With a history spanning millennia – in which it has been ruled by Ancient Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Normans, French and Spanish – Sicily has a unique architectural heritage, ranging from Greek temples and theatres to magnificent Arab-Norman cathedrals and flamboyant Spanish Baroque towns. Its geology too is unique. Located on the brink of the European and African tectonic plates, it boasts no less than three active volcanoes. Seven sites – five architectural and two natural – have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

1Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica. This UNESCO site encompasses the ancient city of Syracuse (Siracusa) and the dramatic gorge of Pantalica, whose necropolis contains over 5,000 tombs, most of them dating from the 13th to 7th centuries BC, hollowed into the bare rock of its sheer limestone cliffs. Syracuse, described by Cicero as ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all’, retains the Temple of Athena (5th century BC, later transformed to serve as a cathedral), a Greek theatre, a Roman amphitheatre, a Norman castle, and, on the island of Ortigia, numerous splendid Baroque palaces and churches.

2The Archaeological Area of Agrigento. The astonishingly well-preserved golden Greek temples of Agrigento, ancient Akragas, are magnificently sited on a ridge above a fertile valley that runs down to the sea. Founded in 581 BC, Akragas was one of Sicily’s richest and most powerful Greek cities – visitors reported that people had ivory furniture, abundant silver and gold, and even made elaborate tombs for their pets. The best time to visit is February, when the almond is in blossom, and in spring when the site is carpeted with wild flowers.

3Villa Romana del Casale. One of the most luxurious Roman villas ever to be discovered, Villa Romana del Casale is decorated with the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world. Dating back to the 3rd century AD, it was probably built as a country retreat and hunting lodge for Maximianus Herculius, co-emperor with Diocletian. Maximianus was responsible for ruling Africa, and when it came to decorating his new home, he brought mosaic artists from Africa to decorate it. The results were spectacular. Highlights include a circus scene showing a chariot race (with several crashes), ten girl athletes dressed in bikinis, and a sixty-metre long hunting scene featuring tigers, ostriches and elephants.

4Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto. These eight towns in south-eastern Sicily — Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli — were all rebuilt after their predecessors were destroyed in an earthquake in 1693. It was an extraordinary undertaking, with each town created from local limestone in a style of Baroque that ranges from the muscular geometry of Noto’s cathedral to flights of decorative and grotesque fancy twisting and turning around balconies, doors and windows. Some of the UNESCO seven, such as Noto, Ragusa and Scicli, are popular with tourists, others, such as Militello Val di Catania, are barely visited and virtually unheard of.

5 Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale. After conquering Sicily from the Arabs in 1130, the Normans opted for a regime of tolerance, embracing many aspects of Arab art, religion, architecture and intellect. The result was a unique fusion of north and south, described by UNESCO as ‘a social-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures … which gave rise to new concepts of space, structure and decoration….. [and] bear testimony to the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French). The UNESCO site encompasses nine buildings – the cathedrals of Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù, and the Norman Palace, Palatine Chapel, Zisa Palace, Admiral’s Bridge and the churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, and San Cataldo in Palermo.

6Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands). The Aeolian Islands made the UNESCO list because they ‘provide an outstanding record of volcanic island-building and destruction, and ongoing volcanic phenomena’. Visitors can make a night ascent of Stromboli – or see its pyrotechnics from the comfort of a boat — and climb Vulcano to experience the stinking sulphurous emissions around its crater, followed by a relaxing soak in the thermal mud baths beside the beach.

7Mount Etna. Mount Etna is the most active strato-volcano in the world, and this almost continuous eruptive activity continues to be crucial to the development of volcanology, geophysics and other Earth science disciplines. Volcanic activity permitting, summit craters, cinder cones, lava flows and the magnificently eerie landscape of the Valle de Bove depression can all be visited – though to get the most out of a day on the volcano, we would strongly advise that you let us book you a guide.

Written by Julia Bellhouse