10 Top Tourist Attractions in Catania & Easy Day Trips
Sicily's second largest city after Palermo, Catania is known for its Baroque buildings. Founded by Ionian Greeks in 729 BC, Catania prospered as an agricultural center and remained so after it became a Roman colony. Eclipsed by Syracuse and Palermo in the Byzantine and Arab periods, it regained its importance as a trading and seafaring power under Norman rule. Spanish rulers fostered the town's prosperity, founding a university there in 1434, but natural catastrophes befell the town: the plague in 1576, lava flows in 1669 that destroyed the western part of the town, and the great earthquake of 1693, which left the rest in ruin. The 18th-century reconstruction, much of it designed by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, left Catania its rich legacy of Baroque buildings, which are its major attractions for tourists.
See also: Where to Stay in Catania
1 Basilica Cattedrale Sant'Agata
The cathedral of Sant'Agata stands, according to tradition, on the spot where Saint Agatha died a martyr's death in 251, and it was begun between 1086 and 1090, shortly after Catania was conquered by the Normans. Remains of the Roman springs of Achilles and other ancient buildings were used to construct the three-aisled cross-shaped basilica. During the reconstruction after the earthquake of 1693, the nave was rebuilt under the direction of Girolamo Palazzotto, and in 1736, Vaccarini completed the façade.
The impressive interior was designed to be Catania's pantheon, and you'll see immediately on entering, the simple tomb of the famous opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, who was born in Catania. From the right transept, a 1545 portal by Giovanni Battista Mazzolo leads to the Norman Cappella della Madonna, with Roman and medieval sarcophagi containing the remains of Aragonese kings. The Cappella di Sant'Agata, behind a wrought-iron gate in the right transept, has a marble triptych on the altar by 16th-century artist Antonello Freri. The life of Saint Agatha is illustrated in the richly carved 16th-century choir-stalls, and in the choir are more tombs of Aragonese kings of Sicily. In the sacristy is a contemporary portrayal of the eruption of Mount Etna in 1669, with the lava flow that reached the Castello Ursino.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, Catania
2 Piazza del Duomo
Catania has a number of lovely squares, but none more gracious - or spacious - than Piazza del Duomo. The cathedral square is the center of the city and preserves the Baroque appearance conferred on it by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini in the early 18th century. Around the elephant fountain on the east side are the cathedral, altered in the Baroque style from 1730 to 1739, and the church dedicated to the city's patron saint, Sant'Agata, built from 1737 to 1767. In the northwest is the Palazzo del Municipio (1741) and in the south, the Porta Uzeda - all created by Vaccarini. His charming Fontana dell'Elefante, an elephant made of black lava supporting a small Egyptian obelisk, was inspired by Bernini's elephant obelisk in Rome. From the southwest corner of the Piazza del Duomo, the busy Via Garibaldi runs past Piazza Mazzini to the Porta Garibaldi. To the north of Piazza del Duomo, on either side of the Via Etnea, lies the heart of the Baroque area with its broad streets and well-defined squares.
3 Castello Ursino
Castello Ursino is a sturdy building built of lava stone in 1239. This defensive fortification from the Hohenstaufen period in the High Middle Ages shows close affinity with the castle of Frederick II in Syracuse. The ground-plan consists of four wings around an inner courtyard; the four wings form a square with towers at the corners and four smaller towers halfway along each side. Decorative elements are sparse; on the entrance side to the north you can spot an eagle seizing a rabbit. The castle originally stood right by the harbor, until the great stream of lava in 1669 flowed past its west side (it can still be seen there) and pushed the coastline eastwards. Today, the castle occupies a spacious site in the middle of a residential area.
Address: Piazza Federico di Svevia, Catania
4 Museo Civico
Housed in a portion of Castello Ursino, the Museo Civico displays finds and collections from the surrounding area, among which are many Hellenistic and Roman sculptures. Highlights include the torso of a Roman emperor and a Hellenistic relief of Polyphemus being blinded by Odysseus. You'll also find porcelains, fragments of mosaics and inscriptions, and a collection of rare weapons and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. Smaller antiquities include bronze statues, ceramics, and terracotta. On the upper story is a collection of paintings from the 15th to 18th centuries, including works by Pietro Novelli, Mattia Preti, and Fra Angelico.
Address: Piazza Federico di Svevia, Catania
5 Monastero dei Benedettini
One of the biggest Benedictine monasteries in Europe, the former monastery behind the church of San Nicolò l'Arena was begun in 1500, and its long-continuing construction incorporated styles of several eras. The late Baroque façade features rusticated pilasters and sculptured window decorations, and there are two lovely inner courtyards. Tour options include both cloisters, the 16th-century cellars, and 18th-century cellars by Vaccarini. The monastery, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania.
Address: Piazza Dante 32, Catania
6 San Nicoló l'Arena
On the site of the Greek acropolis, the Benedictines began building the Church of San Nicoló in 1702, along with the monastic buildings Monastero dei Benedettini. Work on the church continued until the end of the 18th century, but it was never finished. This gives the incomplete façade a strange almost forbidding appearance, its pairs of massive columns on raised plinths ending abruptly, and the pegs that should hold its facing stones still protruding like bristles. A large dome surmounts the plain, three-aisled interior, which has an 1841 meridian in the transept; 18th-century choir stalls; and the great organ made famous by Goethe, built by Donato del Piano between 1755 and 1767. From the dome is a beautiful view as far as Mount Etna (you can request access to the dome from the sexton).
Address: Piazza Dante 32, Catania
7 Badia Sant'Agata
The convent church of Sant'Agata, opposite the north side of the cathedral, was built between 1735 and 1767, and is the principal work of Giovanni Battista Vaccarini. The massive building, dominated by a huge octagonal dome, is fronted by a superb facade, the middle section of which is concave in shape. The central structure has four arms of unequal length around the square occupied by the dome. The longest of the four arms contains the west entrance, which supports the nuns' gallery.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, Catania
8 Palazzo Biscari
Palazzo Biscari is still privately owned and lived in by descendants of the Prince of Biscari, who commissioned its building between 1707 and 1763. The palace's façade is one of the city's most flamboyant; you can't help noticing the ornate window and door frames. Ignazio Biscari, the grandson of the man who had originally commissioned the palace, extended it in order to create space for his extensive art collections, much of which have since been donated to the Museo Civico. The inner courtyard features a large double staircase, and the opulent interior includes a Rococo dining hall with mirrors, stuccoes, and frescoes. Elsewhere are paintings, marble floors, more frescoes and elaborate stucco work, and a small museum with the artifacts that were not donated to city museums. Check with the tourist office to see when tours of the interior are being offered (the reference to audio tours on the sign in front merely indicates that the palace is discussed in the city's audio tour).
Address: Via Museo Biscari 10-16, Catania
9 Teatro Romano
On the southern slope of the old acropolis is the Teatro Romano (Roman Theater), which was built in the second century BC on the site of a Greek building. The auditorium has a diameter of 100 meters with two perimeter passages. The steps are made of lava, while the orchestra and seating rows are covered in marble. Adjacent to the Teatro Romano to the west is the Odeon, a small theater whose orchestra is on the same level as the highest corridor in the theater. The Odeon is built entirely of lava.
Address: Via Vittorio Emanuele 266, Catania
10 Porta Garibaldi
The monumental gate of Porta Garibaldi was erected in 1768 in honor of King Ferdinand IV and his consort Maria Carolina, daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa. The architects were Francesco Battaglia and his stepson Stefano Ittar, who designed a striking gate with dramatic horizontal layers of white limestone and black lava. The side facing the city is simpler, the west-facing side has concave wings and is crowned by a clock placed between two winged figures, symbolizing glory.
Address: Via Garibaldi, Catania
Where to Stay in Catania for Sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels in convenient locations near Catania's top attractions:
- Liberty Hotel: 4-star hotel, quiet city location, old-world charm, wonderful staff, breakfast included.
- UNA Hotel Palace: mid-range pricing, great location on the main shopping street, rooftop restaurant with Mount Etna views, Sicilian breakfast, free minibar.
- Hotel Villa Romeo: affordable rates, short stroll to the city center, quaint room decor, lovely internal courtyard.
- Hotel Etnea 316: budget-friendly rates, central location, friendly staff.
Day Trip from Catania
Etna, at about 3,300 meters (its height varies with eruptions), dominates the eastern Sicilian skyline, close to the coast and northwest of Catania. Continental Europe's tallest active volcano and Italy's highest mountain south of the Alps, it is designated as a National Park. With only meagre vegetation, the porous upper slopes absorb rainfall that drains rapidly to meet an impervious bed of rocks and emerges in springs. More than 250 volcanic vents are around the flanks of the mountain. On the south slope, where the sun shines for 3,000 hours a year, stands a solar power-station. Oranges and lemons grow up to about 500 meters; olives and vines to 1,300 meters. In the winter, ski lifts operate near the summit.
As Etna is never really inactive, the area close to the crater is always changing its shape from eruptions and is too dangerous for visitors to get very close. But you can ascend the mountain in various ways - climbing, by car, and by cable car - to walk in its rugged moonlike landscape. A road leads to the Sapienza Refuge, south of the crater at 1,910 meters. A cable car begins here, rising to an altitude of 2500 meters, where you can walk or ride in special terrain vehicles as far as about 2,900 meters. The narrow-gauge Ferrovia Circumetnea railway runs partway around the volcano from Catania to Riposto, or you can drive a 144-kilometer loop from Catania via Misterbianco and Paternò, where there's a 1073 castle. At Adrano is a magnificent view of Etna and a Norman castle containing an Archeological Museum. About nine kilometers southwest of Adrano the little town of Centuripe has a first century BC archeological site with a museum. From Adrano, the road continues via Bronte, Maletto (the highest point on this route, at 960 meters), Randazzo, and Linguaglossa to Fiumefreddo. You can return to Catania on the motorway A18 or SS114.