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Day by Day Itinerary

Travel on this exciting Mediterranean vacation in Sicily, with its idyllic climate, dramatic vistas, and hearty cuisine that embodies all things Italian. But Sicily is also rich with its own culture, which is distinct from that of mainland Italy. You'll explore some of Sicily’s most enticing regions—in the vibrant capital city of Palermo, you’ll uncover Sicily’s Arab, Norman, and Roman heritage amid a rich tapestry of Mediterranean cultures. You’ll also enjoy two nights in Agrigento, where you’ll discover the Valley of the Temples, one of the world’s largest and best-preserved sites of Greek ruins, on an included tour. Next, discover the ancient city of Siracusa, known for its rich history of ancient civilizations. Then discover the cliffside resort town of Taormina, where you'll marvel at sweeping ocean and mountain views, presided over by the mighty Mount Etna. Your vacation concludes with two nights in Rome, including a tour of the city's highlights. When you join our newest Grand Circle Land Tour it's all yours, at an incredible value.

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    Depart today on your flight to Palermo, Sicily.

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    Arrival times vary throughout the day, depending on your city of departure. You'll be met at the airport and assisted to your hotel to begin your Mediterranean vacation.

    This evening, join your fellow travelers, including those who took our Amalfi Coast, Italy pre-trip extension, and Program Director for an orientation walk followed by a Welcome Drink and light dinner at a local restaurant.

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    Travel to Monreale after breakfast to witness the Arab-Norman splendor of the Monreale Cathedral, also known as the Duomo, during an included tour. Then head to Palermo and get acquainted with Sicily's capital on a stroll through its city center, taking in notable sites including the Palermo Cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century.

    Enjoy lunch on your own, and the afternoon to spend as you please. This evening, partake an exclusive Discovery Series Italian With & Without Words language lesson before heading to a local restaurant for your Welcome Dinner.

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    You have a full day to relax or explore at your own pace. You could visit the Archaeological Museum, featuring a noteworthy Etruscan collection and artifacts from the Hellenic temples at Selinunte. Tour the Abatellis Palace, admiring its gallery of Renaissance paintings. Visit the Mercato delle Pulci, a flea market well known for its antiques. Or take a stroll through the shopping area.

    Or, set off for an optional excursion to Cefalu, an enchanting fishing village and summertime resort that sits on a rocky outcrop in the center of Sicily's northern coast. The Greeks thought the rocky outcrop, the Rocca, resembled a head—kephalosin Greek—thus, the name of the town. Cefalu lies in a scenic locale between the massive peak and a long, sweeping beach. Take in the highlights of the village, including its splended cathedral, during a morning tour and then head to a nearby town for lunch in a seaside villa.

    Enjoy dinner on your own this evening.

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    This morning, set out through the Sicilian countryside on your way to the historic hilltop town of Corleone, inspiration for The Godfather book and films. Take a walk through the town with a local expert, followed by a chance to learn about Corleone's Past & Present during an informative discussion headed by some of the region's younger residents. Then, enjoy lunch at a local restaurant.

    Arrive at your hotel in Agrigento with time to relax and explore the neighborhood this afternoon. This evening, you'll dine with your fellow travelers at a local restaurant.

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    After breakfast at your hotel this morning, you'll visit the extraordinary Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on an included tour. These are among the greatest Greek ruins in the world, and the splendor of the temples—seven in the Doric style, built during the fifth and sixth centuries BC—rivals those in Athens. Here you'll see the Temple of Juno, with its excellent views of the entire valley, and the Temple of Concordia, beautifully preserved. The oldest ruin is traditionally named the Temple of Hercules, which includes the remnant of a large altar.

    This afternoon, you'll have free time to explore Agrigento. Later, enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.

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    This morning, you'll enjoy a very special experience—the chance to meet Sicilian schoolchildren at the Istituto Comprensivo M. L. King in Caltanissetta, part of Grand Circle Foundation's World Classroom project. An elementary school with 400 students, M.L. King is working to ensure that Sicily's children get a quality education—no small concern, given that Sicilian students are many times more likely than those of mainland Italy to drop out before graduating high school.

    En route to Siracusa today, you'll savor lunch at the Messana family country house in nearby the town of Caltanissetta.

    Arrive at your hotel in Siracusa in the late afternoon. You'll have time to relax and reflect on your day's discoveries before an orientation walk and dinner on your own.

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    This morning you'll enjoy a guided tour of Ortygia, the historical gem of Siracusa. We will admire the architectural splendor of ancient medieval streets, Baroque structures, and the cathedral—which was fashioned out of an ancient Greek temple.

    Of all the Greek cities of antiquity that flourished outside of Greece, Siracusa was the most important in all of the Mediterranean, and a formidable seafaring power nearly equal to Athens. In the heyday of its power, it dared to take on both Carthage and Rome. At one time, its wealth and size were unmatched by any other city in the ancient world, and today it is one of the richest historical sites in Europe.

    It is said that Siracusa is the birthplace of comedy in Greek theater, and was the only school of classical drama outside of Athens. During your free time you can visit remarkable Greek and Roman ruins, including the cave called "the Ear of Dionysius," because of its unusual shape, resembling a human ear. The cave is more than 200 feet long, and has such good acoustics that the ripping of paper can sound like a gunshot. It is said that the tyrant Dionysius forced his prisoners into the cave at night and was able to hear every word they said.

    Enjoy lunch and the afternoon at leisure to make your own discoveries. Dinner is at a local restaurant this evening.

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    Enjoy the day exploring Siracusa on your own. Perhaps you'll visit the Temple of Apollo, the oldest known Doric temple in western Europe, or the legendary Fountain of Arethusa. Maybe you'll take the day to stroll and see where your discoveries take you.

    Or discover the Baroque Heritage of Sicily on a full-day optional excursion. where you'll witness some of the best examples of the Sicilian Baroque in Val di Noto (southeast Sicily)—part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Your day begins with a visit to the Ragusa Ibla (Ancient Ragusa), where you'll tour the majestic Church of Saint George. This afternoon, your journey continues in the city of Modica, where you'll entice your taste buds with local chocolates during a tasting. The price of this tour includes lunch.

    Dinner is on your own this evening.

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    After breakfast, depart for Taormina. On the way, visit the small village of Savoca, a sleepy town of 1,700 nestled against lush hillsides where many scenes from The Godfather were shot, including the marriage of Michael Corleone and Appolonia Vitelli. Set off on a walk through town before lunch on your own and free time to further explore.

    Continue on to Taormina, where you'll check into your hotel and have some free time to relax before dinner at a local restaurant.

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    This morning,  embark upon a walking tour of Taormina, Sicily's most famous resort. Dating from the third and fourth centuries BC, Taormina is perched dramatically high on a rocky promontory overlooking the Ionian Sea. It's a charming medieval town with typical cobblestone streets leading into spacious squares graced by lovely 15th-century palazzi. Witness the extraordinary classical Greco-Roman theater—Taormina's most-visited site, offering a view of the rare beauty, Mount Etna and the seacoast. In the third century BC, the Greeks carved this theater on the slopes of Mount Tauro out of rock, and even today, the superb acoustics of the theater allow listeners in the last rows to hear a whisper on stage.

    Spend lunch the afternoon exploring on your own, perhaps taking the local funivia (cable car) up the hill for a view of the sea. Early this evening, partake in a discussion about Italian Volcanoes, including stories about infamous Mount Etna. Tonight, dinner is at a local restaurant.

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    The day is yours to relax, do some shopping, and explore on your own.

    You can also choose to join a full-day optional excursion to gain a new perspective on life at the base of Mount Etna. Visit a luthier in Randazzo to learn about the ancient craft of making and repairing string instruments. Then, stop by a local winery for a tour before heading to a pistachio farm northwest of the volcano to explore the grounds, learn about this valued product, and enjoy lunch on the grounds.

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    After breakfast, visit magnificent Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. The peak has changed in size over the years, but is presently listed around 10,000 feet. Etna has been active in modern times, destroying the village of Mascali in 1928, and erupting again in 1971, 1992, 2001, and 2002. It was beneath this mountain that Zeus crushed the multi-headed, hundred-handed, snake-infested dragon Typhoeus, thus attaining dominion over Olympus. Zeus forever banned the dragon to the infernal regions of Tartarus under Mount Etna. The Greeks warned that whenever Typhoeus tried to break out of his confinement, lava would spill forth and earthquakes would crack open the land. Your included tour goes up to the 6,000-foot mark to view evidence of the volcano's activity at Silvestri Crater.

    This afternoon, in Mitogio, a Sicilian family will welcome you for a traditional Home-Hosted Lunch, a delightful way to experience everyday life.

    Tonight, dinner is on your own.

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    • Meals included:
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    This morning, transfer to the airport in Catania for our afternoon flight to Rome. On the way, visit a history museum depicting the landing of Allied troops on the southern coast of Sicily in July of 1943. Then, experience a slice of local life when you visit a fish market before lunch on your own.

    Arrive in Rome in the late afternoon, and enjoy dinner on your own.

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    • Meals included:
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    After breakfast this morning, you’ll enjoy a panoramic tour of the "Eternal City" that gives you an overview of its main points of interest. You'll see and view the landmarks and monuments that are the signature attractions of this beautiful city.

    Following lunch on your own, enjoy the afternoon at leisure to make your own discoveries. You might stroll along Via del Corso, an almost mile-long stretch of palaces and shops, or spend time in the beautiful gardens of the Villa Borghese. Or stroll the Campo dei Fiori and explore the piazza with its booksellers, inns, small shops, and colorful morning markets.

    This evening, join your fellow travelers this evening for a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant.

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    • Meals included:

    This morning, transfer to the Rome airport for your flight home. You'll be given a box breakfast to take with you. Or, extend your Mediterranean vacation with our optional post-trip extension to Malta.

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Traveler Reviews

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Questions and Answers

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect

Pacing

  • 5 locations in 15 days

Physical Requirements

  • Walk 2-3 miles unassisted and participate in 3-5 hours of physical activities daily, including stairs
  • Not accessible for travelers using wheelchairs or scooters
  • Travelers using walkers, crutches, or other mobility aids must travel with a companion who can assist them
  • Program Directors reserve the right to modify participation or send travelers home if their limitations impact the group’s experience

Terrain & Transportation

  • Uneven walking surfaces, unpaved paths, steep hills, stairs, and cobblestones
  • Travel by 45-seat coach

Climate

  • Daytime temperatures range from 50-92°F during touring season
  • Temperatures on Mount Etna (altitude: 11,000 feet) range from 32-85°F
  • June-August are the warmest months
  • March and December weather can be unpredictable and change quickly

Cuisine

  • Meals will be based on the local cuisine

Travel Documents

Passport

Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.

Visas

U.S. citizens do not need a visa for this trip.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips

Accommodations

Main Trip

  • Grand Hotel et Des Palmes

    Palermo, Italy

    Set in the historic center of Palermo, on Via Roma, the Superior First-Class Grand Hotel et Des Palmes is less than a mile from the railway station and a few minutes’ walk from the port and the Teatro Massimo opera house. The Quattro Canti, where many of the city’s artistic sites and shopping areas are located, is also nearby. Hotel amenities include a bar and a pool. Your air-conditioned room includes a telephone, satellite TV, minibar, safe, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Dioscuri Bay Palace

    Agrigento, Sicily | Rating: First Class

    Set along the seafront of the San Leone, the Dioscuri Bay Palace is just a few minutes' drive from the Valley of Temples and the Agrigento city center. The hotel features lush gardens, an outdoor swimming pool, and bar. Each room includes satellite TV, safe, minibar, and hair dryer.

  • Grand Hotel Ortigia

    Siracusa, Italy | Rating: First Class

    With views overlooking the scenic Siracusa Harbor, the Grand Hotel Ortigia offers the best of the city's outdoor attractions, as well as indoor and outdoor pools and a health spa. Air-conditioned rooms come with a refrigerator, satellite TV, a telephone, minibar, and daily maid service.

  • Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay

    Taormina, Italy

    Set on the Bay of Mermaids, the Grand Hotel Atlantis Bay features easy access to Old Town of Taormina via cable car just a brief walk away. The 83 rooms all feature private bath with shower, satellite TV, Internet access, and in-room safe. Hotel amenities included an outdoor swimming pool overlooking the bay, a cocktail bar and restaurant featuring live music, and a fitness room.

  • Hotel Savoy

    Set in a former 19th-century palazzo, the Hotel Savoy features a convenient, central location, restaurant with terrace, and wireless Internet access. Each air-conditioned room includes satellite TV, a safe, and a private bath with hairdryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

Extensions

  • Grand Hotel Cesare Augusto

    Sorrento, Italy

    The First Class Grand Hotel Cesare Augusto is centrally located near the main square of Sorrento’s Piazza Tasso and shopping area, and five minutes away from public transportation, with many restaurants within walking distance. The hotel includes a restaurant, lounge, roof garden with outdoor swimming pool (open from June to September), and solarium, and each room features a private balcony, air-conditioning, telephone, TV, safe, and private bath with hair dryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • The Victoria Hotel

    Sliema, Malta | Rating: Superior First Class

    The Superior First-Class Victoria Hotel is a small hotel with a Victorian flair. Each of its 140 air-conditioned rooms boasts a private bath, satellite/cable TV, minibar, telephone, and coffee- and tea-making facilities. The hotel's city center location makes it ideally located for discovery, while its indoor/outdoor pools and two restaurants make for a relaxing stay.

  • Hotel Savoy

    Set in a former 19th-century palazzo, the Hotel Savoy features a convenient, central location, restaurant with terrace, and wireless Internet access. Each air-conditioned room includes satellite TV, a safe, and a private bath with hairdryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

Flight Information

Your Flight Options

Whether you choose to take just a base trip or add an optional pre- and post-trip extension, you have many options when it comes to personalizing your air—and creating the Grand Circle vacation that’s right for you:

Purchase Flights with Grand Circle

  • Work with our expert Air Travel Consultants to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Upgrade to business or premium economy class
  • Customize your trip by staying overnight in a connecting city, arriving at your destination a few days early, or spending additional time in a nearby city on your own
  • Combine your choice of Grand Circle vacations to maximize your value

Make Your Own Arrangements

  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline
  • Purchase optional airport transfers to and from your hotel
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent flyer miles

OR, leave your air routing up to us and your airfare (as well as airport transfers) will be included in your final trip cost.

Estimated Flight Times

We understand that international travel has unique challenges including fewer airline choices and limited flight schedules. The chart below provides estimated travel times and the typical number of connections from popular departure cities to help you plan for your trip.

Please note that traveling to Palermo, and from Rome, will require multiple connections, and these flight rigors should be taken into consideration.

Partner since: 2013
Total donated: $167,728

Preparing Sicily's children with modern technology

Just by traveling with us, you’re supporting Grand Circle Foundation’s World Classroom initiative and helping Sicilians schoolchildren prepare for their future. Because the best way to sustain a community is through education, we’ve donated funds to the Istituto Comprensivo M. L. King. You’ll visit this school (when in session) and see the energy of the students who will write the next chapters in Sicily's long history.

Istituto Comprensivo M.L. King

Partner since: 2013 • Total donated: $2,496

When you travel to Sicily with Grand Circle, you'll be supporting the technological futures of some of its schoolchildren. Grand Circle Foundation has been working with the Istituto Comprensivo M. L. King to ensure that its 400 students have access to books as well as a computer, printer, video projector, and more. Though Sicily has historically lagged behind mainland Italy in school completion rates, the educators here are optimistic that by providing an education with modern technology, these children can provide a bright future for their island.

School in session:

September through early June

Gifts to bring if you're visiting:

  • Pencils
  • Early reader books
  • Educational toys
Alan and Harriet Lewis founded Grand Circle Foundation in 1992 as a means of giving back to the world we travel. Because they donate an annually determined amount of revenue from our trips, we consider each one of our travelers as a partner in the Foundation’s work around the world. To date, the Foundation has pledged or donated more than $97 million in support of 300 different organizations—including 60 villages and nearly 100 schools that lie in the paths of our journeys.

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What Makes This Trip Unique

Exclusive Discovery Series Events

  • Italian With & Without Words discussion. Learn how to parla Italiano and connect with locals during an exclusive Discovery Series Italian lesson on your tour.
  • Corleone’s Past & Present discussion. Learn about the history of the Mafia from a village native.
  • Country house lunch. Share Sicilian cuisine and hospitality as you join a family at their country house.
  • Italian Volcanoes discussion. Learn what it’s like having Mount Etna as a neighbor.
  • Home-Hosted Lunch. Gather with a family in the village of Mitogio for a meal featuring local cuisine.

Enjoy the opportunity to visit 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

  • Siracusa
  • Valley of the Temples in Agrigento

10 reasons to experience Discover Sicily: Heart of the Mediterranean—in the words of our travelers

We often find that the best endorsements of our discovery-rich vacations come directly from our travelers. Stunning architectural achievements, breathtaking Italian landscapes, and succulent Mediterranean cuisine await those who travel to Sicily with us. Here are some memorable experiences our travelers shared.

Siracusa
"Most memorable moment … a warm evening sitting in the Piazza del Duomo in Ortygia, eating a wonderful meal with friends and watching the evening passagiata in the glow of the cathedral."
A 2-time traveler from Sarasota, FL

Home-Hosted Lunch
"A major highlight was the Home-Hosted Lunch ... Our hosts used home-grown produce to prepare our meal. They were very warm. Even though they did not speak English, some of us were able to communicate in Italian."
A 35-time traveler from Blackwood, NJ

Mount Etna
"... we received a lecture on Mount Etna by a 'volcanoligist,' which was superb. We then visited Mount Etna by being bused to the 6,000-foot level of the 11,000-foot volcano. I keep using the word 'unbelievable,' but this really fit the category."
A 6-time traveler from Annandale, VA

Corleone's Past & Present discussion
"Prior to this trip, I had no interest in the Mafia, but after the stop in Corleone at the Mafia museum, with an insightful explanation from our local guide who has three generations of personal family interaction with major mafia families, it has opened my eyes and provided a real appreciation of the rise and fall and transformation of this organization."
A 9-time traveler from Rochester, MN

Amalfi Coast, Italy pre-trip extension
"The pre-trip to Sorrento was wonderful … Sorrento is just a neat town to walk around in, sit and have a drink, watch the people go by. The included tour of the Amalfi Coast was spectacular!"
A 10-time traveler from Colorado Springs, CO

Program Director
"Our tour leader, Marcello, was one of the best we have had in 13 trips. He was there with bounds of energy to satisfy everyone's needs. His knowledge and love of Sicily was wonderful to experience with him. The special added treats he had for us made the trip special."
A 13-time traveler from Canton, GA

Local history
"… the sights we saw, of ancient civilizations, were incredible. Sicily was a crossroads of cultures over thousands of years, and the people come from many strands of Mediterranean DNA."
A 28-time traveler from Marietta, GA

Scenic landscapes
"I was stunned by the wonderful scenery that Sicily has to offer … the sheer beauty of the little villages and seaports is amazing …"
A 7-time traveler from Castle Rock, CO

Malta post-trip extension
"Malta was a treasure, and it is worth the extra time to visit. We especially enjoyed learning about St. Paul's shipwreck and influence on the island."
A 16-time traveler from Lakewood, NJ

Valley of the Temples
"The Valley of the Temples, both during the day and night, reveal a world that we can only try to imagine."
A 4-time traveler from Harwich, MA

Want to travel to Sicily? Call us toll-free at 1-800-221-2610 for reservations and information.

The Lowest Price & the Best Value

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Reserve a single room on your main trip and extensions and enjoy a value of up to $835 versus other travel companies.

Vacation Ambassador Referral Program

Earn increasing CASH or credit rewards for each new traveler you refer as a Vacation Ambassador. Refer just two travelers to earn $200.

Good Buy Plan

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Frequent Traveler Credits

When you return from a trip, you receive a credit worth 5% of that total trip cost that you can apply to your next trip. On average, that’s $315 in savings. NEW: Sign into My Account to see any personalized credits you may have.

INNER CIRCLE BENEFITS

Our most loyal travelers—members of our Inner Circle—can now save even more:

  • Multiple Trip Credits
    Upon returning from your 2nd to 9th trips, save $250 on your second trip reserved in a calendar year and on any additional trips you take within the year, and upon returning from your 10th trip, your savings will increase to $350.
  • 6% Frequent Traveler Credits
    You’ll begin to earn extra credit after you return from your fifth trip—and on every subsequent vacation.

See How Much You'll Save

Watch these savings add up using the tool below. Simply click the blue box on the scale below to drag to each month to see your potential savings. Remember, the earlier you pay in full prior to your final payment due date, the more you save. NEW: With our new personalized feature, if you sign into My Account providing your user name and password, you can see any existing Frequent Traveler Credits you may have accumulated from a previous trip displayed in the chart below.

Our Travel Counselors will help you find your savings.
Call toll-free at 1-800-221-2610. Or, start building the trip that’s right for you

Dates & Prices

*All figures are examples only. Vacation Ambassador and Frequent Traveler savings shown are based on the average credits earned by Grand Circle travelers. Please note that some benefits cannot be combined. For your specific savings, contact a Travel Counselor. Standard Terms & Conditions apply. Every effort has been made to produce this information accurately. We reserve the right to correct errors.

History, Culture & More

Learn more about the history, art, culture, and more you’ll discover on this trip by reading the features below. These articles were collected from past newsletters, Harriet’s Corner, and special features created for Grand Circle by our team of writers.

Siracusa: City of Antiquity

Read about the fascinating history of this ancient Mediterranean cultural hub.

Read More »

The Sicilian Mafia

From The Godfather to The Sopranos, find out where this underworld organization got its roots.

Read More »

Gold in the Groves: Sicily’s Olive Harvest

In a land where olive oil is as good as gold, it all starts with the perfect harvest.

Read More »

History, Culture & More

Siracusa

The city of antiquity

by Philip McCluskey, for Grand Circle

Cicero called Siracusa “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.” Archimedes had his famous “Eureka!” moment here, and luminaries such as Plato, Sappho, and Caravaggio were drawn here during the city’s artistic and intellectual awakening. The city is mentioned in the Bible as a stop for the proselytizing Saint Paul, and is the celebrated birthplace of Greek theater. Siracusa has many claims to fame, and its history is as fascinating as it is long.

From colony to colonizer

Siracusa was originally settled by the Corinthians in 734 BC, and the settlers chose an ideal location on the southeastern coast of Sicily: It had two natural ports, was near fertile lands, and could be easily defended from attackers. Within 100 years, the city had become so successful that it was sending out colonists to other parts of Sicily. It soon became a locus of power on the island: a status that drew those in search of power themselves.

Dionysius the despot

The city reached its peak during the tyrannical reign of Dionysius the Elder, who ruled from 405 until 367 BC. Rising from humble beginnings as a clerk in public office, Dionysius used his impressive military prowess (and considerable guile) to become ruler of the city. His rule saw a number of wars—most notably with Carthage—yet it also saw the development of the city walls and its reputation as a strong military power. One site in Siracusa is named for the famous tyrant: the Orecchio di Dionisio, or “Ear of Dionysius.” The entrance to this 200-foot-long cave is similar in shape to a human ear, which may help explain the cave’s remarkable acoustics. Any sound made inside the cave can be amplified up to 16 times; it is said that the eponymous dictator would cast his prisoners here at night so that he could hear every word they said.

A stream of conquerors and a string of bad luck

After the Romans took over in AD 211, Siracusa retained its status as a provincial capital but gradually started to lose its power and influence. Subsequent periods of Frankish, Norman, Byzantine, Arab, Swabian, and Spanish rule only further depleted its standing in the Mediterranean. Earthquakes in 1542 and 1693 destroyed a number of important buildings. By the time it was being bombed by both Allied and German forces during World War II, much of the city’s rich cultural heritage had been destroyed or was in disrepair.

Restoring Siracusa

Thanks to impressive reconstruction efforts undertaken in Siracusa, some of the most interesting pieces of the city’s history have been restored. The most important reemergence has been the island of Ortygia, the nucleus of the city. Strolling through the medieval streets here, travelers see the remnants of Greek, Roman, Norman and Baroque architecture, recalling the many iterations of life on this tiny isle. They are all clustered around the Piazza de Duomo, the attractive city square that is home to the city’s famous Cathedral.

You can also find the Fountain of Arethusa in Ortygia, a site which is featured in Greek mythology. It is said that the river god Alpheios fell in love with a water nymph named Arethusa. Arethusa, the story goes, ran all the way to Ortygia to escape the river god’s advances. When she arrived, she asked for the help of the goddess Artemis, who protected all women. In order to hide Arethusa from the pursuing Alpheios, Artemis turned her into a freshwater spring. Alpheios was clever however, and rerouted his river to mix with Arethusa’s. Now, it is said that Arethusa and Alpheios mingle forever in this fountain.

Siracusa is also said to be the birthplace of Greek theater, and was the only school of classical drama outside of Athens. The Greek Theater, originally built in the fifth century BC, was carved from rock on Temenite Hill and was home to performances of legendary playwrights Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Though it certainly shows signs of age (and you would too if you were 2,600 years old), the theater is remarkably intact—so much so that it is still a center of public life of the city. In fact, Siracusans still gather here for Greek tragedies, especially in May and June for the city’s annual Greek Theater Festival.

A fascinating past, a bright future

In naming Siracusa a World Heritage Site in 2005, UNESCO noted that the city offered “a unique testimony to the development of Mediterranean civilization over three millennia.” The city is now among the most popular places to visit in Sicily, thanks in large part to the edificial evidence of its rich and varied history. Perhaps it is fitting that Siracusa’s past is a big part of what will no doubt be a promising future.

History, Culture & More

The Sicilian Mafia

by Jerry O’Brien from Insider

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Ah, The Godfather. Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel sold more than 20 million copies and remains one of the best-selling books of all time; Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 motion picture and its sequel two years later are undisputed classics, and for good reason. The characters are unforgettable, and many of us can quote the incisive, dramatic dialogue from memory—probably with a reasonable accent.

Origins of the Mafia

The Mafia started up in western Sicily in the mid-19th century, with the vacuum created by the repeated failure of municipal officials to guarantee and enforce inherited property rights. Private entrepreneurs and their teams stepped in to make deals, offer protection, and collect payments. It wasn’t long before law enforcement, the courts, and politicians were drawn into the increasingly powerful web of the families that controlled their respective districts.

The word mafia is generally believed to be derived from the Sicilian word mafiusu, meaning boldness. But the word’s connection to a group of organized criminals stems from a very popular Sicilian play of 1863, The Mafiosi of the Vicaria, about a Palermo prison gang with a leader, a rite of initiation, and an omerta, or code of silence.

Rise to power

Although the Mafia’s role in Sicilian life decreased substantially under Mussolini, the influx of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops—and millions of dollars for reconstruction projects— gave the Mafia fertile ground for growth in Sicily in the years following World War II. The Allies replaced many Fascist mayors with Mafia officials, who were favored because they were rigorous anti-Communists. Soon the whole of the construction industry—from quarries to bricklayers—was under Mafia control.

Turning up the heat

As the money flowed, clan rivalries increased, leading to gun battles often played out in the streets. As scores of innocent people died in the crossfire, a public outcry led to thousands of arrests in the early 1960s, but to little effect. In the next two decades, the growing worldwide demand for narcotics brought more money than ever to the Mafia, and increased their control over politicians all over Italy. Judges, prosecutors, priests, and journalists who went after the Mafia were murdered, in Sicily and on the mainland—a campaign of violence that largely drew to a close in 1995 with the ascension of Bernardo Provenzano as chief. A decade of Pax Mafiosi was underway.

Provenzano was arrested in 2006, near his hometown of Corleone, after eluding capture for 43 years. Within weeks, more than 50 Mafia officials were arrested in Palermo alone. Provenzano and many other Mafia bosses are believed to still control criminal activity from behind bars. Despite aggressive, ongoing police investigations and prosecutions—all with the support of the Italian Parliament—law-enforcement officials estimate that the Mafia costs the Sicilian economy more than $12 billion annually in protection money alone.

History, Culture & More

Gold in the Groves

Sicily’s autumn olive harvest

by David Valdes Greenwood and Amanda Morrison from Insider

Laughter echoes among the trees in the thick Sicilian groves, as husbands and wives, old friends, grandparents and children alike join in the annual olive harvest. Each fall, these edible treasures become the focus of Italian village life in a ritual that stretches back at least two millennia here. As ancient historian Pliny the Elder wrote, “Next to the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.” To this day, his countrymen would likely agree with that assessment: olives are the island’s most dependable renewable resource.

Hand-picked harvest

With short trees and a rugged landscape, Sicily’s groves are inhospitable to the kind of mechanical olive-harvesting trucks used in some parts of the world. Almost all olive-picking here is done the old fashioned way, by hand. From mid-September until the last chilly days of November, men and women spread mesh nets beneath the trees like fishermen catching fruit and then shake the branches until they rain olives. It’s not uncommon to see harvesters troubling the highest limbs with a garden rake, so as not to miss a precious orb or two.

What happens next depends on the olive’s final destination. If it is headed for the table, it will need to rest—olives picked off the tree are far too hard and bitter to just pop in your mouth. They must be washed, then brined (in a bath of water and salt) for weeks or months before they are ready to eat. Only then can the pungent fruit be chopped and added to a fresh caponata of eggplant and capers, or a left whole in a simple Sicilian salad of olives, celery, carrot, onion, and garlic.

Preparing the perfect press

If one dreams of making olive oil, however, time is of the essence: The flavor is best if the olives are pressed the day of harvest—and good flavor is no small issue in a place where olive oil is known as “liquid gold.”

Olive oil aficionados debate which other factors come into play as well. Some argue that the specific village makes a difference and some claim that the style of press alters the flavor, but nearly everyone agrees that handpicking method matters most of all.

The gold standard of all oils is Extra Virgin. A low acidity oil made from olives pressed only once, it’s most ideal for making a salad dressing, drizzling on vegetables, or for dipping bread into. In most olive-growing countries, Extra Virgin oil makes up less than 10% of all the olives produced, but nearly half the oil pressed here is Extra Virgin, a fact of which the locals are justifiably proud.

Though Sicilians don’t go quite as far as the ancient Greeks, whose athletes slathered themselves in the oil, they do see olives as crucial to their culture and their economy alike. So when you visit Sicily, make sure you sample both the olives and the oil, savoring a culinary tradition that helped earn the island the nickname “God’s Kitchen.”

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