Lampedusa should be a popular summer spot for Europeans: it’s close, a one-step flight from most major cities in Europe, with world-class beaches and warm weather, along with great food and coffee all paid in euros. Yet it’s visited almost entirely by Italians (and formerly by refugees) and even many Italian people don’t know it exists.
It’s a small island, about 20 square kilometers, roughly 200km south of Sicily and 100km north of Tunisia, the capital of the three Pelagie Islands, with around 6,000 inhabitants. It’s Italian territory and part of the Schengen zone. If you hear about Lampedusa at all, it is likely to be news about refugees arriving by boat from Africa. More about that later.
In 2013, Tripadvisor listed a Lampedusa beach as the best in the world. That helped the profile of the island’s main attraction: Spiaggia dei Conigli, known as Rabbit Beach, on the south-western coast.
However, I suspect many of the glowing reports have been written by people who have never been there. Somehow, the ‘fact’ has spread that the beach is only accessible by boat, when it’s precisely the opposite! Boats are not allowed near the nature preserve around Rabbit Beach and you can only walk in and out.
Many of the beach photos give the impression of an isolated idyll rarely intruded upon by humans. But on a busy day a thousand people can descend on Rabbit Beach. Even a relatively quiet day can be surprisingly busy with people spread all along the sand. That’s why they have overflow parking arrangements in place at the top.
Caretta-Caretta (Loggerhead) turtles nest on the beach and there are volunteers on duty to protect the nests and explain turtle life to visitors. Look for their yellow T-shirts.
My advice is to go early. As the sun rises, so do the crowds heading to Lampedusa’s famous beach. Stop for a morning coffee and pastry dockside then head west along Str di Ponente before the hordes arrive for the beach opening at 8:30. Yes, this beach has opening hours: until 7:30pm.
There’s a 15-20 minute moderately steep walk down to the beach so bring sturdy sandals. There are no retail opportunities at the beach so bring everything you need, especially water. For some relative peace and quiet, head past the eastern end of the beach to the small spit of sand that reaches over to Rabbit Island at low tide.
There are sensible rules to keep Rabbit Beach nice, clean and safe for turtles. Umbrellas are limited to the western half the beach (there’s a low rope barrier). No large inflatables in the water, no sun-chairs or loungers, sports equipment, radios or pets. There are no toilets. No garbage bins: what you carry in, you must carry out. And no fishing: though snorkelling is OK.
Panineria Onda Blu is the sole food and drink concession at the top of the hill. It sells a range of sandwiches and salads ready to be taken down to the beach. The service is slow and prices high so better to bring supplies from town.
A popular option is to join a boat for a trip around the island. Most will find an isolated cove to swim, snorkel, sunbake and rest with a long lunch included. Priced at around €40 with lunch. Check the tourist shops on Via Roma for a ride that suits you or ask at your hotel.
Scuba diving is available with summer water temperatures up to 25°C. There are plenty of dive shops from which to choose.
The Archaeological Museum of Lampedusa (Museo Archeologico delle Pelagie) is worth a look as a pre- or post-dinner interlude. A very new building with relics from Lampedusa’s long history, including Greek coins and Roman statues. It’s at the very end of Via Roma where it overlooks the harbour. The museum has unusual opening hours: 6pm to midnight, seven days. €10 admission.
There’s very little on the northern side of the island but it’s worth a drive with stops to look over the spectacular cliffs. There are no safety fences and, in places, it’s quite possible to drive off the sealed road across some dirt and straight over the cliff.
As you’d expect, with mostly Italian visitors, the food is excellent. There’s not a golden arches, chain restaurant or franchise coffee joint within 100km.
I never had a bad meal on the island. Many Italian visitors raved about the quality of the seafood and cheap prices. Most restaurants can do a burger and fries but on Lampedusa you’d be crazy not to gorge on clams, mussels, calamari and other seafood, either with pasta or pizza.
Start in the morning with coffee and pastry from Tratoria del Porto, dockside on Lungomare Porto Nuovo. It’s open from at least 7am. Excellent stand-up coffee and pastry cost €1 each. There is table-service but, unlike many such places in mainland Italy, they don’t seem to mind if you buy then sit at one of the many outside tables.
Most of the restaurants are on or near Via Roma, which is the tourist core of Lampedusa: a long street, half of which is a pedestrian mall ending with a viewpoint over the harbour. From sundown onwards the Via comes alive with people taking in the cool evening or sitting outside with gelataria or beer watching each other go by.
Spaghetti Fruite de Mari is a Lampedusa standard and it’s definitely worth trying more than once. A mix of fresh mussels, clams, calamari and fish in properly made ‘al dente’ spaghetti. My personal favourite for this was Vascenza Trattoria, in a small alley off Via Roma.
I enjoyed Trattoria L’ancora (Via Vittorio Emanuele, just off Via Roma at the start of the pedestrian mall), which had good pizza plus the usual dishes, and Trattoria La Risacca (at the western end of Via Roma).
The official tourism season is July and August, the hottest months; but June and September are also good. October starts the wet season but there’s only an average of six rainy days so your chances are good.
Don’t let the official temperatures mislead you, Lampedusa is hot! When the weather report says it’ll be 27°C (the September average) it will feel well over 30. It’s humid with little shade, and often little breeze, plus there is the sunlight reflecting off the ocean. The locals and most shops shut down for a long afternoon rest and I suggest you do the same.
English isn’t widely spoken but usually the younger staff will know enough that you can get by. Some restaurants have an English menu, but not all. Have your translation app ready, just in case.
None of the major hotel chains are on Lampedusa but there are many hotels and apartments plus B&Bs available. The most convenient places to stay are in town, near Via Roma or to the west around the docks where you can walk to dinner. Except for Via Roma itself, the town is usually quiet at night.
In a small place like Lampedusa, nowhere is very far if you have wheels. And for anywhere outside the main town you’ll need your own transport. The fit can cycle while the rest of us can get either a scooter or a simple open car.
There are many car/scooter rental places or your hotel can arrange something delivered to your door. The daily rate with insurance for scooters is around €20-25, and cars €25-35, depending on the season.
There are no large supermarkets on Lampedusa but there are several small Despar Markets, including one branch in the Via Roma pedestrian mall. Another choice is Simply Market, tucked away on Via Tomasi (look for the signs pointing the way). It’s open every day, including Sunday, 8:30 to 1 then 4:30 to 9. It might look like a throwback to the 70’s, but it’s prices and variety are rather better.
Public wifi, even wifi for customers, is rare. Don’t trust promises of wifi in your hotel either. Most visitors seem to rely on their smartphone for the Internet.
Any phone network with Italian coverage or roaming should work, including 4G speeds if your plan supports it. The major Italian networks like Three, Tim, Vodafone and Wind operate on the island. If you need an Italian pre-paid SIM they are hard to get but i-ReStore near the harbour end of Via Roma can set up a Vodafone SIM (bring your passport).
So, what about the refugees? Before I visited many people told me they were worried about the refugees on the island. They had images of bedraggled boat people washing up on the beaches as they sun-baked or roaming the streets while they ate. None of that. I never saw even the hint of a refugee. The Italian and EU navies now seem to have the situation in hand. Boats are intercepted well before they reach the island, which is a lot safer for the boat people. There are holding centres on the island and mainland, but they are far from the sight of any visitors.
The nearest I came to a refugee was me! I didn’t meet a non-Italian all week I was there. When people discovered I was from Australia, looks of surprise or shock were common. So I want to do my bit to encourage others to head to this little paradise.