Siracusa, known to English speakers as Syracuse, is a wonder to behold. One of the great ancient capitals of Western civilization, the city was founded in 734 BC by Greek colonists from Corinth and soon grew to rival, and even surpass, Athens in splendor and power. It became the largest, wealthiest city-state in the West and a bulwark of Greek civilization. Although Siracusa lived under tyranny, rulers such as Dionysius filled their courts with Greeks of the highest cultural stature—among them the playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, and the philosopher Plato. The Athenians, who didn't welcome Siracusa's rise, set out to conquer Sicily, but the natives outsmarted them in what was one of the greatest military campaigns in ancient history (413 BC). The city continued to prosper until it was conquered two centuries later by the Romans. Present-day Siracusa still has some of the finest examples of Baroque art and architecture; dramatic Greek and Roman ruins; and a Duomo that's the stuff of legend—a microcosm of the city's entire history in one building. The modern city also has a wonderful lively Baroque old town worthy of extensive exploration, as well as pleasant piazzas, outdoor cafés and bars, and a wide assortment of excellent seafood. There are essentially two areas to explore in Siracusa: the Parco Archeologico, on the mainland; and the island of Ortygia, the ancient city first inhabited by the Greeks, which juts out into the Ionian Sea and is connected to the mainland by two small bridges. Ortygia is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, and is starting to lose its old-fashioned charm in favor of modern boutiques. Siracusa's old nucleus of Ortygia, a compact area, is a pleasure to amble around without getting unduly tired. In contrast, mainland Siracusa is a grid of wider avenues. At the northern end of Corso Gelone, above Viale Paolo Orsi, the orderly grid gives way to the ancient quarter of Neapolis, where the sprawling Parco Archeologico is accessible from Viale Teracati (an extension of Corso Gelone). East of Viale Teracati, about a 10-minute walk from the Parco Archeologico, the district of Tyche holds the archaeological museum and the church and catacombs of San Giovanni, both off Viale Teocrito (drive or take a taxi or city bus from Ortygia). Coming from the train station, it's a 15-minute trudge to Ortygia along Via Francesco Crispi and Corso Umberto. If you're not up for that, take one of the free electric buses leaving every 10 minutes from the bus station around the corner.
Santa Lucia alla Badia
The feast of the city's patron, Santa Lucia, is held on December 13 and 20 at Santa Lucia alla Badia. A splendid silver statue of the saint is carried from the church to the Duomo: a torchlight procession and band music accompany the bearers, while local families watch from their balconies.
From mid-May to late June, Siracusa's Teatro Greco stages performances of classical tragedy and comedy.
A gracious series of delicately-arched rooms, lined with wine bottles and sepia-tone images of Old Siracusa, overflows with locals in the know. Preparations bring together fresh seafood and inspired creativity: taste, for instance, the sublime spaghetti delle Sirene (with sea urchin and shrimp in butter) or gamberoni prepared, unexpectedly (and wonderfully), in pork fat. The wine list is, in a word, extraordinary.
This restaurant–wine bar's ambitious food represents the most modern face of Siracusa. The dining rooms are stark but inviting, carefully balancing style consciousness with restrained refinement. Surrender to the sensational antipasto sformatino di patate, cavolo capuccio, scamorza e braduro, a molded potato tart with cabbage and rich, creamy cheeses. In season, special dishes spotlight white truffles from Alba priced by the gram (as is customary) and worth every penny.
Considered the best pizzeria in Ortygia, this place offers pizzas with classical names. Witness the Polifema, with sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, speck, and corn; or the Teocrite, topped with fresh tomato, mozzarella, garlic, onion, and basil. For those who can't face the full-size offerings, mini pizzas are also available (albeit at the same price). The calzone del ciclope (literally "of the Cyclops") is stuffed with tomato, mozzarella, ham, and egg. One of the good selection of bottled beers makes a perfect accompaniment.
At this casual tavern conveniently located in the streets right behind the Castello Maniace, you can sit back and enjoy both land-based and seafood dishes. The surroundings are studiously minimalist (no tablecloths, leather mats) and dishes are served on hand-painted ceramic ware. A major plus is that you can order half portions of several pasta dishes. As a secondo, try the unusual pesce in crosta di patate (grilled fish in a potato crust), but leave space for the special tiramisu agli agrumi (with citrus fruit).
Trattoria del Carmine
Low-key but ever-reliable local dishes are the staples at this affable eatery in the center of town. If you're not tempted by the fish of the day, you can choose between the various land-based dishes on offer, such as ravioli with a pork ragù, salsiccia al finocchietto (sausage cooked with fennel), and coniglio alla stimpirata (rabbit with olives and mint).
On your way to the Archaeological Park, stop in at this bar-cum-pasticceria for some great Sicilian cakes and ice cream. It's popular with the locals, so you may have to line up for your cakes during holiday times. It's closed Wednesday.
Siracusa is most famous for its dramatic set of Greek and Roman ruins. Though the various ruins can be visited separately, see them all, along with the Museo Archeologico. If the park is closed, go up Viale G. Rizzo from Viale Teracati to the belvedere overlooking the ruins, which are floodlit at night.Before the park's ticket booth is the gigantic Ara di Ierone (Altar of Hieron), which was once used by the Greeks for spectacular sacrifices involving hundreds of animals. The first attraction in the park is the Latomia del Paradiso (Quarry of Paradise), a lush tropical garden full of palm and citrus trees. This series of quarries served as prisons for the defeated Athenians, who were enslaved; the quarries once rang with the sound of their chisels and hammers. At one end is the famous Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysius), with an ear-shape entrance and unusual acoustics inside, as you'll hear if you clap your hands. The legend is that Dionysius used to listen in at the top of the quarry to hear what the slaves were plotting below.The Teatro Greco is the chief monument in the Archaeological Park. Indeed it's one of Sicily's greatest classical sites and the most complete Greek theater surviving from antiquity. Climb to the top of the seating area (which could accommodate 15,000) for a fine view: all the seats converge upon a single point—the stage—which has the natural scenery and the sky as its background. Hewn out of the hillside rock in the 5th century BC, the theater saw the premieres of the plays of Aeschylus. Greek tragedies are still performed here every year in May and June. Above and behind the theater runs the Via dei Sepulcri, in which streams of running water flow through a series of Greek sepulchres.The well-preserved and striking Anfiteatro Romano (Roman Amphitheater) reveals much about the differences between the Greek and Roman personalities. Where drama in the Greek theater was a kind of religious ritual, the Roman amphitheater emphasized the spectacle of combative sports and the circus. This arena is one of the largest of its kind and was built around the 2nd century AD. The corridor where gladiators and beasts entered the ring is still intact, and the seats (some of which still bear the occupants' names) were hauled in and constructed on the site from huge slabs of limestone.
Catacomba di San Giovanni
Not far from the Archaeological Park, off Viale Teocrito, the catacombs below the church of San Giovanni are one of the earliest-known Christian sites in the city. Inside the crypt of San Marciano is an altar where Saint Paul preached on his way through Sicily to Rome. The frescoes in this small chapel are mostly bright and fresh, though some dating from the 4th century AD show their age.
The impressive collection of Siracusa's splendid archaeological museum is organized by region around a central atrium and ranges from Neolithic pottery to fine Greek statues and vases. Compare the Landolina Venus—a headless goddess of love who rises out of the sea in measured modesty (a 1st-century AD Roman copy of the Greek original)—with the much earlier (300 BC) elegant Greek statue of Hercules in Section C. Of a completely different style is a marvelous fanged Gorgon, its tongue sticking out, that once adorned the cornice of the Temple of Athena to ward off evildoers.
Siracusa's Duomo is an archive of island history: the bottommost excavations have unearthed remnants of Sicily's distant past, when the Siculi inhabitants worshipped their deities here. During the 5th century BC (the same time as Agrigento's Temple of Concord was built), the Greeks erected a temple to Athena over it, and in the 7th century Siracusa's first Christian cathedral was built on top of the Greek structure. The massive columns of the original Greek temple were incorporated into the present structure and are clearly visible, embedded in the exterior wall along Via Minerva. The Greek columns were also used to dramatic advantage inside, where on one side they form chapels connected by elegant wrought-iron gates. The Baroque facade, added in the 18th century, displays a harmonious rhythm of concaves and convexes. In front, the piazza is encircled by pink and white oleanders and elegant buildings ornamented with filigree grillwork.
Siracusa's principal museum of art is inside a lovely Catalan Gothic palazzo with mullioned windows and an elegant exterior staircase. Among the paintings is the Annunciation by 15th-century maestro Antonello da Messina, newly restored to its original brilliance. There are also exhibits of Sicilian nativity figures, silver, furniture, ceramics, and religious vestments.
Tempio di Apollo
Scattered through the piazza just across the bridge to Ortygia are the ruins of a temple dedicated to Apollo, a model of which is in the Museo Archeologico. In fact, little of this noble Doric temple remains except for some crumbled walls and shattered columns; the window in the south wall belongs to a Norman church that was built much later on the same spot.
Piazza del Duomo
In the heart of Ortygia, this ranks as one of Italy's most beautiful piazzas. Its elongated space is lined with Sicilian Baroque treasures and outdoor cafés, in addition to the imposing Duomo. Check with the tourist office for guided tours of the underground tunnels.
The southern tip of Ortygia island is occupied by this castle built by Frederick II (1194–1250), until recently an army barracks, from which there are fine sea views. Though the castle itself is under restoration until at least October 2015, you can still visit the grounds and admire the vistas.
A freshwater spring, the Fountain of Arethusa, sits next to the sea, studded with Egyptian papyrus that's reportedly natural. This anomaly is explained by a Greek legend that tells how the nymph Arethusa was changed into a fountain by the goddess Artemis (Diana) when she tried to escape the advances of the river god Alpheus. She fled from Greece, into the sea, with Alpheus in close pursuit, and emerged in Sicily at this spring. It's said if you throw a cup into the Alpheus River in Greece it will emerge here at this fountain, which is home to a few tired ducks and some faded carp—but no cups. If you want to stand right by the fountain, you need to gain admission through the aquarium; otherwise look down on it from Largo Aretusa.
The center of this piazza has a baroque fountain, the Fontana di Diana, festooned with fainting sea nymphs and dancing jets of water. Look for the Chiaramonte-style Palazzo Montalto, an arched-window gem just off the piazza on Via Montalto.
Museo del Papiro
Housed in the 16th-century ex-convent of Sant'Agostino, the Papyrus Museum demonstrates how papyri are prepared from reeds and then painted—an ancient tradition in the city. Siracusa, it seems, has the only climate outside the Nile Valley in which the papyrus plant—from which the word "paper" comes—thrives. At the time of this writing, the museum was closed for renovations and it's unclear when it will reopen—check with the tourist office before visiting.