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What to see in Siracusa

Syracuse (or Siracusa) was the most important city of Magna Graecia. It defeated the mighty Athens in 413 and was home to many a great Greek, including the inimitable Archimedes. At the height of its economic, political and military powers, the city had a population of 300,000 and, according to Cicero, was “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all”.


It is relatively easy to visit in a day, though obviously deserves rather more time. A visit can be split into two easy parts: one dedicated to the archaeological site, the other to the island of Ortygia.


Isola di Ortigia

The best way to see the island of Ortygia is just to wander. It’s difficult to get lost (it measures just 1km by 500 metres), but packed with over 2,500 years of history. Architectural styles vary widely, encompassing Greek and Roman remains, Mediaeval Norman buildings and a great deal of (relatively) understated Baroque. Restaurants, trattorias and bars abound and it is especially nice to sit out on the western side in the late afternoon, warmed by the sun and with a view over the lagoon.


Top Attractions


Parco Archeologico della Neapolis

For the classicist, Syracuse's real attraction is this archaeological park, home to the pearly Teatro Greco. Constructed in the 5th century BC and rebuilt in the 3rd century, the 16,000-capacity amphitheatre staged the last tragedies of Aeschylus (including The Persians), first performed here in his presence. From early May to early July it's brought to life with an annual season of classical theatre.


Piazza del Duomo

Syracuse's showpiece square is a masterpiece of baroque town planning. A long, rectangular piazza flanked by flamboyant palazzi, it sits on what was once Syracuse's ancient acropolis (fortified citadel). Little remains of the original Greek building but if you look along the side of the Duomo, you'll see a number of thick Doric columns incorporated into the cathedral's structure.


Duomo

Built on the skeleton of a 5th-century BC Greek temple to Athena (note the Doric columns still visible inside and out), Syracuse's 7th-century cathedral became a church when the island was evangelised by St Paul. Its most striking feature is the columned baroque facade (1728–53) added by Andrea Palma after the 1693 earthquake. A statue of the Virgin Mary crowns the rooftop, in the same spot where a golden statue of Athena once served as a beacon to homecoming Greek sailors.


Teatro Greco

The highlight of the Neapolis archaeological area is the Teatro Greco, a masterpiece of classical architecture that could accommodate up to 16,000 people. Hewn out of the rocky hillside, the amphitheatre was constructed in the 5th century BC, rebuilt in the 3rd century and further modified during the Roman period. Impressively, it staged the works of Sophocles, Euripides and the last tragedies of Aeschylus, including The Persians, Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Unbound, which were first performed here in his presence.


Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi

Located about 500m east of the archaeological park, Syracuse's archaeological museum claims one of Sicily's largest and most interesting collections of antiquities. Allow at least a couple of hours to investigate its various sprawling sections, which chart the area's prehistory, as well as the city's development from foundation to the late Roman period.


Basilica Santuario di Santa Lucia al Sepolcro

This 17th-century basilica occupies the site where Syracuse's patron saint, Lucia, an aristocratic girl who devoted herself to saintliness after being blessed by St Agatha, was martyred in 304. The marble column to the right of the altar is believed to be the very spot where the saint's life was taken. Beneath lie early-Christian catacombs, accessible on guided tours (available in English). Tour times vary, so email or call ahead to confirm the current schedule.


Miqweh

Buried 20m beneath the Alla Giudecca hotel in Ortygia's old Jewish ghetto (known as the Giudecca) is an extraordinary ancient Jewish miqwe (ritual bath), reputedly Europe's oldest. The baths were once connected to a synagogue, but were blocked by members of the Jewish community when they were expelled from the island in 1492. Tours, which depart every 30 minutes, are offered in English and Italian.


Castello Maniace

Guarding the island's southern tip, Ortygia's 13th-century castle is an evocative place to wander, gaze out over the water and contemplate Syracuse's past glories. Built for Emperor Frederick II, it's an important example of Swabian (German) architecture, with a magnificent, vaulted central hall (Sala Ipostila). The grounds house a small antiquarium displaying archaeological objects from the site, including Norman-era ceramics and some curious-looking ceramic hand grenades from the 16th century.


Fontana di Artemide

At the heart of Ortygia is handsome Piazza Archimede, home to Giulio Moschetti's Fontana di Artemide. Constructed between 1906 and 1907, the fountain's leading lady is Artemis, the goddess of hunting. Speechless by her side is river god Alpheus, looking on as Aretusa – the object of his lust – undergoes a magical metamorphosis. According to legend, Artemis transformed her handmaiden Aretusa into a spring to protect her from Alpheus' bothersome advances.


Orecchio di Dionisio

A renowned curiosity at the heart of the Latomia del Paradiso (Garden of Paradise) is the ear-shaped artificial grotto known as the Ear of Dionysius. According to Caravaggio, Dionysius must have had it built so he could listen in on the conversations of the prisoners, but it is most likely that the grotto – 23m high and 65m deep – was dug out as a rock quarry and later used as a sounding board for theatrical performances.


West of the Roman amphitheatre is the 3rd-century-BC Ara di Gerone II. This monolithic sacrificial altar was a kind of giant abattoir where 450 oxen could be killed at one time.



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