Located on the southeastern shores of Sicily, the Province of Siracusa and its historic capital city are full of wonders and charms from long ago. It is one of the must visit stops for any trip to Sicily and is a feast of ancient history in architecture, monuments, geography and geology.
Colonized by the Corinthians around the year 734 BC, Siracusa embodies the glories and triumphs of antiquity in a way rivaled only by Rome. It became a very powerful city-state that was allied with Sparta and Corinth and exerted a strong influence over the entire region. Described by Cicero as “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all,” Siracusa later became part of the Roman Republic Empire. Palermo later overtook Siracusa in importance as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily, but eventually it would be united with the Kingdom of Naples to form the Two Sicilies.
Siracusa today has many attractions for visitors interested in historical sites. A process of recovering and restoring the historical center has been ongoing since the 1990s and the city is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, with all of its historical sites encompassed in the Archaeological Park of Siracusa.
Among the sights in the Archaeological Park are the beautiful Monti Iblei. These mountains form a curving protective layer around the city, framing it between sea and mountains, rendering it secure from land invasion in centuries past. The surrounding hills and mountains are rich in limestone, giving the area a unique landscape and crops. Rugged and punctuated with olive groves, it is rich in rural beauty, while the mountains carry a sense of mystery in their relics of ancient dwellings, caves and cliffs. The great Greek Theatre where Plato performed is located on a hill in the Monti Iblei, following its natural curve. Built in the 6th century BC, the theater is the largest in Sicily and once held 15,000 spectators.
Near the theater are the latomìe or stone quarries, which were also used as prisons in ancient times. The most famous latomìa is the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysius), whose name was coined in 1586 by the painter Caravaggio. It refers to the tyrant Dionysius I of Siracusa who, according to legend, used the cave as a prison for political dissidents. Due to its perfect acoustics, Dionysius was able to eavesdrop on the plans and secrets of his captives – hence the name “ear.” The nearby Grotticelli Necropolis at the end of the stone quarries is both fascinating and a bit morbid, since it holds many tomb chambers carved into the limestone. Another ancient ruin worth visiting is the Roman Amphitheater, one of the largest arenas of its kind, which dates from the 3rd century AD.
The city of Siracusa was originally named Siculo, which means abundance of water, due to the quantity of waterways found in the area in ancient times. Now, apart from the fascinating and mystic source of the river Ciane, not far from the city where papyrus plants grow, the only evidence of water in the city are its lovely fountains, including the Fountain of the Nymph Arethusa. The Street of Tombs is an ancient street with votive niches and Byzantine graves next to a grotto that was fed with water from an aqueduct.
The patron saint of Siracusa in Santa Lucia and a church devoted to her was built on the spot where she was martyred in 304 AD. The building of Santa Lucia Church incorporated a former temple into its building and added a Baroque facade. On Santa Lucia Day, December 13, a huge silver statue of the Saint is paraded from the city’s Duomo to the church in a procession that is attended by tens of thousands.
The island of Ortigia is the historical heart of Siracusa. The island is a wonderful place to relax, wander and shop. Much of its charm lies in strolling down the narrow medieval lanes past Baroque and medieval palazzos and churches. The historic streets also feature alluring cafes, bars and night clubs where you can sip on a drink while taking in the gorgeous panoramas and ethereal atmosphere.
Ortigia is joined to the Sicilian mainland by three bridges. The central bridge, Ponte Umbertino, continues down Corso Umberto, one of Siracusa’s major thoroughfares. Opposite the bridge are the majestic ruins of the Temple of Apollo. It dates from the 6th century BC and is the oldest Doric temple in the world.
Veering right on Corso Matteotti, visitors pass a range of clothing and shoe shops, before arriving in Piazza Archimede at the center of Ortigia. Piazza Archimede is lined with palazzos and features the Fontana di Artemide (Fountain of Artemis) by Giulio Moschetti, located in the middle of the piazza. On the west side of the piazza stands the 15th century Palazzo dell’Orologio and on the southern edge, the 18th century Palazzo Gargallo. Also of interest are Palazzo Lanza-Bucceri, dating from the 15th century, while the Palazzo del Banco di Sicilia was built in 1928.
To visit what most describe as Ortigia’s most attractive piazza, turn right and head to Via Cavour, a narrow street lined with restaurants and shops. A minute’s walk will take you to Piazza Duomo, an elliptical open space lined with impressive buildings, which is also a good place to sit and enjoy refreshments at an outdoor café.
Siracusa’s Duomo is one of the town’s most celebrated sights. The building records the many ages of the city. It was once a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena and its massive Doric columns are still visible, though they have been significantly damaged by an earthquake that struck the area in the late 17th century. The Baroque facade of the Duomo was added after the earthquake of 1693. Inside the Duomo, visitors can see the relics of numerous saints in the chapel to the right of the main altar, while a small room near the exit houses the shrine to St. Lucia, containing offerings to the Saint, as well as relics.
Occupying an important position in the heart of Siracusani, the Fonte Aretusa on the western shore is a freshwater spring whose history goes back to the earliest inhabitants. According to mythology, the spring is an embodiment of the nymph Arethusa. Surrounded by high stone walls, planted with papyrus and inhabited by ducks, the spring is an important spot on the Ortigia passeggiata, where residents socialize while taking their evening stroll. For trendy bars and a pleasant stroll, head towards the 13th century Castello Maniace. The fortress at the island’s tip is still a military establishment as such, it is closed to the public, but the seafront up the western shore of the island is lined with cafés, bars and restaurants, as well as locals out for their sociable promenade. It is a magical place that spans the millenniums, with a grace and culture that is unmistakably Siracusani.