The largest and most populous island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is blessed with a gorgeous geography – long white beaches lapped by turquoise shallows, fruit-clad hills climbing towards craggy mountains, windswept offshore islets, and, oh yes, two entertainingly fiery but quite harmless volcanoes. It’s an extremely colourful place, with an intriguingly mixed culture, cuisine and architecture. Every trading or invading group who ever crossed the Mediterranean seems to have dropped in on Sicily at some point. Greeks and Romans built temples here, the Normans and the Spanish erected cathedrals, while Arabs mixed exotic items into the cooking.
Perhaps because of the island’s long tradition of passers-through, modern-day Sicilians are an immensely sociable and hospitable bunch. Theirs is a strong, proud culture centred around food and family. There’s an admirable sense of community yet a great respect for visitors and outsiders. The warm welcomes are matched by the enviable climate – with summer days in the 30s and winter days rarely below 15°C. Sunshine is the norm from May to September.
Beyond the smiles and sunshine of course, Sicily has one infamous black mark against its name: it’s the home of Italy’s most notorious and powerful mafia, the Cosa Nostra. Over the last two decades, countless brave Sicilians have made gigantic efforts towards stamping out mafia activity on the island, and their success has been considerable. As a foreign buyer on Sicily, mafia activity is simply not an issue for you. You would almost certainly never come into contact with it, and you need not let it concern you. It is hoped that one day soon no one on Sicily will ever come into contact with it.
When it comes to buying a holiday home, Sicily has long been adored by Northern Italians. But foreign buyers are a relatively new phenomenon here, having only started trickling in about ten years ago. Better travel connections have steadily stoked their numbers, and continue to do so. A host of new flights to Sicily’s northwest, for example, is only the most recent reflection of growing interest in this big, beautiful island. [Time of writing is 2009.]
Because it’s a large place with a relatively new market, Sicily still has abundant property offering excellent value-for-money. As little as €100,000 could get you a very nice home somewhere on Sicily – a two-bedroom apartment in a seaside town, or a small farmhouse needing some work up in the hills with magnificent views. Unrestored, rural properties are plentiful on the island, as are ready-restored homes in desirable locations. And if you’re lucky enough to be searching for luxury, Sicily has some of this on offer too – jaw-droppingly lovely historical homes in Taormina, for example.
The fact that airlines are still investing in Sicily – in the form of establishing new routes here – means that perhaps you should consider investing too. This is a region whose property market – and visitor interest – has far from peaked, and may well have only just begun. Economic worries might have temporarily slowed the market on Sicily as everywhere else, but it’s very likely that the island’s popularity will continue growing once the immediate international panic has passed. As Jeremy Smith of Sicily Property Company wisely puts it, “Foreign buyers have lost confidence lately, as part of a general culture of it being the end of the world. But many people are now realizing that it’s not over. People still want a better life, they still want to feel the sun on their shoulders and drink a glass of wine.” They still want good value, too, which makes Sicily an appealing prospect.
Fabrizio Vitellino from Buy in Sicily thinks now is an especially good time to buy property on the island, as the current suspended prices are likely to jump a bit when the recession panic is over and recovery begins. He even suggests considering some of the island’s most desirable properties and expensive locations (like Taormina), because the temporarily frozen prices represent a rare opportunity to maximize your investment. Whether you want to spend big or spend small, it’s clear that Sicily is definitely worth thinking about.
Sicily is a large place with a wonderfully diverse landscape. Let’s travel round the island in the next few paragraphs, looking at where you might find scenery and property prices to suit your particular tastes and budget.
If you like dramatic geography, with mountains tumbling down to meet the sea, consider Sicily’s long northern coastline. Except for the eastern end round Milazzo (which is industrial and unappealing), the northern coast is strung with pleasant little towns, beach-resorts, and hilltop villages. The most popular resort here is Cefalù, where winding medieval streets and charming piazzas perch on a natural shelf above curving sands. Cefalù is no longer the bargain it was a few years ago, alas, and central two-bedroom apartments here currently ask about €220,000. Prices drop significantly as you inch out of town, and especially as you move up into the steep hinterland – where the sea-views grow ever more spectacular. Mountain houses needing work can go for as little as €70,000.
Carry on westward from Cefalù, and there are very good prices in some little-known resort-towns. Marie Wester of the agency Sicilian Houses says she is currently seeing lots of interest in the low-priced holiday homes available in Termini Imerese. “There is a very cute centro storico here,” she says. “Although the outskirts of town are unappealing. The industrial harbour is currently being reconstructed as a small-boat marina, and there are other ongoing projects to make the town more of a tourist centre – so it’s a good place to invest right now.” Marie also recommends seaside Trabia and Castellamare de Golfo, and inland Cerda, Caccamo, Altavilla Milica, Gratteri and Salemi – each with impressive sea-views.
Palermo, Sicily’s boisterous and architecturally-eclectic capital, is a great place to visit, but you probably won’t want to buy here. Carry on to the northwest corner of Sicily, around Trapani and Marsala – where the market is currently hotting up. Dotted with cubic, whitewashed homes reminiscent of the Greek Cyclades islands, Sicily’s lovely northwest corner is likely to see a big boom in popularity now that Ryanair has made Trapani its prime flight hub for Sicily. Jeremy Smith of Sicily Property Company says “You can feel the energy in the area right now. Trapani is really coming to life. There are walking tours, bike hire, lots of things opening up for tourists. Marsala, meanwhile, has a more unspoilt ambience. The facilities there are four years behind. They don’t yet realize what foreigners want; you go to the tourist office and they don’t speak English. I’d say if you’re looking ahead, think about Marsala.”
Jeremy says that nicely-situated, restored two-bedroom apartments in Trapani currently start at about €95,000 – roughly twice the starting-price of similar properties in Marsala. For the time being, Trapani has the greater rental potential, of course. He adds that the northwest now has the advantage of access by two different airports – Palermo and Trapani – which would prove very handy if there was ever a problem with one airline.
Sicily’s long southern coast is spacious and thinly-populated, its lovely beaches often giving views of Africa across the water. The hinterland is flattish, without the mountain-drama of the north coast. Settlements here are quiet and unspoilt, and the property costs low. Modern development is patchy along the southern coast, with only a few places exploiting their tourist potential. Agrigento is an exception – its astonishing clutch of ancient Greek temples having drawn the tourists for decades.
Sicily’s south is of most interest to the foreign buyer in its extremely handsome southeastern corner – namely, the provinces of Siracusa and Ragusa. Both have scenic countryside and lovely coastlines. Siracusa province is dotted with Greek ruins and elegant Baroque sandstone towns, many with charming medieval quarters. There are various ex-pat communities here now, especially in Noto and Ortygia. Ragusa province is less visited, but it has some attractive resorts and very clean beaches. It’s a very contented province, with one of the lowest crime-rates in all of Italy. New roads and infrastructure are promising a bright future here. Property prices have risen by more than 50% across Ragusa province over the last seven years or so, but they are still low enough to constitute very good value for money. A recent history of slow, steady increase in value makes the whole area seem like a pretty good investment.
In both Siracusa and Ragusa provinces, prices are highest in the titular capitals and along the coast. Inland, in the countryside and the small towns, there’s no shortage of bargains. Holiday rental prospects are pretty good in Siracusa, in Noto, and for any homes on the coast of either province. You could get a two-bedroom apartment in a town in either province for around €100,000. Country houses and villas, meanwhile, sell from €120,000.
Finally, if you’ve got the cash, you could consider Sicily’s premier resort-town – Taormina, on the northern half of the east coast. Or something in its vicinity. Awash with bougainvillea and overlooking two sweeping bays, ever-fashionable Taormina attracts more foreign buyers than any other resort on Sicily. Naturally then, it has the island’s highest property prices – on a par with those of Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast. Adored by foreigners and Italians alike, Taormina has every amenity and a year-round social scene. If you were to rent to holidaymakers here, you could almost guarantee to have your property booked for at least six months of the year – getting around €900 a week for a two-bedroom apartment.
Then there are the chic Aeolian islands to consider, off the north coast. And hideaway isles like Pantelleria, halfway to Tunisia. Then there’s the dirt-cheap interior of Sicily, of course, with its hills and fruit groves… It seems the more you think about Sicily, the more you realize just how many interesting options there are.
Sicily’s northern coast enjoys dramatic geography – with mountains swiftly rising as you step back from the water. Except for the extreme east round Milazzo which is industrial and unappealing, the northern coast is strung with lovely little towns, beach-resorts, and hilltop villages. The most popular resort is Cefalù, its winding medieval streets and charming piazzas set on a natural shelf pitched above curving sands beneath a craggy mountain. Prices have risen consiuderably here in recent years, but it’s still possible to get a central one-bedroom apartment for €180,000, or a two-bed near the port for €220,000. Prices drop as you move out of town, and especially as you move up into the mountainous hinterland. A four-bed villa on the outskirts of Cefalù might ask €250,000; a refurbished five-bed in the mountains nearby, €300,000. Mountain houses needing work can go for as little as €60,000. All along the northern coast, properties just a few miles inland can present some real bargains – and they usually have great views too. Just off the northern coast, the tiny Aeolian islands make an exotic, volcanic retreat – varying in average property pricetags, and offering good-to-great summer rental prospects.
Sicily’s most picturesque town, awash with bougainvillea and overlooking two sweeping bays, Taormina attracts more foreign buyers than any other resort on Sicily. Naturally then, it has the island’s highest property prices – on a par with those in Tuscany. You might pay a million euros for a five-bedroom house here. But what a place you get to enjoy for your money. Popular with celebrities and the European jet-set, Taormina has every amenity, a year-round social scene, and a gorgeous climate. If you chose to rent to holidaymakers here, you could almost guarantee to have your property booked for at least six months of the year. A two-bed home would garner €800 or more a week. Relocaters find there are plenty of job opportunities here too – mainly in the tourist industry. On the down side, the cost of living is high and the town can feel quite crowded in high summer. Taormina is also within fairly easy travelling distance of Sicily’s third and second biggest cities – Messina (population 260,000) and Catania (population 400,000). Messina, thirty miles north of Taormina, is very much a working city rather than a resort. Likewise Catania, 30 miles south of Taormina. A thriving place full of snappy IT industries, Catania has grand Baroque buildings and great views of Etna. Property prices are half those of Taormina.
Comprising the provinces of Ragusa and Siracusa, Sicily’s southeast is a place with a lot to offer the foreign buyer. Siracusa province has grown fairly popular over recent years, while neighbouring Ragusa province has yet to become quite as well-known as it deserves. Both have scenic countryside and lovely coastlines. Siracusa province is dotted with ancient Greek ruins and with elegant Baroque sandstone towns, many with charming medieval quarters. There are small ex-pat communities here, especially in Noto and Ortygia. Ragusa province is quieter and less visited, but it has some attractive resorts and very clean beaches. It also has a very low crime rate – one of the lowest in Italy. Ragusa province is still an inexpensive area for property, even though prices here have risen by more than 50% over the last five years. In both provinces, prices are highest in the titular capitals and on the coast. Inland, in the countryside and the small towns, there’s no shortage of bargains. Holiday rental prospects are pretty good in Siracusa, in Noto, and for any homes on the coast of either province.
Sicily’s long southern coast is spacious and thinly-populated compared to the rest of the island’s seaside. There are no mountains brooding behind the beaches, no black volcanic sand – in short, less drama and more tranquillity. The settlements down here are generally quiet and unspoilt, and the property costs quite low. Exceptions include luxury new-builds in burgeoning resorts like Licata. Agrigento is a handsome old place, with an astonishing clutch of Greek temples. Modern development is patchy along the southern coast, with some places exploiting their tourist potential and others not. Similarly there are small pockets of industry scattered amidst the calm. Inland, the hilly, agricultural landscape of the south is dotted with sleepy villages. Further in, to Enna and the very centre of the island, there are many proud and interesting little towns – largely ignored by visitors and yielding very low property prices. The centre’s landscape is hilly-to-mountainous, and if you were adventurous you might consider buying an inexpensive rural retreat here. Ruined cottages and townhouses can ask €10,000-€50,000, while fully habitable versions start around €100,000.
Noisy, bustling Palermo is Sicily’s capital and the island’s biggest city – home to 660,000 people. Formerly a mafia stronghold, it’s a much improved and revitalized place these days. The city’s architecture is full of exotic elements – testament to Sicily’s colourful past – and the property prices are low. Heading west from Palermo, unappealing industry and characterless tourist development goes on for a few miles, then things improve markedly. A series of charming resorts-towns dot the lovely coastline – like Scopello, Érice, Sciacca, Trápani, Marsala and Marinella – and cubic whitewashed homes give the place a look of the Cyclades. With numerous rural homes long ago left behind by émigrés, Sicily’s inland west yields some good-value restoration projects. Offshore, the west is graced by the Égadi island group – not quite as chic as the Aeolians, but not as difficult to access either.
Former Londoner Pamela Bonaventura lives in Sicily’s premier resort-town, Taormina, with her Sicilian husband Aldo. “I came here to work for a year,” she explains, “and I’ve ended up staying for forty-three years! [Time of writing is 2009.] I left London in the swinging sixties. I’d had a lot of swinging and I was ready for something new! I asked an au pair agency to find me a year’s job in Italy. I didn’t speak any Italian then, so I went in at the deep end. While I was here, I met my husband, and the rest is history. He spoke perfect English. For the first two years we communicated in English and then he put his foot down and said ‘Right, from today we speak only Italian.’ He was the deputy mayor here in Taormina for twenty years.
“The building in which we live has four floors. We took the first floor and built a granny flat on top of us for my parents in their golden years. When the ground-floor flat became available in 2005, we bought it and turned it into an attractive rental property. We renovated it in 2006 and have been offering holiday rentals since 2007. For the first two years the rentals did very well, but this year things are not quite so bright.
“I think what draws so many visitors to Taormina is the history and the architecture. The beaches are nice, but they’re not sandy and they won’t appeal to everybody. Taormina is the first place on Sicily that non-Italians discovered. D.H. Lawrence famously lived here. The holiday season officially opens on Palm Sunday and goes to the end of October, but this has been only during the last forty years. Before then, there used to be a lot of winter tourism – people escaping cold northern Europe. Now most of the hotels close in the cooler months, unfortunately. Our winters are mild. It might be wet or windy, but we very rarely go below ten degrees Celsius.”
What does Pamela consider to be the best thing about Sicily? “Without a doubt the Sicilian people,” she says. “They are so hospitable. They’re fantastic. They’ll chat to you, they’ll open their house to you. ‘Come in and have a meal, have a coffee, have a glass of wine.’ And if you’re in any trouble they won’t turn their back on you.”
Does she have any advice for British people buying on Sicily? “Keep away from Taormina,” she laughs. “It’s very expensive! It’s almost more expensive than the UK. The place to look is Ragusa, the southern province. It’s doing big things, it’s much cheaper, and it’s going to go a long way. The northwest corner around Trapani is also a promising area right now.”