At first glance, this Mediterranean haven looks like a scoop of old Italy, but Arabian influences linger in the architecture and culinary traditions of the island.

Rumbling volcanoes, crumbling ruins, indulgent ice creams – at first glance, Sicily looks like a scoop of old Italy, but there are differences from the mainland. The Sicilian dialect is so distinct, it technically qualifies as a separate language, while Arabian influences linger in the architecture and culinary traditions of the island.

Home of Europe’s most active volcano, Stromboli Island is merely the tip of a vast mountain rising from the sea bed and is famous for its black-sand beaches. To hike up to its craters, you’ll need a guide. Boat tours to and off the island are available (from £30).

Syracuse is Sicily’s most attractive city, a labyrinth of medieval streets and café-packed baroque piazzas, where classical ruins stand cheek by jowl with modern developments. Fontana Aretusa fountain was the ancient city’s water supply and remains the place to hang out on balmy evenings (Via Picherali).

A popular retreat for Palermo residents, the beach at Zingaro Nature Reserve, close to the town of San Vito Lo Capo, is a whitesand crescent by steep cliffs. Renowned for its fish couscous, the Cous Cous Fest brings chefs from North Africa each September, with cook-offs, workshops and music concerts.

La Martorana, a 12th-century church, is arguably the most famous and beautiful in Palermo. Also worth visiting in the city is the Teatro Massimo, supposedly the third-largest 19th-century opera house in Europe (Piazza Verdi, Palermo; tours £6).

The Greek temples around Agrigento hog the limelight, including the remarkably intact Temple of Concord, which has survived more than 2,000 years of earthquakes (£9).

Eat and drink
Fiasconaro is a much-loved pasticceria (pastry shop) in Castelbuono. Try the manetto (manna cake), a local speciality sweetened with tree sap, or testa di Turco (meaning ‘Turk’s head’) – a blancmange with puff pastry (10 Piazza Margherita; closed Wed; testa di Turco £8 per kilo).

Trattoria di de Fiore is an old-school trattoria in the city of Catania. The focus is on dishes such as pasta alla Norma, a Catanian classic that takes its name from Bellini’s famous opera, with aubergines, tomatoes and salted ricotta (00 39 095 316 283; 24 Via Coppola; closed Wed; mains from £17).

At Marsala’s Osteria Il Gallo e L’Innamorata the seafood gets top billing, but it’s wise to give the scaloppine con marsala a try – veal escalopes served in the venue’s signature marsala wine sauce (18 Via Stefano Bilardello; mains from £21).

Piccolo Napoli is renowned in Palermo for fresh seafood and its excellent house wine. Head to the seafood display (often still wriggling) to choose secondi dishes (00 39 091 320 431; 4 Piazetta Mulino a Vento; closed Sun; mains from £25).

In Trapani’s old Jewish quarter, Cantina Siciliana offers expertly prepared dishes. The menu takes in regional seafood specialities. Try busiate pasta with swordfish and aubergine, and something from its exemplary wine list (36 Via Giudecca; mains from £25).

Near the beach of Ficogrande in Stromboli, the Casa Del Sole guesthouse is centred around a picturesque courtyard overhanging with vines and lemon blossom. The rooftop terrace has views of the volcano (Via Domenico Cincotto; from £50).

Housed in a medieval palazzo in the old Jewish quarter of Syracuse, the atmospheric Alla Giudecca has 23 suites of various sizes, some with stone fireplaces and four-poster beds. Below the hotel there’s an ancient Jewish miqwe – a ritual bathhouse which once led to a synagogue (Via Alagona 52; from £60).

In the 12th century, Hotel Carmine in Marsala was a Carmelite monastery. Fortunately, despite exposed stone walls, beamed ceilings and tiled floors, the comfortable rooms play down monastic asceticism. There’s a walled garden and an elegant salon where a lavish breakfast buffet is served (Piazza Carmine 16; from £100).

Opposite Palermo’s main prison, Hotel Ucciardhome encourages guests to become ‘a prisoner of relaxation’. Large minimalist rooms are furnished in wenge wood and white marble, while the wine bar stocks Italian and especially Sicilian wines (Via Albanese 34-36; from £100).

Overlooking Unesco World Heritage Site the Valley of the Temples, Foresteria Baglio Della Luna dates back to the 18th century. Rooms in the watchtower feature wood panelling, parquetry and antique furniture. The restaurant is one of the region’s finest (Contrada Maddalusa; from £120).

When to go
During the stiflingly hot summers, Italian holidaymakers descend on Sicily’s beaches, while skiers hit Mount Etna’s slopes from December through to March. The Taormína Arte festival in July and August sees opera, dance and theatre performed at Taormína’s ancient Greek theatre.

Getting around
If you plan to explore, it’s best to hire a car, available at Palermo airport (£50 per day). Ferries travel to the Aeolian Islands, including Stromboli, from Milazzo and Trapani. Ustica Lines runs hydrofoil services (Messina and Stromboli £20).

Getting there
EasyJet (from £80) and Ryanair (from £95) fly to Palermo from Gatwick and Stansted respectively. Regular buses run from the airport to downtown Palermo (£5).

The article 'Mini guide to Sicily, Italy' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.