Sicily has many alluring places on its territory, but the Noto Valley - since 2002 a UNESCO World Heritage site - stands out for many reasons. Amazing landscapes, golden baroque towns, characteristic fishing villages, nature reserves with the finest beaches, excellent wines, plus sun all year round.
We have captured the beauties of this area in the southeast corner of Sicily, in this short guide. Enjoy the reading!
Let's start with the baroque towns of the Noto Valley: Syracuse, Noto, Ragusa, and Modica. All of them are unique masterpieces and worth a visit. They are not far from each other, but you probably need two days to spend sufficient time admiring their charms.
Syracuse and Ortigia island
Syracuse - the birthplace of Archimedes - has inspired many people in history. It was the center of the Greek, Byzantine, and Judaic civilization. You can step back into its ancient past when you visit the archaeological area of Siracuse which has loads of monuments, including temples, an amphitheater, and a necropolis.
Syracuse’s island Ortigia, also known as Città Vecchia (Old City), is perfect for strolling its labyrinth of charming medieval streets. Ortigia is small, but packed with more than 2,500 years of history and shows countless monuments, beautiful mansions, townhouses, a variety of churches, wide squares, and winding alleyways that make of this town a rare jewel.
Drive 40 km south from Syracuse, along quiet roads bordered by hazelnut groves, and you will find at the foot of the Iblean Mountains, the town Noto. Be enchanted by this city, destroyed by an earthquake at the end of the 1600s, and reconstructed in full by the rich bourgeoisie according to the architectural styles of that time. Wandering through the streets of Noto will leave you awe-inspired. You will witness an overwhelming quantity of baroque buildings and churches concentrated in a single place, from the Cathedral of San Nicolò to the noble palace Palazzo Ducezio.
Situated on top of a hill overlooking a green valley, this small town could come straight from a fairy tale. With baroque churches and buildings as far as the eye can see, locals chatting on their doorsteps, and linen hanging outside the windows, Ragusa is simply delightful. The old part of the city, Ragusa Ibla, is connected to the newer one, Ragusa Nuova, with a winding street that gives stunning views of the town. The 18th-century Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista is the main religious building and is worth a visit. As well the Santa Maria delle Scale is a must, standing at the top of 340 steps (the name means Saint Mary of the Steps) that connects Ragusa to Ibla.
Just 20 minutes south of Ragusa you hit another impressive town, Modica, which was a very important center during the Renaissance period. Balanced on one of the hills running in the Iblei Mountains of Sicily, the old walled town (once an Arab city called Mohac) is connected to the more elegant baroque part below in the valley by breathtaking stairs. A visit to the Cathedral of Saint John and St. Peter should absolutely be on your list.
Sicily's Noto Valley is a great destination to enjoy the simple things in life, just like its food. You will still find recipes that are passed down from generation to generation. The cuisine in this part of Sicily is strongly influenced by the Arabs. Today, raisins and pine kernels are fundamental to some pasta and fish recipes and many sweets have Arab origins, just like sorbets and granita.
Renowned for its granita, Caffè Sicilia (located opposite the Cathedral of San Nicolò of Noto) is said to be the best dessert and ice cream shop. Frozen desserts are made with the freshest seasonal ingredients, while the delicious 'torrone' (nougat) bursts with the flavors of local honey and almonds.
Modica is well-known for its chocolate which is made from an ancient and well-kept Aztec recipe, brought to Sicily by the Spaniards during their domination. The Antica Dolceria Bonajuto is the synonym for Sicilian pastries, and entering this small shop with its wooden interior will give you a glimpse of the past. You cannot leave the city without having tried their two most famous flavors, vanilla and cinnamon, and a wide range of other types of their chocolates.
The Wine Route
The beautiful wine route “Strada del vino de la Val di Noto” runs parallel to the coast and leads you to pretty towns such as Avola and Pachino. Nero D’Avola, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and Moscato Bianco are just a few of the grape varieties cultivated in the Noto area, and we recommend a vineyard visit to taste the unique local wines.
Hidden natural gems
After visiting the baroque towns, you might be in for some time in nature, and the Noto Valley has unparalleled places to go. First of all the Vendicari Nature Reserve. It is hidden between the towns of Noto and Marzamemi on the Ionian Coast. It is a small paradise and offers some of the most beautiful beaches - such as the beach of Calamosche - combined with a crystal-clear sea. Also, it is home to many flora and fauna such as herons, cranes, black storks, pelicans, and a flamboyance of flamingos in the lagoons and swamps.
Another stunning nature reserve is Cavagrande del Cassibile. Here, the Cassibile river has formed spectacular deep gorges with small waterfalls and natural lakes, which are perfect for day trekking and swimming.
Authentic villages on the coast
On the coast of the Noto Valley, you will find some characteristic towns where you can find still experience authentic village life. Here are our favorites:
Marzameni. The fishing village of Marzamemi has it all: A picturesque beach, a small harbor with colorful wooden boats, seafood restaurants, craft shops along its narrow streets, and a square that comes to life in the summer months with live music.
Portopalo. This town is the southernmost tip of Sicily and Italy and is famous for its fishing activities. Here you can board an authentic fishing boat with local fishermen. Once at sea you can help with fishing, and later enjoy the catch yourself.
Pachino - The village of Pachino is famous for its tomatoes. Thanks to the salty sea air, the rich composition of the partially volcanic soil, and the sunny climate, the delicious Pachino tomato is growing here at its best.
Sportive days out
Apart from culture, history, and good food, the Noto Valley also invites you to try out some sports activities. You can enjoy the calm waters near Marina de Ragusa for kite surfing, kayaking, or paddle boarding. Also, you can take a bike to discover the rolling hills in the countryside and in the heart of the Iblei Mountains you can make horse riding tours in untouched nature.
Just like the locals
A visit to the Noto Valley is not complete without enjoying a sagra, a village festival either dedicated to a Saint patron or to food! During this festival, you will find music, dance, and plenty of possibilities to indulge in local gastronomic specialties. Almost every village has its own festival; most of them take place in the spring and summer months, so keep your eye out on the calendar.
Last but not least, if you’re traveling in May to Noto, be sure to visit the Flower Festival: Infiorata. During this festival, the streets of Noto are filled with a carpet of colorful and aromatic flowers with stunning floral designs, but there are also other things to do, like food and wine tasting, concerts, and the historical parade!
If Sicily has always been on your bucket list, let this guide help you to spend some memorable days around the Noto Valley!