The beautiful island of Sicily has captivated the attention of travelers, explorers, and readers from around the world, from ancient times up until this very day. Sicily is riddled with beautiful pristine beaches, gorgeous hidden places, pristine lush hills, and mountainous landscapes but in this article, we’ll focus on some fun facts about Sicily, some of which will probably blow your mind.
But first things first…
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Now that we covered some basics, let’s share a few…
Basic Facts About Sicily
Sicily is one of Italy’s 20 regions. It covers an area of 25,711 square kilometers and it’s home to around 5.5 million people.
The capital of Sicily is Palermo, the fifth-largest city in Italy which is home to 650,000 residents.
Sicily is divided from Mainland Italy via the Messina Strait (Stretto di Messina), a strait that’s about 3 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.
The main island of Sicily is surrounded by many smaller islands that make up the administrative region of Sicily. Some of the most famous smaller islands include Egadi, Ustica, Eolie, and Pantelleria.
The island of Sicily has a triangular shape and its three angles form the three capes; Peloro, Lilibeo, and Pachino. Because of this, the ancient Greeks called the island Trinacria (three promontories).
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the symbol of Sicily is the famous Triscele symbol, a face with three legs.
But enough with the basics, let’s continue with some more fun facts about Sicily.
It’s The World’s Only Island Surrounded By Three Seas
One of the most fun facts about Sicily is that it is the world’s only island that’s surrounded by three different seas. Sicily borders the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north, the Ionian Sea to the east, and the Meditteranean Sea to the south and the west. No wonder Sicily has always been a strategic point of interest and a target of many different conquerors throughout the years (more about this later).
It’s The Largest Island In The Mediterranean
Covering an area of 25,711 square kilometers (roughly the size of Macedonia and Slovenia), Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, slightly larger than Sardinia and Cyprus. In addition to this, Sicily is also the largest (by area) region in Italy before Piedmont and Sardinia.
Most Of The Island Consists Of Hills And Mountainous
Just like Puglia, most people associate the beautiful island of Sicily with beaches but in reality, close to 85% of the island is covered by hills and mountains. Roughly 15% of Sicily is covered by plains, 25% by mountains, and around 60% by hills. The average elevation of the island is around 500 meters (1,640 feet).
It’s Home To 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Speaking of fun facts about Sicily, we can’t forget to mention its UNESCO sites. There are 19 countries in the world that don’t have a single UNESCO World Heritage Site but Sicily has 7! The island’s UNESCO sites feature Mount Etna (more about this below), the Aeolian Islands, the ancient city of Syracuse, the Archaeological Area of Agrigento, Villa Romana del Casale, the Arab-Norman Palermo, and the Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto.
It Has Its Own Language
This might come as a surprise but Sicily has its language and it’s spoken among residents as widely as Italian. The language also belongs to the Romance language group but it’s different enough from Italian to be considered a separate language and not a dialect. It’s spoken only in Sicily and the neighboring islands and if you wander off the beaten track and visit the smaller countryside towns, you might even see the language on signs, menus, etc.
The Sicilian language has been recognized by UNESCO as an endangered language.
You shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that Sicilians speak a different language because…
It Used To Be Its Own Country
Or should we say, kingdom? The Kingdom of Sicily was founded by Roger II of Sicily in 1130 and it existed for over seven centuries. It succeeded the County of Sicily that was founded in the 11th century during the Norman conquests. And did you know that…
Malta Was Part Of The Sicilian Kingdom
In its heyday, the Kingdom of Sicily included the island of Sicily, Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata, Campania, and Malta. Malta was a part of Sicily until 1814 and the Knights of Malta were vassals of the kingdom for the majority of that time.
Sicily Is Still An Autonomous Region
Italy is home to 20 regions and 109 provinces. Out of these 20 regions, five have a special status of an autonomous region. The list includes Aosta Valley, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sardinia, and Sicily. These regions have been granted a certain level of autonomy that gives them legislative, administrative, and financial power to a varying extent, mainly because these regions are inhabited by linguistic minorities (German, Friulian, Lombardian, Sicilian, and Sardinian).
It Was First Inhabited By The Phoenicians
One of the lesser-known fun facts about Sicily is that its capital Palermo was founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in Europe. For years, before the Greeks even started colonizing the island of Sicily, Palermo was inhabited by the Phoenicians and later became a part of the Carthaginian Empire until Carthage lost the Punic Wars.
It’s Home To The Best-Preserved Greek Ruins
Maybe that’s an exaggeration but Sicily is home to some of the best-preserved Greek ruins outside of Greece. Some of the ancient Greek highlights on the island include the Greek Theater of Syracuse, the Antique Theatre of Taormina, the Island of Ortigia, the Arethusa Spring, and of course- the Valley of the Temples. Speaking of which…
The Valley Of The Temples Is Not A Valley
The important historical site named the Valley of the Temples is a complex of seven ancient Greek temples and constitutes the largest concentration of Doric temples outside of mainland Greece. However, the complex lies on a ridge, not a valley like its name suggests. The town in which this site is located was founded in the 6th century BC mainly by settlers from Rhodes and Crete and it was one of the leading cities during the golden age of Ancient Greece.
And speaking of ancient Greek cities…
It’s Home To The Second Most Important Ancient Greek City
Did you know that the ancient Greek city of Syracuse is actually located in Sicily? The city was founded by Greek settlers in 734 BC and by 415 BC, it was as large as Athens according to written historic sources. Syracuse remained an important city even during the Roman Empire when it briefly served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire between 663 and 669.
If you’re a fan of ancient Greece and would like to learn more about and experience the full glory of ancient Syracuse, I warmly recommend this full day tour of the ancient city. At 100 euros per person, it’s an absolute bargain.
But Greek is not the only ancient civilization that left its mark on Sicily. Did you know that…
Archimedes Was Sicilian
Speaking of fun facts about Sicily, we shouldn’t forget about Archimedes. He was one of the most famous ancient Greek mathematicians and was born and raised in Sicily in the city of Syracuse. He was well known for his scientific discoveries and inventions and he spent living most of his life in Syracuse. His most famous theory is the Archimedes Principle and his most famous invention is probably the Archimedes’ Screw, a raising water device that is still widely used in crop irrigation and sewage treatment plants even today.
However, there are a few other things he was known for, such as…
Using The First ‘Heat-Ray’ In Human History
In 212 BC, Rome was an emerging power in the Mediterranean and with time, their occupation of Sicily became inevitable. However, Sicilians were fortunate to have the genius inventor Archimedes on their side. Before the siege had started, the inventor designed a heat ray weapon that the Sicilians later used to set the Roman ships on fire. However, that wasn’t enough, Syracuse eventually fell and Archimedes was killed by the Romans.
The Romans kept control of Sicily and even after the fall of Rome, Sicily remained a part of the Byzantine Empire. However, because of its strategically important location in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, this was just the beginning of more invaders appearing throughout the years. The next ones in line were the Arabs and did you know that…
Palermo Was One Of The World’s Largest Islamic Cities
By the mid-9th century, most of Sicily was under Arab control and Sicily’s capital, Palermo became one of the largest and most important Islamic cities in the world. At the time, Palermo was the third-largest city in Europe after Constantinople and Islamic Cordoba. For the roughly 200 years that the island saw under Arab rule, Palermo became a major center of commerce, education, as well as art, architecture, and culture and was much more developed than most other cities in Europe…
If you’re looking for a great tour of Palermo, consider this customizable private tour with a local.
Another fun fact about Palermo is that…
It’s Home To The Only Cathedral In The World With Arab Inscriptions
As we previously mentioned in our guide to things you can only find in Italy, Palermo is home to the world’s only cathedral that has an Arabic inscription on the entrance. The Martorana Cathedral in Palermo was originally built as a mosque during the Arab rule over Sicily. After the Arabs left the island, the mosque was turned into a church but many of its pillars and walls remained untouched.
It Used To Be A Viking Kingdom
The Arab presence on the island of Sicily ended with the Norman conquests of the 11th century. The Normans took control of the island and founded the Kingdom of Sicily that covered Sicily, most of southern Italy, and Malta and ruled these lands until they were defeated…
It Used To Be A German Kingdom
The Normans were defeated in 1194 and this marked the beginning of the era of the House of Hohenstaufen, a German noble house that established the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The German rule of Sicily was brief and it lasted only until 1266.
It Used To Be A Spanish Kingdom
In 1282, Sicily was taken over by the Aragonese Royal Family that ruled the island until 1713. After this, the island was briefly taken over by the Savoyards and the Habsburgs before falling under Spanish rule again under the Bourbon dynasty. And if you’ve been following correctly, you know that Sicily is the only place in Europe that at some point was under Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Viking, German, and Spanish rule.
It Started The Unification Of Italy
One of the often-forgotten fun facts about Sicily is its role in the unification of Italy. Although arguable, it’s very likely that the process of the unification started or was at least strongly influenced by the introduction of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The reunification that occurred in 1816 saw the merger of the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples, and this sparked similar attempts in other parts of the country too.
If you want to learn more about this part of Sicilian history, I warmly recommend the novel “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi Lampredusa. It describes the turbulent times of rapidly changing culture and society from the perspective of a Sicilian prince who is experiencing his transition as the island is slowly absorbed into the unified country of Italy.
However, even after the unification, things in Sicily weren’t great and this leads us to the next point of its history…
The Mafia Does Originate From Sicily
Of course, can we have a list of fun facts about Sicily without mentioning the Mafia? Sicilian mafia became very famous after being featured in Hollywood cinematography (you can actually visit the Godfather filming sites on the Godfather tour) but the Cosa Nostra is very real and has been present in Sicily since the early 19th century although sources are claiming that the mafia existed way before that and was created to help overthrow the rule of the various foreign conquerors of the island throughout the years.
Whatever the case, the mafia thrived in the 19th and 20th centuries when the mafia’s private armies grew so powerful that they turned against the landowners and eventually became the sole law on many of the Sicilian estates.
And I bet you didn’t know that…
The Mafia Aided The Allies In WWII
This is one of the less-known fun facts about Sicily; did you know that the Mafia aided the Allies forces in WWII? Associates of Lucky Luciano (one of the most notorious Italian-American gangsters) helped allies forces by drawing maps of the harbors of Sicily and providing snapshots of the coastline. And the Allies thanked them by…
Bombing Catania 90 Times
Sicily’s central geolocation in the heart of the Mediterranean is a curse as much as it is a blessing, especially during times of war and no other city experienced this as much as Catania. Sicily’s second-largest city was bombed close to 90 times during the war, suffering horrible material damage accompanied by a large number of human casualties.
But Catania is one of those cities that just keeps getting up and coming back for more. Did you know that…
Catania Was Buried By Lava 7 Times
The Metropolitan Catania Area is home to Mount Etna, one of the most explosive volcanoes on the island; the perfect mix of circumstances for one of the most mind-blowing fun facts about Sicily. According to written historical sources, the volcano erupted more than 20 times and 7 of those eruptions brought large numbers of casualties. And speaking of eruptions, we have a few more fun facts about Sicily that are related to its volcanoes.
But before we proceed, if you’re looking to explore Catania and get to learn more about the city, seriously consider this “Catania like a local private tour”.
It’s Home To The Largest Active Volcano In Europe
Not only is Mount Etna the largest volcano in Italy, but it’s also the largest active volcano in Europe. The volcano lies 1t 3,328 meters above sea level and can be accessed by hiking in around 2 hours.
You Can Ski Down From An Active Volcano
Because of the high elevation of above 3,000 meters, Mount Etna often gets snow in the winter. Adrenaline junkies from around the world use this chance to go skiing from the volcano and cross an item off their bucket list.
Mount Etna Was Once Under Water
One of the most mind-blowing fun facts about Sicily is that its largest volcano which today towers more than 3 kilometers above the sea was once completely underwater. Mount Etna was initially a submarine volcano, a fissure on the sea floor that erupts magma. With every next eruption, the fissure grew larger and larger until it got its present form. Nature truly is fascinating…
But Mount Etna is not the only active volcano in Sicily. In fact…
Sicily Is Home To Almost Half Of Italy’s Active Volcanoes
Italy has 13 active volcanoes and 5 of them are located in Sicily. In addition to Mount Etna, Sicily is also home to four more active volcanoes located on the Aeolian Islands, including Lipari, Panarea, Stromboli, and Vulcano.
If you’re looking to visit one or more of these volcanoes, we warmly recommend the Sicily active volcano tour.
With all these volcanoes around, it should come as no surprise that…
The Word Volcano Derives From Sicily
Speaking of volcanoes and fun facts about Sicily, the word ‘volcano’ derives from the word Vulcan, representing the Roman and Greek god of fire. Vulcano also happens to be the third-largest volcano of Sicily and an island in the Aeolian archipelago. The volcano is still technically active but it hasn’t erupted since 1888 and today, with its fumarolic emissions, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Aeolian Islands.
And that’s not the only volcano-related term that derives from Sicily…
Stromboli Eruptions Are Also Named After A Sicilian Volcano
Also known as the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean, the Stromboli Volcano is active in the Aeolian Archipelago that glows cinders and molten rock into the air. These unique, mild eruptions that release glowing cinders in the air were named Strombolian eruptions after this particular volcano. If you’d like to experience for yourself, we warmly recommend this Stromboli sunset trek.
One Of Its Volcanoes Is A Tsunami Machine
In addition to being the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean, the Stromboli volcano is a stratovolcano that has triggered six significant tsunamis in the last 100 years, with the largest waves crashing on the island being as much as 32 feet in height.
Continuing this list of fun facts about Sicily, there’s another peculiar thing on the island that has ‘volcano’ in its name…
Sicilian Volcanic Wine Is Delicious
You didn’t think this list of fun facts about Sicily won’t include any wine facts, did you? What makes this wine special is that it grows in soils composed of volcanic material. Needless to say, these kinds of conditions can only be found in volcanic regions like Sicily where lava fertilized the soil and turned it into a wine-growing paradise.
But the grapes used for making volcanic wine are only one of…
Sicily’s 65 Grape Varieties
Sicily is Italy’s largest wine-producing region with 242,000 acres of vineyards. 34% of its vineyards are organic and there are 65 different grape varieties on the island, growing as high as 1,200 meters above sea level. Winemaking in Sicily is more than just an occupation, it’s engraved in Sicilian DNA. In fact…
Four Millennia-Old Winemaking Tradition
Wine has been made in Sicily for at least 4,000 years, making Sicily one of the world’s oldest wine-producing regions. The first traces of wine production in the region date back to 1,700 BC. The naturally warm, sunny, and dry conditions with gentle coastal winds make Sicily the perfect place for producing some of the finest wines in the world.
Sicily Is Home To The World’s Most-Prized Variety Of Pistachios
The three largest producing communes in Sicily are Bronte, Agrigento, and Caltanissetta but it’s the Bronte pistachio that has the reputation of the world’s most expensive pistachio seed. It costs around 16 euros per kilogram. These pistachios grow in lavic soil, continuously fertilized by volcanic ash which gives them a unique distinct flavor. Pistachios are grown all over Sicily and are heavily used in local cuisine, including but not limited to pistachio pesto, pasta sauces, meat/fish glazing, and last but not least- ice cream, speaking of which…
Who Said You Can’t Have Ice Cream For Breakfast?
It’s not uncommon to see people in Sicily eating an ice cream scooped in between freshly-baked brioche for breakfast. This snack is named Granita and is frequently eaten as a breakfast or a mid-day snack, especially during the long, hot summers. The most common flavors feature chocolate, strawberry, lemons, or pistachios.
Of course, this isn’t the only popular dessert that derives from Sicily…
It Invented Cannoli
The beloved crunchy tubes that are famous across the world originate from the Palermo and Messina areas. Today, you can find cannolis across Italy or even outside of it but cannolis in Sicily are not only more authentic but tastier too. And maybe you can even learn to make cannoli the good, old Sicilian way.
Speaking of fun facts about Sicily and culinary gems…
It Has Its Own Pizza Variety
Sfincione is a dish somewhat similar to pizza with a thick crust and a generous amount of tomatoes on top. Some other popular toppings include cheese onions, anchovies, and herbs. Another characteristic that distinguishes Sicilian pizza is that cheese is only used as a topping and not as a layer coating the tomato sauce like most other Italian pizza varieties. It’s one of the most popular street food snacks in Sicily.
Do you like articles that cover fun facts about different cities? Then make sure to check out our list of fun facts about Florence.
It Was The First LGBTQ-Friendly Holiday Destination
Many people don’t know this but one of the best fun facts about Sicily is that its city Taormina was one of the first LGBTQ-friendly holiday destinations. Supposedly, German photographer, Wilhelm von Gloeden took portraits of naked male models in the 19th century and slowly but surely, this attracted other sexual minorities to visit Taormina for their holidays. Even today, the city uses this reputation for attracting gay tourists and there are a lot of gay-friendly resorts and hotels in the area.
Enjoying this post? Then make sure to check out our post about the best medieval towns in Italy.
Sicily Gave Birth To The Sonnet
I have to admit that even I didn’t know about this one before writing this article of fun facts about Sicily. Most people associate sonnets with 16th-century British literature but apparently, the sonnet was first used by Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini in the 13th century.
It’s Home To The Largest Opera House In Italy
And that’s not a small achievement having in mind that it was Italy where opera was created. Located in the heart of Palermo, Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy and the third-largest one in Europe. Technically, La Scala in Milan does have more seats but if we consider the size of the entire building, Teatro Massimo is significantly larger.
It Suffers From Brain Drain
According to several estimates, close to 2 million people left Sicily in the last 150 years, a staggering number, having in mind that the total population of the island is around 5.5 million today. Most of them left between 1876 and 1915 but massive emigration continued even after the war. The reasons for the mass exodus are complex, ranging from economic factors to natural disasters but regardless of the reason, this has surely left a marked and greatly shaped (and will likely continue to do so) Sicilian society (and will likely continue to do so).
It Has A Cult Of Saints
Last but not least, we round up this list of fun facts about Sicily with the island’s obsession with saints. The cult of saints is extremely important in Sicily and every city, town, and village has its own saint patron that it venerates above everything else and you can see the patron images everywhere across the city. It’s a bit complicated to explain but this isn’t that much religion-related as it’s related to Sicilian love for family traditions and their willingness to maintain their traditions and customs and pass them from one generation to the next.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also find some of our previous articles interesting.
How did you like this list of fun facts about Sicily? Did you learn anything new? Do you have some other interesting facts about Sicily that you think we should mention on this list? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
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