Syracuse, Sicily (Siracusa in Italian) was once the largest city of the ancient world, bigger even than Athens and Corinth. Located on the southeastern coast of the island, Syracuse was, in its heyday, one of the major powers of the Mediterranean area.
Syracuse was settled by the ancient Greek populations of the Corinthians and Teneans in 734 BC. The nucleus of the ancient city was the small island of Ortigia. Today, Ortigia remains the heart of Syracuse and its most fascinating attraction, with several Greek ruins still standing as a testament to its glorious past. Cicero described it as, “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.”
Let’s look at what you should not miss when you visit Syracuse, Sicily.
What to See and Do in Syracuse, Sicily
Ortigia, the ancient heart of Syracuse
Begin your exploration of Syracuse in Ortigia, also known as Città Vecchia (Old City), with a half-day private walking tour. Located at the eastern end of Syracuse, Ortigia is connected to the mainland city, which was settled four years after Ortigia, via two bridges. A number of historical landmarks are preserved here, beginning with the Temple of Apollo, the oldest Doric temple of Magna Grecia still standing. The temple has quite an interesting history: it was adapted for use as a church in Byzantine times and as a mosque under Arab rule.
A short stroll takes you to Piazza Archimede, the geographical center of Ortigia; in Greek times, not properly a piazza but still a major crossroads. Today it is Ortigia’s elegant main square, dedicated to one of the city’s most famous sons, the great mathematician and engineer Archimedes.
Continue your walking tour of Ortigia by visiting the magnificent Duomo of Syracuse, a Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Athena that was transformed into the city’s cathedral. It was built by bishop Zosimo in the 7th century and its Doric columns can still be seen incorporated into the walls of the current church. The striking, columned Baroque façade, rebuilt after an earthquake in the 18th century, is surmounted by a statue of the Virgin Mary, which replaced a golden statue of Athena that once served as a beacon to homecoming Greek sailors. Syracuse’s cathedral has remained a place of worship – first a Greek temple, then a church, then a mosque and then a church again – for more than two and a half millennia.
At Ortigia’s far edge is the Fonte Aretusa, a curious freshwater spring that flows into the sea. Wild papyrus grows here and ducks paddle in the deep waters of the spring.
And if you were wondering about the name Ortygia, it originates from the ancient Greek ‘ortyx’ which means ‘quail.’
Archeological Park and Museum of Syracuse, Sicily
The Parco Archeologico della Neapolis in Syracuse, Sicily, is the star attraction for any classicist at heart, although hardly anyone can help but be captivated by the ancient sights of this archaeological park. It is best appreciated with the help of a private guide who can highlight the sites’ history and architecture.
The 5th century Greek Theater (Teatro Greco), carved out of the rocky hillside, could host up to 16,000 spectators and was used to stage Aeschylus’ tragedies (Aeschylus is considered the father of tragedy). It is still used for performances today, with an annual season of classical theater beginning in late Spring.
The 2nd century Roman Amphitheater was used for gladiatorial combats and horse races, but was largely destroyed by the Spaniards in the 16th century to be used as a quarry to build Ortigia’s city walls.
The archaeological park includes two mysterious sights you should not miss: the Ear of Dionysius, a 75-foot tall grotto that extends more than 213 feet back into the cliff-side and features incredible acoustics. Due to its serpentine shape, the grotto focuses and amplifies all sounds from the outside, even far away street noises. The Latomia del Paradiso is a limestone quarry where stone used for the ancient city was extracted. Filled with citrus and magnolia trees, it contains catacombs and is also where the 7,000 survivors of the war between Syracuse and Athens in 413 BC were imprisoned.
End your archaeological tour of Syracuse, Sicily, with a visit of the Archaeological Museum where precious ancient artifacts such as marble and bronze statues, terracotta vases, weapons and coins are preserved.
Where to Stay in Syracuse, Sicily
Looking for a place to stay while visiting beautiful Syracuse in Sicily? Look no further, thanks to Select Italy’s top accommodation picks.
The Hotel des Etrangers et Miramare, built in the late 19th century, boasts a panoramic position overlooking the harbor and Mediterranean Sea in picturesque Ortigia. Hotel services include a recently-opened spa and wellness center where guests can relax and recharge at the end of a full day of sightseeing day, as well as a restaurant and bar on the fifth floor that offers magnificent views of the city as you drink and dine.
For something a little bit removed from the action, check out Siciliana, an old farmhouse north of Syracuse that is situated on the extreme outskirts of the Ibleon plateau, looking out towards Mount Etna. The main villa and the guesthouse, where the farmworkers once lived, have been converted into 12 comfortable, pastel-colored, cozy bedrooms.