Sicily

The best things to do and see in Catania

Often overlooked by holidaymakers in favour of Taormina, Catania offers a quite different atmosphere to its showier neighbour. It’s possibly more earthy and unsophisticated, but isn’t without its own special charm. You’ll find plenty of elaborate palazzi in Sicily’s second largest city, alongside fine architecture, vibrant markets and centuries of history.  It’s certainly more chaotic, possibly grittier, and definitely more authentic than its glitzier neighbour, as well as being much bigger. However, with a small historic centre, the city is easy to explore on foot.

Baroque treasures

The first thing you’ll notice is the dark grey lava stone buildings and baroque facades which characterise the city. It’s not called ‘the black city’ for nothing! Catania’s historic centre was rebuilt following a series of seismic events, including volcanic eruptions and, in 1693, a powerful earthquake.

Its historical centre is based around the Piazza del Duomo, where the Duomo, or Cathedral of Sant’Agata is a wonderful example of Sicilian baroque style. Highlights include a magnificent baroque façade, sculpted doors, and a cupola which provides 360˚ views over the city for anyone prepared to climb the 170 steps.

The piazza is also home to the city’s town hall, the 17th century Palazzo degli Elefanti, and the Fontana dell’Elefante, the iconic black lava elephant balancing an Egyptian obelisk on its back which has become a symbol of the city. The neighbouring Diocesan Museum is also worth a visit, not least for its access to the Roman baths directly underneath the Cathedral.

Feast on more Baroque splendour on the nearby Via dei Crociferi, fringed with grand 18th century palaces and four Baroque churches, including the fresco-filled Church of San Benedetto.

Catania’s historic buildings

But you can step even further back in time at the lava rock Teatro Romano, accessed from the busy Via Vittorio Emanuele. The neighbouring Odeon is thought to have been the rehearsal theatre. For more Roman history, gaze down at the remains of the Anfiteatro Romano on Piazza Stesicoro. This was the second biggest in Italy, surpassed only by the Colosseum in Roman.

Just a short walk from the Teatro Romano, right in the centre of Catania, the medieval Castello Ursino is one of the few examples of buildings from the Norman period of the Middle Ages. Built in the 13th century by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, the rectangular-shaped castle, with a large circular tower at each corner, is extremely impressive. Open for daily tours, the castle has previously been used as a prison, but today houses the Civic Museum of Catania including works by El Greco and Caravaggio.

Street food and markets in Catania

No visit to Catania is complete without a wander round La Pescheria, one of Italy’s biggest fish markets. The market sprawls beneath the black and white arches of the Archi della Marina, close to the Duomo. It’s been in situ since the 19th century, filled with bellowing stallholders who lure you to stalls piled high with glistening fish, slabs of swordfish, cockles, fresh clams and mussels.

 

Catania fish market

 

Looking to avoid the blood and guts? Head to the general daily market, Fera o’luni, in Piazza Carlo Alberto di Savoia. Market stalls here focus on seasonal fruit and vegetables, cheese, spices and dried fruits as well as local crafts.

Baked melanzane

Get a sugar rush at one of our two favourite pastry shops, Pasticceria Savia and Pasticceria Spinella. Both set on the Via Etnea, they sit side by side, plying locals and tourists with traditional Sicilian sweet treats, from cassata, cannoli and refreshing almond granitas. They’re also popular in the evening, for aperitivi and arancini.

Of course, you’re never far away from a great glass of wine in Catania! The fertile slopes of Mount Etna yield some superb wines, including those from the Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes. Ask us about a visit to some of our favourite Etna wineries to learn about wine production in this extraordinary area.

 

Vineyards in Sicily

Take in an opera

Even if opera’s not your thing, the Teatro Massimo Bellini is one of the city’s most stunning pieces of architecture.  Join a public tour of the building or treat yourself to tickets for the opera, ballet or classical music.

Visit the Opera House

Catania and Sant’Agata

The Catanesi take their patron saint very seriously. Sant’Agata is celebrated in traditional festivals in early February and again on 17 August, commemorating the day her relics were returned to the city after being taken to Constantinople.

Churches in her name include the main cathedral where you can see Bellini’s tomb. Also the Cappella di Santa’Agata which houses St Agata’s relics, and the Church of Sant’Agata al Carcere, standing on the original prison cell where she was imprisoned.

Then there are the desserts. Dip into Cassatelle di Santa’Agata ricotta-filled pastry shells, covered with white icing and topped with a candied cherry. Or try the Olivette di Sant’Agata, olive shaped sweets made out of marzipan and coloured green to resemble an olive.

Best views of Mount Etna

Wherever you are in Catania, you’ll be conscious of the looming presence of Mount Etna. However, for the best views of Europe’s largest active volcano, head for the main shopping street, Via Etnea. Connecting Piazza Duomo to the foot of Etna, the street is home to designer boutiques, bars and restaurants.

Alternatively, pack a picnic and head for the gardens of Villa Bellini. This is one of the city’s few green spaces, and one of the best vantage points over Mount Etna.

 

View of Mount Etna

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