Home to Magna Graecia’s most magnificent ancient city and some of Italy’s most glorious baroque towns, Sicily’s southeast is the island’s top draw.
The temptation is to stay in Syracuse, sipping granite (flavoured ice) in cinematic piazzas and sunning yourself on the seafront, but drag yourself away and you'll be falling head over heels for Sicily's most beautiful towns. Top billing goes to Noto, Modica and Ragusa, each one a feast of architectural flourishes and gastronomic delights – ice cream in Noto, chocolate in Modica and one of Sicily's finest restaurants in Ragusa. All three towns rose from the rubble of an earthquake in 1693 to become luminous examples of Sicilian baroque, a style that lends the region a cohesive aesthetic appeal.
Then there is the region’s countryside, a sun-bleached canvas of sleepy backroads lined with carob trees, epic rocky ravines studded with prehistoric tombs, and tranquil, sandy beaches backed by bird-rich greenery.
More than any other city, Syracuse encapsulates Sicily's timeless beauty. Ancient Greek ruins rise out of lush citrus orchards, cafe tables spill onto dazzling baroque piazzas, and honey-hued medieval lanes lead down to the sparkling blue sea. It's difficult to imagine now but in its heyday this was the largest city in the ancient world, bigger even than Athens and Corinth. Its 'Once upon a Time' begins in 734 BC, when Corinthian colonists landed on the island of Ortygia and founded the settlement, setting up the mainland city four years later. Almost three millennia later, the ruins of that then-new city constitute the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, one of Sicily's greatest archaeological sites. Across the water from the mainland, Ortygia remains the city's most beautiful corner, a casually chic, eclectic marvel with an ever-growing legion of fans.
Noto is an architectural supermodel, a baroque belle so gorgeous you might mistake it for a film set. Located less than 40km southwest of Syracuse, the town is home to one of Sicily's most beautiful historic centres. The pièce de résistance is Corso Vittorio Emanuele, an elegant walkway flanked by thrilling baroque palazzi and churches. Dashing at any time of the day, it’s especially hypnotic in the early evening, when the red-gold buildings seem to glow with a soft inner light.
With its steeply stacked medieval centre and spectacular baroque cathedral, Modica is one of southern Sicily's most atmospheric towns. But unlike some of the other Unesco-listed cities in the area, it doesn't package its treasures into a single easy-to-see street or central piazza: rather, they are spread around the town and take some discovering. It can take a little while to orientate yourself in Modica, but once you've got the measure of the bustling streets and steep staircases, you'll find a warm, genuine town with a welcoming vibe and a strong sense of pride.
Set amid the rocky peaks northwest of Modica, Ragusa is a town of two faces. Sitting on the top of the hill is Ragusa Superiore, a busy workaday town with sensible grid-pattern streets and all the trappings of a modern provincial capital, while etched into the hillside further down is Ragusa Ibla. This sloping area of tangled alleyways, grey stone houses and baroque palazzi on handsome squares is effectively Ragusa's historic centre and it's quite magnificent.
Hilltop Caltagirone is renowned throughout Sicily for its ceramics. The area's high-quality clay has supported production for more than 1000 years and still today the industry is an important money-spinner. The town's earliest settlers worked with terracotta, but it was the Arabs, arriving in the 10th century, who kick-started the industry by introducing glazed polychromatic colours, particularly the yellows and blues that have distinguished the local ceramics ever since.