Catania has always been a force to be reckoned with. Whether it be political power, tourism, or natural disasters, it always steps up to the plate. Even one of the largest volcanic eruptions in Europe's history had a tough time getting over the city walls! As a tourist, the city is a mixture of markets, history, Sicilian food (arancini's anyone!) parks all set in the shadow of the massive Mount Etna. Who could ask for more!
Things to do
It's hard to have a Sicilian tour without a stop-off in Catania. Having the largest airport, the island's main train station, and the start of most Mount Etna day trips, its location has made it a tourist hotspot for centuries. Spending a few days of leisurely exploration will fill the soul and the stomach!
For over 600 years Catania was ruled by the Roman Empire and continued is prosperous ways that it had developed under Greek rule. Catania was one of the main cities in Roman Sicily which led to everything from theaters and gladiator arena to thermae and aqueducts. While many of these were destroyed by the numerous volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and floods the city has faced, some have been excavated and preserved. It's not hard to find the Roman Amphitheatre of Catania as it is the staple of one of the main squares in the city and surrounded by dozens of restaurants and shops that line the main streets.
In a surprisingly quiet piazza, you will find what was once one of the most important buildings in all of Sicily. Castello Ursino was built in the 13th Century as a royal castle before it became the seat of Parliament for the Kingdom of Sicily. It also had a big role to play during the Sicilian Vespers- a rebellion against French power in 1282. Today it houses the Museo Civico which showcases art from Sicily and artifacts dating back to when the castle was constructed.
It once was on a cliff above the sea but now sits over 1KM inland thanks to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
Piazza del Duomo
All Sicilian towns centre around a town square with long histories and Catania is no different. The Piazza del Duomo is the first thing that you arrive at once going through the massive city walls. On one side, you have Basilica Cattedrale Sant’Agata and Cattedrale di Sant'Agata, two of the largest and most famous churches in Catania. On the other side sits a 400-year-old palace that now houses the city council. In the centre of the piazza are a series of fountains and a massive elephant sculpture. The elephant has become a symbol of the city though it is not 100% confirmed why an elephant would have been important to a city where they are not native. Surrounding the entire square are cafes and restaurants which are perfect for a few sweets and some people watching!
Churches of Catania
Catania is chock-full of historic churches. You cant go more than a few blocks without passing another unique façade or hearing their beautiful bells. Some of the most popular are along the east side of the Piazza del Duomo. The Cathedral of Sant'agata (Basilica Cattedrale Sant’Agata) is almost 1000 years old though it has been reconstructed numerous times thanks to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The cathedral was built on the ruins of a Roman bathhouse and now houses the tomb of Bellini, the famous composer. After the famous 1693 earthquake that destroyed about 2/3 of south-eastern Sicily, the church was rebuilt in Sicilian Baroque stylings. If churches are your thing, make sure to do this self guided walking trip!
Where to Stay
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily and one of the largest in Italy so it can sometimes be a bit confusing where to stay. The plus is that the Via Etnea cuts right through the city centre and has pretty much everything you need to be close to. As the street is very long, try to stay anywhere within a few blocks of it between Piazza dei Duomo and Villa Bellini. If you stay a little further from that street, you won't be in a bad spot, it will likely just take you some time to get to any sights on foot or pricy if you take taxis or Ubers.
Remember, Catania has a few parts of the city that are crime hot spots so just be cautious when booking your stay and read the reviews! Because of this, staying with a registered hotel may be a better/safer call than an Airbnb unless there are a ton of reviews. We suggest staying at THIS hotel if you're on a budget or THIS if money is a little less of a concern.
How to get there and around
Catania is the hub of eastern Sicily and is the main and largest airport on the island. If you are coming from an international destination, it is highly likely that you are arriving in Catania. You can also arrive to Catania by train from mainland Italy by taking the unique train barge across the strait of Messina. The hour-long crossing between Reggio Calabria to Messina is a fantastic way to experience something that is in few other places. The train cars literally roll right onto the barge making it a seamless trip from Milan or Venice all the way to Catania. The train station is very central so you may be able to walk to your accommodations or take the bus or Uber.
Once you arrive in Catania, you will need to find your way to your accommodations. If you are staying at an Airbnb or small guesthouse, don't be afraid to ask if they are willing to pick you up. Our guesthouse offered this service and gave us a few hints as to where the closest grocery store or café was which is really handy to get your bearings. If you are arriving at the airport, there are two other main ways to get into town; the bus or taxi. Taxis take roughly 15 or 20 minutes depending on the time of day but will run you 25 EUR or more. Keep in mind, taxis in Catania charge 1 EUR per bag. The bus may be a much better option as it only takes a few minutes longer to get into central town but costs just 2.50 EUR/person. The Alibus stop is just out front of the airport so it is super convenient.
Looming over the town is Europe's largest active volcano. At over 11,000 feet above sea level, it dominates northeastern Sicily. A trip to Sicily is incomplete without at least seeing the massive volcano. This can be done easily on the Ferrovia Circumetnea or by staying in towns like Taromina or Riposto. For the more adventurous, climbing up the volcano is a must. There are a few different options for climbing the volcano but most involve a 4x4 vehicle at some point. Your best option is to do a tour from Catania like THIS one as it has everything you needed included. Be aware that for the majority of the year it is very challenging to climb thanks to the height and snow coverage. Starting in September and all the way into April and May, temperatures near the top are at freezing so unless you are well prepared with cold-weather clothes, its not an option.
Ferrovia Circumetnea Also Known As The "Round Etna Railway"
It's tough to visit Catania or Sicily in general without wanting to climb the famous Mount Etna. This famous volcano has erupted numerous times inspiring legends and myths reaching across the globe. If climbing it is too much (weather, price, or difficulty) the Ferrovia Circumetnea is the perfect option. The historic railway was built over 125 years ago and circles the entire volcano offering unprecedented views at the largest active volcano in Europe! As the entire train journey takes only 3 hours but stops at over 2 dozen towns, making it a full-day adventure if you choose. Stopping at a few towns to explore and stretch your legs is highly suggested as they have lots to offer. Bronte is world-famous for its top-notch pistachios, while Randazzo has several stunning churches and a bellower that many believe to be the most picturesque in all of Italy! As the historic train runs on a narrow-gauge system, you will have to change over to a normal Trenitalia train for the final section back to Catania.