The city is at the foot of Mount Etna, which has led to the destruction of parts of the city in the past but also accounts for the very fertile land around Catania: there is a view to Mount Etna along Via Etnea, one of the main arteries through the town, creating an impressive view.
Italy This Way comment: although Catania is perhaps not the most beautiful town in Sicily, it contains several impressive ancient sites and baroque monuments and a visit is recommended. It is claimed that in Catania you will find the best ice cream in Sicily, another great reason to visit!
The centre of Catania contains many Baroque buildings and has been given UNESCO World Heritage status. This is because, like many towns in south-east Siily, Catania was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 that also killed two thirds of the inhabitants and was entirely rebuilt in the following decades - Baroque was the style most used at that time.
Although we mention several of the most famous buildings in Catania below, there are innumerable churches and villas, and side streets filled with small shops and restaurants, that we do not mention that are the real heart of the city.
One of the lovely Baroque buildings of Catania is Bellini opera house which was finally completed in 1890 after many years of planning. It has been built in the same Baroque style as its neighbours on Piazza Bellini. Over the years almost all of Bellini's works have been performed at the opera house.
The other key Baroque buildings in Catania include the cathedral and a large number of churches. The cathedral was originally built in the mid-11th century by Duke Ruggiero although only the transept and three circular apses remain of the ancient Norman building, with a structure that shows that the church was once fortified.
The baroque façade of the current cathedral is by Vaccarini, and the interior is artistically decorated with low reliefs by Giovanni Battista Mazzolo (16th century) that depict scenes from the life of the Virgin and a statue of the Madonna.
Inside the cathedral you will see the tomb of Constance of Aragon (1343-1363) and next to it a Roman sarcophagus from the 3rd century AD which contains the remains of Frederick II of Aragon (1272-1337). The tomb of the famous composer Vincenzo Bellini is also in the cathedral.
The Cathedral treasury contains silverware including the Treasure Coffer, where they hold the remains of a martyred woman of the 3rd century AD. It is a rectangular box, lined with velvet and with silver leaves and with figures of saints in relief. The sacristy has a marble bath attributed to Antonello Gagini (1478-1536), who also decorated a door in the cathedral.
Piazza del Duomo
In front of the cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo you can see the monumental Elephant Fountain (1736) by Giovan Battista Vaccarini, who constructed it using items found in the city such as a lava elephant of Roman times and an obelisk from Syene which has some hieroglyphics relating to the worship of the goddess Isis.
At the base of the fountain you can see statues representing the rivers in Catania (the Simeto and Amenano) and above is the elephant, bearing the obelisk. Around the square you can also see several imposing villas and houses. On the other side of the square, the Fontana dell'Amanano is a 19th century fountain representing the source of the Amanano river.
Roman baths of Catania
To the right of the cathedral entrance in Catania are the remains of the famous thermal baths of Terme Achilliane (also called 'Dionysia' because of its close proximity to a temple of Bacchus) which, according to some historians, are even earlier than those of Diocletian in Rome. The Terme Achilliane is a very extensive complex of baths that extends under the Piazza del Duomo and the buildings around the square.
These baths were separated into seven parts: the 'Apodyterium', or 'dressing-room'; the 'ephebeum', a gym for gymnastics; the 'conisterium' to dry out the sweat; the 'frigidarium' and 'caldarium', the places of rest before bathing; the 'Eleutherium', a place where they keep the oils and then the 'laconic', where they went to sweat.
Among the civic monuments to admire here in the centre of Catania there are several important palazzos and villas. Behind the cathedral you can see the Church of San Placido with an 18th century façade by Stephen Ittar, and the 17th century Biscari Palace.
Along the Via dei Crociferi you can admire the Church of St. Francis Borgia, rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693, which also contains a section of archaeological finds from the city. Around the centre you will see lots of other baroque style churches: almost every street seems to need its own imposing church!
To the west of the centre you can visit the Catania Benedictine Monastery, an extensive complex that covers over 5000 square metres and includes two cloisters, a monumental staircase and the largest church in Catania. The Benedictine monks have also established an archaeological museum containing ancient pottery, Etruscan and Greek-Sicilian vases, and low reliefs depicting mythological scenes ('Andromeda', 'Hercules on Mount Etna').
Continuing through Catania, after University Square, which contains numerous 18th century buildings (Plazzos of Sangiuliano, Saint Demetrios and Manganelli, and the Church of San Michele Arcangelo) you arrive at Piazza Stesicoro and the impressive Augustan Roman amphitheatre.
Originally established for the battles of the gladiators, the elliptical shaped amphitheatre was equipped with about 60 doors, had an inner perimeter of about 193 metres and could hold over 15,000 spectators. Inside, aqueducts have been discovered that brought water to the arena to enable naval battles among the gladiators.
Unfortunately much of the original structure was destroyed by the earthquake of 1693, and a large part of the area where the amphithetare stood is now houses, but the remainder has now been renovated.
Along Via Zappala-Gemelli you reach the late-baroque style Church of Santa Maria of Indirizzo, from the first half of the 18th century.
In Corso Vittorio Emanuele II there is a Roman Theatre which is larger than those of Siracusa, Taormina and Segesta and was able to accommodate more than 7,000 spectators.
Behind the theatre, there is the 'Odeon' for musical performances, circular in shape and which could hold more than 1000 spectators. In general, it was here that they rehearsed the shows to be performed in the theatre. See Catania Roman theatre.
The Municipal Museum of Catania is based in the 13th century Ursino Castle, with two massive round towers (one called the Flag and the other the Martorio, because it was used as a torture chamber). The other side towers were called the Sala and the Storehouse. The castle is a colossal building, with walls three metres thick and 30 metres high and more than 60 metres long.
The castle museum has artefacts of great historical value, with highlights including remains from the ancient Roman theatre, Hellenistic and Roman sculptures, medieval and Renaissance statues and paintings of the Byzantine period including the 'Madonna and Child' by Antonello de Saliba (1466-1535) and a powerful 'San Cristoforo', with a heavy club in his left hand, a work by Pietro Novelli (1603-1647).
Attractions and ativities near Catania
Enjoying the local restaurants is a highlight of a visit to Sicily. Typical local cuisine includes pasta dishes such as 'spaghetti alla Norma', named in honor of Vincenzo Bellini and various fresh seafood specialities such as squids and stuffed swordfish rolls. Other Catania specialities include 'marinated wild boar', 'mushrooms of Etna', pistachios from Bronte, and a famous local lemon cake, best accompanied by the wine of Etna.
A trip to the summit of Mount Etna is an eerie and unforgettable experience. It is possible to get most of the way in organised 4x4 vehicles or using the cable car though you can choose to walk.
The popular seaside resort of Aci Trezza is a short distance north of Catania.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.