On our first morning in Syracuse, we stumbled to the nearest cafe for coffee and a bite to eat. Sunlight streamed onto the tables outside the Patisticceria Artale. The pedestrian street was narrow enough to feel intimate but busy enough to be interesting. The brioches had an orange glaze, and Sicily felt magical. Ortigia, the ancient heart of Syracuse, makes enjoying life ridiculously easy.
If Sicily is Italy’s jewel in the rough, Syracuse is its pearl. It isn’t flashy, but it has a gleam built up over thousands of years. It doesn’t have major beaches or large art museums, and it gets very, very hot in the summer. Nonetheless, it’s a popular spot for Italians, Europeans, and anyone looking for a laid-back place to enjoy turquoise water, delectable food, and 2,700+ years of history.
Ortigia: Syracuse’s Old City
Syracuse began on Ortigia (sometimes spelled Ortygia), a long island connected to the mainland by two short bridges. The Città Vecchia (Old City) still follows the layout of the ancient Greek city: diminutive streets interspersed with open piazzas. This is the most atmospheric part of Syracuse and definitely the place for visitors to stay. Most of the island limits vehicular traffic and is a pedestrian’s dream come true. Major services like banks and supermarkets cluster at the end by the bridges, so the further out you go, the less modern the atmosphere.
When Cicero famously called Syracuse “the greatest and most beautiful of the Greek cities,” he must have been thinking of Ortigia. It’s pretty hard not to be taken in by the place, from the promenades along the sea to the winding narrow streets of the interior. The Mediterranean beckons, and little swimming spots pop up around the perimeter of the island.
Most of Ortigia is residential, with two- or three- story pastel buildings in a relaxed baroque style. Restaurants and cafes serve seafood along with Sicilian specialties like pasta alla Norma, a savory eggplant and tomato-based dish I could happily eat forever. And while the island gets plenty of tourists, the ambiance is utterly mellow.
Close to the bridges lies Ortigia’s illustrious outdoor market, the Mercato di Siracusa (Vicolo Bagnara, Monday-Saturday from 7-1:45). I was tempted to shut my eyes and navigate by the smells of nuts and spices, but I didn’t want to miss all the colors.
There are numerous enticing restaurants near the market, but no one should miss Ortigia’s local institution Caseificio Borderi (Monday-Saturday, 7-4). The maestro of sandwiches entertains everyone in line with a running commentary on ingredients and anything else on his mind. You can ask for specifics or let him let choose from house-made cheeses and locally-sourced meats, vegetables, olive oil, and herbs. Five euros gets a sandwich that only an olympic athlete in training could finish.
2,700 Years of History on Ortigia in 120 Words
Perhaps the low-key attitude in Syracuse comes from a long history of alternating glory, defeat, and neglect. The Greek city on Ortigia is Sicily’s oldest recorded settlement. Founded in 734 BCE, Syracuse grew into a city which eventually surpassed Athens as a center for trade, knowledge, and the arts. But even in its heyday as a Mediterranean power, the city was constantly fighting: along with attacks from Carthage and other regional powers, there were uprisings against tyrants at home. Romans took over in 212 BCE, followed by a long list of other conquerors: Byzantines, Vandals, Goths, Arabs, Normans, pirates, Germans, Austrians, French, Spanish, the Kingdom of Naples, and finally the northern Italians determined to unify the country in 1865.
Ortigia: Greek Remnants
The Greek era left direct and indirect imprints on Syracuse. Most of the direct evidence, in the form of physical ruins, lies on the mainland section of the city. However, traces of the ancient Greek period can be found throughout Ortigia. Close to the the outdoor market, the site of the former Temple of Apollo holds the island’s main set of ruins. They date back to the 6th century BCE and were eventually repurposed by the Byzantine and later the Arab overlords. There are some portions of the walls left, but many of the remnants look like a giant’s scattered toys on the grass.
The waterfront past the harbor has a tree-lined promenade ending in the Fonte Aretusa, another famous Greek spot. Legend says this is where the nymph Arethusa emerged from her home beneath the sea in Arcadia. Today a spiraling ramp circles down to a pond full of papyrus. We didn’t visit the little museum at the bottom but did spend some time in the park next to it. Trees of epic proportions shade some benches as well as provide shelter for a colony of shy cats.
Archimedes, the Native Genius
You won’t get far in Syracuse without spotting a reference to Archimedes. The math teacher in me wants to write an entire post about the mathematician-physicist-astronomer-engineer-inventor and most famous native of Syracuse. After all, this is the man who invented exponents so he could calculate how many grains of sand the universe contains (8×1063), designed military defenses using mirrors, and came up with the principle of buoyancy in the legendary “Eureka!” moment. However, it’s hardly necessary when there are not one but two museums dedicated to Archimedes in Syracuse.
On Ortigia, the Museo Archimede e Leonardo showcases some of Leonardo da Vinci’s machines and illuminates how Archimedes influenced him. (Adult €6.50, Via Vincenzo Mirabella 31, 10:30-19:00.)
On mainland Syracuse, the Technoparco Museo di Archimede recreates many of Archimedes’ famous inventions. (Adult €6, Via Giuseppe Agnello 26, March-October: 9:30-6 and November-February 9:30-2.)
One final note: Romans never did break through Archimedes’ defenses during their siege of Syracuse in 214-212 BCE. However, someone let the invaders into the city, and a solider killed Archimedes. Supposedly he was working on a drawing, and his last words were, “Do not disturb my circles.”
Ortigia: Baroque Brilliance in the Piazza del Duomo
In 1693, a massive earthquake devastated south eastern Sicily, leveling virtually all of the remaining ancient structures. Consequently, there’s little evidence of the conquerors between the Greek years and the Baroque era.
Past and present come together in Ortigia’s Piazza del Duomo, the heart of the island. The Greek city lives on in the site of the agora (marketplace), where the columns of the former Temple of Athena were incorporated into the cathedral. The entire piazza was built in the same white stone used by the ancient Greeks, and the lack of color balances the typically Baroque abundance of decoration.
Many people consider Ortigia’s Piazza del Duomo to be one of the most beautiful piazzas in Italy, and I admit to gasping when I first saw it. One side of the space is straight, while the other side sweeps around in an elongated curve: this is Baroque architecture at its dynamic best. Even the smooth white ground conveys motion: I kept getting the urge to fling out my arms and glide rather than walk.
Mainland Syracuse: Greek Ruins at the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis
When the island became too small for its burgeoning population, the Greeks continued building on the mainland. The neapolis, or “new city”, preserves more of this period since it hasn’t been continuously occupied like Ortigia. In addition to the ruins of a third century BCE theatre, the park also holds the remains of a second century Roman amphitheater. There are also some lovely walking trails, and the fabled Ear of Dionysius.
If you’re staying on the island, catch the open-air electric minibus, complete with classical music on tinny speakers. (Buy €1 tickets on board, see link for stops.) The bus drops everyone off near the park’s entrance, with a cluster of tourist shops hawking t-shirts and the like. (Parco Archeologico della Neapolis: adult tickets €10 or €13 with Museo Archeologico, 8:30 to 1 hour before sunset.)
The Greeks took advantage of a hillside slope to site the theatre. Ancient drama fans can walk in the footsteps of Aeschylus, who staged a play here in 475 BCE. I was intrigued by the little cave-like rooms along the top rim: were they ancient box seats? Remnants of the site’s later use as a prison?
The Ear of Dionysius got its name from the Baroque painter Caravaggio, who may also be responsible for some of the legends about it. Dionysius was one of Syracuse’s most capable – and most tyrannical – rulers. Under his rule, the city boasted the most powerful navy in the Mediterranean, and the arts blossomed under his patronage. Unfortunately, his brutality became legendary; for instance, he imprisoned Plato for disagreeing with him and eventually sold him into slavery. Caravaggio’s name plays on the cave’s shape (not unlike a human ear) as well as rumors that Dionysius used its perfect acoustics to eavesdrop on prisoners. Another story says he enjoyed hearing the amplified screams of tortured captives. At any rate, earthquakes blocked part of the cave off so that today the amplification no longer works.
On August 11, 2021, Syracuse set a new record for the highest European temperature of all time: 119.8ºF/48.8ºC (!) Unless you’re prepared for extreme heat, avoid Syracuse in July and August. However, the weather couldn’t have been better when we visited in September: it was warm and sunny enough to swim but not hot.
Syracuse makes an ideal starting point for a trip to Sicily since it’s close to Catania, the main port of entry for the eastern side of the island. Day trip possibilities abound, from the UNESCO World Heritage towns of the Val de Noto to nearby beaches. For more information, see our posts below.
See our Sicily page for more posts.
For more on ancient Greeks in southern Italy, see our post on Paestum, just south of Naples and the Amalfi Coast.