Situated at the foot of the Mount Etna volcano, Catania is the second city of Sicily and much of its history has been determined by the volcano and its eruptions. Indeed, after being destroyed by a huge eruption in 1669 and suffering a massive earthquake shortly after in 1693, the Catania we see today was rebuilt using the black lava from the volcano, along with light-coloured limestone. Nowadays, it has a thriving commercial centre, as well as many buildings of historical and cultural interest.
The historical centre of Catania is the World Heritage Site, Piazza del Duomo. Foremost of the buildings on this central square is the Cathedral (Duomo) of St Agatha. Originally built in the 12th Century, it was rebuilt after the eruption and earthquake in the 1600s. It has an impressive marble facade and columns taken from a Roman amphitheatre. Inside lie the remains of the city`s patron saint, St Agatha, as well as other precious treasures. A prominent feature in the centre of the piazza is the Fontana dell`Elefante (Fountain of the Elephant). The elephant has long been the city`s symbol and this statue dates back to Roman times, although it was mounted on the current structure in 1736. There are many legends surrounding the lava-stone statue and the elephant it represents. Supposedly pygmy elephants lived in the region in ancient times and protected the inhabitants of the city from wild animals. It is also said that the statue was owned by a magician who turned people into
animals and that it retains some of this magical power to calm the restless Mount Etna. The elephant also gives it name to the city hall, Palazzo degli Elephanti, which is also located on the main square.
There are two notable gardens in Catania that should not be missed, especially by those looking for a relaxing and peaceful escape. The Villa Bellini Gardens cover 70,000 square metres and are a wonderful place for a walk with statues, avenues, bridges and squares to admire. The smaller Botanic Gardens include some neo-classical buildings that are used as greenhouses and contain many examples of exotic, aquatic and Sicilian plants, many of which are rare. The only medieval building in Catania that survived the natural disasters of the 1600s is the Castel Ursino. This fortress was built to protect Catania from the sea and in the past has been used as a royal residence and a prison. Today it houses the Civic Museum, which has an interesting collection of sculptures, paintings, ceramics and bronzes.
Mount Etna itself is easily accessible from Catania and can make for a wonderful and unique excursion. It is 3330m high and therefore offers a good challenge to hikers, however, there is no need to climb to the top to enjoy the volcano, as you can have very interesting experiences exploring the villages around the foot of the mountain, or the splendid 58,000 hectare green oasis that is Etna Park. Many different types of trips are available for tourists from mountain-biking and trekking, to a tour on the old Circumetnea train.
There is a wide variety of accommodation available in Catania so you are almost guaranteed to find something to suit your taste and budget. There are many hotels that range from the luxury of the 5-star Excelsior Grand Hotel, the commendable 3-star Hotel Etnea 316 situated opposite the Bellini Gardens, to the Globetrotter B&B guesthouse or the Agora Hostel at the budget end. Indeed, there is an abundance of good cheap hotels in and around the city centre.