As far as spring break destinations go, Sicily probably contains all the landscapes that form in your head when you think of Italy. If you are planning a short visit or shopping for incentive gifts, however, Sicily might be a complex choice to navigate, due to its sheer size and overabundance of diverse geographical, cultural and even culinary options. We have already offered you a quick overview of the Island and a few tips on how to spend your time while visiting, but if you are actually planning your visit, you will have to concentrate on a specific destination, unless you are able to spend at least a month exploring. On this occasion, therefore, we focused on the beautiful city of Catania, one of the main cities on the eastern coast of the island, rich in history, culture and natural beauty and also standing in the shadow of one of Europe’s most breath-taking natural wonders: Mount Etna. There’s plenty to do in Catania and we are sure you will never run out of ways of spending your travel budget, so we thought we’d provide a few tips for things you can see and do for free. How many can you work into your travel schedule? Let us know!
6 things to do in Catania for free
1. Have a stroll down Via Etnea and visit the old town
In 1693, a violent earthquake shook Catania with such force that the city was literally pulverised. Only a few buildings were left standing, one of which was the local Duomo. The viceroy sent and envoy to oversee the reconstruction, whose first task was to build new roads, which he set out to do according to the latest rational and functional principles of the age. He chose the Duomo as the starting point for the first new road to be built and he decreed that such road should stretch toward the volcano. This is how the Via Etnea came to be. Nowadays, this street is a must-visit landmark in itself, particularly if you want to indulge in a shopping spree or get a taste of the local nightlife. Dotted with excellent restaurants and pizzerie, this is one of the liveliest corners of the city and it will take you to the heart of the old town, which is always worth losing yourself in for a few hours.
2. Relax on the black beach of San Giovanni Li Cuti
San Giovanni Li Cuti is a quaint and small settlement on the coast, which has merged into the city to the point that it is considered one of the local marinas. Its small and popular beach has two main and uncommon features. First of all it is literally in the city, so you won’t have to travel far if you want to go for a quick swim – and the weather is likely to be warm enough for this to be a good idea even in the early months of spring. The second and most obvious feature is its distinctive black colour. Isn’t sand supposed to be white? Lavic sand is not. Like many of Catania’s natural features, the beach is a byproduct of Mount Etna’s frantic activity, which gives both the sand and the rocky part of the shore its characteristic tar-like colour. It may take some getting used to, but once you have acquainted yourself with it, you will be fascinated by both the sand’s dark hue and its unique texture. Just be sure to pack a large towel if you are planning on sunbathing.
3. Say hello to the elephant
If you visit Piazza Duomo, you should take a closer look at the literal elephant in the room or, rather, the square. The statue at the centre of the fountain by the same name is locally known as Liotru, which is the local dialect declination of the name Heliodorus. The elephant is named after a local noblemen that is said to have lived in Catania in the VIII Century. According to a legend, Heliodorus was an ambitious young man, hoping to become the local bishop, but he was accused of heresy and witchcraft and burned at the stake. The legend goes on to say that, before being caught and sentenced, Liotru carved an elephant for himself from the lava of the nearby volcano, in order to ride it around the region and perform dark magic. As it is, the elephant was certainly present in the city prior to the building of the fountain and it is said to date back to the byzantine domination. We have no proof, however, that it was actually carved by magic.
4. Visit the Bellini Garden
This beautiful city park, known also as Villa Bellini, is one of four major parks in Catania and the ideal spot in which to relax after a hard day’s shopping and sightseeing. It covers an area of approximately 20 acres and it was built in the XIX Century and renovated several times since. Originally a private villa stood on this plot of land, with a lush garden whose most characteristic feature was a complex labyrinth, in accordance to the XVIII Century fashion. From its slightly elevated position, the park allows a spectacular view of the city, down to the sea and, of course, the majestic form of Mount Etna, shaping the horizon with its unmistakeable silhouette. The original project focused on lush vegetation, with plenty of shadowy trees, palms and mediterranean plants, paved pathways and benches, neatly manicured lawns and a large square. Subsequent additions consisted of sculptures, the introduction of swans around the central fountain and of several species plants, trees and shrubs from all over the world.
5. Admire the roman amphitheatre
Sicily is so incredibly rich in history that you simply can’t walk through a major city (or a minor one for that matter), without coming across the vestiges of ancient civilisations, but not many ancient structures are as prominent and beautifully preserved as the Roman Amphitheatre in Catania. This impressive structure was built from marble and (again) lavic stone and it is the largest of its kind in the whole region and it dates back to the II Century. You will only be able to see about half of it, since the other half is hidden under the city itself and not open to the general public. Guided tours are available, but they are extremely limited, because it is not possible to make the excursion safe enough for large and frequent groups of visitors. According to a local legend, the lava from a volcanic eruption in the III Century reached the amphitheatre, but failed to destroy it because the body of St. Agatha was used by the local population to block the fiery flow. It has later been profed that the specific eruption the legend refers to started from a secondary cone of the volcano and did not reach this part of Catania at all, but the legend still fits right in the unique mixture of mystical suggestions, myth and history that contributes so much to the personality of this incredible city.
6. Go hiking on Mount Etna
If you visit Catania, you will probably feel the pull of this astonishing and not-so-gentle giant. Mount Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The area surrounding it has been a natural reserve since the ’80s and it is a favourite destination of hikers that come flocking from all over the world to explore its lush woodland and try and get as close as possible to the summit. This is not a suitable choice for beginners, as most of the paths are steep and physically demanding, but if you have at least some experience of mountain trekking, this is likely to be one of the most rewarding experiences you could hope for. If you do not feel confident enough to brave the summit, you will be able to take a cable car, or you could just enjoy the equally beautiful natural scenery at the base of the mountain and sample the local products, grown on soil made exceptionally fertile by the mineral-rich lava. If you are lucky, you will catch the volcano in one of its active moments, in which case you will not be able to go hiking, but you will be able to enjoy the exceptionally beautiful sight of the bright liva trickling down the sides of the mountain at night.
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