People never seem to question whether or not visiting Italy is safe – well, before that virus whose name we shall not mention that is. Italy is one of those quintessential European travel destinations that millions flock to each year to ride a gondola, visit the Vatican and drink Prosecco as the sun sets.
Brits and Americans alike dream of living la dolce vita in Rome, Florence or Venice, more concerned about how many evening dresses to pack in their suitcase than whether they will become victim of a crime.
Mention Sicily however, and that attitude quickly disappears.
‘Sicily? Is it safe? Isn’t that where the Mafia are from?’ people say, as if visiting Sicily will result in them being gunned down in broad daylight by Michael Corleone himself.
It is easy to get carried away with our assumptions about places we know little about, especially when those places don’t come across too well in the movie industry (Taken, I’m looking at you).
However, I am of the firm belief that, world pandemics and active conflicts aside, most places are not half as dangerous as people would have us believe.
After spending more than three months in Palermo, Sicily’s capital, I feel as though I am in a position to weigh in on whether Sicily is dangerous, whether you should be wary of visiting Sicily as a solo female traveller, and what the biggest threats to your safety are in Sicily.
So, is Sicily safe? Let’s find out!
Is Sicily Safe? All You Need to Know About Safety in Sicily
Things to know before visiting Sicily
Just like the rest of Italy, Sicily uses the EURO. Most places in Sicily accept card, but there are definitely a fair few places that do not.
UBER does not exist in Sicily and taxis can be very expensive. It is always best to agree a price beforehand (and most taxi companies communicate via WhatsApp).
Although parts of Italy can be very expensive, Sicily is not super pricey and Palermo is one of the cheapest cities in the whole of Italy!
The weather in Sicily is nice all year round but the best time to visit is definitely spring/early summer or late September/the month of October. This way you still get to experience great weather but with less crowds and cheaper flights and accommodation. It should also be noted that many businesses in Italy close for the month of August!
Even if you speak Italian, you may struggle in Sicily. Sicilians have their very own language that is totally different from the Italian that you may know. A guy I met from Milan could not make himself understood in Palermo!
If taking the bus, buy your ticket beforehand. Bus tickets are purchased from tobacco shops. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is.
Most restaurants only open for dinner between 7:30 and 8:00pm so make sure to factor that into your dinner plans.
If you think people are arguing, don’t worry. That’s just how Sicilians talk to each other. And if they are arguing? They’ll be hugging before you know it.
Is Sicily safe? The facts
Numbers don’t lie, and so I want to kick things off by taking a look at the statistics.
First off, you are 27 times more likely to be murdered in the United States than you are in Sicily, and 4 times as likely to be raped (source).
Research conducted by the ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistics) found that among the 12 largest cities in Italy, Palermo had the lowest overall crime rate. It may surprise you to know that Milan is the most dangerous province in all of Italy, followed by Rimini, Florence, Bologna and Turin.
In fact, Sicily doesn’t even make the top 10 list for most types of crime aside from car theft, with Catania and Palermo being at numbers 3 and 10.
Is the Mafia a threat in Sicily?
The Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, are the most infamous organised crime group in the world, immortalised in The Godfather and never far from the minds of curious tourists.
However, Sicilian gangsters aren’t waiting down dark alleyways to do you harm. Like most organised criminals, the Mafia care about politics, power and money, not about harming random tourists.
Is the Sicilian Mafia alive and well? Yes, absolutely, but they are behind the scenes influencing the higher-ups.
If you did encounter a Mafioso, you wouldn’t know it.
In fact, the Mafia invested so much money into Sicily and tourism that as a tourist, you are extremely protected. If somebody were to harm a tourist, the Mafia would not be happy and would see to it that whoever was involved paid the price.
It may also interest you that ISIS themselves have said that they wouldn’t carry out any terrorist attacks in Southern Italy because the only thing they fear is the Mafia – true story!
As for ‘the M word,’ don’t stress.
You are allowed to say the word ‘Mafia’ in Sicily, and you are allowed to ask questions about it (as long as you are sensitive and respectful). However, if somebody does not want to talk about it then you shouldn’t push the subject – many Sicilians have suffered huge trauma as a result of the Mafia and may not want to relive their most painful memories.
In that same vein, don’t laugh and joke about the Mafia. Marco Romeo of Streaty Food Tours likens joking about the Mafia in Sicily to joking about the Holocaust in Germany. While it may be just an edgy joke to you, many lives were lost to the Mafia and it isn’t wise to make light of that.
Scams in Sicily
Because of Sicily’s relative lack of tourism compared to other parts of Italy, Sicilians haven’t really caught onto tourist scams yet.
They may be notorious for giving back the wrong change, but that’s less of a scam and more a part of Sicilian culture – they do it to each other too!
As with anywhere in the world, taxi drivers can overcharge foreigners. I tend not to use taxis a lot when I travel, but if you do then always try to find a reputable taxi company online and agree on a price first. Never take a taxi that is waiting at the airport or train station.
Another thing to note is that if you sit at a table in a coffee shop or cafe, you may find an additional €1-2 per person tacked onto your bill. This isn’t a scam and it isn’t something that only tourists experience. It is called a coperto and is a kind of ‘table service fee’ popular across the whole of Italy. The coperto is the reason why you will usually see Italians standing at the bar to drink their espresso.
Petty crime in Sicily
Like anywhere, Sicily has some opportunist criminals that will indulge in a spot of pickpocketing if they get the chance.
Their number is very small, and you are far less likely to become a victim of petty crime in Sicily than most other parts of Italy, and even the rest of Europe!
Areas to be extra mindful of your belongings in Palermo include the Ballaro and La Vucciria markets. Be especially vigilant if you are partying in La Vucciria because mass crowds of people always attract petty criminals who will easily slip your phone out of your back pocket without you noticing.
Easy ways to avoid being pickpocketed in Sicily include carrying a zip bag and using your front rather than your back pockets. Leave your card at home and just take out the cash that you plan on spending if you are extra concerned.
Other ways to avoid being targeted are walking with purpose (and making sure you at least look like you know where you’re going!), maintaining eye contact, dressing like you would at home (put the khaki pants away please!) and speaking confidently.
In other words, don’t walk around with a sign on your head saying ‘I’m a tourist!’
For the most part though, safety in Sicily when it comes to petty crime is not something you need to worry about. Exercise the same amount of caution that you would at home and you’ll likely be fine.
And remember – you are much more likely to be pickpocketed in Rome or Milan than you are in Sicily.
Solo female travel in Sicily
There is definitely a stereotype when it comes to Italian men, and unfortunately that stereotype is often well-deserved.
I have had more problems with street harassment in Italy than any other country, to the point where I have been followed three times while walking home alone at night (once in Tuscany and twice in Naples). My friend and I also had a close call in Trento, with a group of young guys trying to get us down a secluded alleyway in the early hours.
All of the above experiences were downright terrifying, and I don’t say that lightly.
However, after spending three months in Sicily, I haven’t experienced anything worse than ‘ciao bella,’ which is annoying for sure but not scary.
Sicilian men are incredibly persistent, but a firm ‘no’ will usually do the trick.
Again, you are probably far more likely to become a victim of a sex crime in your home country than you are in Italy, and Italy has a lower per capita rate of rape than most of the advanced Western countries in the European Union.
Driving in Sicily
When asking yourself ‘is Sicily safe?’ you are probably concerned about criminal activity.
However, by far the most dangerous thing for tourists in Sicily is Sicilian drivers.
Italians generally have a reputation for being crazy drivers, and Sicilian drivers are off the scale.
Sicilian drivers, especially those in the capital of Palermo, are aggressive, erratic and, as my boyfriend so eloquently puts it, ‘fucking nuts.’
Traffic laws are more of a casual suggestion than anything in Sicily.
Whether it’s driving the wrong way down a one-way street, totally ignoring traffic signs, parking wherever the hell you like, or even driving on the pavement to sail by a traffic jam, Sicilians will do it.
Drinking and driving is common, as is texting while driving, driving into oncoming traffic and there is also a complete disregard for right of way.
Don’t be surprised if you are walking across a pedestrian crossing (with the green man signalling that you can go!), and a car speeds past, so close that your toes are almost taken off, honking loudly at you for being in his way.
If you want to rent a car in Sicily yourself (the best way to see the island), driving becomes much easier once you get out of the big cities, but you should be aware that the roads aren’t always in the best condition and you should trust Google Maps at your peril!
Is Sicily safe? Final thoughts
Just like anywhere, Sicily has its share of crime. However, its reputation as a lawless, Mafia-ridden island is totally undeserved, and actually Sicily is probably far safer than wherever you are travelling from!
As long as you don’t throw your common sense out of the window, you should be absolutely fine in Sicily, and the only real thing you need to fear is falling so hopelessly in love with this island that you never want to leave!