Messina is situated on the north-eastern coast of Milazzo, Sicily, just a short ferry crossing from mainland Italy which lies to the east.
A significant part of the artistic heritage of Messina was lost during the world wars of the 20th century and important damage was caused by the earthquakes of 1783 and 1908. However most of the famous monuments have been reconstructed.
Your tour of Messina can start in the Piazza del Duomo, where you can see Messina Cathedral, the origins of which date back to Norman times. The cathedral suffered heavy damage during the earthquake of 1908 but was rebuilt using a lot of the original materials.
Founded by Roger II in the 12th century the cathedral retains some aspects of its medieval design, especially the 16th century gothic style portals. You can also see some sculptures including a statue of John the Baptist, by Antonello Gagini (1478-c.1536), and a 14th century mosaic of Saint Lucia in the side of the apse.
Be sure to visit the exceptional 'Treasury of the Cathedral' which includes some jewellery, sacred ornaments, and a 15th century wooden crucifix.
The bell tower, next to the cathedral and about 60 meters high is famous for its mechanical and astronomical clock, with 'figures' that are activated at noon. The figures move and show scenes from Messina's history. The bell tower was rebuilt in the mid-20th century - the old tower was damaged by fire in 1559, restored, then collapsed in the earthquake of 1783.
At the centre of the Piazza del Duomo you can admire the stunning Fontana di Orione ('Fountain of Orion'). The fountain was designed by A. Montorsoli (a student of Michelangelo) in the mid-16th century.
The fountain was erected in honour of Orion, the mythical Greek hunter deity said to be the founder of Messina.
This extraordinary fountain contains numerous reliefs based on aquatic mythology, with several rivers represented symbolically, including the Tiber (with palms) while above is Orion carrying the weapons of Messina.
Near to the square on Via San Giacomo is the Norman Church of the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani dating from the 12th century and along the Via Garibaldi you come to the Fortress of San Salvatore (16th century), built by Viceroy Ferdinand Gonzaga to defend against possible attacks by the Turks.
Between Piazza Garibaldi and Corso Cavour you will find the magnificent Teatro (1852), by Pietro Valente, in the neoclassical style. Inside, in the vault, you can admire the Legend of Colapesce by Renato Guttuso.
In Piazza dell Unità there is another fountain built by Montorsoli, the Neptune Fountain. The tall figure of Neptune, with a trident in his hands, has his right leg next to a dolphin. The statue is on a base with the coat of arms of Emperor Charles V (1500-1558).
The fountain was originally placed near the harbour but it was damaged by war and after repairs were made it was moved to its current spot.
As you walk around the town you will spot many more fountains.
Opposite the fountain of Neptune stands the Palace of the Prefecture (1920) by Cesare Bazzani in Renaissance style. Also worthy of a look is the church of San Giovanni di Malta (16th century) by Jacopo del Duca (1520-1604). Inside the church is a museum with the relics of Saint Placido and also some fine pieces of gold and silverware.
Messina Regional Museum
North of the Piazza della Libertà stands an important Regional Museum, divided into 14 rooms with each of them is devoted to a significant painter: among them are remarkable works by Antonello da Messina (the Polyptych of San Gregorio, Room IV) and works by Caravaggio (the Adoration of the Shepherds, and The Resurrection of Lazarus, Room X).
Particularly interesting is also room V, where there are works by Girolamo Alibrandi and others of the 16th century. These include the remains of the Presentation in the Temple by Alibrandi. In the hall VIII you can admire the work by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607).
A work of great importance, unfortunately now lost, was the famous Palazzata (mid-sixteenth century) that once stood on the waterfront. Also called the 'Theatre' it included 30 buildings aligned to form a semicircle, which followed a curved beach. It resisted the earthquake of 1783, but it was destroyed in 1908. Today, instead of the lost Palizzata, you can see some artifacts such as the Municipal Palace (1924), by Antonio Zanca (1861-1968), of classical style.
Among other religious buildings in Messina worthy of mention include the 13th century church of Santa Maria degli Alemanni with its floral decorated capitals, the church of the Monte di Pietà, built by Antonio Basile and Placido Campoli in 1741, with the statue of 'Abundance', by Ignazio Buceti (XVIII century) and the Church of St. Francis of Assisi (13th century, rebuilt after a fire in 1884). After the earthquake of 1908 the three apses remained intact.
Be sure to walk some of the panoramic route above the town. There are various roads which follow old fortifications. Try the Viale Italia to the west of the university. The route has great views over the city and the sea and goes past the botanic gardens and the chapel of Sacrario di Cristo Re with its large dome. This was built as a memorial to casualties of war and its bells ring hourly to honor the dead.
Across the harbour a promontory sweeps round and you can visit what remains of the old citadelle. Continue to the tip and there is the Fort of San Salvatore and an octagonal column with a statue of the Madonna della Lettera.
Places to visit near Messina
For nature lovers, as well as the cultural and artistic heritage Messina provides a destination of considerable interest. From the city you can easily reach the Peloritani Mounts, surrounded with green woods and dotted with old farmhouses and small villages (Basicò, Tripi, Mazzarà, San Andrea and others).
Take the scenic road along the coast north-east of Messina to the pretty village of Torre di Faro. The road passes some lovely villas and gardens and two salt water lagoons.
The old town and medieval quarters of Milazzo are well worth a visit.
Reggio de Calabre is a historic town with lots to see including a medieval castle and an impotant museum.
Cuisine of Messina
The region also offers visitors the opportunity to try the typical local products of Messina and its region: especially locally produced fishes, meats and cheeses.
Among these are Ricotta (made from sheeps milk), 'tuma', and home-cooked macaroni with sword-fish (a fish typical of the area of Messina). Lamb, sweet and sour rabbit, and cod from Messina are also popular.
There are also excellent local wines, in addition to Faro we suggest you try the Nero d'Avola and the so-called Wine of Etna.
Related article: the history of Messina
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.