Often called the ‘Sicilian Saint Tropez’, the lovely hillside town of Taormina is one of the Italian isle’s most popular places to visit and vacation. Lying along Sicily’s eastern coastline, not far from Mount Etna, it boasts loads of interesting historic attractions and astounding viewpoints.
Overlooking two sweeping bays, it was founded by the Greeks around 396 BC, high on the slopes of Monte Tauro. The remains of crumbling Saracen castles and ancient Roman amphitheaters attest to its staggering age as do all the centuries-old churches and palaces dotted about.
Running from one end of town to the other too is the bustling Corso Umberto. Interspersed amidst all the historic buildings are lots of chic shops, cafes and restaurants to check out.
Strolling about the atmospheric squares and visiting archaeological sites are some of the best things to do in Taormina as well as simply basking in the breathtaking views before you. With idyllic isles, active volcanoes and quiet beach resorts to visit nearby, a holiday in Taormina can be as active or relaxing as you make it.
Map of Taormina
In this post, we'll cover:
16. Porta Catania
Guarding the western end of Corso Umberto – the town’s lively main street – is the phenomenally old Porta Catania. Quite well-preserved, the arched gateway makes for some fantastic photos with the street, shops and cafes behind it stretching endlessly into the distance.
Built in 1440, the sturdy stone gate was once part of more extensive fortifications that wrapped their way around the ancient city. Still standing today, its elegant entrance is topped by crenelations and the Aragonese coat of arms.
It is also known as ‘Porta del Tocco’ as public meetings were held in the small square alongside it in Norman times. After admiring its architecture and snapping some pics, carry on to see Taormina’s enticing squares, shops and historic sights.
15. Chiesa di Santa Caterina
Up at the other end of Corso Umberto is the charming Chiesa di Santa Caterina. Although it is quite small and understated, its peaceful ambience and pretty artworks still make it worth a quick stop.
Located right in front of Palazzo Corvaja, the Baroque-style church impressively dates to the first half of the 1600s. Parts of it are actually much older as its tiny belltower and walls were erected on top of the remains of the Roman Odeon. When it was restored in the seventies, a crypt, pavements and walls from the Greco-Roman period were also uncovered.
Once past its pink marble portal and the striking statue of Saint Catherine atop it, you’ll find centuries-old paintings and sculptures decorating its bright white interior. Elaborate columns also lie either side of its glittering altar while chandeliers hang overhead.
Aside from the church, we also really enjoyed seeing the 21 BCE ruins of a theater behind it and the cool classic cars parked in front of it.
14. Palazzo Corvaja
Even more picturesque still is the Palazzo Corvaja; one of the best-preserved buildings in Taormina. Whereas it once housed the meetings of the Sicilian Parliament of Nobles, its courtyard, rooms and exhibition spaces are now open for visitors to wander around.
Named after one of the town’s oldest and most important families, the palace was completed around the end of the fourteenth century. It incorporates an even earlier Saracen tower which displays some graceful arched windows and small crenellations.
Due to its considerable age and the city’s contested past, the villa exhibits a number of architectural influences including Arab, Norman and Gothic. After gazing up at its grand tower, you can inspect all the religious reliefs depicting the Creation in its courtyard. Exhibitions on both the town and region’s interesting history, art and traditions also often take place here.
13. Taormina Castle
Perched atop Monte Tauro overlooking the city and sea are the crumbling stone walls of Taormina Castle. Now sadly closed to the public, it can only be admired from the outside with the panoramas from up high being out of this world.
Thought to have also once been the site of an ancient Greek acropolis, the current castle is believed to have been built by the Arabs in the early tenth century. It must have been quite the undertaking as the mount’s rugged rocks rise 400 meters above their surroundings.
Even though you can no longer enter Castello Saraceno due to its dangerous, dilapidated state, it is still worth panting your way up to the fort. Besides astounding views, it highlights how the Arabs and then Normans could control the entire region from the castle. Just below it too is the captivating Chiesa Madonna della Rocca; one of the town’s most unique, must-see sights.
12. Chiesa di San Giuseppe
Back down in the center of Taormina along Corso Umberto is another lovely church for you to check out. Overlooking the adorable Piazza IX Aprile, the Chiesa di San Giuseppe’s Baroque facade paints a very pretty picture as majestic mountains rise dramatically in the background.
Erected in the late 1600s, the eye-catching church has a delightful double staircase leading up to its fading pink facade. Presided over by an imposing bellower, its three portals are set beneath a statue of Saint Joseph holding a cross.
After taking some pics, head inside for yet more artistic treasures. Covered in some stunning stucco work, its narrow, bright white nave is lined by fine paintings while the dome above its altar features a fabulous fresco. All very attractive, the church and the square outside were one of our favorite stops in town.
11. Visit Giardini Naxos
As it lies only a ten to fifteen minute bus or car ride down the coast, many people visit Giardini Naxos from Taormina. Other than the beaches, bars and resorts along the seafront, it has spectacular views and a ginormous gorge to enjoy.
Founded by the Greeks in the eighth century BC, it remained a small, sleepy fishing village until the seventies when it was first discovered by tourists. Since then, a string of hotels, restaurants and ice cream shops have opened up between the mountains and the coast.
As well as sunbathing, swimming and splashing in the sea, you can bask in divine views of the bay and Taormina in the distance. There are also a couple of archaeological sites and the immense Alcantara River Park to explore further inland. Its rushing river, waterfalls and rock formations all look amazing amidst the gaping gorges around them.
10. Porta Messina
Right at the other end of Corso Umberto to Porta Catania is the town’s other ancient entrance gate. Although much less of Porta Messina now still stands, its arch is arguably all the more absorbing for it as it creates such a striking silhouette.
Again part of the centuries-old city walls constructed by the Arabs, the gate lies just a stone’s throw from the Chiesa di Santa Caterina and Palazzo Corvaja. Dating to around the same time, it is also sometimes known as Porta Ferdinandea. This is because King Ferdinand VI of Bourbon had it restored in 1808.
Now not much more than just an arch and a few rows of bricks to either side, the gate somehow still makes for some great photos. During the evenings, it is also delightfully illuminated by two lanterns embedded alongside the arch in its weathered walls.
9. Chiesa Madonna della Rocca
For some of the best views over the sea, town and its surroundings, head up to the Chiesa Madonna della Rocca. Situated in a spellbinding spot just below the castle, its prominent setting and sweeping panoramas make the arduous hike well worth the effort.
Dug into the side of the mount’s craggy cliff face, the small church dates back to the twelfth century. As the story goes, the shrine was established after a shepherd surprised by a sudden storm sheltered in its cave. When the lightning flashed, he saw a woman holding a child. When he returned with his parents, he found a painting of them nestled in a crevice in the rock.
Nowadays, the church looks and feels very atmospheric as whitewashed walls decked with paintings and artworks lie beneath its rather claustrophobic cave ceiling. There is also a sublime statue of our Lady of the Rock to take in. Just as incredible is of course the unbelievable vista from its precipitous terrace outside.
To reach the church, you can either drive or hike 300 winding steps known as the Salita al Castello. While exhausting, we still enjoyed the experience as the expectation builds and the views get better the higher you go!
8. Day trip to Mount Etna
As the enormous stratovolcano is Sicily’s most iconic landmark, you just have to put a trip to Mount Etna on your list of things to do in Taormina if you can. Aside from taking a scenic cable car ride up to its five smoking craters, you can hike, bike or ski about its slopes. Exciting train rides and jeep tours are also available around it.
Towering a simply staggering 3,357 meters in height, the volcano is visible from well over half of the island. Despite having been formed millennia-ago, Mount Etna is still one of the most active in the world with eruptions and lava flows constantly reshaping it.
Its lava-scarred landscapes really are epic to explore with astonishing views on offer from its higher reaches. Whether you hike, bike or take the cable car up, you won’t be disappointed by Italy’s tallest peak south of the Alps. Only an hour’s drive southwest of Taormina, the vast volcano also has some superb ski resorts to visit in winter.
7. Piazza IX Aprile
One of the most beautiful spots in town, Taormina’s lively main square is set almost exactly halfway along Corso Umberto. Besides being bordered by lots of impressive buildings, Piazza IX Aprile also has some phenomenal views to take in.
With verdant mountains rising steeply behind them, its pastel-colored churches, cafes and houses already make for quite the sight. Dominated by Chiesa di San Giuseppe, the elegant old square also contains Porta di Mezzo and the public library. Its sturdy stone clocktower is its other defining sight.
Most people, however, immediately flock to the edge of its wide open balcony which boasts absolutely breathtaking views over the bay below and the massive Mount Etna in the distance. With some great bars and restaurants to try too, the piazza is one of the best places to spend time in Taormina.
Rivaling it though in terms of its views and beauty is the incredibly picturesque village of Castelmola. Perched atop a rocky crag, its lovely colourful streets look down upon Taormina from even higher up the hillside.
Originally a Greek acropolis, its jumbled collection of medieval houses are built around the ruins of an eleventh-century Norman castle. Other than exploring the old archaeological site, there are a couple of charming churches to see. Its stunning piazza again offers delightful views of the coast, Taormina and the towering Mount Etna.
As it is also known for its embroidery and almond wine, the small village is also a great place to pick up some gifts. We loved wandering about its winding streets as cute cafes and shops seemed to pop up all the time. Very laidback, it can easily be reached in just ten minutes drive from Taormina.
5. Villa Comunale
If after all the endless sightseeing and day trips you just want to sit back, relax and immerse yourself in nature, then the quiet Villa Comunale is the place to go. Just a few minutes walk from both Piazza IX Aprile and Corso Umberto, its gorgeous gardens are a treat to stroll around.
Planted by Lady Florence Trevelyan in the late 1800s, the hillside gardens are full of fragrant pines, cypresses and palms. Immaculately maintained, its flowerbeds contain countless rare species while fanciful Victoria follies are dotted here and there.
Aside from inspecting the eclectic-looking stone structures, you can watch colourful parrots and birds flit about amidst the trees. As with almost everywhere in Taormina and its surroundings, the gardens have commanding views to enjoy over the coast. A must for nature lovers, its scenic confines feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of Corso Umberto.
4. Taormina Cathedral
Certainly one of the most attractive buildings in town, the castle-like Taormina Cathedral immediately catches the eye with its medieval facade and Baroque door. Topped by battlements, its walls and belltower dominate Piazza del Duomo, just up the road from Porta Catania.
Dating to around the year 1400, its central setting and design highlight the important role it played in both religious and civic life for centuries. While its exterior is rather simple – bar its fetching entrance and small rose window – inside almost looks like a museum there are so many artworks on show.
Again quite plain, its white walls are decorated with tons of terrific statues and paintings, mainly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Funeral mausoleums of noble families also feature alongside its golden altar and a very detailed carving of The Last Supper.
Outside in the square before it is another of the town’s main symbols and sights. Known as the Four Fountains, its Baroque-style basins, sea monster sculptures and crowned centaur carving all create fabulous photo opportunities.
3. Corso Umberto
Impossible not to walk along, the very busy Corso Umberto is the heart and soul of life in Taormina. Running right the way from one side to the other, it is lined by a seemingly endless array of enticing shops, bars and Sicilian restaurants.
Stretching about a kilometre in length between Porta Catania and Porta Messina, it also passes lots of its main sites. These include not just the two ancient gates but the cathedral, Palazzo Corvaja and Piazza IX Aprile too.
Loads of fun to amble along, its string of luxury fashion boutiques and jewellery shops highlight just why Taormina is nicknamed the ‘Sicilian Saint Tropez’. Perusing its sparkling stores and stopping at little squares and cafes is a wonderful way to pass the time. While we loved its vibrant feel during the day, the evening was even better as a peaceful calm fell over the town once the day trippers headed off.
2. Isola Bella
Lying just off of the coast below Taormina is the idyllic Isola Bella. Delightfully known as the ‘Pearl of the Ionian Sea’, its dramatic-looking rock formations, thin tombolo beach and turquoise waters make it a must-see when in town.
Connected to the mainland by just a slender slither of sand, the small isle was also previously owned by Lady Florence Trevelyan. She had a cute house constructed atop it and planted exotic plants and trees all about its rugged reaches.
Sauntering across the coarse sand to the isle with water sometimes up to your ankles is an amazing experience with the scenery, nature and views being just as good. After exploring its lush garden and grottoes, you can lounge on the beach or splash around in the sea.
1. Teatro Greco
Taormina’s top tourist attraction however is undoubtedly the incredibly ancient Teatro Greco which is set in a spectacular spot overlooking Mount Etna. Located just above Villa Comunale on the hillside, its remarkable remains count among Sicily’s most famous landmarks.
Initially erected around the third century BC by the Greeks, it was later rebuilt by the Romans atop its original foundations. Unlike most other amphitheaters, its impressive stage area is almost completely intact. A convenient gap at its center though provides astonishing views over the coast and volcano.
From its curved cavea, you can gaze over the theatre and imagine it back in its heyday when 10,000 spectators would pack out all its steep seating areas. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to grab a ticket to one of the concerts, operas and plays that still take place here.
Simply jaw-dropping, the amphitheater awe-inspiring architecture, location and panoramas made it our favorite place in Taormina. A little museum next to it also displays small bronzes, ceramics and fragments of sarcophagi uncovered at the site.
Where to Stay in Taormina
As the town is so tiny, wherever you stay will almost certainly be within walking distance of the main tourist attractions in Taormina. The streets branching off of Corso Umberto are a safe bet as hotels further away may involve steepish climbs to and from the center. If that’s not a problem though, many of those just a bit further away are set in very peaceful, scenic spots with views over the Ionian Sea.
Just at the end of the tranquil Villa Comunale Gardens, for instance, is the superb Hotel Villa Diodoro. As it is perched upon the hillside, many of its large, bright rooms offer divine views over the coast. Its pretty pool area with Mount Etna in the background looks particularly inviting. Guaranteeing guests a relaxing stay, the four-star hotel also provides complimentary breakfasts and parking.
Only a little bit further down the hill is the romantic Hotel Bel Soggiorno. Located in a panoramic spot looking out over the sea, volcano and coast, the three-star hotel is surrounded by a gorgeous citrus grove. Its antique style, incredible setting and spellbinding views are all sure to delight guests. Add in brilliant breakfasts and friendly, welcoming staff and it really represents great value for money.
How to get there
The nearest airport to town is that of Catania-Fontanarossa, a ninety minute bus ride away down the coast. It operates flights all around Italy and most of the rest of Europe. If instead you taxi it or rent a car from its terminals, you can reach Taormina in just an hour.
Numerous buses a day also connect it to Messina a couple of hours up the coast and Catania below it. Trains also run between both cities though. You’ll then have to take a bus or taxi as the train station is situated at the foot of the hill.
Another option is to rent a car. This means you can easily visit places like Mount Etna, Giardini Naxos and other spots along the Sicilian coast. You can leave it though at one of the car parks lying around the periphery of the historic center.
Once you arrive though, almost all its churches, palaces and castles are just a short walk away.
Approximate travel times:
- Mount Etna – 1 hour by car, 1 hour 30 minutes by bus
- Catania – 1 hour by car, 1 hour 30 minutes by bus
- Syracuse – 1.5 hours by car, 2 hours by bus
- Messina – 30 minutes by car, 30 minutes by train
- Palermo – 3 hours by car, 3 hours 30 minutes by train and bus
- Agrigento – 2.5 hours by car, 3 hours by train and bus
Best Time to Visit Taormina
If you don’t like pushing your way through jam-packed streets, then July and August in Taormina are probably not for you. During this time, temperatures regularly reach the thirties (ninety in Fahrenheit) with the hotels, restaurants and bars being full of visitors.
Although still busy and warm, spring and autumn are way more manageable as temperatures range from 16 to 25°C (so 61-77°F). This is the best time to visit Mount Etna with swimming and sunbathing usually still possible too. Even March and November can still be pleasant with the prices and crowds dropping considerably too.
In winter, Taormina is normally very quiet, as many establishments close due to there being so few tourists. While things liven up a bit around Christmas and Easter, it does lose a bit of its special feel outside of the main seasons.
Throughout June, July and August, unforgettable operas, plays and concerts are also held in the town’s Teatro Greco. Overlooking Mount Etna and the Mediterranean, its millennia-old stage also hosts the prestigious Taormina Film Fest. One of the top events of its kind, it sees famous filmmakers, actors and celebrities all pour into town in June to watch its screenings.