Catania and Mt. Etna

The 2nd largest city of Sicily, blessed with the views of the volcanic Mt. Etna on one side and the Ionian sea offering beaches on the other; and having an airport that facilitates air traffic from almost all of Europe’s major cities – does one need more reasons to visit Catania?!

From the first sight onwards, Catania has a look and appeal very unique to it and unlike no other, and this can be attributed to it’s Baroque and Norman architecture with grey and white tones, and to it’s strategic location of virtually being under the shadow of Mt. Etna. The city is chic and fashionable at one glance and edgy and warm at the other, making it as authentically Sicilian as one can imagine it to be. Catania is often overlooked as an airport stopover city or ignored as a pit stop while heading to the more famous Palermo, however this beautiful city has a plethora of things to do and places to see, and shall not be missed during a trip to Sicily.

For the architecture afficionados, city explorers and photography enthusiasts:

The city carries it’s grey and white undertones to it with élan and I wonder if the architects were inspired by the abundant visuals of the snow- covered peaks of Mt. Etna to gift the city with architectural landmarks of the same undertones that symbolise Mt. Etna in essence.

For the architecture aficionados:

Basilica Cattedrale Sant’Agata or the Cathedral of Saint Agata and Piazza del Duomo – the main town square is dotted with restaurants and bars on the sides of the square, while the Basilica and the surrounding buildings have the grey and white tones to them, giving this square the same grey and white palette as that of Mt. Etna. It’s a good starting point for your walking trip when in Catania. The Fontana dell’Elefante or the “Elephant Fountain” in the centre of the piazza also blends well with the piazza due to the matching colour palette and is worth a capture. I loved this piazza for its spacious architecture and certainly it’s Mt. Etna like colour palette which make for the perfect panoramic #gram or the perfect backdrop to your selfie!

Complementing the city with the same grey and white tones, other landmarks that breathe beauty into this city are Porta Uzeda, just off the main piazza and the impressive arched gateway slightly away from the main piazza called Porta Garibaldi, which can play as a perfect backdrop to your selfies on quiet early morning. For the explorers, Via Crociferi is a short street that plays well this colour palette and is dotted with beautiful churches and Baroque styled buildings as you walk along the street.

For the city explorers:

While there are plenty of restaurants to curb those hunger pangs and feed you the standard Italian pizzas and pasta dishes in the Piazza del Duomo, none of them satiated my tongue or fulfilled my soul for authentic Sicilian delicacies, as I found them very touristy. However, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Via Santa Filomena, a street for foodies looking for authentic restaurants and bars with a cozy local vibe in the historic city centre serving delicious Sicilian delicacies and its adjacent street – Via Gemmellaro for drinks. Both of these streets are flanked by the local youth, classy locals and travellers alike, thus guaranteeing a pleasant experience. So if you’re looking to get a glance of the latest trends in the Italian fashion circuit, head over to Via Santa Filomena and Via Gemmellaro!

Talking about the streets in Catania, one cannot help but pay a visit to the longest and the most remarkable street of the city – Via Etnea. While the street doesn’t boast of the prettiest buildings in town, it’s beauty lies in its strategic position to witness the majestic Mt. Etna at all times. The street happens to be the main shopping and commercial street of Catania, thus making it busy from 6 am in the morning to well past midnight. Photography enthusiasts with or without a drone can get that perfect #gram during sunrise and truly capture the spirit of the city, i.e. Mt Etna, with the volcanic mountain imposing in the background.

For the hikers and explorers at heart:

Whether you’re a hiker, an explorer or neither of those in particular, a trip to Mt. Etna will not fail to impress anyone when in Catania. It is the most active and highest volcanic mountain in Europe. Even if you’re not into hiking, just like me, visiting Mt. Etna will be a truly unique and memorable experience courtesy the breathtaking and vast panoramic crater views it has to offer. The area covered by the mountain is so vast, and the crater views so breathtaking, that one can simply explore the various steep, deep and shallow craters while enjoying the smell of moist volcanic soil and soaking in the panoramic views. It is while exploring these craters that I truly understood the meaning of the saying – “not all those who wander are lost”! Having seen the magnificent volcanic mountain, I now understand why the people of Catania and Sicilians fondly call Mt. Etna their mother. Bonus – due to the humongous and vast area covered by the mountain, there’s plenty of space to accommodate the crowds and it doesn’t feel crowded at all; so you can pose and take selfies to your heart’s content without being bothered by the crowds photo bombing your perfect #gram/selfies.

Hike lovers can choose to hike up Mt. Etna with a combination of public transport+cable car+hiking on your own/a guided tour hike, or your own car + hiking or opt for a guided tour ranging from 4 hours to the entire day or even lasting for a couple of days. For hike lovers and enthusiasts, I’d recommend you to do a thorough research in terms of selecting the right trails for you as the mountain offers a myriad of hikes with varying challenges ranging from easy to difficult.

If you choose to take a guided tour, many of these tours combine the visit to the mountain with a native Sicilian lunch, a visit to a winery or honey manufacturers and treks through ashy wonderlands and caves depending on your interests and the duration of the tour. We’d taken a 6-8 hour long guided jeep tour with a small group which involved pick up from and drop off to the hotel, visiting the craters of Mt. Etna, and the nearby volcanic caves, a winery for a hearty cheese and cold cuts lunch paired with delicious Sicilian wine, and a visit (a short hike) to the Alcantara Gorges on the way back. Seeing the marvellous creations of nature like Mt. Etna and the Alcantara Gorges is one of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve ever had and one that I’d highly recommend to everyone. The hike for this tour was rather easy to seamlessly combine adventure with leisure.

Preparation – while visiting Mt. Etna, it’s important to be prepared with adequate warmers (in winter), a jacket or a sweater as the mountain remains snowy in parts all year round. Due to the Mediterranean weather of Sicily, the days can be quite sunny too, so it’s advised to carry a bottle or two of water as there are hardly any food trucks/stalls near the craters owing to environmental conservation and to ensure cleanliness. Last but certainly not the least, proper sports shoes are a must when visiting Mt. Etna, as the craters can be quite steep and the hikes and caves can be rocky. However, if you’re reading this while you’re already on your holiday in Catania and haven’t brought your sports shoes along with you, as was in my case, the guided tours also provide the shoes that you can use for the hike. If hygiene is a concern, I’d recommend you to buy a pair of shoes. Either way, bringing along a pair of socks is a must!

For leisure lovers and romantic souls:

If you’re tired after a strenuous day of hiking Mt. Etna, what better way to relax than at a beach. Whether you’re a beach bum like me who can spend an entire day gazing and being one with the sound of the waves, or just looking for a casual evening stroll or a candle light dinner picnic by the beach, Catania has just the right beaches for you!

In the north of Catania lies the pebbly beach of San Giovanni li Cuti. The beach is lively and frequented by the locals, and also houses a few beach restaurants/shacks for dinner and drinks afterwards. The beach is adorned by a nice promenade where you take a romantic walk with your partner after a perfect dinner date by the beach.

As a perpetual seeker of sandy beaches, the beach – Lido Azzuro in the south of Catania was my personal favourite. This golden sandy beach is generally calm and perfect for swimming under the warm Sicilian sun. After a dip in the cool waters of the Ionian sea, you can reward yourself with a lunch/dinner/snack at one of the beach shacks, which also rent sun beds and umbrellas to catch up on that afternoon siesta! The vibe of the beach is cozy and family friendly during the day; and as the sun sets, it paves way for some evening parties at the beach shacks there, though nothing usually too boisterous. What I liked about this beach in particular was the availability of lockers that you can rent for a few euros for the whole day to store your belongings. Cheers to carefree lazing around at the beach🍻😇!

How to reach Mt. Etna and the beaches of San Giovanni li Cuti and Lido Azzuro:

Both Mt. Etna and the beaches can be reached by the public buses. You can take the bus from main bus station which is just opposite to the Catania central train station. Do note that the buses to and from Mt. Etna depart around 0800 in the morning and return around 1600 in the afternoon. Personally, I’d recommend to take an 8-10 hour long guided tour to Mt. Etna as the local guides have thorough knowledge of the mountain, thus making the experience more engaging with some fun facts. You can get the buses to and from the beach all through the day and till late at night. Do check online for the latest timetables.

If reading the entire article hasn’t convinced you to visit this unique city of Catania, I’d like to leave you with an anecdote from our trip all the way back in the summer of 2015, that may at least tempt you to visit it. While we were visiting Catania, there was this bar/cafe tucked away in a little inconspicuous piazza close to the Piazza del Duomo, that we’d visited on our first evening out in Catania. We’d merely stopped by for an evening dose of caffeine and a croissant and ordered our usual cafe latte and an americano. The following day, we happened to visit the same bar/cafe while we were in the vicinity, and to our surprise the owner not only remembered us, but also remembered our order, which he got for us while welcoming us in with a huge smile on his face. While this otherwise usual cafe may not have stood out, the warm hospitality of the owner made our experience endearing and memorable! Such is the warmth of the Sicilians!

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