Marsala is internationally known for the sweet wine that bears its name, but what else is there to do here besides drink wine? Believe me, this beautiful city on Sicily’s western coast has a charm and history that will draw you in and leave you wanting more! Ancient churches, archeological ruins, Punic shipwrecks and underwater roads, a lagoon with pink colored water and fields of Mediterranean Sea Salt. This little gem of a town is best summarized by the words found on its own website:
“a Mediterranean city divided between sea and land...finding its natural synthesis in wine.”
Similar to most of Sicily, Marsala has been influenced by the many groups of people who have lived here throughout its history. The Phoenicians settled in the area as early as the 4th century BC and left us many archeological treasures. The Arabs left their mark as well, most obviously with the modern name of the city. Marsala originates from the Arabic words “Marsa” and “Allah”, which mean “port of God”. The port here is certainly blessed, because the sunsets over the lagoon are nothing less than heaven sent.
Marsala thrived for centuries as a major sea port under Phoenician and Greek rule, and flourished as an agricultural center under the Normans, but really found its proverbial place on the map when an English merchant decided to send some of the local wine back to Liverpool in the year 1773. Looking for a way to prevent the wine from spoiling on the voyage, it was fortified with alcohol; and the rest is history!
A visit to Marsala is perfectly spent as slowly as possible. This is not a place for hurried sightseeing or action packed travel. Marsala is a city best enjoyed by pressing the pause button and immersing yourself in the history, the food, the wine, and the salty sea air. Let’s explore Marsala together with this top 10 list of what to see and do!
1. Explore the city center
Meander though the crooked streets of Marsala’s historic center, where you’ll discover ancient churches, a 16th century monastery, towering city gates, picturesque piazzas, and street side cafes tempting you around every corner. Window shop along the Cassaro, the city center’s main street, whose name is derived from the Arabic word al-Qasru meaning “the castle”. This street certainly looks royal, paved with marble stones set alongside ornately designed buildings. You can just imagine the princes and nobles of old walking through the streets with their flowing robes.
As you explore the city center, take note of the varying architectural styles. Although there are traces of Phoenician ruins, the ancient city was all but destroyed around 400 BC. Rebuilt and fortified by stone walls, they city has been invaded many times over the centuries, by the Romans, the Arabs, and the Normans. Even more recently, during the Landing of the Thousand in 1860 when General Giuseppe Garibaldi led the invasion to unify Italy, and finally during World War II when Marsala suffered intense damage from Allied bombing. Modern day Marsala is a testament to resilience, and it bears the scars of its history.
2. Visit the Cathedral and Benedictine Monastery
The Chiesa Madre, or Mother Church of Marsala, stands in all of its Baroque glory at the center of the Piazza della Repubblica in the heart of the city center. Dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury, the Norman era cathedral was built on the ruins of a previous church that had been destroyed during the Arab raids on the city. You can find a painting depicting the martyrdom of Saint Thomas in the apse of the church, along with many other beautiful paintings and historic relics.
Across the piazza from the cathedral sits a Benedictine monastery dating back to the year 1516, built on the ruins of a thousand year old building that was once the center of the Jewish quarter of Marsala. Much of the building was damaged during the bombings of the Second World War, but it is now beautifully restored and houses a complex of small museums. Along with a museum dedicated to General Garibaldi’s campaign to conquer the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, there are collections of archaeological finds, the city’s Easter Thursday parade, and the Marsala Museo dei Pupi, a puppet museum with locally designed puppets and their theatrical stages.
3. Take a stroll along the Lungomare Boeo
After exploring the city center, make your way through the Porta Garibaldi and head straight for the sea. Here you’ll find the Monumento ai Mille, a war memorial dedicated to the thousand men who landed with General Garibaldi in 1860. From here, take a leisurely walk along the brick sidewalk that follows the Lungomare Boeo, or seafront, and take in the rocky coastline and beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
4. Learn about Marsala’s history at the Archeological Museums
During your walk along the Lungomare, take a break from the heat and stop inside the Parco Archeologico Lilibeo and Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi. This pair of museums has an incredible collection of artifacts dating as far back as the Carthaginian times of the 4th century BC! Although the museum is chalk full of gold jewelry, Greek pottery, Roman statues and , the highlight of the tour is undoubtedly the remains of a Punic warship recovered off the coast, which they have been able to partially reconstruct inside the museum.
5. Sip sweet wine in a street side cafe
When your feet are ready for a rest, take your pick from one of the many quaint little cafes you’ll find around this charming city. Indulge yourself with scrumptious seafood or local specialties. And of course, you must pair it with the proper Marsala wine!
All the food we ate in Marsala was wonderful, but we definitely hit the jackpot when we wandered into Ciacco Putia Gourmet. They have a selection of food and wine pairings to choose from; or you can order food items off the menu and they’ll help you choose the perfect Marsala wine to go with it. This was by far the best meal we had during our stay in Marsala. And the best part was that they are also a wine shop, so we were able to buy the wines we liked the best right there from the table! They have an amazing thing called a Timbaletto (a deep fried pasta ball with ragu sauce) that I would make a trip back to Marsala just to be able to eat again!
Oh, and before you leave this gorgeous little piazza, take a peek inside the Chiesa del Purgatorio. If you're lucky, you'll catch the sweet old Italian man inside and he'll take you by the arm (literally) and tell you the history of every single detail of this incredibly old and beautiful church. His love for the church and its history is infectious, even if you don't speak Italian!
6. Cruise the Stagnone Lagoon
Marsala sits on the westernmost tip of Sicily at the edge of a small inlet known as the Stagnone Lagoon. From its earliest known history, the Phoenicians settled a small island in the lagoon that they called Motya. Also known by the names Mozia or Mothia, the town on the island was destroyed during the Greek invasion in the 4th century BC. The survivors of the invasion fled to the mainland and settled a town called Lilybaion, or Lilybaeum, which became modern day Marsala.
As the years went on, the island came into the possession of a man named Giuseppe Whitaker, who discovered the remains of the ancient Phoenician civilization! The archeological finds can be seen from a distance on a boat tour or explored on foot with a tour to the island by the Whitaker Foundation. But the coolest part about this little island isn’t actually on the island itself, it’s the remains of a submerged Punic road that linked the island to the mainland on the northern shore of the lagoon! You can only see this by boat, and it is worth the trip just to get a glimpse!
7. Play on the beach
You will find lidos all along the coast in Marsala. Take your pick and have some fun in the sun, or in the sea! In case you aren’t familiar with the term, a “lido” in Italy is a beach area where you can rent a space or section of the beach, usually with chairs and an umbrella. Many times they also offer food and drink service, or some even have fenced in areas for your furry water babies! Laying on the beach not your style? Rent a paddle board or kayak, or bring your own. Better yet, get your adrenaline fix with some kite surfing lessons! There are several kite surfing schools along the shore, with a range of experiences for surfers at all levels. Word is that the wind coming off the sea here is perfect for kite surfing!
8. Learn about Marsala Wine at a local Winery
Let’s get serious. The wine is why you come here, right? But where did Marsala wine come from and why is it so special? Marsala is a fortified wine, which means it’s cut with distilled liqueurs. As I mentioned earlier, we can thank an Englishman by the name of John Woodhouse for perfecting this process. By adding alcohol to the local wine so it would be less likely to turn into vinegar during shipping, the Marsala wine we know and love today was born! While in Marsala, why not visit one of the the local wineries to learn more about the process of making this sweet nectar?
9. Explore the Salt Fields
The land around the Stagnone Lagoon is a protected area called the Stagnone Nature Reserve. The reserve is characterized by the salt flats that have been in use for hundreds of years, shallow pools formed in square “fields” where they scoop out Mediterranean Sea Salt and lay it underneath clay tiles to dry in the hot sun. The water from the fields is pumped out using windmills, and the shallow pools take on a pink color that is unique and beautiful. At the Saline della Laguna, just north of Marsala, you can tour one of the windmills and learn about traditional methods for harvesting and grinding Sicilian sea salt, as well as take a guided walk around the fields. The views from here are some of the most picturesque in all of Sicily!
10. Watch the sun set
Speaking of picturesque views, you can not miss a chance to watch the sun set over the salt fields of Marsala. With the Egadi Islands in the background, the Mediterranean Sea, and windmills dotting the salt fields, you couldn’t ask for a more picture perfect moment.
There are several places to catch this once in a lifetime sunset. The area where boats leave for lagoon tours, the parking area for the windmill and salt field tour, or really anywhere along the stretch of road called the Contrada Spagnola. Be careful though, this road is one way, so you’ll need to enter from the south along SP 21. Another option is to get a table at one of the restaurants along this road. Mammacaura Marsala is a casual outdoor space that offers light snacks and cocktails, just across the road from the Saline of the Laguna Marsala parking area. Another option is to reserve a table at one of the many restaurants in the lagoon area. As a last resort, just pull over to the side of the road. No matter what your vantage point, you will witness one of the most spectacular sunsets of your life!
Where to next?
I'm already planning a trip back to Marsala to take a ferry to the Aegadian Islands of Favignana, Marettimo, and Levanzo; as well as to explore the nearby cities of Erice, Trapani and Mazara del Vallo. Also on the agenda will be eating more deep fried pasta balls, drinking more wine, and taking kite surfing lessons! Not necessarily in that order.
Thank you for reading! If you liked this, check out other stories from Sicily in my European Travel Destination section, or my most recent stories below!