A local guide for those who want to visit Catania, best places to see and top attractions.
Catania is Sicily’s second largest city, with a population of around 300,000. It lies on the Ionian Sea, under the shadow of Mount Etna.
Mount Etna is ever-present and has to a large extent shaped both the history and the actual existence of Catania.On several occasions volcanic eruptions destroyed the city, the most devastating of which happened in the 17th Century. In 1669 Catania was covered in lava and then, just 24 years later in 1693 an earth.
The reaction to this latter catastrophe was amazing: the entire old part of town was rebuilt in Baroque style, with large, wide open squares and avenues. The most remarkable aspect, however, was the building material used: lava! Catania is essentially a “grey” city and unique in the world for this.
Visiting Catania is quite easy, as the old town centre is relatively small. An ideal starting point would be the main square, Piazza Duomo. This delightful square and all its surroudning buildings was designed by one man, Giovanni Battista Vaccarini from Palermo (don’t mention this to Catanians, however, as their rivalry with Sicily’s capital is intense!).
The Cathedral, dedicated to St. Agata, the city’s patron saint, stands on the site of an 11th Century church that was almost entirely destroyed in the 1693 eruption.
Cattedrale di Sant'Agata
Inside the vaulted interior of this cathedral, beyond its impressive marble facade sporting two orders of columns taken from the Roman amphitheatre, lie the relics of the city's patron saint. Its other famous resident is the world-famous Catanian composer Vincenzo Bellini, his remains transferred here in 1876, 41 years after his death in France. Consider visiting the Museo Diocesano next door for access to the Roman baths directly underneath the church.
Teatro Massimo Bellini
Completed in 1890 and made for homegrown composer Vincenzo Bellini, Catania's opera house is suitably lavish, from the stucco-and-marble extravagance of the foyer (dubbed the ridotto) to the glory of the theatre itself, wrapped in four tiers of gilded boxes. Its painted ceiling, by Ernesto Bellandi, depicts scenes from four of Bellini’s best-known operas.
Catania's raucous fish market, which takes over the streets behind Piazza del Duomo every workday morning, is pure street theatre. Tables groan under the weight of decapitated swordfish, ruby-pink prawns and trays full of clams, mussels, sea urchins and all manner of mysterious sea life. Fishmongers gut silvery fish and high-heeled housewives step daintily over pools of blood-stained water. It's absolutely riveting. Surrounding the market are a number of good seafood restaurants.
Monastero delle Benedettine
The Monastero delle Benedettine covers two adjacent sites: a Benedictine convent and the Chiesa di San Benedetto. Top billing goes to the church, built between 1704 and 1713 and adorned with splendid stucco, marble and a late-18th-century altar made of Sicilian jasper. Standout artworks include Giovanni Tuccari's glorious ceiling frescoes and a graphic depiction of St Agatha being tortured in front of a curious sultan.
Piazza del Duomo
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Catania's central piazza is a set piece of contrasting lava and limestone, surrounded by buildings in the unique local baroque style and crowned by the grand Cattedrale di Sant'Agata. At its centre stands Fontana dell'Elefante (1736), a naive, smiling black-lava elephant dating from Roman times and surmounted by an improbable Egyptian obelisk. Another fountain at the piazza's southwest corner, Fontana dell'Amenano, marks the entrance to Catania's fish market.
Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l'Arena
This is one of Europe's largest monasteries and an example of the wealth enjoyed by the Benedictine order. Built in 1703 and now part of the city university, it's home to two grand internal cloisters and one of Sicily's most important libraries. Engaging daily guided tours visit the cloisters and library, as well as other areas usually closed to the public. Alternatively, you can view the cloisters on your own from the surrounding corridors. Not all the tours are in English, so call ahead to confirm English-language tour times.
It's not difficult to see how Catania's main shopping street got its name – on a clear day you can see Mt Etna rising majestically at the end of it. Via Etnea runs straight from Piazza del Duomo up to the foothills below Etna. Lined with stores, bars and pavement cafes, it's busy at most times but heaves on Saturday afternoons, when shoppers pile in from the suburbs to strut, schmooze and update their wardrobes.
Chiesa di San Giuliano
Attributed to Sicilian baroque maestro Vaccarini and built between 1739 and 1751, the Chiesa di San Giuliano features an elegant convex facade and, above the portal, a broken pediment graced by two allegorical female figures. Capping the church is a polygonal porch, from which the convent's cloistered nuns (often hailing from noble families) could view the passing procession on the feast day of St Agatha. Tours of the church include access to the dome loggia, which offers sweeping city views.
Parco Archeologico Greco Romano
West of Piazza del Duomo lie Catania's most impressive ancient ruins: the remains of a 2nd-century Roman Theatre and its small rehearsal theatre, the Odeon. The ruins are evocatively sited in the thick of a crumbling residential neighbourhood, with vine-covered buildings that appear to have sprouted organically from the half-submerged stage. Adjacent to the main theatre is the Casa Liberti (closed Sundays), an elegantly restored 19th-century apartment now home to two millennia worth of artefacts discovered during the excavation of the site.
Catania's forbidding 13th-century castle once guarded the city from atop a seafront cliff. However, the 1669 eruption of Mt Etna changed the landscape and the whole area to the south was reclaimed by the lava, leaving the castle completely landlocked. The castle now houses the Museo Civico, home to the valuable archaeological collection of the Biscaris, Catania's most important aristocratic family. Exhibits include colossal classical sculpture, Greek vases and some fine mosaics.