Catania hasn’t got the best reputation; it is often criticized as being dirty, grungy and gritty. In a way, that’s what I liked about it. Maybe I have a thing for the underdog, but after visiting Taormina – which is spotlessly clean and very much geared towards tourists – the contrast of Catania was quite refreshing. The city does have a grungy look to it, as the city’s buildings were assembled using grey lava stone from Mount Etna!
Sicily’s second largest city is a transport hub, with many international flights landing there, along with good bus and coach networks connecting Catania to other places in Sicily. Most people use the city as a base for incoming and outgoing flights or for the opportunity to visit Mount Etna, the 3,329-metre volcano less than 35km from Catania. However, I encourage you to spend a couple of days there before jetting off to your next destination, as the city has a lot to offer.
One of the main squares is Piazza Duomo, which is surrounded by several noteworthy buildings. These include Palazzo dei Chierici, Palazzo degli Elefanti (the city’s town hall) and several churches. The piazza’s masterpiece has to be the Cathedral of Sant’Agata. Dozens of intricately carved statues adorn the baroque façade of the cathedral. Inside you can find beautiful paintings and frescoes, along with composer Vincenzo Bellini’s tomb and a viewpoint overlooking the piazza and surrounding area.
In the centre of Piazza Duomo stands a fountain called Fontana dell’Elefante, which bears a smiling elephant and Egyptian obelisk; a symbol of the city. Another fountain – Fontana dell’Amenano – is dedicated to Amenano, one of the two rivers that run through Catania which was formed in 252BC following an eruption from Mount Etna.
Across the street from the cathedral is a church called Badia di Sant’Agata, which has a 360° panoramic view of the city, with the imposing Mount Etna looming in the distance. It only costs three euros to climb up to the viewing platform and you can stay there as long as you like.
Also worth visiting:
- Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò L’ Arena – a monastery built in the 16th century, which has since been named a UNESCO world heritage site.
- Giardino Bellini – a serene city park full of fountains, flowers and benches to idle away the hours.
- Chiesa di San Benedetto
- Chiesa di San Nicoló l’Arena
- Via Etnea, the city’s main shopping strip
- Porta Garibaldi
Eating & Drinking
Our favourite restaurant was Buatta (currently closed as of October 2022). We went there for lunch on our first day, and the delicious food and friendly, relaxed ambiance lured us back for drinks the following evening. The food is a modern twist on classic Sicilian food. Our favourite dishes were cunzatizzi; ciabatta bread loaded with creative, tasty toppings, which showcase fresh Sicilian produce. One of ours had cherry tomatoes, zucchini flowers and ricotta; the other bacon, pistachio pesto, provola cheese and tomato confit. They also have an impressive craft beer selection.
We asked the bartender at Buatta where we could have a late-night drink and were directed towards BarnAut. It was a good suggestion; BarnAut has a very cool atmosphere and a menu full of creative, experimental cocktails.
For a sweet treat, visit Bar Pasticceria Spinella for a Sicilian delicacy – cannoli. These are tube-shaped pastry shells, filled with ricotta or pistachio cream, and decorated with chocolate sprinkles or chopped nuts. Bar Pasticceria Spinella also have very tasty arancini; fried rice balls, stuffed with different ingredients like ragù, cheese, ham or pistachio cream.
We had a very informal dinner at Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab. We enjoyed a portion of the octopus and potato salad, along with some fried calamari, octopus and prawns. It’s not a sit-down restaurant but is a great place to grab a quick bite.
We tried some classic Sicilian dishes at Nuova Trattoria del Forestiero. These includes pasta alla norma, made with fried aubergines, ricotta cheese and basil. Pasta alla norma originated in Catania and was named after Vincenzo Bellini’s opera. We also ate grilled horse steak, steamed mussels and pasta with sardines & pine nuts. The prices were very affordable and the restaurant felt homely and authentic.
As we weren’t in Catania for long, there were some restaurants we didn’t have time to try. These included:
We also didn’t make it to the beach San Giovanni li Cuti, but it looks quite striking from what I’ve seen online. It is a pebbled beach, with ashy black stones resulting from Etna’s volcanic activity. There’s also a sandy beach, Lido Azzuro, which is 15 minutes’ drive (or 40 minutes’ walk) from Catania’s city centre.
All in all, we enjoyed our time in Catania and would have liked another day or two to do some more sightseeing… and try a few more restaurants! If you’ve been to Catania, what did you think of it?
Ciao for now!