Syracuse is a very important historical center and now also a substantial modern town to the south-east of Sicily. It has an almost unbroken history that stretches back 2500 years, with artefacts to be seen in the town from each historical era.
The town is now one of the most visited on Sicily, and because of its monuments and historical importance Syracuse is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Italy This Way comment: the town of Syracuse - and in particular the Ortigia peninsula - is a very charming town, surrounded by water on all sides, and with an extensive historic centre and remarkable cathedral. It is one of our favourite Italian towns and a visit is definitely recommended.
Although most visits are centred around Ortigia, the old town in Syracuse, the town actually has several separate regions:
- Ortigia, the ancient town on the peninsula, where most of the interesting historic monuments are to be seen - and for many visitors, the only part of Syracuse they explore
- Achradina, which is the centre of modern Syracuse
- Tyche, now best known for the Paolo Orsi Archaeology Museum
- Neapolis, with an archaeology park based around several Ancient Greek temples and monuments
- Above the city there was once a place called Epipoli, with fortified city walls.
Start your visit in Ortigia. If you arrive by car it is easiest to park before crossing the bridges to this part of the town. There is a large car park about 200 metres before the bridges, on the south side of Syracuse town centre.
Ortigia has a historical old town and several wonderful baroque buildings, and is an island connected to mainland Syracuse by two bridges. On either side of the bridges there are boats in the water as well as various impressive buildings, as well as numerous people trying to sell you trips around the city and boat trips around Syracuse: useful or irritating, you can decide!
Ortigia is quite extensive, perhaps two kilometres long, and you will want to follow the coast path around the edges as well as explore the old town, visit the cathedral and various other churches and see the castle, so allow at least a whole day to visit, preferably two or three days.
As soon as you cross the bridges you are in Syracuse old town, with a myriad of narrow streets, some busy with shops and cafes and others with ancient houses and very few visitors.
In the old town you will come to an open square called Piazza Archimede with a large fountain: this was only added in the early 20th century but is in a classical tradition and very impressive. The sculptures represent Diana and Arethusa, in an episode from mythology taken from a story by Ovid in Metamorphoses.
About 200 metres further south and you reach the Piazza del Duomo, the main square in Syracuse. This is one of the most beautiful squares I know, and is very large with the cathedral on one side, the Church of Santa-Lucia alla Bada at the far end, and many other imposing buildings on all sides, as well as a choice of cafes and ice-cream shops.
Among the most remarkable artefacts in Ortigia is the beautiful Syracuse Cathedral, dominating one side of the Piazza del Duomo. The cathedral was erected on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess Athena (Minerva) and the ancient temple was retained as part of the new building - the original temple columns can be seen inside the cathedral.
The cathedral façade was rebuilt in 1728 in the baroque style after the earthquake of 1693. Inside, the cathedral has three naves, and a baptismal font of white marble which was found in the catacombs of San Giovanni and bears the name of the 7th century Bishop Zosimus.
In Norman times, the cathedral was transformed with the raising of the walls of the nave and new window openings being added, and the apses were also covered with mosaics. Nearby is the Chapel of the Crucifix, with a rectangular plan, from the 17th century. The high altar, added during the Baroque period, is also attributed to Giovanni Vermexio.
See Syracuse cathedral for information.
Other highlights in Ortigia, Syracuse
Another highlight of your visit to Syracuse is the 13th century Bellomo Palace. Here you can visit the Regional Art Gallery, which includes several sections with Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance sculptures. The Art Gallery is well stocked with works dating from the 15th and 16th century and also including paintings of the 14th-17th centuries. There are also furniture, textiles, ceramics, potteries and works of jewellery.
Another impressive example of a medieval building in Ortigia is the Maniace Castle, built by Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250) and named after George Maniace, a Byzantine General who opposed the invasion of the Arabs in 1038. The castle is at the far end of the island of Ortigia where it juts out into the sea, adding to the drama of the castle and setting.
The castle has a square plan with angular cylindrical towers. The Gothic style entrance portal was originally flanked by two bronze sculptures of rams, no longer here although one is now on display at the Salinas Museum in Palermo.
You will also want to walk around the edge of the island as part of your visit, because of the lovely views.
Ancient sites in Syracuse
At the end of the fifth century BC, after the Carthaginian threat had passed, Dionysius very quickly expanded the city walls to include the entire Epipoli hill overlooking the city. The new fortified walls stretched for approximately 28 kilometres, crowned on the highest point by the Euryalus Castle, the most comprehensive military work of Greek Sicily.
Euryalus Castle stands on the Epipoli hill a few kilometres north of Syracuse and was built by Dionysius the Elder (430-367 B.C.). Under the castle there are many tunnels which were originally used for troop movements and a cistern for maintaining the water supply. This Syracuse castle gives us one of the most interesting examples of Greek military architecture in Sicily.
In the Archaeological Park of Neàpolis you will find the most important ancient sights of the ancient city of Syracuse.
The theatre here is the largest on Sicily, attributed to Demokopos and dates from the 5th century B.C. It could hold 15 000 spectators and was built in several stages from the sixth century BC, at which time the stage was still made of wood. Excavated into the rock, the theatre is semicircular with a diameter of 138 metres and 46 rows of stairs.
Under the stairs there is a semicircular auditorium for the chorus and opposite is the esplanade where the stage was situated. Next to it there is a huge altar for public sacrifices, and a late Roman Amphitheatre, possibly of the fourth or third century BC, dug in the rock.
Elliptical in shape and measuring 70 x 40 metres, the centre was occupied by a tank into which water arrived by two channels. The stairs were originally covered with slabs of stone with two entrances, while under the stairs there was a corridor which allowed the entry of wild beasts and gladiators.
Another place of archaeological interest is the Latomie Caves Paradise. These catacombs consist of a series of corridors and thousands of tombs of both aristocrats and commoners. Most of them were stripped and violated throughout the centuries, by the Geiserics Vandals, Totilas Goths (549) and Arabs (878).
Among the most curious things to see here is the famous Ear of Dionysus. The name comes from Caravaggio, who visited the cave in 1586 and named it after its resemblance to the human ear. From this was born the legend that Dionysus had originally dug the cave to use as a prison and to listen to the speeches of the prisoners, given the acoustics properties of the cave.
You should be aware that Syracuse can get quite hot and busy in summer, and there are not many beaches of interest, so you might want to spend two or three days ere and the rest of your visit elsewhere, if peace and beaches are important for you.
There are hotels in Ortigia, but driving is difficult so you might prefer to find a hotel in the main town of Syracuse a short distance away from the bridges on to the island, so that you can easily enter Ortigia on foot but you aren't dragging your suitcases for long distances...
There is a hop-on/hop-off bus that explores most of Syracuse including the ancient theatre, but does not reach all the historic centre and the piazza duomo and does not travel around the edge of the island, so you will still need to walk quite a lot even if you use this bus.
Cassibile has a good beach and some good river beaches nearby. The town of Noto has some very impressive Baroque buildings and is another unmissable destination as part of your tour of this part of Italy.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.