Sicily by Car, Train or Bus? Tips about getting around in Sicily
Public transportation in Sicily can be a bit of a challenge, I have often been asked questions about getting around once you are on the island: Sicily by Car? Sicily by Train? Sicily by Bus?
I would say, forget about the trains!
I could talk for hours about the reasons behind the underdevelopment of the railway system in Sicily...I could start moaning about the Unification of Italy, Garibaldi and the Savoia, and continue to current times and the sordid story of building a bridge between Sicily and the rest of Italy.
Wanting to spare you the history of Sicily through my complaints, I can say that taking a train from mainland Italy to Sicily is a very cool experience, provided you have the time and love this mean of transportation, you can even reserve a wagonlit for better confort. The best part of the journey is crossing the Sicily Channel when the whole train goes onto a traghetto (ferry) and you are allowed to get off the train and wonder around the ship. Many Sicilians who return to the island by train find it compelling to buy the first welcome-back-arancino at the bar on the traghetto, it has become a ritual you should definitely respect;)!
The main destinations are Messina, Catania, Palermo and Siracusa.
You can reach a few other cities by train on the island, including famous Taormina, but forget the quality of service you can find in Northern Italy as in general trains are old, small and stop everywhere taking forever to go from one place to another. Moreover, the inner part of the island cannot be reached at all by train because the railway system has only been developed around the coastline. And here I stop, before starting again on Garibaldi and the redshirts!
The best way to go from one city to another is by coach.
Buses cover most intercity routes, such as Palermo to Catania, Catania to Agrigento, Syracuse to Ragusa or Palermo to Trapani, and they are the only form of public transport connecting many towns in the centre of the island.
The main bus companies to look out for are AST (www.aziendasicilianatrasporti.it) and SAIS (www.saisautolinee.it), but keep in mind their timetables change from season to season, so make sure you are looking at the right one. I will not comment on their websites from the user's perspective, let's just say that if you want to be on the safe side it is a good idea to ask your concierge/host to give them a ring to double check.
Tickets are generally cheap, for example AST charges on the basis of distance and the most expensive ticket to travel more than 240Km costs 17.20€.
You can buy tickets usually somewhere next to the bus stop, usually newsagents or bars, at times even right on the bus, in bigger cities like Palermo, Catania and Messina you can even find a formal ticket office.
But keep in mind that:
While as a connection between major cities, buses are definitely the best public option, for shorter local trips between small towns it depends a lot on the area and I would suggest you ask your hotel for advice.
Note that during the school year, before and after school hours, buses are often used by students and can be crowded and noisy.
On Sundays and 'rossi' (literally 'the reds', the festive days which are marked in red on the calendar) services are cut to the bone. You should pay particular attention to the 25th of December (Christmas), 1st of January, 1st of May (International Workers Day, 15th of August when you could find no service at all. Many years ago, when I got married, the bestman had booked a return flight to the UK on the 1st of May. He waited and waited and waited for a bus to take hime to Catania's airport. This is a service which usually runs very efficiently trhoughout the year, however, it was International Workers Day and even bus drivers had a day off, so we got a desperate phonecall asking for help. Lucky we had not departed on our honeymoon yet!
Taxis on call are available in airports and big cities, but are difficult to find in smaller cities and towns. You can use a so called NCC (noleggio con conducente) service, a driver service, which are usually not available on-call but require an earlier booking and planning.
Renting a car in Sicily is the cheapest option and allows you full freedom of movement, in this case, however, keep in mind my "SICILY IS BIG" point and that our roads are not that great, so always give yourself that extra half hour when planning a trip from A to B.
Do not assume everyone will use indicators or follow road regulations, expect the unexpected and you should be fine. I find looking at the other drivers in the eyes helps with guessing their intentions, it is not very 'civilised 21st century practice' but it works.
The most difficult part is driving in Catania and Palermo; traffic combined with the conditions of the roads and the way busy city people drive scares me, but I am overly conscious driver! However, in other parts of Sicily it is not as bad, so you could decide to walk around the cities and use taxis if needed, then rent a car to visit the rest of the island.
If after reading my words above, you still do not trust me on the railway thing, just have a look at this video about "the train" connecting Siracusa to Modica and Ragusa;)! Watch carefully you might miss it. Of course, that could make you go for this picturesque experience and ditch my advice all together, and I wouldn't blame you for it;!