Sicily’s Ionian Riviera – An authentic island vacation, Italian style!

February 04, 2015

A unique melding of Mediterranean cultures, Sicily’s Ionian Riviera is a land of ancient wonders whose varied landscape, sun-soaked beaches, vibrant culinary scene and mesmerizing charm will lure you in at every turn.  
The beautiful Ionian Riviera is made up of mountains, hills and glittering sea. It extends down the east coast of Sicily, from the straits of Messina, through a series of charming seaside villages and beaches to the scenic town of Taormina, the Pearl of the Riviera. It continues on through the lively lava-stone city of Catania onto Siracusa, the most important city of Magna Graecia. The brooding Mount Etna dominates the coastline, her presence forever shaping and molding this fascinating region.  

Because of its strategic position in the Mediterranean, the island has been ruled by Arabs, Greeks, Normans, Romans and Spaniards – their collective influence evident in the region’s food, fashion, architecture and traditions, giving it a unique personality. Perhaps that is why Goethe wrote that “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything."  

This is a land of incredible colours and flavours; a place where history and culture, excitement and leisure, are in perfect balance. Every curve in the coast unveils something new and spectacular. It could be a glorious cathedral built on a Greek temple in Siracusa, the lively seaside resort of Giardini Naxos south of Messina, or one of the many festivals in celebration of patron saints; Catania’s Festa di Sant'Agata is one of the most dramatic and is accompanied by spectacular fireworks. Witness a place untainted by the hands of time and experience a taste of authentic island life - Italian style.

Gabriele Montenegro of Visit Sicily, describes the Ionian Riviera as “A mix among volcanic rocks and white sandy shorelines, showcasing the fantastic Baroque and the charming Taormina. It's where the myth becomes landscape. Where the time becomes life."  

The beautiful cities of Messina, Catania and Siracusa provide the ideal base; their old-world streets brimming with lavish Baroque cathedrals and palaces, historic wonders, colourful markets, great restaurants and local artisan shops. 

The Ionian Riviera begins at the ‘Door of Sicily’ in the ancient port city of Messina located in the northernmost point of the island. It is here that ferries make their crossing to mainland Italy. As with most trading cities, Messina is bursting with life. A series of violent earthquakes changed the cityscape, but its grand, sweeping boulevards lined with elegant turn-of-the-century buildings remain as enchanting as ever. Ancient and noble, Messina is home to magical places like the Piazza Duomo, the Church of Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani, the Quattro Fontane (Four Fountains), and the gothic-style Messina cathedral with its famous clock.

For an unforgettable experience, visit the scenic hilltop towns of Savoca and Forza d’Agrò, where scenes from the ‘The Godfather’ movies were filmed. Then continue onto the lovely Castelmola, rated as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages.

No one can resist a visit to the picturesque town of Taormina. Perched high above the sea, its panoramic views of the coastline, the ancient Teatro Greco, the enchanting bay of Isola Bella and snow-capped Mount Etna will remain etched in your memory forever.   

The island’s fiery Mount Etna is a must-see. A guided climb up this active volcano is an emotionally charged experience. A thrilling way to see this wonder in its entirety is on a helicopter ride. The bird’s eye view is spectacular. 

At the base of Mount Etna is the vibrant city of Catania. Chaotic and full of energy, it is a feast for the senses. Living in the constant presence of an active volcano has given residents an added thrill for life. Its beautiful UNESCO-listed historic city centre is filled with grandiose palazzi fashioned out of volcanic rock that tower over baroque piazzas such as Piazza Duomo, which houses the splendid Cattedrale di Sant' Agata and the Fontana dell'Elefante. Take a stroll through La Pescheria, the city’s famed old fish market. Catania is bustling with wonderful restaurants, lively bars and a renowned nightlife set in the most incredible surroundings. Imagine dancing the night away in a villa surrounded by orange groves or inside a botanical garden under a starlit sky.

The charming seaside villages of S.Tecla, S. Maria la Scala, Acireale, Acitrezza and Acicastello are perfect for day trips. In Acitrezza, visit the fascinating Faraglioni, spectacular lava cliffs that rise out of the marine protected waters of the Cyclopi Islands.  For one of the best seafood meals, head to the small fishing village of Capomulini. 

'Never a day without sun,’ said Aeschylus of his favourite city. The largest city in the ancient world, Siracusa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to a treasure-trove of ancient Greek ruins set among lush citrus groves against a backdrop of blue sea and sky – it is postcard perfect.  Inland, visit the Neapolis Archeological Park to see the Greek theatre that dates back to the 5th Century BC, which still hosts popular theatrical productions. There is also a Roman amphitheatre and the ancient quarry of Laromia del Pardiso. The city is divided into two areas: the urban part and the beautiful island of Ortigia, Siracusa’s historic centre, booming with tourists who fill its magnificent baroque piazzas and stroll down medieval lanes that lead to its stunning seafront.

South of Siracusa, some of the best swimming awaits you in a sea of turquoise at the Cassibile's lagoons. Incredibly beautiful and inviting, the lagoons are located at the bottom of a great gorge, the deepest in Europe. It’s an experience like no other.

Not to be missed is the “Baroque City” of Noto. It’s not only a UNESCO Heritage Site, but it also boasts one of Italy’s best bars, Caffe' Sicilia, in Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Their granitas are heavenly!

The Ionian Riviera is surrounded by green olive groves, almond trees, citrus orchards and vineyards that stretch out to sea. This bounty of fresh fish and local fare has inspired a hearty array of local dishes such as fresh fish spiced up with capers and tomatoes, homemade pasta like pasta alla norma, arancini (rice balls), gelato, granita (crushed flavoured ice drinks) and creamy, ricotta stuffed cannoli that have long delighted palates across Italy.

With the sun shining 300 days a year, the Ionian Riviera is a great place to visit all year long. Each season seduces you with its unique charm, however, summer is without a doubt the most popular time to visit as thousands of travellers migrate to the east coast to relax on some of Sicily’s most spectacular beaches including S. Teresa di Riva, Mazzaro', Letojanni, S. Lorenzo and Giardini Naxos.   

Pack your camera, sense of adventure, and set off to explore ancient relics and soak in the Sicilian sun on the exciting Ionian Riviera.  

Look for this article in the latest issue of Panoram Italia Magazine on newsstands now!

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