Inside Sicily: Touring the Eastern Town of Catania, Italy

Where else can you find moats full of lava, plates of seafood pasta as big as your head, and ocean views that go on for days? Read More

Picturesque, Catania is unfortunately a destination too often in the shadows of Palermo. (Source: Shutterstock / Leonid Andronov)

Italians know that Sicily is, well, a different “country” altogether. Its separation from Italy’s boot by a thin strip of the Mediterranean has been enough to give this island its own identity for centuries. And while many who love the spice, character, and panache of Sicilian culture often point to Palermo as the island’s necessary go-to, we prefer something less in the spotlight – specifically, the city of Catania on the island’s east coast.

A bit of Catania history

Given its size – Catania is the second-largest city in Sicily and among the top 10 most populous cities in Italy – it’s a wonder this delightful seaside town seldom makes guidebook headlines. We love it because its size (the population is around 300,000) affords visitors and locals plenty to enjoy without being so big that it’s altogether daunting. It also has a many-layered history that makes its modern culture a fascinating hodgepodge of traditions.

Catania was founded eons ago – more specifically in the 8th century BCE – by Greeks. It was happily settled and civilized according to traditional Grecian customs until the early centuries of the Common Era when the imperial Romans invaded. They were, in turn, ousted by Vandals who were ultimately kicked out by Arab tribes and then the Germans, and – well, it was a while before Sicily was wholly Italian. In fact, a unified Italy wasn’t even a thing until the 19th century; shortly after unification, however, Sicily joined the boot.

While it's been active for centuries, one of Mount Etna's most famous eruptions occurred in 1669, depicted here. (Source: Wikipedia)
While it’s been active for centuries, one of Mount Etna’s most famous eruptions occurred in 1669, depicted here. (Source: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, the peace afforded by unification was upended less than a century later when the Fascists took power. Heavy Allied bombing decimated the island, destroying more than two-dozen churches and countless other historic buildings. Fortunately, after Sicily’s liberation by the British in 1943, restoration commenced. It was touch and go for a while, given challenges introduced by the mafia, but by the 1960s, Catania was enjoying economic prosperity. That’s dipped slightly of late, thanks to the vicissitudes of Italian politics, but the city is nonetheless an inspired and inspiring place of innovation, art, and industry.

How to get to Catania/how to get around

The Catania-Fontanarossa Airport is your best bet for getting onto the island near Catania. You can also fly into Palermo and drive, though if you aim to use public transit on your trip, shooting directly for Catania is best. Many regional and international carriers serve the airport (including Delta), but you won’t be able to get a direct flight from the U.S.; you’ll likely have to make a pitstop in Rome or another major Italian city before transferring.

While we’re ordinarily reluctant to lean on public transportation as reliability varies, there are relatively frequent buses from the Catania airport to the city center – daily treks during the week run every 25 minutes and cost a modest €2.50 / $3. Also, the trip is only about 20 minutes.

Alternatively, you could rent a car – not a bad option if you have some desire to explore Sicily outside the city. Standard car rental companies like Avis and Budget are available at the airport, offering compact sedans for about €60 / $68 per day and up.

If you opt not to get a rental car, the AMT bus system will take care of you inside the city. They reach all neighborhoods and a single day-long ticket is only €2 / $2.50.

Where to stay

Like many older cities, Catania is eminently walkable, but to make the most of urban treks on foot, be sure you get a hotel room close to the city center. Fortunately, prices are slightly below what you’d find in major American cities, so you should be able to pick one that is eminently comfortable and has all the amenities you need.

Our luxe pick is the three-starred Quattro Canti Suites right in the heart of downtown Catania. The digs are decidedly posh and elegantly designed; it really feels like something out of the Renaissance. Services and fixtures are absolutely modern, however; free WiFi, flatscreen TVs, air conditioning, and in-room Nespresso coffeemakers all earn this elegant stop thumbs up from us. Rates run €140 / $157 and up per night.

Many of Catania's best hotels line quaint historic streets like this one. (Source: Shutterstock / Inna Luzan)
Many of Catania’s best hotels line quaint historic streets like this one. (Source: Shutterstock / Inna Luzan)

For something a bit more modest (and definitely sleek), check out Terrazza Sangiuliano, also downtown. This is a B&B with character – modern character. The design is decidedly midcentury with lots of hardwood and minimalist furniture. Nonetheless, rooms are well-appointed with all the necessities (including a TV and complimentary toiletries) while the rooftop deck serves as a lovely little refuge in the midst of Catania buzz. Oh, and did we mention the free breakfast?

For an even more affordable stay, consider Catania Airbnb options. The bonus here is the variety and cost (rates run as low as €30 / $34 per night), but some lack amenities you need or would greatly appreciate – like WiFi. Be sure to read up on properties that catch your eye before booking.

What to see/do

Given its rich history, Catania has much from centuries past worth seeing. And, as Sicily has long had a strong religious presence, many of the sites have at least some religious significance.

For instance, the Baroque-styled Cathedral of Saint Agatha (otherwise known as the Catania Cathedral) dates back to the 11th century. Eruptions of nearby Mount Etna (more on her later) required several rebuilds, however. The last major catastrophe to hit the sacred site was in 1693 when a cataclysmic earthquake left the building mostly in ruins. It was rebuilt in its original style, fortunately, featuring Corinthian columns, numerous sculptures of the saints, and an imposing main door that features sculpted plaques detailing the life of the church’s patron, Saint Agatha. Several post-1660 additions, like a dome (1802) and a bell tower featuring a seven-and-a-half ton bell, make for an even more impressive structure.

It's not a looker, but this monastery has been central to Catania's history and culture since the 16th century. (Source: Shutterstock / ramisonic)
It’s not a looker, but this monastery has been central to Catania’s history and culture since the 16th century. (Source: Shutterstock / ramisonic)

Another key religious landmark in Catania is the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena, a UNESCO Heritage site and the second biggest Benedictine monastery in Europe. It was founded in 1558, though damage from subsequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions meant regular restoration. Today, the monastery features an interesting mix of architectural styles, notable in the stone exterior, marble façade, arched colonnades, and quirks of later-century designers – like the iconic “Red Hall” that juxtaposes a red iron ceiling with aging stone walls.

Less religious and more medieval, the Castello Ursino is also worth a tour. This 13th-century behemoth was once home to the royal family of the Kingdom of Sicily. It’s also widely known for Sicilian Vespers, first performed here in 1295. Over the years, as the Kingdom of Sicily lost power and was ultimately subsumed in Italian unification, the once-mighty fortress was converted to a prison. Interestingly, the imposing castle moat was filled in by Mount Etna lava (yep, everything in Catania was affected by the volcano). Visitors today can tour the onsite museum known as the Museo Civico – tickets are an affordable €6 / $7 and offer a thoroughgoing look at the many centuries of Catania history.

For an artsy diversion, head to opera house Teatro Massimo Bellini. This 1,200-seat beauty is ornate to the hilt, with richly appointed Baroque arches, tiered chandeliers, and mosaiced marble. Even if you don’t catch an aria inside the theater, you’ll want to gape at the grandeur of the architecture and design.

Tours up to and around Mount Etna are very common, though be aware the volcano is still active. (Source: Shutterstock / cge2010)
Tours up to and around Mount Etna are very common, though be aware the volcano is still active. (Source: Shutterstock / cge2010)

Last on your to-do list? Well, Mount Etna, of course. As pivotal as she was to the shaping of modern Catania, this volcanic giant is a fairly docile peak these days. It’s also eminently accessible; a drive from downtown Catania takes under an hour. Fair warning, however: While she may seem mild, Etna is still an active volcano. This does translate to regular tremors in the area, though tourists still hike around the crater throughout the year. Plenty of half and full-day tours are available, in fact – some with wine included. Get a full list of guided excursions here.

What to eat

Sicilian food is second-to-none in our book, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad place in Catania. That said, we have a few recommendations to get you started.

First, we strongly encourage you to ascend the heights (actual and culinary) to dine at Etnea Roof Bar & Restaurant. If you like open-air dining and lounging, this can’t be beat – especially with the plush couches and sweeping views of the city. You’re near the ocean, so be sure you order something fresh off the boat – like the Octopus Salad with saffron potatoes or the Smoked Salmon jazzed up with pink peppers. Oh, and of course indulge in a bottle of crisp Soave.

How can you go to Sicily and not order a mountain of seafood and pasta? (Source: Shutterstock / cosminmicoara)
How can you go to Sicily and not order a mountain of seafood and pasta? (Source: Shutterstock / cosminmicoara)

For more of that seafood magic, we insist you schedule a stop at Il Gambero Pazzo south of downtown. This spot feels more like the ma-and-pa trattoria we think of when Italian cuisine comes to mind. Make no mistake, though: The food is anything but simple. Scalloped Mussels, Tuna Rolls, Seafood Bruschetta, and Salmon Caponata are only a few of the standouts. Come with a friend or loved one and make it a night.

For ye sweet-tooths, nothing caps a meal better than the gelato of Al Gelato by Zappalà, further north along the coast. Not only can you find the lusciously creamy chocolates, strawberries, and vanillas that make everyone swoon, but they have colorful ice cream “bombs” and a slew of cakes as well. Feeling like a night in? Grab one of these decadent treats to go and enjoy them back in your hotel room with a bottle of prosecco. How’s about that for a memorable end to a glorious stay in Catania?