Private Gardens and Noble Palaces in Sicily: Five Unique Lifestyle Experiences

The ballroom in the private noble palace Palazzo Gangi in Sicily
Posted on 2024-02-21

    Some of the best-kept secrets about Sicily’s true heritage and mentality will unfold in front of your eyes when you experience these five unique tours to private gardens and noble palaces we have prepared for you.

    Plan a route to enjoy the visits you choose without any rush. You can combine them with a traditional city tour or dedicate more of your time to a thematic itinerary in the area of Sicily you want to explore. Secure your guided experiences with us in advance, as most of these properties are the homes of prominent families still living on-site.

    The best times to visit are spring and early autumn when the weather is mild and the gardens are in full bloom or displaying the season’s rich colors.

    The aristocratic passion for gardening at Giardino del Biviere, Lentini

    We start with a precious jewel: a private garden on the island’s eastern side, the Giardino del Biviere. The garden is set in Lentini, between Catania and Siracusa, and spans 2 hectares in the historical estate belonging to the House of Borghese. One of Italy’s most powerful noble families, the Borghese significantly impacted history, religion, and art for centuries. Among the most influential members of the family are princes, cardinals, and a Pope, Papa Pio V.

    The estate lies on the site of a former lake, which was initially full of fish. However, starting at the end of the 19th century, the lake became a swamp and a source of malaria, and the reclamation work was not completed until the end of the 1950s.

    In 1968, when Princes Scipione and Maria Carla “Miki” Borghese decided to move to Sicily together with their four children, the estate in Lentini was abandoned. Over the years, with much work and dedication, the Princess, who still inhabits the property with part of the family, has been able to transform the land into a farm producing citrus fruits, particularly oranges. At the same time, she created a lush garden hosting Mediterranean and exotic species.

    Today, the Princess allows some visitors to enter the Borghese estate to admire it, just as the property did in the past when notable guests like the Queen Mother and Prince Charles visited. This is an exceptional visit that needs to be arranged and agreed upon well in advance, ideally in May-June or September-October.

    The joy of surprising guests at Palazzo Biscari, Catania

    Here is a jewel you cannot miss, a chance to see firsthand the opulence of the Sicilian aristocracy. Palazzo Biscari alla Marina is a Palazzo originally commissioned by Ignazio III, Prince of Biscari, in baroque and rococo style in the heart of Catania on the eastern coast of Sicily.

    From the courtyard, you walk through various splendid rooms leading to the impressive Grand Ballroom or Central Hall. This Rococo-style room beautifully reflects the era’s tastes. It is adorned with rich decorations featuring mirrors, stucco, and frescoes depicting views of Naples, the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies at the time.

    The floor is adorned with ceramics from Vietri on the Amalfi Coast. The central dome, embellished with a fresco, once housed the orchestra. And since Prince Ignazio highly enjoyed surprising his guests, the access to the dome is through a stunning stucco-decorated staircase, aptly named the “Cloud’s Bow” staircase.

    Remarkably, during World War II, this hall was repurposed as a tennis court, and today, you can still spot some of the damage caused by the impact of tennis balls!

    To understand precisely how long this palace’s lived history is, consider that it hosted the famous writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe during his Italian journey in 1787 and served as the backdrop for the English band Coldplay’s music video for the song “Violet Hill” in early 2008!

    Palazzo Biscari, Catania

    The charm of the nobles’ Grand Balls at Palazzo Gangi, Palermo

    This palace is one of Sicily’s best-preserved samples of the Rococo style, also known as the late Baroque style.

    The palace initially belonged to the Valguarnera family until 1820, when Princess Giovanna Valguarnera married the Prince of Gangi, bringing this family residence as her dowry. The Prince undertook extensive renovations, giving the palace the present, opulent Louis XVI style.

    The venue is internationally renowned, especially for being the location of an iconic nobles’ Grand Ball in the movie “The Leopard” featuring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale. However, it then went through a period of decline until recently, when it was restored, so today, the beautiful ballroom seen in the movie can still enchant the public. You will be transported to a bygone era of splendor by its rich interior and decorations, like the imposing 102-arm Murano chandelier – though an even more impressive chandelier is visible in the Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata, also in Palermo.

    In the past, the palace hosted numerous prestigious guests, including European royalty. It is a fun fact that, when Queen Elizabeth II visited the Gangi family in 1980, Princess Stefanina, decided to serve a swordfish-based dish typical of this area and excluded spaghetti or stringy mozzarella from the menu to avoid embarrassment to the Queen, as these are dishes challenging to eat elegantly!

    Today, the family still inhabits the palace; therefore, visits are limited and subject to the owners’ approval.

    Villa Tasca, the “Jardin irrégulier,” and the Romantic Garden, Palermo

    Like the island’s architecture and art heritage, the rich flora within the gardens in Sicily testify to a long story of cultural exchanges in the Mediterranean.

    This remarkable 16th-century Villa Tasca belongs to an influential noble family, the Tasca d’Almerita. The estate was mainly transformed by Princess Beatrice Lanza e Branciforte and her husband, Count Lucio Tasca d’Almerita, who also founded the well-known Tasca d’Almerita winery more than 200 years ago.

    The interiors are large and bright, characterized by frescoes that were also admired by the numerous famous guests who were invited to stay at the villa through the centuries, from King Ferdinand of Bourbon and Queen Caroline to Otto von Bismarck, from Margaret of Savoy to Jacqueline Kennedy. Today, visitors can again live the experience of staying at the villa, renting it for the night.

    A vast public park embraces the building, which also faces a more private, historic garden. In this garden, the deliberately irregular subtropical flora of the “Jardin Irrègulier” contrasts with the manicured English-style lawns of the Romantic Garden.

    The Romantic Garden is a classic nineteenth-century Sicilian Garden, a lush and well-curated oasis with citrus orchards and impressive old trees inspired by English-style gardens where plants serve as a backdrop for statues and reproductions of ancient ruins.

    Villa Tasca, Palermo

    A natural paradise at the Orto Botanico, Palermo

    Let’s finish this tour of extraordinary venues returning to the Western coast with the Orto Botanico in Palermo.

    In 1786, the Academy of Royal Studies allocated an area, infamously known at the time as the site of the Inquisition’s executions, for a small botanical garden to be used for students of botany and medicine who often prescribed herbs to their patients that they had never seen directly and that therefore they were not able to recognize, thus generating some regrettable mistakes.

    The small garden soon became something special. Today, thanks to the region’s extraordinarily mild climate, it hosts hundreds of different plants, both local and exotic species, which you can admire and touch as you walk through the gardens.

    Orto Botanico, Palermo

    Though not privately owned, this historic botanical garden is a paradise for plant and nature lovers that we had to include in our list of must-see estates. It is another splendid addition to your exploration of Palermo or an itinerary dedicated to UNESCO sites in Sicily.

    About Doriana Briguglio

    L'Isolabella - Managing Director & Founder
    Founder of L'Isolabella, Doriana has more than 20 years of experience in creating luxury travels, lifestyle experiences, and events. Constantly on the move, she divides her time between offices in Sicily and Malta or travelling around the globe. Always poised between her volcanic creativity and an equally natural tendency towards idleness, you can easily catch her with both a pen in her hand jotting down crazy ideas or with a glass, chatting about vineyards, vines, and wines. She is a professional sommelier, a member of AIS - Associazione Italiana Sommelier and WSET certified.

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