Catania lies on the east coast of Sicily. It is nestled at the base of Mount Etna, one of the two most active volcanoes in Europe (the other is Stromboli, also in Italy).
It’s a very walkable city, with many of the main sights being close together in the city center. I put together this walking tour of Catania for readers who like to explore like I do – on foot!
Siete pronti? Andiamo! Put on your best walking shoes, and get ready for some spectacular Sicilian sightseeing!
Luggage and Life’s walking tour of Catania
I got back from my third trip to Catania a few weeks ago. I fall in love with the city more with every visit.
This walking tour covers the city center’s main sights. On my most recent trip, I did a few new things, and I’ve updated this post to share them with you.
I’ve provided pictures here to help you on your way, and I’ve written some key information about each sight with references, so that you can look into anything that fascinates you more deeply.
Visiting Catania during the summer
If you’re in Catania during the summer months, I’d recommend doing this tour either before lunch time, or in the late afternoon when it begins to cool down. When we visited it was 36 C/97 F one day, but surprisingly, it wasn’t unbearable, thanks to the constant relief provided by the breeze coming off the water. You should plan on a bit of a rest after lunch, as many shops close during that period.
Visiting Catania during the winter
Having just been to Catania in February, I witnessed a quieter side of the city; however, everything was open. Unlike other places in Sicily, Catania doesn’t close down during the low season. In Taormina, for instance, some shops and restaurants close after Christmas and don’t reopen until March.
It was really pleasant to be in Catania during the low season. The weather was perfect (20 C/68 F). If you have the chance to go during the shoulder or off seasons, take it!
Catania and Etna
Being built at the base of Mount Etna means that reminders of the volcano and its lava are inescapable in Catania. It’s visible in the distance, and many of the city’s monuments are built from gray-black volcanic rock.
Once you dig into the city’s history, you’ll find that the volcano has literally shaped it. It has buried a river that used to run through the city center. It has destroyed buildings with eruptions and earthquakes. It has caused the resilient Catanesi to recover and rebuild the magnificent city you can visit today.
Etna has even found its way into the local food. Because of the fertile soil left behind by the destructive lava, the area around it is known for producing unique food and drink. Vineyards dot the base of the volcano, and they produce what are regarded by some as the best Sicilian wines. The honey from the area is known for its rich color, and has been nicknamed l’oro dell’Etna, or the gold of Etna.
On my first visit to the city, I did a bus tour of the volcano and the driver and guide made us taste a very strong cinnamon-flavored liqueur called “the fire of Etna” that tasted like something Satan might serve at a cocktail party. I have decided not to revisit that particular drink on subsequent trips, but I do love the food in Catania, so much so that I’ve written a dining guide to the city, with the help of a local foodie.
Interested in visiting Mount Etna? Check out my post!
Catania’s architectural style
The primary architectural style in Catania, and many other Sicilian cities, is Baroque. Sicilian Baroque architecture portrays a sense of movement; an undulating rhythm made of curving shapes. The facades of the buildings are busy with decorations and sculptures and twisty and twirly designs. The lights and shadows cast on the buildings call to mind sunlight playing on water. These architectural waves echo the movement of the nearby sea, the energy of the city, the cadence of Italian itself. They provide a perfect backdrop to the Sicilian experience.
Starting Point: Piazza del Duomo
The starting point of our walking tour of Catania is the Piazza del Duomo. Here’s a picture with some information about the piazza to help orient you.
The Porta Uzeda is made of white marble and dark gray volcanic stone. The purpose of the door is quite fascinating. I was surprised to discover that it and others were built after a volcanic eruption in 1669 and an earthquake in 1693, as a means of protecting the city against future natural disasters.
Attached to the Porta Uzeda is the Palazzo Chierici, which was also reconstructed after the aforementioned earthquake. The building itself makes up part of the city wall. Today it hosts exhibitions and art shows.
On its right hand side is La Fontana dell’Amenano, which also marks the entrance to Catania’s famous fish market, or pescheria.
I’ve dedicated an entire post to the pescheria, which you absolutely should not miss!
La Fontana dell’Amenano
The fountain immediately to the right of Palazzo Chierici is worth some admiration. Built of Italy’s prized Carrara marble in 1837 by Tito Angelini, the fountain is meant to portray the Amenano river, which once flowed through the city center of Catania, but has long been buried due to the layers of ash, lava and sediment created by so many volcanic eruptions. Etna has buried a river!
It’s also interesting to note that this fountain is called acqua o linzolu by locals. Acqua means water, and linzolu is a dialect word for lenzuolo, or bed sheet in Italian. It is said that they call the fountain this because of the way the water falls in a sheet, and also because in the past, people washed their bed sheets in it.
Il Palazzo degli Elefanti
If you do a 180 from the fountain, you’ll be looking at the Palazzo degli Elefanti, which is the modern day city hall, or municipio, of Catania.
The building originally in that part of the piazza was destroyed completely by that pesky earthquake of 1693, and the construction of the municipio started three years later. The work was begun by a pair of architects, but then was passed to Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, a well-known architect from Palermo, who decided to Catania-fy the building by adding the letter “A” (for Saint Agatha) and several elephants to the decorations on the balcony.
La Cattedrale di Santa Agata, AKA, Il Duomo di Catania
The duomo is adjacent to Porta Uzeda. Saint Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, and her name is everywhere. We saw signs hanging on public buildings and homes alike, all that said “W S.AGATA!” At first, I tried to make a word out of it, but then remembered that “W” in Italian means “Viva,” so the signs meant “Long live Saint Agatha!” and not “wisssagata” as I had originally thought (I was tired when we got there, ok?).
The cathedral was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693 on the site of a Norman Cathedral that had been built there before it. It houses the tomb of Vincenzo Bellini, a famous composer from Catania, as well as several relics of its patron saint.
La Fontana dell’Elefante
Vaccarini didn’t stop at the elephants on the balcony of the municipio, he kept right on going to the center of the piazza, where you’ll see his famous Fontana dell’Elefante.
The symbolism of the fountain runs deep. It represents three civilizations, among other things.
Elephants represents the defeat of Carthage by the Romans during the Punic Wars. The obelisk represents Egypt, and this particular one holds hieroglyphics relating to the cult of the goddess Isis. The third civilization incorporated into the fountain is Christianity, represented by the cross on top of the obelisk.
The elephant itself is believed to be made of volcanic stone dating back to Roman times. It was partially destroyed during the earthquake, but was quickly restored and mounted as a kind of symbol of hope for the reconstruction of the city. Elephants represented longevity in pagan culture, and Vaccarini wanted to use it as a kind of good omen for the city of Catania after so many natural disasters had wreaked such havoc on her.
There’s a lot of interesting mythology surrounding the elephant and the fountain, which is covered in depth here.
La Pescheria di Catania
Like I said above, I dedicated an entire post to the fish market because it’s so much fun to visit, and also because there are some excellent restaurants in it. You should definitely stroll through the market if you’re doing your walking tour of Catania in the morning, and then return for dinner.
Read my more in depth post here.
Want to experience more of Catania’s foodie scene?
The University of Catania
If you’re facing the duomo, exit the piazza by way of the large road to your left, as if you were walking in a straight line from Porta Uzeda and continuing on. It’s called Via Etnea, and it’s great because it contains so many of the city’s main sights.
The first thing you’ll come upon is the one of the main buildings of the university of Catania. It is the oldest university in Sicily, founded in 1434.
One of the main attractions of the university it its botanic garden, also located on Via Etnea. I’m bummed that we didn’t get the chance to visit it, but it’s supposed to be great! If you have time, check it out. Here’s more information.
Here, I’d recommend turning off Via Etnea and checking out Teatro Bellini, dedicated to the composer. It’s only about a five minute walk, and the theater is really beautiful.
Construction of the theater began in 1870, and it was inaugurated twenty years later, in 1890. A lack of funds, a change in architects, and a cholera outbreak caused the project to be put on hold a few times throughout its construction.
Today, you can see operas, ballets, and concerts there. It is said to have one of the best acoustic systems in the world, due to the theater’s unique spoon-like shape.
L’anfiteatro Romano di Catania
In order to reach the amphitheater, you’ll have to get back onto Via Etnea.
This amphitheater is the second-largest in Italy, second only to the Colosseum. Romans typically covered their structures in white marble, however, the amphitheater of Catania is unique for two reasons. The first is that the structure itself was built from black volcanic stone (rather than white/gray tufa and travertine), and the second is that it was only partially covered in white marble. For this reason, it earned the nickname of “Il Colosseo nero,” or “The black Colosseum.”
It is believed to have been built some time around 300 AD, and held around 15,000 people. Like the Colosseum, it probably had a canvas canopy to protect spectators from the elements.
The earthquake of 1693 buried the amphitheater completely, and it wasn’t until the mayor of Catania, Giuseppe de Felice, ordered its excavation in 1903 that it was visible again. Recent investments have made the amphitheater open to visitors.
Here’s a cool video of what it probably looked like!
The final stop on the walking tour of Catania is the gorgeous oasis of Villa Bellini (also known as Giardino Bellini). It’s Catania’s main park, and it is beautiful.
The area was originally owned by a prince in the 1700s, but was purchased by the city in 1854.
Wander through the fountains, flowers, and follow the path of busts of “illustrious men,” which was built in 1880 and depicts important figures from Catania and Italy. Take a break on a bench. Breathe the fresh air.
That brings us to the end of your walking tour of Catania! Now, go eat lunch, go back to your accommodation, take a nap, and then, mi raccomando, go to dinner in the pescheria.
Catania and surroundings by bus
On my recent visit to Catania in February, our Airbnb host suggested that we take a panoramic bus tour up to Aci Castello and Aci Trezza, two scenic villages outside of Catania.
Aci Castello is home to a Norman Castle, and Aci Trezza is the setting of a famous Italian novel called I Malavoglia, as well as a volcanic rock formation with stacks that have been eroded by water over the years, called i Faraglioni.
If you’ve been to Catania before and want to see something new, take the bus ride up and enjoy the ride along the coast.
More info here.
Other things to do in Catania
Go out for dinner and drinks on Via Santa Filomena
Check out Via Santa Filomena if you’re into food. There are tons of restaurants and bars around that serve up all kinds of delicious looking grub. Apparently it’s also quite the hot spot at night, if you feel like going out.
I’ve been to Fud on Via Santa Filomena a few times now, and it’s always been great.
Head to the beach
Have an aperitivo at Ciccheteria Glera
If you’re hanging around that area and want a respite after dumping your bags, check out Ciccheteria Glera for some snacks and a nice, cold drink. They have a cute little patio outside, and a cool, modern interior if you need a break from the sun.
Walk around the San Berillo district
We also stumbled upon a tiny neighborhood that was filled with all kinds of street art and plants, called the San Berillo district. We decided to wander through, and definitely weren’t disappointed!
Practical tips for Catania
Getting to Catania from the airport on the Alibus
We reached the city center by taking the Alibus, which runs a circular route from the airport, through the city center, and back to the airport again. To get off near the Piazza del Duomo which, as I said above, is the main piazza of Catania, you should get off at the stop called Dusmet. The bus was pretty punctual when we were there. Here’s the schedule for it.
Where to stash your bags
We had a long last day in Catania after our Sicilian road trip was over, and we were tired and didn’t want to lug our bags around, so we stored them at Atripical Traveler’s Station. It was about 7 euros for the whole day. The staff was super friendly. They gave us a map, and a timetable for the Alibus. If you’re looking for a place to stash your bags, I highly recommend it!
More Sicily guides and posts
Book your stay in Catania
This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you make a booking or purchase something through one of them, I’ll earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting Luggage and Life!