Even in October, the streets of Taormina are jam packed with tourists, many trailing their tour guides. Large, slow, name tags and fanny packs in evidence, many of these groups of visitors disembark from their cruise ships early in the morning, and after a long day of souvenir shopping for the likes of Homer Simpson as The Godfather tee shirts, thankfully get back on their boats before sunset.
Both the sheer numbers of people and the shops offering absolute junk surprised me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many souvenir shops selling so many of the same silly things.
Despite the crowds and questionable merchandise, the main street, Corso Umberto I, is certainly worth a stroll and there are lovely churches and galleries to stop in and admire as you make you way through the throngs. There are gates at each end of Corso Umberto I– Porta Catania and Porta Messina, through which you enter this pedestrian thoroughfare. Piazza del Duomo and Piazza IX Aprile are the two main squares in the town with the requisite cafes and shops, though there are also bars and restaurants, along with countless shops, all along the Corso and on the smaller streets. Cafe Wunderbar on the Piazza IX Aprile looks inviting and always seems to have a crowd.
Ceramics are a really popular souvenir all over Sicily and Taormina is no exception. Ceramic heads of kings and queens are especially sought after in the Taormina area. There are a number of stories around this with slight variations, but all have a grisly ending.
Leave the main streets and piazzas and you’ll be rewarded by Taormina’s quiet corners.
There are restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets in Taormina, but if you like arancini—a Sicilian specialty that is basically a big rice ball stuffed with delicious cheese, meats and/or vegetables, (tastes so much better than it sounds) you must go to Antica Rosticceria da Cristina. It’s at 2 Via Strabone—a little alley off the Piazza del Duomo near the Excelsior Hotel This is a carry out place so you’ll queue up, choose your favorite (I like the original), grab a drink and then either eat at one of their very few tables or walk up to the little park outside the Porta Catania (go left after you walk back up the alley towards the main street) and enjoy your al fresco lunch.
Afterward, treat yourself to some gelato for dessert. My favorite is Gelateria Artigianale O’sciality on Piazza Antonio Abate, just outside the Porta Catania. Yum!
If you’re feeling quite fit, or just need to walk off the arancini and gelato, take a walk up the 700+ steps through the town to the Madonna Della Rocca and the Castello Saraceno. Look for the signposts.
The steps can be steep and are narrow in some areas, but the views are superb and there are sculptures marking the Stations of the Cross along the way.
There are also benches in some spots so that you can stop and rest. Once you reach the top, visit the small but beautiful church of the Madonna della Rocca, so named because it is built into the rock on which it stands.
The Castle of the Saracens is not open for touring but you can admire the ruins from a distance.
You can choose to walk down those many, many steps back to town, take a bus which passes just a block below in front of Villa Ducale on Via Leonardo da Vinci or, depending upon the time of day, have the Al Saraceno restaurant or Villa Ducale call a taxi for you. Villa Ducale offers its guests a complimentary shuttle service into town and back. Full disclosure—we walked down the steps into town and took a taxi back up to our hotel. A word about public transportation– there are local ASM city buses, which we took when the schedule was convenient, though no buses ran for several hours in the afternoon, and those run by Interbus (these are blue). Both run regularly and on a schedule. The Interbus goes farther afield than the local bus. Tickets can be purchased on the bus in both cases. Look for the main bus stop just outside the Porta Messina. There is also a taxi stand there.
If you’ve managed to walk up all those steps, reward yourself with lunch or dinner at Al Saraceno, Via Madonna della Rocca. The food is delicious, well priced and if the weather is nice, the expansive outdoor terrace is open. Again, the views are spectacular. We enjoyed several terrific dinners here.
Next, we’ll explore a few of Taormina’s beach clubs.