Sicily and Sardinia are the two largest islands in the Mediterranean, in that order. Both are part of Italy, and both are popular vacation destinations for mainland Italians and international travelers wanting beautiful beaches, delicious food and wine, charming small towns, archeological sites, and warm sunshine. However, for all their similarities, there are some key differences between Sicily and Sardinia that might steer you to one island or the other. We stack the two head to head, so that you can determine which one is right for your Mediterranean island vacation.
Culture in Sicily and Sardinia
Sicily: Sicily is quite literally a grab bag of cultures and civilizations. The island was the Times Square of the ancient world, with colonists, visitors, and invaders from all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East passing through. Over the past many thousand years, the island has been conquered and governed by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, British, and Spanish, and each ruler has left an indelible mark on Sicily -- architecturally, gastronomically, or otherwise. In the capital city of Palermo, you can climb to the roof of the main cathedral -- a marvelous layer cake of Norman, Moorish, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical styles -- before getting lost in the souk-like maze of the Ballaro market. In Taormina, you can climb up to an ancient Greco-Roman theater overlooking the sea and Mount Etna. And in Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and other spots on the island’s west coast, you can see some of the most pristine Greek temples. In fact, there are more surviving Greek temples in Sicily than there are in Greece.
Sardinia: It’s safe to say that Sardinia can’t compete with Sicily, culture-wise. But Sardinia is no cultural slouch. The Sardinian city of was a major seaport in the Middle Ages; today, you can visit Olbia’s 11th-century basilica, an archeological museum with ancient Roman ships on display, and ruins from the times of the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians. The Duomo of Cagliari is a pretty Romanesque church dating back to the 1200s. Sardinia is also home to the archeological site of Nuraghe Palmavera, a complex of stone towers, chambers, and passages built in the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Food in Sardinia and Sicily
Sicily: Almost everything about Sicily lends itself to the fact that it is one of the best foodie destinations in the world. A volcanic island in the heart of the Mediterranean, Sicily benefits from constant sunshine, fertile lava-laced soil, and three surrounding bodies of water teeming with seafood. If it’s an edible tree, plant, or vine, Sicilians can grow it: Olives, almonds, wheat, lemons, oranges, figs, plums, apricots, pistachios, and tomatoes flourish across the island. Not only are the climate and geography perfect for cultivating food, but Sicily is also the recipient of centuries of cultural influences. Many Sicilian dishes, such as fish couscous and stuffed swordfish rolls, have a Arabic or North African bent. The quintessential Sicilian street food arancini combines rice and saffron, two ingredients introduced by the Arabs (arancini are commonly served with meat ragu stuffed inside -- a twist from the French). The raisins and pine nuts that star in the classic pasta con le sarde were both known to Sicily, but the combination is distinctly Arab.
Sardinia: Like Sicily, Sardinia is an island in the Mediterranean, so it enjoys a pleasant climate that vegetation like eggplant and artichoke can’t resist and miles of coastline that bring in seafood like cuttlefish, octopus, clams, shrimp, lobster, and tuna. And like Sicily, Sardinia’s history is full of invasions and foreign rule -- the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, and Spanish all made their way here, too -- swaying the cuisine in countless ways. Popular dishes in Sardinia include porcedu (spit-roasted suckling pig), fregula (a couscous-like semolina pasta influenced by North Africa), and, in the city of Sassari, lumache (snails stuffed with a blend of pecorino, parsley, garlic, bread crumbs, and white wine).
Wine in Sicily and Sardinia
Sicily: The Sicilian soil and sun are godsends for wine-making. The island’s many vineyards and wine estates produce full-bodied reds and whites, including the fragrant Etna Rosso (great with swordfish, salmon, tuna, or even just pasta with tomato sauce); the sweet, caramelly Marsala; and the earthy Nero d’Avola -- a specialty of the area around Noto and the most famous of the Sicilian wines. Wine-loving couples could book two or three nights at Monaci delle Terre Nere, an organic farm stay on the slopes of Mount Etna that produces six types of organic wine. The volcano is home to many fantastic producers, both long-established and up-and-coming, including the top-rated wineries Tenuta di Fessina and Fattorie Romeo del Castello.
Sardinia: Sardinia is blessed with the same hot Mediterranean sun as Sicily, but its wine identity is all its own. Its most famous wine is Cannonau, a berry-scented Grenache that is produced all over the island. Following in its footsteps is the fruity-floral Vermentino (known in Italy’s Piedmont region as Favorita), a crisp and light-bodied white that pairsperfectly with seafood. In the historic jewel Oristano, the wine to try is the warm, dry Vernaccia di Oristano.
Beaches in Sicily and Sardinia
Sicily: Sicily is a volcanic island, so you’ll have to cut it some slack when it comes to its shoreline. Most Sicilian beaches are somewhere between pebbly and full-on jagged rocky -- though there are a few notable exceptions, such as Mondello (an easy bus or bike ride from Palermo) and San Vito lo Capo at the northwest tip of the island. But what Sicily generally lacks in broad sweeps of soft white sand, it makes up for with its dramatic coastal beauty, clear blue water, and many spectacular islands. Sicily’s volcanic, UNESCO-protected Aeolian Islands include the popular resort , the chic millionaire-magnet , and the aptly named , which is famous for its mud baths, black-sand beaches, and views of Mount Etna. Another island chain, the Aegadian, is home to Favignana, where the beaches boast pure white sand and undersea caves that are popular with divers.
Sardinia: The beaches here are some of the best in Europe -- on par with top beaches in Spain, Portugal, and Greece. The northern edge of the island is truly breathtaking, with soft white sand and neon-teal waters. Called (Emerald Coast), this is one of Sardinia’s most iconic sites. However, Sardinia is ringed with stunning coastline all around; coastal spots that aren’t to be missed include the white-sand Rena Bianca, the vertical cliffs of Capo Caccia (go at sunset), the picturesque and shallow La Cinta, and the paradise that is Cala Sinzias. Take the ferry from Palau to the Maddalena Islands, an archipelago off the north coast of Sardinia with beautiful and mostly empty beaches.
Things to Do in Sicily and Sardinia
Sicily: When it comes to significant historical attractions and towns from the ancient world, Sicily has the upper hand over Sardinia. There are must-see landmarks or charming hilltop towns on every corner of the island, from the Norman Palace and La Martorana in Palermo in the northwest to Ortigia (the historical center of Syracuse) in the southeast. (Outside of Palermo is Monreale, one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe and an incredible combo of Arab, Byzantine, and Norman artistic and architectural styles.) The island’s north and northeast contain the Ancient Theatre of Taormina and the Duomo of Cefalu, while the west coast is home to the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was once among the most opulent of Sicily’s Greek colonies. Of the site’s nine temples, the Temple of Concordia is the largest and best-preserved temple in all of Sicily. And this is all before we get to Sicily’s natural wonders, such as Mount Etna (the largest active volcano in Europe and home to many boutique wineries), cliff-framed beaches, and the many pretty islands offshore.
Sardinia: Sardinia's cultural attractions pale next to Sicily’s, but it nonetheless boasts enough historic sites and museums for excursions between beach days, wine tours, and nature outings. Travelers usually make a point to see Su Nuraxi di Barumini and Nuraghe Sant’Antine, two Bronze Age archeological sites founded nearly 4,000 years ago. Artifacts from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine are on display at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Cagliari, Sardinia’s capital. (While there, be sure to visit San Benedetto, the largest city market in Italy, with vendors selling fresh seafood, heirloom tomatoes, apricots, strawberries, casizolu (Sardinian cow’s milk cheese), rustic breads, and, of course, cannoli filled with ricotta and pistachios.) Sardinia’s other main attractions are its points of natural beauty, such as Porto Istana, a lovely beach under a granite promontory; Porto Giunco, a white-sand beach with flamingos; and Oasi Biderosa, a 2,000-plus-acre nature preserve with pristine coves.
Resorts and Hotels Sardinia in Sicily
Sicily: Sicily isn’t huge on international chains. You’ll find a few H&Ms and McDonald’s in Palermo, of course, and United Colors of Benetton and Ermenegildo Zegna shops in the upscale resort town of Taormina. But the vast majority of Sicilian businesses are independent and locally owned, and that’s definitely a good thing. Of the hotels throughout Sicily, the huge majority are family-owned B&Bs, small villas, independent hotels, or outposts of Italian hotel chains, such as the Milan-based Gruppo UNA and the Lake Garda-based Chincherini Holiday. International chain hotels are few and far between. For example, of the nearly 400 hotels we’ve visited in Sicily, fewer than 30 are part of big international brands like Best Western, NH, Hilton, and Four Points by Sheraton. It’s also worth noting that many hotels here don’t feel the competitive need to constantly renovate or modernize. Several feel very much like time capsules of another decade -- as far back as the 1960s and 1950s in the case of Sporting Baia and Taormina Park Hotel, respectively. Don’t expect the latest technology, super-contemporary furnishings, and over-the-top plush luxury, even in the high-end hotels. Also, don’t go the all-inclusive route in Sicily unless you’re okay with a bare-bones version of the experience; most all-inclusives have sad buffets, drinks, and entertainment.
Sardinia: Thanks to Costa Smeralda, once an upmarket getaway for the rich, Sardinia has a plethora of upscale and even truly luxury properties, like the secluded, beachfront Le’a Bianca Luxury Resort and the exclusive and chic boutique Hotel Li Finistreddi. There are charming guesthouses and rustic countryside retreats (like Il Girasole Hotel in Villasimius and Hotel Parco degli Ulivi in Arzachena). If you can tear yourself away from the coastline for a night or two, Su Gologone Experience Hotel is an art-filled, luxurious spa getaway in the rugged countryside of the Supramonte foothills.
Getting Around in Sicily and Sardinia
Sicily: To really see Sicily, renting a car is the only way to go. Be sure to splurge on the highest amount of collision protection; even if this coverage doubles your rental-car fees, keep in mind that minor run-ins with other cars is par for the course. There are trains and buses connecting points of interest, but they can be slow and require multiple transfers, both of which gobble up precious time. Driving, however, is not without its challenges. Sicilian roads, especially in the rugged interior, are notoriously curvy; drivers must constantly slow way down to navigate the 180-degree switchbacks. Add sky-high bridges, shoulderless lanes, and sharing the road with speedy Sicilian drivers, and the experience can be slow and a little scary. Prepare for seemingly short distances to take longer than you think. Budget at least half a day (and that’s with no major stops) to get from one coast to the other.
Sardinia: Like Sicily, driving a rental car is the best way to get around in Sardinia. Trains and buses are an option, but they can be a major time suck and not very reliable. Driving yourself is certainly the most efficient way to get around, but it does come with its own set of cons. In addition to paying the base rental rate, you’ll also need to spring on the max insurance and budget for gas costs (fuel is expensive in Italy) and parking.
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