The historical town of Catania is situated on the east coast of Sicily, lying between Messina and Syracuse. It lies 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. Catania is an active port town and the second largest city in Sicily.
The centre of Catania contains many Baroque buildings and has been given UNESCO World Heritage status.
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.
Catania Cathedral and a large number of churches comprise the other key Baroque buildings. The cathedral was originally built in the mid-11th century by Duke Ruggiero. Of the ancient Norman building only the transept and three circular apses remain, with a structure that shows that the church was once fortified.
The baroque façade is by Vaccarini, while the interior is artistically decorated with low reliefs by Giovanni Battista Mazzolo (16th century) depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin and a statue of the Madonna.
There is also 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.
Also interesting at the cathedral is the sacristy, which has a marble bath attributed to Antonello Gagini (1478-1536), who also decorated a door in the cathedral.
In front of the cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo is the monumental Elephant Fountain (1736) by Giovan Battista Vaccarini, who, in constructing it, used various finds of the city, like a lava elephant of Roman times and an obelisk from Syene which presents some hieroglyphics pertaining to the worship of the goddess Isis.
At the base of the fountain you see the statues representing the Catania Rivers (the Simeto and Amenano) and above is the elephant, bearing the obelisk.
Roman baths of Catania
Next to the cathedral in Catania are the remains of the famous thermal baths of Achillea Thermae - (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.
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).
Civic monuments in Catania
Among the civic monuments to admire here note in particular the Zappala Palace and the 18th century Palace of the Doctor. Behind the cathedral is 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.
There is a Benedictine Monastery of over 5000 square metres and in the church choir there are 18th century sculptures by Nicholas Bagnasco depicting stories from the Old Testament.
The Benedictine Fathers have set up 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 (Sangiuliano, St. Demetrios and Manganelli Palaces 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.
In Corso Vittorio Emanuele II there is a Roman Theatre which is larger than those of Siracusa, Taormina and Segesta and able to accommodate more than 7,000 spectators. This is an extraordinary work of art for the stucco plasters, decorations, arcades and low-reliefs.
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 tested the concertos to be performed in the theatre.
Along Via Zappala-Gemelli you reach the late-baroque style Church of Santa Maria of Indirizzo, from the first half of the 18th century.
Catania Municipal Museum
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 work, 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)
About a decade after founding Giardini Naxos, in the second half of the 8th century BC, the Chalcidians of Euboea founded the colonies of Leontini (now Lentini) and Catana (today Catania), under the guidance of Evarchus, using locations already inhabited by the Sicilians.
In subsequent centuries Catania was subject to Hiero of Syracuse (-466 B.C.) who made slaves of the inhabitants and changed the name of the town to Etna. The Chalcidians managed to return to the city, which then fell again in 403 BC into the hands of Dionysius, the 'tyrant of Syracuse'.
By the time it was conquered by the Romans in 239 BC Catania was largely autonomous and had became one of the most important ports in Sicily for exporting wheat, because the lava land around the town was the most fertile area of Sicily.
In the middle ages Catania suffered many barbarian invasions (including the Vandals and Goths), before passing to the Byzantines in the 6th century and the Arabs in the 9th century. In 1071 it was conquered by the Normans who strengthened its defences. The Benedictines settled in the area, but the city had a deep economic crisis and also suffered catastrophic natural events such as an earthquake in 1161.
The city was greatly strengthened under Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), who built the Ursino Castle close to the sea.
Significant development of Catania took place in the 17th-18th centuries under the rule of the Angevin, Aragonese (1268-1411), Spaniards (XVI-XVIII century) and the Austrians (1720-1734), until Sicily became part of Italy with the 'Unification of Italy' in 1860.
Places to visit near Catania
People who love to immerse themselves in nature will enjoy hiking around Catania and its territory which is rich in monuments and discoveries from recent excavations. The natural environment offers tourists a relaxing and interesting visit, with the possibility of fascinating experiences such as fishing alongside expert fishermen. 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.
In numerous villages (Ognina, Acicastello, Acitrezza and Timpa di Acireale), and villas in the countryside now converted into restaurants, you can enjoy typical local cuisine such as pasta dishes like 'spaghetti alla Norma', in honor of Vincenzo Bellini (Catania, 1801-1835) and various fresh seafood specialties (eg squids and stuffed swordfish rolls).
Other Catania specialities include 'marinated wild boar', 'mushrooms of Etna', pistachios from Bronte, and the famous local lemon cake, accompanied by the wine of Etna. After lunch it is almost an obligation to eat ice cream because it is in Catania that you will find the best ice cream in Sicily!
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.