I traveled to Sicily in the summer of 2021, long before I knew that it would capture the world’s attention as the setting of Season 2 of ‘The White Lotus’, one of HBO’s most popular shows. I was so excited to see the island I came to love be featured on a major television series… but it only took about sixty seconds for me to start yelling at my television.
While it’s true that the show was filmed entirely in Italy, and mostly in Sicily itself, as with any fictional work the team behind White Lotus definitely took some liberties with their portrayal of Sicily, and I am here to highlight some of them for you.
If White Lotus inspired you to take a trip to Sicily, go for it! Sicily is a great travel destination that is absolutely worth visiting. Just don’t expect it to be exactly like The White Lotus…
The White Lotus Season 2 Opening Scene vs. Reality
This was the first thing that had me shouting at my television. Season 2 of The White Lotus opens with a beach scene, with pretty blue-and-white sun chairs on a long stretch of beach, with a towering cathedral in the distant background.
Immediately I recognized this beach as Cefalu, a famous beach 70 kilometers east of Palermo on Sicily’s northern coast. That was odd, since I knew The White Lotus was set at a resort in Taormina, a town 200 kilometers away, on Sicily’s east coast.
The reality of Cefalu Beach is shown in my photo, taken in early August 2021. In the high season, this beach is packed, even at a private beach club (like the one where I rented a beach chair for about €25 for a day). On the day I visited the beach was red-flagged for most of the day, meaning the water was too rough to swim safely. At times the flag was lowered to yellow, meaning you could head out into the water with caution, in the areas that were approved by the on-duty lifeguards.
Again, this beach is 200 kilometers away from Taormina, the setting of The White Lotus Season 2. You can travel between the two by train (changing in Messina, the trip takes about four hours) or by car (crossing inland, the drive takes about three hours).
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Taormina in The White Lotus vs. Reality
The White Lotus Season 2 is set in Taormina, a town on the eastern coast of Sicily. Most of the show takes place inside the resort (more on that in a minute) but there are some scenes set around the town (including a scene in Episode 2 where characters visit the Ancient Greek Theatre).
The truth about Taormina is that it’s on par with other European resort towns like Capri and Marbella: over the years it has sacrificed charm and authenticity for a facade of luxury. Taormina attracts travelers who want a sanitized version of Sicily, free of discomfort, inconvenience and unpredictability.
During the high season, the town’s main pedestrian street is densely packed, and while some of the buildings have pretty facades everything is lacquered in a thick gloss of artificiality. During the low season many of the town’s shops and restaurants are closed, so crowds are low but opportunities to explore are as well.
If you do visit during the summer, note that the Greek theatre shown in Episode 2 may have its seats covered in scaffolding, as is common during times when there are productions open to the public.
Alternatives to Taormina, Sicily for White Lotus Fans
When I created my popular Sicily itinerary, I recommended travelers skip Taormina. Now that The White Lotus Season 2 has been released, I stand by that recommendation even more. It’s only going to get more crowded and less authentic now that it’s on the world’s radar. Instead of visiting Taormina, I recommend two alternatives:
- Siracusa and Ortigia – Where Taormina is an hour north of Catania, Siracusa and Ortigia are an hour south (equally easily accessible from the Catania airport). Ortigia is the island that contains the historical heart of the city, and is absolutely stunningly beautiful. For a luxurious experience comparable to that shown on The White Lotus, check out the waterfront Grand Hotel des Etrangers.
- Trapani – On the far opposite side of the island, Trapani is a port town that is dense with Baroque architecture and a launching point to the spectacular Egadi Islands (shown above). If you watch The White Lotus for the mysterious mood, you’ll love wandering Trapani’s dimly-lit streets by night. Again, if you’re looking for luxury, hop on the fast ferry to Levanzo and check in to the adults-only Dolcevita Egadi Eco Resort.
Both of these destinations, and others, are covered in my Sicily itinerary. However, it focuses on traveling Sicily with a mid-range budget, rather than on a luxury trip as shown on The White Lotus.
The White Lotus Season 2 Hotel vs. Reality
The White Lotus Season 2 was filmed at the Four Seasons San Domenico Palace in Taormina, Sicily. I didn’t stay there during my time in Sicily, but from looking at the hotel’s website it does seem to be a pretty accurate reflection of the property that typically sees rooms priced around $2,500 USD per night.
That being said, there are a few things to note if you’re thinking of staying at the hotel from The White Lotus Season 2.
First, at the time I’m writing this, the hotel is currently closed and planning to re-open in March. This is common for Taormina, so as I mentioned above you need to understand that choosing to visit in low season means that your accommodation, shopping and dining options will be very limited. Aside from the current closure, the hotel’s infinity pool is typically closed during the low season, so don’t expect to lounge poolside if you’re coming from (approximately) November to March.
Second, if I wasn’t familiar with Taormina, from watching The White Lotus Season 2 I would have assumed that the hotel was on the beach, or at least had beach access, as the characters seemed to move so quickly between their hotel rooms and the beach. This is not accurate!
Taormina is built atop a large cliff, and the Four Seasons Taormina is on top of the cliff. This means that it has beautiful panoramic views of the sea, but it is not close to the beach at all. On foot, it takes about 45 minutes to walk from the beach up to the hotel… and you have to ascend more than 700 stairs! Fortunately, there is also a cable car that connects the town to the beach. A round trip costs €6 and it only takes about two minutes in each direction. The Four Seasons San Domenico is a relatively-flat fifteen-minute walk from the cable car station.
I assume that if you can afford to stay at the hotel from The White Lotus Season 2 you can also afford to take a taxi or private car to and from the beach, but I just wanted to make it very clear that the trip is not as quick and easy as the show implied!
If you can’t afford to stay at the hotel from The White Lotus Season 2, these properties are nearby, have good reviews from travelers and are much more affordable:
- Hotel Villa Nettuno – One of the cheapest hotels in Taormina, this is an easy walk to the bus station and the cable car to the beach.
- Villa Astoria – An affordable family-run hotel on the same street as Villa Nettuno. A mini-splurge would be one of the rooms with a balcony overlooking the sea.
- Splendid Hotel Taormina – This hotel is a short uphill walk from the center of Taormina, but it is one of the most affordable options in town if you want an on-site swimming pool.
Taormina’s Beach on The White Lotus vs. Reality
The White Lotus Season 2 was filmed during the off-season, when the beaches of Sicily are mostly empty. The reality of visiting the beaches near Taormina is very different than what was shown on the HBO series.
Again, the hotel from The White Lotus Season 2 is on top of a massive cliff, and the beach below is best accessed by private car or cable car. The nearest beach is Isola Bella, which you can see in this photo I took in July, 2021. There are only about 250 meters of rocky beach here, and it’s divided between rental beach chairs (owned by the restaurants that line the beach) and a small area where the public can lay down a beach towel.
If you want to put down your own towel, you’ll need to arrive early in the morning, as the public area is typically full by 10:00 am during the high season. Even beach chair rentals get snatched up early, often by people who reserve and pay in advance.
The water in this little protected cove is quite nice for swimming, and I recommend bringing a mask and snorkel to check out some of the underwater life (I also went scuba diving but didn’t think it was worth it).
All of that being said, most of the beach scenes from The White Lotus Season 2 weren’t filmed here at the Isola Bella beach. Although the implication was that the beach club was attached to the resort, beach scenes were actually filmed in two other locations.
Some beach scenes were filmed at a beachfront restaurant called La Cambusa (“The Galley”) in the nearby town of Giardini Naxos. From here, it’s a twenty-minute drive along the coast and up the cliff to the San Domenico Palace Hotel, making those quick “I’ll just run up to the hotel to grab my hat” scenes even more unbelievable to anyone who knows Sicily.
Other beach club scenes were filmed at UNAHOTELS Capotaormina. Unlike the Four Seasons, this cliffside hotel on Taormina’s jutting cape has a small private beach (accessed via an elevator carved into the rock). Prices here are actually reasonable enough to make it a great option for anyone who wants an authentic ‘The White Lotus’ experience without breaking the bank.
Noto in The White Lotus vs. Reality
I also almost screamed at my television when I watched the scenes in The White Lotus Season 2 that were set in Noto, because this is one thing that I think the show did right. In fact, I had even eaten lunch directly across the street from the place where the famous staircase scene was filmed!
Noto is a beautiful small town. I visited it as a day trip from Siracusa and Ortigia, arriving by bus and departing by train (the train station is downhill from the town center, so arriving by bus saved me from walking uphill). The wide main street is lined with beautiful stone churches, family-run cafes and opulent municipal buildings that are open to the public.
The White Lotus Season 2’s staircase scene was not filmed at the cathedral, as many websites, claim, but is actually at the Chiesa di San Salvatore, a smaller church a few blocks away. Lunch or dinner at Trattoria al Buco (across the street) gives you the perfect view of the famous setting.
I don’t typically rent villas from Architectural Digest when I travel, so I can’t speak to the villa that Daphne rented, except to say that it’s actually in Palermo (300 kilometers away). If you want to stay in Noto (which I highly recommend for one night of tranquility), consider these highly-rated hotels:
- Hotel Porta Reale – My top recommendation in Noto for anyone who wants a touch of luxury without blowing their travel budget. It has the perfect location and a beautiful rooftop terrace.
- Battimandorlo – If you have a car and want to surprise your friend with an overnight stay near Noto 😉 Battimandorlo is a beautiful boutique hotel set on an olive grove just outside Noto. Take a dip in the beautiful outdoor pool before bed, and then wake up to to one of the best breakfasts in Sicily.
- Q92 Noto Hotel – Overlooking Noto’s iconic cathedral, the rooms here are opulently decorated and many open onto balconies with views of the town’s main promenade.
Palermo in The White Lotus vs. Reality
I know that Portia was a polarizing character on The White Lotus Season 2, but I was firmly on Team Portia. I could totally relate to feeling suffocated at work and lost in a sea of “influencers” who spend more time curating their lives than living them. So, I was happy when Portia had her own adventures, away from Tanya, on her trip to Palermo.
The streets of Palermo were definitely recognizable to me, as I spent several days in the city in August 2021. However, during my visit the temperatures were above 40° Celsius every day, meaning the streets were mostly empty as people sought shade, and air-conditioning, anywhere they could. Even at night, most people had deserted the city center for the nearby beach towns, such as Mondello and Cefalu. This is one area where visiting during the low season could be ideal, as you won’t be stifled by the hot summer heat.
Those Heads, Pine Cones and The White Lotus Season 2
Apparently people are curious about some of the imagery that was repeated throughout Season 2 of The White Lotus. In particular, I’ve heard from people who are curious about the ceramic head statues that appeared throughout the show, as well as the distinct pine cone sculptures. In reality, yes, you will see these everywhere you go in Sicily!
In Italian, the heads you see throughout The White Lotus Season 2 are known as Testa di Moro, or “Moorish Heads”. Sicily was conquered by Arabs for about 250 years, starting around 825 AD, and these heads relate to a legend from that era. The story goes that a young girl in Palermo fell in love with a Moor, but he was due to return to his wife and children shortly. Rather than let him go, she cut off his head and used it as a vase to grow basil. Her herbs grew so lusciously that her neighbors commissioned ceramic vases in the shape of the Moor’s head, in hopes of growing their own bountiful basil.
The origins of the pine cone sculptures are similar. In Ancient Greece, pine cones were symbols of fertility, and you’ll find one placed atop Dionysus’ staff. Over the years, Sicilians adopted pine cones as a symbol of hospitality and welcoming, and often place them near their front doors.
If you’re interested in buying a Moorish head or a pine cone, consider taking a day trip to Caltagirone. This small town is inland from both Catania and Siracusa, and is the unofficial capital of Sicilian ceramics. The town itself is decorated with colorful tiles and sculptures, and you can visit a number of ateliers to shop for your own authentic souvenirs. If you have a car, you can combine Caltagirone and Noto in a day trip.
Is Sicily Really Like The White Lotus Season 2?
Overall, I would say that The White Lotus Season 2 is a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to stay in a luxury resort in Sicily. While the show took liberties with Taormina (especially the beach access of this cliffside town) it did a good job of portraying other destinations, like Noto and Palermo.
The show featured some of Sicily’s rich heritage, including Ancient Greek ruins and a growing wine culture (even if the characters missed out on the amazing cuisine of Sicily by sticking to the resort restaurant!). However, it failed to feature some of my favorite destinations in Sicily, like Siracusa, Ortigia and the Egadi Islands. These authentic Sicilian destinations are featured in my Sicily Itinerary, which outlines exactly how you can see more of Sicily on a reasonable budget (and without a car, if you don’t feel like driving).
Most importantly, though, I think that White Lotus Season 2 gives an inaccurate portrayal of Taormina during both high and low season. The show was filmed in low season and makes it look like Taormina is a busy beach town, when in fact most things are closed at that time of year. In high season, the town is much busier than depicted, making alternate destinations more attractive to anyone wanting an authentic Sicilian travel experience.
Did The White Lotus Season 2 inspire you to travel to Sicily?
Let me know in the comments (and of course, let me know if you have any questions about traveling in Sicily!).
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