A busy industrial and commercial port town, Catania has an unfortunate history. Situated at the foot of Mt Etna, it was partially destroyed in a massive eruption in 1669 and, as recostruction began, was shaken to the ground in 1693 by an earthquake that devastated much of the south-eastern Sicilia. The 18th century project to rebuild the city in grand baroque style was largely overseen by the architects Giovanni Vaccarini and Stefano Ittar.
The main train station and Intercity bus terminal are near Piazza Giovanni XXIII. From here, Corso Martiri della Libertà heads west towards the city centre, about a 15 minute walk. Follow the road to Piazza della Repubblica and continue along Corso Sicilia to Via Etnea, the main thoroughfare running north off Piazza del Duomo. Most sights are concentrated around and west of Piazza del Duomo, while the commercial centre of Catania is farther north around Via Pacini and Via Umberto I.
Piazza del Duomo & Around
Catania‘s most atmospheric square is easy to identify, as its centrepiece is the Fontana dell’Elefante, which was assembled by Vaccarini. The lava statue, carved possibly in the days of Byzantine rule, carries an Egyptian obelisk on its back. The architect worked on the square after the 1693 earthquake. He remodelled the 11th century duomo (recently restored), incorporating the original Norman apses and transept, and designed the Palazzo del Municipio (town hall) on the northern side of the piazza. It features an elegant baroque facade and, in keeping with a theme, is also known as the Palazzo degli Elefanti.
Across Via Vittorio Emanuele Il from the duomo is the Badia di Sant’Agata (a convent), yet another Vaccarini masterpiece, whose cupola dominates the city centre.
A few blocks north-east you’ll stumble onto Piazza Bellini — the theatre of the same name is an eye-catching example of the city’s architectural richness, a richness unfortunately buried beneath deep layers of grime.
North along Via Etnea from Piazza del Duomo are several buildings of interest. Facing each other on Piazza dell’Universita are two designed by Vaccarini, Palazzo dell’Universita to the west and Palazzo San Giuliano to the east.
Roman Ruins & Churches
West along Via Vittorio Emanuele II, at No 226, is the entrance to the ruins of a Roman theatre and Odeon (small rehearsal theatre). They are open from 9 am to one hour before sunset daily. From Piazza San Francesco, just before the entrance to the ruins, head north along Via Crociferi, which is lined with baroque churches. Turn left into Via Gesuiti and follow it to Piazza Dante and the sombre Chiesa di San Nicolo all’Arena. The largest church on Sicilia, its facade was never completed. Next to the church is an 18th century Benedictine monastery, the biggest in Europe after that of Mafra in Portugal. It is now part of the university and slowly being restored. Wander in for a look at the cloisters — the beauty is faded, but it’s there.
North of Piazza del Duomo more leftovers from Roman days include a modest anfiteatro (amphitheatre) on Piazza Stesicoro. For relief from the madding crowd, continue north along Via Etnea and cut in to the left behind the post office for the lovely gardens of Villa Bellini, named in memory of one of Catania’s most famous sons, the composer Vincenzo Bellini.
Built in the 13th century by Frederick II, one of the great castle-builders of the Middle Ages, this grim-looking fortress, surrounded by a moat. It’s south-west of Piazza del Duomo, just over the train line. There are a few rooms open in the Museo Civico inside. Admission is free.
Catania celebrates the feast of its patron saint Agata from 3 to 5 February. During this period one million Catanians and tourists follow as the Fercolo (a silver reliquary bust of the saint covered in marvellous jewels) is carried along the main street of the city. There are also spectacular fireworks during the celebrations.