Sicily is a Mediterranean paradise, where beauty, culture and history converge — a magical land forged by the mercurial Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Forged by myth (Cyclops lives under it) and active eruptions, Etna’s dominating presence metaphorically divides the island into an idyllic east and a bustling west.
Etna’s volatility is the perfect setting for HBO’s “The White Lotus (season 2) where it’s all about mayhem, murder and morality. I’ve had a lot of fun watching my favourite island play a starring role so if you’re inspired you for a Sicilian holiday, here are all the real-life locations and more.
Lights, Camera, Taormina
Taormina is the location – an ancient town, perched high on a hill and overlooking the sea on Sicily’s east coast. Taormina is picture perfect, even with active volcano Etna looming in the background. Etna dominates the landscape and the Greeks made it a backdrop for their Teatro Greco, an ancient theater. The following centuries bequeathed Roman, medieval and Baroque architecture to create a postcard-perfect destination
A few fun facts about Taormina. it’s tiny: there is a single corso (main road) which takes you from one side of the town to the other in about 7 minutes walking. It’s busy- Taormina swells with tourists for about eight months of the year. Since the Grand Tour, Taormina has been a pit stop for tourists including Goethe, DH Lawrence and Truman Capote – the literati’s everyone who is anyone. And Etna is active. You’ll definitely see some eruptions. Is Taormina worth a visit? Definitely.
San Domenico Palace is the “White Lotus” hotel
Season 2 of the White Lotus is set at the Four Seasons’ San Domenico Palace, a 14th century convent. San Domenico Palace has probably one of the most precarious addresses, barely hanging on to the hill, and perhaps that daunting locating inspired some monk mindfulness. By the late 1800s, the convent was transformed into a Grand Hotel whose famous guests included Oscar Wilde, King Edward VIII and Greta Garbo. It was luxurious and to this day, the hotel revels in luxury – 111 rooms and suites, panoramic views, courtyards and gardens with old-world charm.
The hotel’s white-tablecloth restaurant is a nightly backdrop in the show — so much so that it makes you wonder why guests aren’t out experiencing the rest of Sicily’s dining scene. Even Cameron points out one episode: “I don’t know why they keep giving us these menus. We know it back to front by now.” But at least it’s not the average flavorless hotel restaurant; it’s the Michelin-starred Principe Cerami with Sicily-inspired dishes and a view.
Then there’s Bar and Chiostro, the piano bar in the show, which features a cocktail called the Gelosia e Mandolino — inspired by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s famous explosive fight at the hotel. But the guests are missing out on nearby gems by only hotel dining: the Michelin-starred Otto Geleng at the Grand Hotel Timeo, beachside La Capinera and the quaint Tischi Toschi.
An uphill enclave, San Domenico has Anciovi, San Domenico Palace’s pool terrace restaurant but you’ll want to head down to the beach (a bit of a hike or car transfer) to La Cambusa, the beachside restaurant and bar in nearby Giardini Naxos, is used as The White Lotus beach club.
Head Down to the Beach
Southeastern Sicily has some of the most picturesque beaches and beach towns on the Island so it’s no surprise that there’s been a lot of chatter the cast doesn’t explore more. Sicily has about 922 miles of coastline but only a tiny strip plays a role in White Lotus.
Isola Bella and more
Isola Bella is a tiny and romantic island below Taormina connected to the mainland by a narrow path… depending on the tide. From Taormina (via Pirandello), you cable car on via Pirandello to Mazzarò and walk to the beach and connected to the mainland by a narrow path. Mainland is an open beach area where you can rent an umbrella or unfurl your own tool, and when the tide rolls out, the pathway reveals itself and you can walk across to the island.
What I love about the eastern coast is that there are so many small coastal towns to explore like Furci Siculo, Letojanni, Giarre and Aci Castello. Each has its own personality and charm, and most have a last century vibe with the hub of the town facing the water. My advice is to find the local pastry shop and ask for a brioche con gelato (ice cream on a soft, sweet bun) ,you’ll feel like a local.
Almost everyone has The Godfather on the mind when heading to Sicily, and White Lotus’ De Grasso family are no exceptions. In Episode 3, Albie, Bert and Dominic make an excursion to Fiumefreddo di Sicilia to the palatial Castello degli Schiavi villa — the famed “Godfather” home and hideout for Michael Corleone where his first wife, Apollonia, is killed in a car explosion.
Personally, I prefer a drive north of Taormina to the tiny hill village Savoca, for a granita di limone — a frozen lemon ice— at Bar Vitelli. Another yesteryear setting, Bar Vitelli is where Michael first laid eyes on Apollonia. Last time I was there, I learned that Savoca has an incredible Easter ritual. Every Holy Week, the residents perform a living Via Crucis (The way of the Cross) with more than 100 figures dressed as characters from the Passion of Christ, such as Roman centurions, merchants and even Jesus.
The altitude, intense sunlight and notable temperature differentials make Etna the place for winemaking. Take a tip from Harper, Ethan, Cameron and Daphne (minus the awkward tension) and go to Passopisciaro for a day of wine tasting at Planeta’s Feudo di Mezzo, an estate on Etna’s northern slope.
“Etna is an inimitable terroir unique to the world,” Vito Planeta, head of Planeta’s cultural projects, said in an email. “Remarkable temperature ranges, mineral-rich volcanic soils, a mountain viticulture with great personality and a concentration of beauty, nature and landscape.”
There are a lot of vineyards on Etna, and a lot of wine of wine to try. Etna knows it and several wine makers and other entrepreneurs have joined forces for Strada dei Vini Etnea, a wine road that is also part of the Ferrovia Circumetnea, a charming red and white train that runs along the the base of the northern slope. My hint: in Passopisciaro you’ll find ValCerasa by winemaker Alice Bonaccorsi, and Andrea Franchetti’s Tenuta di Passopisciaro, one of the pioneers of Etna wines.
Visit an Active Volcano
For thrill-seekers and volcano-hunters, you definitely want to visit Europe’s highest and most active volcano. The small town of Nicolosi, on the southern slope is gateway to accessing the craters and lava trails. At Rifugio Sapienza (1920m), you can take the funivia (cable car) to 2500m Nicolosi and walk around, or take a bus.
For the more adventurous, Etna is outdoor activity unparalleled- hiking, biking, skiing and other- where the panorama stretches to the Straits of Messina. Go Etna organizes guided volcano excursions in off-roading vehicles and trekking excursions where you’ll step into a landscape of fumaroles and craters.
Probably one of the most beautiful outdoor experiences I have ever had was hiking around the Gole Alcantara (the Alcanatara gorges). The incredible landscape is thanks to Etna and three ancient lava that created mind-blowing rock formations of basalt with walls high up to 25 meters. You can go on your own or hire a guide.
While the Sicilian coast is gorgeous, inland is worth exploring, especially the Val di Noto in southeastern Sicily. Of the eight towns, top of the list are Noto, Modica and Ragusa, a triumvirate of Sicilian Baroque. Each city feels like a fairy tale, with ornate cathedrals and palaces of yellow sandstone.
On Daphne and Harper’s trip to Noto, they take in the architecture, but miss out on foodie landmark Caffe Sicilia, where chef Corrado Assenza creates Sicily’s very best Sicilian cassate (a traditional cake) and cannoli. Just outside of Noto is Villa Elena, interior designer Jacques Garcia’s home, an interior designer’s dream abode (which also doubles as Quentin’s Palermo villa).
Pop over to Modica, a city built into a gorge, with labyrinthine streets and stairwells that connect its alta (high) and bassa (low) neighborhoods.
Modica is the epicenter of Sicily’s chocolate. Cioccolato di Modica is an IGP “protected geographical indication” product whose history stems back to centuries-old Spanish techniques. For a taste, head to Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where they’ve spent more than 100 years making chocolate bars and confections.
Like Modica, Ragusa is a divided town: Ragusa Superiore (upper) and Ragusa Ibla (lower). The ancient Ibla has a magical maze of churches, palaces and narrow streets, and it boasts Michelin-starred Duomo and Locanda Don Serafino. But most importantly is Cantunera, the corner shop where chef Sandro Pace serves his award-winning fried rice balls, known as arancini, which he says are best enjoyed “in bites.”
Keep going south
Catania, Siracusa, Ortigia and more
Eastern Sicily has so much to see, but don’t think I’ve forgotten about Catania, Siracusa and Ortigia, three cities that linger in the southeast.
Catania is the capital of the province, and where you will land if you choose to fly to eastern Sicily – CTA: Catania-Fontanarossa Airport. There is a lot to discover in Catania but one thing I always suggest is get up to a rooftop or church dome. Catania’s cityscape is gorgeous.
Siracusa and Ortigia are my best kept secrets. From the Greek Theatre, ear of Caravaggio and Madonna delle Lacrime in Siracusa to the beautiful “island” Ortigia and it’s fairytale architecture, underground temple and hidden Caravaggio.
Thinking about a visit to Sicily but don’t know where or how to start? Consider a Sicily travel consulting session with Erica. We’ll talk trip planning, when to visit, hotels, food and more.
A version of this article appeared in The Washington Post (December 2022).