Our guide to What to see in Syracuse Sicily. Tips on where to stay, how to plan your time and how to get around to make the most of your time in stunning Syracuse, Sicily.
Bellissima. This is the word to describe Syracuse, in Sicily (Siracusa, in Italian), a city of superlative beauty.
Located in the Eastern part of Sicily, close to Catania and famous Taormina, Syracuse/ Siracusa is a big enough city with a stunning ancient centre, an important archaeological park and beautiful coastline.
We visited the city this past April, on a sunny day that made the sea sparkle and Syracuse’s stunning architecture beam against the clear Sicilian sky.
This is our round up of all the things to see in Syracuse Sicily and our best advice to make the most of a day in this unique city.
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What to see in Syracuse Sicily (Siracusa, Italy)
Syracuse has two main areas worth visiting: the ancient city centre, Ortigia, and Syracuse’s archaeological park. The two areas are at the two opposite sided of Syracuse’s train station and can be easily visited in one day.
When we visited, we divided the day in two parts: in the morning, we visited Ortigia and had lunch there. In the early afternoon, we got to bus to the archaeological park and spend the second part of the day there before catching our evening train back to Taormina after sunset.
This organisation proved good to get a good sense of the city and allowed us not to choose what to see in Syracuse since we were able to fit it most, if not all, of the city’s must sees.
We visited Syracuse/Siracusa on our own but there are several tours and organised activities to consider.
Some with consistently good reviews are:
What to see in Ortigia, Syracuse (Ortygia)
The heart of Syracuse/Siracusa and the first must see sight in our list is Ortigia, the small island that makes up the historical city centre of town.
If travelling by train, you reach Ortigia with a short stroll from the station. Head left from the station and you soon find yourself on a busy roundabout with a park and brown signs pointing you in the right direction.
Ortigia is an island and it is connected to the mainland by several small bridges. As you cross them, your find yourself in a large square with cafes and kiosks selling freshly squeezed orange juice and you are welcomed by the first sight of the day: the remains of the Apollo’s temple, standing in front of you.
Ortigia opens our list of what to see in Syracuse because of its beauty and historical significance.
Syracuse’s temple of Apollo
The temple of Apollo, in Syracuse, dates back to the 6th century B.C. and it is said to be the first Doric temple in Sicily.
The temple is now in ruins and only some of its columns are still standing, but it is nonetheless a beautiful sight and one with an interesting history.
It was first built by the Greeks, who founded Syracuse in the 6th century B.C. and during Greek and Roman times was used a religious space to worship Apollo or, according to different sources, Artemis.
Over the course of the centuries it maintained its religious significance but got turned first into a Byzantine church, then into a mosque, then again into a Norman church until it got eventually deconsacrated and turned into barracks (a destiny somewhat similar to the one of another important Geek temple, the Parthenon in Athens).
The temple is now protected and has been excavated for its archaeological interest.
The perimeter of the temple is closed to the public and the temple cannot be visited as such. However, the temple itself is well visible from the square and only fenced by a low railing so you have a good view over it even without having to get too close.
A visit to the Syracuse’s temple of Apollo wont’ take long (but do take the time to read the info panel around it!) and it’s a great first stop in your Syracuse’s itinerary
Syracuse meandering roads
The best way to visit Ortigia is to allow yourself to get lost in its charming, meandering roads. You can start your visit from the temple: just follow any of the small roads behind it and let your instinct guide you.
Here, you will find souvenir shops and restaurants but you will also notice one of the things that make Syracuse’s so pleasant: the fact that this is not just an old city but also a modern one, one where people live, work and operate on a daily basis.
Unlike other places in Italy, now almost entirely geared towards welcoming cosmopolitan visitors, Syracuse’s is still very much a real city. As you walk in its ancient heart, you have cars beeping, students laughing, locals rushing to work, adding to the unique atmosphere of the place.
Syracuse cathedral (Siracusa’s duomo)
Possibly the most impressive of all Syracuse’s buildings, the Syracuse cathedral stands on a large square in the centre of Ortigia.
Piazza del dumo opens up suddenly at the end of narrow lanes and it almost slaps you in the face with its beauty and imposing height.
Simple yet elaborate, elegant and purely stunning, the cathedral overlooks a large square mostly closed to traffic and has a very peculiar history.
The duomo sits on what used to be the temple of Athena dating back to the V century B.C. and you can still see how the current building developed in and around it. Some of the columns of the temple are still and what is now a baptismal font was carved out of a more ancient marble basin said to date back to possibly Hellenistic times.
The duomo can be visited daily except during services and there is an entrance fee currenly of 2 Euro per person.
Dress codes are enforced and clothes deemed too revealing such as shorts and stappy tops, are not allowed. If planning on visiting on a hot day, make sure you bring with you a shawl to cover up bare legs and shoulders and you may be refused entrance!
You can access the duomo from the front door or by the sacristy on the side: this second entrance is the only accessible one from wheelchairs and buggies as, unlike the other,hasn’t got steps.
The Hypogeum of the Piazza Duomo, Syracuse
Piazza del duomo is home of another interesting sight that should make your short list of what to see in Syracuse.
Syracuse sits above a network of underground tunnels, used over the course of the centuries as cisterns, quarries and even refuge at the time of war. The hypogeum opening up onto the duomo square is one of these tunnels and an easy one to visit.
During World War II, the network of passages was turned into a refuge during air raids and now operates as a small museum remembering the time of Syracuse’s bombing in 1943.
The hypogeum can be visited in a matter of minutes but it is interesting and informative and has the added advantages of providing some relief from the heat if visiting Syracuse in summer: the shady tunnels, in terms of temperature, are a delight!
At the far end of the duomo square lies the church of Santa Lucia. Its facade is bulit in a mix of Baroque and rococo style in the stone that is so typical of this area and the church contains a treasure: the burial of Santa Lucia, painted by Caravaggio.
The fountain of Arethusa, Syracuse
A couple of minuted farther down the road from piazza del duomo lies the fountains of Arethusa.
Arethusa is a freshwater font in Ortigia flowing right beside the seashore and has a history going all the way back to Greek mythology. The name of the font comes from that of a Nymph, Arethusa.
The story tells us that Alpehus, son of the Ocean, fell in love with Arethusa and insistently pursued her. Desperate to escape him Arethusa turned to the Goddess Artemis asking for help: her plea, was to be able to escape Alpehus and to be as far away as possible from him and therefore Greece. The Goddess granted her this wish and transformed her into a fountain along the Sicilian shore.
Memory of this story is preserved just beside the font in the shape of a sculpture representing Apheus chasing Arethusa, just before her transformation took place.
Today, visitors cannot access the font but can admire it from the Belvedere above. For the pleasure of children, the font is now home to several ducks!
Piazza Archimede and the fountain of Diana
Another impressive piazza you should include while visiting Ortigia is Piazza Archimede.
The square is named after one of Sicily’s most famous sons, mathematician Archimedes, and it is famous for the fountain of Diana.
The fountain lies in the centre of the piazza and was built in 1907 by Giulio Marchetti. Like the other fountain in Ortigia, it recalls the myth of Arethusa with statues depicting the nymph, Goddess Diana/Artemis, Alpheus and many marines deities and creatures such as tritons to complete the scene.
Syracuse’s archaeological park
Syracuse’s archaeological parks sits on the opposite side of the train station from Ortigia and is a must see Syracuss sight.
The park can be visited in an afternoon and has several main points of interest: the Latomie and Dionysus year, the Greek theatre, the Roman amphiteatre and the altar of Hiero II.
The park can be accessed with one single ticket but each attraction has its own ticket check point so make sure you keep them handy at all times.
You can visit the park at your own pace and making your own way but we found the best way was to start from the Latomie and Dionysus’ ear, then the Greek theatre and then the Roman amphitheater.
This itienrary allows you see the ruins in a somewhat chronological order and also makes sense in terms of how much walking is requires.
Our highlights were the Latomie and the Greek theatre.
Latomie and Dionysus ear
Syracuse is famous since ancient times for its stone quarries, called Latomie. They lie just outside the modern city, where the archaeological park now is, and they are a sight to behold.
The Greek work ‘Latomia’ means ‘stone cut’ and they open up as wounds into the tall stone walls of Syracuse’ landscapes.
The latomie were in use in ancient times and were the dreaded destiny of the war prisoners of powerful Syracuse, who were used as workforce in these dark and dangerous underground tunnels.
Nowadays, only some of the latomie can be visited and only partially.
One of the most famous of them and one the public can access is the so called ‘Dionysus’ ear’ or ‘Latomia of Paradise’. This quarry is a tall cave with a peculiar, tall shape cut into the rock.
The cave has a special resonance that make sound travel very clearly and loudly from its bottom to the outside and it is said that Syracuse’s tyrant Dionysus used it to listen to the cries and moans of its prisoners as they worked in this underground hell!
The latomia still makes a strong impression on the visitor.
You reach it crossing a patch of luscious, stunning vegetation and it suddenly opens up as a mouth into the mountains.
Its peculiar resonance is immediately evident is the echo of your footsteps while its depth doesn’t become clear until you venture a few metres inside.
Very quickly, the bright entrance turns into a dark recess and daylight disappears. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the latomie became a hellish nightmare of the ancient world.
Beside the latomie sits the beautiful Greek theatre of Syracuse. The theatre is still in use and requires regular maintenance so when we got there part of it was under reconstruction and therefore not accessible.
Despite this, it is truly beautiful and it is worth visiting both from the top and the bottom. Sitting in its cavea, it is easy to imagine the actors moving on the stage while getting to the back of the stage itself allows you to gauge the size of the the theater, the biggest in Sicily.
Syracuse’s theatre is very interesting and perfect to understand the peculiarity of this for of Greek architecture.
Unlike roman theatres, Greek theatres always lied along sloping terrain and made use of natural occurring hills. They also relied on the natural environment as backdrop to the stage while the Romans used to built scenography to enclose the performance stage.
If you are visiting both Syracuse and Taormina, the difference between the two types of theatre is evident.
The altar of Hieron II
This altar was build by Hieron II in honour of Zeus and it is colossal. Historians from that time tell us the city could sacrifice 450 oxen simultaneously atop the altar during the annual and it is known for being one of the largest altars of the time!
The Roman amphitheatre
If you have visited other Roman amphitheaters in Italy or abroad you are likely to find this one less than impressive. It sure is not as big as the Colosseum or even as the smaller arena of Verona but it is however interesting to see: it shoes very well the original shape of the building and is very different from the Greek theatre down the road, allowing for easy comparison.
Practical tips to visit Syracuse, Sicily and where to stay in Syracuse
- The best way to visit Syracuse Sicily is on foot and bus. The public bus connecting Ortigia to the archaeological park departs from immediately outside Ortigia and costs 1 Euro (ticket machine on the bus).
- If visiting the archaeological site, wear comfortable walking shoes. While not dangerous of difficult as such, this is an outdoor area with sometimes uneven surfaces.
- If visiting with children, be careful in Ortigia as cars do pass even on roads you would expect to be car free! Piazza del duomo in particular can be misleading: while mostly pedestrianised, you do have the occasional car going by and continuous caution is a must
- If planning an overnight stay, check out the following hotels, regularly receiving excellent reviews for location and service: Domus Marie Albergo, La via della Giudecca, Lemoni Suite and B&B Nostos
I hope you enjoyed our overview about what to see in Syracuse Sicily. Safe travels!
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