Catania was the first destination of our two-week Sicily travel. In fact, we weren’t intending to come here at first but I am so glad we did. As it turned out to be one of our favourite cities in Sicily. We spent 3 days in Catania and here is the Modern Lady’s guide to the best things to do in Catania.
Catania is the second largest city in Sicily and is located on the east coast of this Mediterranean island. It is situated by the foot of Mount Etna, an active volcano. It was a surreal experience to see flaming hot lava streaming down the mountain, from a distance of course!
Sicily has been on our bucket list for a long time and we finally ticked it off last December. Initially, we only planned to take a week off during the Christmas and New Year period and spend it in Palermo. Therefore, our return flights were booked to Palermo (I will explain why this is relevant in the upcoming sections). But in the end, we added another week to our holidays. So we had 14 amazing days to see the best of Sicily, including Syracuse, Noto, Taormina, Palermo and Cefalu.
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The best things to do in Catania for the modern lady
As I mentioned in my previous post of Sicily’s Most Elegant Destinations, I wasn’t excited about Catania initially. But that rapidly vanished as I got passed my first impression of Catania. I absolutely loved it!
At face value, I thought Catania was gritty and rough around the edges. Its narrow passageways were decorated with graffiti. Black cobblestoned streets appeared dirty at first glance (but I later learnt they were made from volcanic rocks from Mt Etna, which was ingenious!) Abandoned beautiful baroque buildings in desperate need of a deep clean. Not to mention my anxiousness about the city to begin with!
However, once you look through the time-bound facade, you will quickly realise Catania is not what meets the eye. It is a travellers’ paradise. Filled with hidden gems and centuries of history waiting to be uncovered. A city that takes you back hundreds of years in culture yet integrated with the modern world.
Unlike its counterpart, Palermo, Catania is not as touristy – yay! The streets are buzzing with locals carrying about their daily activities… and just living the Sicilian dream. Here you will find the ‘real’ Sicilian experience! Eat where the locals eat and hang where the locals hang. You can’t get anymore immersive than this.
I was pleasantly surprised at the plethora of elegant restaurants and fancy bars. We didn’t have to look very far to find delicious authentic Sicilian food!
So let me help you discover the most elegant and the best things to do in Catania. With historical sites, cultural experience, and five-star hotels, Catania has it all. And the best part is, you don’t have to break the bank to travel in style here. Ok, our accommodation wasn’t cheap, but everything else was relatively affordable.
Our 3-day itinerary in Catania for the modern lady (& gentleman)
We spent 3 days in Catania. The city centre is best explored on foot. If you have a car, I’d leave it in a hotel parking lot! Driving in Sicily, particularly in Catania, is not for the faint-hearted. And parking in the city centre is not easy!
Day 1: We arrived in Catania. As we travelled from Palermo by coach, we didn’t arrive until late afternoon. We made our way to the hotel, rest up and enjoyed the views before heading out to explore the Christmas markets.
Day 2: The next day we explored all the important sites in the city centre. Indulge in delicious Sicilian food, Mount Etna wines and pistachio cannoli.
Day 3: We took a private tour to Mount Etna, had lunch at the winery and explore the Alcantara region.
How long do you need in Catania?
Catania city is relatively compact, so you can cover everything in one day, even at our leisurely pace. However, I’d still recommend spending 3 or more days here because 1) to indulge in the plethora of excellent food, pastries and wines, and 2) there are plenty of day trips you can do to see other parts of Sicily from here, more on this later.
The BEST elegant things to do in Catania
1. Soak up the Christmas magic at the Christmas markets (only in December)
One of the best things about being in Europe during December is the festive vibes. The streets are adorned with twinkling lights and Christmas decorations. My favourite thing to do is explore the Christmas markets!
Just off the Main Street os Catania, Via Etnea, you will find pockets of Christmas-themed stalls selling local gifts, Christmas decorations and the best of Sicilian delicacies. There is also a Christmas Village in the piazza Università. Kids can take photos with Santa’s sleigh and his raindeers. It wasn’t as elaborate as those in Cologne or Strasbourg however, it was equally magical here.
2. Take a leisurely stroll through Piazza del Duomo Catania
Every Italian city has a duomo. It’s like the heart of the city. Typically it’s a huge square surrounded by historically significant buildings. Great for people-watching! So this is where I like to start my city tour.
After breakfast the next day, we set off to Piazza del Duomo, which was a 5min walk from our hotel. It is located at the intersection of Via Etnea, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and Via Vittoria Emanuele II, three of the most important roads of Catania!
3. Admire the elegant architecture around the Piazza del Duomo
One side of the Piazza stands the beautiful Cathedral of Sant’Agata. The other side is the baroque palace, Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici, and the Palazzo degli Elefanti, the Town Hall. I absolutely love staring at the details of ancient architecture. It is full of personality, including the sky! Can you believe these photos were taken within 10 minutes of each other?!
4. The Elephant Fountain (Fontana dell’Elefante)
Right in the middle of the Duomo is the Elephant Fountain. The elephant is the official symbol of Catania. According to an old legend, during the Upper Paleolithic Times, a dwarfed elephant lived in Sicily. According to the legend, this elephant protected the first population of Catania from all fierce and dangerous animals. People from Catania erected a statue in honour of this elephant. They called it u Liotru. Source: Etna Experience
5. A trip back to Roman times at the ancient Greco-Roman theatre
The next stop on our list of things to do in Catania was to walk down Via Vittorio Emanuele II road to this ancient Greco Roman theatre, just a 5-10 min walk from the Duomo. This amphitheatre is a bit hidden away, but absolutely worth the visit. It’s literally tucked behind what appears to be residential buildings.
You need to pay a small entry fee but you’ve not been to Catania until you’ve seen this ancient theatre! Not to mention we literally had the whole place to ourselves. That is another benefit of travelling here during off-peak!
6. Take a tranquil stroll to admire the baroque architecture along Via Crociferi
From the Greco, head towards Via Crociferi for a tranquil stroll – keep your camera out as you’re going to want to take photos of every building here! It’s so beautiful and elegant!
Via Crociferi is one of the most elegant streets in Catania and is known for its close-knit baroque churches and monasteries. There are four churches within 200 metres of each other!
It’s a very interesting street. Some churches and buildings appeared to be either closed or abandoned. I couldn’t help but wonder what it might look like inside… which brings me to this next hidden gem!
7. Check out the most attractive baroque church, Chiesa di San Guiliano
We actually stumbled upon this one when we were strolling down Via Crociferi.
After telling Alan how amazing would it be to have a peak inside, we stumbled upon the Church of San Guiliano. I jumped with joy when I saw that they were open for business! I later read that this is considered as the most attractive baroque church in Catania.
8. Enjoy the best views of Catania
You can climb up to the rooftop of the church to enjoy this spectacular view of Catania! Undisturbed view and undisturbed viewing point.
9. Explore the boisterous fish market
After you’ve had enough of the spectacular view of Catania, or perhaps your tummy is calling out, it’s time to hit the fish market for a deliciously fresh seafood lunch.
Carry on walking till the end of Via Crociferi, you will see a staircase. Go down the stairs. You will be greeted by this pretty street. This will connect you back to Via Etnea, which will take you back to the Duomo.
Once you’re back at the square, walk behind the Amenano Fountain (Fontana dell’Amenano). You have arrived at the fish market!
If you want to see the real Sicilian butchery and fishmongers, get here in the morning. We got there just after midday, so most of the stalls were closed. But I was happy to miss the fishy smell… hehe…
I wouldn’t say that was the most elegant things to do in Catania, but it certainly is a truly authentic Catania experience.
Stay here for the freshest seafood pasta and some wines, before continuing with the rest of the city tour!
10. Explore the prettiest university in Sicily
The next elegant destination on our list of things to do in Catania is the Benedictine Monastery of “San Nicolò”, which is now part of the University of Catania hosting the Department of Humanities. This is must see oldest university in Sicily.
This is also the prettiest university ever! In my opinion anyway. The marbles, sculptures, murals, every little detail was meticulously executed and in perfect symmetry, like in all Italian architecture and designs!
11. A day trip to the surrounding areas of Catania
Catania is surrounded with beautiful towns and villages. Most of these places can be done on a day trip. So if you only have a few days to spend in Sicily, Catania is a good base. I highly recommend adding the following destinations to your itinerary:
- A trip to Mount Etna and wine tasting
- Explore the baroque capital, Noto
- Relax in Syracuse and Otigia
- Spend a day in Taormina and Castelmola
On our third day, we joined a private tour to Mount Etna. The tour guide took us to hike inside old craters of Mt Etna. Then we have lunch at a local winery and explore the Alcantara region. It was a great day. On the way back, we saw the volcano eruption. It was pretty spectacular!
Having said that, if you have extra days, I highly recommend spending a few days in Syracuse and/or Taormina. You will not regret it!
What to wear in Catania in December
Italians are known for their effortlessly chic style and they certainly take a lot of pride in how they look and how they present themselves. Dressing for the occasion is something they take a lot of pride in. Even for a regular night out, people made an extra effort to dress elegantly and appropriately. Sicilians are no different. I remember attending the New Year’s Eve concert in Palermo, a lot of gentlemen were wearing suits and tuxedos, whilst the ladies were in nice dresses and even evening gowns. So if you don’t want to stick out like a typical tourist, then you need to think about the things you want to do and places to go in Catania, and then plan your outfits accordingly.
Having said that, you don’t need to go with 3 suitcases full of clothes. You just need a bit of plan and cconsideration while packing for Catania. Have I mentioned, we travelled around Sicily for 14 days with a cabin bag? The key is to choose your colour palette and items that you can mix and match to create different looks.
I don’t know whether we were just lucked out with weather in Sicily or the temperature in December is relatively mild. It can get quite warm during the day when the sun is out. But it does get quite cold early in the mornings and late at night. So layering is key! One more thing, as you’ll be walking a lot, of comfortable shoes is a must. I literally lived in my limited addidas sneakers (similar here)! I also pack a pair these versatile ankle boots for the dressier places.
During the day, I wore an old summer dress (similar here (on sale), here and here) and layered it with a black Karen Millen top (also old, but similar here and here). You can also read how I styled this summer dress in different ways here.
In the evening, I like to be more dressy as we go to restaurants for a meal. I loved these pair of wide leg trousers. I paired them with these Zimmerman silk blouse (old, similar here and here (50% off!)) and Stuart Weizman ankle boots.
How to get to Catania
There are direct flights into Catania from most major cities in Europe. Once you arrive at the airport, there are taxis, buses and trains to take you into the city centre.
As I mentioned earlier, we flew from London into Palermo. So getting to Catania was a bit of a mission. But luckily it wasn’t complicated. We did some researched and found a few options to get us from Palermo to Catania, trains, coach, taxis and of course a private transfer. It’s a three hour drive, so spending money on taxi and private transfer wasn’t how I like to splurge. We went with the bus option becuase that was direct and train wasn’t. But we first had to get to the Palermo central station.
We took a shared taxi service (I didn’t know shared taxi was a thing) from Palermo to Central Station for €8 each. And within 15min, we arrived at Central Station. We then went to the SAIS coach ticket office and got a one way ticket to Catania. It turned out to be a very nice and relaxing way to travel. I highly recommend SAIS coaches. It was clean, seats were comfortable and most importantly it was punctual! However, if you are travelling during peak time, I recommend booking your tickets in advance via their online shop.
Once we got to Catania, we made our way to our hotel, in the city centre. It was about 20min walk through the neighbourhoods. A nice way to be introduced to the city.
We absolutely loved our hotel. By the time we got we got there, we decided to stay in for the rest of the evening and enjoyed the beautiful view. Evenutally, our tummy called and we went out to find dinner.
When to travel to Catania
Sicily is a popular summer holiday destination because of their beautiful beaches. So flights and accommodation will be higher. However, I recommend travelling during the off peak or shower seasons to safe some money. We were there in December and it was a bliss! With amazing weather!
Most importantly hav fun getting your lost and experience the real Sicily
My favourite things to do in Catania (and anywhere) is to get myself lost roaming around the city. We’ve discover so many hidden gems. So I highly recommend planning a free time with no agenda and just let yourselves get lost. That is part of the adventure and experience!
— Shop my Catania wardrobe —