Catania in Sicily is one of those places that pleasantly surprised me on my trip through Italy. It originally wasn`t on my schedule, but after people telling me over and over again that I `had` to visit Sicily, I couldn`t refuse. And I`m so glad I didn`t!
I initially stayed for two nights before moving on to Palermo, but I like Catania so much that I cut my trip to Palermo short and returned for another two nights. Catania is not as gritty as Palermo, where I regularly felt unsafe, but still enough edge to be interesting. It is beautiful, but not too polished and gentrified. Catania is also a great base to explore other places in Sicily. Sicily, in general, is a beautiful island with a great variety of cities and landscapes and it should absolutely be on your travel bucket list! It does get very hot during in summer, so opt for April or May instead when the island is in bloom.
Here a few things you have to do when you´re in Catania:
1. Walk around
The city centre of Catania is pleasantly compact and packed full of interesting sights. You can either get a map from the tourist information centre or join the Free Walking Tour to make sure you hit all the highlights. The Duomo and central square are beautiful, but be sure to also visit the Roman amphitheater and Medieval castle.
Catania is plenty touristic, but not completely safe. Watch out for the crazy Sicilian traffic and don’t venture out into the dodgy side streets alone at night.
2. Climb Mt. Etna
Climbing Mount Etna was the literal highlight of my visit to Catania.
I had never been on an active volcano before and it was absolutely incredible. There are a lot of organised tours, but it is easy enough to go by yourself (and a lot cheaper). The AST bus leaves at 8.15 from the train station in the morning and takes you back to Catania at 16.30 in the afternoon. A return ticket is 6.60 euro, and you can buy the ticket from the office at Via Don Luigi Sturzo, right around the corner.
The bus will take you halfway up the mountain to Rifugio Giovanni Sapienza at around 2000 meters. From there, you can either join a tour (which is required to reach the summit) or venture out on your own. Tours will require you to take the funicular at 30 euro for a return ticket and a jeep ride for 34 euro. If you opt to go up yourself, you can spare yourself those costs by simply hiking the trail along the funicular.
Although you are allowed to hike solo, you can’t go everywhere. From 2700/2900 meters (depending on the volcanic activity) you need a guide to go on. However, there is plenty to see at that altitude as well. You can visit old craters and my personal favourite: Valle del Bove, a valley filled with an old lava spill and a ridge topped with green moss and trees. The views here are absolutely breathtaking.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you are back in time for the bus at 16.30 as there is no alternative transportation back to Catania. And wear warm clothing and sturdy hiking shoes, it gets cold up there!
3. Visit Taormina
Another excellent day trip from Catania is to the small town of Taormina. Taormina sits atop a steep hill overlooking the ocean and spreads down to a cute little beach. It is an incredibly popular tourist destination, so be prepared for crowds both in the city and at the beach. It is also very pretty, so I still recommend it for a day trip. You can take the bus from Catania that will take you to the top of the hill, or the train which leaves you at the bottom. There is a funicular from the city to the beach below and back if you don’t feel like hiking the steep road.
4. Go to the market
Every day, except Sunday, citizens of Catania get their shopping from the local market. It started as only a fish market, selling the fresh catch of the day, but it now incorporates fruit and vegetable stands as well. Get there in the morning to look at all the products and try the fresh seafood in the surrounding restaurants for lunch. Do keep an eye on your belongings as its a popular spot for pickpockets as well.
Sicilian cuisine is popular all over Italy and with good reason. Influenced by the vicinity of North Africa, it is spicier than the food up north. You will see streets vendors selling granita, shaved ice with fruit juice, which is the perfect thing to cool you off in the Sicilian heat. Be sure to also try the scrumptious cannoli at a pasticcheria. Via San Filomena is especially cute at night with string light between the restaurants. The Polpetteria sells generous portions of the fried meatballs, polpette, and they also offer delicious vegetarian/vegan versions. For traditional Sicilian cuisine head to Trattoria del Forestiero, where ‘nonna’ (grandma) cooks the most delicious handmade Pasta alla Norma. At night, A Putia Dell’Ostello is where the youth of Catania assemble for drinks and cheap grub.