I Biked My Way Through Sicily — and It Was the Best Way to Discover Small Towns, Delicious Food, and Local Culture

Biking may be the best way to explore Sicily — here's why.

A beach in Sicily and Caren Osten and husband with their bikes

Caren Osten

My first real interaction in Sicily was with a cannoli. In the small town of Buccheri, our group of 25 cyclists listened as Giuseppe, the co-owner of family-run osteria U Locale, explained that we were about to taste Sicily’s most treasured dessert — a cylindrical pastry, stuffed with sweetened ricotta, grated chocolate, and crushed pistachios.

With many more cannolis to follow, it was a good thing we'd be pedaling through the sloping valleys and villages of southeastern Sicily for the next six days, a trip organized by Backroads, an adventure travel operator based in Berkeley, California. With our bellies now full, we got acquainted with our bikes — I with my pedal assist e-bike, and my husband, Rich, with a titanium touring bike. Guided by a navigation device attached to each bike’s handlebar, we set out on our first ride through the Valley of the Giants, a 30-mile route from Buccheri along a ridge with views of the Sicilian countryside. 

Exterior of Four Seasons San Domenico Palace

Courtesy of Four Seasons

Our native Italian guides, Ania and Simone, prepared us each morning with a detailed description of our ride — the length and options for extra mileage, elevation gains, cultural highlights, and especially where we’d be stopping for meals and snacks (almond-flavored granita was a personal favorite). While our rides would take us past citrus groves, vineyards, olive trees, and towering wind turbines, our guides also warned that we’d likely encounter the occasional mountain of garbage.

Sicily's rich history and ethnic influences — its control over thousands of years passed among Greeks, Arabs, Spanish, and Normans before becoming a part of Italy in 1861 — touch every aspect of food and culture. Along each day’s route, which ranged between 25 and 55 miles, we stopped to sample the diversity of local fare, including arancini (deep-fried, flavored rice balls), cow's milk Ragusano cheese, pasta alla Norma with its eggplant and tomatoes, and the uniquely prepared chocolate from Modica. 

Organic cattle farm near Vizzini and prepared antipasto from Gisuseppe

Caren Osten

Food aside, traveling on two wheels offers an active, healthy way to get up close to the land and its people. No parking spots were needed to pull over and smell a ripening orange, or wave to a group of elderly men, sitting at a cafe enjoying a shakerato (a frothed version of iced espresso). 

An eye-opening level of access to local life showed up everywhere during our journey. One evening, we were shuttled by bus to an organic cattle farm near Vizzini, where its third-generation farmer, Giuseppe, gave us an impassioned tour of his farm and cows. He then invited us into his home, where we met his family and sat at a long table to eat a multicourse meal that included his farm’s beef, vegetables, and olive oil, as well as a friend’s local wine.  

Our five nights with Backroads were spread across three hotels: a quaint country inn near Grammichele, a magnificent contemporary resort outside of Noto with a 328-foot lap pool, and a dated seaside colony in Siracusa. After a challenging day of riding (for the uninitiated, you can pedal as hard as you want on an e-bike and choose the assist feature when desired), I discovered how physically and emotionally satisfying it is to cycle into the place where you'll rest your body at night, knowing your bag will be waiting in your hotel room.  

Welcome lunch in Siracusa and a private boat ride

From left: Sven Pole; Caren Osten

Our final riding day into Siracusa was long and tough, with a welcome lunch stop and extensive charcuterie board at an agriturismo associated with a pig farm. For our final evening as a Backroads group, Ania and Simone hosted alfresco cocktails overlooking the sea, before taking us on a short boat ride to Siracusa’s historic center on the island of Ortigia. At a long table looking out at the dramatically lit Piazza del Duomo, flanked by a baroque cathedral and several palaces, we toasted to our trip, celebrating the miles covered, meals savored, and friendships made.

Backroads morning detailed description of bike ride

Francisco Benavides

Cycling or not, no trip to Sicily should be without a stop to the hilltop town of Taormina, famous for its views of Mount Etna and ancient Greco-Roman theater. Rich and I chose to rest and recharge there for a few nights, staying at the San Domenico Palace, a beautifully refurbished 14th-century convent with stunning views, a rich history, and an impressive art collection. To avoid the heat and crowds, we headed straight to the Bay of Mazzaro — accessible by a cable car — and rented sun beds at the Villa Sant’Andrea, where we swam in the ocean and ate a seaside lunch of linguini and seafood. We took to the sea the following day, too — this time by boat. Using the website Click&Boat, we booked a half-day private tour, stopping in a blue grotto cave and past Isola Bella, a tiny island and nature reserve, before anchoring to soak up the sun and jump off for a swim. Our captain, Marco, spoke little English, but as we sipped prosecco and munched on local Ragusano cheese and Sicilian olives, our language barrier seemed less and less.

Caren Osten and husband Rich after a bike ride in Sicily and gelato freezer at GelatoMania

Caren Osten

Taormina’s main street, the Corso Umberto, is lined with shops, restaurants, and little alleys filled with bars and more places to eat. Drinks on the terrace of Grand Hotel Timeo at sunset, overlooking Mount Etna — the largest active volcano in Europe — is a perfect way to begin an evening in Taormina. And any time is a good time to stop at Gelatomania for one of the 30-plus flavors — as long as you save room for one more cannoli.

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