Ustica Island: The Black Pearl of the Mediterranean

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The tiny island of Ustica lies north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s known above all for its scuba diving and marine reserve. Although it’s only a one-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from the Sicilian city of Palermo, it is worlds away from the masses. Join me as we explore Ustica, your next Italian dream destination.

Ustica’s Origins

The volcanic island (inactive!) of Ustica formed millions of years ago and is only about 5 square km (3 miles) in size. It has been inhabited since the 6th century BC as evidenced by various excavations. Later, it was settled by the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks who named it Osteodes meaning ossuary for the thousands of Carthaginians left to die of starvation. The Romans renamed it Ustica, the Latin word for “burnt”, for its dark, volcanic rock. Today, many refer to it as the “Black pearl of the Mediterranean” both for its geology and its beauty.


Italy’s First Marine Reserve

The seabed surrounding Ustica is special. In fact, 50% of all species found in the Mediterranean can be found here. A combination of plankton-rich currents coming from the Atlantic and the island’s underwater morphology make for this unique marine environment. Underwater peaks, slopes, caves, and tunnels all contribute to the rich flora and fauna. Ustica was also the very first marine reserve in Italy created in 1986. 

Scuba Diving and More

It is no wonder that it is a true haven for scuba divers and hosts an international diving festival annually. The very first diving school in all of Italy was established on the island and today, there are numerous schools located throughout the island from which to choose.


The Best Beaches

On such a small island, you can afford to visit a different beach every day, or even two a day. Some of the most stunning parts of the coastline are on the western side of the island. Punta Cavazzi is where the lighthouse is located and has a spectacular stretch of rocky shore (bring your water shoes) that is also equipped with services like an umbrella rental and bar.

Not far from the lighthouse, don’t miss the “natural pool” or piscina naturale on the island that is slightly tricky to reach but well worth the effort. Other fantastic spots include Cala Sidoti with its shallow shore and volcanic pebbles and Caletta Santoro.

You can also hire a boat for a private tour around the island and even explore the various sea grottoes

Numerous hiking trails are well-maintained and traverse the island such as the Sentiero del Gorgo Salato and the Sentiero del Mezzogiorno. You can also hike up to the Rocca Falconiera fortress for a fantastic view (sunset and sunrise in particular).

Punta Spalmatore (also on the western side of the island) is also one of the best places to stargaze in all of Italy as reported by AstronomItaly. Views of the Milky Way above the deep blue sea are spellbinding. 

ustica-sicilia-via lattea

Ustica’s Historic Center

The tiny port is located on the eastern side of the island in a half-moon-shaped bay. The Torre di Santa Maria and the Falconiera fortress were built in the 18th century by the Bourbons in order to defend the island. 

The Museo Civico Archeologico holds Hellenistic-Roman artifacts excavated from the island, particularly from Falconiera hill. 

During Bourbon rule, the current town was built as well as the Church of San Ferdinando Re, entrusted to the Capuchins. 

Getting Here and Getting Around

Once you’ve arrived in Ustica’s port from Palermo either via ferry or hydrofoil, most tourists get around on the island by renting a scooter (electric too), an electric bike, or bringing their own car (only available via ferry). 


Although Ustica is far from being classified as “touristy”, it doesn’t take very many people to make this miniature island feel crowded. The best months to enjoy everything the island has to offer in total peace and quiet are May, June, July, and September.

Make sure to try Utica’s most famous food, its lentils which are cultivated in rich, lavic soil without the use of pesticides or fertilizers of any kind. The island’s most famous fish is the magnificent barracuda, known as aluzzo in the local dialect as well as grouper, tuna, swordfish, and a tiny variety of shrimp called parapangoli. A variety of dishes also include squid, redfish, amberjack, and seabream.

Interesting Facts

  • The island was used throughout modern history as a prison, especially during Mussolini’s fascist Italy.
  • Ustica experienced an overpopulation from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s when many fled the island and immigrated to the US, specifically to New Orleans.
  • Sadly, Ustica is also known for a tragic plane crash that occurred in 1980 and killed 81 people.

Ustica fits wonderfully into a Sicilian vacation when visiting Palermo, but honestly, we think that Ustica could easily stand on its own as your single holiday destination. 

Special thanks to the Ustica Pro Loco Association for their contribution to this article. You can visit their official website or Facebook page for more information about Ustica.