Ortigia is a small island just off the city of Syracuse, on Sicily’s east coast. Its a tiny little place but packs a punch – with beautiful buildings and plenty to see, do, eat and drink. We stopped off for two nights during our Sicilian road trip and highly recommend visiting – it’s charming!
So without further ado – here is my short guide to visiting Ortigia.
It’s hard to imagine, but back in the day Syracuse was the largest and most important city in the ancient Greek world. Bigger than Athens, it had over 300,000 people and was an economic, military and political powerhouse. Ortigia is a small island just off mainland Syracuse and is where the first settlements were made. Due to an ever-growing city, the town quickly outgrew the island and expanded onto mainland Sicily. The whole region is Syracuse.
Ortigia is still the historical heart of Syracuse, and is joined by three bridges. It’s known as the ‘old town’ – and it’s an absolute treasure! It is brimming with two and a half thousand years of history and many notable buildings and ruins are available to investigate if you’re interested. Due to its tumultuous history with a number of different rulers (much like the rest of Sicily!), building styles vary hugely all over the island. You’ll see everything from medieval Norman buildings and Baroque masterpieces, to Roman and Greek ruins. In 1693 an enormous earthquake damaged many of the south-eastern Sicilian towns, including Ortigia. In the years after the earthquake, buildings were built in a style which is today recognised as ‘Sicilian Baroque’. Walking around Ortigia today you’ll see an incredible juxtaposition – crumbling and decrepit buildings stand close to magnificent and detailed monuments. It all makes for a most lovable place with a wonderful atmosphere!
Things to do in Ortigia
Visit the daily market
Market-going is an everyday part of Sicilian life (and who am I kidding – my life too!). And it’s no wonder! – they have their markets down to a fine art. If you’ve read my Palermo guide, you’ll know all about the markets. A guide about visiting Ortigia would be incomplete without suggesting heading to the market.
Get to know the Ortigian locals and set your senses on fire by visiting the Ortigia daily market which takes place every morning (except Sunday) on Via Emmanuele De Benedectis. It is everything you hope for in a traditional Italian market and more! A dazzling array of all things seafood, mounds of vibrant, seasonal fruit and veggies, and pots of fragrant herbs. Stalls are laden with wheels of cheese and cured meats hang from their make-shift stalls. And, as with any authentic Italian place, there is plenty of enthusiastic shouting and gesticulating to keep you entertained. There is also plenty to keep you fuelled and hydrated here too. I can whole heartedly recommend a sandwich from Caseificio Borderi, or a sweet, ricotta-filled-croissant and espresso from the unmissable delicatessen ‘I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti’. Both these places are at the end of the market road – closest to the sea.
Sit and people watch in the Piazza del Duomo –
For an island so small, Ortigia certainly has some of the grandest buildings I have ever seen, as mentioned in the ‘history’ section above. Grab a few cold beers from a corner store or find an outside seat in a nearby bar and sit and watch the world go by. Piazza del Duomo is a wonderful pedestrian only square at the base of the Syracuse Duomo. Incredible buildings line the piazza and there is always a buzz. Artists paint, musicians busk and local children play. All the small streets and alleys coming off the piazza are worth exploring too.
Wander the streets –
Wandering is a huge part of what I love about travel – hence ‘Wander Pip’. The best way to get your bearings, see the island and find all the wonderful nooks and crannies is simply by wandering. So I suggest you just follow your nose and get lost in the streets. It is hard to get properly lost as the island is only about 1km by 500m big. There are plenty of picturesque alleys lined with potted plants, wooden shutters and fluttering strings of fresh washing, as well as a good handful of majestic piazza’s and elegant cathedrals. Around every corner is a tabacchi-turned-pasticceria selling arancini, a buzzing trattoria or street bar serving refreshing spritz’s. The nicest thing is that much of Ortigia is pedestrian only, so there are no cars or police sirens to disrupt your meander. Watch out for scooters however – they zip round corners like it’s no body’s business!
Visit the beach –
The island of Ortigia only really has one beach, which although isn’t the best (it’s pretty rocky), is perfectly adequate for a cool off after wandering the streets. It is on the east side of the island, toward the southern end. It’s not big, but it is handy to town.
If you’re after a bit more of a ‘beachy’ beach however, then there are some great spots just a few kilometres down the coast – which if you have a car are a breeze to get to.
We visited Fontane Bianche which is about 18km down the coast and is beautiful. It was early May so it was rather quiet but still warm enough to swim. The sand is soft and white and the water incredibly clear and a dazzling turquoise blue. If you don’t have a car, it is possible to get to Fontane Bianche via bus or train from Syracuse. You can buy train tickets from Syracuse train station for around €2.50 and there are around 8 trains throughout the day. Bus routes and times can be found here.
Our Airbnb host also recommended a few other beaches which we didn’t get to, but may be worth checking out:
- Arenella beach (12km down the coast from Ortigia), a golden beach with some rocks and beautiful water. There are some beach club/umbrella rental areas. And,
- Ognina, is a rocky part of the coast best for snorkelling and rock jumping. You can rent boats from this beach.
- I’ve found this website useful for discovering beaches in the area and finding out what facilities each of them has.
Sunset at the jetty –
The western side of the island is the most magical place to watch the sun go down. In the hours before sunset, every bar and restaurant on that side of the island (especially around Fonte Aretusa) packs out with people enjoying an aperitivo. If you want a table at one of these spots – you need to get in early, and prepare to pay a touch more for drinks.
However, a few metres north of Fonte Aretusa (before the harbour), is a pedestrian jetty that juts in to the sea. THIS is the spot for a DYI aperitivo or picnic. Not only are you away from the throngs of tourists, but the jetty has a great vantage of the setting sun and a great view looking back at the island’s waterfront buildings which glow in the evening light. It’s a pretty special spot if you ask me! There’s no better place to nibble on your fresh market purchases and sip local wine.
Shop/gallery hop –
For a place so small, Ortigia has some rather cute shops and a wonderful art/gallery scene. I apologise – I keep saying ‘for a place so small’ – it’s as if I don’t think small places could have such wonderful things! But good things truly do come in small packages.
Anyway! Many of the narrow streets have tiny shops that are like Aladdins Cave – full of creative treasures. Many of them are studio-come-shop, so many of the artists will be inside if you visit. Circa Fortuna was a little shop just round the corner from our accommodation – I just loved her drawings!
Delve into history –
If history is your thing, then you’ve certainly come to the right place – Ortigia is brimming with it. There are myths and legends accompanying most buildings! If you want to spend some time covering the main spots, then there are a number of walking tours that will explain everything (there are a couple of different ones on Google). Otherwise look out for the Temple of Apollo, Fonte Aretus and Piazza Achimede while you’re wandering around and get Wiki-ing.
Where to eat when visiting Ortigia
- Ortigia Market
As mentioned in the ‘things to do in ortigia’ section, the market is a great place to find fresh produce and plenty of food. Take a look at this post for a guide on Sicilian specialities to look out for. If you’re staying in an apartment with a kitchen I definitely recommend getting inspired by the market and buying ingredients to make your own meal – you won’t find fresher ingredients! The seafood and veggies are especially great.
I also mentioned two places worth visiting/eating at – Caseificio Borderi does delicious sandwiches which are constructed in a very Italian fashion, right in front of you. I Sapori dei Gusti Smarriti (translates to mean literally the flavours of lost tastes) is the next door delicatessen. It’s interior is very elegant and very chic. Jars of preserves and bottles of olive oil line the walls and the counters are laden with cheese and charcuterie. If their croissants and coffee are anything to go by – then the rest will be delicious too.
- Comu na Vota (pizza)
This little pizza place is located on possibly my favourite street on the whole island – Via del Crocifisso. It’s narrow and curvy and there are pot plants for Africa – the cutest. We had our pizza to go so that we could enjoy it on the steps of the Duomo and it was delicious and super well priced.
- Voglia Matta (gelato)
We didn’t venture much on to mainland Syracuse, but when we did it was to visit this gelato shop which we had been recommended. It’s just over the bridge from Ortigia and is certainly worth the small trip. The staff were super friendly and they had a delicious range of gelato. It also serves granita, brioche, coffee and pastries. Yummo!
- Taverna Giudecca Ortigia (antipasti/aperitivo)
A super cute wine bar that does a delicious range of mix and match antipasti and charcuterie. Located on Via della Giudecca.
Where to stay when visiting Ortigia
The island of Ortigua is incredibly small – you can literally walk the perimeter of it in a couple of hours (granted you don’t get too side-tracked!). And so, it doesn’t really matter where you stay as everything is in pretty quick walking distance. If you stay on the Western side of the island you’ll get plenty of afternoon sun and the sunset. We stayed on Via delle Vergini (near to the Fonte Aretusa), and found it to be a perfect location. If you are planning on spending most of your time in Ortigia (rather than Syracuse), then I definitely recommend staying on the island (even if it is a little more expensive). There’s nothing like strolling charming streets with a gelato in hand to get home after a meal out – rather than jumping in a car!
Also, in hindsight we would have loved to have had a proper kitchen. If you love food or cooking then you’ll find it really hard going to the market and not being able to buy the incredible produce for cooking your own Italian feast. Next time – a kitchen is definitely on the cards.
Ortigia practicalities and logistics
Parking is relatively easy on Ortigia – so long as you don’t parking right outside your accomodation! Immediately after crossing the Ponte Umbertino, the main bridge to the island, take either an immediate right or left for public parking. Not only is Ortigia mostly pedestrian only, its all so small that you simply won’t need your car. Park it for the duration you’re there and enjoy!
How to get to Ortigia
Catania is the closest big city and airport to Syracuse/Ortigia. It’s an hours drive or 1hour 45min on the train. There are also regular buses which take around 2hours.
Why visit Ortigua?
It’s a pocket-sized place that oozes history and charm. The streets are quaint, the food is delicious and the people friendly. There’s really not much else needed for a perfect Italian escape.