As the second season of The White Lotus wraps up, all eyes are on Sicily. And despite the show’s premise as a social satire about wealthy guests staying at the glamorous White Lotus resort, the Emmy award-winning HBO series directed by Mike White has an undeniable effect on the destinations it features. After the first season, filmed at the Four Seasons Maui at Wailea, Ben Shank, the hotel’s general manager, told the Guardian that “the phone had been ringing nonstop since the show aired.” The second season of The White Lotus was filmed in Taormina, Sicily, at the the San Domenico Palace, a Four Seasons hotel. Before the second season had even aired, the hotel was booked to April 2023—it’s now sold out through 2023.
The phenomenon is easy to understand. You put a place as gorgeous as Taormina on TV and suddenly people who had never given the destination a second thought are dreaming about the azure sea, the picturesque city with its baroque architecture and ancient Greek theater, and the um … welcoming locals. The drugs and sex just glamorize it further. In fact, fans of the show will note that in this season, White has really leaned into Sicily’s dramatic allure with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology and a memorable scene shot at Teatro Massimo, the opera house in Palermo.
As a Rome-based journalist who has traveled all over Italy, I happen to love Sicily, but I worry about the effect that The White Lotus will have on tourism to the island. Lorenzo Maraviglia, the general manager at the San Domenico Palace, told me that the local shopkeepers in Taormina welcomed The White Lotus cast and crew because they understood what powerful publicity the show would be for the town. The thing is, Taormina doesn’t really need more publicity—it’s been one of Sicily’s most well-trod destinations since the era of the Grand Tour. It’s also a fairly small city, set high on a cliff, with the beautiful gardens of the Villa Comunale offering memorable vistas of the coast, and most of the shops concentrated on or around Corso Umberto, where several scenes—including the final shot of Lucia and Mia—were filmed.
The thing is, Taormina doesn’t really need more publicity—it’s been one of Sicily’s most well-trod destinations since the era of the Grand Tour.
When my husband, Marco, and I visited in August 2021—peak season—it was already crowded. It was impossible to get a reasonably priced room at the San Domenico Palace, or anywhere else in Taormina for that matter, so we stopped by the hotel for lunch instead and stayed in the next town over, where the rate was $400–$500 for a night at a very average four-star hotel with a view of a small beach littered with cigarette butts. So I can’t help but fear that Taormina will be even more overrun, its hotels charging even more exorbitant rates, next summer.
How to avoid the crowds in Sicily
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t visit Taormina—but keep in mind that if you want to escape the crowds, it’s best to avoid July and August and go instead during the shoulder seasons. (It’s still beach weather from May through October.) As Italy’s largest island, Sicily has plenty of other places worth visiting, too. Noto, where Harper and Daphne go in the third episode, is an enchanting city famous for its baroque architecture and renowned pasticceria Caffè Sicilia—and if you go in September instead of August, it’s blissfully crowd free. There are plenty of sandy beaches between Noto and Siracusa as well as the Vendicari Nature Reserve south of Noto—just don’t expect to find ritzy beach clubs like the one at the White Lotus there.
If you’re drawn to the golden limestone buildings seen on the show, visit Ortigia, the small island that forms the baroque heart of Siracusa, connected to the rest of the city by a couple of bridges. It too is full of shops selling handmade jewelry, beautiful clothes, and intoxicating perfumes. On a visit to Ortigia, you can sample fresh and dried fruit at the large open-air market, ogle the baroque cathedral, admire the Aretusa Spring (a natural fountain where Egyptian papyrus grows), sunbathe on one of the little beaches, and cool off with a granita—all in a day.
On the other side of Sicily, you can have a completely different experience. If you were intrigued by the scenes shot at the ancient Greek theater in Taormina, you might want to explore the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you go in summer, take an evening tour to avoid the crowds and sweltering heat. On the way there, you can visit the Scala dei Turchi, a sinuous cliff made of dazzling white marl rock. You can sunbathe and swim at the beaches where the cliff descends gently into the sea and sip an Aperol Spritz while watching the sunset at a bar like Lounge Beach Scala dei Turchi. The nearby town of Sciacca is known for hand-painted ceramics like the Moor’s heads that decorate the White Lotus.
The White Lotus chronicles one week in the lives of guests at Taormina’s ritziest resort, with jaunts to Noto and Palermo, but for a true taste of the authentic Sicily, look beyond the places depicted on the show.
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