Things to Do in Taormina
The Sicilian town of Taormina has long been known as a popular beach resort destination, but it’s more than sparkling water and long stretches of sand that draw visitors. Taormina is also home to a spectacular ancient ruin - the Greek Theatre.
Despite its name, the Greek Theatre - or Teatro Greco in Italian - is actually an ancient Roman structure. The design is more akin to how the ancient Greeks designed their theaters, so it is believed the Roman theater was built over an existing Greek theater. The ruins you see today date primarily from the 2nd century A.D., although the theater was started in the 7th century B.C.E. Taormina’s Greek Theatre sits high above the town’s famous beaches, so visitors who climb uphill to see the ruin are rewarded with more than just an up close look at an ancient monument - the views can be fantastic. From the theater, you can see the town of Taormina, the beaches far below, and the Mt. Etna volcano. It’s one of the best views in Sicily.
You don’t have to understand much Italian to guess that the Isola Bella attraction near Taormina in Sicily is a “pretty island” - but what you can’t guess from the name is that it’s not actually an island at all.
Isola Bella is a tiny, rocky outcropping just off the popular Lido Mazzarò beach in a small bay near Taormina. It looks like an island, but is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand. It’s sometimes covered by the sea, so there are times when it looks like an island. This islet was given to the town of Taormina as a gift in 1806 by the then-king of the region, and later purchased by Lady Florence Trevelyan - a Scottish woman who lived in Taormina in the late 1800s.
Lady Trevelyan built a house atop Isola Bella, which still stands today. Ownership of the islet changed hands several times over the years, until 1990 when Isola Bella went up for auction. It is now owned by Sicily and serves as a nature reserve.
Taormina’s Medieval Quarter is one of the prettiest sections of the city, and Corso Umberto I cuts right through its middle. The clock tower that marks the start of the Medieval Quarter is actually in an arched tower that spans the Corso Umberto I. The particularly picturesque Piazza Aprile IX sits along the famous street, and it’s one of the most popular places to pause and do some people-watching. The view from the piazza over the water is lovely, and the piazza itself is a beautiful backdrop to whatever is going on.
The Sicilian town of Taormina, like the rest of Sicily, has changed hands many times over the centuries, the evidence of which can be seen in much of the island’s architecture. In Taormina, one building that captures the town’s history is the Palazzo Corvaja on the Piazza Badia.
The first part of the Palazzo Corvaja was the tower, built in the 10th century by the Arabs who ruled the area at the time. The tower was then part of the city’s fortifications, and the cube-shape was typical of Arab towers built in that era. In the 13th century when the Normans were in charge, they added to the palace, making the tower bigger and building a new wing.
Later, in the early 15th century, the Spanish ruled Sicily - and they added yet another wing to the existing construction at the Palazzo Corvaja. This time, the structure was designed to hold the Sicilian Parliament, formed in 1411.
Italy’s public squares come in all shapes and sizes, and some are decidedly more beautiful than others. Taormina’s main square, Piazza IX Aprile, is both popular and gorgeous - which is why it features so prominently in many Taormina photographs.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Piazza IX Aprile is the paving - rather than a simple gray stone surface, the piazza looks a bit like a giant chessboard with its oversized alternating black and white marble squares. The impact is striking, especially on a sunny day.
The ornate Church of St. Joseph, built in the 17th century, overlooks the square, and its bright pink and white facade gleams against the black and white squares. Another building on the piazza is the 15th century St. Augustine, a former church that now serves as Taormina’s library. The passageway in the 12th century clock tower on one side of the piazza leads to the Borgo Medievale, one of Taormina’s oldest districts.
The square in front of Taormina’s cathedral may have an obvious name - the Piazza del Duomo - but its primary decoration is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
The Duomo and the piazza are just off Taormina’s main street, the Corso Umberto I. The Duomo dates from the 13th century, although the main doorway was rebuilt in the 1630s. That’s also when the Baroque-style fountain was placed in the center of the Piazza del Duomo. The fountain was added to the square in 1635, and at the very top is a sculpture representing Taormina’s city symbol.
The symbol of Taormina is a centaur - half man, half horse - but for some reason the statue atop the fountain in the Piazza del Duomo isn’t a straightforward centaur. Not only is the figure female rather than male, it also only has two legs (the back two) rather than four. No one knows why the centaur isn’t quite “normal,” but the people of Taormina have adopted the statue as the town symbol.
More Things to Do in Taormina
While Taormina is best known as a famous beach resort, the town itself sits high above the water and the beaches. So it may not be surprising to learn that one of the main attractions in town turns out to be the cable car connecting the town with the beach - the “Funivia.”
“Funivia” sounds a bit like it’s the name of an Italian amusement park ride, but it’s simply the Italian word for “cable car.” The Taormina Funivia connects the town center with the beach at Mazzaro. It makes getting down to the beach or back to your hotel easy and quick, even if you get all the way to the beach and realize you’ve forgotten sunscreen or your book.
There are eight cable cars in the Taormina-Mazzaro Funivia system that are in near-constant rotation, depending on the season. During the busiest months, cable cars run every 15 minutes, and the trip from one end to the other takes less than five minutes.
You could be forgiven for getting a little bored of seeing one ancient Roman ruin after another in Italy - they’re everywhere, after all. But in Sicily’s Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, you get to see something particularly interesting - some of the best-preserved ancient Greek ruins anywhere.
Like the ancient Romans, the ancient Greeks got around - and for some time this part of Sicily (along with other coastal areas of southern Italy) was part of Magna Graecia. The town that is now Agrigento was once the Greek city of Akragas, and the Greeks built several impressive temples on a ridge just outside of the city. The remains of seven of those temples are still impressive enough to draw visitors to the site thousands of years later.
Should you grow tired of sunbathing all day on Taormina’s gorgeous beaches, there are great day trip options you can take, either with your own rental car or by signing up for a tour. One excellent excursion takes you to Villa Romana del Casale, with some of the best examples of ancient Roman mosaics anywhere.
Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale is a little less than two miles from the town of Piazza Armerina, in the southern part of the island. It’s roughly 92 miles from Taormina. The villa was originally built in the 4th century A.D., but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the remains were excavated - they had lived underground, under fields used for farming - and the mosaics discovered.A landslide in roughly the 12th century A.D. covered the villa, which was bad news for the inhabitants but good news for archaeologists - because it meant the mosaics survived in much better shape than they would have had they remained exposed.
As is the case with most small Italian towns, Taormina’s main street will lead you to the town’s main church. In Taormina, that means when you walk along the Corso Umberto, you will eventually arrive in the Piazza del Duomo and at the Duomo itself.
Taormina’s Duomo, dedicated to San Nicolò di Bari, was built in the 13th century and its design is typical of many churches of its era - the exterior more closely resembles a fortified castle than a house of worship. For this reason, it has the nickname of the “fortress cathedral,” or “cattedrale fortezza.”
The Duomo was built over the ruins of a small existing church, and some of the signature Taormina pink marble used in the construction of the columns appears to have been taken from the ruins of the Teatro Greco that sits above the town. The main door was rebuilt in the 1630s in the Renaissance style, and a rose window added in that same wall.
The town that we know today as Taormina is in an area in which there has been a settlement of some kind since the 8th century B.C.E. - but in the town itself one of the oldest neighborhoods is the Borgo Medievale, or medieval quarter.
Taormina’s historic core centers on the Borgo Medievale, with its picturesque cobblestone streets. The buildings themselves have been beautifully preserved, giving the whole quarter a postcard look. The main street in Taormina, Corso Umberto I, runs through the center of the medieval quarter from the Piazza IX Aprile to the Piazza del Duomo.
You can begin your tour of the medieval quarter from the Piazza IX Aprile and going through the arch in the 12th century clock tower. The tower was actually almost completely destroyed in the 17th century, and when it was rebuilt the clock was added. The tower serves as something of a gateway to the Borgo Medievale, most of which dates from the 15th century.
If you’re tired from all your sunbathing and sightseeing and you’re looking for a green space in Taormina where you can unwind a bit, look no further than the gardens of the Parco Duca di Cesarò - also known as the Villa Comunale.
The Villa Comunale isn’t necessarily the sort of park you’d expect in Sicily, since it’s something of an English garden, but it was the creation of a Scottish woman who lived in Taormina in the late 1800s. Lady Florence Trevelyan was asked to leave England in the 1880s after having a fairly public affair with the future King Edward VII. She eventually married a man in Taormina and began work on her gardens.
The design of the gardens at Villa Comunale may be English, but the plants Lady Trevelyan used were local. She died in 1907, but it wasn’t until 1922 that ownership of the property was transferred to the town of Taormina. Of particular note in the garden grounds is a building that includes a tower and gazebo-like covered areas.
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