Is Sicily part of Italy? Here is the short answer but there is more
Is Sicily part of Italy? The short answer is Yes, but it is actually an autonomous region of Italy besides being Europe’s largest island in the Mediterranean Sea.
When you wander through Sicily’s lively streets and explore its ancient ruins, you’ll encounter a strong sense of identity among the locals, with a strong pride in being Sicilian first. Ultimately, this is a region ruled as an independent kingdom till Italy’s unification in 1861.
In this brief post, I will explain the reasons behind this unique Sicilian identity, starting with a few key points before exploring what truly makes this island a world apart.
Is Sicily Part of Italy? – Key Points
- Autonomous Region Status: Sicily, while part of Italy, is distinct as an autonomous region, having its own regional government which oversees local legislation, administration, and taxation, separate from Rome’s control. Read more below
- Unique Cultural Identity: The island’s history of various dominations has culminated in a vibrant culture and distinct Sicilian identity, evident in its dialect, which evolved from Greek and absorbed elements of Arabic, French, and Spanish. Read more below
- Distinct Cuisine: Sicilian cuisine, influenced by its Greco-Roman roots and various foreign conquests, stands apart from typical Italian fare with its emphasis on eggplant, ricotta, seafood, and rare ingredients like Modica chocolate.
- Rich Traditions and Architecture: Sicilian traditions are characterized by operatic drama and colourful festivals, contrasting mainland Italy’s more subdued events. Its architecture blends Arabesque, Byzantine, and Norman motifs, distinct from the classic Roman aesthetics of mainland Italy.
- Strategic and Economic Importance: The island’s strategic location and cultural richness make it a major European tourist destination. I highly suggest visiting Sicily, an unmissable destination with so many experiences to have.
Cultural autonomy and identity
Sicily has developed a vibrant culture that sets it apart from other regions in Italy. This is driven by a long history of dominations and influences, from the Greeks to the Normans, from the Byzantine time to the Aragon era.
On your first trip to Sicily, you will notice straight away a few important things that highlight the unique identity of this island.
Language is one key aspect. While standard Italian is universally spoken, the Sicilian dialect still thrives in daily life. Sicilian evolved from Magna Graecia settlers, with traces of Arabic, French and Spanish absorbed over centuries of occupation.
Locals switch seamlessly between formal Italian and the rapid-fire Sicilian. I was born in Italy but I honestly struggle to understand the local dialect, which changes based on which region you visit.
Sicily holds a special place in my heart thanks also to the famous TV series Inspector Montalbano, filmed in some of the most beautiful destinations of the island. Luckily I watched it in Australia with English subtitles because from time to time I missed the meaning of a few words and sentences LOL.
The local cuisine also stands alone by remaining closest to ancient Greco-Roman roots. Eggplant, ricotta, marzipan, pistachio and raw seafood dishes came via Arab conquests. Spanish rule brought chocolate, tomatoes, pasta reimaginations and sweet and sour combinations.
Sicily also produces exotic ingredients rare outside the region – from oregano to capers to Modica chocolate. By contrast, standard Italian fare relies more on meat, risotto, polenta and olive oil.
Traditions in Sicily have an operatic, larger-than-life drama compared to mainland reserve. The island practically buzzes during colourful annual festivals dedicated to Catholic saints. Elaborate pagan-style carvings, opulent flower arrangements and firework-rigged religious floats parade through streets amidst marching bands.
Occasions feature local wine, costumed reenactments and plenty of food. Comparatively, Italy has more subdued gatherings led by church services. Pageantry and folklore hold equal footing to faith in Sicily.
The architecture synergizes Arabesque, Byzantine and Norman motifs for its Baroque style featuring curved shapes, gilded accents and vibrant hues. Ornate cathedrals meld with domed cupolas, mosaic tilework and grand palatial estates.
Italy has classic linear Roman columns, porticos and restrained aesthetics. Structures in Sicily were intentionally showy demonstrations during times when being Catholic distinguished loyalties on the often invaded island ruled by distant foreign dynasties.
I totally loved my stay in Taormina, with one of the most stunning views of the coast. I enjoyed so much exploring the Old Centre of Catania not to mention the holiday in the Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú (UNESCO World Heritage Sites)
Sicilians identify as Europeans yet with a scepticism of anything too Italian. Sicily preserves cultural traditions traceable to its colonized past. Complex shared history makes Sicilians walk, talk and think differently than other Italians.
While officially part of the Republic now, the island was a mosaic of global empires for so long that a distinguishable regional identity formed. Many still believe “Sicilians live in Sicily while Italians live abroad“.
A snapshot of the rich history of Sicily
|Ancient Era (Pre-8th Century BC)
|Indigenous peoples, including the Sicani, Elymians, and Sicels, inhabited Sicily.
|Sicily has been a crossroads of civilization for millennia, a strategic island located in the Mediterranean Sea attracting various settlers.
|Greek Period (8th – 3rd Century BC)
|Sicily was ruled by the Greeks, with a few colonies established on the island, most notably Syracuse, Agrigento, and Segesta. This era saw Sicily become a major centre of Greek culture.
|The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, a remarkable example of Greek architecture, was built during this period. A MUST-VISIT for any trip.
|Roman Period (3rd Century BC – 5th Century AD)
|Conquered by Rome during the Punic Wars, Sicily became Rome’s first province.
|Sicily was known as Rome’s “granary”, providing a substantial portion of the empire’s grain supply.
|Byzantine Era (535 – 827 AD)
|Post-Roman Empire, Sicily came under Byzantine control.
|The mosaics done during this era in Palermo’s churches are some of the most splendid in the Mediterranean.
|Arab Period (827 – 1091 AD)
|Arab rule brought new agricultural practices, leading to prosperity. The major cultural and economic centre of Sicily is Palermo.
|The famous lemons and oranges of Sicily were introduced by the Arabs, along with advanced irrigation methods.
|Norman Period (1091 – 1194)
|Normans conquered Sicily, blending the past influences, visible in architecture and culture.
|The Palatine Chapel in Palermo, with its stunning mosaics, epitomizes Norman-Arab artistry.
|Swabian and Angevin Rule (1194 – 1282)
|This period saw the reign of Holy Roman Emperors like Frederick II. Sicily experienced political unrest.
|Frederick II, known as “Stupor Mundi” (Wonder of the World), was a patron of arts and science and spoke six languages.
|Aragonese and Spanish Era (1282 – 1713)
|Sicily passed to the Aragonese and later the Spanish crowns. This era was marked by economic decline.
|The famous Sicilian Puppet Theater (Opera dei Pupi) originated during the Crown of Aragon, reflecting medieval chivalric traditions.
|Biggest Etna Earthquake (1693)
|The 1693 Sicily earthquake, centred around the Mount Etna area, was the most powerful in Italian history.
|This earthquake, estimated at magnitude 7.4, devastated southeastern Sicily, including Catania and Ragusa, and led to a significant baroque rebuilding in the region.
|Savoy and Austrian Rule (1713 – 1734)
|Sicily was briefly controlled by Savoy and then by Austria, following the War of the Spanish Succession.
|During this time, Sicily was often pawned off in European power struggles, showcasing its strategic importance.
|Bourbon Period (1734 – 1860)
|The Bourbon kings brought reforms and modernization, although with bouts of unrest.
|The first Italian railway was inaugurated in 1839 between Naples and Portici, under the Bourbon rule.
|Unification of Italy (1860 – Present)
|Sicily became part of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1860-1861, after the expedition of Garibaldi.
|Sicily has its own distinct dialect and cultural practices, preserving its unique heritage within Italy.
One of the five autonomous regions of Italy
Sicily is one of five regions in Italy granted autonomous status, empowering it with a regional government that oversees local legislation, administration, and taxation separate from Rome’s centralized control.
Italy has 20 regions, however, only Sicily, Sardinia, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol and Valle d’Aosta successfully petitioned for special recognition.
The status as an autonomous region was granted to Sicily for a few reasons.
Geography played a pivotal role. Sicily is separated from the rest of Italy by the Strait of Messina, fostering cultural distinction over its history of foreign conquests by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and Normans prior to eventually becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
This shaped local dialects, architecture, cuisine and folklore found in Sicily more than elsewhere on the peninsula.
Economically, organised crime has been involved in infrastructure investment for decades. Sharing the governance with Rome made things even worse.
You may argue that nowadays Mafia (also referred to as Cosa Nostra) is more successful than ever, based on the Italian news, but the number of homicides has dramatically declined and overall organised crime is less visible in the street making Sicily a much safer destination compared to 30 years ago.
Regional police departments have contributed to the arrest of famous Mafia Bosses, like Mattia Messina Denaro in 2023.
Sicily meets the qualifications for an autonomous region based on unique cultural attributes, a sizeable population of over five million and a strategic location. Palermo serves as the capital city with a regional parliament situated in the city’s historic heart.
Italy benefits from keeping Sicily’s assets and identity intact while collaborating through Sicily’s autonomous governance.
Sicily in Europe
As the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has developed strong linkages with continental Europe for trade, travel and investment over the centuries.
Today, Sicily relies on agriculture, fishing, manufacturing and especially tourism to drive its economy. Europe represents Sicily’s biggest source of visitors. Nearly half of foreign tourists in Sicily come from Germany, France and the United Kingdom alone.
There are today plenty of low-cost flights arriving in Catania, Palermo and the smaller city of Trapani, on the western coast of the country. Getting around the island is simple if you are travelling to the major destinations.
I personally highly suggest renting a car in Sicily, it opens up so many possibilities. There are a few amazing scenic drives and you will be able to visit some unique destinations like the Salt Pans of Marsala, the ruins of Poggioreale, and the Cavagrande lakes and I could keep going forever.
Sicily has ideal weather and can be visited almost all year round. January/February can be quite cold but still great if you plan to ski on the Etna Mountain.
The 2023 Italian Government is also pushing to build the bridge over the Strait of Messina with the slogan of Connecting Sicily to Europe. Who knows if it will ever happen, it has been promised for the last 70 years. I will update this post in case!
Sicily a country of beauty, A must-visit
Sicily provides endless inspiration for a traveller. I loved my time at the amazing beaches, my trekking at Mount Etna and the Zingaro National Park, and my exploration of the unique historical centres and sites.
With popular cities like Catania and Palermo, amazing historical towns like Taormina, ancient sites like the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and beautiful beaches like the ones in San Vito Lo Capo or Cefalu, you will have plenty of destinations to stay in Sicily.
There are so many places to experience in Sicily, from the baroque-style hilltop villages to the exciting guided treks on Mount Etna Peak. For relaxed discovery at your own pace, check out this two-week Sicily itinerary or start investigating all you need to know from my Free Ultimate Guide to Sicily.
With so much history, culture and exhilaration packed into this sun-soaked island, Sicily earns the reputation as the jewel of the Mediterranean.
Read more about Sicily
- The Ultimate Guide – Start from here
- The best Sicily itineraries you can do on the island
- Renting a Car in Sicily: 25 Tips to Avoid Scams & Headaches
- Top 5 Scenic Drives in Sicily
- Is it worth renting a car in Sicily?
- Is Sicily Expensive
- Catania or Taormina, best and worst
- Sicily or Puglia, the best and worst of the two regions
- Sicily or Sardinia, the best and worst of the two regions