TRAVEL GUIDE: CATANIA, SICILY

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Have you got a place that you just love going back to time and time again? 

My travel planning is a constant battle between discovering new destinations and visiting places I’ve already been to and which stole my heart. But one of the countries I absolutely love returning to is Italy. There’s just so much history and culture, so much to see and do and I’ve not yet met anyone who’s not crazy about italian food. Also, there is so much diversity, every region feels almost like a whole new country and none more so than Sicily.

Having only become part of Italy in 1861 and acquiring a special status as an autonomous region of the Republic in 1946, Sicily has maintained a really distinctive culture and character. This is thanks in part to its varied history and international influences. The cities are full to the brim of history and amazing architecture and the locals are some of the nicest and kindest people I’ve ever met.

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Catania, Sicily’s second largest city and a getaway to Etna, has a fascinating and tumultuous history. Since year 729 BC, when the first settlement on the site of the current city was established, it was conquered numerous times and ruled by the likes of Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish. And they all left their unique mark on culture, architecture and cuisine. Also, because of its position in the shade of the most active volcano in Europe, Catania was destroyed by natural disasters and rebuilt numerous times over the years.

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The most catastrophic period in the city’s history came in the late 17th century when it was devastated by a violent Etna eruption engulfing nearly all of the city in lava, followed by the earthquake 30 years later which completely destroyed anything that was left.

Today Catania is a thriving city full of grand squares, wide roads and stunning Baroque and Rococo architecture constructed using lava rock. It’s a perfect destination for a city break or a longer holiday base for exploring east of Sicily. In this article I share with you my tips and recommendations for exploring Catania to hopefully inspire you and encourage you to visit this amazing city.

ARRIVING IN CATANIA

Arriving in Catania by air is quite spectacular as the first thing to come into view as you prepare to land is the Etna volcano, followed by fields of lemon and orange trees arranged in a perfect dotted pattern. Catania’s Fontanarossa airport is close to the city centre and there are regular buses departing roughly every half an hour which take you to the main train station in less than thirty minutes. The fare is €4 and tickets can be purchased on board from the bus driver.

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WHERE TO STAY IN CATANIA

Whenever I travel for longer than just a couple of days I usually choose an Airbnb apartment over a hotel as it gives me an opportunity to stay amongst locals in residential neighbourhoods and allows me to immerse myself in the culture of the place I’m visiting. The place I chose for our stay in Catania was in Borgo-Sanzio neighbourhood and it offered a perfect base for exploring the city and the surrounding areas. If you would like to find out more about it you can read the in depth review in a separate blog post.

If you prefer to stay in a hotel check out historic Palazzo Marletta (with a view of Piazza Duomo from your room), beautifully restored 17th century Hotel Romano House or Asmundo di Gisira. If you’re looking for something fancy try UNA Esperienze, a stunning 4 star luxury hotel with a roof garden.

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WALK AROUND THE CITY



Hands down there is no better way to truly discover a city than getting lost in its little streets. Thankfully Catania’s historic city centre, a UNESCO world heritage site, is quite small which makes walking around super easy. Start in Piazza Del Duomo which marks the heart of the city and is home to Cathedral of Sant’Agata and Fontana dell’Elefante with an elephant statue made of lava stone. If you visit only one museum when in the city make it Le Terme Achilliane, remains of the ancient Roman thermal baths complex underneath the cathedral. Continue along Via Etnea and turn into Via Vittorio Emanuele II to see the ruins of Roman Theatre. Although the theatre was buried underground by the volcanic eruptions and only a small part of it can be seen now, it offers a small glimpse into the city’s ancient past. Make sure to make a stop when you get to Via Antonino Di Sangiuliano, a pretty street with rows of blossoming trees. Walk up Via Crociferi until you reach the university law department. The elegant light grey lava stone building with a sweeping staircase at the front is surrounded by a small garden and it’s a perfect spot to relax in. 

Two other stops along Via Etnea worth exploring are Villa Bellini park and the botanical gardens, both perfect spots for a wander.

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VISIT THE FISH MARKET 


La Pescheria market is a must when visiting Catania! It’s one of the most famous fish markets in Italy and the best opportunity you’re going to get to catch a glimpse of the authentic everyday life of the city and its residents. Make sure to wear trainers or platform shoes (you don’t want the feeling of icy water and fish guts mixture on your feet) and prepare for a real assault on the senses. You’ll hear fishermen advertising their catch in sicilian dialect with cigarettes resting on their lips, fiercely haggling with customers who love a good deal and cutting up huge swordfish steaks that will make your mouth water.

The narrow alleyways around the main fish markets are filled with stall holders selling fresh local fruit and vegetables. Sicilian lemons, oranges and watermelons are the largest and juiciest I’ve ever tasted. Take your time to soak up the atmosphere and grab a healthy snack.

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GO TO THE BEACH

Catania’s main beach, La Playa, is located on the outskirts of the city and can be reached by bus line D from Piazza Paolo Borsellino. You can buy your bus tickets from a ticket machine at the bus stop.

Free public sections of the beach are best avoided as they’re usually dirty and full of litter. Instead, I’d recommend renting a sunlounger and an umbrella at one of the many lidos for a full Sicilian experience. Sicilian lidos have plenty of extra amenities to make your stay comfortable and keep you occupied. There are showers and changing rooms, lockers to store your valuables, on site cafes and restaurants, tennis and beach volleyball courts and sometimes even a swimming pool. Some of them also have live music and entertainment in the evenings. My favourites in Catania are Lido Azzurro and Le Capannine. There’s nothing better than spending a few hours at one of these enjoying the sun, warm Meditarrean sea (average summer water temperature is around 26℃) and snacking on refreshing granitas with brioche.

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WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK IN CATANIA




PRESTIPINO




The traditional cafe Prestipino has been run by the same local family for over 40 years and it’s a perfect place to try some traditional Sicilian food and indulge in a spot of people watching. If you visit during the summer order a crema di caffe (an espresso in a form of cold light cream, an ideal way to get your caffeine fix on the days when it’s just way too hot for a regular coffee) and cannoli with soft ricotta and pistachio filling.

Via Etnea 30/32
Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 07:00 - 24:00

IL SALE ART CAFE





Il Sale Art Cafe is an elegant restaurant in Via Santa Filomena, a small atmospheric street with the biggest concentration of bars and restaurants in the city. The intimate interior features vaulted ceilings, exposed brick and unique artworks, and there is a large outside area at the front (a perfect spot to soak up the lively atmosphere). This place was recommended to me by a local as one of the best spots in Catania for pizza. Unfortunately on the day I visited I made the mistake of stuffing my face like a pig beforehand during aperitivo so instead of a full meal I had some refreshing Sicilian wine (the wine list is huge so ask for a recommendation!) and a selection of cold meats, cheeses and fried local snacks. Everything was well presented and tasted delicious and the sharing platters are a good introduction to Sicilian cuisine. Portions are very generous though so I was very happy when the waitress suggested I take some of the items home for later. It went down really well as an accompaniment to the wine I enjoyed in the apartment the next evening.

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Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 19:30 - 24:00



L’ISKA



I stumbled upon this place completely by chance and was instantly enticed by the colourful and stylish decor. Right in the middle of La Pescheria fish market, L’iska is a perfect spot to sample some fresh local seafood. During my visit I had a sharing seafood platter which included some deep fried battered little whole fish (similar to whitebait), tuna in olive oil, popcorn coated squid and lots of other stuff. 

But the highlight for me was definitely the service. The waiter was very knowledgeable about the menu and spoke about it with humour and enthusiasm. The seafood platter was his recommendation and it was ever customised to swap out the elements which I wasn’t so keen on.

Via Gisira 5

Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 12:00 - 24:00

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FUD


Fud has branches in both Catania and Palermo and it’s a very popular burger place. They pride themselves on stylish decor and locally sourced ingredients. They offer a good selection of snacks, focaccias and pizzas but the real stars of the show are of course burgers. The majority focus on juicy and succulent Sicilian beef with various accompaniments but they also have some more unusual choices like donkey meat burger and horse meat burger along with vegetarian and even vegan options. 

They even brew their own beer which is delicious, and have a very good selection of bottled regional craft beers.

Via Santa Filomena 35

Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 12:30 - 01:00




COLLAGE BOUTIQUE BAR




Collage cocktail bar is tucked in a little side street next to The Rinascente department store. The double height space is very much on trend with plenty of timber, industrial style lighting and bar stools and a feature wall at the back that is basically a collage of doors and shutters in different styles and colours. They also have a small outside area at the front perfect for those hot summer evenings.

The cocktails here are very unique reflecting the head barman’s passion for travel and marrying international flavours with Sicilian ingredients. Mexican inspired Me Calienta featuring tequila, mezcal and agave nectar or Yuzu Love with yuzu infused vodka and Nero D’Avola syrup are just some of the unique options on offer.

The food menu is made for sharing with friends with montaditos, mini burgers and other tapas style dishes. Here once again is all about original flavours and good quality local ingredients. Slices of toast with thinly sliced fresh salmon, avocado and black sesame seeds were my personal favourite.

Via Spedialieri 22

Opening Hours:
Tuesday - Sunday: 18:00 - 01:00

A PUTIA DELL’OSTELLO



Unfortunately this is the only place I visited which didn’t live up to my expectations. The location between the historic fish market and Castello Ursino is fantastic and a lava cave created during a 17th century Etna eruption in the basement makes for a unique and atmospheric dining experience. Unfortunately, the food lets it down reminding me more of a school dinner (bland in flavour with mushy texture) than a restaurant affair. Quantity over quality seems to be the name of the game here both when it comes to food (I’ve tried couscous and risotto)  and cocktails. In fact on reflection I wish I went back to Il Sale Art Cafe to try their pizza instead.

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Opening Hours:
Monday - Sunday: 24 hours


I hope you enjoyed my guide to Catania. Have you ever been to this great city or maybe it inspired you to plan a trip? I’d love to read all about it in the comments.