Catania is one of the two large cities in Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, along with Palermo. However, travelers visiting Sicily often overlook Catania. The island has a lot to offer, so many are attracted to smaller but iconic destinations like Taormina or Syracuse. There are a lot of things to do in Catania, and I’m here to give you a few reasons to visit and spend at least a couple of days in the city,
Catania has the largest Sicilian airport. It is also a one-hour drive from Messina, the port city where you can pass by ferry to the Italian Peninsula.
Why Visit Catania?
Where should I start? Catania is a seaside destination at the foot of Mount Etna. It also has a rich history, amazing food, and great local wine. Do you need more reasons to visit Catania?
Well, it is also a unique city. It was rebuilt many times and found its identity in the same black lava that almost destroyed the city.
Best Things to do in Catania
The Greeks founded this colony in Eastern Sicily, at the foot of Mount Etna in the 8th century BC. The city has had its share of misfortunes, largely due to its proximity to Mt. Etna. Some large eruptions and earthquakes destroyed parts of the city more than once.
Remains of the Greek and then Roman heritage are still visible in Catania, but later influences have left their mark on the city as well. However, among all the beautiful churches and the Baroque architecture, the greatest and most constant influence has been that of Mount Etna.
So, let’s start the walk and check out my list of the best things to do in Catania.
Sant’Agata in Catania
Sant’Agata is the patron saint of Catania and a powerful virtual presence throughout the city. Agata has been a Sicilian virgin martyr that died not willing to betray her Christian faith. The Cathedral dedicated to her in Catania is the central element in Piazza del Duomo.
Nowadays, each February, a large religious festival dedicated to Sant’Agata takes place in Catania. For three days, February 3-5, processions featuring Sant’Agata on a silver cart pass through the town and draw thousands.
Sant’Agata Cathedral stood in Piazza del Duomo for almost 1000 years in different versions because it had to be rebuilt several times. After the 1693 earthquake, it gained the current Baroque appearance, similar to the rest of Catania’s center. Some of the lava stones and granite columns in the building were recovered from the Roman ruins in the city.
Sant’Agata is present inside the cathedral, as well as on the façade. The wooden door depicts images of the saint’s life an martyrdom. However, she is revered and present in Catanian’s life outside the churches as well.
For instance, some of the most popular sweets in Sicily are le minne di Sant’Agata (Sant’Agata’s breasts). These small round cakes are made from ricotta cheese, white powdered sugar icing, and a candied cherry on top. They recall one of the painful episodes of Sant’Agata’s life.
After the major earthquake in 1693, Catania had to be (yet again) rebuilt. The selected architect, Giovanni Battista Vaccarini looked at the elegant style of the time-the Baroque to recreate the city. He also chose the very same material that threatened to destroy Catania to rebuild it. The result is a unique style, the Black Baroque, still visible throughout Catania’s city center.
Piazza del Duomo Catania and the Elephant Fountain
One of the most striking examples of the Black Baroque style is Piazza del Duomo, at the center of Catania. All buildings in the Piazza have that unique combination of lava rock and limestone. The Baroque becomes even more dramatic in these black and white clothes.
In the center of the square, the black elephant is one of the symbols of Catania. The Fountain of the Elephant is a popular spot where locals gather every day. Tourists also stop to rest and admire the architecture of this elegant piazza.
Another symbol of the city’s rebirth is Porta Garibaldi. The Phoenix and the motto ‘Melior de cinere surgo‘ which means “I rise from the ashes even better” perfectly represent Catania and its ability to rebuild and flourish after each catastrophe.
In the 13th century, Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, built Ursino Castle by the sea in Catania. It was part of the coastal defense in Sicily but also had a role as a symbol of imperial power. The castle was above the sea level, on a promontory connected to the city walls. It is essentially a square fortress with an open courtyard in the middle and circular corner towers.
The large eruption in 1669 had lava flowing around the castle, filling the defense ditches and separating the castle from the sea. Still, Ursino Castle is in great shape today when it hosts a museum.
The main shopping street in Catania starts in Piazza del Duomo and goes straight towards Etna. The street is paved with the same lava stone as in Piazza del Duomo and is lined with shops, bars, and street cafes. It can get quite crowded on a weekend afternoon when locals mix with tourists strolling on Via Etnea.
In addition, you can always see the majestic volcano at the end of Via Etnea.
Also called Villa Bellini, it is the oldest public park in Catania. You can access the park from Via Etnea and enjoy its gardens and fountains. Bellini Garden is also great for a picnic and a bit of rest with a view over Mount Etna.
The Botanical Gardens in Catania
Another garden on Via Etnea, at the University of Catania, the botanical gardens are also worth at least a half an hour visit. It’s a small garden, free to enter and it has a lot of native Sicilian plants as well as a great cacti collection.
Teatro Bellini Catania
Another beautiful building in Catania, Teatro Massimo Bellini hosts the local opera house. Bearing the name of the local composer Vincenzo Bellini, Teatro Bellini hosted its first performance in 1890, and it was Norma by Bellini.
Maria Callas sang Norma here as well, for three years starting in 1951.
The Roman Theater
The Roman Theater in Catania is part of a wider Greek-Roman complex. It also includes an Odeon (a smaller theater), an Amphitheater, the Greek Acropolis of Montevergine, the remains of a Roman Aqueduct, and those of a Roman Forum.
Entertainment venues were very important in every major Roman city, especially during the Imperial Era.
The Romans built the theater in Catania over an older, probably Greek structure. In its heyday, the theater could hold up to 7000 people. Unfortunately, time and earthquakes caused the ground level of this area to drop. Unfortunately, time and earthquakes caused the ground level of this area to drop. An underground river, Amenano, reaches now the lower level and makes the venue impossible to use for performances.
You can visit the theater every morning from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM and every afternoon except Sundays from 2:00 PM to 7:00 PM.
If you’re a fan of the Roman heritage, check out my post about Roman Theaters and Amphitheaters around the Mediterranean.
Via dei Crociferi and Monastero dei Benedettini
A lesser-known street, Via dei Crociferi runs parallel to Via Etnea. Beautiful churches and Baroque palaces line both sides of the street.
Monastero dei Benedettini is a beautiful monastic complex, close to Via dei Crociferi. The black and white elegant structures and peaceful gardens are a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Catania. A ticket to visit the monastery is 8€ and you can check the timetable here.
One other important thing to do in Catania is to enjoy the city’s open-air markets. Catania benefits from the sea as well as from the fresh products grown in the fertile soil around Mt. Etna.
The most noteworthy of these open-air markets is La Peschieria (The Fish Market). Just a few steps away from Piazza del Duomo, la Peschieria will introduce you to a different atmosphere.
Fishmongers display their catch, shout to lure the customers, and locals go through the tables to choose the best fish and clams. Around the market, there are a few great fish restaurants where you can stop for a bite.
This brings us to the next subject and one of my favorites…
Food in Catania
Catania is a paradise for food lovers. You’ll find good food everywhere made from the freshest ingredients. Make sure to try the arancini, a popular street food, and the typical pasta alla Norma.
If you have a sweet tooth, Catania will be even more to your taste. Try the delicious granita drinks, le cassatine, and the delicious cannoli.
Things to do Outside Catania
The most obvious attraction outside Catania is Etna. I suggest taking at least a half-day tour to Mount Etna, it’s an unforgettable experience.
Click to read all about my day trip to Mount Etna from Catania.
Another idea is to spend the morning at the beach. Lido Azzuro is just south of Catania and it’s a long strip of golden sand with all the amenities.
If you plan to spend more time in Catania but still want to visit the surroundings, take a look at this tour ideas starting in Catania:
I’m sure you’ll find at least an interesting one.
Disclosure: Some of the above may be affiliate links. This means that if you click on a link and make a purchase, I earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. However, I only recommend companies, activities, or products that I use myself.
When to visit Catania
It never gets too cold in Catania, though it does get too hot in the summer months. I would recommend planning your visit to Sicily from March to June or in the autumn months.
Where to stay in Catania
I found these two comfortable options for your stay in Catania and they are also close to the best things to do in Catania:
Anfiteatro Le Suites – comfortable suites close to Piazza del Duomo and the Greek-Roman complex.
Hotel Centrum – a nice hotel close to Teatro Bellini and Sant’Agata Cathedral.
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