Ragusa is one of the most picturesque towns in Sicily. The view from the upper town over Ragusa Ibla on its own separate hilltop is quite breathtaking.
Ragusa is in the Monti Iblei, a large area of high ground, divided up by dry stone walls and incised with ravines. The town was originally built on a small steep-sided hill with deep valleys on three sides separating it from the high plateau. After the earthquake of 1693, which destroyed many of south-eastern Sicily’s buildings, it was decided to rebuild Ragusa on higher, more level ground nearby. This new planned town was built, with straight streets and a rational layout, but local aristocrats didn’t want to move, and instead built themselves new palazzi on the ruins of the old town. So nowadays Ragusa has two parts: Ibla (or Ragusa Ibla), the older nucleus on its hilltop, and Ragusa Superiore, the more modern upper town which spreads from the post-earthquake streets into more recent developments. Like all Sicilian towns, Ragusa has its share of ugly modern sprawl, but this is well away from the historic centre, which is remarkably unspoilt.
Ragusa Ibla is the magnet for tourists, though the upper town is still worth a visit. The bus and railway stations, the town’s archaeological museum and its everyday shops and businesses are in Ragusa Superiore as well as most of the hotels. Ibla is the more charming base for a holiday, though, with picturesque lanes, cafes, restaurants and gastronomic shops aimed at tourists. Its main artery is the perfect venue for the evening passeggiata.
The city has two distinct areas, the lower and older town of Ragusa Ibla, and the higher Ragusa Superiore (Upper Town). The two halves are separated by the Valle dei Ponti, a deep ravine crossed by four bridges, the most noteworthy of which is the eighteenth-century Ponte dei Cappuccini.
Ragusa Cathedral, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist (San Giovanni Battista), is the biggest attraction in Ragusa Superiore. The church was originally located in the western part of ancient Ragusa, under the walls of the Mediaeval castle, where the small church of St. Agnese is today. A smaller building was quickly built on the site after the 1693 earthquake, which soon proved inadequate. The current edifice was built between 1718 and 1778, with a façade in typical southern Sicilian Baroque style, with three portals and sculptures representing the Madonna, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The upper columns have two clocks showing the time in Italian and French fashions respectively. The high bell tower, on the left side, is also in Baroque style.
The ornate Baroque interior has a Latin cross plan, with a nave and two aisles separated by three colonnades embellished with gold. Charts showing Bible verses referring to St. John the Baptist are over every column. The dome was built in 1783, and covered with copper sheets during the 20th century. The side chapels, characterized by altars decorated with polychrome marbles, date from the 19th century.
Also noteworthy is the Hyblean Archaeological Museum, with different sections devoted to archaeological finds from the Prehistoric to the Late Roman era.
Ragusa Ibla is home to a wide array of Baroque architecture, including several stunning palaces and churches.
The Cathedral of San Giorgio started in 1738 by architect Rosario Gagliardi, in place of the temple destroyed by the 1693 earthquake, and of which is the only place in the city a Catalan-Gothic style portal can still be seen. The façade contains a flight of 250 steps and massive ornate columns, as well as statues of saints and decorated portals. The interior has a Latin cross plan, with a nave and two aisles ending in half-circular apses. It is topped by a large Neoclassical dome built in 1820.
On a narrow winding street connecting Ragusa Ibla with Ragusa Superiore lies the church of Santa Maria delle Scale (“Saint Mary of the Steps”, built between the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries). This church is particularly interesting: badly damaged in the earthquake of 1693, half of this church was rebuilt in Baroque style, while the surviving half was kept in the original Gothic style (including the three Catalan-style portals in the right aisle). The last chapel of the latter has a Renaissance portal. The chapels are adorned with canvases by Sicilian painters of the 18th century.
- Church of the Souls of the Purgatory has a Baroque portal.
- Church of Santa Maria dell’Itria, built by the Knights of Malta in the seventeenth century, has a campanile with ceramics from Caltagirone and a canvas attributed to Mattia Preti.
- San Filippo Neri
The church of San Giorgio, designed by Rosario Gagliardi and built between 1739–1775, has a façade with tiers of juxtaposed columns. The Treasury contains silver items. Similar though smaller is the nearby church of St. Joseph, with an elliptic interior housing a seventeenth-century statue.
The church of Sant’Antonino is an example of Norman architecture, characterized by a Gothic portal, while the Church of Immacolata boasts a fine fourteenth-century portal.
San Giorgio Vecchio boasts a façade with a notable Gothic-Catalan portal, with a high lunette portraying St. George Killing the Dragon, and Aragonese eagles.
The Hyblean Garden offers a good view to the three churches of the Cappuccini Vecchi, St. James (fourteenth century) and San Domenico.
The Villa Zinna country estate.
What to see in Ragusa
The best activity in Ragusa is wandering; meandering along the character-filled lanes of Ragusa Ibla or clambering up the steps towards the upper town and enjoying the great, classic view over Ibla. This is an inviting town for even more leisurely pursuits – a long drink at a cafe table on the pretty sloping piazza in front of the Duomo, a wine-flavoured gelato, a splendid meal at one of the town’s small restaurants or a stroll in the park.
Like neighbouring towns, Ragusa was rebuilt after the great earthquake in the Baroque style, and its palazzi and churches are elegant and covered with a profusion of florid detail. The grandest building in Ibla is the cathedral, the Duomo di San Giorgio, begun in 1738 and designed by the architect Rosario Gagliardi. Up a flight of steps and segregated from the streets by ornate railings, this is the heart of the old town and contains some of its best, and most prized artworks. These include a statue of St. George which is carried around town in devout processions. Alongside the church is the small Museo del Duomo (open at weekends), a museum containing stone statues and reliefs from the original pre-earthquake San Giorgio and other churches, architectural drawings by Gagliardo, some extravagant reliquaries and gloomy religious paintings. One of the highlights is a nice little stone carving, from the 15th century, portraying a honey-maker (mielaio) with honeycomb and jug.
Ibla’s lanes contain many charms, from elaborately-sculpted balconies to views over the narrow valleys below town. If you have time, it’s a good place to explore, with some intriguing corners. A little tourist train (trenino) departs from Piazza Duomo and is an entertaining way of touring the principal streets.
At the end of Ibla’s rocky ridge is the town’s public park, the Giardino Ibleo. The pride of the town, these manicured and leafy gardens have views over the surrounding valleys and are the venue of choice for promenading locals as well as tourists. Watching three or four generations meeting up and groups of teenagers strolling arm-in-arm is a charming introduction to Sicilian life.
As well as exploring Ibla, most visitors will want to take a look at Ragusa Superiore. The two towns meet at a saddle of land marked by the small Piazza della Repubblica. One of the town’s tourist offices is alongside, and also the attractive Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio. The upper town can be reached by an energetic climb or by the little local bus from the Giardino Ibleo or Piazza della Repubblica.
Ragusa Superiore is more than just the ‘modern’ part of town – it too boasts elegant streets and noble palazzi. It also has its own Duomo, the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, another eighteenth-century Baroque edifice. The main street, Corso Italia, which descends towards Ibla, is lined with attractive buildings. However, there is no denying that the best part of the upper town is the descent, via flights of steps or the winding road, towards Ibla, with the hilltop town spread out before the eyes in an unforgettable panorama.
For any traveller interested in Sicily’s history, Ragusa’s archaeological museum (Museo Archeologico) is a must. Situated in Ragusa Superiore, this museum contains some fascinating and important exhibits from the surrounding area. Interesting artefacts include an articulated doll with moving joints from a child’s grave at Greek Kamarina, and the sculpture of a warrior known as the Guerriero di Castiglione. It’s a bit off the tourist trail; we were the only visitors, our arrival surprising the chatting attendants. The museum is just off Via Roma – at a lower level, down steps from the main street – and there’s an admission charge.
Between July and September the area is enlivened by the Estate Iblea, a summer festival of music and events around Ragusa. In October Ibla hosts a festival of busking and street entertainment, called Ibla Buskers. Other colourful events during the year in Ragusa include Easter and St. George’s Day processions.
One of the best sights in the Ragusa area is the Castello di Donnafugata, a pseudo-Venetian-Gothic country villa in the countryside. In Montalbano this festures as the home of retired Mafia boss Balduccio Sinagra. The building is a strange blend of influences, mostly dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Reachable by car, taxi and very occasional trains, this grand country villa is a fascinating insight into the lives of the Sicilian aristocracy. With a garden to explore and some country paths starting outside the entrance, it’s also a good chance to get out into the open spaces of this rather striking landscape. There are a handful of places to eat and drink outside the entrance to the villa. Donnafugata is closed on Mondays and opening hours vary throughout the year; check the latest times before you make your trip (see links panel).
Donnafugata is a popular day out in the Ragusa area; another is the seaside – local seaside resort Marina di Ragusa and fishing village Punta Secca (another Montalbano location) are connected to Ragusa by bus.
The other Baroque towns of Sicily are within easy reach of Ragusa. It’s possible to explore by public transport, although travellers should check timetables when making plans. We toured the area, spending nights in different towns, but it is also possible to make day trips from Ragusa. Modica, another dramatic town, is the nearest and easiest to visit. Famous for its chocolate as well as its Baroque architecture, it’s a town well worth a visit. The archaeological site of Cava d’Ispica, a green valley lined with rock-cut tombs, is easy to reach by car. Noto and Scicli are two more sights worth seeing.