Cefalù (pronounced cheh-fah-loo) is an unbelievably beautiful town along Sicily’s northern coast. Both the Madonie mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea serve as its backdrop. For the wanderlust traveler, Cefalù offers everything from history and culture to amazing food, and a stunning coastline. It is also part of the exclusive club of the “Most Beautiful Villages in Italy” and in this article, you’ll find out why.
Cefalù’s History in Brief
Once you learn how to pronounce it correctly, Cefalù begins to roll off your tongue with such ease that even the word itself becomes intriguing. It was the ancient Greeks who first named it, Kephaloídion, then the Romans with Cephaloedium, and Gafludi in Arabic. The Normans would follow suit as well as the Swabians, Aragonese, and Spanish- and that’s not even a comprehensive list. In fact, Sicily is likely the most conquered country on earth, particularly the city of Palermo. It isn’t any wonder that the influences of all these invaders can still be observed today in its architecture, food, and traditions.
Now that you’ve had a brief history lesson (rather necessary if you’re going to truly appreciate Cefalù) we can dive into what you must see and do during your stay.
Its first outstanding feature is impossible to miss! The Rocca is a massive limestone rock that soars 270 meters (885 feet) above the town making for a dramatic backdrop. We highly recommend hiking up to the top which will take you about two hours. Along the way, you’ll pass by what remains of the Temple of Diana (9th century BC) as well as Cefalù’s 12th-century (estimated) Norman castle.
Most who visit agree that the view from the top from Palermo to Capo d’Orlando was one of the highlights of their trip. The path begins in town on Corso Ruggero then on to Salita dei Saraceni where you’ll find the ticket office for the castle.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, the Duomo is absolutely the most symbolic monument in Cefalù. It was commissioned by Sicily’s first king, Ruggero II, in the year 1131 and wasn’t completed until 1267. The two prominent towers are its standout feature so typical of Norman-Romanesque architecture. Its interior is even more astounding with the culminating feature being the central apse and the depiction of Christ Pantocrator in precious Byzantine mosaics dating to the mid-12th-century. Visit the Cathedral’s official website for guided tours and ticket info.
Named after Enrico Pirajno di Mandralisca, a Baron who lived in Cefalù in the mid-19th century, the Mandralisca Museum is a must-visit for all art connoisseurs. Most of the museum’s contents are from the Baron’s personal collection including archaeological finds from Cefalù’s Magna Grecia period that he personally excavated (read about nearby Himera Archaeological Park). A vast collection of art, coins, zoology specimens, and what is now the public library are all included in your visit. Open every day of the year.
Piazza Marina lies between the city’s historic center and the deep blue sea. From here the old city walls (5th century) are still visible. You can follow the old wall around the perimeter of the town for a breathtaking stroll along the sea. A small, sandy beach crowded with sunbathers and Cefalù’s pier are also here.
The “Megalithic” City Walls
Referred to as “megalithic” for their proportions, Cefalù’s stone walls are three meters thick and five meters tall. Until the 16th century, they served as protection from invaders as well as from strong winds. Originally, there were four gates that allowed access into the city, but now, the only one standing is the aforementioned Porta Marina. You may recognize Porta Marina from the 1988 cinematographic masterpiece, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso which won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1990.
Palazzo Osterio Magno
The Osterio Magno Palace just recently reopened in April of 2022 after having been closed to the public for over 20 years. The palace was the former residence of Norman King Ruggero II and of the historic Ventimiglia family. It is a rare glimpse into Cefalù’s vast history in a single building. Osterio Magno is now managed by the Diocese of Cefalù and is included in some of the guided tours along with the Cathedral. Visit the Cathedral’s official website for complete details.
Cefalù’s Best Beaches
It’s a bit obvious to point out that Cefalù has amazing beaches because, after all, we are talking about Sicily! The shores that surround the historic center would suffice even the most serious beachgoer’s every need. The Spiaggia del Porto Vecchio and Spiaggia di Cefalù offer sandy shores and lots of options as far as lidos where you can conveniently rent an umbrella and a chaise lounge chair.
If you want to explore more of the coast and have the means to, by all means go at least as far as Sant’Ambrogio (to the east) with its tiny pebbles and few tourists and Settefrati and Salinella to the west. The latter is an excellent place to try your hand at windsurfing.
What to Eat
When we talk about Sicily, there are really two guarantees: the first, the above-mentioned turquoise sea, and the second, the food. Entire articles could be written about every single dish on the island and how diverse they all are. We’re going to narrow it down to a simple few that you absolutely must try while you’re in Cefalù to make things easier.
Lo Sfincione is a cross between focaccia and pizza and is a specialty of the Palermo province, including Cefalù. It’s a favorite street food as well and very easy to find. The classic recipe is topped with tomato sauce, anchovies or anchovy paste, onions, oregano, and caciocavallo cheese. Divine!
Seafood and the fresh catch of the day should be on your menu every day you’re here as well. Some favorites include mussels au gratin and swordfish “rolls”, involtini.
For your sweet tooth, it’s really hard to go wrong. A morning pastry made with ricotta, or almond paste, and served with a classic granita, and an afternoon gelato in any flavor should become a daily habit!
The best time of the year to enjoy everything Cefalù has to offer is, well, anytime! In all seriousness, Sicily enjoys very mild winters but it probably won’t be “beach weather”. Your best bet for great deals and avoiding the masses are the months of April and May and mid-September to early November. Just try to get here before Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones 5 film is released! You’ll want to say, “Hey! I’ve been there!” during the scenes filmed in Cefalù.