‘You gotta go to Noto’: House & Garden's Fiona McKenzie Johnston explores the Sicilian city

Jaw-dropping interiors, exquisite antiques, unspoilt beaches and the best gelato – why Sicily needs to be your next holiday destination

Scicli in Val di Noto, Sicily.

Luc Kordas / Alamy Stock Photo

“Everybody says ‘You gotta go to Noto,’” said Daphne to Harper in the Sicily-based season 2 of White Lotus, describing it as “this beautiful baroque town. . . There’s these amazing palazzos and artisanal shops.” While we wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking much of the show as gospel, we can confirm that in this instance, Daphne’s research was exemplary. And, a veritable jewel of Sicilian Baroque – “the past holds you in its grasp,” wrote Jean-Louis Remilleux in A Palace in Sicily – Noto is further blessed with beaches, good food, jaw-dropping interiors, excellent antiques shopping, and, of course, a Mediterranean climate and its accompanying tawny-gold landscape. Just in case further evidence of its charms were needed, interior designer Jacques Garcia, photographer Mario Testino, and fashion and homeware designer Luisa Beccaria all own houses in the area.

So, what do you need to know? What are the essentials to see, where should you stay, what should you eat, and how do you get around? Read on:

Architecture and interiors

The Duomo in Noto.

Jan Wlodarczyk / Alamy Stock Photo

Let’s cut to the chase: if it was just a beach you were looking for, you probably wouldn’t pick a town that requires transport to get to the coast. If you’ve come to Noto, a major reason is the architecture and the corresponding interiors, which are packed with extraordinary and inspiring detail, including specialist decorative painting, tiling, and unusual but suddenly appealing colour combinations. As is so often the case, there is tragedy behind the area’s constructed beauty: in 1693, an earthquake destroyed this swathe of Sicily. Cities and towns were wiped out, and 60,000 people lost their lives. The churches and palazzos that line the streets now were part of the rebuild, when Rome-trained architects took the opportunity to recreate the sophisticated High Renaissance architecture that had become popular in mainland Italy, giving the ornate and elaborate style a final flowering. Their interpretation led to the evolution of the personalised and localised art form that is Sicilian Baroque.

One of the side chapels at the Chiesa di San Carlo Borromeo.

Every church is worth exploring, and most of them are open morning and late afternoon (except Monday mornings); my favourite is the Chiesa di San Carlo Borromeo on Corso Vittorio Emanuele (one of the main streets through Noto) where the chapels on either side of the altar are masterclasses in combining different decorative paint effects, from florals to marble via Baroque swirls. Everywhere you go, remember to look up at the ceilings and down at your feet, for a Sicilian Baroque surface is seldom left unembellished.

Palazzo Nicolaci.

Then, there are the palazzos; Palazzo Nicolaci on via Corrado Nicolaci was built in 1737 for the Nicolaci family, some of whom are still in residence – gaze first at the balconies on its façade, adorned with mermaids, sphinxes and winged horses. The ground floor houses the municipal library, but a sequence of rooms on the piano nobile are open the public, have featured on the Accidentally Wes Anderson Instagram account, and are visions of painted and patterned turquoise and yellow, deep pink and green, or orange, brown and blue. The ballroom is unmissable.

The entrance to the piano nobile at the Palazzo Castelluccio.

But perhaps most impressive is the Palazzo Castelluccio, built in 1782 (just as Noto’s architectural style was segueing towards neoclassicism) by the Marquis di Lorenzo del Castelluccio. It changed hands several times, before, in 1981, being inherited by the Order of the Knights of Malta. The French film producer Jean-Louis Remilleux bought it in 2011, and has overseen a complete restoration, from the frescoed ceilings to the tiled floors. He has also decorated and furnished it, and in doing so allowed himself sufficient freedom of fantasy that it seems entirely liveable in even today (indeed, he does live in it, some of the time); he took inspiration from Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s cult novel concerning 19th century Sicilian society, The Leopard. There is much to heed, from decorative painting (note how even electric plug sockets have been marbled so that they blend in with the faux-marble panels) to wallpaper (the floral on silver in the volcano room is extraordinary, as is the brown and gold in the dining room), wallpaper borders, leopard print (more than once!) and more.

Beaches and swimming

Calamosche Beach, near Noto, in the Vendicari Nature Reserve.

robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Sicilian roads.

But of course, there are beaches, and they’re a delight, with fine golden sand and warm azure water. Ideally, you’ll have a car to reach them, for although technically you could walk to the coast it’s about an hour and a half (and hot!), while taxis are between 30 and 40 Euros each way. Lido di Noto is the place to head if you like your beach to come with the convenience of a restaurant; it’s a public beach next to a tiny town of predominantly holiday houses. Otherwise, pack a picnic, and head for the oasis of the Vendicari Nature Reserve. You’ll need to pay a small amount to go in, but then you have the wild and unspoilt beaches of Eloro (where the Greek poet Sappho is rumoured to have lived for some years), Pizzuta, Calamosche, San Lorenzo or – if you’re looking for a nudist beach – Marianelli.

The alternative is to head up into the hills above Noto, and swim in one of the natural plunge pools created by the streams. For Cava Carosello, drive to Noto Antico, and park in the carpark of the archaeological park Cava del Castello – and then be prepared for a steep walk, zero facilities, and potentially getting lost (we did). But it’s worth it.

Where to stay

An interior of Villa Elena, restored and designed by Jacques Garcia, is available for rental.

Bruno Ehrs

The good news is that you can genuinely experience Sicilian baroque life, for Jacques Garcia’s magnificently restored Villa Elena is available to rent. It would be one hell of a holiday in more ways than one – the price is only available on application. He has other properties too; Maison des Caroubiers has two bedrooms and is 10,000 Euros for a week; Maison des Oliviers has five bedrooms and is 20,000 Euros for a week, and Villa Livia has six bedrooms and is 22,000 Euros for a week. All come with private pools, maid and concierge service, access to a private beach on the Vendicari reserve, and are located in a dream of a rural, olive grove-studded valley just outside Noto, with views down to the coast.

Actually within the Vendicari reserve is Luisa Beccaria’s Vendicari beach house, also available to rent. With four bedrooms, it is set in the midst of olive, lemon and orange groves, has a pool as well as easy access to the beach, and the view from the terrace encompasses the whole bay.

Then, there are hotels: Il San Corrado di Noto is in the former home of Prince Nicolaci (of the Palazzo Nicolaci) and has been chicly updated and accessorised with vast pools, tennis courts, a private beach and palm-fringed lawns. More affordable is the highly-recommended, family-run Battimandorlo, just outside Noto; it’s in the middle of an organic farm of olive, almond and lemon trees, and has a salt water infinity pool.

Where to eat

There are many excellent cafés, restaurants and osterie in Noto.

Grant Rooney / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the joys of eating in Sicily is making your own meals from the delicious ingredients you come across; there is a fruit and vegetable market in the Piazza Monte Canosa every morning, and a larger food market on Friday mornings in the Noto gardens. Henriette von Stockhausen of VSP Interiors has a delicious recipe for Sicilian lemons, which involves slicing them very thinly over fennel and red Sicilian onions before adding olive oil and basil. “The lemons are so sweet they don’t resemble the lemons you buy in a British supermarket at all!” She points out.

Sicilian lemons.

For restaurants, you really can’t go wrong; we ate at various establishments on the main streets and were never disappointed, though Il Liberty on via Camilla Benso Conte di Cavour was particularly good. There are a couple of other spots not to miss. One is Café Sicilia, which dates from 1892, has been in the same family for four generations, and makes some of the best pastries and granita (a cold, sweet treat made from water, sugar and fruit that is never completely frozen and is simultaneously grainy and creamy) that I have ever had. Around the corner is Café Constanza, who make exceptionally good pistachio cannoli; request one to take away (da portare via) and eat it on the steps opposite the Duomo, watching life come and go. For ice-cream, we found the Sicilian lemon gelato at Princesa on Corto Vittorio Emanuele second to none.

Further afield is Taverna La Cialoma in Marzamemi, just south of Noto on the coast; Madonna celebrated her birthday here last year, and, looking at the restaurant’s Instagram, George Clooney has just been. Alternatively, up in the mountains is Osteria U Locale in Buccheri, where the menu features inland ‘mountain’ food such as snails, truffles and porcini mushrooms – and is delicious.

Where to shop

A display at Antiques Nicolaci, owned by Noto native Rachel Bartoli.


The big thing is ceramics, which have a long history on the island; archaeologists working in Sicily have unearthed pottery dating back to at least 2,400 BC. Contemporary examples are everywhere, to the extent that there are even road-side shops selling moor’s heads vases and pinecones. (Regarding the former, you may remember the story from White Lotus; there are various iterations, all involve impossible love. The pinecones are more straightforward, they’re said to bring health, good luck and prosperity.) The mountain town Caltagirone is the centre of Sicilian ceramics, and as well as the heads and pinecones the workshops there produce tiles, bowls, jugs, nativity scenes, whistles – essentially, everything. For older pieces, you’ll have to dig around.

For antiques in general (so not specifically ceramics), there are two shops to put on your must-visit list. One is Gregoire Vermesse’s; Gregoire sourced much of the current contents for the Palazzo Castellucio, while his wife, the decorative painter Alexandrine Stordeur, restored those exquisite ceilings, and the shop is a few doors down from the palace. The other is Antiques Nicolaci, owned by Rachel Bartoli who found all the antique lace and voile curtains for the Palazzo Castellucio, and has more exquisite textiles in stock, as well as a highly covetable assortment of religious iconography. Know that if you can’t get to Noto immediately, you can contact Rachel on Instagram and shop by post.

The other vital things to bring home is olive oil. The best (so good I genuinely considered drinking it) is Pantanello, made from olives grown in the same valley as Jacques Garcia’s villa, and happily, you can buy it from the UK just in case you haven’t got hold luggage. But if you have got hold luggage, also consider packing lemons, pistachios, and maybe – if you want to try to capture the scent of Sicily too – candles and room diffusers from the Ortigia shop in Noto (though again, this can be bought in the UK.)

Getting there, and getting around

A Piaggio car drives down a street in Noto – talk about a way to get around.

Peregrine / Alamy Stock Photo

While the ideal would be to drive there – simply so that you have a lot of space to take things home (see the shopping section, above) – not everyone is going to have the time (or the inclination) to negotiate the roads all the way from the UK to Sicily (Google Maps reckons its 30 hours or so.) The nearest airport to Noto is Catania, and from there you can hire a car, or take the bus which takes an hour and a half. However, there are only four buses a day, so you need to line up your journey times (the bus schedule is here).

I have two top tips: firstly, book hold luggage so that you can transport olive oil and lemons. Secondly, if when you go to pick up your car hire the man behind the desk informs you that he's upgraded you from a Fiat Panda to an electric 4-wheel drive tank at no extra cost, do not just say “oh, grazie,” and accept it. The streets of Noto are narrow, and so are the surrounding country tracks – though driving around the island is so beautiful that it’s worth planning day trips and restaurant excursions for daylight hours.

Day trips

The harbour of Ortigia Island in Syracuse.

Jan Wlodarczyk / Alamy Stock Photo

Sicily has one of the richest heritages in the Mediterranean, having hosted multiple and varied civilisations including the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, Frederick of Hohenstaufen – who reigned for 52 years in the 13th century – the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V in the 16th century, the Spanish and the Bourbons of Naples, and the French. There have been the violent interventions of nature, namely the earthquakes, and the recurring eruptions of Mount Etna (visible from Catania, and still active.) There has been phenomenal grandeur – if you haven’t already, do read Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard that chronicles in the changes in Sicilian high society during the 19th century unification of Italy – and destructive mafia corruption. All this – and Sicily is far from huge; you could drive across the island in under five hours. However, you’re on holiday, and there is plenty to see within an hour of Noto.

Modica, Sicily.

Francesca Sciarra / Alamy Stock Photo

Syracuse is north, between Noto and Catania, and in ancient times equalled Athens in size and was the most important city of Magna Graecia, allied with Sparta and Corinth – before serving as the capital of the Byzantine empire. The Neapolis Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the remains of a 5th century BC Greek theatre, 3rd century AD Roman amphitheatre (depending on what time of year you are there, and your proficiency in the Italian language, you might be able to/ want to go and see a play there) and multiple grottos – you wander from one to another through a profusion of lemon trees, grasses and wild flowers. Go early to avoid the heat, and then head to Ortigia, the historical centre of Syracuse (though it’s not in the centre!) for fried fish at the morning food market – and more Baroque splendour. On your way you may want to pause at the Basilica Santaurio Madonna delle Lacrime, Syracuse’s magnificent 20th century Brutalist cathedral.

South-west of Noto are the towns of Modica and Ragusa, which are both worth exploring. Modica is known as the ‘City of 100 Churches’, as well as being famous for chocolate production (Modica chocolate is different from other chocolates in that there is no added fat.) Then, the old part of Ragusa - Ragusa Ibla - will be familiar to fans of Inspector Montalbano, and as well as the Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Itria, which was founded by the Knights of Malta in the 17th century and has Caltigarone ceramic tiles covering the dome, it has one of the best restaurants in the area, namely, Ciccio Sultana, also known as Ristorante Duomo; it has two Michelin stars, which are reflected in the prices. In the same family, but less expensive, is I Banchi, also in Ragusa Ibla, which is a bakery as well as a restaurant.

The music room at Il Castello di Donnafugata.

The wallpaper in the smoking room at Il Castello di Donnafugata.

The velvet fireplace at Il Castello di Donnafugata.

Finally, a few miles south-west of Modica and Ragusa is one last unmissable interior: Il Castello di Donnafugata, with equally unmissable formal gardens (know, though, that’s it’s closed on Mondays). Donnafugata’s origins are 14th century (though most of the current neo-classcial and neo-Gothic appearance is 19th century) and strolling through the preserved rooms is akin to stepping back in time to the 18th and 19th century heydeys of the Sicilian aristocracy – in fact, Luchino Visconti made numerous visits to Donnafugata while researching his film adaptation of The Leopard. Note the wallpaper pattern and frescoes in the smoking room (theming never looked so good!), the triple rows of tassels on some of the chairs, the hall of mirrors, the brown velvet padded and buttoned fireplace – and so much more.