The romance of Taormina, a Sicilian town perched between mountain and sea, has been seducing visitors for millennia. Its popularity exploded at the start of the 20th century, and literati from Goethe and DH Lawrence to Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote have all sojourned amidst the town’s medieval buildings and bougainvillea. Cruise ships drop anchor either in neighboring Giardini Naxos or roughly an hour north at Messina. Here are a few temptations to lure you off Corso Umberto, the town’s cobblestone main drag.
We don’t need to tell you to visit Taormina’s ancient amphitheater -- it’s the town’s top attraction, and with the Ionian Sea and Mt. Etna as its backdrop, it is one of the most stunning ruins of Sicily. The Greeks picked the location in the 3rd century BC, and the amphitheater was entirely rebuilt under Roman rule at the end of the 1st century AD. What you might not read elsewhere, however, is that the midday sun can be brutal in the summer, so make this your first or last stop of the day to avoid the strongest rays. Also, although the theater is open daily from 9 a.m. until one hour before sunset, it can close early on days that there is an evening performance, so make sure to look for the posters around town announcing performance dates.
The Moors influenced everything in Sicily from food to language, and the decorative arts are no exception. Several villages across the island are renowned for their maiolica, or tin-glazed pottery, and in Taormina you can find styles from across the island. Located right on the way to the Teatro Greco, Ceramiche Farano has been in business for more than fifty years and offers high-quality pieces made by Sicilian artisans. It specializes in the detailed baroque-style pieces from Caltagirone, considered the finest of the island. (Via Teatro Greco, 34)
Even though cannoli are the king of Sicilian desserts, you won’t find any in the windows of most pastry shops. That’s because any decent Italian baker knows that cannoli must be filled on the spot in order to keep the ricotta filling creamy and fresh while the aromatic pastry shell remains crunchy. It’s worth wandering off Corso Umberto to track down Roberto’s, where the self-proclaimed “Wizard of Cannoli” offers what just might be the best cannoli in all of Sicily. Located a narrow winding street off the main drag, it also forces you to explore the town. Here’s a map, because you’ll need it. (Via Calapitrulli, 9)
Vicolo Stretto -- which means “narrow alleyway” in Italian -- is named for the claustrophobia-inducing stairway that leads from Corso Umberto up to the restaurant's entrance. Although you'll find white linens and gourmet versions of Sicilian fare (think tuna braised in Muscat wine and deconstructed cannoli), the staff is unpretentious and the food is superb. You can always simply reserve a table for lunch, but those who want to delve deeper into Sicilian cuisine can sign up for the cooking class, which starts with breakfast at 10:30 a.m.; followed by a market walk to pick out the best fish, fruit, and vegetables; the cooking lesson; then lunch at 1:30 p.m. The class is offered Monday through Saturday and costs €100 (approximately US $106) per person. (Vicolo Stretto, 6)
Enter Ristorante L’Incontro, and you'll pass a counter of plates stacked with heaping antipasti, such as tangy eggplant caponata, plump marinated olives, and freshly grilled vegetables. Take a seat in the cheery yellow-and-blue dining room, preferably by a window that looks out to the sea, and choose from pastas such as potato gnocchi in creamy pistachio sauce with tiny bay shrimp, or the classic pasta “alla norma” pungent with tomatoes, eggplant, and baked hard ricotta. Other Sicilian specialties include fresh swordfish, veal rolls, and stuffed sardines. Prices are fair (pastas €12-€16, or approximately US $13-$17, and mains €16-€22, or US $17-$23), and they can accommodate dietary restrictions, including gluten-free. Book your table in advance online if you want to get that seat near the window. (Lunch 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., Via Luigi Pirandello, 20)
The Villa Communale was once the private gardens of Lady Florence Trevelyan, rumored to have been banned from the UK for having an affair with Prince Edward VII. She arrived in Taormina in 1884 and married the mayor a few years after. Styled as an English garden, the gardens are a wonderful place to relax and admire both the flowers and the “Victorian follies” -- pavilion-style structures -- dotted among the lush greenery. Although there are no hidden secrets in Taormina, this may be the one place where you will find more locals than tourists, not to mention a little shade on a hot day. (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, Via Bagnoli Croce)
We’ve eaten gelato at several ice cream shops in Taormina alone, and countless others across Sicily. O’Sciality is hands-down one of the best. You can choose up to three flavors on the generously sized medium cone (just €3, approximately US $3.20), and gild the lily with whipped cream if you’re feeling indulgent. There is something for everyone -- pistachio, gianduia (chocolate-hazelnut), almond, licorice, hazelnut, strawberry, lemon -- all made with high-quality, mostly local ingredients. The shop is located on the main street just outside of the Porta Catania arched entryway to town. (Piazza Antonio Abate, 11)