view of promenade at sunset ortigia island walk to maniace castle

Discovering Ortigia: A Traveler’s Guide to Sicily’s Hidden Gem

Nestled off the coast of Sicily and less than an hour away from Catania, lies a hidden treasure worth discovering: Ortigia. Technically part of Syracuse, Ortigia is the oldest area of the city and the most interesting to see. What really “hit” me while visiting was the variety of the different buildings and architecture, they are almost like the pages of a book telling the city’s story. But Ortigia is also the delicious food and Sicilian culture that you can savor like the delicious torrone they sell on the streets.

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How to get to Ortigia?

Most of the time I’m all about being independent and renting a car, but Ortigia can be quite difficult to reach especially during the high season so depending on the month you are visiting my advice will be:

  • From June to September if you are planning a day trip (from Catania for example) invest in a guided tour from there. They often include Noto as well and you won’t bother with finding parking for your car. In case you are planning to stay a full day or more look for accommodations that have parking slots or consider parking outside Ortigia and reach the old town on foot. Another less expensive option can be the train. The train station isn’t far from the bridge that connects Ortigia to the mainland.
  • From October to May there are less tourists, Italian schools are still open as well, and getting to Ortigia can be easier. But I don’t recommend getting with your car on the island, there are several LTZ and you will get a fine before you know it! Instead leave you car in the big parking called Molo Sant’Antonio in Bengasi street or nearby, Ortigia is only 5 minutes on foot. Price is 1,50€ (1,60$) or 17€ (18$) for the full day (updated April ’24).

Remember that during high season finding parking can be very difficult!

Things to do in Ortigia

Ortigia is rather small and distances aren’t very long, but if you need help navigating effectively the island I’ve prepared an helpful map so that you can get straight to the point. Although if you have time I also recommend getting lost around and savor la dolce vita Siciliana.

Admire the Ruins of the Temple of Apollo

Once you have crossed the bridge connecting Ortigia to the mainland you will find yourself into a tree-lined avenue where there are many kiosks preparing the famous granita siciliana.

Continuing straight ahead you will be facing the ruins of the once imposing Temple of Apollo, the oldest West Greek Doric temple dating back to the VI century BC. If you want to learn more about the temple and see a simulation of how it once was you should visit the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi. The museum is very interesting to understand the origins and evolution of Syracuse through the centuries.

view of ruins of an old temple invaded by vegetation in the middle of a city temple of apollo on ortigia island

Stroll through the Historic Centre

After a few meters you will arrive to Archimede Square and Diana Fountain. From there on you will be in the bustling pedestrian area where the fun happens!

Food, souvenirs, clothes, and artisan shops await for tourists to empty their wallets (yes those are definitely tourist traps), but of course yielding to temptation isn’t always bad while traveling. And even if you won’t be buying you still can attend the exhibitions of culinary art. My favorite? The preparation of Sicilian torrone (see the picture below), one of my guilty pleasures during our trip.

hands cutting a long torrone made of pistachio and nuts torrone siciliano manufacturing in ortigia

Visit Syracuse Cathedral once the Temple of Athena

Syracuse Cathedral is an elegant Baroque church that has a very interesting story. In fact the cathedral hides the Greek temple of Athena built in 480 BC to celebrate the victory over Carthage. You can see the ancient columns of the temple inside the church’s walls.

Following the fall of the Greek civilization the temple became a byzantine church, a mosque during the Arab’s domination, and finally a catholic church.

Foodie’s tip: Try the granita siciliana al pistacchio (pistachio flavor) at one of the several bars in front of the cathedral. It was completely worth the wait, one of the best things I’ve tested in Sicily!

baroque cathedral side view of the portal Syracuse Cathedral once the Temple of Athena on ortigia island

See the Legendary Arethusa Spring

Last stop before the promenade is a place that gave life to several myths and legends: Arethusa Spring. Besides the legend what makes the source unique is the fact that it’s a freshwater source a few meters from the Ionian Sea. The location is very quiet and can be a great spot for admiring sunset.

The legend of Arethusa Spring

Alpheus, son of Oceanos, fell madly in love with Arethusa while he saw her bathing naked. To escape Alpheus advances Arethusa took refuge on the island of Ortigia where in order to help her, Artemis transformed her in a spring. Alpheus was heartbroken, so Zeus turned him into the river that feeds the source.

view of a large pool with trees inside it and high walls around ortigia arethusa spring eastern sicily

Enjoy the Promenade and Maniace Castle

Ortigia’s promenade is a rather narrow pedestrian street lined with bars and restaurants. I highly recommend enjoying an aperitivo while admiring sunset.

But first head to Maniace Castle at the end of the promenade. The 13th century castle is strategically situated on the last stretch of land of Ortigia. The castle was built under the domination of Frederick II and named after the byzantine commander Giorgio Maniace (998-1043).

Quite surprisingly the castle stayed a military area until the 2000s. Nowadays you can visit it everyday (except for Sunday) from 8.30 AM to 4.30 PM.

Photo by Misterchry82, license.

Things to do nearby Ortigia, in Syracuse

Even though Ortigia is the most important and touristy part to visit, I recommend visiting also Neapolis Archaeological Park. The park covers a vast area and you can admire the ruins of ancient Greek buildings. Down below you will find my top recommendations if you are on a schedule and don’t have full time to visit.

Ear of Dionysius

This artificial cave was created by the extraction of the stone used to build the temples and theatre nearby. The cave is 75 feet (23 mt) high and from 16 to 22 feet (5 to 7 mt) large.

The name Ear of Dionysius was given by the Italian painter Caravaggio when he learned that Dionysius I of Syracuse used the cave as a prison to listen to the prisoners talk from afar.

Legend or not the cave has an impressive acoustic and you can hear many people enjoying themselves singing and shouting. The cave can be dark inside because of the lack of illumination, you may need your phone’s flashlight.

cave in a rock wall ear of dionysius syracuse
Photo by Isiwal, license.

Greek Theatre

After seeing Taormina’s Greek Theatre you may be disappointed, but eve, if it’s less well preserved, Syracuse Greek Theatre is still very interesting and during summer there are several events hosted there.

FAQ about Ortigia

Is it worth visiting Ortigia?

Absolutely! Strolling among the narrow streets of Ortigia is a MUST of Eastern Sicily. It could be because the artisan shops, the Baroque buildings, or the delicious treats, Ortigia is truly surprising, especially if you think that the island is only about 0.600 miles (1 km) long and less than a half wide.

view of a square with baroque buildings

How many days should I spend in Ortigia?

One day is more than enough. As I said distances aren’t long and you can easily go through all the viewpoints of our list in half a day including a lunch or aperitivo pause. You can even couple Syracuse island with Noto as a day trip from Catania.

Exploring Eastern Sicily

Are you planning a trip to Eastern Sicily? From the basaltic columns of Alcantara Gorge to the majestic heights of Mount Etna there is a WORLD to discover! Check out our 5 day itinerary for more ideas.

We also write about Italy’s other region, check them out on our dedicated page.

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