The luxurious Monaci delle Terre Nere offers a panoramic view of Catania’s countryside. // © 2017 Monaci delle Terre Nere
Feature image (above): Catania is Sicily’s second-largest city. // © 2017 Creative Commons user freetibetxxx
Situated on Sicily’s eastern coast along the Ionian Sea, the city of Catania is set against the dramatic backdrop of Europe’s highest and most active volcano. No matter where you go in Catania, Mount Etna is a permanent presence. The majestic entity overlooks the city and the entire region, either quietly emitting a smoking plume or demanding attention with a brilliant nighttime display of fiery glowing embers.
Slightly less frenetic than Palermo, Catania is Sicily’s second-largest city with a population of about 300,000 inhabitants who, for centuries, have learned to simultaneously respect and dismiss living in close proximity to Mount Etna.
A destination of blended heritage, Catania features architecture, art and a culinary style that reflect an amalgamation of cultures imprinted throughout the island — including Greek, Roman, Moorish and others. A picturesque, compact destination, Catania is a tourist-friendly, walkable Mediterranean town filled with piazzas, meandering cobblestone streets, sculptural fountains and a multitude of intriguing activities.
Exploring the City
Catania’s diverse character offers an array of delightful experiences, from sipping an espresso in bustling outdoor cafes to admiring ancient ruins throughout the city — all in the shadow of Mount Etna.
Catania’s main landmark is the splendid baroque cathedral dedicated to St. Agatha, the patron saint of the city. It is located in the vibrant Piazza del Duomo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site made of lava rock and limestone. A gathering place for locals and tourists, the central focus of the piazza is an obelisk, along with the Fontana dell’Elefante, a lovely Roman fountain featuring a statue of an elephant — a character of local folklore. Beneath the cathedral are the ruins of ancient Roman baths, Terme della Rotonda, dating from the first century A.D.
Nearby is the city’s renowned fish market, which is open weekdays and draws major crowds with its vast assortment of freshly caught seafood. Vendors selling colorful fruits, vegetables, spices and other fare also line the narrow sidewalks surrounding the fish mongers.
Another unique archeological site in Catania is the city’s Greco-Roman amphitheater, which dates back to the second century and was created from black lava rock. Visitors can enter this awe-inspiring outdoor auditorium and explore the ruins encircled by traditional homes. Interestingly enough, the underground Amenano river flows through the center of the theater, flooding the orchestra pit in front of the stage.
A city with historical and religious sites at every turn, Catania also features many churches and an abundance of cultural attractions, including Archaeological Museum of Adrano Catania Sicily; the Emilio Greco museum; and the neoclassical Benedictine monastery, one of the largest in Europe. For those interested in a glimpse of Sicilian royalty, the stunning Palazzo Biscari is a traditional palace featuring exquisite baroque architecture. It remains the home of the Biscari family and is often used for special events. (Private tours must be arranged in advance.)
Dining in Catania
The dining scene is evolving in Catania, and it’s an ideal place for food-loving visitors. Much like the city itself, many of the restaurant dishes combine the traditional with contemporary.
Recently, a number of new eateries opened along the Via Santa Filomena, a narrow street in the center of the city that draws residents as well as visitors. A popular Catania eatery is Da Antonio, which features a selection of homemade Sicilian specialties. Another local favorite is FUD - Bottega Sicula — its name is a blend of the words “food” and “sud” (which is the Italian name for “south”). The menu showcases a variety of creative and delectable offerings.
And you can’t visit Sicily without tasting gelato. Fortunately, there are many spots for this frozen delight across the city, although Savia is one of the most widely known and attracts crowds daily.
Visiting Local Wineries
The stunning terraced vineyards near Catania are considered by enthusiasts to produce some of the most highly regarded wines in Sicily, as the vines are grown in the rocky, volcanic soil at the foothills of Mount Etna. Featuring a distinctive minerality, both red and white wines are made in this region. There are several grapes grown here, including the principle nerello mascalese, which produces light red wine similar to a pinot noir; and the white carricante, a crisp vintage that show off the region’s minerality as well.
The wineries here range from smaller, rustic and family-run establishments to large, modern facilities with impressive design and tasting rooms featuring sprawling vineyard views. The stunning terraced vineyards offer guests the opportunity to experience the rustic side of this region as well as the chance to see Mount Etna up close, as many of the vineyards are cultivated above ancient lava flows.
Today, there are more than 70 winemakers in the Etna region alone, and many of the area’s wineries welcome visitors and offer tastings and tours. (Reservations are always recommended.) A few local, award-winning wineries include Girolamo Russo, Pietradolce, Cavanera Etnea, Tasca d'Almerita, Cantine Nicosia and Tenuta di Fessina.
Some of the wineries, such as Firriato Cavanera Etnea and Tenuta di Fessina, have on-site restaurants and a small number of guestrooms.
Visitors staying in Catania can easily book day trips to Mount Etna and the surrounding vineyards. For travelers who wish to schedule an afternoon enjoying the mountains or wine tasting, a recommended tour company is Geo Etna Explorer.
WHERE TO STAY
Monaci delle Terre Nere
This luxury boutique property is perched atop the hills surrounding Catania, with a panoramic jaw-dropping view of the countryside. Recently renovated, this hotel features the ancient stone structure as well as modern rooms with exclusive amenities. With 12 distinctive suites, a swimming pool and an on-property gourmet restaurant with fresh seasonal offerings, this property is a peaceful respite near the city.
Il Principe Hotel Catania
Located in Catania’s busy historic center, Il Principe Hotel Catania combines a luxurious experience with the utmost convenience. Featuring 80 rooms and suites of various sizes, this posh property is steps away from many of the city’s attractions and provides guests with a number of amenities, including a small spa, a gym, sophisticated furnishings and satellite television.