The medieval cliff-hanging town of Taormina is overrun with tourists, yet its natural beauty is still hard to dispute. The view of the sea and Mt. Etna from its jagged cactus-covered cliffs is as close to perfection as a panorama can get—especially on clear days, when the snowcapped volcano's white puffs of smoke rise against the blue sky. Writers have extolled Taormina's beauty almost since it was founded in the 6th century BC by Greeks from nearby Naxos; Goethe and D. H. Lawrence were among its well-known enthusiasts. The town's boutique-lined main streets get old pretty quickly, but the many hiking paths that wind through the beautiful hills surrounding Taormina promise a timeless alternative. A trip up to stunning Castelmola (whether on foot or by car) should also be on your itinerary.
Sheltered from the city's hustle and bustle, this elegant little eatery exudes a mood of relaxed sophistication. Classic dishes such as risotto ai frutti di mare (with seafood) are competently prepared, the grilled fish is extremely fresh, and the service is informal and friendly. The modest room has simple white walls—you're not paying for a view.
The Greeks put a premium on finding impressive locations to stage their dramas, such as Taormina's hillside Teatro Greco. Beyond the columns you can see the town's rooftops spilling down the hillside, the arc of the coastline, and Mount Etna in the distance. The theater was built during the 3rd century BC and rebuilt by the Romans during the 2nd century AD. Its acoustics are exceptional: even today a stage whisper can be heard in the last rows. In summer Taormina hosts an arts festival of music and dance events and a film festival; many performances are held in the Teatro Greco.
Many of Taormina's 14th- and 15th-century palaces have been carefully preserved. Especially beautiful is the Palazzo Corvaja, with characteristic black-lava and white-limestone inlays. Today it houses the tourist office and the Museo di Arte e Tradizioni Popolari, which has a collection of Sicilian puppets and folk art, carts, and crèches.
Stroll down Via Bagnoli Croce from the main Corso Umberto to the Villa Comunale. Also known as the Parco Duca di Cesarò, the lovely public gardens were designed by Florence Trevelyan Cacciola, a Scottish lady "invited" to leave England following a romantic liaison with the future Edward VII (1841–1910). Arriving in Taormina in 1889, she married a local professor and devoted herself to the gardens, filling them with native Mediterranean and exotic plants, ornamental pavilions (known as the beehives), and fountains. Stop by the panoramic bar, which has stunning views.
An unrelenting 20-minute walk up the Via Crucis footpath takes you to the church of the Madonna della Rocca, hollowed out of the limestone rock. Above it towers the medieval Castello Saraceno. Though the gate to the castle has been locked for decades, it's worth the climb just for the panoramic views.
Below the main city of Taormina is Taormina Mare, where summertime beachgoers jostle for space on a pebble beach against the scenic backdrop of the aptly named island of Isolabella. The first section of beach is mainly reserved for expensive resorts, but the far end, next to Isolabella, has a large free area. The 'beautiful island' was once a private residence, but is now a nature reserve which can be visited for a small fee.