Culture Shock | 8 Things to Know Before Traveling to Sicily
Sicily is without a doubt one of the world’s most beautiful places, both aesthetically and culturally. Aside from the island’s most obvious charms – gorgeous black (or white!) sand beaches, open air markets and delicious Mediterranean-fusion cuisine – there are some lesser-known novelties that can only be truly experienced through the eyes of a local: the morning hustle through an open air market, the terracotta embellished walls along an alley-side shortcut to the center square, the hospitality and kindness of the locals, and the late-night glow of the city streets at night. But, as with any new place, traveling to Sicily presents some culture shock you should know before you arrive.
Locals aren’t Italian…Or are they?
Sicilians are Sicilian, not Italian, and don’t try to question this when they correct you. Most Sicilians don’t call themselves Italian at all, and rather refer to everyone in Italy and Sicily as European instead.
Don’t even talk about the Mafia.
If you’ve grown up in Sicily, organized crime has been a long, messy road, and the last thing you want to hear is another tourist joke about the Hollywood-portrayed Mafia glory. If you are dying to find out details on Mafia history and influence, check out one Addio Pizzo, a nonprofit that stands against the Mafia in Sicily, or a tourism booth.
Siestas are real annoying.
In America, a lot of us admire the European siesta, in particularly around lunchtime during our 9-5’s, but when we get to Europe, we realize it’s a pretty difficult concept to get the hang of. I think this is because our American minds think of siesta as a 2-to-3-hour lunch that lets us get the errands done that we don’t want to do after work, maybe grab a couple of beers without feeling guilty going back to the office, or using that gap as a gym time to break up the day. In reality, however, siesta is literally naptime…for the entire city. Shops and restaurants close, businessmen go home for lunch and a nap, and people stay inside with each other or take an hour for themselves. Some buses even temporarily stop service. When traveling in Sicily, paying attention to the time is crucial for planning outings and meals. The idea of a “late lunch” isn’t a thing, and you’ll find yourself scrounging an open gas station for a sandwich if you wait too long to eat.
You can see Greek temples everywhere.
Unbeknownst to most, Sicily has some of the most ancient Grecian ruins in the world, and they’re a must-see when traveling to the island. The Greek Temple of Segesta, dated to 5th century, is one of the world’s best examples of Doric architecture, and the ancient Greek Theatre of Taormina is the 2nd largest ancient theatre in Sicily and boasts one of the most beautiful vistas in all of Europe, with amazing views of the Mediterranean Sea and Mt. Etna.
Get your espresso from a gas station.
Seriously, it’s good, and gas station cafes are like the Starbucks of Sicily. You’ll find the places packed around breakfast and lunch with people ordering everything from espresso and croissants to fully topped pizzas and paninis. Even if it’s a weird concept, try it anyway. You won’t be disappointed.
Ice cream is a breakfast food.
And you’re going to love it. Few places allow you the luxury of consuming breakfasts like gelato stuffed egg-brioches or creamy granita with espresso. Your life will never be the same. Sicily also boasts some of the biggest and best pistachios in the world, so pistachio flavored gelato or granita is a must-try.
Drive fast in the north and slow in the south.
The EU recently made a multimillion-euro investment in Sicily’s highway system and created huge 3-4 lane highways on the northern part of the island. There, the highway is smooth and a drive along the coast is like any western road, only faster. In the south, however, the EU must have run out of euros, as the lanes reduce to 1 or 2 lane roads and traffic slows to an almost annoying crawl. Additionally, when in the south you’ll almost definitely need a GPS, as the roads are poorly marked and hard to read.
Embrace “doing nothing.”
“Dolce far niente” is an Italian phrase that means “the sweetness of doing nothing,” and Sicilians have that got it down to a science. Instead of filling your itinerary with 10 hours of sightseeing, tours and restaurants every day, embrace the lifestyle and do less, leisure more. Linger longer than you’d normally at particularly beautiful vistas, relax at one of the many beautiful beaches, or just spend the day wandering around the cobblestone streets. You’ll feel more alive and relaxed than ever before.