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A Trip to the Trapani Salt Flats, Where Sicily’s Flavor Is Born

01 July 2024
by Regan Hofmann
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These stunning wetlands where sea salt is harvested give a glimpse into the island’s past

On Sicily’s western edge, the island’s famous rocky cliffs and volcanic peaks give way to gentle, low-lying grasslands. The land seems to slip gently into the sea here, gradually transitioning from green to the murky blue of the Mediterranean. Near the port town of Trapani, about a half-hour north of Marsala or an hour and a half west of Palermo, you’ll see something even more unexpected: a series of rectangular grids dividing up the marsh, old-fashioned windmills rising above the geometric landscape. These are the Trapani salt flats. 

Trapani Salt Flats

Harvesting salt from ocean water has been practiced around the world for millennia. People in the ancient world considered salt to be the most precious seasoning—it preserves food, preventing starvation during lean times, and it makes even the least appetizing foods tastier—and the ocean was its most abundant source. Here in Trapani, the low, crescent-shaped coastline created the perfect conditions for salt harvesting. These marshy flatlands flood naturally from time to time with sea water, and it was a simple (if labor-intensive) process to collect the salt crystals that would appear on its surface.  

Phoenician merchants landed here in the 9th century and took over the salt industry for their own trade, shipping it out to points across the Mediterranean. Later, Spanish conquerors invested in building up the local industry, and salt from Trapani remained one of Sicily’s most valuable exports for centuries to follow. 

Trapani Salt Flats

Unlike table salt or even the sea salt that you find in the grocery store, salt from Trapani is not refined to remove its naturally occurring mineral content. The result is a crunchy, organic crystal that has a grayish tinge rather than gleaming white. It has more flavor than pure salt, with a gentle, briny earthiness that tastes like salt spray at the oceanside. Locals brag that Trapani salt is much better for you, too, since it provides natural iodine, magnesium, and potassium that your body needs. 

Today, the salt industry is still worked in the traditional way. Gates are opened to flood the salt plains in early spring, and the water sits, undisturbed, throughout the long summer months, slowly evaporating and leaving behind wide sheets of salt crystals that are broken up and raked into mountains by hand. The later in the summer season you arrive, the more salt you’ll see piled up. 

Trapani Salt Flats

The best time to arrive at this magical place is around sunset, when the reflection of the sun’s rays in the seawater glows pink. Factor in time around your visit to have a delicious meal at the Trattoria del Sale, which serves local fish that, because it’s been raised in extra-salty water, is especially savory. The restaurant’s ancient, arched stone building also houses a small museum dedicated to the salt industry. They were opened by a local man named Alberto Culcasi who worked in the salt flats for decades and passed the business down to his son, Salvatore. 

Trapani Salt Flats Trattoria del Sale Restaurant

Trapani’s unique landscape is also a wildlife wonder, attracting birds including flamingos, spoonbills, great white egrets, egrets, marsh harriers and waders as they migrate across the sea. In fact, though it’s still worked for salt harvesting, the saline of Trapani is a World Wildlife Fund nature reserve. It’s yet more evidence of the way in which Italian food production can live in harmony with the land. When you visit, be sure to buy a jar of Trapani salt, or products like salt scrubs made with the precious mineral, to bring home a flavorful reminder of this magical place.


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