View Larger MapAfter Rome and Venice you might want to visit the charming island of Sicily, a name that might still instil fear in some people because of the mafia and the Godfather films despite the fact that it is safer to walk in the streets of Sicily today than in many of the more popular touristic cities in Europe. Some low-cost airlines such as EasyJet fly straight from London or Paris to Catania, the second biggest city in Sicily after Palermo. If you should fly to Catania, you can easily make Catania your base to go to Syracuse (Siracusa) for a day visit and return to Catania for the night and then take the coach for Palermo another morning. It is very easy to get a coach from Catania to Palermo.
Incidentally there are two things you have to keep in mind when you are in Sicily. You cannot buy tickets on most buses and if you don't have one when you board the bus they'll probably drop you at the next bus-stop. So get your bus tickets from the "tabacchi" (tobacconist's) before boarding your bus.
The second thing to bear in mind is that after deciding what you want to order in a pastry shop you have to pay first and get a scontrino (receipt) and only with that can you go to collect your order. In other words it's a case of Pay first, eat later.
If Catania should be your first stop in Sicily be prepared for some unpleasant surprises. The public transport especially is quite chaotic, though when you land at Catania's Fontanarossa airport you will have no problem getting a bus to the city centre. The trip itself takes hardly 20 minutes.
In fact there are five or six different bus terminals spread all over the city centre so one can easily get lost going from one terminal to another in search of a bus. That apart, Catania is well worth a visit, the principal attractions being a ride by cable car to the top of Etna mountain and a day trip to neighbouring Taormina, an up-and-coming holiday resort.
The trip by coach from Catania to Taormina takes 1h 10 mins. Once it passes by the Giardini Naxos white, sandy beach be prepared for a number of hairpin bends that could make your heart pound faster. But trust the steady hands of the bus conductor and let yourself enjoy the fantastic views before you as the bus winds its way during its ascent, leaving the sea below you. Go here for the bus time-table.
View of neighbouring mountains and seaside from top of Taormina.
There is a cable car from Taormina to Mazzaro beach here.
The Giardini Naxos beach is also popular in Taormina.
The best suggestion I can offer if you should pass a night in Catania before exploring the rest of Sicily is to stay in a hotel near the Piazza Duomo. The celebrated cathedral is found here and the principal shopping road, la Via Etnea, starts from here. Besides, Piazza Duomo is within walking distance of the central railway station and the booking offices of the various long-distance buses going to Palermo and Syracuse. Catania's famous fish market is also here.
Typical Sicilian dishes such as grilled swordfish and caponata at Etoile D'Or for only 7 euros. And even for food, this is the place to be in. There are posh restaurants here, of course (ristorante or the less ostentious trattoria) but there is also a humble bar which I suppose would belong to the even lower-down-the-scale osteria. The name of this bar is Etoile D'Or (why it goes by this French name instead of the Italian name of stella d'oro is beyond me, seeing that it sells only Sicilian cuisine and delicacies). As it has about 20 different varieties of tempting Sicilian food on its counter, you will have a hard time deciding what to choose from. The grilled swordfish (pesce spada) there is really fresh so are the calamari and octopuses (normal, you'll say, as it is just next to the fish market!) To go there get under the archway at Piazza Duomo, then turn right as you reach the end of the archway. It's at 7/9 Via Dusmet. The price of each dish there is only about 3.50 euros so that will give you an opportunity to taste a good number of Sicilian dishes. One reason for its low prices is that it is practically only patronized by the locals (fishmongers and market workers) as its location is quite hidden from tourists.
Open-air market: As you walk down Via Etnea, turn right when you reach Piazza Stesicoro for Corso Sicilia. Along this avenue is a bustling open-air market, which together with the fish market, will give you a glimpse into the daily life of the Sicilians in Catania.
Undoubtedly the main reason why tourists come to Sicily's Catania is to see the volcano at Mount Etna.
Apart from Mount Etna, the cathedral in Piazza Duomo is Catania's top tourist attraction.
A stone's throw from the Piazza Duomo in Catania is a lively fish market that is well worth a visit.
Apart from the Etna volcanic mountain another must-visit place in Catania is Taormina, which is endowed with a mountain as well as the sea and is as lively at night as it is during the daytime, especially in summer.
A 15-minute cable-car ride from Taormina will take you to the Mazzaro beach but if you should take the coach from Catania to Taormina then you will be passing by the equally-splendid Giardini-Naxos beach with its vast stretch of fine, white sand.
If you are not scared of crowds, the best time to come to Catania is during the first week of February, when the annual celebrations (from 3rd to 5th February) in honour of Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania, takes place.
But any time of the year is good for a visit to Mount Etna, though it is even more fun in winter when its summit (accessible by cable car costing 30 euros for a return ticket) is sometimes covered with snow, making you feel that you are at a ski resort. And yet, believe it or not, you are really skiing on the top of a volcano! (Actually it's not just a single volcano as there are multiple craters all around, each of which is capable of erupting.)
However there is only one public bus service a day to and from the mountain and you board it in front of the Catania central train station. The AST company bus leaves at 08h15 daily for Etna and the return trip is at 16h30. The trip either way takes two hours with a short stop at Nicolosi, which is the town nearest to the mountain. A return ticket costs 6.60 euros and can be bought from the "Terminal Bar" directly opposite the Central Railway Station square. For three months in summer (from 15 June to 15 September) they have an additional bus trip from Catania to Mount Etna at 11h20. You can find the daily timetable from their website here.
The Teatro Greco Romano in Catania is not too far from the Piazza Duomo. Be prepared for lots of climbing up cobbled steps!
Etnapolis, a huge shopping complex at the outskirts of Catania. There is another mega shopping complex called Centro Sicilia in Catania.
This elephant, symbol of Catania, is made from volcanic stone, and is in the middle of Piazza Duomo, a favourite gathering point for tourists in Catania.
This arch is the entrance to Taormina's main shopping street called Corso Umberto. Taormina is easily accessible by a coach departing from near Catania's central railway station. A return ticket costs 8.30 euros and the trip takes 1 hour and 10 minutes. As the bus approaches the top of Taormina you will be able to take in fantastic views of its landscape where the mountain blends harmoniously with the sea. Watch out for the coach times though, as on Saturdays if you should miss the 14h00 bus to Catania, you will have to wait till 17h45 for the next trip - and that's not a joke!
When in Sicily you can eat oranges to your heart's content. They are cheap - and sweet, the sweetest of the various varieties of Sicilian oranges being the tarocco. Besides, the "blood oranges" of Sicily are well-known for their antioxydant qualities, so don't deprive yourself of them when you are there!
The Festa di Sant'Agata in honour of Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania, is held at the Saint Agatha Cathedral in Piazza Duomo and the surrounding streets over three days, culminating in a huge procession on February 5 each year.