It is a mix of art and vitality in a city, a shining jewel among the many precious treasures of Sicily, an unmissable destination for history, culture, traditions and innovations: welcome to Catania.
Catania: where and what
Splendid Sicily is almost like a continent rich in peoples, tastes, nature, sensibilities where everything expands to infinity. A sweet and harsh land, soft and rough, bright and veiled: a world full of art and history. And today I’m taking you with me to one of the unique places on the island. I’m talking about the spectacular Catania and their 10 wonders to see: let’s discover them!
Meanwhile, let’s define where we are: here we are on the eastern coast of the island, the city extends down the slopes of the highest active volcano in Europe, the famous Mount Etna. Almost halfway between Messina and Syracuse, the Gulf of Catania opens looks at the Ionian Sea. Meanwhile, the fertile plain in the south and south east gradually turns into hills that rise to the north due to the presence of Etna. It is part of the green plain, between the black volcano and the blue sea: Catania is there. All around, you can see a unique and incomparable scenery that seems to synthesize the essence of Sicily: fragrant citrus groves, red lava, black stones, long beaches…
And now, let’s discover some curiosities!
Did you know that the city was destroyed 9 times by earthquakes and eruptions and 9 times was rebuilt more beautiful than before? Did you know that the motto of the mythical bird called phoenix “Melior de cinere surgo” that means “I was reborn from the most beautiful ash” is written on Porta Garibaldi?
Did you know that the feast of Sant’Agata is the most important in the world after the Semana Santa in Seville and Corpus Domini in Guzco in Peru? And that Catania was known as the “protector of the Kings” because it was the capital of Sicily from 1282 to 1412? And that it was also called “Milan of the South” due to the great economic boom of the 1960s? You will be amazed to see Norman castles, baroque churches, liberty buildings, neoclassical theaters, eighteenth-century parks and colorful markets: they all coexist!
Catania: how and when
Today the city is undoubtedly one of the most famous and touristic places in Sicily but how and when did Catania become so important? Plutarch, the Greek historian, explained two possible origins of the name of the city. The first says that the name derives from Sicilian ‘katane’ because the lava spikes on the ground looks like a grater. The second says that it derives from Latin ‘catinum’ due to the basin shape of the plain. According to other scholars, the name derives from Greek ‘katà’, that means leaning on, and Aitnè, that is the name of the volcano (Etna). Moreover, the Arab geographer Al-Muqaddasi specified that Qatāniya was also called Madīnat al-Fīl that is the City of the Elephant, the current and beloved symbol of the city!
Certainly, the Chalcidian Greeks from Naxos in 729 BC. founded the first nucleus of the city. After several wars during the centuries against Syracuse, Kατάvη became a Roman colony in 263 BC. In the Augustan era it was even one of the most important centers of the empire, full of remarkable public and private buildings. Many dominations arrived when the empire was destroyed: Ostrogoths, Byzantines and even the Arabs in the 9th century. But this is not the end…in 1071 the great families moved here and stayed over the centuries: Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragoneses, Spaniards, Savoys and Bourbons! Enough? All of them have left important cultural and artistic signs. Now, let’s go straight up to 1860 to talk about the Kingdom of Italy…the rest is modern history.
Catania: the rising city
From the artistic and architectural point of view, Catania is essentially Baroque… but do you know why? Caltagirone, Militello, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa, Scicli and Catania suffered the terrible earthquake of 1693 and were reborn according to the style in vogue at that time. These late-Baroque cities are so special and interesting that they are one of the 10 UNESCO sites in Sicily!
The uniqueness of Catania – that has risen over and over again – is given by the simultaneous presence of multiple aspects that connect art, history, traditions and gastronomy from the past to a present full of novelties and trends. It is the main industrial, logistic and commercial center in Sicily and the International Airport Vincenzo Bellini is located here as well as an important university. It is characterized by a dynamic nightlife and innovative artistic and musical initiatives. And here is a crucial detail: in less than an hour by car you can go from skiing on the snow-covered slopes of Mount Etna to relaxing in the sun of the golden beaches by the Ionian Sea: incredible but true!
10 wonders to see in Catania: let’s find out the top three!
Well now you know enough to go further and as I promised, here is the list of the 10 wonders to see in Catania: let’s discover them!
1 – Piazza Duomo with the Cathedral of Sant’Agata, the Elephant Fountain and the Town Hall
Piazza Duomo is one of the most famous places in Catania because it is a spectacular mix of several Baroque architectural artworks. Let’s start with the Cathedral of Sant’Agata that was built on the ruins of ancient baths destroyed several times by earthquakes and eruptions. The version we see now dates back to the artworks created in the mid-1700s by two great artists: Vaccarini for the exterior and Palazzotto for the interior. The façade is completely covered with Carrara marble and enriched with some columns from the ancient Greek-Roman Theater.
Inside there are many valuable artworks and among them you will find the chapel dedicated to the patron saint who preserves her relics and the treasure. For those who love opera: visit the tomb of Vincenzo Bellini who was brought back to his hometown in 1876 after he was initially buried in the Parisian cemetery of Père-Lachaise.
In front of the Cathedral, there is the incredible fountain with the Elephant … if you want to know everything about the mysterious Liotru, the beloved symbol of the city, simply click here! Other splendid buildings surround the square…the Town Hall called Palazzo degli Elefanti (north)… just to stay on topic. Palazzo dei Clierici (south) is connected to the Cathedral by the Uzeda Gate and the Amenano fountain, a small river that flows under the city.
2 – Via Etnea and Piazza Università, the aristocratic palaces and the Bellini Garden
Once you have visited Piazza Duomo, walk down Via Etnea that is so called because it goes in the direction of Etna for 3 kilometers! It is the shopping and walking street par excellence, with coffee shops and deli where you can enjoy granita, ice creams but also the traditional arancini…by the way, click here for the recipe: try it!
After a few meters, we arrive to Piazza Università with the majestic palaces of the Rectorate and San Giuliano, here many prestigious degree courses take place. In Via Etnea many palaces and churches were built by the architects Vaccarini and Battaglia after the earthquake in 1693…so, long live the baroque! Don’t forget to visit the 7 churches that embellish this street and above all the splendid Collegiate Church.
Halfway there is the Bellini Garden dedicated to the beloved Catania composer Vincenzo Bellini. This park, called “A Villa” by the people of Catania, at the end of the 19th century was considered one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe! It was built on two levels and is rich in botanical species and statues, it keeps its ancient charm and is still nowadays a green lung in the center. Generally, any walk does not continue up to the end of Via Etnea but ends in Piazza Cavour. In fact, this is called “The village” because until 1693 it was outside the walls. Beyond you can see the 20th century and modern buildings (definitely lesser interesting)…but we have already explored a lot!
3 – The Greek-Roman Theater and the Roman Amphitheater
Let’s go back to the past that has left impressive signs such us two archaeological sites we are visiting now. In via Vittorio Emanuele, not too far from Piazza Duomo, we find the Greek Theater that was built around 410 BC. in lava stone, of course, right in front of the sea. Nowadays we see it as it was renovated in Roman era around the 2nd century AD. since part of the original structure is still intact!
In Piazza Stesicoro, close to the Bellini Garden, here is the Roman Amphitheater that was built around the 2nd century AD. It was originally the largest in Sicily and was often compared to the Colosseum and the Arena in Verona! But it was plundered several times to build city walls and buildings with its lava stone blocks. It was hidden during multiple destructions of Catania, the part we can see today has been found during the archaeological excavations started in 1903: it is however fascinating! Both of these sites are part of the unique Parco Archeologico Paesaggistico di Catania … to know more, click here!
10 wonders to see in Catania: let’s find out five more!
4 – Via dei Crociferi and the churches
Next to Piazza Università we can discover a very particular street: Via dei Crociferi that perhaps is called in this way because of the presence of the Cruciferi fathers. Get ready to see 4 churches in 200 meters that are some authentic masterpieces of Baroque. We enter through the Arch of San Benedetto that connects the church of the same name, to the spectacular staircase full of angels, with the Benedictine Convent.
Let’s keep on walking and we get to the Church of San Francesco Borgia and the Jesuit College that has a beautiful cloister. In front of it, there is the Church of San Giuliano that strangely today is called Chiesa Capitolare dell’Ordine Equestre del Santo Sepolcro di Gerusalemme. We continue up to the Church of San Camillo and stop at Villa Cerami, nowadays it is the seat of representation of the Department of Law of the University of Catania.
5 – Ursino Castle
It is time to get to know the only Norman building that resisted the 9 destructions of the city: the Ursino Castle. It was built by Frederick II of Swabia in the 13th century to be a fortress, it was located on a promontory overlooking the sea. But today, if we look around, you won’t see the sea…how is it possible? The answer is natural, just for Catania. The immense lava flow changed the structure of the land in 1669 and created a new coast pushing the sea away!
During the Sicilian Vespers the castle was the seat of the Sicilian Parliament and then became the residence of the Aragonese kings. It was also a terrible prison in 1500 and after various restorations, today it is the seat of the Civic Museum and houses Biscari’s and Benedictine collections. A curiosity: if you are a ghostbuster and can’t wait to feel a cold shiver, you are in the right place … why? Click here and you will know it!
6 – Benedictine Monastery
Now we will visit the Benedictine Monastery that is considered one of the largest and most beautiful monastic complexes in Europe. It was built in 1558 for the first time and then was rebuilt after the eruption in 1669 and the earthquake in 1693 using a Baroque style!
It is truly immense, in fact over the centuries it housed both barracks and schools, today it is the seat of the Department of Human Sciences of the University of Catania. Thanks to a guided tour, you can learn about its 500-year history! And you can also see the spectacular interiors including the library, the cloisters, the hanging garden and even a Roman domus.
Another curiosity: if you love books, before coming to Catania and visit this monastery, read “I Vicerè” by De Roberto that talks about the story of a family from Catania after the unification of Italy. You will also find many references to this place about some monks who used to have lovers and even children!
7 – Teatro Massimo Vincenzo Bellini (The main theater)
We have already ‘met’ Catania’s most famous and beloved son, the composer Vincenzo Bellini. The city dedicated the symphonic opera house to him. The works, started in 1870 under the direction of the architect Scala and the supervision of the architect Sada, went through many vicissitudes. It was inaugurated with the opera Norma by Bellini, of course, also known as the “Swan of Catania” who died at the age of 34. But to do so, they had to wait until May 31st, 1890, 55 years after the composer’s death.
I recommend a guided tour to admire the hall with four tiers of boxes and the richly decorated gallery, one of the most beautiful of the 19th century Italian theaters. The ceiling was frescoed by the painter Bellandi with some representations of the major works of Bellini: Norma, La sonnambula, I puritani and Il pirata. In the hall, made with marble, stucco and mirrors, the Swan of Catania is immortalized in a bronze statue by Giordano. The theater today is among the most important with an orchestra of 105 elements, a choir of 84 elements and each year it presents a rich concert and opera season.
8 – Pescheria and Fera ‘o Luni markets
After so much history and art, it is the moment to jump into in the truest folklore of this city. So, follow me towards the local markets of Catania: a chaos of colors, flavors, smells, sounds. La Pescheria is very close to Piazza Duomo behind the Amenano fountain and is the fish market. It is the most colorful, animated, chaotic and therefore characteristic.
Fixed times do not exist, as long as there are people and fresh fish to sell, it is open! A Fera ‘o Luni is the name of the market at Piazza Carlo Alberto near the Roman Amphitheater, it is a daily fair of fruit, clothes, toys and other products. In recent years it got a very interesting multi-ethnic connotation.
Even if there are other markets, these are the ones where the sellers still “vuciano”, so they advertise their products shouting loud! Do we want to take a break? Right in these narrow streets, trattorias, inns and cafeterias make the original Sicilian street food! Enjoy fried fish, meatballs (including horse meatballs!), bread with sausage, pizzas and scacciate and arancini and the legendary cannoli as a dessert!
10 wonders to see in Catania: let’s find out more and more!
We visited 8 of the 10 wonders to see in Catania! Now it’s time to get to know the surroundings: let’s go!
9 – Mount Etna, the volcano
Let’s take the car and in less than an hour from the center of Catania we arrive to the Mount Etna, one of the 10 UNESCO sites in Sicily. People from Catania – who love and fear it – call it “a muntagna”. It is also the highest active volcano in Europe (more than 3,300 meters). The diameter is about 40 kilometers, the perimeter of the base is about 135 kilometers and occupies an area of 1,265 kilometers: wow! Don’t forget that it has destroyed Catania several times as well as the earthquakes it generated!
Nowadays, a huge part of the summit is part of the Etna Park as a protected natural area. Urban landscapes, thick woods, vineyards, vigorous chestnut groves, magmatic rocks, desolate lands, snow and more ‘live’ together. If you arrive by plane, you may have seen this giant from above, which often puffs gray clouds of gas and sometimes ‘spits’ red lava flows. But once we get to the top, what can we see and do? Well, it depends on your preferences and time. You can visit the summit craters, the Valle del Bove, the caves or join an excursion by jeep, you can ski or walk. You absolutely must go to Etna: I assure you that you will not regret it!
10 – Sandy, lava and pebble beaches
Finally, we got to the last of the 10 wonders to see in Catania. Don’t forget that it is a city by the sea with some beaches! So, let’s go to the most beautiful beach: Plaia is just 5 minutes away by car from the center. Would you believe it? Crystal clear water and fine golden sand… yes indeed, it looks like the Caribbean. It is very famous, especially in summer, because it is surrounded by modern hotels, characteristic restaurants and cheerful bars that create the unique atmosphere of this place. In addition to the many beach properties, there is also a free public area where you can relax and tan.
But the coast is very long: towards Syracuse the beaches are sandy while towards Messina we will find lava cliffs or gravel pebbles. You can easily reach the beaches of Taormina that have always been very popular among people from Catania, they’re very jealous. Therefore, don’t tell them that actually, we are in the province of Messina!
Did I surprise you with these 10 wonders to see in Catania? Don’t think that’s all! Sicily is much more than this: come and discover it thanks to the itineraries organized by Dimensione Sicilia.
One of the best ideas? Eco-tours by electric cars! These itineraries are customizable itineraries according to your time and budget to enjoy 8 days in Western and Eastern Sicily or 14 days, if you prefer. You will visit the most beautiful places on the island such as 10 UNESCO sites of Sicily including Catania and its surroundings. Or if you want to enjoy the beauties of the island in a different way, pick one of the tours suggested by Sicilian Secrets. In safety we trust, let’s go!
See you soon!
Translated by Gaia Guarino