Naples vs Sicily – Where Should You Visit?

Written by Rem Malloy, since 1995 Rem has been guiding and designing trips to Italy and all of Western Europe and is considered an expert in his field for over 30 years.

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Naples and Sicily are two Italian locations that have been linked since their historic joining in the 1200s to become the Kingdom of Sicily. Today, Sicily is an autonomous island region of the country and Naples remains one of the most popular cities in Italy despite a complex past, with both destinations seeing thousands of tourists from around the world every year.

Sicily is found in the Mediterranean Sea just off the southern tip of Italy, enjoying aspects of Greek, Italian and Mediterranean culture. Naples is a huge city on the west coast of the country, surrounded by the Bay of Naples and the Gulfs of Salerno and Pozzuoli as well as being flanked by Mount Vesuvius and the volcanic area of Campi Flegrei.

The question of visiting Naples vs Sicily is a tricky one, as both locations have a lot to offer in terms of food, culture and sightseeing attractions that make them brilliant alternatives to popular tourist destinations like VeniceRome and Tuscany. To help you decide which of these two coastal destinations to visit on your vacation, we’ve put together this guide on how to choose between Sicily and Naples.

HISTORY

Naples is one of the oldest places in the world, with records dating back almost 4000 years to when the ancient Greeks first established a settlement on the coast. The historic city of Neopolis was established and founded a culture that survived even after a Roman invasion.

Naples passed from Roman control to Goth, Byzantine, Lombard and Norman rule before becoming a part of the Kingdom of Sicily in 1266 and getting named its capital. During the Renaissance period of the 15th century, the rule of the King of Aragon, Alfonso I, made the city one of the most influential locations of the time, second only to Florence.

After falling under the power of the Spanish Empire in the 16th century, Naples swelled in population and size and became one of the largest cities in Europe. Whilst this did lead to the establishment of a Neapolitan Republic during the next two centuries, Naples was then conquered by Napoleon.

After once again becoming part of the Kingdom of Sicily, Naples eventually joined the unification of Italy in the late 1800s, although this process took a while because of the city’s power and defined culture. Whilst the location prospered after this, in part because of its favour as a Grand Tour destination, Naples suffered politically and economically in the 19th and 20th century and has only recently begun rebuilding its reputation as a safe and successful part of Italy.

Sicily is the largest region in Italy, consisting of an island found just off the ‘toe’ of the country’s boot. With a long history of different rulers and inhabitants, the island has a long and varied history that begins with the first significant colonization of the region in the 8th century B.C by Greek settlers. 

Roman troops took control of Sicily almost two hundred years later in 212 B.C and ruled for six centuries, slowly trying to introduce their culture to the island and partially succeeding. Sicily was then invaded again after this period and fell under the rule of both Byzantine and Arabic groups.

Sicily became an independent kingdom in 1071 and was ruled by the Normans, who brought a lot of political and economic prosperity to the island. Control of the island passed to several different countries in the 17th century before Sicily became a Spanish island right at the start of the 1700s. The unification of Italy in the late 1800s marked the final change of control for the island, and Sicily was finally established as an autonomous region of the country in 1946.

Both locations have a rich and fascinating history, with plenty to discover in Naples and across the island of Sicily. If you’re looking for classic ancient historical monuments and lots of Greek and Roman history then Sicily is the best option for your vacation, whereas Naples is still full of history but more suited to those who want to learn the history of Neapolitan culture.

CULTURE

Sicily is a region that has one of the most unique and defined cultures in all of Italy, thanks to its long history of different rulers and the continued influence of its position in the Mediterranean Sea. Aspects of Italian culture such as a laid-back approach to life and an emphasis on the importance of family are prominent in Sicily, but there are some significant differences in language, cuisine and politics.

Although the island has inspired several famous artists and writers in the past, regions of mainland Italy have more of an impressive cultural offering in terms of art and music than Sicily, so it’s not considered one of the best cultural locations in the country. Religion and festivals do play quite an important part in the local culture on the island however, so if you’re visiting during Christmas or Easter in particular then you can expect festive celebrations like markets, parades and live music, dance and theatre.

Naples has long been thought of as a top cultural destination in Italy, referred to by many as an ‘open-air museum’ because of the sheer number of monuments, statues and historic sites that are found around the city. Since the Renaissance, artists, writers and scholars have flocked to Naples to enjoy its prosperity, leaving it with a sterling reputation for art, music, theatre, poetry and prose.

The historic influence of the city’s power means that there is still a clearly defined Neapolitan culture, even though Naples has been a part of Italy for hundreds of years. Language, food and lifestyle in the area are all different to what you will find across most of mainland Italy, although locals still place a strong emphasis on family and treat life with a relatively relaxed attitude.

As a city, Naples has a much richer cultural history than Sicily and more of a modern art, music and theatre scene as well. If you’re looking for plenty of cultural experiences on your Italian vacation then Naples is the best choice of the two locations.

ARCHITECTURE

As one of the oldest cities in the world, it’s no surprise that Naples has a huge range of architecture that encompasses both ancient and modern styles. Poverty, war and general lack of repair have meant that many examples of historic architecture are in various states of ruin, but there are still plenty of brilliant churches, buildings and monuments to be found around the city that are perfect for architecture fans.

Inside the city’s historic centre there are palaces, palazzos and religious buildings from across the centuries, with many museums and galleries also housed inside spectacular buildings. One of the architectural highlights of Naples is The San Carlo Theatre, one of the most impressive theatres in the world and the largest building of its kind in Italy.

Sicily has an incredible architectural offering for a relatively small island, with many ruins from Ancient Greek times as well as buildings from Byzantine, Arabic, African and Norman periods of inhabitants. If you’re a fan of historic architecture and want to see examples of Greek and Roman structures in particular, you’ll find more than enough to explore on the island.

Highlights for ancient architecture fans include the Taormina Amphitheatre, Roman ruins in Tindari, the Sicily Archaeological Park and the acropolis ruins at Selinunte.

The jewel in the crown of Sicily’s architectural offering however is The Valley of the Temples; a huge outdoor park that is home to numerous preserved ruins that were once temples for ancient civilizations.

When it comes down to architecture, Sicily is the best choice for a brilliant array of Greek and Roman ruins, whereas Naples has the best range of architectural styles that tell the story of the city through the ages.

FOOD

Sicily is known for its distinct, Mediterranean-inspired cuisine inspired by its geographic position and climate, which is quite different from the kind of local food you’ll find in mainland Italy. Expect lots of fresh seafood, light flavours and rice-based dishes like arancini, along with both mains and desserts that feature ricotta cheese as their signature ingredient.

Neapolitan cuisine is famous across Italy and outside of it, and there is no better place to enjoy the signature dishes than in the city of Naples itself. The area’s signature wood-fired pizza is renowned for its flavour and texture, whilst other must-try meals include Neapolitan ragù, seafood risotto and the famous sfogliatelle pastry.

The larger size of Sicily means that the dining options are more varied than in Naples, although both are great places for Italian fish and seafood dishes. However, if you’re after classic Italian cuisines like pizza and pasta, Naples is the best place to indulge.

SHOPPING

The proximity of Naples to Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, means that the city is a surprisingly good place for shopping. With a range of designer brands and many boutiques or independent designers, places like the Via Toledo or the Chiaia District are perfect for shopaholics looking for clothing, jewellery or souvenirs.

Sicily’s size means that it has a bigger range of shops suitable for all budgets, although you won’t find the same selection of boutique and designer brands as in larger and more fashionable locations like Rome, Milan or indeed Naples. Whilst it’s still a good place to go shopping for a variety of items, Naples is the better location for fashionistas and style connoisseurs.

COST

When it comes down to cost, Sicily is a brilliant holiday destination if you are looking to travel on a budget when you are visiting Italy. Whilst there are many expensive and luxury accommodation options across the island, overall it’s a relatively cheap part of the world to visit and explore.

Naples is also known as being one of the cheaper Italian locations, partly because of the city’s reputation that has meant tourism dwindled over the last decade or so. However, many travellers love the city and feel that this reputation is undeserved, and you’ll find plenty of cheap attractions and delicious food for much less than what you’d end up paying in other big cities around the country.

Both Naples and Sicily are good destinations if you’re travelling with a limited budget, with plenty of up-market hotels and accommodation options for those who prefer a bit of luxury during their trip. In both places, things like food and public transport are quite cheap and you’ll find a lot of free things to see and do along with all the paid attractions. 

THINGS TO DO

Naples is a classic Italian holiday destination that makes a great alternative to places like Rome and Florence if you’d rather be by the sea during your stay. As well as all of the cultural attractions like galleries and theatres, it’s also in a great location to explore other brilliant nearby locations like Sorrento, Capri and Pompeii.

If you’re the kind of traveller who likes to have a full itinerary on their vacation, Sicily is the best option for a destination that is filled with sightseeing, beaches, historic sites and a mix of urban and more rural attractions. There’s also the option to take day trips to nearby islands like Sardinia from the coast of Sicily or to visit Rome for a day on the train straight from the island.

BEST FOR…

If you prefer your trips to be filled with a range of activities and experiences then Sicily will be perfect for your Italian vacation, with a varied offering of attractions that range from wine tasting to paddleboarding. You’ll get to enjoy a different kind of Italian lifestyle to what you’ll find in many of the mainland regions, with the option to enjoy busy towns and cities along with more rural landscapes and scenery.

If you’re a traveller who is big on culture, then Naples is the better option for the incredibly rich history of the location and all the remnants of past civilisations that have contributed to what the city has to offer today. It’s also definitely the superior option for food fans, with its coastal location making it perfect for shorter visits that are part of a longer vacation around Italy.

Both locations have a lot to offer their visitors, and both have pretty similar options in terms of history, architecture, cost and range of coastal and urban attractions. Sicily is the best choice if you’re planning an extended stay and want a lot of choices when it comes to accommodation opinions, whereas Naples is a great destination for a couple of days or for a vacation that involves a lot of day trips to other nearby locations.

Whether you decide on the city of Naples or the island of Sicily, both locations are fantastic places for a vacation that promise an unforgettable experience of Italian culture, architecture and scenery. For more information and advice on which destination is best for you, get in touch and speak to one of our team of experts.

About the Author

Rem Malloy started Italy4real back in 1995 with his mother, Deborah de Maio.

He specialises in Italian tours as well as customised tours to France, England, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Greece and Spain. He was also featured in the Travel Channel show Mysteries at The Museum in 2016.

Rem has family in Italy and his mothers home town is Cava di Terrani, near the Amalfi Coast. The family has a street named after them in Sorrento, Via Luigi de Maio; a relative who was mayor of Sorrento.

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