Park of Neapolis with the Roman Amphitheater and the Latomie
And now I want to take you with me to the largest Archaeological Park in the Mediterranean…it’s a museum en plein air that was opened in the 20th century. Do you know that these monuments are protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site? I want to point out that when you visit it, you will be immersed in the Mediterranean scrub: olive trees, cypresses, pines, palms, carob trees, pomegranate trees, orange trees, lemon trees. I will talk about the Greek Theater in the next paragraph because it deserves its own story…let’s start our visit.
Let’s start from the Roman Amphitheater where the Romans used to organize some competitions involving both gladiators and wild beasts and other tournaments.
It is not intact because part of the building was removed by the Spaniards who used the stones to build the defensive bastions of Ortygia. Moreover, don’t miss the alleged Tomb of Archimedes and the traditional Via dei Sepolcri. The you will see the suggestive Latomie, they are huge stone quarries that crack the hills. The most wonderful one is the so-called Latomia del Paradis that includes the famous Ear of Dionysus, as it was called by Caravaggio. The legend says that the tyrant Dionysius used to lock prisoners up inside to listen to the secrets of his enemies from the top of the hill thanks to the particular acoustics. Actually, as you too can verify, each sound here is amplified up to 16 times…pay attention to what you say!
5 – The Greek theater
And here we are, welcome to the pearl of the park! The Greek Theater was built in the 5th century BC and renovated many times over the centuries. It is one of the most visited attractions in Sicily. Do you know why it has kept its original shape? Elementary: since it was not built but carved into the rock, nobody was able to steal stones! It has been very popular since ancient times, here in front of thousands of people Aeschylus presented ‘The Persians’ and ‘The Etneas’ for the first time. But even nowadays, every summer, you can attend the ancient Greek tragedies and comedies organized by the National Institute of Ancient Drama. Simply amazing!
6 – Catacombs of San Giovanni
Yes, I know: not all tourist guides include the Catacombs of San Giovanni in their itinerary, but I want to take you there! I think this is one of the most fascinating monuments in Syracuse and is near the Archaeological Park of Neapolis. Under a roofless basilica, there’s a Greek aqueduct that the Romans later turned into catacombs. From a long street underground called Decumano Massimo, 10 side streets lead to four round chapels that were originally four cisterns.
Despite what happened over the centuries, they are still spectacular. For sure, you have to visit the Byzantine Crypt where Saint Marciano was buried and admire the floor, columns and Ionic capitals. Everybody immediately notices 4 marble capitals depicting the Evangelists and the splendid frescoes added by the Normans.
7 – Paolo Orsi Museum and Bellomo Museum
Well, you cannot forget to dedicate at least one day to art, especially because you are in an ancient city like Syracuse. So, I would like to point out two museums. Let’s start from the Paolo Orsi Archaeological Museum dedicated to the archaeologist who discovered the main sites of the city. It is housed in a green area between the Neapolis Archaeological Park and the Catacombs and is considered one of the most important in Europe. Let’s discover Syracuse from the Paleolithic to the Greek-Roman era. We will see the traces of two small elephants found in the cave of Spinagallo and the ruins of the temple of Athena that now is part of the Cathedral. In the end, we cannot miss the splendid Kore found in Grammichele and the beautiful Venus Landolina.
To complete our journey into art history, let’s discover a little jewel in the heart of Ortygia: the Bellomo Museum.
It deserves to be visited even for the building that houses it! It was built during the Swabian age and for a period was a convent. Then it was purchased by the Bellomo family. The courtyard is characterized by coats of arms and historical carriages and leads to the ground floor so the art gallery. Here you will find the masterpiece of the entire collection, it is the Annunciation by Antonello da Messina that shows two wonderful faces: the angel and Mary. But there are also some collections of Syracusan and Sicilian artworks up to the 18th century.
10 wonders to see in Syracuse: let’s find out more and more!
We visited 7 out of 10 wonders to see in Syracuse! Now it’s time to get to know the surrounding area: let’s go!
8 – Vendicari Nature Reserve
It’s time to drive and in 40 minutes we’ll reach Vendicari Nature Reserve. It is known as a stop for migratory birds and offers a unique landscape: Mediterranean scrub, archaeological remains from various eras, rocky coasts and sandy beaches. Hey, remember: here there are no beaches, crazy attractions and bars but there are only a crystal clear sea, spectacular cliffs, white beaches. I strongly suggest you the beach of Calamosche, that is generally chosen by naturists. A few kilometers away you must, I repeat you MUST, go and visit a wonderful seaside village called Marzamemi, above all take a look at its colorful and picturesque square…
9 – Noto
Let’s drive! This time we are going about 30 kilometers out of the city, close to the Iblei mountains: we are in Noto. You will not believe it: it’s largest municipality in Sicily and the fourth in Italy, it occupies a quarter of the province of Syracuse! Together with the cities of Caltagirone, Militello in Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli it was destroyed by a terrible earthquake in 1693. And just like the other towns, it was rebuilt according to the canons of the late Baroque, so splendidly that it is protected by UNESCO!
The rebirth of the city was conceived and led by the Duke of Camastra who represented the Spanish Viceroy in Noto. For the reconstruction, they used a carved local stone that is a little bit gold and pink. At sunset the whole city seems to blaze until the evening… what else? Nothing…simply perfect!
10 – Beaches
And finally, let’s discover the last of the 10 wonders to see in Syracuse. Don’t forget that it is a city by the sea, therefore there are some beautiful beaches! An excellent choice (9 kilometers away from the city) is Arenella beach: it is in a small bay with golden sand where you can rent beach chairs and sun loungers. And we cannot forget about another place called the Tropics of the Mediterranean due to crystal clear sea and white sand.
Just 15 kilometers away from Syracuse, here we are in Fontane Bianche that has a fantastic 2-kilometer-long waterfront! Near the beach you will find hotels, restaurants, bars and discos to enjoy the sea day and night. Moreover, not too far away, there is Plemmirio Marine Reserve. Do you travel with kids and look for a beach where they can swim safely? I’ll take you to Avola and exactly to the beach known as la Gallina: it’s perfect to have fun and relax.
Did I surprise you with these 10 wonders to see in Syracuse? Don’t think that’s all! Sicily is much more than this: come and discover it thanks to the itineraries organized by Dimensione Sicilia. One of the best ideas? Eco-tours by electric cars! These itineraries are customizable itineraries according to your time and budget to enjoy 8 days in Western and Eastern Sicily or 14 days, if you prefer. You will visit the most beautiful places on the island such as 10 UNESCO sites of Sicily including Syracuse and its surroundings. Or if you want to enjoy the beauties of the island in a different way, pick one of the tours suggested by Sicilian Secrets. In safety we trust, let’s go!
See you soon!
Translated by Gaia Guarino