UNESCO World Heritage
Sites in Sicily
UNESCO was created in 1945 as a way to help ensure the preservation of the worlds natural, cultural, and intellectual heritage. Each year the list is expanded and we are gifted the protection of additional treasures. Italy has among the most sites in the world, with 51 as of this writing. Sicily, steeped in rich and varied treasures from myriad influences, and famous for its natural beauty, boasts the most of any Italian region.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sicily
Archaeological Area of Agrigento, listed in 1997
Founded in the 6th Century B.C. as Akragas, the ancient city of Agrigento was one of the greatest Mediterranean centers, an important city-state in what was Magna Graecia or Greater Greece. The remains of the temples that dominate this well-preserved city, are all Doric in style and absolutely imposing. They are among the most exceptional monuments of Greek art and culture, from a time when the wealth of Magna Graecia exceeded that of Greece. Visiting the Valley of the Temples is an opportunity to envision the vastness, the sophistication, and the magnificence, of Greek life circa 580 B.C.. The Archeological Museum at Agrigento is world class. It beautifully displays a treasure trove of objects found in and around the area. Near the temples of Castor, Pollux and Vulcan, and recently restored, is the Kolymbetra Gardens. In antiquity, these gardens were compared to the garden of Eden. Often described in ancient classics, they were heralded for their flora, which offered vibrant color, intense fragrance, and tranquility - a perfect place for a respite.
Villa Romana del Casale, listed in 1997
This Late Roman Villa, built in the 4th century is located in the countryside, on the rolling hills of the “Contrada Casale,” and quite near the town of Piazza Armerina. Villa Romana del Casale is a supreme example of a luxurious Roman hunting villa displaying very sophisticated construction on a palatial scale, and mosaics that are nothing short of exceptional. The sheer quantity of the mosaics in the numerous rooms, their famously rich subject matter, and their extraordinary beauty make them the finest in situ left in the Roman World. It is interesting to note that the original owner of the villa still remains a mystery. The greatness and importance of this estate is immediately evident upon entering.
Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands), listed in 2000
The Aeolian Islands are located off the north coast of Sicily. Named for Aeolus, who was entrusted to be the ruler of the winds by Zeus, these 7 islands define the archipelago: Panarea, Stromboli, Vulcano, Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari and Salina, and 5 small islets near Panarea. The islands are all the product of volcanic activity and are separated from mainland Sicily by very deep waters. The volcanic activity associated with the Aeolian Islands is of two types (Vulcanian and Strombolian). Vulcanologists and geologists have learned much from the islands over the last 200 years and today they still contribute to world knowledge on the important subject of volcanoes, although Stromboli remains the only truly active volcano. They were granted patrimony for their contribution to science but their beauty is immense. Stark but also lush, they are surrounded by sapphire blue waters and bathed in warm sunshine, which makes them a popular destination for visitors who enjoy many types of water activities.
Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (Southeastern Sicily), listed in 2002
In 1693 an earthquake destroyed 95% of the buildings in 8 southeastern cities, an area known as the Val di Noto. Following the intense planning and reconstruction efforts, the cities of Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli, became an expression of the highest order of achievement. Built around the end of the 17th century in golden limestone, the architecture reflects a very particular style known as Sicilian Baroque. Sicilian Baroque is a lavish, fanciful, even extravagant version of an already ornate style. The excesses adorning the present day structures in these towns are intricate, beautiful, and sometimes even humorous. UNESCO granted patrimony to the Val di Noto for its architectural grandeur and for the intelligent urban planning that was an integral part of the reconstruction.
Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica, listed in 2005
The Necropolis, a naturally beautiful and peaceful place in the Iblean Mountains, contains more than 5,000 tombs hewn from rock, mainly dating back to the thirteenth to seventh centuries B.C., and the time of the islands native Sicels. Situated in the gorge of the meandering Anapo River, where tracks and pathways bring you right up to the tombs, the area is full of colorful and fragrant flora, the sounds of the river, soaring birds, and perfect for walking, hiking or picnics. The somewhat steep but negotiable rock-hewn steps and often uneven pathways lead up to the plateau. The rewards for reaching it include a magnificent panorama, and the scant but impressive foundation remains of the Late Bronze Age Anaktoron, or Prince’s Palace, from when the area was known as the city of Hybla. How the stone made it to this location is an often pondered question. Pantalica has two entrance points, Sortino, famous for honey production, and Ferla, both of which are about 1.5 hours from Siracusa. Both entrance points have parking and maps, but Sortino is the recommended place to begin a visit.
The second part, Ancient Syracuse, includes Ortigia, the original city center, founded by Greeks (Corinthians) in the 8th century B.C. The important center of Greek Sicily, which Cicero called ‘the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of all,’ also became the largest Greek city, larger than Athens or Corinth in their heyday. Many of the great thinkers of the time went to Siracusa; architects, mathematicians, scientists, writers of drama, poetry and philosophy. Art and culture thrived in Siracusa and interestingly, still does today. On the island of Ortigia, a footbridge away from the Siracusa mainland, one can see the original ruins of the Temple of Athena, on top of which is built the present-day Cathedral. The Duomo is so striking and glistens in the bright Sicilian sunshine. It is a masterfully repurposed structure that tells an historical story from the inside out. The Piazza Duomo itself, is one of Sicily’s most magnificent squares for both its size and beauty, and for the layers of Greek, seventeenth, and eighteenth century history that dot its perimeter. A few steps away, and next to the sea, is the Fonte Aretusa, a fresh water spring in which papyrus grows along with ancient mythological stories. Not far away from there are the remains of the oldest Doric temple in Sicily, erected to honor Apollo. The ruins still stand in a main piazza, surrounded by everyday life. A short distance from the temple is the expansive Archeological Park, the Neopolis. In it stands the largest Greek Theater left in existence (still used for performances), a Roman amphitheater, and stone quarries among other unique and interesting remains. Close by, the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi is world class for its fine collection of Greek and Roman sculpture, pottery and archeological finds. Do not miss the sensuous and graceful Venus Landolina, and the endearing Gemelli masterpiece, a mother suckling twins, that speaks to fertility and nature, so central in the thoughts of the ancients.
After some 500 years, Siracusa fell to the Romans in 212 BC. In addition to existing Roman remains, interspersed throughout the city are remains from the Jewish, Muslim, Byzantine, Norman, Swabian, and Spanish peoples that came to Siracusa after the Greeks were long gone. Siracusa is a unique and much beloved city in Sicily. Ortigia’s charm, with its warren of alleyways full of sculpted balconies, streaming sunlight, plants, flowers, and laundry waving in the sea breezes, is enchanting beyond words.
Mount Etna, listed in 2013
Mount Etna is included on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its important geological, scientific, and cultural value, adding much to research and study, recorded for some 2,700 years, with its varied volcanic features: craters, cones, valleys and flows. At 500,000 years old, Mount Etna is the most active and the highest volcano in Europe climbing 10,000 feet. It has been recognized not only on the basis of its scientific value, intense and persistent volcanic activity, but also for its fundamental role within the Mediterranean bio-geographical region.
In Italian it is Mongibello, in Sicilian, Muncibeddu. Mons from the Latin for mountain. Gebe from the Arabic for mountain. The word Etna means to burn, in the ancient Phoenician language. This volcano is both feared and revered. Its naturally destructive nature also gives Sicily some of its most fertile, mineral rich, and arable land. Minerality is the hallmark of the particularly delicious wines from this region and what contributes to outstanding fruit, nuts, honey, and intensely colored flora.
The Zibibbo Grape, listed in 2014
The Zibibbo grape, largely grown on Sicily's island of Pantelleria, just 40 miles from the coast of Tunisia, was included in UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014, the first time ever for an agricultural product and the practice of making wine. Zibibbo, a grape also known as Muscato di Alexandria (from Egypt), is among the oldest varietals in its unmodified state. It is said that it came to the island with the Arabs. Zibibbo means raisin in Arabic, or dried grape, and it is used to make Italian sweet wine, Passito. These sweet wines from Pantelleria, another of Sicily's volcanic areas and a DOC region along with Etna and Marsala, are fresh and delicious, often less sweet and viscous than the similar wines of France or Spain. Their higher sugar and alcohol content helped preserve them for longer periods of time, an important practice historically. Today Passito is widely available and we enjoy it after dinner, perhaps with biscotti on the side.
Arab and Norman Palermo including the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, listed in 2015
Arab-Norman Palermo, includes a series of nine structures dating from the era of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194): two palaces, the Palazzo Reale with the Cappella Palatina, and Palazzo Zisa; three churches, the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, and the Church of San Cataldo; the Cathedral of Palermo, a bridge, Ponte dell’Ammiraglio, as well as the cathedrals of Cefalú and Monreale. Together, they are a shining example of cultural co-existence and tolerance that was embraced under the rule of the Hautevilles, particularly Roger II. Muslims, Byzantines, Latins, Jews, Lombards and the French often worked in tandem with the Normans to create the imposing structures of architectural significance. It was an advanced and literate society, a golden age of sorts. Both important cathedrals built during this time, Cefalù and Monreale, contain some of Sicily's most astonishingly beautiful and precious mosaics which are also some of the best preserved mosaics of their kind in the world. The future care of and attention to these important parts of Sicily's heritage is now thankfully assured.