There are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sicily. Their beauty and importance automatically make them worthy of inclusion in the list of things to see in Sicily. There are natural wonders, such as the Aeolian Islands and Mount Etna, fascinating archaeological sites, like Pantalica and the Valley of the Temples, and unique artistic creations, such as the baroque art of the Val di Noto and examples of Arab-Norman art.
UNESCO protection in Sicily: physical Heritage and Geoparks
The heritage of physical sites protected by UNESCO is represented by the sites commonly known as “World Heritage Sites”. In Sicily, there are a total of seven. In addition to these, there are also Geoparks, which are defined by UNESCO as “a territory with a particular geological heritage and a sustainable development strategy. They must have well-defined boundaries and be large enough to allow effective economic development of the area”. There are two Geoparks in Sicily: Madonie Geopark and Rocca di Cerere Geopark.
UNESCO protection in Sicily: Intangible Heritage and Living Human Treasures
UNESCO can also decide to protect an oral or intangible heritage. Those currently recognised for Sicily are the Opera dei Pupi – (Puppet Opera – 2008) and the Vite ad Alberello di Pantelleria – (Vineyards of Pantelleria – 2014). In addition to these, there are other assets of interest to Italy and other nations, such as: The art of dry stone walling (2018), which is widely practised in the area of Ragusa and Pantelleria, and the Mediterranean Diet. As of 2014, Sicily has also set up a Register of Material Identities (Reis). Intangible Heritage is defined by UNESCO as “the set of practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and techniques – in the form of tools, objects, artefacts and associated places – that communities recognise as part of their cultural heritage”. This list also includes so-called Living Human Treasures, i.e., people who hold knowledge and experience to be protected and passed on.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sicily
The first two Sicilian sites to be declared World Heritage Sites were the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina and the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento in 1997. The most recent award was in 2015 for the Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale itinerary. Here is the complete list of all UNESCO sites in Sicily!
Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale
Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale are the most recent site in Sicily to be included amongst the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It includes nine different landmarks which are: Palermo Cathedral, the Church of San Cataldo, the Chiesa dell’Ammiraglio (Church of the Admiral), the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the Palazzo della Zisa, the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (Admiral’s Bridge), the Cathedral of Cefalù and the Cathedral of Monreale. In the twelfth century, the Normans defeated the Arabs and conquered Sicily. They gained highly skilled craftsmen and decided to employ them to build new churches and palaces. The result was a style characterised by typically Arabian artistic elements such as round domes and muqarnas, further enriched by the Arabs’ great expertise with mosaics and wood carving.
The late baroque towns of the Val di Noto region
In 1693, a terrible earthquake destroyed 45 different towns in eastern Sicily. In the ensuing process of reconstruction, architects, artists and master builders were inspired by the dominant artistic trend of the time: the late Baroque style. The churches and palaces protected by UNESCO are a triumph of ornamentation, stucco, putti and frescoes. The hallmarks of this particular style are undoubtedly the balconies of aristocratic palaces decorated in various ways. Sometimes with floral motifs, sometimes with human or animal figures. Famous Baroque buildings include the Church of San Giovanni Battista and Palazzo Cosentini in Ragusa, the Cathedral of San Giorgio and of San Pietro in Modica, the Cathedral and Palazzo Nicolaci in Noto, Syracuse Cathedral, Catania Cathedral and the Steps of Santa Maria del Monte in Caltagirone.
The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
The Valley of the Temples is probably the most famous UNESCO site in Sicily. This archaeological area, which covers more than 1300 hectares, includes seven Doric temples from the Hellenic period, several necropolises, a Sanctuary to the Chthonic Gods and some buildings from the Roman period. By paying for a separate ticket, you can also access another extraordinary site: the Kolymbethra Garden. A visit to the Valley of the Temples becomes even more impressive at sunset. Every year, this corner of paradise in Sicily is the backdrop for one of the most important events in Sicily. This is the Almond Blossom Festival, usually held in the last week of March. Over the years, this event has been expanded to include the Folklore Festival, the Children of the World Festival and other side events.
The Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina
The Villa Romana in Piazza Armerina was the first site, together with the Valley of the Temples, to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sicily in 1997. It was probably the villa of a wealthy landowner and was, therefore, an integral part of a large estate. The area includes several rooms, including an imposing entrance hall, baths and a basilica. What makes this site truly extraordinary, however, are the 3,500 square metres of mosaic floors. The subjects depicted are varied, ranging from everyday scenes such as the famous ‘Women in Bikinis’ playing ball, through mythological scenes such as the Polyphemus mosaic, to the magnificent scenes of the Little Hunt and the Big Hunt.
Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica
The UNESCO site Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica covers two different areas.The first is Pantalica in the Sortino area, a small village in the Syracuse region that is very famous for its honey. This archaeological area has been added to the World Heritage List for its high historical, archaeological, speleological and landscape profile. The park of Pantalica has over 5,000 tombs divided into at least six different necropolises. The second area covered by this UNESCO site is Syracuse. This, in turn, encompasses the whole area of Ortigia, the historic centre of the city, which includes splendid buildings such as the Cathedral, the Catacombs of San Giovanni and Palazzo Bellomo. Added to this is the area around the remains of the old city walls. The Neapolis Archaeological Park is located in this area and includes, amongst other buildings, the Teatro Antico di Siracusa (Old Theatre of Syracuse), the Roman Amphitheatre and the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysus).
Since 2000, the Aeolian Islands have also been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List for Sicily. The “seven sisters”, as they are also called, are: Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea. There are also five small islands in the vicinity of Panarea, namely Basiluzzo, Dattilo, Lisca Nera, Bottaro and Lisca Bianca. The islands are all of volcanic origin and have been of fundamental importance in the science of volcanology because they have provided examples of two types of eruption: Vulcanic and Strombolian. Each of them represents a little world of its own. Some are more touristy and some are wilder, some are more cultivated and some less so. However, each of them will leave an impression on you. Marvelling at Stromboli’s eruptions at night is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Rounding off the list of UNESCO sites in Sicily is ‘Idda’, or ‘she’ as the people of Catania call Etna. Also known as Mongibello, Etna is the highest active volcano in Europe. A visit to this imposing mountain will please everyone. Etna is a true paradise, not only for geology and volcanology enthusiasts, but also for those who love trekking. There are several well-equipped mountain huts throughout the Etna Park. If you know how to ski or snowboard, you can also experience a descent with a sea view. This part of Sicily is also home to some of the region’s most delicious gastronomic products. These include Bronte pistachios, Sicilian blood oranges and ancient Etna apples, which are one of the island’s Slow Food Presidia. Moreover, given its volcanic soil, this area has become more and more of a wine-growing area over the years.