Ortygia is a smaller island apart from mainland Syracuse by a narrow channel. Also known as Città Vecchia (Old Town), Ortigia is the historical heart of southeast Sicily, home to Ancient Greek ruins from its time as the most important city in Magna Graecia as well as Baroque masterpieces.
As a result, there’s plenty to do, and to help you make up your mind and save time whenever possible, here’s what you must know before heading to the Top 10 Attractions in Ortygia Island.
#1 Duomo di Siracusa & Piazza Duomo
Better known as Duomo di Siracusa (Cathedral of Syracuse), the Cattedrale metropolitana della Natività di Maria Santissima is the seat of Catholicism in Syracuse. It dominates Piazza Duomo, the most important square in Ortigia.
Although (most) of the current cathedral was rebuilt after the 1693 Sicily earthquake, this has been a place of worship since 6th-century BC. Still, the present building incorporates 5th-century columns of a former great Greek Temple of Athena as well as Norman roof and the apses mosaics.
- Admission fee: € 2.
- Opening times: everyday 8:00-19:00 (until 19:45 starting April 1st).
- Cover your shoulders and knees covered during your visit. However, if I recall correctly, they offer rental overalls if you are not dressed accordingly.
#2 Fontana di Diana & Piazza Archimede
The second most important square in Ortigia is Piazza Archimede. Inaugurated in 1907, it features Diana, the goddess of hunting, with a bow and dog. This square is an important intersection of the important commercial street (Corso Matteotti), the picturesque Via della Maestranza and the pedestrian zone starting at Via Roma.
- The fountain is located in an open area, so no admission fees.
- Super busy, due to being in the middle of a road roundabout. As a result, if you want a picture without people in it, aim for the really early hours.
- First stop of the Hop-On/Hop-Off bus, useful for the day you’ll visit the points of interest out of Ortigia.
#3 Castello Maniace
On the extreme tip of Ortigia lies Castello Maniace, a fortress built by Emperor Frederick II between 1232 and 1240 for the protection of the harbor and the city. Over time, it was the residence of Peter The Great of Aragon as King of Sicily and for various queens of Sicily from 1305 to 1536.
Its name comes from a previous fort built on this site by the Greek General George Maniakes, who captured Siracusa from the Arabs for the Byzantine Emperor Michael IV.
- Admission fee: € 4
- Free admission to under-18s and over-65s (EU only).
- Reduced admission (€ 2) to ages between 18 and 25 (EU only).
- Opening times: variable over the week and throughout the year, check the official table for 2018 here.
#4 Tempio di Apollo (Temple of Apollo)
Tempio di Apollo is the most ancient Doric temple in Sicily, the model that became standard in Ancient Greece. Since its beginning in the 6th century BC, it went through various transformations: a Byzantine church, then an Islamic mosque, back to a Norman Christian church and finally Spanish barracks and private residences in the 16th century. The ruins were rediscovered in 1890 and excavated.
- No admission: the site is open and you can see the ruins from Piazza Pancali.
#5 Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia (Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia)
Originally a 15th-century monastery, it was completely destroyed by the 1693 Sicily earthquake and rebuilt between 1695 and 1703 under the Cistercian Sisters to worship Santa Lucia of Syracuse, the city’s patron saint.
Santa Lucia was a martyr who died in 304 during the Great Persecution, the last and most severe of the Christian persecutions in the Roman Empire. Legend says that although she had consecrated her virginity to God, her ailing mother Eutychia, fearing for her future, arranged Lucia’s marriage to a rich pagan young man. After a pilgrimage to Saint Agatha’s shrine in Catania miraculously cured Euthychia, Lucia convinced her mother to let her donate a great part of her wealth to the poor. When news reached Lucia’s betrothed, he denounced her as a Christian to the Governor of Syracuse, who ordered her to offer a sacrifice to the Emperor’s image. Upon her refusal, she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel, but the guards could not move her, even hitched to a team of oxen. After a bonfire prepared around her was set on fire but would not burn, she was killed by a knife to the throat.
Commissioned by local authorities eager to reinforce the cult of Santa Lucia after the theft of her remains during the Middle Ages, the highlight of the visit is Caravaggio’s Burial of Santa Lucia (1608), a 3×4m oil on canvas painting hanging behind the high altar.
- Free admission
- Opening times: tuesdays to sundays 11:00-16:00.
#6 Fonte Aretusa (Fountain of Aretusa)
According to Greek Mythology, Aretusa was one of Diana‘s followers. During a hunt day, she got lost from the group and arrived on the banks of the river Alfeo, and its crystal clear waters inspired her to a bath. Sure of being alone, she undressed and graciously dipped. The water suddenly began to move, and as she tried to reach the shore, Alfeo appeared in human form, with eyes full of love. But his feelings were not reciprocated and she fled. After losing her strength to flee, she asked the Goddess Diana for help.
For protection, Diana enveloped Aretusa in a thick cloud and turned her into a fountain on the shore of Ortigia. But Alfeo’s love was so great that he did not accept losing her. The God Jupiter took pity on him and turned him into a river, so he could remain next to his beloved.
- The fountain is located in an open area, so no admission fees.
- The road next to the Fountain along the shore is called Lungomare Alfeo.
#7 Ancient Jewish Baths
The oldest and biggest Jewish ritual baths (mikveh) in Europe were discovered 25 years ago during renovations of the Residence Hotel Alla Giudecca. Dating back to the 6th-century, it remained in use until the 15th-century, when the Jews fleeing persecution filled it with rubble, sealed and abandoned the baths.
- Admission fee: € 5
- Guided tours only, in English and Italian.
- Open to the general public (not just guests of the hotel).
- Opening times: daily, 9:00-19:00.
#8 Museo Leonardo da Vinci e Archimede
Museo Leonardo da Vinci e Archimede is an interactive museum showcasing models of scientific inventions by these two geniuses. Faithful reproduction of their models, following the materials and techniques used during their time period. For this exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci is an heir to the genius of Siracusa, 15 centuries apart.
Archimedes of Syracuse is the greatest mathematician of Antiquity and one of the greatest of all time. He proved several theorems, such as the area of a circle, surface area and volume of a sphere. He also calculated an accurate approximation of pi and proved the law of exponents. A significant part of his work was developed to fulfill the needs of his home city of Siracusa.
- Admission fee: € 6.50
- Reduced and student fee: € 4.50
- Open times: daily, 10:30-20:00 (summer) and 10:30-19:00 (winter)
#9 Antico Mercato di Ortigia (Old Street Market)
Right after you cross the bridge onto Ortygia and pass Apollo’s Temple, you’ll find il Mercato di Ortigia. Local farmers selling fresh fruits, vegetables and fish make up for a colorful and lively experience. In addition to the market stalls, there are also some restaurants around.
- Every day: from 7:30. first Sunday of the month, entrance is free (no reservation possible).
- Free admission to under-18s.
- Opening times: daily 9:00-19:30.
- Closed on Jan 1st, May 1st and Dec 25th.
- Reservation for individuals is optional but always advisable in busy attractions like this. Buy here.
#10 Teatro dei Pupi (Puppet Theater)
The Sicilian Puppet Theater is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This Sicilian tradition is entertaining for both kids and adults, usually depicting medieval stories. Although it is presented in Italian, by reading the program in English previously, you’ll be able to follow the story. The shows vary from time to time, so check the current program here.
Here’s hoping you make the best use of these tips on your visit to Ortygia Island!