People never seem to question whether or not visiting Italy is safe.
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 Tuscany, 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.
‘Is Sicily safe to travel to? 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.
However, I am of the firm belief that most places are not half as dangerous as people would have us believe.
After spending more than six 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
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 Palermo safe?
If you’re planning a trip to Sicily, you’re probably wondering – is Palermo safe?
The gritty capital of Sicily has a bit of a bad reputation, and many people believe that Palermo is a dangerous place, but I’m here to tell you that this is simply not true!
Yes, you will find crumbling buildings and graffiti but graffiti does not equal danger.
The biggest threats to your safety in Palermo are not actual safety issues at all, but ones of petty crime.
While Palermo has lower petty crime rates than most of Italy, as with anywhere, random opportunists can strike.
Tips for staying safe in Palermo
- Avoid the area around (and behind) the train station late at night. Here you will find the red light district and kerb crawlers, as well as some ‘undesirables’ hanging around (and no, I’m not talking about women here).
- If you are staying in Ballaro, try to avoid walking there alone at night, especially if you are a woman, and avoid dark alleyways. You should be fine walking in pairs.
- The highest risk of pickpocketing comes from visiting Ballaro market during the daytime, and the La Vucciria market area at night. Ballaro market is very crowded and it can be easy for opportunists to sneak a hand inside your bag, and La Vucciria is a popular nightlife spot that is often targeted by pickpockets. Never keep your phone or wallet in your back pocket!
- Never keep your passport on your person.
- Compared to Catania, Palermo does not have a huge problem with car theft, but if you are parking in the area near the train station, always tip the man who guides you to your parking spot. This area is (allegedly) controlled by the Nigerian mafia, and so you may return to find your car gone if you don’t tip!
- Watch out for crazy drivers and be sure to look both ways when crossing the street, even if the green man is showing!
Is Catania safe?
Catania is Sicily’s second city, and many people also wonder – is Catania safe?
As with Palermo, the truth is that Catania is very safe, especially for tourists. The biggest safety issues in Catania are car theft and pickpocketing. In fact, Catania is the third worst city in Italy for auto theft.
Tips for staying safe in Catania
- Don’t flaunt your valuables and always keep a tight hold of your bag. As always, don’t keep your phone and wallet in your pockets.
- Never keep your passport on your person.
- Take out car insurance, and always tip the men who guide you to parking spots. Failing to pay them may result in your car being stolen as this service is a criminally organised one.
- Don’t walk alone down dark alleyways and try and stay in the tourist centre at night.
- Again, watch out for crazy drivers and be sure to look both ways when crossing the street, even if the green man is showing!
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.
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 cool 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 café, 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!
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, Sicily is safe 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 six 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.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – solo female travel is not as scary as you think.
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, ‘f*cking 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!
Hostels in Sicily
If you’re a backpacker like me then you may be wondering whether hostels in Sicily are safe, especially as a solo female traveller.
All I can tell you is yes, yes and YES.
Hostels in Sicily are no more or less dangerous than hostels anywhere else I’ve been. I’ve stayed in several and all of them had great security systems, personal lockers and helpful staff.
In fact, one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever been to was in Sicily, in San Vito Lo Capo!
The Best Hostels in Sicily
In Palermo, I recommend Balarm Hostel. I’ve stayed there twice and while it’s basic, it is definitely the best option in Palermo as far as hostels are concerned. Balarm Hostel has a great security system (you have to be buzzed in by a member of staff or know the combination code), the dorm rooms are operated by key card, and each locker has an electric combination lock on it. The location is also great, it’s pretty social and they have a great free breakfast.
In Catania I stayed in Ostello degli Elefanti and I can highly recommend it. The rooms are beautiful, with gorgeous ornate floor tiles and ceilings, and the staff are super helpful. There is also a rooftop bar with excellent views over the centre of Catania, and the location could not be better.
Another highly recommended hostel in Catania is The Yard Hostel. I haven’t personally stayed here, but the reviews are fantastic, and I’ll definitely be checking this place out when I return to Catania. The Yard has a free breakfast (with freshly baked pies and fried eggs!), super cool common areas and a really great looking bar. I’m getting FOMO just looking at the pictures!
In San Vito Lo Capo, I stayed at Timbuktu Hostel and I loved it.
Timbuktu is the first and ONLY hostel in San Vito Lo Capo, and while most people only visit San Vito as part of a day trip from Palermo, I recommend staying for a couple of nights just to experience this hostel! Timbuktu is an eco-friendly hostel with solar panels, a citrus garden, recycled wood and environmentally friendly cleaning products. The hostel itself and the gardens are BEAUTIFUL, and when I was there, there was always a homemade fruit cake or some sundried tomatoes lying around waiting to be munched on. There’s even a rock climbing wall!! The free breakfast was one of the best hostel breakfasts I’ve had, and the beds were insanely comfy – it’s definitely a hygge place. It’s on the expensive side for a hostel, but it’s definitely worth it IMO.
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, so always carry cash with you.
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).
If you’re planning a trip to Sicily, then I strongly recommend buying travel insurance. I NEVER travel without insurance, and I’ve seen too many others get landed with huge medical bills as a result of not having had insurance, that it’s something I’ll never neglect to buy. My recommendation for great travel insurance is World Nomads, and you can read my review of World Nomads here.
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 Sicily 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. While most young people in the cities speak in Italian, a lot of Sicilian dialect tends to mix in with it, and if you intend to go to any of the markets to sample Sicilian street food, the vendors will all be speaking in Sicilian.
If taking the bus, buy your ticket beforehand. City bus tickets are purchased from tobacco shops. If that sounds weird, it’s because it is.
You can travel around Sicily (and get there from mainland Italy) by bus. My go-to bus travel in Europe is always FlixBus. Flixbus is the most extensive bus network worldwide and all Flix buses have Wi-Fi, extra legroom, charging ports and the ability to modify your booking just 15 minutes before departure! Click here to book your Flixbus to Sicily.
To see train times in Sicily, I recommend using Trainline.
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? Final thoughts
So what do you think? Is Sicily safe to travel to?
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!
And now, I want to know what YOU think! Did I help ease your worries about visiting Sicily? Let me know in the comments below!
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