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Connected by bridge to Sicily’s southeast coast, Ortigia is the historic centre of Syracuse and – stretching just a square kilometre – is best explored by foot. Our guide hones in on the island’s much-loved restaurants, bars, hangouts and hotels.
Sicily’s sun-kissed body has been scarred by invasion – Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards are among the many that have left their mark. Yet this island doesn’t feel confused by onslaught; it’s a rather richly decorated toe to Italy’s boot, an area proud of its distinguished flavours, traditions and architecture.
In southeast Sicily lies the island of Ortigia; the historical centre of the city of Syracuse and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Charged with three millennia of history, Ortigia is a melodious miscuglio (mixture) of Doric remains and baroque flounces, piazzas, churches, restaurants, markets and boutiques.
To get onto the island you cross either of the two adjacent bridges – Santa Lucia or Umbertino (it’s best to park outside and walk in). While Catania Fontanarossa (the nearest airport, on Sicily’s mainland) is made predominantly of black volcanic Etna-given rock, Ortigia dazzles with near-white limestone. Its buildings are a blank sheet on which the changing light of day dances.
The first thing you’ll see on arrival is the ruins of the Greek Temple of Apollo, where two great columns remain. From here, it’s a 15-minute walk down to Castello Maniace, the castle at the very foot of the island. Wandering is the best way to explore Ortigia; it’s only slightly larger than a square kilometre. Experience the island’s transformation from day to night, as you drift from the morning fish market, through the island’s main square its handsome cathedral and into the evening.
Henry’s House Hotel
Henry’s House is on the West side of Ortigia and thus besieged by the sun all day long. Set in a 19th-century townhouse, its dark beams, skinny corridors and cold, tiled floors make it a stylish yet cosy retreat from the intensity of the day. Olive-velvet sofas with gilded arms sit under dripping glass chandeliers in the reception room. Each bedroom has its own thing going on with eclectic furniture and bold Sicilian art. Observe the passeggiata (the Italian ritual of a casual evening stroll) from the vine-topped terrace, then venture out into the winding streets for dinner before returning to the hotel for a nightcap of Amaro Montenegro before climbing to bed.
- +39 0931 21361
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Gutkowski is on the Ortigia’s more quiet east side. Created from two late 19th-century buildings that once housed fishermen and craftsmen, its crumbling creamy-blue facade is a reminder of the island’s textured history. Like a poem in blue and white, the rooms are simple and stylish with lots of raw wood, brushed steel and salvaged items. Rattan lamp shades cast soothing shadows across beds bedecked with bright-white sheets and puffed pillows. Take a glass of grillo on the terrace accompanied by the hotel’s busty olives and salted almonds and watch the Ionian roll. The restaurant is a relatively modern addition, decorated with mid-century furniture, striped table linen and petrol-blue shutters. It serves a changing seasonal menu and trusty classics including the sticky, sweet ode to the aubergine: spaghetti alla Norma.
- +39 0931 465830
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Trattoria La Foglia
If it’s not too awkward to use “Instagrammable” as an adjective, Trattoria La Foglia warrants it – this place is a retro Sicilian dream. Every table is laid with different linen and lace tablecloths in a merry assortment of pastel shades. There’s a smattering of seating outside and two smaller dining rooms that feel like you’ve popped in to see eccentric nonna. Don’t be surprised if you spot a waitress in blue sequins, a lifesize pope painted onto acrylic and a gang of porcelain dolls eyeballing you from a satin armchair. There will be frills and flowers and doilies, gold rims, coloured glass ornaments and peach napkins. Despite all the kitsch the kitchen itself delivers on flavour with matching character. Tuck in to the orange-and-caper salad, tuna matalotta (with tomatoes, black olives, capers, bay) or one of nine different pastas. Choose your pasta first (tagliolini, cavatelli or ravioli) and then add your sauce – we recommend the ragu or ricotta with lemon zest.
- +39 0931 66233
Oz & Cappuccio Pesce Fresco
This restaurant’s moniker is a salute to the owners, Marcin Öz and Marco Cappuccio. Marco is the son of Fratelli Cappuccio of Casa del Pesce, one of the Island’s most famous fishmongers while Polish Marcin Öz is the former bassist of The Whitest Boy Alive band and now a boss man at Vini Campisi vineyard nearby. The pair get their hands on the island’s freshest fish thanks to the Cappuccio connection and serve it raw, cooked or fried. Order the fritto misto – prawns, calamari and anchovies or the bonito ceviche with green lemon. For a crunch between calamari, take the summer salad of Sicilian leaves and fruits. One local says that everything on the menu is “perfetto” – but it turns out he orders the tuna steak burger every time because it’s TOO GOOD (gleaming pink and nestled in with bright crisp leaves).
- +39 0931 196 0301
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Caseificio Borderi presents an opportunity for a life-changing, multi-sensory sandwich experience that’ll threaten the appreciation of future sandwich experiences. You’ll find it at the sea-end of the Ortigia market, beyond the eclectic stalls selling everything from bandanas to basil. There is, refreshingly, no choice unless you opt out of all the ham additions for plant-leaning reasons. The performance begins with bread – still warm from the oven – from which the internal bread fluff is extracted, preparing a greater cavern for fillings. Then it’s stacked with marinated peppers, pickled vegetables and mozzarella. A second sandwich of garlic and potato goes inside the father sandwich with layers of prosciutto, salami and bresaola and it’s finished with parsley-heavy green salad. When the sculpture is complete, you can eat it at the tables (we advise pulling a local Panta Rei beer from the fridge too) or elope elsewhere on the island to consume.
- +39 329 985 2500
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Trattoria di Andrea e Iano Antico Mercato
Expect to be treated mean here; it’s an intense and authentic market dining experience. The eyebrows of the head waiter are plucked into a position of permanent uncertainty, which juxtaposes his terrifyingly certain service style. Plates are frisbeed to the table, beers thrust and menus slapped. It serves Sicily’s very best and richly flavoured caponata – sweet, sour and salty in equal measure with a thick olive oil varnish across the skin of the peppers and aubergines. Bread and tomatoes are a given. You then choose what you’d like from the wood-fired grill, which is manned by a chunky bald Sicilian male using a purple hairdryer to rile up the flames. The cherry tomatoes come simply cut in half with salt and oregano. The fennel sausage is slashed open, grilled and served with lime. Sweet gambieri rosso prawns are finished with a shower of parsley. The tablecloths are a slightly offensive array of patterned plastic, the umbrellas don’t quite tessellate so random sun rays penetrate, cutlery is a little mangled – but nothing matters because the food is divine, the place is packed and the beer is very cold.
There’s a Sicilian proverb that reads “bonu vino fa bonu sangu” – good wine makes good blood. You can’t go to Sicily and not learn a little something about wine. Enoteca Solaria’s curated shelves will aid you. You can pop in for a bottle to buy, sit inside with snacks or settle on the street among the mopeds.
Grapes have grown in Sicily for years but there were grapes being produced all over Europe, so there was a lot of competition. Prior to the 80s, the wines being made were very high percentages – 16 or 17 per cent – because of the climate. Etna grapes didn’t even have a specific grape name and because of the percentage, the wine was sent to the north of Italy to mix with lower percentage wine, leaving it with zero identity. The late 20th century saw a change and new vines being planted on Etna, in Siracusa, Vittoria, Palermo and elsewhere. Now there’s a lot of exciting wines on the island. And if you’re in doubt which to choose at any restaurant, a nero d’avola red will never let you down.
Look out for Vini Campisi’s wines made using all organic grapes grown in limestone. Its bottles carry bold names inspired by lyrics, songs, albums and are “honest, natural and young, like the people who make them”. The pink moon rose is seriously good. Another good label is Occhipinti whose natural Sicilian purity and heart have captured an international audience. (You can visit Occhipinti vineyard – just email a couple of days before to arrange.) A third favourite is Malandrino, a natural wine by Francesco Lipari in tiny batches in terracotta vases with nerello mascalese grapes grown in the soils of Mount Etna. “Malandrino” comes from the word Sicilian grandmothers use to refer fondly to their naughtiest grandson.
- +39 0931 463007
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For cocktails con class, locate Cortile Verga, a bar in a baroque courtyard off the Via delle Maestranza. Sitting in the quad by candlelight it feels like the green shutters on the upper balcony might fly open at any moment to reveal a moustachioed tenor with expressive dark brows and pristine voice in performance. There’s a smart little cocktail list – from the classic always-a-good-idea negroni to more creative cocktails like the “Quello Rosa!” with lime, grapefruit sherbet and gin, or “Joaquin” with lime, orange, tequila, aceto balsamico and salt. It serves taglieri (tasting boards) with local produce and inventive flavour combinations – a good idea if you’re going to crack on with the generous-spirited cocktails or try some of the Sicilian wines on offer.
- +39 333 168 3212
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Day trip to Marzamemi
Marzamemi is heaven on earth. This tiny town, an hour’s drive from Ortigia, is the ultimate place to be in the early evening. The sea is at exactly the same level as the cobbled piazzas so you can sit with your Birra Moretti while the glassy water turns from innocent pearl transparent to inky, dark and full of evening promise. You might think there’s an Instagram husband convention going on for the number of photoshoots going on for a half-hour sundown slot but it’s all part of the fun and they soon disperse. There’s a particularly famous restaurant hugged with winding vine and fronted by blue tables dressed with lace. Giant plant pots embossed with swirling mermaid paintwork and fitted with buxom red geraniums sit out front. Find the hole-in-the-wall royal-blue-washed fried-fish restaurant Il Mascherone for a cone of greasy goodness. Cleanse the palate with gelato from Il Tuo Gelato and sashay through the streets until it’s time to head back with pistachio gelato and a neon-pink sunset still running through your veins.
There are various swimming spots around Ortigia island to climb down to in order to float off into the waters.
If you have a car, Arenella is the only sandy beach and about a 20-minute drive away. Sneak around the back and find a spot on a rock or join the masses on striped beach beds for 10 euros (it’s rather sardine-like for the whole of August).
If your wallet is well endowed, you could pay the 50 euro day fee to use the swimming pool, the Flintstones-vibe rock loungers and private beach at the Grand Hotel Minareto, looking across the water to Castello Maniace.
- +39 0931 721222
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At the end of Ortigia is Castello Maniace, named after Arab commander, Giorgio Maniace of 1038 AD, who conquered the castle and made it his fortress. Now the castle is open for visitors during the day and lit dramatically at night. With the school of architecture behind, the bold, mirrored Palm-Springs-meets-Star-Trek open-air restaurant and bar to one side and the castle and ocean beyond, this is a special little Syracuse spot.
Maniace should be on your radar for several reasons. Firstly, for food and drink – it’s a great place for morning coffee and brioche with a view, for playful Sicilian dishes at lunch (octopus with datterini and stracciatella is very good) and for a killer cocktail as the sun goes out of business for the day. Secondly, for film. From May to October there’s a programme of outdoor cinema screenings set against the sea. This summer showed cult classics such as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
A third reason to visit Maniace is music. A well-curated line up of live acts and DJs unfolds throughout the summer. Past performances have included heroes of 80s disco Johnson Righeira and Franco Battiato, Ecuadorian producer Nicola Cruz, London’s Bradley Zero and Naples’ Italo disco masters Nu Guinea.
Maniace (and other VIP spots in town) is also the main site of Ortigia Sound System Festival in July. The organisers have a special sense for interesting acts that are about to get big. It’s three days of expertly programmed world music, boat parties and open-shirted revelry.
- +39 329 438 8012
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