Ever arrived in a place and immediately thought you could live there – that was the effect Ortigia had on Jonathan and me.
The small island of Ortigia is the historic centre of Siracusa in Sicily. Slightly larger than one square kilometre, the island has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years and is renowned for its Greek heritage.
This newest favourite place of ours is jam-packed with Baroque piazzas, impressive church facades, and outdoor bars and restaurants. Ortigia is a lot more manicured than nearby Catania (although we loved Catania) and feels a whole lot more real than Taormina (better food too!)
Having travelled around Italy, we have seen a lot of piazzas but the Piazza Duomo in Ortigia is definitely one of, if not the most beautiful. It’s an incredible masterpiece of Baroque town planning, with plenty of cafes where you can enjoy a drink or a gelato and watch the world go by.
The piazza was built on an ancient acropolis. Very little remains here of the original Greek building, but if you look at the side of the cathedral, you’ll notice several thick Doric columns. These columns are from the Greek Temple dedicated to Athena that was originally here and are now incorporated into the cathedral’s structure.
We love exploring fresh food markets when we travel. We just adore the smells, sights and sounds, and of course, being an Italian market, the shouting and gesticulating is fun to observe.
Ortigia Market is open every morning except Sunday. Here you will find lots of local produce such as deep purple eggplants, tomatoes, herbs, ripe blood-red oranges, lemons and bright red chilli peppers, perfect for making pasta alla Norma (my current favourite pasta dish) plus lots of fresh meats and fish.
Feeling peckish, fancy a panino or sample some local cheeses, there are some excellent choices right by the market but more on that later.
Temple of Apollo
Not far from Ortigia market and close to the entrance to the island are the remains of the Temple of Apollo that dates from the 6th century BC and is believed to be the oldest Doric temple in Sicily.
Fountain of Arethusa (Fonte Aretusa)
The Fonte Aretusa is a freshwater spring that’s filled with wild papyrus. According to Greek mythology, Arethusa, a handmaiden of the Goddess Artemis fled from Greece to Sicily to escape the advances of Alpheus, the God of rivers. After asking for help, the Goddess Artemis transformed her into the fresh water spring that you see today. According to another legend, the randy Alpheus still continues to today to search for Arethusa in the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
From the Fountain of Arethusa, especially around early evening, it’s nice to take a stroll along the Lungomare Alfeo to admire the view and perhaps enjoy a sundowner at one of the many bars.
Archimedes Square is the second most important square of Ortigia, thanks to its central location in the historic centre. As the name suggests, it’s dedicated to Archimedes, the famous mathematician and inventor in Ancient Greek times, who was born in Syracuse.
In the centre of the square, stands the statue the Fountain of Diana. The sculpture portrays poor Arethusa still trying to escape the amorous advances from Alpheus; he just won’t take no for an answer. Diana, the Goddess of hunting and chastity, helps protects the young girl.
Maniace Castle in Ortigia
Maniace Castle stands on the point where in Ancient Greek times stood the temple of Hera. The castle that we see today was built in the 13th century by Emperor Frederick II and is named after George Maniakes, a Byzantine general who liberated Siracusa from Arab rule.
We didn’t go in as it was nearing dinner time and Sicilian food trumps castle visits every time. But if it’s as impressive inside as its exterior, it’s probably worth a visit. It’s open every day and costs just €4 to enter.
Ortigia Jewish Quarter (Giudecca)
We stayed in a small apartment in the Jewish Quarter of Ortigia. After travelling for a week or so, we always like to find an air BnB with a washing machine. Felt very Sicilian hanging our washing out over the street plus the Jewish Quarter is a pretty part of Ortigia to explore.
Unfortunately, for me and probably to great relief from Jonathan the nearby Puppet Museum (Museo dei Pupi) and the Puppet Theatre (Teatro dei Pupi) were closed. Thanks, Covid! But you must agree, it would have been fun to see this puppeteer tradition and also to make your own puppet. We so have to return.
Neapolis Archaeological Park (Parco Archeologico Neapolis)
It would be best if you allowed two to three hours to explore the Neapolis Archeological Park. It’s located in Siracusa, about a half-hour walk from Ortigia.
We visited during September 2020, and directions on how to explore the park was just a tad confusing at times.
Here are some of the highlights of the park.
Ear of Dionysius (Orecchio di Dionisio)
The Ear of Dionysius is 23 metres high and extends 65 metres back into the cliff. The cave was given its name by the painter Caravaggio in 1698.
He named it after Dionysius I of Siracusa. According to legend that was possibly created by Caravaggio, Dionysius used the cave as a prison for political dissidents. Because of the perfect acoustics inside the ‘Ear’, he could listen in on the plans and secrets of his captives. Another more gorier tale suggests that Dionysius carved the cave in its shape to amplify the screams of prisoners as they were tortured.
Built during the fifth century BC, the Greek Theatre in Siracusa is one of the largest in the world. It’s pretty impressive, and in the summer they often perform Greek dramas or concerts there; we would love to see that. However, if you only have time to visit one Greek Theatre on your trip to Sicily, the one in Taormina, although smaller is a lot more scenic with the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna as its backdrop.
Just outside the park but included in your entry ticket is a Roman amphitheatre, now a tad overgrown. Keep your ticket on you, don’t put them in a safe place and lose them as I do, as you will need them to go from the Greek theatre to the Roman theatre or you can beg and grovel like we did. That worked too 😊
From Ortigia, it’s about 30 minutes to walk to the park. As Jonathan’s foot was really swollen probably due to the excessive amount of walking we do on holidays, and not wearing very good shoes on our hike on Mount Etna, we opted to return on public transport. We had heard there was supposed to be a bus that ran to Ortigia, but it looks like it was no longer operating.
There was, however, a hop on-hop off bus which we hopped on and hopped off as we neared our guesthouse. The cost was €5 each, probably the same price as a taxi would have cost if there had been any around.
The only beach on Ortigia is the small, pebbled Spiaggia di Cala Rossa located at the southern end of the island. There are beaches nearby if you have a car at Arenella, Fontane Bianche or Vendicari Natural Reserve.
Where To Eat In Ortigia
There are some fabulous eating options in Ortigia. After Taormina, I was worried the restaurants might only cater to tourists and not worry about creating great food. But we struck lucky this time. Here are some of our favourites.
Caseificio Borderi, Ortigia Market
The owner of our guesthouse recommended here for paninis (Italian sandwiches). But it’s not just sandwiches, it’s an incredible sandwich art-making performance.
The queue was long, but we were entertained by the veteran sandwich master Andrea Borderi who would burst into song as he handed out generous samples of cheese and olives while we waited. Give me free cheese, and I’m more than happy to wait in line. The lady behind the till would roll her eyes, she obviously had heard all the banter and songs before.
Not knowing how it worked, I ordered two paninis which came stuffed full with cheeses, hams, olives, tomatoes, salads, herbs and other fabulous goodies. They were delicious; actually, one would have been enough for two. Did we save the rest till later then? No way, not that disciplined.
Located by Ortigia Market, is the popular deli and wine bar, Fratelli Burgio. When we visited, it was full of not just tourists but locals too which is always a good sign. They serve fabulous cheese and meat boards. We hadn’t planned to eat quite as much as we did, as it was our anniversary and we were saving ourselves for dinner, but hey cheese!
Osteria Sveva – near Maniace Castle
We had been recommended this place by friends who lived in Sicily. It’s casual dining which we prefer, with excellent home-cooked food. We had a delicious fish antipasto to share, followed by pasta. You can never have enough pasta, can you?
As I mentioned, we celebrated our anniversary in Ortigia. And even though it only comes by once a year, it always catches us by surprise, and we never have anything planned. The owner of our guesthouse had recommended us A Putia, but when we arrived at 8pm on a Saturday night, it was full. What a surprise!
A Putia is a popular restaurant, and there were a lot of people waiting, so we went around the corner and found a posh Michelin star restaurant instead. Well, it’s our anniversary, we thought. Being far more money conscious than Jonathan, I nearly choked when I saw the prices on the menu. Long story short, we left there and joined the queue for A Putia. It wasn’t too long a wait for us, as most people wanted to dine inside, but we wanted to eat out on the street.
Lovely food, yes, pasta again, excellent wine, so glad we waited.
How To Get To Siracusa and Ortigia
The nearest airport to Siracusa is Catania Airport.
From Catania to Siracusa, there are regular buses and trains which take just over an hour. We travelled by train, and as of October 2020, tickets cost €7,60 per person.
From Siracusa Station, it’s a twenty-minute walk to Ortigia or about five minutes in a taxi. We were lucky as the guesthouse owner came and picked us up from the train station.
If you have your own car, parking will be a complete nightmare if you are staying in Ortigia. You have been warned.
But that’s enough city exploration, for now, it was time to experience the Sicilian countryside for a couple of nights. A new agriturismo boutique farm stay had just opened in the Noto wine region, and we were about to check it out.
Next stop: Kapuhala