Sicilian castles, scattered all around the island, characterize Sicily’s landscape and are part of the Italian cultural heritage. Sicilian castles are a perfect representation of the central importance the island has always held in the Mediterranean world. Inexpugnable fortresses, in the beginning, they were built to protect cities, and their strength and stability played leading roles in the many wars that Sicily was the centre of.
They were not only protecting the city, they were symbols of power and often of oppression, as prisons were usually placed inside. And today, Sicilian castles, with their incredible charm, attract many visitors every year from all over the world.
Here we want to suggest to you 10 Sicilian castles among the most iconic on the island, to help you decide which castles to choose next time you’re visiting Sicily. But obviously, this is not the complete list!
Sicilian Castles, the TOP 10 you were waiting for
Sicilian Castles have always played a big role not only in the island’s history but also in the depiction of its characteristic landscapes. From Messina to Palermo, passing through Enna and Ragusa, there are more than 200 Sicilian castles and each of them has its own peculiarity, so let’s go find out which castles are in our opinion a must-see.
1. Donnafugata Castle
Donnafugata Castle, 30 minutes away from Ragusa Ibla, is actually a luxurious noble mansion of the 1800 Arezzo de Spuches family. The name’s origin is uncertain, but it probably comes from the legend of Bianca and Bernardo. Bianca of Navarra, widow of King Martino I of Aragona and regent of the Kingdom of Sicily, was imprisoned by Count Bernardo Cabrera in love with her and the idea of becoming king, but Bianca bravely managed to escape.
And so the name Donnafugata, that means escaped woman. It’s said that the first construction of the Donnafugata Castle dates back to the XIV century, thanks to the Chiaramonte family, a century after Bianca and Bernardo’s story, but we can only assume what it really happened as the most recent sources come from the XVIII century.
Donnafugata Castle has changed several times through time, and the version we know today was modified by Baron Corrado Arezzo that lived there in the XIV century. The frontal facade is finely decorated in a Neo-Gothic style and in the inside there are more than 120 rooms, today, fully restored.
But what mostly attracts people’s interest about Donnafugata Castle, is the enormous park, with a labyrinth and a series of funny tricks, such as sprinkler chairs and empty tombs that the Baron put to surprise and entertain his guests, something so unique and rare in Sicilian castles that really makes Donnafugata Castle one of a kind.
2. Mussomeli Castle
Mussomeli Castle is surely one of those places where history and myth mix together in a perfect balance that is always able to amaze visitors and people that have known it forever. Built on a limestone rock cliff, Mussomeli Castle is 700 meters high and watches over the Platani River and its valley, completely dominating the area. When Manfredi Chiaramonte III finally managed to regain possession of the feud after the Aragon attack, in 1364 decided to build Mussomeli Castle. It is delimited by two rings of the wall that lay on the limestone cliff and it blends perfectly with the natural environment.
The external facade of the fortress is characterized by an ensemble of Gothic elements, that can be seen especially in the pointed gate and finely decorated windows. The inside is as beautiful as the outside, with its cross vault ceilings and the enormous Barons Hall. Mussomeli Castle, though, has been the stage for incredible pain and a terrible agony, as those who entered the Prison of Death hardly escaped and were often drowned to death.
Mussomeli Castle is rich in history, sure, but this fortress is mostly the meeting point of the visitors’ imagination. It has been at the centre of extraordinary events and incredible passions and still, today remains one of the most intriguing Sicilian Castles to visit.
3. Montalbano Elicona Castle
In Montalbano Sicily, another castle stands in all its glory. Montalbano Sicily Castle, also known as Montalbano Elicona Castle, gets its name from its position. Situated on the Nebrodi Mountains where white peaks are always visible in winter, the name Montalbano comes from Latin Mons Albus, a snowy mountain. Built around the XIV century, Montalbano Sicily Castle stands at 900 meters above sea level and dominates the entire medieval village, the valley and the Tyrrhenian Coast.
With such an important position, the fortress’ main purpose was to defend the Kingdom, and was, in fact, part of Federico II project to strengthen Sicily’s defence. Born as a Roman fortress, Montalbano Sicily Castle has been built and rebuilt, and now we can finally appreciate and visit it. In the ancient chapel of the castle, there is also what is left of the tomb of Arnaldo da Villanova, an alchemist who used to heal the king Federico II, probably with herbs picked in the mysterious site of the Argimusco Plateau.
Two permanent exhibitions attract people from all over the world. The first displays a collection of cold weapons from the V to XV century, it shows us the incredible skills acquired during the Middle Ages and how more inexpugnable Montalbano Sicily Castle became during the time. The other exhibition displays, instead, musical instruments dated from XI to the XV centuries and makes us immerse in ancient melodies.
In 2018 the castle of Montalbano Sicily hosted the important UNESCO Congress of ICOMOS-ICHAM. Montalbano Sicily Castle is not only one of the most beautiful fortresses of Medieval Sicily, but also a museum of art and craftsmanship, and at least a Montalbano Sicily day tour is a must-do for everyone visiting Sicilian Castles, for the first or hundredth time.
4. Sperlinga Castle
Sperlinga village, situated in inland Sicily, is considered one of the most beautiful villages in of all Italy. With only 700 inhabitants, Sperlinga has its unique charm, characterized by the particular abodes carved in the rock. The name Sperlinga comes, in fact, from the Greek spílyngos, which means cave. Even though there are only traces of this place from the Norman domination, it has probably existed for 4500 years. Sperlinga castle is one of the most beautiful Sicilian Castles.
Similarly to Mussomeli Castle, it is built over the sandstone and it perfectly fits in the natural environment, and the difference between the human hand and nature here is even less detectable. Sperlinga Castle’s strategic position, allowing such a wide vision over the island, has always been the reason for its importance throughout history. The insides are as intriguing as the outside, the most magical room is constituted of 12 holes and a circular opening, which we believe was probably an astronomical or solar clock, or even used for religious reasons.
Other rooms are carved in the rock and were probably used as a barn during the Vespri War and as prisons during the Bourbonic domination. A steep stairway carved in stone brings you to the highest point of Sperlinga Castle where the view is out of this world and it looks as if you can touch the sky.
5. Caccamo Castle
Caccamo Castle, situated on the hill that dominates the Leonardo River Valley, is a must-see for those who visit the Madonie Mountains. It is one of the biggest and better-preserved Norman Sicilian Castles. The strategic position of Caccamo Castle has always been the main attraction for Moors, Normans, and whoever wanted to have a more dominating influence over the island.
The structure has changed a lot during history, first a fortress and lookout tower, then a castle and mansion. Caccamo Castle today has an irregular plan and is embraced by mighty walls decorated with two-pointed merlons and mullioned windows. The building, in a perfect Medieval style, also presents towers, deep moats and a courtyard.
On the inside, we can find a labyrinth of rooms and halls and innumerable stairs. And even though Caccamo Castle has suffered many structural damages through time, it is now standing in all its glory and is actually one of the main attractions not only for tourists but also for nearby habitats, so be sure to enjoy the view in your next tour to Northwest Sicily.
6. Maniace Castle
Maniace Castle, situated in the center of Ortigia, was used as protection for the two ports. Built between 1232 and 1240 and commissioned by Federico II, it respects the geometric and cabalistic canons he liked. Maniace Castle has a squared plant with four towers. The name comes from a Byzantine general named Maniace that managed to defeat the Arabs in 1030.
The entrance presents a marble portal with a pointed structure and is adorned with the Spanish crest situated above. The internal courtyard leads to two aisles that were part of the original construction and shows how the hall was, with columns and cross vault. Maniace Castle is one of the most appreciated Sicilian Castles and you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit it and the other nearby baroque villages, maybe in a 3 days baroque tour.
7. Venus Castle, Erice
Among the Sicilian Castles, it is important to remember Erice Castle, also known as Venus Castle. Erice is a medieval village, that offers picturesque views and wonderful panoramas, especially from the huge Venus Castle. It dates back to the XII century and was built over an ancient temple dedicated to the fertility Goddess, Venus. Erice Castle facade is characterised by merlons of Ghibelline type while the walls follow closely the cliff. A beauty, typical of medieval Sicilian Castles, that is now accessible just for us to enjoy.
8. Castle Ursino, Catania
Castle Ursino is one of the most representative monuments of Medieval Catania. Built for Federico II from 1239 to 1250, Castle Ursino is part of his project to strengthen Siciliy defence and to exert his power over the rebel populations of the island. Built on a cliff and surrounded by sea from three sides, it had the perfect strategic position and was indeed very useful for military reasons. However, in 1669 a violent lava flow from Mount Etna surrounded it, so today we see Castle Ursino in the middle of the city and not anymore by the sea.
The name itself comes from the Latin expression castrum sinus, a castle of the gulf, but, due to a volcanic eruption that submerged the cliff where Castle Ursino was built and completely covered the moat and walls, increased irreparably its distance from the sea and unfortunately, one of the most important Sicilian castles of the time, became completely useless.
The geometric rigour of the outside, much similar to an Arabic fortress found in the desert, is opposed to the gothic cathedral-like decorated inside, with crossed and umbrella vault, but this difference only points out the syncretistic characteristics of the era in which Castle Ursino was built, making it even more interesting. Today the Castle Ursino is the Civil Museum of Catania.
9. Zisa Palace Palermo
Built in 1164 by Tunisian artisans for the Norman King Guglielmo I, Zisa Palace Palermo is considered one of the most beautiful places in Sicily and is still able to amaze its visitors. Its name comes from the Arabic al-ʿAzîz that means splendid, and it comes not as a surprise, since the Arabic Empire dominated Sicily for more than a century.
Through time, Zisa Palace Palermo has been used by kings as a summer residence and despite the various restoration, one of the most beautiful and interesting part of the palace is today no longer the same. The courtyard was adorned with fountains and body of water that not only gave the whole place a sensation of freshness, but also served to liven up the days, but today only a ghost is left of what it was before. Zisa Palace Palermo, with its perfect harmony between Arab and Norman art, different from other Sicilian Castles, is one of the most interesting places to go when visiting the city.
10. Milazzo Castle
Last but not least, Milazzo Castle is yet another one of the most charming places of the whole island. It is the biggest fortified city in Sicily and is for sure one of the most interesting Sicilian Castles. You can read a dedicated blog post about Milazzo Castle before to enjoy it next time you visit Sicily.
Sicilian Castles and fortresses have existed for hundreds and hundreds of years, they have been a symbol of power and have defended their population and kings, but now, watching at them, not only we imagine the extraordinary adventures that happened inside, they also show us how different cultures were able to mix together, how incredibly skillful our ancestors were and the evolving process that has led to our own culture in our own time. Pieces of art, history and origin of legends and mysteries, Sicilian Castles are a good start to get to know Sicilian and Italian culture.
Of course these are just 10 examples of Sicilian castles to see, the list can be even longer and many other castles are to be discovered. Let us know if you have visited one of them, which one you can’t wait to see or if you would add other Sicilian castles to our list!