Catania, Sicily | A Travel Guide
Back in October, I was lucky enough to travel to Catania in Sicily for doTERRA’s first ever European leadership retreat. The retreat itself was only 2 days but some of my beautiful biz partners and I decided to arrive early so that we could fit in some sightseeing.
Catania is an understated city and not an obvious holiday destination in comparison with mainland Italy but I absolutely fell in love with it’s edgy charm and thought it would be fun to share some of my experience here.
Although it’s Sicily’s second largest city, it’s still small enough to explore by foot and I loved wandering around and taking in the grand architecture. It has a reputation for being a bit scruffy but I found that added to the charm. Living under the shadow of Mt. Etna, Catania has a moody and atmospheric vibe heightened by the dark volcanic rock that was used to construct many of the beautiful buildings that are around every corner.
Where to stay
There are lots of hotels available, most of which line the coast with views across the pebble beaches. However I highly recommend considering renting an apartment in the Old Town. We found a beautiful little apartment through Airbnb that was just a fraction of the cost of a hotel.
It was in the perfect location and made the whole experience feel so much more authentic - opening up the french windows every morning and taking in the aroma of coffee wafting up from the street below, whilst the singers practiced in the nearby opera house is a memory that will stick with me for a very long time.
We were also within walking distance to the main sights of the city, not to mention numerous bars and restaurants.
What to see and do
There aren’t heaps of touristy activities to do in Catania itself, which is a large part of the reason I loved it so much. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to keep you busy.
EXPLORE THE ARCHITECTURE
The city centre is actually a UNESCO world heritage site, thanks to its stunning Baroque architecture. The city was largely rebuilt after the devastating volcanic eruption of 1669, and was rebuilt in a formation of wide boulevards and large piazzas (to make it easier to escape future eruptions) that run the length of the city to the Ionian sea.
The imposing Cathedral of Sant’Agata, set on one edge of the expansive Piazza Duomo is a must see, as is Palazzo degli Elefanti (the City Hall). The city’s main architectural sights are easily walkable from Piazza Duomo - head down Via Etnea to the Basilica della Collegiata or past the numerous churches of Via Crociferi.
One of my favourites four trip was spending a morning exploring the little backstreets of The Centro Storico, I loved the peeling plasterwork of the jumble of houses and the little ‘altars’ set in tiny windows.
Etna didn’t wipe out all traces of Catania’s early history however, and there are some beautiful examples of Roman architecture nestled amongst houses and shops too. In particular the remaining section of the amphitheatre on Piazza Stesicoro, that was once the 2nd biggest in Italy after the Colosseum in Rome. Another hidden gem is the lava rock Graeco-Roman Theatre and Odeon, tucked away among the houses on Via Emanuele II.
VISIT THE MONASTERY
The Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l'Arena is one of the largest monasteries in Europe now hosts the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania. There are guided and virtual tours available but I spent a couple of hours one afternoon simply wandering and soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. The highlight was definitely the upper walkway with views over the courtyard garden. I visited just as ‘golden hour’ was hitting, resulting in a pale pink hue as the low sunlight hit the plasterwork of the building.
The neighbouring grand church of San Nicolò l'Arena is light and airy thanks to the huge domed ceiling and beautiful marble floors and definitely worth a visit too.
TAKE IN THE SIGHT, SOUNDS AND SMELL OF THE WORLD-FAMOUS FISH MARKET
As you enter Piazza Duomo, you will hear the chaotic chatter coming from one corner of the square- head across the square and down the steps and you’ll arrive at the world-famous La Pescheria market. It’s one of the biggest fish markets in Italy, and is open every day (except Sundays) from 7am to 2pm.
It’s a chaotic scene as stallholders and customers haggle over piles of weird and wonderful fish and seafood. Just beware of the stallholders tipping out buckets of fishy water into the street!
Behind the fish market, you’ll also find the general produce market spreading through narrow alleyways. Here you’ll find vibrant, fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, cheeses, spices and baked goods. We picked up prickly pears and custard apples, which it turns out are delicious.
Heading out of the city itself, there are plenty more things to do. We hired a car and headed up the coast to Taormina (more on that in a future post) which I can highly recommend. You could of course, also visit Mt. Etna - Europe’s largest volcano and one of the most active in the world.
Food & Drink
It’s safe to say we ate and drank our way around Catania, but everything was so delicious there was zero guilt for indulging a little. When in Italy…
Sicily is home to many of Italy’s most famous delicacies. Catania itself is the birthplace of Pasta alla Norma, Arancini and Cannoli.
I have to start by mentioning our ‘local’ Buatta, found on the corner of Via Crociferi and Via Antonino Sangiuliano. I can’t recommend it enough, in fact we visited almost every evening of our trip to enjoy the delicious local wine. The place has a cosy vibe, mostly thanks to the friendly staff and is based on an ethos of showcasing sustainable, local produce and craft beers.
I highly recommend enjoying a salami and cheese plate which comes with pots of honey and coffee for dipping cheese. Sounds weird, tastes incredible. I am also still dreaming of the Pumpkin lasagne which is one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.
Located in a little backstreet, Piazza Ogninella, La Quartara is an authentic Sicilian restaurant that is enjoyed by locals and visitors. We enjoyed two evenings here, both of which were made so much fun by the lovely staff. Expect simple, fresh and local food - I highly recommend the stuffed sardines which are a local delicacy.
This was a more touristy restaurant specialising in fish and pizza, but it is still worth a visit. Set in a cute little spot on Via Roccaforte, it looks feels very Italian. We spent a good few hours here one day, chatting over a leisurely lunch. The seafood and desserts were especially delicious.
We stumbled on this eatery quietly accident whilst exploring. Accessed through an archway at the edge of Piazza Duomo, Etoile d”Or is situation on Via Cardinale Dusmet and is where we experienced (and devoured) Cannoli. It’s difficult to explain just how good the crisp pastry shell and creamy mascarpone filling is. It wouldn’t be a trip to Catania without a Cannoli!
There is SO much more I could share about our trip and I’ll definitely be doing a future post on our day trip to Taormina. I’d love to hear from you - have you ever visited Catania?