Syracuse in Sicily
The splendor of Magna Graecia
“The most beautiful of the Greek cities”: with these words, Cicero described Syracuse, an ancient Greek polis and home to the most renowned personalities of the Hellenic world: Aeschylus, Pindar, Xenophon, and Plato.
Syracuse is the capital of the namesake province located in Val di Noto, along the southeastern coast of Sicily. Rich in monuments dating back to different historical periods, Syracuse is a land of natural and architectural wonders and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005. Famous throughout the world for its Greek theatre, the rich Archaeological Park, and the picturesque island of Ortygia, this city is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sicily. The coast, moreover, rich in marine protected areas, cliffs and pristine beaches, is this territory’s the other crown jewel, perfect for a cultural and relaxing holiday.
What to see in Syracuse
Syracuse, the cradle of ancient Magna Graecia, is like a treasure chest full of treasures from diverse eras and civilizations, the passing of which you can touch and see with your naked eye, walking through the city’s streets. Its layout is very particular: the old town extends entirely on the island of Ortygia, connected by two bridges to the mainland and the rest of the city: Ponte Santa Lucia (St. Lucy’s Bridge) and Ponte Umbertino (the Humbertine Bridge).
Monuments and churches
Syracuse boasts a rich artistic heritage thanks to the development of Baroque art from starting in the seventeenth century. This style flourished mainly after 1693, the year in which southeastern Sicily was utterly razed to the ground by a violent earthquake which, on the one hand being a catastrophe that destroyed entire cities, on the other favored the reconstruction with a new exuberant, majestic and theatrical visage.
The Cathedral of Syracuse is the symbol of the city’s millenary history: with 2400 years of history, this beautiful Baroque-style church encloses the Temple of Athena, a Doric monument dating back to 480 BC. An emblematic symbol of a city that, throughout history, has been the cradle of different cultures and civilizations which molded its visage and culture.
Of the palaces overlooking Piazza Duomo, Palazzo del Vermexio is to be valued: a perfectly geometric building, the premises of Municipal Palace, which preserves the ruins of an Ionic temple in its basement.
Then visit the Chiesa dello Spirito Santo (Church of the Holy Spirit) with its beautiful Baroque facade, the Chiesa di Santa Lucia al Sepolcro (Church of St. Lucy at the Sepulcher), dating back to the twelfth century, and the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Tears). This latter monument is quite recent: it was built in 1953 and had a modern structure with a very high conical roof.
Many of the artifacts from the archaeological sites of the city and former colonies are kept at the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi (Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum), one of the most important and wealthy in Europe. Inside it is divided into several areas, ranging from prehistoric times to the Christian and Byzantine era. A must-see for history and archeology lovers.
Then comes is the Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo (Palazzo Bellomo Regional Gallery), an exciting collection of works of art from former churches and convents or acquired via donations, purchases, artifacts, and other pieces, all exhibited in chronological order on two floors.
Finally, Egyptian, Greek, demotic and Coptic papyri on display at the Museo del Papiro (Papyrus Museum) is a final very interesting collection. The museum also displays papyrus objects, utensils, writing materials, and rich documentation concerning the manufacture of papyrus.
What to see in the vicinity
About 7 km from Syracuse the Castello Eurialo (Eurialo Castle), built around 402 BC by the will of tyrant Dionysus I. The fortification is in the ancient district of Epipoli, in a strategic position for defending the city. Today, from the summit, you can take in a beautiful view of Syracuse. Furthermore, just outside the city walls, you can immerse yourself in a secret underground world, a passageway between life and death: the Catacomba di San Giovanni (St. John’s Catacomb), a sacred labyrinth formed by tunnels carved into the rock, extending s below the Chiesa di San Giovanni alle Catacombe (the Church of St. John at the Catacombs).
The territory of Syracuse also has natural parks of great beauty and historical and geological interest. This is the case of the Necropoli di Pantalica (Necropolis of Pantalica), added to the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2005. It is a deep natural quarry in which, over the centuries, man has dug numerous caves used as homes or shelters for defense against enemies.
Then, between Syracuse, Avola, and Noto is the Cavagrande del Cassibile Oriented Nature Reserve in which the Cassibile river winds along its way. Along its course, this river forms small basins called “Laghetti di Avola.” You can swim and take refuge from the summer heat in these waters since they are always fresh and crystal clear. The path to the lakes is a bit difficult to travel and quite steep on the way back, but it’s a really a one-of-a-kind place to visit.
Another exciting naturalistic itinerary for those who love hiking is the one winding through the Riserva Naturale del Fiume Ciane (the Ciane River Natural Reserve), where you can observe lush papyrus vegetation.
What to see in Syracuse in one day
You have little time to visit Syracuse? No problem. This is a brief but rich itinerary to enjoy the city’s best in one day.
We begin our journey from the island of Ortygia, the beating heart of Syracuse. The historic center is a lively maze of narrow streets and a treasure chest of architectural jewels, churches, and noble palaces. Walking along the promenade, you can enjoy spectacular landscapes and encounter numerous small restaurants where you can stop for lunch. Along your walk, admire the remains of Greek-Roman monuments, such as the Doric Temple of Apollo at Largo XXV Luglio. Pass through Piazza Archimede (Archimede’s Square) and admire the Diana Fountain (Fountain of Diana), a magnificent monument created by Giulio Moschetti in 1907, before arriving in Piazza Duomo. This spectacular baroque square paved with travertine stone, dominated by the Cathedral of Syracuse, appears as an elegant open-air sitting room. Spend your evening here, to be dazzled by the plaza’s atmosphere of times gone bye.
We then come to Fonte Aretusa (the Fountain of Arethusa), a circular spring a stone’s throw from the sea, where papyrus plants grow. Today it has become the symbol of the city and the only fountain with papyrus plants in Europe, along with that of Fiumefreddo. The Maniace Castle located at the end of the island is the next stop. This Swabian fortification is the work of Frederick II and is now open for visiting: enjoy the magnificent view of the sea from its walls.
After visiting Ortygia, we move to the city’s second most important historical place: Neapolis Archaeological Park. A pleasant visit to the site takes about two hours.
If you want to change your tour or if you have time left over, take a boat ride around Ortygia and admire the spectacular play of lights and the wonderful natural scenery full of myths and legends. The Marina is full of companies that offer this service.
What to do in Syracuse
Syracuse is a city of art offering a variety of cultural activities, events, and festivals that will fill your holidays. Here are some of the city’s most meaningful events.
Events and shows
Every year, between May and June, the Greek theater hosts the Greek Theater Festival in Syracuse, during which classical representations of the works of the greatest Greek tragedians are staged. Please take advantage of this unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the theater’s ancient atmosphere, sit on its thousand-year-old steps and watch the classical performances. You can consult the program and buy tickets on the website of the Istituito Nazionale del Dramma Antico.
Syracuse also has a Municipal Theater offering an exciting program for the theater and concert season.
Festivals and concerts
The Feast of Saint Lucy
The feast in honor of the city of Syracuse’s patron saint is held every year on 13 December. According to legend, Lucy, born into a noble Syracuse family, renounced marriage after having converted to Christianity. For this reason, she was arrested, tortured and her eyes were torn out. Today she is celebrated as the Saint of Light and protectress of sight. On this occasion, it is traditional to prepare small circular votive loaves, called uccioli, which represent the holy martyr’s eyes. Another local dessert associated with the feast of Saint Lucy is the cuccìa, made with boiled wheat and ricotta cheese, garnished with cinnamon, candied pumpkin, and chocolate drops.
On December 13, the simulacrum of the saint and her relics are carried in procession through the streets of the city by 60 “green berets”, as are called the bearers who wear this characteristic hat. From the Cathedral, the procession moves along the Aretusa Promenade to Porto Grande, where the sailors “greet” the saint sounding the foghorns the boats in celebration. Finally, the simulacrum and relics are taken to the Basilica di Santa Lucia al Sepolcro (Basilica of St Lucy at the Sepulcher) where they remain for a week, at the end of which a new procession brings them back to the Cathedral.
Ortigia Sound System
In the summer, Ortygia hosts a musical event composed of traditional rhythms mixed with electronic music. Four or five days of DJ sets, live music, screenings, and boat concerts enliven the picturesque old town of Syracuse. Take part in a fun boat party to admire the island’s evocative panorama at sunset and dance on a boat immersed in this fantastic atmosphere.
Markets and festivals
Ortygia market is one of the most famous and characteristic street markets in Sicily. It is held every day, except Sunday, from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm on Via De Benedictis, starting side hosting the Ancient Market building of Syracuse, now home to cultural manifestations and events. In its colorful stalls offer preserves, cheeses, meats, fruits, vegetables, fish, wines, and many other local Sicilian products. Immerse yourself in this colorful world, among the locals and the so-called vanniari, who sell by shouting out the praises of the goods they trade.
What to do in the evening
In Syracuse, the nightlife winds through the streets of Ortygia, full of clubs, pubs, restaurants, and pizzerias. You’ll find every kind of venue and a wide choice for all ages. Have an aperitif in Piazza Duomo immersed in its evocative night-time atmosphere or go out to dinner in one of the excellent fish restaurants along Lungomare Alfeo enjoying the relaxing view of the sea. The liveliest streets are the Fonte Aretusa area and the Alfeo promenade with its excellent restaurants, Corso Giacomo Matteotti and the Marina. You’ll be surprised by the pullulating life of this small island that represents the beating heart of history, culture, and entertainment of this city in southeastern Sicily.
Where is Syracuse and how to get there
Syracuse is located along the southeastern coast of Sicily, about 65 km south of Catania. Here is some useful advice on how to get to the city by various means of transportation.
Getting to Syracuse from Catania by car is very easy: you have to take highway E 45 and get off on the exit for Syracuse South taking the SS 124.
From Noto, proceed along SS 115, SP 35, and SP 19, and then take highway E 45 to exit at Canicattini Bagni. Then continue along SP 14 in the direction of Syracuse.
From Ragusa, proceed towards Modica and Rosolini, and take E 45 (Syracuse-Gela) highway. Proceed to the exit for Canicattini Bagni and then head towards Syracuse along SP 14
From Palermo, take the E 19 highway and then the A 19 highway in the direction of Catania, from there, proceed as indicated above
Parking and ZTL
Getting around Syracuse is very easy thanks to the numerous car parks. If you have to go to Ortygia, we suggest you cross Ponte Santa Lucia and park in one of the guarded areas at the north of the island and then continue on foot and enjoy a nice walk through the streets. These are the main ones: the Marina car park on Viale Giuseppe Mazzini, the covered car park Talete on the Lungomare di Levante Elio Vittorini, and the car park on via Riva Sauro.
Then there are two free car parks before crossing the bridges connecting the mainland to Ortygia: the first is near the Ponte Santa, on Riva della Darsena, and the second next to the port behind via Arsenale.
AST manages the urban line of Syracuse and also serves the areas of Plemmirio, Isola, Arenella, Ognina, and Fontane Bianche. That same company manages the suburban routes connecting Syracuse to Catania, Palazzolo, Noto, Ispica, Pozzallo, Modica, Ragusa, Rosolini, and Avola.
The Bus Terminal is located next to the railway station on Corso Umberto, and from here several private bus lines depart, such as Interbus, Segesta, and Etna Trasporti.
The airport closest to Syracuse is Catania, about 45 km from the city. From here you can get to the city by bus with the Interbus line, renting a car, or booking a transfer service.
Comiso airport, the second closest airport to Syracuse, is about 90 km away. The only way to get to Syracuse from Comiso is to rent a car or book a transfer service
Syracuse station is an important railway hub of southeastern Sicily. Regional trains connect the city with Catania, Taormina, Messina, Ragusa, and Gela, whereas long-distance trains to and from Syracuse reach Reggio Calabria, Naples, Rome, Genoa, and Milan.