No trip to Sicily is complete without a stop in Taormina. If you’re planning to visit, check out my list below of the best things to see and do in Taormina. Whether you plan to stay for a few days during a Sicilian vacation or only have one day to explore the town from a Mediterranean cruise, you’ll enjoy this picturesque coastal paradise away from the busy Sicilian cities.
In the summer of 2019, I finally took my first trip abroad. For ten days I traveled through the Mediterranean, hopping from one destination to the next each day. It was everything I’d hoped for and more. Half of those stops had been in Italy, including one day in Taormina, Sicily. Also known as the pearl of the Ionian Sea.
I’m obsessed with HBO’s White Lotus series, and their second season occurred in this Sicilian town. Watching the story unfold with Taormina’s notable attractions in the background, I felt as if I were visiting these places all over again for the first time. The Greek theater, the piazzas, and even the sea and mountain, often shine so brightly that they become characters themselves. Each episode had me longing to return to Sicily. In the hopes of continuing to relive the joy and awe I experienced in Taormina now that the season has ended, I compiled a list of the best things to see and do in this enchanting town.
Brief History Of Taormina
Originally founded in 392 BC by the Siculi under Dionysius I of Syracuse, Taormina was a Greek stronghold. Ultimately it fell to Roman rule and became a popular retreat, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, Taormina was conquered by various foreign rulers. First the Arabs, then the Normans, and eventually the Spaniards which led to its decline. It wasn’t until the Unification of Italy in the 19th century that Taormina was reborn as a resort town and a vacation hot spot for Hollywood's gilded age.
It’s not surprising that the likes of Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, Gustav Klimt, Francis Ford Coppola, Cary Grant, and Elizabeth Taylor to name a few of Taormina’s famous visitors traveled here. One of the first things that struck me when I visited, apart from the glittering sea and imposing Mount Etna, was the old-world charm that brimmed through the town's quaint streets, reminding me of life from another era.
Taormina sits atop a hill on the east coast of Sicily overlooking the Ionian Sea with jaw-dropping views of Mount Etna. From its postcard-worthy beaches, sweeping vistas, delicious food, and ancient architecture, it’s no wonder that Taormina’s been a popular destination for centuries.
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The Best Things to See and Do in Taormina
Visit the Greek Theater (Teatro Antico di Taormina)
The Greek theater is Sicily's second-largest theater and Taormina’s most popular attraction. It was built in the third century BC on the edge of a hill and is an architectural triumph. Of course, some of the original structure is in ruins, but through restoration efforts over the years, the theater preserves its ancient beauty and function. What's more, it can still hold up to 10,000 visitors today. The theater's shape provides perfect acoustics, which lends to the concerts, plays, and operas still performed there.
Interestingly on the day I visited, the theater was setting up for a John Legend concert that evening. I didn’t spot the performer himself but it was fascinating to see the set being built. One day I hope to return and see a show!
At the top of the stairs, there are panoramic views of the Ionian Sea and all of Taormina. On a clear day, you can even see Mount Etna! To get there is an easy walk along Taormina’s main street until you head up the hill and pay the 10 euros entrance fee. Between the fascinating history and stunning scenery, it was undoubtedly my favorite place to visit in Taormina.
Tip: From the top of the theater head behind the stairs for breathtaking unobstructed views with fewer crowds! You can also purchase a skip-the-line ticket before your visit to avoid waiting in a long entrance line.
Soak up the View From Piazza IX Aprile
Piazza IX Aprile is a stunning square located at the heart of the Corso Umberto. On one side of the piazza there are prominent monuments and cafes and on the other is a terrace with the best view in all of Taormina.
The Church of Saint Augustine, built in 1448 stands on the eastern side of the square. Built after the town had been liberated from the plague, but is now used as a library. More notably, the Church of San Giuseppe draws the eye with its beautiful baroque style and double staircase. But of all the monuments in this impressive piazza, the clock tower (Torre dell'Orologio) is the star. The tower was built in the 12th century and has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. The medieval monument is not to be missed.
On the west side of the square lies the lovely terrace. It’s a striking scene, with a black and white marble checkerboard floor and boasting views of a sparkling azure sea, Mount Etna, and the Greek theater. Rest your arms along the wrought iron railing and take some time to enjoy the view.
Tip: Try and get there early to avoid crowds. If that's not possible then there are always plenty of open spots along the rail. I also found the terrace to be a wonderful place to rest for my mental health after visiting many of Taormina’s sights.
Wander Along the Corso Umberto
The Corso Umberto is Taormina’s main pedestrian street lined with all the restaurants, shops, and cafes that your heart could desire. The buildings are in various styles showcasing the many rulers of Taormina. You can spot Baroque, Arabic, and Norman architecture. Following along the Corso Umberto will take you past most of the piazzas and points of interest.
I loved perusing the various boutiques at my leisure. Discovering fine leather goods, fun souvenirs, tasteful attire, and delicate perfumes. It’s the Sicilian town’s main street so of course there were plenty of fellow tourists but in the shops themselves, there’s none of that pressure to buy, buy, buy like there is in plenty of big cities. I was able to relax and didn’t feel the surge of anxiety I might have in narrow crowded streets. I still use a perfume I purchased on the Corso Umberto from Aria di Sicilia at least once a week.
Check Out the Piazza Del Duomo
The Piazza del Duomo is dominated by its 13th-century cathedral and a baroque-style fountain built in 1635. The cathedral resembles a fortress with its crown battlements opposed to a church. It’s a striking contrast to the marble fountain which is topped with a statue of a female centaur. You can either enjoy the sight and then continue along the pedestrian street or visit the church (if dressed appropriately.)
Tip: The piazza is great to stop by but not to linger. It can get packed with visitors pretty quickly so although it is a must-see when visiting Taormina, it’s best to spend more time elsewhere unless you can arrive early before the crowds.
Relax at Villa Comunale
Taormina’s free public gardens are an enchanting escape from the busier piazzas and pedestrian streets. The originally private gardens were created in the late 1800s by Lady Florence Trevelyan, a Scottish noblewoman, but opened to the public in 1922. You’ll find an abundance of local flora, including magnolia and hibiscus, as well as beautiful stone structures and a spectacular view of the Ionian Sea with limited crowds.
The gardens are less than a 10-minute walk from the Greek theater so this is a perfect spot for afterward. Unfortunately, My husband and I decided to visit Taormina in late July, and after walking through the town and theater we were too tired and more importantly too hot to make the trek. But the gardens remain at the top of my list for my next visit to Taormina!
Go See Isola Bella (Or Spot It From Above!)
One of the best things to do in Taormina is see this beautiful island, and I say this literally as Isola Bella translated means beautiful island. If you’ve seen pictures of Taormina before, then you’ve probably caught a glimpse of Isola Bella floating off the coast by a long strip of beach. Though not really an island, but a nature reserve, it was once privately owned by none other than, you guessed it, Lady Florence Trevelyan.
Now a free attraction, there are a few ways to visit Isola Bella. During our trip, we spotted it far off from a vista, but I’ve been told it’s even more spectacular up close. You can walk, drive, or take the cable car to reach the connected beach. The cable car is the easiest method and offers gorgeous views on the way down.
Tip: An alternative to visiting Isola Bella is to see it out on the water! There are plenty of boat tours and kayaking tours you can enjoy. Some even offer snorkeling!
Take the Long Walk Up to Chiesa Madonna Della Rocca
This historical church built from the rock on the hillside is a lesser-known attraction. You’ll encounter significantly smaller crowds while experiencing a beautiful part of Taormina. Besides having the opportunity to visit the church of Madonna Della Rocca, built in the 17th century, you’ll also be rewarded with stunning views over all of Taormina. The walk up to the church takes around 30 minutes but it’s not considered difficult.
Tip: The trail offers minimal shade so make sure to bring plenty of water for the walk up the many stairs. Additionally, go earlier in the day to avoid the height of the sun in the afternoon.
Eat All the Cannoli’s! (And the Granita!)
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” - The Godfather
Growing up as an Italian American in New York, cannoli's are a big deal. They're an integral part of the dessert course for any holiday. So when I came to Sicily I knew I had to try the dessert from its birthplace. (The region not the city as it was born in Palermo.) My husband and I stopped at Pasticceria Minotauro for the treat and it was hands down the best cannoli we’ve ever had. There’s no shortage of bakeries and cafes along the Corso Umberto so you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
Another must-have dessert, although the Sicilians have it for breakfast, is Granita. The most famous of which you can get is at Bam Bar, one of the best Taormina restaurants. Granita is a Sicilian specialty, partially frozen and made from water, sugar, and flavors such as fruit, coffee, lemon, and pistachio. The Sicilians enjoy the delicious specialty at breakfast in a brioche bun. Make sure to try it while in Taormina.
Don’t Overlook Porta Catania
There are two gates to enter Taormina: Porta Catania and Porta Messina. Whichever port you’re arriving through, Porta Catania should be on your itinerary when visiting Taormina. This entrance is a historic archway built in the 1400s with the Aragonese coat-of-arms sculpted above it. The gate leads directly to the Corso Umberto, which made me feel as if it transported me to medieval times as I passed through it. Most tourists overlook this entrance but it’s a unique piece of history.
This small village positioned above Taormina has been called one of the most beautiful villages in Sicily. The views of Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea, and the ruins of the 16th-century Norman castle are remarkable. Enjoy the vista from Piazza Sant’Antonio with its black and white mosaic floor. Then check out the castle remains (Castello di Mola) and visit the various landmarks in the village. Don’t forget to wander through the winding streets for unique ceramic shopping and delightful cafes.
To get to Castelmola from Taormina you have a few options. You can walk if you feel up to the task using a staircase close to Porta Messina that leads to Castelmola, but the walk does take about an hour. Driving is another option, but be warned the road is narrow and steep, so a taxi would be the wiser choice. However, I would recommend the bus: it’s easy, cheap and fast!
Day Trips to Take From Taormina
Take a Trip to Mount Etna
Mount Etna is Europe's largest active volcano and an ever-impressive presence on the eastern coast of Sicily. Mt Etna erupts several times a year with the last major eruption in 1922. In 2021 the volcano erupted so frequently that it grew over 100 feet in size! No wonder it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. The volcano is available year-round to visit with a tour or to embark on an independent hike.
A little over an hour's drive from Taormina, you can either make the trip to the base of Mt Etna on your own or choose a tour that picks you up and drops you off in Taormina. Depending on your specific interests, There are plenty of choices when it comes to touring this extraordinary volcano. You can hike, ride up in a jeep, or combine the tour with a trip to a winery.
Mt. Etna Tours:
Visit the Wineries
While touring Mt Etna is a thrilling excursion in and of itself, located on the volcano's slopes is a wine region unlike any other. The wine here is distinctive due to the nutrient-rich volcanic soil, producing a truly unique flavor. These are ancient vines that date back before the land was occupied, circa 20,000 BC! You can choose a tour visiting multiple wineries or as mentioned above you can do a combination tour with Mt Etna.
Go on a Godfather Tour
If it wasn’t already obvious, I’m a big Godfather fan so I would be remiss if I didn't mention the opportunity to visit the movie's iconic scenes. These real-life locations are a quick drive away from Taormina with the towns of Savoca and Forzà d'Agrò. There are several tours you can take, some even diving into the true history of the Mafia in Sicily and how they tie to the Godfather movies.
A few things to know before visiting Taormina
How to Get To Taormina
Getting to Taormina isn’t exactly the easiest place to get to but there are a few options to reach the town.
Plane: Fly into Catania, Sicily airport. From the airport you can either rent a car or take a bus or taxi to reach Catania city center.
Bus: You can also take the bus directly to Taormina.
Car: As already mentioned you can rent a car from the airport and drive to Catania or outside the city center of Taormina. You can also use a taxi from either the airport or the city to Taormina.
Train: From Catania, you can take the train to Taormina's station.
Crowds and Getting Around
Tourism is as prevalent today as it was in ancient times and during Hollywood’s Gilded age. There will be plenty of crowds, especially during the peak season in summer, it is a resort town after all. However, as someone who suffers from extreme anxiety and visited multiple cities across the Mediterranean on my trip, I didn’t find Taormina as overwhelming compared to other Italian cities. There’s plenty of room in the theater and at the overlooks. The majority of crowds you will encounter are along the Corso Umberto.
Speaking of the Corso Umberto, it is completely pedestrian and car-free. The town is completely walkable. Parking outside of the main street is a nightmare and the roads are narrow. I would not advise renting a car while in Taormina. Or if you have rented a car for your stay in or around Catania, it would be easiest to take the bus or train. However, if you’d prefer to drive you can park outside the town by Porta Catania in a large car park.
Language Spoken in Taormina
Something else to note, while shopping in the boutiques and cafes we found that not everyone spoke English here. While Sicilian is the official language of Taormina, it was still a bit of a shock after visiting Rome and Florence. Nevertheless, everyone was kind and using a few basic Italian phrases while pointing at what we wanted to purchase seemed to do the trick. Knowing hello (Ciao,) please (Per favore,) and thank you (Grazie) go a long way.
Where to Stay In Taormina
Note that prices will depend on the season you visit. These listed are during peak season.
- Villa Sant'Andrea, A Belmond Hotel $$$$$
- Hotel Metropole Taormina $$$$$
- Hotel Villa Belvedere $$$$
- Hotel Villa Paradiso $$$
- Villa Angela $$$
Taormina is a beautiful town packed with centuries of history, unbelievable architecture, delicious food, and views for days. Whatever you decide to do while here, you'll be sure to have an amazing adventure!