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Why go now?
Next weekend, the Sicilian city of Catania stages one of southern Italy's biggest and most dramatic festivals, the Festa di Sant'Agata. Passions hit fever pitch as up to one million people take to the streets to celebrate the city's patron saint and watch as her relics are paraded around town by teams of white-shirted devotees.
Festivities apart, Catania is a delight, with a stately Baroque centre, terrific street markets, great food and a bubbly nightlife. And winter is a good time to visit: temperatures are mild, about 15C; there are very few tourists around; and Mount Etna provides some thrilling views, its snow-capped summit rising menacingly over the city's rooftops.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) fly from Gatwick to Catania's Fontanarossa airport, about four miles southwest of the city. To get into town, take the Alibus 457 shuttle from near the terminal building. It departs every 20 minutes between 5.30am-12.10am for the central train station (1). It takes half an hour for a fare of €1 and stops at various points en route. For the historic centre, get off at Piazza Borsellino (2). A taxi is quicker but will cost about €30.
Get your bearings
Sitting at the foot of Mount Etna on Sicily's east coast, Catania is the island's second-largest city after Palermo. Its historic centre, where you'll find the main sights, is compact and easily explored on foot. From the bus stops on Piazza Borsellino (1), it's a two-minute walk to Piazza Duomo (3), the city's focal point. This grandiose square, like much of the old town, was laid out in Baroque style in the 18th century after a volcanic eruption and earthquake devastated the city in the late 1600s. North of here, there's a second impressive square, Piazza Università (4), which leads on to Via Etnea, the city's main shopping strip. On either side of this imposing traffic-free boulevard, shadowy lanes harbour lots of bars, trattorias and restaurants.
Information and free city maps are available at the city tourist office (5) near Piazza Duomo at Via Vittorio Emanuele II 172 (00 39 095 29 31 727; comune.catania.it; open 8.15am-1pm and 2-4pm, closed Sunday).
The Una Hotel Palace (6) at Via Etnea 218 (00 39 095 250 5111; unahotels.it) has a prime location in a towering early 20th-century palazzo. It has elegant, understated rooms and rooftop views of Mount Etna. Its minimalist, white décor sets a refined tone while the furniture and occasional patch of majolica tiling add a Sicilian touch. Doubles with breakfast from €113.
For something more homely, try B&B Crociferi (7) (00 39 095 715 2266; bbcrociferi.it) at No 81 on one of Catania's most beautiful streets, Via Crociferi. A welcome hideaway with frescoed ceilings, cheerful family clutter and a resident dog, it has three large guest rooms and a couple of mini-apartments. Doubles start at €75, including breakfast.
Hostel-goers can make for the perennially popular Agorà Hostel (8) at Piazza Currò 6 (00 39 095 723 3010; agorahostel.it) where they can bunk down in dorms (from €15) or private rooms (from €45), and drink in an underground cave bar.
Take a hike
In Piazza Duomo (3), admire the baroque façade of the Cattedrale di Sant' Agata and the Fontana dell'Elefante, a flamboyant fountain featuring a smiling elephant and Egyptian obelisk. Then head down to Via Pardo to enjoy some street theatre at La Pescheria (9), the city's exuberant fish market.
From there, work your way up to Piazza Federico di Svevia and the Castello Ursino (10), a robust 13th-century castle that houses the Museo Civico (00 39 095 345 830; free or €6 if there's an exhibition) and its modest collection of archaeological artefacts. It's open 9am-1pm and 3-7pm daily except Sunday; longer during exhibitions.
Pick up Via Auteri and continue to walk downhill to Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi. Here, behind scaffolding at No 3, is the Museo Belliniano (11) (9am-7pm Monday to Saturday; 9am-1pm Sunday; €3), a small museum dedicated to opera composer Vincenzo Bellini in the house where he was born.
Duck under the Arco di San Benedetto (12) and continue up Via Crociferi (13) past several elegant baroque churches to Via Gesuiti on the left. At the top, on Piazza Dante, is the Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l'Arena (14), once Europe's second-largest monastery but now part of Catania university. Nip in and have a nose around before descending Via Antonino San Giuliano to finish on Via Etnea.
Lunch on the run
Savia (15), at Via Etnea 302 (00 39 095 322 335; savia.it), is a historic pasticceria (pastry shop) that does a roaring lunchtime trade in arancini (deep-fried rice balls). These Sicilian staples come in various forms, including a Catanese (€2), flavoured with cheese, aubergine, diced ham and basil.
If you're still peckish, follow up with a cigar-sized cannolo (€2.40), a crispy pastry tube stuffed with creamy ricotta cheese. Next door at number 300, Pasticceria Spinella (00 39 095 327 247; pasticceriaspinella.it; open daily) offers more of the same.
Locals flock to Via Etnea to peruse the department stores, such as Coin at number 112 (00 39 095 322 133; coin.it) and chains such as Miss Sixty, Swarovski and Swatch. But for a taste of Sicilian tradition, search out I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza (16) at Piazza Placido 7 (00 39 095 715 1844; dolcinonnavincenza. it), a lovely old-fashioned shop selling cakes, pastries and biscuits.
On a tiny alleyway off Via Etnea, TriBeCa (17) at Via Monte Sant'Agata 10 (00 39 345 490 2960), is a hip bar that's popular with Catania's smart aperitif set. It's a laid-back spot with a Seventies-styled interior, pavement tables and a decent selection of cocktails and local wines. Order an aperitif, such as an Aperol spritz (€7), and help yourself to nibbles from the bar buffet.
Dining with the locals
Overlooking the fish market, Osteria Antica Marina (18) at Via Pardo 29 (00 39 095 348197; anticamarina.net; closed Wednesday) serves superb seafood and a convivial trattoria vibe. You'll need to reserve a table but it's worth it for the outstanding spaghetti ai ricci di mare (spaghetti with sea urchins) and butter-soft grilled cuttlefish. You'll pay about €35 per person for a pasta dish, main course and wine.
One of Catania's signature dishes is pasta alla Norma, a delicious marriage of fried aubergines, tomato and ricotta that's named after Bellini's opera. It's served all over town but is particularly good at the Nuova Trattoria del Forestiero (19) at Via Coppola 24 (00 39 095 316283; closed Monday) where it costs just €5.
Sunday morning: go to church
Catania's showpiece church is the Cattedrale di Sant'Agata (00 39 095 320044; cattedralecatania. it) on Piazza Duomo (3). Constructed to replace the city's Norman cathedral which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, it features a tiered baroque façade and an unusual grey and white colour scheme – like many of Catania's 18th-century buildings it was fashioned out of volcanic rock. Inside, look out for Bellini's tomb and the Cappella di Sant'Agata, where St Agatha's relics are kept. Open 7am-noon and 4-7pm daily; Sunday mass at 8am, 9.30am, 11am and 6pm.
Out to brunch
Caffè Prestipino (20), Via Etnea 28-30 (00 39 095 320 555 ) is a grand old café by Piazza Università – the perfect spot to while away an idle hour or two, with excellent cappuccino and brioches; about €2.30 at the bar, €5 if you sit at a table.
Take a ride
Katane Live (00 39 095 354704; katanelive.it) runs hour-long, hop-on hop-off circular bus tours for €7. It starts at Piazza Duomo (3) and takes in Piazza Europa (21), the Orto Botanico (Botanical Gardens) (22), Via Etnea and Teatro Massimo Bellini (23).
A walk in the park
Villa Bellini (24) (6am-9pm daily) is a landscaped garden dating to the 19th century. Stroll past ceremonial busts of illustrious citizens, towering palms and other subtropical plants and trees, including an extraordinary graffiti-sprayed Moreton Bay fig tree near the north entrance.
Centuries of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes mean little has survived from Catania's early days when it was founded by Greeks around 730BC. But traces of its ancient past can still be seen. In Piazza Stesicoro you can explore the smog-stained ruins of the Anfiteatro Romano (25) (open 9am-1pm and 2.30-6pm; free), a 2nd-century BC amphitheatre that once seated up to 16,000 spectators. Further south, you'll find more theatrical ruins at the Teatro Romano-Odeon (26), Via Vittorio Emanuele II 266 (00 39 7150508; open 9am-1.30pm and 2.30pm-6pm Tuesday to Sunday; €4).
For a more modern theatrical experience, try for a matinee performance at the plush opera house, the Teatro Massimo Bellini (23), Piazza Bellini (00 39 095 715 0921; teatromassimobellini.it). Online tickets start at €20.
Icing on the cake
Mount Etna – Europe's largest active volcano – is a must-see. A daily bus (€5.90) departs from the piazza in front of the train station (1) to Rifugio Sapienza, the peak's southern gateway. From late April you can take a cable car up to 2,500m and then either walk or take a further bus up to the crater zone, which at this time of the year is covered in snow.
Before then, you'd be better off taking a guided tour from Catania. Operators, such as Etna Sicily Touring (00 39 348 551 7136; etna sicilytouring.com), offer a range of excursions with prices starting at about €49 for a half-day tour.