Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but I dare any person to gaze upon Taormina, Sicily and not find it stunning. A historical feast, the city serves up Greek, Roman, Romanesque, Gothic, Arabic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture—sometimes it seems in one structure. With important cultural sites, delightful trattoria, unique boutiques, and captivating scenery, this hill-side city has something for everyone.
I only had one day in Taormina—not nearly enough to enjoy la dolce vita of this town. We visited the port city of Messina while on a Mediterranean cruise and decided to take an excursion to Taormina. As we drove up the mountain, the seaside views from the cliff on one side of the highway delighted (the blind bends in the road alternatively terrified). We were dropped off right near the center of town. Porta Catania, the old city gate, bears the coat of arms of Aragon above its archway and provided a picturesque entry. I visualized men and women milling about entering the city to engage in trade, festivities, and worship. Beyond the gate is the town’s main street, Corso Umberto. Two-story buildings in muted hues line it—their wrought-iron balconies with brightly colored flowers cascading from boxes enchanted me.
Along Corso Umberto, you will find many of Taormina’s charming sites. The Cathedral San Nicola reminds one of a fortress with its stately, imposing façade. In front of the church, the lively Piazza del Duomo features a 17th century Baroque fountain of a female centaur wearing a crown and holding a scepter in hand. Performers and throngs of tourists make the square a hub of activity. Strolling along Corso Umberto, we encountered shops of all kinds—touristy stores didn’t pull our attention, but a passageway beckoned and down it we found Kerameion—an art studio with a gallery where they sold the most charming Majolica tiles (198 Corso Umberto). I love purchasing art from every city we visit. By decorating my house with little treasures from around the world, I’m constantly reminded of my travels and the cultures that each piece represents. The clay tiles were of exceptional quality and the owner (and master potter) welcomed us personally. I purchased two 2 x 2 inch square tiles. One had a pictures of lemons painted and glazed on while the other had a little village scene. The level of detail on these tiny squares was exceptional.
Further into the old center of Taormina is Piazza IX Aprile. The flooring of the square reminded me of a checkerboard, but few probably look down since the area offers a stunning view of Mt. Etna and the Bay of Naxos. Cafes surround the piazza, as does a 12th century medieval clock tower and the Church of San Giuseppe. Built from Taormina stone, the Baroque-style cathedral boasts a double staircase to its entrance. Its façade is ornate enough to command attention even though it is surrounded by a mountain backdrop, an architecturally interesting bell tower, a medieval clock tower, and views of a volcano and some of the bluest water I’ve seen.
Not far from Piazza IX Aprile is a former palace that now holds a museum, Palazzo Corvaia (built and rebuilt 11-15th centuries). To get in the mood for the ancient Greek theatre that is a star of Taormina, nearby the palazzo are the ruins of the Roman Odeon (small theatre). From the palace, it is a straight shot to the Teatro Greco (Greek Theatre). This remarkable monument seated around 5400 people and was built around the 3rd century BCE. There is some debate over its exact date, but as a historian I frequently encounter such quarrels. Although dates are interesting, I don’t let them define my historical sight-seeing experiences. It’s far more important to me to understand the significance of a place. This theater was the second largest in Sicily. People must have come from all around to see events there (they still do today). As I stood in one of the wings off the stage, I imagined actors nervously waiting there for their cue. The horse-shoe shaped remains of the theater are fairly intact—Corinthian capitals decorated with acanthus leaves still stand proudly. If you’ve visited plenty of ancient Greek and Roman theaters—come see this one too. The views of the Ionian Sea and Mt. Etna are breathtaking. How grand it must have been to take in a show over 2000 years ago! If the play wasn’t a hit—the scenery would have been.
Leaving ancient life behind, I wandered back towards the center where vendors sold gelato and small eateries boasted to have the best arancini (fried, stuffed risotto balls). With its historic structures, mountain backdrop, and seaside vista, Taormina, Sicily could be a postcard picture. Quintessentially Italian, it was truly a feast for the eyes, the stomach, and the cultural soul.