As the SAIS bus from Palermo to Catania drove through the narrow streets of the mountaintop Sicilian town, the bus driver began honking repeatedly to warn others that we were coming through. Elderly Sicilians stood on their balconies, their faces without expression as the bus passed. The driver honked again, a double-tap, yelling, Siamo qua! Buongiorno! (“We’re here! Good morning!”). Several of the passengers share a laugh.
And for just 12€, I was able to see the Sicilian countryside, the expansive landscape and snow-capped Mt. Etna, during the slightly-under-three-hour bus ride.
After visiting Palermo, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Catania. But what I found was the opposite of Sicily’s chaotic yet fascinating capital; Catania is a city where drivers actually slow down to let you cross the street.
Perhaps what shaped Catania’s appearance most was the earth itself; violent earthquakes in 1169 and 1693, not to mention a devastating eruption by Mt. Etna in 1669, created the need for the city to rebuild. Losing some of its façades from antiquity, Catania resurrected itself under the Sicilian Baroque style. The flourishing architecture is immediately noticeable upon a walk down Via Etnea, a sort of Main Street for the city upon which many shops and famous eateries sit.
Visitors to Catania ought to head first to Piazza Duomo at the southern end of Via Etnea. Here you’ll find the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata and the Fontana dell’Elefante, featuring the city’s symbol, a little elephant known as the Liotru. The Museo Diocesano is a fascinating walk through history and offers a rooftop view of Piazza Duomo and Via Etnea. Underneath, the Terme Achilliane is a damp and dark exploration into the bathing habits of Ancient Rome.
The famous Catania Fish Market is nearby, where you can smell the morning excitement of fresh fish being sold alongside fruits, vegetables and all manner of meat parts. South of the Fish Market is Castello Ursino with the Museo Civico inside, a museum that also features special exhibitions (during my visit it was the Picasso e le sue passioni exhibit).
Head north for Via Crociferi, a street lined with churches, notably the Chiesa di San Benedetto. (Pro-tip: the 5€ ticket to the chiesa also gets you into MacS – Museo Arte Contemporanea Sicilia next door.) To the west of Via Crociferi is the impressive Monastero dei Benedettini, which now houses a university. Check ahead to see when they offer tours, especially if you want them in English. Otherwise, you can explore some of the premises for free. And speaking of free, check out the Palazzo della Cultura’s Cortile Platamone on Via Museo Biscari for special exhibits which are fairly extensive.
An eastward trip down Corso Italia, past its posh shops and straight to the coast, will lead you to Lido La Battigia. From the shores of black volcanic rock to the beach with sdraio (deckchairs) available for rent, it’s a worthwhile destination for the hottest days.
When you’re hungry, head back to Via Etnea and get a snack at Pasticceria Savia and/or Pasticceria Spinella. Both are historic and good, though I’m told the former is better for tavola calda items (the savory stuff), while the later is better for i dolci (the sweet stuff). I found them both exceptional, especially since Villa Bellini is right across the street, a large park area in which you can enjoy your arancin
a-o (see comments) or gelato con brioche in peace. For a more hearty meal, I highly recommend Fud on Via Santa Filomena. Sure, they serve burgers, which doesn’t seem like a very “Italian” thing, but they use local ingredients and offer Sicilian microbrews (the rosso, or For Sale pale ale by Birra Tarì is my favorite). The burgers are huge and delicious, but if you’re into something more local, they have panini, pizze and salads as well. The small street offers other eateries too, so it’s easy to find something you like here. And when you’re done eating, head over to nearby Piazza Carlo Alberto for a bustling and really expansive market selling everything you could think of, from fruits to socks to fluorescent lights.
Catania is full of churches and ancient ruins, as well as unique sites like Agorà Hostel, central Catania’s first hostel that’s also now a popular destination for its Sicilian bar and underground restaurant featuring a river. But if you need a change from the city, Taormina, Syracuse and Ragusa are not too far away. Day trips to any of these beautiful spots are definitely worth checking out.
(Of course, there are plenty more great sites in Catania I haven’t mentioned in this article for the sake of brevity, so please feel free to let me know your favorites in the comments.)
Hover over the photos for descriptions…