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The city of Syracuse on the island of Ortygia, Sicily, is a stunning destination packed with ancient history dating back millennia. The city, which was once as powerful and mighty as Athens in Greece, is home to Ancient Greek ruins, a Roman amphitheater, citrus orchards, winding Medieval roads, and Baroque architecture. There are so many historic sites in Syracuse, you’ll find it hard to pick where to spend your time. Here are the reasons why Syracuse, Sicily, is a history lover’s dream:
Syracuse Was Once Bigger Than Athens
The city of Syracuse was once bigger than the Ancient Greek city of Athens. Syracuse was founded in around 700 BC and was already the same size as Athens by 500 BC. The city of Syracuse exerted power over much of the Ancient Greek world and it was known as one of the most important city-states of the era. Over the millennia and centuries, Syracuse changed hands from the Romans to the Byzantines, and the city today is peppered with reminders of its ancient past in the form of well-preserved ruins and ancient customs.
Parco Archeologico della Neapoli
The Parco Archeologico della Neapoli is one of the most incredible archaeological sites in Sicily. The park is home to the remains of an ancient Roman Amphitheater, the Teatro Greco (or Greek Theatre), and the Orecchio di Dionisio (or the ear of Dionysius), which is an eerie limestone cave shaped like an ear. There’s an onsite museum where you can find out more about the archaeological finds and see ancient artifacts including pottery, Roman-era portraits, and white marble carvings.
The Fountain of Arethusa
The Fountain of Arethusa is a natural freshwater fountain with ties to Ancient Greek mythology. Accordingly, the fountain is the location where nymph Arethusa, who was the patron saint of ancient Syracuse, returned to mortal earth. It is said that Arethusa escaped the underwater city of Arcadia, re-entering land through the fountain’s waters. The fountain has been mentioned in various literary works over time, including John Milton’s elegy Lycidas, and William Wordsworth’s poem The Prelude. The fountain played an important role in the defeat of Athens during a siege in 414 BC, as the population of Syracuse managed to stay well-hydrated thanks to its supply of fresh water.
The Castello Maniace is a large citadel and castle that was constructed in 1240 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. During its heyday, the castle played an important role in controlling the harbor and protecting the island of Ortygia. The castle’s ruins have been well-maintained and it’s a fascinating site to walk about and find out about centuries of history, as the castle passed between many different rulers and empires. In 1704, Castello Maniace was severely damaged when a storm caused gunpowder magazines to explode. It was rebuilt over the following years. Castello Maniace remained in use as a military defensive structure until the 1970s when it was demilitarized. It has since been restored and turned into a tourist attraction.
Piazza del Duomo
The Piazza del Duomo is thought to be one of the most stunning Baroque piazzas, or squares, in Sicily. The piazza has undergone extensive restoration and is surrounded by architectural delights including ancient noble palaces and the Baroque Duomo cathedral. The Duomo was placed on the exact site of Syracuse’s ancient acropolis. While there is very little left of the original Acropolis building today, to the side of the Duomo there are columns built in the style of the Ancient Greek Acropolis.
Syracuse was the Birthplace of Mathematician Archimedes
The Ancient Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes was born in Syracuse. He is known as one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of Ancient Greek civilization. Some of his most famous discoveries included the relationship between the surface and volume of a sphere, and the invention of the Archimedes screw, which is a device used for raising water from a low-lying body of water into an irrigation ditch.
The Piazza Archimede was built in homage to Archimedes. The square is surrounded by Medieval buildings dating back to the 14th and 15th century, and in the center, there’s a beautiful fountain which stands as the masterpiece of the piazza. The fountain is built in an art-nouveau style and its motif is of the nymph Arethusa (patron saint of Syracuse) who is transformed into a water spring by the goddess Artemis. The spring that’s depicted in the motif can be seen just a few meters south, towards the cathedral square.
Temple of Apollo
The Temple of Apollo is known as one of the most important archeological sites on the whole island of Ortygia. The Temple of Apollo was built in the 6th century BC and is thought to be the earliest Doric temple in all of Sicily. The temple went through several transformations as it passed through different civilizations and empires.
For centuries the original Ancient Greek temple was hidden as it had been transformed into a Byzantine church and then later into a Mosque, before being converted into barracks during the Spanish colonial period. In the 19th century, preliminary evidence of the original temple was discovered, and parts of the temple were excavated. While most of the original columns have been lost over the centuries, there’s still a long stretch of the original temple wall and there are the remains of two corner columns, giving an indication of the temple’s original size.
Ancient Greek Stone Quarries of Syracuse
The stone quarries of Syracuse were developed to produce the stone that was needed to build the ancient city. The quarries are ancient mines filled with caves, and over the millennia, many of the caves have collapsed due to earthquakes and the passage of time. You can see some of the former cave sites at the Parco Archeologico della Neapoli.