Backpacking in the Historic Sicilian City
Situated on the eastern coast of Sicily and lying
in the shadow of its infamous volcano, Catania is the island’s
second largest city, after Palermo. Less well known and more affordable
than many other parts of Italy, it’s nonetheless rich in the
culture, history and dolce vita lifestyle that make the
country so popular with travellers.
Staying in Catania
Despite being the gateway to Mount Etna, Catania
manages to avoid much of the inflated prices and overcrowding associated
with tourist spots. As such, backpackers invariably find the city
centre offers good accommodation to match their funds.
Options range from informal private rooms in B&Bs
to a number of pleasant one-star hotels. For even more affordable
beds in backpacker dorms, meanwhile, hostels
in Catania provide a range of both cheap and sociable places
for budget travellers to stay in the city.
Complex City History
Catania was founded on a fertile plane at the
foot of Mount Etna and the city has been shaped by its proximity
to the volcano, from the particular rock used in its construction
to the numerous earthquakes and eruptions that have both destroyed
and protected its history.
Much like Pompeii and Herculaneum, Catania’s
ancient architecture and monuments have been well-preserved and
the Roman Forum, 2nd century amphitheatre, Achillean Thermae
(bathhouses) and the Greek Acropolis perched atop Collina di Montevergine
can all still be seen today.
The modern city centre was rebuilt in the 17th
century after an earthquake and is a graceful homage to Baroque
style that, with its beautiful churches and wide streets, has been
named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Home to lively cafés and shops as well
as the symbolic Fontana dell' Elefante and intriguing cathedral
of Saint Agata (the city’s patron), the attractive Piazza
del Duomo is one of Catania’s most enduring landmarks and
a great spot from which to explore the city.
With the shadow and dust of one of the world’s
largest active volcanoes falling across the city, it’s hard
to ignore the imposing sight of Mount Etna during a visit to this
part of Sicily.
Excursions can be made to its summit by car or
organized tour, although cash-strapped backpackers will find that
the cheapest way to scale Etna is by bus from the terminal in Catania.
Services leave early in the morning for the Rifugio Sapienza
(halfway to the summit) from where travellers can continue on foot
and then return to the city in the evening.
Alternatively, the private Circumetnea train line
runs around the edge of the volcano from the Borgo metro station
and provides some stunning views for around €10.
Beyond to the Beaches
In addition to Mount Etna, there are two beaches
that are easily accessible from the city on public transport. South
of the centre lies La Plaja, a long stretch of idyllic
sand, whilst to the north of the bay the intriguing rocky coastline
of the Riveria dei ciclopi extends to the quaint town of
Eating in Catania
Catania’s culture is strongly rooted in
Sicilian tradition and this is reflected in the restaurants and
cafés in the city. With specialities from granitas
(ice tea with lemon gelati) to arancini di riso (rice balls)
and cannoli di ricotta (sweet pastries with ricotta cheese)
readily available it’s a great place to sample the island’s
There are affordable trattorie–style
restaurants and pizzerias scattered across the city but, as throughout
Sicily, there are also plenty of ways to pick up cheap fast food
for travellers on a tighter budget.
Big kiosks and salumeria selling hot
or cold Panini are popular with the city’s student population
and provide a satisfying meal for just a few Euros. One word of
warning, for less adventurous eaters, though - the city is also
famous for its horsemeat and this is a popular filling in Panini!
Catania’s typical food and fish markets
are both lively, colourful places to visit and the perfect spot
to find cheap, fresh ingredients and local specialities on a budget.
The pescheria is the busiest of the historic markets and
spreads across Piazza Pardo (near the Cathedral) every morning from
Monday to Saturday.
La Dolce Vita!
Like much of Italy, Catania is fond of ‘the
good life’, from its fine local wines (particularly the DOC
red wines from the foot of Mount Etna) to raucous student parties,
and the city’s youthful population and many clubs ensure a
lively nightlife all year round.
Although the afternoon siesta is devotedly observed,
when evening comes the city definitely wakes itself up. During the
summer months, bustling pavement cafés and street musicians
build to a lively crescendo.
With around 120 clubs and bars spread around the
city, Catania’s nightlife has been compared to Madrid’s
famous movida scene and with 25 theatres and a seemingly
endless stretch of drinking venues it’s easy to see how this
reputation has come about.
The busiest neighbourhoods are the Piazza Teatro
and around Scalinata Alessi, the latter of which is in the university
district near Via Crociferi where the crowd tends to be youthful
and the prices low.
All in all, whether you’re looking
for Roman ruins, relaxing beaches or vibrant nightlife, Catania
has all the ingredients of an authentic Italian experience. And
what’s more, it supplies them on a backpackers’ budget!