SICILY ROAD TRIP PLANNER: CATANIA TO MESSINA
Drive along beautiful coastal roads and visit towns in which the past and the present come together in the food, the mythologies, and the warm Mediterranean culture. Explore the eastern coast of Italy's finest island on a Sicily road trip that takes you deeper than what you'll see in most brochures and guides.
Discover Sicily's eastern coast at your own pace, cruising along sunny highways with breathtaking views of the Ionian Sea and uncovering hidden gems from the area's fascinating past. Throughout this Sicily road trip, you'll come and go as you please and make your vacation what you want it to be with a rental car in Italy.
SICILY ROAD TRIP DAY 1: CATANIA AND THE CYCLOPS COAST
Catania is a delightful city on the eastern coast of Sicily, located about halfway between Messina to the north and Syracuse to the south. Visitors here will be treated to breathtaking views of the Ionian Sea. The capital of the Province of Catania and the second-largest city in Sicily, Catania's geological history is eventful; the town has been destroyed over the centuries by powerful earthquakes and, due to its proximity to the active volcano Mount Etna, residents and visitors have historically been wary of its neighbor's fiery temper. Today, however, Catania is a charming seaside city that is the perfect place to begin a road trip along Sicily's eastern shores.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN CATANIA:
There are many exciting things to do in Catania and its neighboring towns, an area collectively referred to as The Cyclops Coast because of its ties to the rich, historical tapestry of Greek mythology. For the Ancient Greeks, the Cyclopes were a race of one-eyed primordial giants that, according to many accounts, once populated the island of Sicily. For that reason, upon your arrival in Catania, you should first stop at the Fontana dell' Elefante, a fountain assembled in 1736 by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini. Located in the Piazza del Duomo, the fountain, which consists of a dwarf elephant made of lava stone topped by an Egyptian obelisk, might at first seem out of place in Sicily. However, paleontologists now know that the prehistoric fauna of Sicily included dwarf elephants, and some believe that these elephants may be the origin of the legend of the Cyclops. On the island, the Ancient Greeks discovered skulls about twice the size of a human head with a large hole that they mistook for an enormous, single eye-socket. Instead of understanding that these holes were the central nasal cavities of extinct dwarf elephants, they speculated that the skulls had belonged to giants with a single eye.
After visiting the Fontana dell' Elefante, you should check out the nearby Catania Town Hall, which has been dubbed the Palazzo degli Elefanti, or "The Palace of the Elephants." You'll also be close enough to walk to Castello Ursino, a castle built for Emperor Frederick II during the thirteenth century. Though it may seem strange to have a fortress tucked in the heart of a city, the castle was actually built on a cliff overlooking the sea. Over the years, the seismic activity of volcanic eruptions, lava flows, and earthquakes have moved the castle nearly a mile inland.
Although the city of Catania is beautiful, one of the best things about staying here is its proximity to the small towns of Aci Trezza and Acireale, which will be easily accessible in your rental car. Driving from Catania to Aci Trezza will offer you stunning views of beautiful, rocky coast and a quaint harbor filled with colorful boats. Off the coast of Aci Trezza are three tall, column-shaped islands known as the isole dei ciclopi, the "islands of the Cyclopes." According to legend, the Cyclops Polyphemus caught Odysseus and his companions during their great journey and began eating them one by one. Odysseus, however, succeeded in blinding the giant and escaped. In a rage, the now-blind Cyclops threw huge rocks at Odysseus, who managed to escape into the sea without being struck. Today, these rocks give the region its name. If you want to see the isole up close, you can dive or snorkel off the coast or take a boat trip. The boat trips in the area are many and varied; depending on your taste and budget, you can look for tours in smaller motorboats, luxury boats, or even glass-bottomed boats.
If you drive to Acireale, check out the Piazza Duomo, which houses the magnificent St. Peter's Basilica. If you feel like enjoying an activity that's fun and a little different, pop into Chocostore (Corso Umberto 214), a small business that sells chocolate in all its possible incarnations: chocolate bars, chocolate drinks, and even chocolate treats that come in every imaginable shape, from high-heeled shoes to watches. For those visitors that like to get out of the city and back to nature, Acireale is close to two large public parks, Villa Belvedere and Parco delle Terme, as well as La Timpa, a beautiful natural reserve overlooking the Ionian Sea.
SICILY, ITALY, ROAD TRIP DAY 2: MOUNT ETNA
The second day of your fantastic road trip in Sicily takes you to Mount Etna, whose fiery summit looms in the background of many towns along the eastern Sicilian coast. Etna is the tallest active volcano in all of Europe and the highest mountain in Italy south of the Alps. The Ancient Greeks believed that Typhon, the largest and most fearsome beast in all of Greek mythology, was defeated in battle by Zeus, who then trapped the monster under the mountain. Typhon's buried rage was said to be the source of the volcano's frequent activity.
Since its first recorded eruption during the glory days of Ancient Greece, Mount Etna hasn't ceased throwing ash and smoke into the air and spilling lava flows from its craters. Having a car makes visiting Mount Etna a breeze because, going by car, you can reach all the starting points of the varied nature trails and excursions on Mount Etna. You pass different trails and points of interest depending on the side of the mountain you drive up. Leaving from Catania, it is easiest to drive to the town of Nicolosi and continue up the volcano from there, although you could also drive a bit farther north and enter from the town of Zafferana Etnea. Both towns lead you to a roughly 12-mile drive to the Sapienza Refuge on the south side of Mount Etna.
PARKING AT MT. ETNA:
The Sapienza Refuge is a great place to leave your car. Many visitors park their cars at the refuge for €.80 an hour, €2.50 for a half day, or €4 for the whole day. However, if you want to save a few dollars, park at Hotel Corsaro; they offer free parking even if you aren't a guest, and in addition, they're one of the best places to stay in Etna. If you need a snack or would like to buy a souvenir, you can duck into one of the restaurants or shops at the refuge. From here, you can take a cable car or find a guide to take you on foot to get closer to the volcano's many craters. The variety of tours you can choose from is nearly endless, and all tours on Mount Etna are affected by not only the weather and current volcanic activity, but also your fitness level and your sense of adventure. A walking tour of Mount Etna might take you into volcanic caves, where you can see slumbering bats, or to a wide, lunar landscape covered in volcanic rocks. During the winter, skiers flock to the slopes around the Sapienza Refuge and the Piano Provenzana. Once you're on Mount Etna, the kind of tour you take is ultimately up to you, but nearly everyone who has visited this region of Sicily agrees that Mount Etna is an absolutely can't-miss destination.
SICILY, ITALY, ROAD TRIP DAY 3: TAORMINA
The next part of your road trip through Sicily takes you to Taormina, a small yet charming town located about halfway between the larger cities of Catania and Messina. Its sits, calmly overlooking the Ionian Sea, about 650 feet above sea level on the hillside of Monte Tauro. Though small, the town was an important settlement for the Sicels, the Italic tribe that gave Sicily the name it's had since antiquity, and the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, there are many sites and activities that make for an unforgettable stay with your Taormina rental car.
The number one site to see when you stop in Taormina is the Teatro Greco. One of the most celebrated ruins in all of Sicily, the theater is remarkably preserved and snuggled in a stunning location. It is a glimpse into the pasts of both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome; the bricks used in its construction date the current structure to the Roman Empire, but the design suggests it was rebuilt upon the foundations of a Greek theater. The theater is the second-largest of its kind on the island of Sicily, and although it was built in the seventh century B.C., its meticulous design allows it to be used even today for concerts, operas, and theatrical performances.
If you're a fan of cooking--or just a fan of good food--nothing could be better than learning to cook a three-course Sicilian meal at Il Nettuno Restaurant in central Taormina. Well, there might be one thing that's even better: savoring the delectable dishes with samples of local wine after you're done cooking! The five-hour cooking class is led by a professional chef who will not only teach you to prepare Sicilian dishes, but will also take you to a local market and reveal secrets to selecting the freshest, most flavorful ingredients. This class is perfect for those visitors looking to learn something they can take home with them and use long after they've left Sicily's sunbaked countryside.
Although the town of Taormina itself has scenic views at every turn, if you're looking to take "scenic views" to the level of "breathtaking views," you should take a drive just outside the town to the castle ruins in Castelmola. Adventurous visitors in the mood for a serious uphill climb can trek up the ¾-mile-long path to the castle; the path isn't well-maintained, but the panoramic views are spectacular and worth the effort. For those who don't want to walk, it's fortunately very easy to travel by rental car. A well-paved road winds lazily from Taormina to Castelmola, and you can park your car in a public lot just a few minutes outside the ruins. Ducking into and out of the walls of the ancient Castello Normanno will give you 360-degree panoramas of mountain, sky, and sea. The castle was built in 1072, and although extensive restoration work has brought some parts of the structure back to its ancient prominence, what makes this trip worthwhile is not necessarily the castle itself, but rather the beauty of the castle that so seamlessly melts into the natural beauty that surrounds it.
Finally, Taormina has the perfect place for you to spread out and relax. Isola Bella, literally "beautiful island," is a small nature reserve that is often accessible from the mainland beach by means of a narrow path. Also known as The Pearl of the Ionian Sea, Isola Bella has only been the property of Sicily since 1990. The island is tiny, but its history is interesting. In 1860, King Ferdinand I gave the island to the town of Taormina, but the island was later bought from the town by a Ms. Trevelyan, who erected a small house and imported a number of exotic plants that thrived in the Mediterranean climate. Subsequent owners maintained the house and the island until one owner went bankrupt and was forced to auction the island off in 1990. When you visit the island, be sure to look for the many species of birds and lizards that call the tiny area their home, and then bask in the warm sun on the small, pebbled beach that is a popular destination for sunbathers.
SICILY, ITALY, ROAD TRIP DAY 4: MESSINA
The city of Messina, on the northeast corner of the island of Sicily, is caught in the state of perpetually being kicked by Italy's boot. Messina's harbor arches out into the Strait of Messina, and the city was originally named Zancle, from the Greek word for "scythe," due to its natural curved shape. Throughout its long and tumultuous history, the city has in turn been ravaged by warring civilizations, natural disasters, and the Black Plague, but today, the bustling port city is known for its breathtaking architecture, wine production, and lemon, orange, and olive cultivation, which are all reasons that it should be the final stop on your road trip in Sicily.
Although Messina sits right on the beautiful Ionian Coast, swimming is dangerous in the narrow Strait of Messina. The Greeks mythologized the strait's fierce, clashing currents as the sea monsters Charybdis, the whirlpool, and Scylla, the six-headed beast. However, don't worry! Just because you won't be braving the strait doesn't mean you'll have a hard time finding things to do with your Messina rental car in this lively city. To begin, you should definitely stop by the Cathedral of Messina. Severely damaged by two earthquakes in 1783 and 1908 and an incendiary bomb in WWII, the Norman cathedral has since been fully restored, and it's interior and exterior beauty make it a must-see on your trip. The sanctuary is simpler than many Catholic cathedrals, but in the case of this duomo, this simply adds to the grandeur of the high ceilings, white columns, and religious paintings. This cathedral, originally built in the 12th Century, now holds the remains of several remarkable men, such as Conrad IV, King of Germany and Sicily in the 13th Century, and many archbishops.
Alongside the cathedral sits the Orologio Astronomico, the Bell Tower and Astronomical Clock. Built-in 1933 by the Ungerer Company of Strasbourg, it is still one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world. The clock marks the time and the phases of the moon, and if you arrive ten or fifteen minutes before noon, you can catch the daily show that includes mechanically-animated lions roaring and roosters crowing as they illustrate events from the town's civil and religious history. Other significant structures worth visiting are the Church of the Annunziata dei Catalani, whose beautiful domed architecture reveals Arabic influences, and the Church of Santa Maria Degli Alemanni, which is a rare example of pure Gothic architecture in Sicily. While you're in this area, make sure you check out the magnificent Fountain of Orion. Harmonious, symphonic, and elegant, the fountain is rich in fine carvings that pay homage to the triumph of Orion, the giant huntsman that was, for the Greeks, the mythical founder of the city. Sculpted by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, a disciple of Michelangelo's, it was built in 1553 to celebrate the construction of Messina's first aqueduct.
When it was erected, the Fountain of Orion was the tallest and largest of its day, and Montorsoli was soon commissioned to sculpt the Fountain of Neptune, which was also erected in Messina. Although it is a bit of a walk from the duomo to the Fountain of Neptune, if you have time, it's worth a trip to see the beautiful sculpture that depicts the god Neptune blessing the city of Messina.
For art lovers, the Galleria d'Arte Contemporanea di Messina, Messina's small but impressive art museum, is a logical stop. The museum consists of different sections that include archaeology, medieval art, Renaissance art, and goldsmithing, all exhibited in 14 different rooms around a central courtyard. Of particular importance are the works by Antonello da Messina, a painter active during the Italian Renaissance who was originally from Messina, and the paintings of Caravaggio, the world-renowned artist who exercised formative influence on Baroque painting after his death.