No wheels? Get around the island using these transit hacks
Just beyond the toe of Italy’s boot, Sicily is an extension of the mainland that may as well be its own world. The island’s seemingly endless coast, hilltop towns, and unparalleled architecture are prime for exploration. To get to know Sicily you must first get around it—a feat that isn’t as easy as it seems.
Although many tourists opt to rent cars, driving around the island comes with its fair share of challenges. See: operating a stick shift, acquiring an international driving permit, and maneuvering through all those narrow streets.
Yet for visitors who’d rather not endure the hassles of driving, public transportation can be equally daunting. Many cities aren’t accessible by bus or train, while transportation timetables are often confusing and unpredictable.
So, to reduce your planning woes, we’ve created an itinerary for must-see stops, each reachable via public transportation. You should note, however, that Sicily’s transportation system is as fickle as its historical sequence of conquerors. It’s best to leave some space in your schedule for surprises; they’re practically a Sicilian rite of passage.
GENERAL TRANSPORTATION ADVICE
Buses tend to follow more direct routes, so opt for buses over trains whenever possible. If you must take a train, download an app like Trainline, which lets you purchase your ticket and view timetables directly from your phone. If you’d prefer a physical ticket, make sure to validate it prior to hopping aboard.
Stop 1: Northern Sicily
No visit to the island would be complete without a stay in the Sicilian capital. Palermo often gets a bad rap, thanks to its war-struck streets and crumbling buildings. Beyond its gruff exterior, Palermo expresses the kind of warmth that defines the entire island. For proof, join the locals in the Sunday evening passeggiata (stroll) along Via Maqueda. You’ll start your walk at the Quattro Canti intersection and make your way toward Teatro Massimo: Italy’s largest theater.
Fly into Palermo’s Falcone Borsellino Airport and take the Prestia & Comandè bus, which runs every thirty minutes. The bus stops all throughout Palermo, ending its route at the central train station. You can purchase tickets from an airport kiosk.
Mondello Beach matches Palermo’s infectious energy, which is no surprise considering the two are only six miles apart. To get to the sea, you’ll have to take a quick bus or two from Palermo, unless you’d rather walk, bike, or scooter. Stop inside a tabacchi to purchase a ticket and ask the salesman to direct you to the closest bus stop and number.
When you picture Sicilian beach towns, you’re most likely envisioning Cefalù. Direct, hour-long trains run regularly from Palermo to this seaside oasis. Be sure to sit leftward for sweeping views of Sicily’s coast.
Stop 2: Southern Sicily
SYRACUSE AND ORTIGIA
Southeast of Palermo, Syracuse is a coastal haven, with a bridge leading to the neighboring island of Ortigia. The two towns house Greek ruins, though nothing beats stumbling into a waterside alcove perfect for those spontaneous vacation swims.
Book the Interbus from Palermo Centrale to Syracuse. The journey takes a little over three hours.
Sicily’s quintessential Baroque town, Noto is both an art and pastry aficionado's dream. To try a bucket list breakfast of Caffè Sicilia’s almond granita, take a local bus from Syracuse. While a train also runs between the two cities, it’s often crowded and uncomfortable.
Modica is the real-life version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory—but with a twist. The city’s chocolate has more grain than the American version and is something you’ll have to try for yourself. The train from either Syracuse or Noto makes for a stress-free day trip, though buy an extra bar of chocolate in case hunger sets in on the way back.
Stop 3: Eastern Sicily
Like Palermo, Catania is more than meets the eye. Explore the fish market, duomo, and neighborhood piazzas. After just a few hours in this dark but charming city, you’ll have a hankering for Catania’s culture, art, and pasta alla norma.
Access Catania by either train or bus from Syracuse. You can also fly home from here; Catania International Airport offers plenty of connecting flights.
You can spot this still-active volcano from Catania…or see it close up via the AST bus or an organized tour group. Without a car, a tour with hotel pickup is the least stressful way to experience Etna, with options ranging from sunset summits to lava flow strolls. If you’d rather glimpse the volcano from even ground, you can alternatively take the Circumetnea Railway around the volcano’s base.
A trip to Taormina is a taste of luxury, with cliffside views of Isola Bella: a postcard manifested as a beach. Buses and trains run regularly to Taormina, making this an easy add-on from Catania—and a relaxing conclusion to your Sicilian getaway.
Anna Staropoli is a freelance writer who splits her time between two Italian hotspots: New Jersey and Sicily. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 2019, she moved to Palermo to trace her family history and has been writing about it ever since.