Erice is located on top of Mount Erice, at around 750 metres (2,460 ft) above sea level, overlooking the city of Trapani, the low western coast towards Marsala, Capo San Vito to the north-east, and the Aegadian Islands on Sicily's north-western coast, providing spectacular views.
Erice was probably founded by the Elymians, a native Sicilian people who also built the nearby town and temple of Segesta. After the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans, the town was later ruled by the Arab, then the Norman rulers of Sicily. For the Arabs it was Gebel-Hamed, for the Normans and their successors Monte San Giuliano, then in the 1930s the town became one of several in Italy to be renamed under Mussolini in honour of its ancient past, and Monte San Giuliano, formerly Eryx, became Erice. Nowadays as well as Catholic churches there are also monuments to new gods on the heights of Erice: gigantic communications masts.
There are two castles that remain in the city: Pepoli Castle, which dates from Saracen times, and the Venus Castle, dating from the Norman period, built on top of the ancient Temple of Venus, where Venus Ericina was worshipped.
The female divinity to which the shrine was dedicated changed slightly with each culture: Astarte for the Phoenicians, Aphrodite for the Greeks and Venus for the Romans. According to legend, the temple was founded by Aeneas. It was well known throughout the Mediterranean area in the ancient age, and an important cult was celebrated in it.
Erice hosts important scientific meetings at the Ettore Majorana center, organised by the controversial astrophysicist Antonino Zichichi. Also an annual Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy.
What to See:
Erice is basically triangular in shape, with steep lanes leading up and around from the Porta Trapani gateway, where you'll find the cable-car station (more below on transport). This is at one point of the triangle, with the main street, Vittorio Emanuele, leading straight uphill towards the town's principal square, Piazza Umberto I.
You can visit the Castello di Venere (Castle of Venus), at the furthest point of the triangle. In front is a shady park, the Giardino del Balio, dotted with stone busts. There are good views from here, and a cafe with a nice panoramic terrace.
The twelfth-century Castello di Venere is on the site of Erice's ancient temple. It's open daily, with a small admission charge. Through a gateway and up a flight of stairs, visitors emerge into an open walled space built onto the bare rock. Signs and a guide-map indicate the traces of the different stages of the site's history, but the most compelling sight is actually the stupendous view from the fortifications. You can see the sea, the coastline and the crags along with some of Erice's other ruined fortifications, including the fairy-tale Toretta Pepoli, a small 'castle' built onto the rocks.
The Erice's principal church is the Chiesa Madre or Real Duomo. The attractive building dates to the fourteenth century, when it was constructed using materials from the ancient Temple of Venus. The church has a surprising and appealing nineteenth-century neo-gothic interior.
Erice has a remarkable number of churches, many of which are interesting enough to visit. There is a combined ticket available for a selection of these sights, which are kept open for tourists - an admirable initiative which helps with the costs of upkeep. The combined ticket includes the bell-tower adjacent to the Chiesa Madre, a campanile which is known as the Torre di Re Federico Secondo after the king who built it. This is a steep climb with many steps, but the view is good.
If you want to learn more about Erice, there is a small town museum here (with limited opening hours).
What to Buy:
Bocconcini di Erice, marzipan with jam and liqueur
Genovese alla crema, sweet cakes with icing sugar
Mustaccioli, oldfashioned biscuits from the local monastery made from flour with honey and anise liqueur
If you have a car, Erice can be combined in a day trip with the temple site at Segesta. Trapani is the biggest town in the area and worth visiting even if you aren't using it as a base. For a touring holiday in this part of Sicily, Erice fits in well with Trapani, Marsala, Castellammare del Golfo, Segesta, the beach resort of San Vito lo Capo and the Egadi Islands.