As I described during my Sicily podcast on the Amateur Traveler, Sicily is like Italy on steroids. It’s chock-full of the history, scenery, culture and food that you love in the rest of Italy. On the other hand, it’s less….. shall we say… user-friendly. If you think Italians are crazy drivers then you’ll find Sicilians even crazier. And even though I recommend renting a car to get around Sicily, if you don’t want to, don’t fret: getting around Sicily by public transport is possible. It’s just not as straightforward as in most of the rest of Italy. Take my advice below, or just let me do your Sicily trip planning for you – I’d love to help!
Photo by Sanjay Jhawar
To get around the island, there are Trenitalia trains and three different bus companies. The catch? You’ll need to look at schedules for all three bus companies plus the train while planning your travels to find the best solution.
In the rest of Italy, the train is usually an excellent option, but don’t assume this for Sicily. Let’s start by looking at the train map of Sicily:
Sometimes, there’s a train track from point A to point B. But not always: if I want to go by train from Ragusa in the south, to Enna (because I’m going to visit the nearby famous mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale), I’d have to go via Catania. If I have a car, I can just drive northwest and it’s much quicker. [In this specific case, you’d also plot out the bus schedules, and you’d discover that even by bus you need to go via Catania.]
And just because a train goes somewhere, doesn’t mean it runs at a convenient time. For example, I was recently checking a Taormina-Catania route and the last train departed at 3 pm. Never mind that the Taormina train station is miles from the town, so not really convenient. Because of examples like these, you must….
Let’s say you’ve looked at all the schedules and have found routes that will work. In the rest of Italy, that would likely be enough. Probably, you could show up at the train station and the train you’d identified would take you where you wanted to go, at the time printed on the schedule. For travel in Sicily you need to take it one step further. Plot destinations on the map, and use your common sense. Here’s an example. Look at this AST bus schedule:
At first glance, it looks okay. You depart Palermo at 9.30 am and arrive in Acireale at 11.15 am, with a change in Ficarazzi, which is a suburb of Palermo. But look closer: the change in Ficarazzi is at 10.35 am and then 40 minutes after that, you arrive in Acireale. Now, look at this map of Sicily and note where Ficarazzi is in relation to Acireale.
A quick check on ViaMichelin for the route tells me that Ficarazzi and Acireale are 135 miles apart. So is this bus covering 135 miles in 40 minutes? I don’t think so. I don’t know what the deal is here but I would find a different option for this route.
As soon as you have accommodation booked, you have a local contact — use them! Email them and ask:
Even if you don’t email them before you arrive, make some time to chat after you get there. Ask the person at the hotel front desk or visit the tourist information office, or go to the customer service person at the train or bus station. Show them the transfers you’ve mapped out and ask their advice.
Assume that buses and trains will arrive and depart late. If you have a connecting bus or train with a different company (for example you’re taking an SAIS bus to Catania and then you have a connection with Interbus), allow 30-60 minutes leeway so that you don’t miss your connection. That’s just the way it is, so plan for it. If you are catching a flight or a ferry and absolutely need to be somewhere on time, take an earlier bus or train. Or book a taxi.
I would also like to emphasize: it’s entirely possible that you’ll do all your research and figure out timetables, and once you get to Sicily everything will run like clockwork. That does happen, and it’s not a rare occurrence. This ultra-planned approach is best for travelers who expect reality to reflect what’s written on the timetable, or have traveled by train only in Switzerland or Germany or Japan, for example, where trains are pretty much always to-the-minute on time. But if you’re an experienced traveler who has taken trains in places where they regularly run a day behind schedule, then Sicily won’t faze you at all. But if you prepare for it, then you won’t get stuck or be annoyed at a 20-minute delay.
And a cell phone. And contact information for all your hotels, of course. Even with the best planning, route mapping, and in-depth research, chances are that something unexpected will happen on your Sicilian adventure! You’ll have some great travel stories.
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