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Sicily’s second-largest city, Catania sits at the foot of Europe’s most active volcano, Mount Etna. By no means an underdog, it captivates with magnificent architecture, bustling street markets, great food and more than 2,000 years of history. Elegant and shabby, historic and edgy, it’s a city of contrasts, where a youthful vibe permeates the myriad Baroque piazzas, and chic bistros alternate with traditional tavernas. Tuck into the freshest of seafood, sample the region’s excellent wines and enjoy la dolce vita Sicilian style.
Catania’s history is closely linked to its eruptive neighbour. In 1669, Etna engulfed its surrounding area in simmering lava, swallowing villages in its path and changing Catania’s cityscape forever. Two decades later, disaster struck again: an earthquake shook the region due to further seismic activity, claiming thousands of lives and destroying much of the city. But Catania embraced its nemesis: the city was quickly rebuilt in grandiose Baroque style from the dark lava that had once buried it, lending its churches and palazzi a unique look – even the streets are paved with volcanic stones! The city’s motto couldn’t ring any truer: 'Melior de cinere surgo’, ‘I rise from the ashes stronger’.
Catania’s historic core is best explored on foot. Start with the city’s showpiece, the grey-white Piazza del Duomo, built from contrasting lava stone, limestone and marble. The World Heritage square centres around the smiling Fountain of the Elephant, the city’s symbol, and is crowned by the imposing Cattedrale di Sant'Agata, supported by Roman columns. Pop inside to pay homage to Catania’s patron saint, Agata, and its most famous son, composer Vincenzo Bellini, then visit the Roman baths underneath the cathedral. The 18th-century Church of the Badia di Sant’Agata is also worth a look – climb up to the cupola for a 360-degree view of the city, and admire the sea to the east and Etna to the north. West of Piazza del Duomo lie the ruins of the Roman Theatre, where gladiators battled in front of a 15,000-strong crowd back in the day. Five minutes from here, you’ll find the Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l'Arena, once the second-largest monastery in Europe. History buffs should also visit Castello Ursino, a formidable 13th-century castle housing the archaeological collection of the Museo Civico, as well as Museo Storico dello Sbarco in Sicilia, dedicated to the WWII Allied landings in 1943. Don’t miss Teatro Massimo Bellini, one of the grandest opera houses in Europe either – try to get a ticket for a performance or join a guided tour to see the plush interior.
Food holds a special place in Sicilians’ hearts. Enjoy the street theatre at La Pescheria, Catania’s famous fish market, stretching out across the streets behind Piazza del Duomo. Go in the morning when stalls are burdened with fresh swordfish, clams, mussels and other seafood. You can also pick up seasonal fruit and veg, fresh cheese and meat in the surrounding alleys. For a fishy snack on the go, stop by Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab at the market, specialising in fried seafood served in a cone. In the mood for a sit-down meal? Opt for Osteria Antica Marina, serving superb fish dishes in a friendly trattoria atmosphere. Catania’s signature dish is pasta alla Norma, named after Bellini’s opera, marrying fried aubergines with tomato and ricotta. Try it at Nuova Trattoria del Forestiero, near the opera house, or at Trattoria U Fucularu in a quiet side street. Other specialities include arancini, fried rice balls with fillings like mozzarella and meaty ragù, as well as cannoli, crunchy pastry tubes stuffed with ricotta cheese. Pasticceria Savia, founded in 1897, is a good place to taste both. For a feel of traditional Sicily, make your way to Mè Cumpari Turiddu and enjoy local favourites under antique chandeliers. Or push the boat out and choose the tasting menu with wine pairings at Sapio, Catania’s first Michelin-starred restaurant.
The city’s main shopping artery is the three-kilometre Via Etnea, packed with multinational brands, department stores and classy boutiques. For high-end names, check out the shops lining Corso Italia, too. Want to take a taste of Sicily home? Get a bottle of local vino at Wine & Charme or Imakera Vini e prodotti tipici, or pop into I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza, a traditional pastry shop. Fera o’ Luni market in Piazza Carlo Alberto is also worth visiting for the lively atmosphere alone. Catania is well-known for its bubbly nightlife, ranging from cosy wine bars to hip student hangouts, boisterous nightclubs to live-music venues. For cocktails, drop by Bohéme Mixology Bar, where the bartenders create drinks based on your taste and mood. You can sample wines from the slopes of Etna at Cru Enoteca or Nelson Sicily, sip local craft beers at Mosaik Beer House & Tea Room or wind down at Monk Jazz Club. Looking to pull an all-nighter? Take a cab to Mercati Generali, one of Sicily’s best nightclubs, housed in a converted warehouse about 10 kilometres outside the city.
To experience nature at its most powerful, visit the crater zone of Etna (conditions permitting). Nicknamed Mungibeddu (’beautiful mountain’), the city’s frenemy is in a near-constant state of activity and erupts several times a year, shooting fireworks of molten rock into the sky. Don’t worry, these days it’s constantly monitored. Take the daily bus from Catania to Rifugio Sapienza, the gateway to the top. From here, a cable car whisks you up to 2,500 metres, into a barren, Mars-like land. Continue on foot or take a 4x4 minibus to the authorised crater zone at 2,920 metres. Perched high on the side of a mountain, Taormina is another must-see, just an hour’s drive north of Catania. The historic town, dotted with atmospheric piazzas and 15th-century palazzi, is a delight to wander around and boasts the most dramatically set ancient Greek theatre in the world. Syracuse to the south also merits at least a day trip, with ancient ruins, Baroque squares and a maze of medieval streets. Ready to hit Catania’s beaches? Head to the locals’ favourite sandy beach, La Playa, south of the city, or soak up the rays on Riviera dei Ciclopi, one of the most spectacular stretches of the eastern coastline.
Catania Fontanarossa Airport is a small, one-terminal airport, 4 kilometres from the centre. It’s easy to reach by AMT Alibus, which runs regularly from early morning to midnight. Rental cars and taxis are also available. Restaurants, cafés, duty-free and gift shops will help you pass the time before take-off.
The best time to visit Catania is between May and June or in early autumn when temperatures rarely drop below 20°C. July and August are often sizzling hot, but you can always cool down in the sea. Winter months are mild with temperatures around 10°C, although you might need to wrap up warm after sunset.