The earliest of Sicily’s ancient Greek settlements, the lovely coastal resort of Giardini Naxos sits in a bay so beautiful it has few rivals the world over. Mainly beloved for its beach charms and sparkling Ionian Sea, this historic village is also home to an archaeological perk, a centuries-old castle, several churches and a small museum.
It is what lies in close proximity to Giardini Naxos however which tends to serve as its highlights with the exceptionally lovely hillside-perched town of Taormina the jewel in the crown. Founded by the ancient Greeks and then seized by the Romans, Taormina is an endless series of stunningly beautiful historic leftovers, sun-drenched squares and, most importantly of all perhaps, home to a sensational and ancient Greco-Roman Theater.
Other gems include the enchanting mountain village of Castelmola with its spectacular views and ancient castle ruins and the relatively undiscovered treasure of Savoca with its medieval catacombs and rich historical heritage. This exceptionally lovely destination is perhaps best known for being a filming location for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather movies.
During any time in this beautiful area every vista typically includes the unmissable and vast outline of Mount Etna. Majestic and massive, this very active volcano is a UNESCO World Heritage Site packed with natural magnificence, wineries and breath-taking views with a cable car ride to ferry visitors towards the smoking summit or a train which circumnavigates the cone.
To punctuate your time and keep you refreshed and refueled there are any number of charming cafes, bars and restaurants. As is typically true of anywhere in Italy the food is to die for while the venues come in many guises. Pick a spot which spills its tables into a sunny square, head to a hidden garden surrounded by tumbling blossoms or opt for a sea-front trattoria with seafood specialties lovingly crafted from catches straight from the boat.
rom history buffs to movie fans and wine appreciators to culture lovers Giardini Naxos has something for everyone.
A Morning in Giardini Naxos and its Surrounds
The seaside charms of Giardini Naxos are very evident and if you having nothing more in mind than lazing away your day at the beach and soaking up the view from a cafe or as you stroll the seafront it is an ideal location. However, the sights are very quickly explored and if you want to be more active the surrounding areas rather than Giardini Naxos itself hold most of the principle highlights. The nearest of these –the gorgeous Taormina –sits above Giardini Naxos and has a wealth of sights to see while a little further away but still very accessible lie gems such as Castelmola and Savoca.
You can choose to spend your entire morning in Taormina –there is certainly more than enough to keep you occupied –or you can mix and match a few of the clustered villages and towns. The choice is yours.
If you do want to explore a little of Giardini Naxos first its principal sights are the archaeological park and museum, the 16thcentury fortress of Schiso Castle and its numerous churches. While the archaeological park’s ruins are little more than the foundations of buildings and stretches of city wall, the site has enormous historical significance. It was the first of Sicily’s Greek colonies and dates all the way back to 735 BC. The park itself perhaps has little to hold the attention of all but those most interested in ancient history but the museum here does have some incredible exhibits. These relate to both the park’s Greek era as well as incorporating archaeological finds which extend way back to Neolithic times. The Greek artifacts include such things as ceramics, statues, ceremonial items and jewelry.
The fortified Castello di Schisò which once served as a defense post against pirates in the 1500s also has very little to explore beyond a few bare rooms and a courtyard although as it is undergoing restoration may have more to offer in future times.
Founded by the Greeks in 392 BC and later the domain of the Romans from 212 BC, gorgeous and effortlessly romantic Taormina is packed with history. Its cobbled streets and stunning squares –many of them blissfully free of vehicles -are full of medieval charm with the whole littered about with lovely boutiques, atmospheric cafes and upscale hotels.
Taormina has long been a resort town. Once a retreat for the powerful politicians of the Roman Empire, the town became a fashionable holiday spot for the wealthy in the 1800s and hasn’t really looked back since. Throughout the decades Taormina has been a magnet for the rich and famous such as Tsar Nicholas II and Elizabeth Taylor and much of this charming destination is overlaid with an air of glamour.
From its palaces and churches to its sensational ancient Greek Theater Taormina has a great deal to see.It also has some great shopping where you can find everything from exclusive jewelry to art pieces along with a plentiful supply of souvenirs. However, you can come here and spend very little because the town’s true magic –its atmosphere and jaw-dropping scenery and views –are free for all to enjoy. Taormina perches high on the slopes of Monte Tauro with all the glory of the sparkling Ionian Sea laid out below. Strolling the town rewards you with a wealth of beautiful buildings and along the way you will discover a series of terraces that suddenly open out and present views that will take your breath away.
The Corso Umberto
Joining the town’s two ancient gateways known as Porta Messina and Porta Catania, the Corso Umberto is Taormina’s main street. It is an endless succession of grand buildings, lovely piazzas and enchanting architecture infused with constant splashes of color where flowers tumble down from balconies. Most of the main points of interest are along this stretch or lead directly off it such as the iconic Greco-Roman Theater and the Villa Comunale.
The Piazza Vittorio Emanuele
Representing the entrance to the historic center from the Porta Messina, the Piazza Vittorio Emanuel is a wonderful introduction to your morning explorations. Here you will find the Baroque-styled Saint Catarina Church which dates from the 1600s and occupies the site where once a Greek temple stood. Take a peek inside to see the 15th century marble statue and some preserved Greek-Roman walls which were uncovered during restoration work in the 1970s. Around the back of Saint Catarina Church you can see another of Taormina’s ancient Roman leftovers. The ruins of this theater which can only be seen through railings are nowhere near on the scale of the Greco-Roman Theater but are definitely worth taking in while you are in the vicinity. The square’s principal gem is considered to be the Palazzo Corvaia–the best preserved of the town’s palaces -which was finished as you see it today in the 1400s. Its original roots however and a handful of its architectural features such as its tower and window arches date back to the 10thcentury when Taormina was under the control of the Arabic Saracens. Be sure to walk through to the inner courtyard via the Gothic doorway where you will find a display of religious-themed reliefs.
The Greco-Roman Theater
The principal jewel in Taormina’s glittering crown –and some say in the whole of Sicily -is without doubt the sensational Greco-Roman Theater which is often just called the Greek Theater. Originally constructed by the Greeks in the 2ndcentury BC, the Romans arrived in the 3rdcentury BC and redesigned it as you see it today. While the large construction itself is impressive with its stepped seating and romantically ruined columns it is really the setting which gives the theater its ultimate wow factor. The theater is sited on an elevated rock spur which takes in not just the coast and the Ionian Sea but also encompasses the dramatic outline of Mount Etna which if you are lucky will be emitting its signature smoke trail. The whole is so incredibly well-preserved that even today concerts, operas, ballets, and dramatic performances are held here while the site is also home to a small archaeological museum.
Morning Coffee in Taormina
Taormina has an astonishing number of cafes, bars and restaurants for somewhere so compact and it is more than likely as you explore the town you will happen across something which for you ticks all the boxes for the perfect morning coffee break spot. Should you decide to take your pause directly before or after your visit to the theater you will be perfectly placed to find the Bam Bar. Ideal for those who want a break from the bustle of the main thoroughfare, this quiet and tranquil cafe is also where to head to sample what, for many, is considered to be the best granita in town. The Sicilian version of this iced treat is somewhat more crystalline than its more usual sorbet-like form and this charming little spot with its quintessentially Italian-style pavement tables has an incredible variety of flavors. If you want to do it the Sicilian way it comes with a brioche bun topped with cream.
If you’re happy to leave your morning coffee stop until you arrive at the incredibly lovely Piazza IX Aprile you can find a table on the gorgeous alfresco terrace of the Caffe Wunderbar, as the likes of Tennesse Williams, Liz Taylor and Greta Garbo have done before you. This long-established Taormina icon with its refined atmosphere has served as the set for many movie scenes and comes complete with sensational views and although it isn’t the cheapest option in town it is considered by many to be an essential experience.
Also known as the Duchi di Cesaro Park and the Trevelyan Gardens, this exquisite space is enchanting in the extreme and filled with lush greenery, incredible color during flowering season and a collection of fascinating Victorian follies. Originally designed by the English Florence Trevelyan in the 1800s, the public gardens incorporate much of the Victorian design of her homeland with an abundance of rare species which she introduced. While wonderful views are not at a shortage in Taormina the Villa Comunale is considered one of the town’s best spots to take in the breath-talking sea views it is known for.
Piazza IX Aprile
Located at around Corso Umberto’s mid-point, the Piazza IX Aprile is considered by many to be one of the loveliest parts of the town. The area is dominated by the Torre dell’ Orologio–or clock tower –and although this square structure is relatively plain it has a history almost 900 years old. The clock was added in 1679 during major renovations after the tower was all but destroyed during the French invasion in the late 1600s.
This lovely piazza is also home to the mottled pastel pink San Guiseppe or Saint Joseph Church. Baroque in style, this little gem is thought to date from about 1650 and has an especially picturesque double stone staircase and sculpted balustrade approach. To the right of the church is the ornate bell tower topped by a beautiful conical dome. The stark white interior is a riot of Rococo detailing and is full of frescoes and paintings.
The piazza also has a second crenelated tower church although today it is no longer a religious building but a library. Starkly Gothic in style, Sant’Agostino dates from the 1500s and was originally part of a monastery.
Most would agree that the highlight of this gorgeous spot is the open terrace from which you can gaze at the sun-drenched bay and Etna looming off in the distance.
Piazza del Duomo
As you reach the far end of the Corso Umberto and its second gate you will arrive at the Piazza del Duomo which is where the town’s principal church or cathedral is found –St. Nicholas. This elegant and sizable church is something of a tapestry of architectural styles, incorporating original features from the 13thcentury which include its facade but also the additions which took place during the 1600-1800s.
From the exterior St. Nicholas has lessthe appearance of a church than a fortress –an impression which is no doubt enhanced by the crenelations on top. The lovely main door –a Baroque feature added in the 17thcentury –leads to an interior composed of three separate aisles and Taormina marble columns which were scavenged from the Greco-Roman Theater.
The church is home to a few priceless treasures such as the Visitation of the Virgin Mary and the Madonna with Saints paintings which date from the 15thand 14thcenturies respectively and an exquisite 16thcentury polyptych. The oldest of the church’s treasures is the Eastern Orthodox-styled Byzantine Madonna –an oil painting which incorporates semi-precious stones.
The Piazza del Duomo is also home to another of the town’s most iconic landmarks –the Baroque Quattro Fontane or Four Fountain. Dating from 1635, this lovely piece of art features a female centaur holding aloft a crown and scepter along with the town’s coat-of-arms while the water which spills into the fountain’s double bowls comes from the spouts of four seahorses.
Other Taormina Sights Away from the Corso Umberto
While almost all of Taormina’s historical and otherwise lovely highlights can be found along the Corso Umberto there are a handle of must-see sights that are either further up the hill or found by heading down to the sea. These include the quaintMadonna del Rocca Church, the ruins of an ancient castle and the tiny but gorgeous island accessible from the town’s beach.
If you have the energy you can make the steep but stepped climb to the tiny Madonna della Rocca which is a charmingly rustic church whose ceiling is just bare rock. Thought to have been carved out around the middle of the 1600s, this site is also home to an ancient monastery and hermitage although both are now abandoned. If you want the kind of sensational sea-views which Taormina offers freely along with panoramas of the town itself this is the spot to come.
If you continue uphill on the pathway which brought you to the church you will find very nearby Castello Saracenowhich is also known as Taormina Castle. Once the site of an ancient acropolis, the castles exact origins are not known. It is thought that first the Romans and then the invading Saracens who arrived in the 10thcentury helped in its construction. Although the castle’s interior can’t be viewed, as you can probably imagine the trek here is worth it for the spectacular views alone.
Taormina generally is divided into its hill perched old town area and its beach and tiny island which are referred to collectively as Isola Bella. If you have energy to spare you can make the descent to the beach via a series of 700 or so steps but the easy way to do things is to take the cable car which departs 200m from the Corso Umberto. The end of the journey brings you to the beach at Mazzaro and a further 500m from here will see you arriving at a tiny island. Unless the tide is low getting to this atmospheric little place involves a shallow wade through the sea but is worth the effort. Once the property of the Victorian Englishwoman responsible for Trevelyan Gardens, this magical spot is another oasis of plants, grottoes and sculptural features (although on a much smaller scale) which comprised her personal garden. Today it is a protected nature reserve colonized by birds and darting lizards. It is also possible to enter the former villa where you will find a small but interesting collection of artifacts.
An Alternative Morning Around Giardini Naxos –Savoca and Castelmola
While Taormina certainly has more than enough to fill your entire morning you might like to consider mixing it with some other Sicilian gems which lie close to Giardini Naxos and are easily accessible. Alternatively you might decide to dedicate your entire morning to one of these other options such as the history-infused and exceptionally beautiful Savoca or the highly photogenic mountain village of Castelmola.
Just as with Taormina Savoca’s principal charms lie in its atmosphere and high hill location which present sensational views. It is an ideal alternative for those looking for the historically enchanting without the crowds, tourist-focus and busyness of Taormina. Savoca for now remains relatively undiscovered but with such incredible appeal –many consider it one of the entire island’s loveliest corners –it is unlikely to stay that way forever.
As you wander the tiny streets of this unspoiled village you will be able to take in some spectacular vistas which encompass the shifting blues of the sea, surrounding mountains, greenery-filledvalleys, neighboring hill towns, historical ruins and the great Mount Etna. The village’s collection of buildings has some gorgeous well-preserved old examples but also has some that are romantically ruined and abandoned. This latter includes both humble and tiny peasant cottages to grander constructions which would once have been home to the wealthy.
The village is small and easily explored on foot and has an air of the evocatively crumbling suffused with total tranquility. Savoca’s main claim to fame isits connection to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and the tiny village draws a small but steady stream of fans who come to visit the Bar Vitelli –part of the Palazzo Trimarchi from the 1700s -where several movie scenes were shot. An exceptionally lovely spot for enjoying a light snack or lunch, granita treat or coffee at one of the outdoor tables surrounded by greenery, this bar is also home to a collection of The Godfather II related memorabilia and very much worth a visit.
Savoca’s other attractions include its lovely churches and the 16thcentury Capuchin monastery’s catacombs. The entrance fee to this somewhat macabre point of interest is donation-based and allows you to enter the crypt with its collection of skulls and mummies. These preserved corpses are all dressed in costumes which range from crumbling rags to well-preserved finery, perhaps the most notable example of which is an embroidered waistcoat and cravat ensemble.
Each of the three churches here are worthy of a visit. San Michele which dates from 1250 has restored frescoes and artwork while the imposing and dramatically outcrop-perched Saint Nicholas was the scene of a wedding from The Godfather. The Savoca Mother Church dates from the very beginning of the village’s story in the 1100s and is home to some Byzantine age frescoes. The village’s two hilltops are both crowned by historical highlights –atop one is a former church while the other has the Pentefur Castle ruins. Very little is known about this ancient building’s origins which have now been lost in the mists of time.
Tiny but enchanting Castelmola is yet another spot for spectacular views which this time take in Taormina, the coastline of Giardini Naxos and of course the ever-present Mount Etna. This authentic mountain village is home to ancient castle ruins and a gorgeous intricate-paved piazza where you can find the church of Saint Niccolo di Bari complete with a lovely balcony look-out spot. The village also has a wonderful collection of shops and boutiques which line its main street.
Whether you choose to lunch in Giardini Naxos or Taormina both have plentiful options. The Taormina choices often come with either the sensational views or the ultimate charm which are the town’s greatest draws while Giardini Naxos restaurants typically offer waterfront dining. Giardini Naxos’s seafront is where you will find a string of bars, shops, hotels and restaurants and you can simply stroll here until you find your ideal spot. One of the absolute beach-front options is the family-run Lido La Romantica which serves a little of everything –from seafood to pizzas -and the gorgeous ocean-view terrace is a real stunner which serves a little of everything –from seafood to pizzas -and the gorgeous ocean-view terrace is a real stunner.
If you are a true seafood fan and have your heart set on an elegant lunch Giardini Naxos’s L’acquario is second to none and a firm favorite with the locals –something which typically registers as a recommendation of the highest kind for a restaurant. The ultimate freshness of the seafood here is fantastic and the potential bounty is spread out along the ice-counter so you can see what’s coming. It would be easier to list what isn’t available here than what is -caviar, oysters, clams, sea-bass, lobster, sea urchin, prawn, scallops…and the list goes on. The owner-chef himself makes his way around the tables to talk to customers and help them with their choices while the service here is both warm and attentive. The Sicilian and Italian wine menu is also exceptional and sourced from smaller wineries.
Those that choose to dine in Taormina have an even greater diversity of choices with both smaller traditional venues and larger tourist-aimed places catering mostly to visitors in the mix. The Trattoria da Ugois one of the more rustic and traditional options while Vecchia Taormina which has outdoor table choices is another wonderful but simple Sicilian fare osteria for pizza lovers. For a gorgeous hidden garden lunch venue head to I Giardini di Babilonia. Tucked away and quiet, this lovely little spot not far from the Greco-Roman Theater is generally only found purely by accident or word of mouth and offers Sicilian dishes with a focus on fish but also has something for meat lovers too.
Another lunch option for those who want to escape the bustle of the Taormina scene for a while and close to Babilonia is the Timoleone Cafe. This time the setting is a charming and romance-infused plant and flower-filled courtyard which although conveniently located in the historic center feels a world away from the tourist activity on the main streets.
An Afternoon Around Giardini Naxos
Vast, dramatic and ever-looming, wherever you chose to spend your morning around Giardini Naxos there is no doubt vistas filled with the magnificence of Etna will have been part of it. This ancient volcano -one of the world’s most active -has long held fascination for those who live on and visit the island of Sicily where it has played an enormous part in both the island’s history and the shaping of the landscape.
Coming to Sicily without visiting mighty Mount Etna in some way is almost unthinkable so your afternoon hours will be filled with doing just that. Quite how much energy you spend in discovering the magnificent beauty and highlights of Etna is up to you.
Mount Etna Experiences
Virtually constant in its activity, Etna is a true giant, soaring to a height of more than 3,327m which makes it one of the continent’s largest while also giving it well over twice the height of its cousin on the mainland, Vesuvius.
Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mighty Etna is an essential inclusion for most who visit the island and there are a great diversity of ways in which you can explore it. Experiences range from those where you have to expend very little energy to those which are extremely challenging, even for the most serious hiker.
The upper sections of the volcano are typically those full of lava-flow caves, active fumaroles constantly emitting smoke, astonishing stark beauty and an otherwise fascinating and almost alien landscape. The lower slopes and certain protected pockets up higher are full of some of the most fertile soils possible and these areas are full of vegetation both natural and cultivated. Many different species of trees colonize some exceptionally lovely spots and if you head to Sant’Alfio on the eastern slopes you will find the ‘Messenger of Peace –the oldest sweet chestnut tree in the world believed to be at least 2,000 years old. With such rich growing conditions much of Etna, with the exception of the summit, is given over to vineyards, olive groves and orchards producing everything from peaches to pistachios.
One of the most luxurious and exciting ways to experience Etna’s other-worldly landscape and smoking craters and to fly over the very summit itself is to take a helicopter tour. Doing so not only allows you to take in the lunar-like majesty found on the upper sections which would be otherwise inaccessible but also rewards you with stunning bird’s-eye views of sparkling coast, olive and citrus groves and the historic towns in the vicinity.
At the opposite end of the scale are the many hiking possibilities where you can explore Etna on foot. These experiences range from easy and short walks suitable for all to those which should only be undertaken by the fittest to reach the highest altitudes. Nature trails which lead through forests, orchards and a variety of stunning natural environments are everywhere and there are plenty of tour companies which lead guided hikes to discover the most breathtaking places.
For an easy way to experience the summit the Funivia dell’Etna offers a cable car and off-road bus combination or you can mix and match this ride which takes you to around 2,500m with hiking. Either way this option allows you to access the sensational Alcantara Gorge which was formed by a lava flow long ago.
Other transport options for those who don’t want to spend too much energy enjoying the highlights of Etna include jeep safaris, the Ferrovia Circumetnea which is an historic railway circumnavigating the volcano, horsetreks and even the chance to travel on the back of a donkey.
Etna winery tours are very popular, offering a diversity of ways in which to visit some of the lovely vineyards dotted around the volcano’s highly fertile slopes and taste some of the award winning wines. Etna’s rail system which goes around the volcano has a dedicated ‘Wine Train’ which allows wine lovers to take the train to Randazzo from where special hop-on hop-off buses cover a range of exceptional wine cellar destinations; you choose which to explore and for how long before hopping back on another bus and as a bonus wine tasting is included in the ticket price of this wonderful initiative.
One of Etna’s most exceptional wineries is the Gambino located on the volcano’s eastern slopes. A trip here is not just an extra special treat for wine appreciators but also for all those who love to be immersed in beautiful scenery. Set amid national park land and with breathtaking views of the sea, the Gambino Winery sits at more than 800m above sea level and thus represents a fine example of an Etna high altitude vineyard.
A feast for the senses, you can stroll the sunny, terraced areas where the grapes are grown with jaw-dropping panoramas all around you before sampling some of this passionate family-run producer’s most precious wines. To enhance your in-house sommelier-led experience you can sample some of the region’s delicacies such as olives, cheeses and meats.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Giardini Naxos
Giardini Naxos’s coastal setting tends to mean pre-dinner drinks and the main event itself are full of views of the sensational kind. Here you will find everything from casual beach bars to the most elegant of venues so you can find something which ticks all of your own personal boxes for just the right spot.
Dining here typically focuses around succulent and super-fresh seafood but as Sicily has such a bounty of home-grown produce you can be sure of the freshest ingredients and some true taste sensations.
To really make the most of those stunning bay vistas and to throw yourself into the Italian tradition of aperitivo head to the gorgeous rooftop of the Hotel Palladio’s BioBar. The elegant and spacious terrace here allows you to drink in as much of the sea views as you want while enjoying a nightly aperitivo event, creative cocktails or an array of choice Sicilian wines sold by the glass.
The beach-side and laid-back Porto Franco Cafe is another aperitivo spot where the locals congregate. With its scattering of pretty outside tables, vintage marine style and excellent drinks this is a wonderful spot to head if you want to break off from the main tourist haunts to enjoy your sundowners .
Beach-front dining by its very nature tends to come with something of an air of romance and the lovely Sea Sound Restaurant capitalizes on this beautifully. From the intimate terrace here you have sweeping views of the bay with the stars above you as you work your way through some delicious seafood and fish specialties accompanied with perfect wine pairings. The cuisine is traditionally Sicilian and takes full advantage of the abundance of super-fresh local produce direct from the source.
To make life effortless you can simply transition from drinks to dining at the elegant Hotel Palladio’s La Cucina. As with the Sea Sound sea views are also part of the dining experience here but this time from the venue’s stunning rooftop terrace. The menu here is constantly changing to allow for the freshest seasonal produce and Palladio works in close association with local co-operatives to source the best in seafood, fruit and vegetables and wines in the most ethical way. Besides high quality food and a magical setting the restaurant is also known for its particularly warm and welcoming staff.
An Evening in Giardini Naxos
With appetites sated on the area’s wonderful seafood and wines produced on the slopes of the majestic Mount Etna you can now choose how you will spend the last of your hours in Giardini Naxos.
Like elsewhere in Italy locals don’t dine until late so the Giardini Naxos bars are typically full of families and friends enjoying the great aperitivo tradition and the lovely views which the coastal setting allows. Many tourists here choose to do exactly the same and the whole seafront has a plentiful choice of venues to kick back with a drink in hand.
Should you prefer to be a little more active another Italian evening tradition is the passeggiata or ambling stroll. The whole of the bay is walkable in Giardini Naxos along the Lungomare if you have the energy and the inclination. If you decide to do so you will encounter many locals doing exactly the same from old couples walking the dog to young mothers with pushchairs.
Adding interest to the seafront walk which connects several beaches can be found a series of sculptures including both classic and contemporary pieces. The collection is principally maritime-and mythology-themed with one of its most prominent artworks a representation of the mariner Theocles who founded the first Greek colony here in 734BC.
Without doubt the most magical way to spend an evening in this area is by heading to the ancient Greek Theater to see a performance. Options range from classical concerts to modern rock bands and from operas to dramas. However, no matter what happens to be on when you are in town you can be assured of a truly unique and memorable evening under the stars in a theater which is almost 2,000 years old.
Ready to explore and eat delicious food in Giardini Naxos? Contact one of our vacation planners today!