All that nature has of great, all it has of pleasant, all it has of terrible can be compared to Etna and Etna cannot be compared to anything.Dominique Vivant Denon
It was Dominique Vivant Denon that said, “All that nature has of great, all it has of pleasant, all it has of terrible can be compared to Etna and Etna cannot be compared to anything.” While we were in Catania we heard so many locals talk about how throughout time they try to never upset Etna. They think of Etna as a mother because at times she can get upset, but mostly she is there to support and give things to them (e.g., the volcanic soil is rich and helps their agriculture).
The city of Catania sits below Mount Etna in Sicily’s east coast and has so much history. It is a beautiful port city with some great local cuisine. While we were there we stayed at Casa Provenza Bed and Breakfast from Thursday night until Monday and it could have not been in a better location. It was in the heart of the city, just two blocks away from Piazza Universita and Piazza del Duomo. Also, we enjoyed an amazing breakfast on the balcony that overlooked the dome of Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata.
Here are our top recommendations for Catania for a four-day trip.
Piazza del Duomo
This square has so much beautiful architecture and it is in a central location of Catania. Here you can find the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata or the Duomo (every city in Italy has one). This cathedral is dedicated to the patron saint of Catania, Sant’Agata, or Saint Agatha. The cathedral dates back to the 11th century when it was built upon the ruins of Roman baths. Throughout time, catastrophic events destroyed the cathedral, especially the earthquake that took place in 1693. The cathedral was rebuilt soon after into what you can see today. Its baroque-style exterior with bushels of flowers cascading over the side of the gate draws your attention instantly. As you make your way around the interior of the cathedral you will see the tomb of the famous composer, Vincenzo Bellini, who was born in Catania in 1801.
Right across the garden of the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata there is the Chiesa della Badia di Sant’Agata, a separate church from the main cathedral. The exterior is not nearly as impressive as the Duomo, but the inside is something to see. It was so unique because the architect made the room into a cylinder where even the chairs were angled, so that anyone that is attending mass would be able to see the alter. The inside is bedazzled with ornate chandeliers, white iconic marble columns, and beautifully made statues. Then to top it off we would recommend you pay to go up to the top of the dome to get a 360 degree panorama of Catania. It was absolutely breathtaking. Not only does the view give you an idea of just how vast this city is, but you can also see on one side the ocean and the other side Mount Etna in all of its glory.
Another pleasant sight within the center of the Piazza del Duomo is the Fontana dell’Elefante. It is one of the happiest looking elephant statues we have seen! The elephant has always been popular in Catania. For example, during the Muslim rule of the city, the statue was called Balad-el-fil or Medinat-el-fil, which means “city of the elephant.” However, some will tell you that the elephant dates back to the myth of Liotru. The story goes that Eliodoro, the son of a noble Sicilian family, learned magic from a sorcerer and denounced his faith. He carved the elephant statue out of the lava within Mount Etna and would bring it to life and ride it around the city to wreak havoc on all the people. The elephant statue is indeed made up of lava stone, but the rest we’re not so sure. You will also see an Egyptian obelisk along its back. Some say the obelisk holds some form of magical powers.
A little more tucked away along the edge of the square is the Fontana dell’Amenano. This fountain was built of marble by a Neapolitan sculptor. The sculptor wanted to portray a man holding a cornucopia with water overflowing from it. Behind the fountain statue you will see lava stairs that take you into the heart of the ancient city market — La Pescheria (we’ll talk more about this later).
Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena
This monastery, founded in 1558, is known as one of the largest monasteries in Europe and is under the UNESCO World Heritage Site umbrella. It is also known as the second biggest Benedictine monastery in Europe and a place we recommend you try and give yourself time to see.
The building had to go through some updates after the 1669 lava flow of Mount Etna and the 1693 earthquake. The lava flow did not end up destroying the monastery, but it did change the level of the monastery to be higher up. The earthquake also didn’t help because when it passed by it damaged all of the monastery except for the basement area. They tried to take the lava flow out, but they weren’t able to and with the earthquake damage they went ahead and just built on top of it. If you look carefully you can see the original height that the monastery used to be.
This building started off as a monastery, then it was put into the military’s hands, and now finally it is in the hands of the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania.
This tour was very impressive and the tour guide was very willing and able to answer our questions. They take you all along the premises and point out all of the main highlights that the building has to offer. They also take you down to the basement, so you can see some original Roman structures in the same area that the student’s library is located. Don’t miss this tour as the guide shares some of the legends and myths that lie behind these walls.
Church of Saint Benedict
After we paid and took the tour through the Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena, we were told that our ticket would also cover entry into the Church of Saint Benedict. We didn’t know what to expect, but we are so glad we took a chance and went because it was breathtaking!
It was originally built in the 14th century, but the catastrophic earthquake of 1693 completely destroyed the building that was once there. Then Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, who was known for his Baroque style architecture, came around to help other architects rebuild the church in the 18th century. The church took a hit during WWII, but architect Armand Dillon came around to restore what was damaged.
This church is spectacular! It was beautifully detailed with angel statues running along the side as you come up the stairs, to the ornate pink and gold door with glass having you peer into the church to see what lies before you; and finally the inside with its grandiose frescoes along the ceiling and then cascading down to the alter. It was just great to sit there and listen to the audio guide that was given to us and hear the stories and reason for every element in the room.
Translated, the Castello Ursino means “Bear Castle.” This 13th century castle has held a lot of royals throughout the years. The Parliament started in this castle once the Sicilian rebels, also known as the Sicilian Vespers, took control of it. Once the capitol was moved out of Catania this castle turned into a prison. This castle has also gone through a lot of natural hardships: the earthquake of 1693 (but luckily, it was one of the few buildings in Catania that was not affected) and the eruption of Mount Etna in 1669. The lava flow of Mount Etna turned this once castle that was on a cliff looking to the sea into this now castle surrounded by streets and shops. In 1932 the castle was renovated to what we know of it today as a museum. You can see a lot of historical artifacts of the castle and other collections of Sicily including some Greek and Roman pieces.
La Pescheria Market really gives you the feel of being local and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. You hear people yelling out different prices and fish items they have. You see fish being prepared and it is just a great area for people watching. Also, not far from the fish stands you can find some vegetable, fruit, and cheese stands. It is just fun to walk around and take in the sights and sounds.
There is also the Piazza Carlo Alberto Market. This market is good to go to if you want a little bit of everything. There are not only vendors selling food, but you’ll also find vendors selling clothes, purses, etc. Take some time to go up and down the aisles and experience the market chaos.
Places to Walk By
We recommend you walk by the Piazza Università and look at the architecture because it is beautiful! We even walked into some of the buildings with their wide opened doors and saw some lovely courtyards in the middle with palm trees and flowers.
Another place to go look at is the Roman Amphitheatre of Catania. Like most Roman ruins you can only see part of it because the rest of it is either under the buildings you see around it and/or the material was taken to be used to build other buildings such as the churches and the Castello Ursino. The part you can see today makes you realize just how grand it was during its prime. It is said that just the seating alone could hold about 15,000 spectators (not including the standing and potential wooden bleachers).
If you find time, then go by the Opera House and take a look at it. The exterior is gorgeous! We only got to see it at night, but even then it was gorgeously lit up and you could tell a lot of work went into the layout.
Giardino Bellini Park
This park has very intricate pieces to it. When you first walk in you will be walking up these stairs that have stone patterns on the ground and aligned with greenery on either side. At the top of that level you enjoy some arches and statues. If you go up one more level you could see this gorgeous pavilion. Take your time to walk around and explore the rest of the park and take it all in.
Activities To Do While in Catania
Syracuse, Ortygia, and Noto Full-Day Tour
This day tour exceeded our expectations. The package includes picking you up and dropping you off at your hotel and we enjoyed our tour guide because she was very nice and informative.
We started off by going to Noto, which is a small and charming town with buildings made from local limestone. This town and the main cathedral was announced in 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This town is also well known for capturing some of the best Sicilian Baroque style architecture.
When we got here we were given an hour to walk around and do our own thing. Our tour guide made some great suggestions for places to see and provided directions. We were able to do all of the recommendations with no problems. The first notable architecture we saw was the Porta Reale. This arch makes a beautiful entrance way that leads into the Stone Garden (what some people call Noto).
After making your way through the arch, follow along the path until you get to the first church on the right called Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi all’Immacolata. It is a simple and elegant church. As you walk around the interior of the church you will see a lot of stunning artwork. The alter is dazzling with its detail in the white walls depicting columns, a dove, and seashells. Then the color radiating from Mary right in the middle of the alter to make it a focal point.
We kept walking into the town, when on the right we saw this grand staircase that led you up to the Noto Cathedral. We walked inside the cathedral and the artwork on the walls and ceiling had a bright color. This cathedral also holds the relics of Saint Corrado Confalonieri, the patron saint of Noto.
After we were done admiring the churches we went to Caffe Sicilia to get their famous brioche with almond granita. A lot of people consider this place to have the best granita in Sicily. After trying it, we could see why people rave about it! The granita was like a combination of ice cream and shaved ice. It was so delicious and really helped cool us off on the hot day.
The next stop on our tour was Syracuse, a city that is known for its ancient ruins. We were given some time to walk around the Archaeological Park and a brochure that went over some more of what we were going to see while we were there.
We admired from afar the San Nicolo Church to Cordari with Roman Pools underneath the church and the Cordari Cave. They say this cave was used by rope manufacturers for hundreds of years because they had the right amount of humidity.
The cave we were most excited to see was the Ear of Dionysius. Legend says that Dionysius I, who ruled with an iron fist, used to put his prisoners in this cave. He would then use the cave’s structure to wait for the echo of his prisoners’ voices to hear what they had to say. Go ahead and test it out because trust us there were plenty of other people trying out the acoustics while we were there!
Then we made our way to the Greek Theatre. It was so great to see that the stage is still being used for performances. Also, if you walk around the theater you can see ancient Greek words etched into the stone. We made our way to the top and behind the theater we found the Grotta del Ninfeo, fake caves cut out from the rock, which were used as tombs or to house statues.
We walked over to the other side of the park to take a look at the Altar of Hieron II ruins and then we took in the sites of the Roman Amphitheatre. In the center of the amphitheater you will see an opening, which was said to have been originally covered and the underground passageways were used by the gladiators and wild animals. This structure used to be a lot bigger, along with the Greek Theater, but when the Spaniards ruled the area they took a lot of the stone to use for the fort they were building in Ortygia.
Once we were done exploring the Archaeological Park, we went to go grab a quick sandwich at their café. But we would recommend grabbing lunch in Ortygia instead. When we got to Ortygia we were waiting for our tour guide in front of this stand. As we stood there our other guide informed us that the place we were standing in front of was this amazing sandwich shop where they make all of their own cheese, everything is fresh, and you can find them on YouTube. The owners were gracious enough to give us some samples of the cheese and a bite of the sandwich they just made. After we tried the samples, we wished we would have waited to get lunch there (see the name of the restaurant in the picture above)!
Once the tour guide got there we made our way around the city. We would periodically stop in front of different ruins and he would first tell us the story and history in Italian and then in English.
We also stopped in a couple churches, but our favorite was the Cathedral of Syracuse. This church was stunning from both the outside and the inside. Be warned though that you need to make sure you are wearing the right church attire — long pants and shirts with sleeves. If you do not, then they will ask for you to wear this white shear material to wrap yourself in.
This church became a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the fact that not only is this a historical and beautiful church, but it is still held up by Greek Doric columns. Usually, they used to tear down temples in order to erect churches on the same site; however, the architects of this church took a different approach and used the columns as its framework. Also, be sure when you first walk into the church to head to the right hand side. There you will see an area dedicated to Mary and then right next to that is a chapel that is dedicated to Saint Lucia, who is the patron saint of Syracuse. Here you will see her relics, which includes fragments of her bones. Then if you keep walking you will see another chapel that is a burial area for the Syracuse bishops.
The tour guide wanted to finish his tour talking about the Fountain of Arethusa. Greek mythology states that this fresh water is where the nymph Arethusa resides or ancient Syracuse’s patron. Arethusa found this watering hole after fleeing from her home in Arcadia. You can find this fountain being mentioned in a lot of older literature. Also, another unique thing about this spring is that papyrus grows here. Here and the river Fiume Freddo, in an area of Catania, are the only two places that you can see papyrus being grown in Europe.
We were given a couple extra minutes to explore or do what we liked before we made our way back. We decided to get a beverage nearby and then we walked around the beautiful waterfront. Around the waterfront we enjoyed the clear teal colored sea and the gorgeous buildings with flowers hanging from the wall.
Mount Etna Hike & Wine Tour
We didn’t want to miss a chance to visit this iconic volcano and why not also go and enjoy some lunch and wine at a local vineyard afterward? The tour we took was great and the tour guide was excited to teach us everything she knew. Another nice thing about this tour is they provide you with the supplies you need, like the helmet and light when you go into the lava cave. If you don’t have the proper shoes, then she has some for you to borrow. Also, it was nice because transportation to and from our hotel was provided.
As she drove around she gave history and comments about the local towns. She also knew a lot about Mount Etna and the different rock formations that we saw. We stopped within the forest of Mount Etna where we saw a lot of white bark trees and black volcanic soil. Just a few more feet and we reached the entrance to the lava flow cave. Be very careful because the steps are uneven and slippery (it makes sense why they want to make sure you have the proper hiking boots). The stairs were manmade, but the lava cave was made from the lava flow. The lava hardened and created this cave. What is also very interesting about this cave is that when the Arabs inhabited Sicily they brought with them ice. Here is where they would store the ice because it was a nice chilly environment. The locals would bring the ice up periodically to make their world-famous granita. Their granita is closely related to what we know as Italian ice; however, since it originates here they have perfected it and theirs has a better consistency or texture than the Italian ice we know in the States.
We then kept driving up toward Mount Etna, until we reached its craters. Here we hiked up and down the sides of the craters. We will say this is not for the faint of heart or hiking ability. We were fortunate that it wasn’t as hot as it could be, but it was very very windy! Standing still was hard enough, so we just had to take our time going down the sides of the craters. It was a worthwhile experience. We enjoyed it immensely, learned a lot about what different rock types were called, and how life formed on this hot terrain.
We made our way to Cantine Don Saro for our wine and lunch pairing portion of the tour. The ambiance was just as wonderful as the food! They started off by giving us a plate with toasted bread, salami, a potato and egg frittata, and two different cheeses. While we were eating this we were also given a bowl of herbed pitted olives that were very delicious. Then we moved on to our main entrée, which is a traditional Sicilian meal from the Catania region called pasta alla norma. It is pasta, tomato sauce, eggplant, basil and grated salted ricotta cheese (you can put as little or as much as you like…we really liked it, so there was a lot on our pasta). Then they rounded out our meal with a little almond cookie. During our meals they were doing a great job giving us white and red wines to help pair with our food.
Our last stop was at a local products store called Oro d’Etna. This cute little store makes all of their products by hand. You can find some great souvenirs or gifts for family and friends. When you first walk in you’ll find copious amounts of different honey products laid out on the table, such as chestnut honey, French honeysuckle honey, lemon honey, candies, jellies, soaps, and more. Also, they use beeswax to make candles and a cream for your skin. Besides being known for their honey production, they also offer tastings of their homemade infused olive oils, different pesto sauces, wines, liquor, and more.
Gastronomic Street Food Tour of Catania
If you find time, then take this food tour! Our guide was a local and was very knowledgeable about Catania food and Catania history.
We really liked the fact too that our tour guide started out by giving us a little postcard mapping out all of the areas that we would be going to and all of the things we would be trying along the way. Our first stop was in La Pescheria Market, where we stopped at this vendor stand and received a full plate of food: a couple different cheeses, bread, mixed vegetables, a couple different meats, a couple varieties of olives, and a tomato salad with basil and shredded cheese. All of the food we had was local and tasted very fresh and delicious!
Before we reached our next location we stopped at this small wine bar that sells a lot of different varieties of wines, but it also sells a lot of locally made foods and spreads. You can find things in here such as chocolates and pistachio spreads. NOTE: One of the things we learned in there is that the greener the pistachio spread the less pistachio it actually has. We tried a spread that was a high percentage of pistachio and it not only tasted less sweet, but it also looked a little more brown or nut color. It was a nice stop before we continued on our way. Then we made it to our next stop, which was at this café, where we got a ragu arancino pastry. It was split up for us to try half and you can see in the picture just how gooey and amazing it looks on the inside.
Then at our next stop we tried cipollina, a flaky pastry with soft cheese and onion. We can say that this place has the best cipollina that we tried here. All of the ingredients in the middle were melting in your mouth and the outside was perfectly flaky.
We then stopped at a drink stand where we first started out having a very popular local drink that consists of salt, seltzer water, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. We both thought this drink was too salty for our taste buds! Then we tried a seltzer drink that had freshly squeezed lemon juice, seltzer water, and orange syrup. It tasted to us a lot like a tangerine soda. Our last drink we tried ended up being our favorite (so we ended on a high note). It was a drink that had seltzer water, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and tamarind syrup. It was just the right amount of sweet and bubbly.
At our next location, we had a little almond cookie, which was powdery and crumbly with a great taste. We also had an amazing pistachio granita! It was not too sweet and was so refreshing.
Finally, our last stop was going to be to try horse meatballs, but that wasn’t available at the time, so instead we ended up going back to La Pescheria Market, where we had a bag full of fried seafood. It was some of the best fried seafood we have had! It was salty, crunchy and very savory.
Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Tour
You can pay for a ticket and get picked up right outside the duomo. There were two main highlights that we didn’t learn from other excursions we took and that was about the Acitrezza-Faraglioni and the Castello Normanno.
The Castello Normanno is a Norman castle that juts out onto the water’s edge. It was built during the time of the Norman rule of that area and the surrounding city. However, one day Mount Etna erupted and made this area uninhabitable. After a few years the Bishops of Catania took control of the castle. Just like most castles it saw a lot of change in power within its walls.
Then we saw soon after the castle the Acitrezza-Faraglioni. It was exciting to see a landmark of something we had only read about in mythology books! If you have read the Odyssey, then you know these rocks too. It is said that this is the area that Ulysses docked his ship, met the Cyclops, and then outran the Cyclops’ clutches. For this reason, this area is called the “Islands of the Cyclops” to the locals.
This restaurant was a great café and has been around since 1897. One quirky thing we want you to take notice too is at the bar you will see hung lights that are in the shape of coppola hats. These hats are traditional Sicilian hats that became popular in the early 20th century, but they are coming back, as you see a lot of vendors selling them around the city.
Then we shared half a brioche, along with a lemon granita and an almond and chocolate granita. Both were amazing in their own right. The lemon tasted a little more like a slushy consistency instead of a lemon syrup, while the almond and chocolate granita was more creamy, like soft serve ice cream mixed with shaved ice.
We wanted to share some local cuisines, so we got three different types of filled baseball sized arancini. Arancini’s are fried rice balls that are filled with different ingredients. The three that we tried were: an eggplant one (one of us got more eggplant in their half than the other), a pistachio one (creamy and a little sweet), and our favorite one the ragu (savory and hardy). Then we also had a cipollina.
Trattoria U Fucularu
The food was great! We started off by sharing a large salad that consisted of lettuce, chicory (flowering plant that is within the dandelion family), carrots, corn, grilled chicken, Parmesan, and balsamic glaze. The salad was just what we needed, since we’d had a lot of fried foods for lunch. Then we also shared pasta alla norma. This was the first place we tried it, but not the last place!
Trattoria Casalinga da Nino Mannino
This restaurant is known for only making traditional Sicilian cuisine. The first thing we got was an appetizer platter that consisted of cheese, olives, sundried tomatoes, seasoned and roasted vegetables, AND a dish that was on our list to try – caponata. A caponata is a traditional Sicilian dish made of eggplant, celery, and capers, and is doused in a sweet and sour sauce. When we asked the locals how they got sweet and sour sauce, they said that it is actually just balsamic vinegar and sugar. We thought it tasted a lot like sweet and sour chicken that you can get at an American Chinese restaurant.
After the appetizer, we were excited to try our other traditional Sicilian meals next. We started out having the pasta con le sarde or a pasta with sardines, anchovies, wild fennel, pine nuts, and olive oil, with breadcrumbs on top. If you do not like fish, then that is not a dish for you because it did have a fishy taste. For those that do like fish, then this dish is very good. We both enjoyed it and the breadcrumbs just gave it another texture. Then we moved onto our secondi entrée which was a mixed salad and the swordfish roll, which is called involtini di pesce spade. Inside the swordfish was filled with savory breadcrumbs and then grilled all around. This amount was nice for us because of all the food we’d had previously, but make sure that this is not the only dish you have because it is not very big.
This place did such a great job and we loved the freshness and flavors of the meal that we wanted to try something from their dessert menu. The pistachio cake was amazing! It was so light, fluffy, and creamy.
Within the Piazza del Duomo we found this really nice café. There were so many pastries and breakfast items to choose from, but we went ahead and chose a nice size, pistachio cream filled pastry. It was kind of like a gritty exterior donut. It was very tasty and got us going for the day.
Bar Pasticceria Spinella
We ended up getting the pistachio granita, which was not too sweet and just the best blend of ice and flavor. Then we tried a cannoli that was filled with pistachio. We had to try cannolis while we were in Sicily since they originated from here. It is said they were made in preparation for a carnival and we are glad they were! For those of you that don’t know, a cannoli is fried dough that is filled with a sweet ricotta cheese. Nowadays though you see a lot of different elements combined with the original ingredients like the one we had with pistachios. The cannoli’s filling was so well blended and flavored so well! The dough was crispy and everything just went together.
Then we tried the other dessert the Minni di Sant Agata, otherwise known as Saint Agatha’s breasts. We were told about them on our food tour and so we wanted to try them before we left. Some places make these pastries year round like this café and others will just make it on Saint Agatha’s feast day in February. The story goes that Saint Agatha refused the advances from a Roman governor at the time and instead devoted herself to God. Since she refused, her breasts were cut off, she was thrown in jail, and she died soon after from her wounds. She is usually depicted in paintings with her breasts on a plate. To honor their patron saint, Catania makes these pastries. These pastries are made of ricotta, marzipan, a sponge cake, and a cherry on top. You can find other variations of it made all throughout the different cafes.
Another thing you can find in a lot of cafés, including this one, are the frutta martorana, which are traditional marzipan sweets in the form of fruits. It is said that these candies originated from Palermo, Sicily where cloister of nuns taught themselves how to make the sweets look like fruits and vegetables. They wanted to make their garden look plentiful on the occasion that a high-ranking member of the clergy visited. This is a great souvenir or gift for someone! As you can see from the picture they make the fruit look so detailed! They even blend in different shades of colors or put bruises on the fruit. They do such a great job and it is so artistic that you are in disbelief that this is not real fruit.
This wine bar is tucked away on a quiet road. We ended up getting a glass of wine (recommended by the waiter) and a variety of tapas. The tapas included ones that had hummus and cucumbers, strawberry, brie and balsamic, meat and cheese, fig jam and cheese, AND cheese and salmon. Afterwards the two people next to us recommended the key lime pie. We were hesitant because we are from Florida and we know good key lime pie! However, we went ahead and tried it. We can confirm that the key lime pie was very good.