By following Vivant Denon words, “everything that is great, pleasant and terrible in Nature can be compared to Etna but nothing compares to Etna”.
Catania city, second largest of Sicily, lies under the shadow of this majestic ever-present volcano which has shaped the history and the actual existence of the city. Catania, however is always reborn more beautiful from its own ashes and it is definitely considered one of place in the world you must see once in your life with its beautiful unique grey historical city centre (made with lava stones!)
Catania has got very ancient origins, the first news dates back to the pre-Italians people called Siculi. It was founded by the Chalcedonians from Naxos in 729 B.C. and boasts a thousand-year history with a succession of populations with cultures and traditions that have enriched its architectural and cultural artistic heritage. It became a Greek colony in the 8th century B.C. then passed under the Romans as an Augustan colony in 21 B.C. when the city was transformed into one of the most important centres of the Roman Empire and large public buildings were built. Some of them are still visible in various areas of the city.
Later conquered by the Ostrogoths and then by the Arabs and Normans with whom Catania finds its episcopal seat. Under the Aragonese it became for a short time (1402-1416) the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily. Only in 1860 the city was finally liberated by Garibaldi “Mille”, officially becoming part of the Reign of Italy. All of these people influenced the culture and traditions of this beautiful city.
Earthquakes, eruptions and devastation marked the city, not least the earthquake of the Val di Noto in 1693 from which the city, as Catania’s people say, Melior de cinere surgo, is reborn even more beautiful. After this catastrophic event, in fact, the city center was rebuilt with the opulence of the Late Sicilian Baroque, which was named as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002, a gem in the treasure trove that Sicily island offers.
If you are wondering about how many days to spend in Catania, we can answer you: this is a good destination for both short trips and longer stays. Catania is a city where in a few days you can visit the main attractions, enjoy the good food and breathe the essence of Sicily. If you wish to stay longer you may also have the possibility to visit the very nice places nearby the city like Etna, the gracious villages on its slopes and Taormina, definitely must-see destinations!
Catania is also very nice for people travelling with kids as it is safe and the city center is mostly pedestrianised. Some museums are also suitable for kids such as the History Museum in Benedettini’s Monastery and Catello Ursino. For a nice rest we suggest a stroll to Villa Bellini gardens. Last but not least the Etna trip, it is a must for kids, they’ll absolutely love it!
What to see in the city center
A magnificent setting of Sicilian masterpieces: Piazza del Duomo, in the heart of Catania, is a concentration of the monuments that a first-time visitor of the city must absolutely see! Just turn your head and enjoy this unique “gray city”. The absolute protagonist is the splendid Norman Cathedral, dedicated to Sant'Agata, the patron saint of the city. It was built on the remains of the Baths of Achilles and the columns of the lower level belong to the ancient original structure. It is the result of a mix of different architectural styles: the Norman one, the Svevian one and the Baroque one.
Just in the middle of Piazza Duomo we find "U' Liotru", the famous Elephant statue located right in front of the Cathedral. Pointing its trunk towards the Cathedral it seems to pay homage to the martyr of Catania. Standing in the middle of the square you’ll be surrounded by magnificent unique facades and buildings, all gray and white made of volcanic sand and Ispica stones.
Next to the Cathedral, the greatest example of the Sicilian Late Baroque in Catania: Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici, which is connected directly to the Cathedral of Sant'Agata through Porta Uzeda. On the north of the Square you can admire the 17th century Elephants’ Palace (Palazzo degli Elefanti), the local municipal building nowadays.
In front of this palace we find the Carrara-marble fountain created by Neapolitan Tito Angelini Fontana dell’Amenano, a tribute to the river personificated in the shape of a young man, who holds a cornucopia from which water flows. The Amenano river once ran overground and on its banks the Greeks founded the city of Katáne, ancient Catania.
Passing over to the Amenano fountain from Piazza Duomo you enter the old fishmarket “La Pescheria” it is one of the most iconic and representative places of Catania.
With its smelly and colourful atmosphere, A' Piscaria (La Pescheria) is the best place to breathe and fully to the typical Sicilian mood.
The famous fish market of Catania is one of the biggest in Italy, located in Piazza Alonzo di Benedetto, near the city harbor, it is a must see. The market is open on weekday mornings from 7am to 2pm and all day on Saturdays. It is lively and animated mostly from 10 to 12, and here you can buy or taste a huge selection of fresh fish and seafood.
Following the local traditions, like in all Sicilian markets, fishermen will try to attract buyers with their loud voices and lots of gesticulations. Nearby you will also find fruit and veg stalls as well as cheeses and mushrooms from the villages of Etna. Please remember not to wear open toe shoes, the pavement can be slippery!
The Roman Amphitheater
A place where the glories of the Roman period in Catania still resound is the Amphitheatre of Piazza Stesicoro. This is the only visible portion of the theater after the 1693 earthquake when its ruins were used as foundations for other buildings on the square. The structure is part of the Greek-Roman archeological park of Catania and it is the most complicated and largest of all the amphitheaters in Sicily; it is second only to the Colosseum in Rome and the Verona Amphitheater. As is the Roman tradition, it has an elliptical shape used for events and performances such as gladiator fights and the popular Naumachie, the famous naval battles that took place in the Amphitheater after it had been filled with water.
Located in the homonymous square, the Bellini theater was inaugurated on 31 May 1890 with a performance of the Bellini’s masterwork, Norma.
Throughout its history, the opera house has performed almost all of Bellini's work and in 1951, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Bellini, Maria Callas sang Norma. A bronze statue of the composer is inside the theater in the foyer.
It is of course in Bellini's honor that the Norma pasta dish was made the first time. It is a very nice typical dish made with fried aubergines and salted ricotta cheese, you can find it in any restaurant of the city.
For some good shopping, not to be missed, a walk through Via Etnea, the main street of the historic center, it boasts many shops and cafes where to have a nice coffee or aperitivo. This street is about 2,8 Km long, and it goes from the Tondo Gioeni to Piazza Duomo. It is a lively place also at night!
Nightlife - Restaurants
Catania offers a very good selection of bars, cafes and restaurants and it is also well known for its lively nightlife. To experience the young and lively atmosphere of Catania, head to the area of Piazza Teatro Massimo. For generations this area has been the meeting point of the boys from Catania, a beautiful habit that tourists from all over the world willingly follow. Here you will find a lot of bars and wine bars where you can have aperitifs and spend pleasant evenings.
The whole old town center has a wide variety of bars and restaurants where you can enjoy a traditional Aperitivo, listen to some music or enjoy the good local food. It is usually not expensive to have dinner in typical Sicilian restaurants called trattoria, there are a lot in this area.
The longest sandy beach of Catania is Plaja di Catania. It extends south of the city for about 18 km along Viale Kennedy. There you will find some LIDO – these are paid beaches with umbrellas, sunbeds, restaurants, bars, toilets and other amenities.but also sections of public beaches
In the summer season, Plaja is quite crowded and it’s hard to find a quiet place there. In the evenings and at night, discos are organized in many of the beach venues.
A few kilometers south of Plaja di Catania is the Simeto River Reserve, where the river flows into the sea. The beach is sandy here and the reserve is a very quiet place also in high season; of course, you will not find any bars, toilets, restaurants or sunbeds there.
A few kilometers north of Catania (about 10km) we suggest a visit to Aci Castello and Aci Trezza. The part of the coast that stretches along these towns is called Cyclops Riviera. These places have very ancient origins, to the point of being narrated in Greek mythology through the works of Homer. According to a legend, Polyphemus threw the boulders in the sea off this coast to express his rage against Ulysses.
The coast of this area is volcanic and you’ll find wooden solariums built in many places to easily access the sea.
Where to go for some day-trips
Using the words of the scottish traveller Brydone: “some places can be undoubtedly stated as the most enchanting of the earth, and if Mount Etna inside looks like hell, we can rightly say that, outside, it is the nearest thing to Paradise”.
A unique place in the world where to ski while looking at the sea, Mount Etna is since 2013 in the Unesco’s World Heritage List for its geological peculiarities of planetary relevance.
This huge volcano is the highest in Europe and one of the most active in the world, it overlooks the whole Sicilian region with its impressive size. This place is appreciated in summertime for the various hiking routes and nature trails offered by the Etna Park and it attracts people from all over the world with the charming lunar landscapes of its craters. It also offers in winter the possibility of practicing snow sports within a short distance to the sea, unmissable!
Last but not least we strongly suggest a day trip to Taormina, easily reachable by car in about 1 hour, the city is a gem in the Mediterranean that cannot be missed during your stay in this part of Sicily. In Taormina you can have a nice walk in the shopping street of Corso Umberto, starting from Porta Messina towards Porta Catania, the two portals of the ancient city fortification. Then, a stop in Piazza IX Aprile which will surprise you for the wonderful panoramic view offered and, of course, a visit to the Greek Theater, at least for its stellar view!