Taormina, the jewelry box of a village nestled between alpine cliffs along Sicily’s eastern coast, can get a bad rap for being a tourist town. It is well known that crowds of people crowd along Corso Umberto, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, peering at storefronts filled with iconic Sicilian ceramics, shops selling dry goods and intoxicating lemon scented consumables, and vendors hawking ice cream, pasta and pistachios in all their forms. But sometimes places are popular for very good reasons.
In this case, the appeal of Taormina is not difficult to grasp. It is a hilltop town with stunning views over the Ionian Sea and a Greek theater built in the 3rd century BCE to stage plays still in use today. (Sicily, it has been observed, might have better Greek ruins than Greece.) Then there is Taormina’s proximity to Mount Etna, the largest and most active volcano in Europe, and access easy to the Aeolian Islands, not to mention that it has some of the regions of southern Italy. top hotels, such as the meticulously restored San Domenico Palace, now operated by The Four Seasons, and Villa Sant’Andrea de Belmond.
The philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Taormina “a corner of paradise on Earth”. Visitors to Taormina will quickly understand why this 5 square mile hamlet – which takes its name from the Bull’s horns between which it appears to lie – made such a deep impression on Goethe, as well as an impressive array of famous Aesthetes from Ernest Hemingway to Oscar Wilde. All it takes is to revel in its old-world hospitality, explore the coast by boat and savor the delicacies of the Mare– the bright blue sea – constantly beckoning from below.
The latest addition to Taormina’s luxury hotel scene is a familiar city icon: San Domenico Palace, a convent from the 14e century. Today, after a multi-year renovation, it has reincarnated in the San Domenico Palace Taormina, a Four Seasons hotel that opened in July. The rooms, which are among the largest in the city, have high ceilings and large terraces, some of which have private plunge pools. Their fine-dining restaurant, Principe Cerami, is run by Chef Massimo Mantarro, who has been called a “master of new Sicilian cuisine” for dishes like shrimp carpaccio with walnuts and soy-glazed octopus with tomato crumble.
For another side of Taormina, which is more akin to a Mediterranean seaside vacation, Villa Sant’Andrea has a private beach with cabanas, water sports and an expansive patio. The bedrooms are bright, airy and many have terraces with sea views. Villa Sant’Andrea, one of the two Belmond properties in town, is the perfect place to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings and amenities: a hammam, a large heated swimming pool overlooking the Ionian Sea and outdoor yoga, to name a few. achieve that feeling of The good life.
To get a feel for Taormina, admire it from the sea. Hire a boat – Taormina Boat was quite reasonable at around 200 euros for two hours – and take a guided tour of the coast where you can stop to swim in caves or go snorkelling.
For a while at the beach, Lido La Pigna is popular with locals. The club rents chairs for 15 euros. From Lido La Pigna on foot, it’s an eight-minute walk to Isola Bella, an island that is now a nature reserve and museum that can be reached on foot on a short, semi-submerged stretch of a sandbank .
The best views of the city might be from a three euro (one way) funicular from Taormina to the beach. These views are matched only by those you will see on the way back as you climb the 500+ steps of Taormina.
Corso Umberto can get crowded, but that doesn’t mean it’s a place to be avoided. Stop in one of the dozens of stores or carts for Nutella ice cream, or one of the multitudes of bakeries that sell cannolis. For a more upscale experience, head to Parisi for the final seasons of Etro, Missoni, and Herno, all Italian brands that are cheaper in Italy than in the United States and can usually be purchased tax-free.
The public gardens of Taormina are a respite from Corso Umberto. Their trails are nestled among some of Sicily’s best known and most fragrant flora: magnolias, hibiscus and bougainvillea bushes. Take in a performance at the Ancient Greek Theater, which hosts ballets, operas and concerts of all genres of music, or simply visit to admire the ancient crafts and the stunning views (admission costs 13.50 euros per adult ).
For the best views and some good cardio, head on foot to Castelmola, a small town perched like the head of a pin on a narrow peak high above Taormina. Stroll vigorously from the center of Taormina – only about a mile, but on a set of relentlessly steep roads and trails – taking between 30 and 60 minutes each way, depending on one’s pace. Be sure to stop at the old castle belvedere above the town for the best views of Mount Etna and the sea. Grill your trekking triumph at the famous Bar Turrisi in front of the town’s duomo for a glass of vino alla mandorla, the local delicacy of almond liqueur.
the great lady of Taormina is the aptly named Grand Hotel Timeo. The literary bar and terrace at the Belmond property is a place to see and be seen while taking in the panoramic view of Giardini Naxos bay and Mount Etna. It is the perfect setting to have a aperitif before going to dinner.
A five-minute walk from the Grand Hotel Timeo, located on a side street just outside the city gates off Corso Umberto, is Tiramisu, a local trattoria that goes beyond some of the southern expected fare. from Italy. Try the burrata wrapped in thin slices of tuna carpaccio. Tiramisu also does the classics – lobster linguini and, as the name suggests, tiramisu – to perfection.
For lunch, head to Villa Carlotta, a boutique hotel set below the center of Taormina towards the sea, where you’ll find fine dining on a tranquil rooftop terrace serving memorable linguine vongole and Caprese salad.
Ristorante Oliviero has been a mainstay of Taormina for years. The restaurant, which takes up much of the ground floor of Villa Sant’Andrea, has floor-to-ceiling windows that give the impression of being on an elegant yacht. The cuisine hits the Italian sweet spot with fresh, inventive, but not overly esoteric. Think of the homemade pasta with truffles, minestrone with organic vegetables, a salt-crusted catch of the day prepared in the style of Western Sicily and the delicate wild sea bass prepared in the Aeolian way with cherry tomatoes, black olives, basil and capers.
All this is expertly accompanied by wines from the region. Don’t miss the local whites, featuring Sicilian grapes from caricante and catarrat and distinctive minerality thanks to the unique climate of the Etna region.