On my first trip to Sicily Catania wasn’t on my list.
And it’s no wonder, because at the time Lonely Planet described its historic centre as ‘decayed and depressing’. From other sources I heard ‘dark’, gritty’, ‘dangerous’ and many warnings not to drive there, under any circumstances. Who wants that on holiday? Not me.
Most tourists head for Taormina and Cefalu, Siciliy’s two main resort towns, and do day trips to other parts of Sicily from there. Completely understandable if what you’re after is a relaxing holiday in beautiful surroundings. I’m up for that as well, but I also enjoy a bit of grittiness.
Catania’s not a place I’d recommend for your first visit to Sicily, unless you’re spending a lot of time there (more than three weeks), but if you’re keen to explore a bit deeper, then Catania could be for you. I visited it on my third trip.
It’s not a show pony tourist destination, it is gritty (dirty and falling apart), and beggars will most likely bother you, but it feels, and is, real. Go a block too far in any direction and you might feel a little unsafe and the scenery will deteriorate rather quickly. Kind of like how I imagine New York might have been in the ’70s.
My advice for enjoying Catania is:
• Stick to the centro storico – the old part of the city
• Don’t stay too long – 2 days is enough if you’re just staying in the city
• If you want to go farther afield (or the grittiness gets too much for you), take a day trip up the coast to Acitrezza and Aci Castello, or go and see Mount Etna
• Don’t go there with a car – make it your first or last stop in Sicily and go to/from the airport by taxi
I probably haven’t sold it very well so far, have I?!
But actually I really liked Catania right from the start.
We arrived on a flight from Venice and our driver took a route through La Pescheria market (Catania’s famous fish market) to get to our apartment. There was a huge traffic jam because a TV crew were filming there that day. He was mad, but it gave me time to soak up the atmosphere. I loved the chaos and confusion, and I couldn’t wait to get back there on foot. If you love food markets, then this place is for you. It spreads out around two small piazzas and the adjoining streets. The focus is the fish market but there’s also loads of fresh food. It’s a great place to wander around just for the atmosphere, listening to the stall holders singing about their produce, but we also visited every morning to buy our provisions for the day.
Catania’s architecture is beautiful. It’s one of Sicily’s baroque towns, but has been built with volcanic rock.
There’s a whole street full of beautiful churches (via Crociferi).
There’s a Greek ampitheatre from the 7th century BC (Teatro antico e Odeon) in the middle of the city, and by the middle ages, people had built their houses right on top of it.
The city’s saint is everywhere. Saint Agatha met a grizzly end for refusing the advances of someone important – she had her breasts chopped off and was then rolled in hot coals. There’s a whole festival in her honour in February each year, which we sadly didn’t get to see, but I’d love to go back for it one day.
The main piazza’s centrepiece is an elephant balancing an obelisk on its back! You have to admire a city that had the sense of humour to do that!
It has some lovely gardens
And there’s a castle!
We unfortunately missed the tour of Palazzo Biscari, (I heard it was great), but we did see a fabulous exhibition in the museum next door.
There’s a museum housing all the treasures from the cathedral (Museo Diocesano) which satisfied my quest for shiny gold things. Sadly I wasn’t allowed to take any photos inside.
And finally, you’ll have the place to yourself because there’s hardly any tourists, and it’s cheap as chips.
While there, we stayed in the apartment of BAD (bed & breakfast and design) which is centrally located near the fish market, has a hip vibe, and a gorgeous roof top terrace where we ate our meals. Highly recommended. For more information
Have you been to Catania? What did you think of it?
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Until next time, safe travels,
The Travelling Pantaloni