It’s hard to be a backpacker in Taormina, a small town in Sicily. Sure, you have your Lonely Planet guide and your sandals on, but the hostels aren’t thick on the ground and where are the market and the street food? And, frak me, the wine is expensive. Is Taormina worth it?
I spent one night there. It was all I could afford. Taormina is a tourist town, a resort town, perhaps the most popular summertime destination in Sicily, despite being oh so small and not having much to do. I spent the day there to break up my journey from Palermo to Siracusa (both fantastic), and because I was curious about the town. It’s a very old city (6th century BC, by the Greeks of course) and everyone says that it, and especially the views, are gorgeous.
Taormina is on the sea of course, and the beach is a large draw, but realize quickly that it’s actually up on a cliff, hundreds of meters above the water. The views of the water, and the mountains inland, are indeed spectacular. There’s good hiking around the area if your thighs are up for up, excellent shopping on the main drag if they’re not, and there’s always the beach. Yet the soul of the town now is that it’s a resort get-away, a playground, and it feels like it. It’s the type of town where you just know there’s an annual film festival. People arrive to do not much of anything. The shops should all be called boutiques, and there are oodles of dessert places. Everything is overpriced.
I visited in early August, very much the high season, and I think the town would be boring in January. I can be a serious travel snob about avoiding other tourists, but I’ve been in several resort towns out of season (I’m cheap) and I’m convinced such a place needs visitors, at least some, to bring it alive. Plus, gelato tastes better in the summer.
The town is confusing, because it’s on a cliff and all. No matter where you’re going, stairs are likely to be involved. Any map of the town doesn’t really show the topographical relation between the sections. The lopsided landscape makes it feel even more like a resort town, not normal. People here are relaxing, shopping, planning their next dessert.
The main drag is Corso Umberto; everything else is off of this. The number one thing to do in the town is cruise this largely-pedestrian street, an activity you would do whether anyone told you about it or not. Everything is here, especially the shops. I’m not immune to the lure; within a few hours of arriving, I was the owner of a new pair of shoes, a new shirt, and two new belts, the last bought from some Bangladeshi men selling them off a blanket laid right on the street. Italians know how to dress. Notice how much of the foot traffic is carrying shopping bags.
Whatever clothing, souvenir, tacky item, or object d’art pleases your fancy, you can probably find it on the Corso Umberto. There is a store with you in mind. If you need a restaurant, café, bar, dessert, or a snack, no worries. Something will appear, especially dessert. If you need a bottle of wine, some olive oil, or some small overpriced jars of pesto as gifts, there are stores for that. As long as it’s not a practical, day-to-day item, the Corso Umberto will deliver. You will share the street with several thousand of people just like you, searching for fulfillment.
If you’re recoiling in horror at that description, no it’s not too tacky. The narrow street is lined with wonderful old buildings and there’s plenty of atmosphere. Sure, there’s lots of ice cream stands, but it’s gelato, in flavors such as hazelnut and blackberry. The snack bars are selling focaccia, not hamburgers, and the shoe stores are selling handmade leather creations. It’s still Italy after all.
The view from the Arco Rosso wine bar
To calm yourself, stop for a drink, because you’re on vacation and you shouldn’t face a resort town sober. The Arco Rosso is a small wine bar on the Via Naumachie, which is an alley, a set of stairs really, going down from the yes, Corso Umberto. I sat down and let them choose a good wine for me. They poured a grillo, a common white varietal in Sicily, also used for making Marsala, and brought me some olives and croutons, just because Sicilians can’t stand to see someone drinking but not eating. In several places around the island where I was just having a glass or two, they brought me some snacks, free, just because. For my second glass, they poured something (my notes say “inwen glassa” but I’ve learned not to trust my notes during wine-tasting) from a small town near the very nearby Mt. Etna. Mt. Etna wines are a big thing, with prices to match.
The large attraction in town is the old Greek Theater, which is truly amazing, one of the biggest and best-preserved around. The Greeks built it in the 3rd century BC and the Romans rebuilt it about 500 years later. The town still uses it for performances. Because it’s old and all, you must pay eight euro to see it, but that’s still less than a glass of wine in this town. The setting is amazing, because the Greeks know exactly where to place a theater for maximum dramatic effect. The other attraction in town is the Villa Comunale (Parco Duca di Cesarò), public gardens created in the 19th century by an Englishwoman who apparently was encouraged to leave Britain after a dalliance with the crown prince. Imagine that. She arrived in Taormina in 1889 and dedicated herself towards the gardens, as one does.
The real attraction in Taormina is the coast. Its pleasantries begin with the view from the town, that is, from above, especially of the teeny-tiny island Isola Bella, just off the coast and almost, but not quite, joined to a small peninsula. While you’re cruising the Corso Umberto, stop in some of the piazzas and check the view of the coast, including after dark.
To storm the beach, head for cable car (funivia) that runs every 15 minutes or so, located on the same road holding the bus station (Via Pirandello. It’s not well-marked). A few euros will take you down and back. Once at sea level, choose between the private and public beaches. Expect crowds. The private ones, lidos, follow a common formula: you pay about €15 and get an assigned umbrella-shaded (or not) lounge chair with access to changing rooms and showers. There’s always a small snack bar on-site. Some of the private beaches are more à la carte, where you pay by the service (chair, umbrella, whatever). The reason to pay for a beach is a guarantee of space and services.
I’ll freely confess I didn’t hit the beach hard, and thus I am unable to rate the various ones around Taormina. Turning right from the bottom of the cable car, you’ll quickly come to the most popular free beach, around that island called Isola Bella. This is a narrow pebble beach, but the island gives it a great view, and swimming to the island (it’s right offshore; anyone can do it) is fun. Turn left from the cable car and you’ll come to Mazzaro, with private lidos. Two other nearby popular beach areas are Giardini-Naxos and Letojanni. For these, you’ll need a short taxi or bus ride.
The beach at Isola Bella
I went to Isola Bella, which is very, very crowded but oh so pretty. Still, with its limited space and long access path, it feels somewhat ad hocish. I found many beaches in Sicily to be this way, crammed into the available narrow space and crammed with people. A local beer at the snack bar there by Isola Bella was six euros, quite expensive.
If you have the time and energy, one good thing to do in Taormina is to get slightly out of town. The setting here is so lovely that you might as well get more. Go higher. Find the Via Crucis footpath off the Via Circonvallazione, which is parallel to, and higher than, Corso Umberto. This path leads up to a church and eventually to the old Taormina castle, which is closed, but you’re here for the views. You can see over the town and the Greek theater. It’s only a 20-minute walk to the top but it’s not a stroll; you’ll be climbing at least a hundred meters up, and the very end is steep.
If you have the time, or just want to see someplace a bit more medieval, keeping heading uphill to the village of Castelmola, a one-hour hike (or a ten-minute drive. You could taxi up). Another ruined castle, Castello Normanno, sits there, but visitable. In one direction, you can view the sea. In the other, Mt. Etna looms.
Speaking of Mt. Etna, Taormina is an excellent home base for day-trips, many involving the volcano. Several companies in town can take care of it, not just drives or hiking but also activities such as mountain biking.
I hope you like seafood
As for eating, a resort town is tough. Prices are inflated and places are not innovative. There’s always the pizza at the snack bars but you probably want something more. Taormina doesn’t seem big on lunching. Perhaps people are at the beach, or out day-tripping. More likely, they’re saving money. I arrived right at lunchtime and three recommended restaurants I checked out were dead, as in not one person there.
I’m cheap about many things when traveling, but not so much about food. My eventual lunch was in a place with a nice courtyard called Deja Vu (and yes, I had a funny feeling that I must have eaten there before). I ate octopus salad, seafood ravioli, and a great deal of house wine was involved. The bill was just over €50. Not quite worth it, though they seem a quality restaurant, except for a very heavy hand with the salt.
My dinner. This was marvelous.
Dinner was far better, a place chosen simply because I had talked to the chef that afternoon, who was hanging out in front. One strategy for Italy is to ignore the menu and simply ask how they can impress you tonight. This guy described the fish they got in today and how he can cook it for me Messina-style (Messina is a larger city to the north), with tomatoes, olives, and capers. It sounded great then and when I went back that evening to order it, it was brilliant. It was also €25. With an appetizer and wine (I don’t skip wine), dinner was also over €50. You could go well lower, but you’ll still pay more than in other Sicilian towns.
Nightlife in Taormina for most people is just hanging out on the Corso Umberto, which remains crowded until midnight at least. The best-known drinking spot is the Wunderbar, a place that has been around forever. Movie stars your parents used to watch have come here, but really it’s just another outdoor café, right on the main street. The best-known nightclub is Morgana Bar, on Scesa Morgana 4, which is yes just an alley off of Corso Umberto.
Morgana looks like a real club, with doormen, roped-off VIP sections and a slick interior, but I can solidly conclude that they are not very selective in their clientele. As evidence, consider that they let me in. I perched on a stool drinking a G+T while they brought me a basket of peanuts, because you can’t drink without a snack. The Russian next to me helped me smash the shells on the bar top to open them, and the club owner dropped by to chat. This really is a friendly place and I had a blast.
I walked into a few other places (to find them, just listen for music blaring out of a building) such as La Giara, and each time the doormen waved me in, but I wasn’t up for more clubbing. Not quite ready for bed, I dropped into the Flamingo Lounge (really just an outdoor patio), for a few glasses of wine, with which they brought me small bowls of chips, olives, peanuts, and some puffy snack food, because you can’t drink in Italy without a snack. The lounge felt no shame charging me €9 a glass.
The alluring woman in front of me was in a serious clubbing dress. Her sleeveless black dress was somewhat backless, or slit all the way down her backside, so much I could see the top third of her panties, wow. Then she reached behind her and realized that no, it was just that she had somehow neglected to zip up the dress. False alarm.
Other nighttime options include a few pubs in town, such as Time Out and Re di Bastoni. Taormina is well-known to be very gay and lesbian-friendly.
I can’t quite fully recommend Taormina, especially as there are much better destinations in Sicily. I approach resort towns like a primatologist observing and recording the behavior of apes. “What are they doing here?” I ask myself, watching my tourist subjects critically, taking copious notes.
And yet I like these places for a day or so. They’re a break from regular travel and they’re awfully easy. By day two, I would need to get out of town, but I enjoyed my one day in Taormina. The setting is lovely, and I wish I had time to do more hikes. Eating and drinking is expensive, but at least they’re both Italian. The people-watching is excellent and everyone’s friendly. The main drag may be little but tourist shops but many are full of great stuff. It’s not quite a native, indigenous, local setting, not the canonical Sicily, but my inner travel snob is still hesitating to come out.
Getting there: The train station is located at sea level, meaning you need to take a local bus (right outside, can’t miss it) up to the town that runs about every half hour if you’re lucky and longer if you are not. Taxis will charge you about ten euro. Don’t try to walk up; it’s a killer. The bus station is up in town but probably a bit of a hike to your hotel, which will be hard to find at first. If you’re driving, and your crashpad doesn’t have parking, there’s a parking lot about 2km north of the train station from where you can take a cable car up to the town, or see if your GPS can find the Porta Catania parking garage, up top.
When booking accommodations, be absolutely sure about the location, because so many of them are a ways out of town. Get familiar with the layout of the town and where things are, because a hotel whose address is Taormina could be down at water level 1.5 kilometers away. The best values will be the B&Bs, but they often require a minimum of several nights stay.