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Catania is a port city on the south-east coast of Sicily. Its bubbly charm is a wake-up call compared to the elegantly lazy ports up north – plus, it’s got almost 3,000 years of history to its name. The natural history of the city goes back even further thanks to neighbouring Mount Etna, which has been smoking since prehistoric times.
You’ll find most of the must-sees in once place, scattered around the UNESCO-listed centre. Sicilian baroque architecture reigns supreme, clothing the Basilica della Collegiata, Catania Diocesan Museum and Catania Cathedral.
Catania is also Sicily’s student city. The university buildings are charmingly well-used à la Oxford, while the bars and cafés have oodles of cool.
Wherever you wander, Mount Etna is always near. Stylish Via Etnea (Etna Road) leads into the foothills, but you can get even closer on a day trip. Walking and driving tours head through the thick chestnut forests of Etna Park (Parco dell’Etna) to the cable cars that slide up to the peak.
Loop around elegant Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo houses the symbol of Catania – the bizarre Fountain of Elephants (Fontana dell’Elefante). The Romans moulded this elephant statue from lava and topped it with an Egyptian obelisk. The matching Palace of Elephants (Palazzo degli Elefante) plays it straight. Designed by the great baroque architects Vaccarini and Battaglia, it’s a concoction of carved window facades and colonnaded balconies.
Catania Cathedral (Cathedral Sant’Agata) sits on the eastern wing. The outside is a Sicilian baroque fairy-tale, while inside you can glimpse the original Norman interiors. Sicilian VIPs are also laid to rest inside, including Aragonese royalty and the Catanian composer Bellini.
You’ll also find La Pescheria fish market behind the square every weekday. Don’t fancy buying? Just go for the atmosphere – everyone from head chefs to no-nonsense nonnas haggle for fresh Sicilian seafood.
Sift through the treasures of Castello Ursino
Castello Ursino is completely surrounded by the red-roofed houses of Catania – but when it was built in the 13th century, it was a seaside castle guarding the city from enemy ships. Duck into the Civic Museum to learn how an eruption from Mount Etna rewrote this part of the coast.
There’s also a helping of ancient finds, including ancient Etruscan treasures, Roman mosaics and medieval paintings. Peek into the inner garden before heading outside again to admire the Norman architecture. The colossal castle certainly looks its age, put together from round towers and slitted arrow-proof windows.