Leave no stone unturned in sensational Catania, Italy with our essential three-day travel guide and itinerary for things to do in this Sicilian jewel.
This Sicilian coastal city refuses to parade itself as a plush, modern town – and it’s all the better for it. Catania is where you come for narrow streets with atmosphere, baroque buildings wherever you look, and pasta served the way it has been since they wrote the recipe generations ago. Our guide to three perfect days in Catania will make sure you cover all the essential things to see, eat, and enjoy in this sizzling Sicilian destination.
Day One – Elephants and Fishes
Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the Piazza del Duomo is the city’s main tourist attraction. Get your bearings at the wonderful Elephant Fountain – the Fontana dell’Elefante – with its Egyptian obelisk and Roman pachyderm. Catania’s cathedral is here, dedicated to Saint Agatha and originally dating back to the 11th century. Razed and rebuilt numerous times, the current incarnation is post-1693, a baroque phoenix rising from the earthquake of that year.
There are plenty of other fountains here. One of which is next to the city’s amazing fish market, La Pescheria. Follow your nose and ears to get here – it’s a cacophony of people bustling to buy fresh fish, with local swordfish and tuna being among the specialties, while restaurants tempt you inside with the promise of today’s catch. The best of the lot is Osteria Antica Marina, overlooking the market and combining simple fish dishes with more gourmet inventions. It’s one of the best tables in town and a great place to get a feel for the market without having to jostle among the crowd.
There are plenty of excellent museums in Catania, but the best art is usually found in its churches, monasteries, and palaces. Head to the 13th-century Castello Ursino to find antiquities nestled inside its thick walls, including paintings by Caravaggio. The castle has survived all that Sicily has thrown at it over the centuries, including an Etna eruption that filled the moat with molten lava.
Day Two – Lava and La Dolce Vita
On your second day, make the most of Catania’s coastal location with a morning at the beach. San Giovanni li Cuti is formed of dramatic black lava rocks and has a picturesque harbor bobbing with colorful boats used by the local fishermen. Grab a prime spot for sunbathing or wander the cafes and restaurants that look out to sea.
There are some streets in the city that encompass much of what a visitor might want to see. Via Crociferi is the one for timeless baroque architecture, whereas Via Etnea is perfect for boutique shopping and a big slice of Italian life. On the former, you’ll pass under the arch of San Benedetto – a possibly fabricated story suggests that it was built in one night – on your way to marvelous churches and Benedictine monasteries.
Via Etnea runs from Piazza del Duomo all the way to Mount Etna’s base, where you can shop for designer clothes, quality gifts, and delicious Italian pastries at any number of pasticceria.
Lunch is always an occasion in Catania, and if you’ve hung up your car keys for the day, you can sample some wine grown on the slopes of Etna as you tuck into local specialties such as swordfish or pasta alla Norma. The latter, which uses eggplants and salted ricotta, is available across the city. Trattoria di de Fiora, on Via Coppola east of Via Etnea, is homely and has been serving Norma for over 50 years. If it feels like you’re dining in the front room at an Italian grandmother’s house, because you pretty much are.
Norma was named not for some mysterious woman who created the recipe, but for an opera by local composer and hero Vincenzo Bellini. Have a night at the opera house built in his honor, the stunning Teatro Massimo Bellini, with its gilded interior and marble entrance. You can usually catch a performance of one of his pieces there, and while reserving a box may be difficult, it’s a wonderfully extravagant way to experience this unforgettable building.
Day Three – Above the Clouds and Below the Ground
While it might be active and imposing, Etna is also safe to visit. Opt for either a guided tour, tackling it yourself, or ascending to the higher reaches by cable car. You’ll be surprised by the riches to be found on the slopes. There are vineyards making world-class wines, small farms, and more than 20 villages where people thrive in the shadow of the volcano. At times the landscape becomes almost lunar and you’ll leave with some treasured photos of this smoldering giant.
If that sounds like hot stuff, cool down with one of Sicily’s favorite treats: granita. This frozen iced dessert is ubiquitous in Catania during the warmer months and served in bowls, brioche sandwiches or goblets, often topped with cream. At Caffe Europa, the lemon granita is tangy and refreshing, while the seasonal flavors at Pasticceria Privitera include coffee and pistachio.
Suitably refreshed, there’s time to take in one more Catanian landmark – Parco Archeologico Greco Romano. Catania’s history takes in both Greek and Roman settlers, and the excavations here have uncovered elements of both. Most notable is the Roman theater that nestles up against one of Catania’s authentic neighborhoods, lending it even more drama. It dates from the second century, but was only discovered and unearthed in the 20th. It will leave you with a sense of having found the soul of Catania, part of the beating heart of historic Sicily.
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