An insider's guide to Taormina, Sicily

by Caroline Hancock

Get some tips on the best places to go in Taormina, on the Italian island of Sicily, at any time of year, from someone who "knows their chickens", as the Italians like to say

I told my parents that I was to marry a true Taorminese. They were more excited about returning to the picturesque medieval town, built on the hills above the Ionian Sea, than anything else. It was a place that provided a very happy holiday for them some years before.

Taormina is a beautiful place to be at any time of year. It is worth knowing, however, that some seasons are far more rewarding than others. If possible, avoid mid July to August: hot, busy and expensive. At other times of year, the things that make each season uniquely beautiful reveal themselves.

Pretty Primavera

In May and June, Taormina and the hills that surround it are awash with colour from the blossoming flowers; Sicilians love flowers. The winter rains tend to have dried up by June and glorious sunny days are tempered by the cool Ionian Sea which, due to its deep shores, takes most of the summer to heat up. Because of the (almost imperceptible) freshness that lingers on from the winter time, the days are often crystal clear providing magnificent views of the gently smoking Mount Etna. I will never forget the first time I saw the volcano in all its majesty as our car turned the corner from Porta Catania (one of the two town gates that edge Taormina). At night time, if you are lucky enough to be in Taormina during an eruption, it is possible to see the red lava trail burning its way down the distant hillside from the Piazza 9 Aprile, the main square. Afterwards, soak up the view of the bay while having dinner on the terraces of nearby Il Granduca (172 Corso Umberto), a smart restaurant coupled with a popular pizzeria, offering one of the best vistas in Taormina.

The very best view in town is gracefully framed by the ancient Greek-Roman theatre which is still in remarkably good condition. It can be found at the end of Corso Umberto, the pretty high street that meanders from the south to the north of town. Visit in the morning before the heat of the day picks up. Afterwards you can cool off at nearby Bambar (45 Via Di Giovanni) which offers the best granita in town. Granita, for the uninitiated, is a delicious iced desert, usually made of crushed fresh fruit which is gently frozen into a snow-like consistency. Strawberry and peach make my mouth water, especially topped with fresh whipped cream and served with a brioche to soak the juice up as it melts. Pistachio, almond and coffee are all popular alternatives. The early evening is a good time to wander along the Corso itself, when the shops have re-opened following the afternoon siesta. This is when Sicilians take their daily stroll, or ‘passeggiata’, dressed in all their finery. A lovely spot to eat dinner and watch the unfolding scene is at Al Duomo (Piazza Al Duomo), one of the best restaurants in town. Bag a table on the terrace for the best people-watching view.

Indian Summer

Long before September, the sun has warmed up the earth so much that a heat haze covers the mountains. The advantage of this time of year is that stepping into the sea feels like taking a warm bath, a wonderfully soft respite from the heat of the day. The bay at Isola Bella is a pretty spot to have a dip but is less accessible than Mazzaro Beach, which is right next to the cable car that connects the seaside to the town climbing over the rocky hillside. If you are feeling adventurous maybe you could even try to persuade one of the locals at Mazzaro beach to take you out fishing in their dinghy. Polpo (octopus) is one of the sought after prizes in the shores around Taormina. The good value, simple Hotel Gallodoro, overlooking the beach, is perfect for those on a budget who like to take a dip first thing in the morning (though be warned that Taormina is in general an expensive destination when compared to the rest of Sicily). Alternatively, if you find a swimming pool more appealing than the sea, the more upmarket Hotel Villa Belvedere makes a good accommodation choice, especially for romantic souls.

Winter fruits

Not many people think of Taormina as a winter destination, but it can be a great time of year to visit. One of the best things is the abundance of fresh oranges and lemons on the trees. Not only do they add to Taormina’s aesthetic appeal, they are a key ingredient of the delicious citrus salads beloved by Sicilians. Sliced oranges laced with local olive oil, parsley and salt are simply delicious. Although winter is a time when many hotels and restaurants close, around December it gets busier again. And it has been known for my husband’s family to eat Christmas lunch outside in the sun, though I should accompany this with a warning: rain is also very possible at this time of year. When it rains in Sicily, it rains buckets, a sight worth beholding, and one which should pass after a day or two. Of course, because the heat of summer has long gone, those views of Etna have returned. A good way to take advantage of the cool and the views is to trek up the steep and plentiful steps to Madonna della Rocca (in summer the heat might put you off), a rocky outcrop overlooking Taormina and the sea. Make it in time for twilight as the town lights spark up with the setting sun, so you can sigh at the sheer prettiness of it all from your loved one’s arms. At the very top of the rock sits the castle – really just some walls – where the locals once sought refuge from Saracen pirates. Or, you could go even further, up to the village Castelmola, so named because it nestles on a hilltop shaped like a molar tooth and from where the whole coastline can be viewed.

Even though I have been to Taormina many times by now, I still look forward to returning no matter what time of year. Good food, beautiful scenery, abundant history, great weather, friendly Sicilian culture. What more could the soul want from a holiday destination?