Through its history, Catania’s successive populations were deported by one Greek tyrant, sold into slavery by another, and driven out by the Carthaginians. Every time the city got back on its feet it was struck by a new calamity: plague decimated the population in the Middle Ages, a mile-wide stream of lava from Mt. Etna swallowed part of it in 1669, and 25 years later a disastrous earthquake forced the Catanesi to begin again. Today Catania is full of exuberant youth, and it shows in the chic osterie (taverns) that serve wine, the designer bistros, and the trendy ethnic boutiques that have popped up all over town. Even more impressive is the vibrant cultural life. Although the city remains loud and full of traffic, signs of gentrification are everywhere. The elimination of vehicles from the Piazza del Duomo and the main artery of Via Etna and the scrubbing of many of the historic buildings have added to its newfound charm.
Brothers Salvo and Vito La Rosa serve memorable seafood and meat dishes, exquisite homemade desserts, and a choice of more than 220 wines. The restaurant specializes in the ancient dish ripiddu nivicatu (risotto with cuttlefish ink and fresh ricotta cheese), as well as sarde a beccafico (stuffed sardines) and calamari ripieni alla griglia (stuffed and grilled squid).
Ambasciata del Mare
When a seafood restaurant sits next door to a fish market, it bodes well for the food's freshness. Choose swordfish or gamberoni (large shrimp) from a display case in the front of the restaurant; then enjoy it simply grilled with oil and lemon. This basic, bright, and cozy place couldn't be friendlier or more easily accessed—it's right on the corner of Piazza del Duomo by the fountain.
Sicilia in Bocca alla Marina
Behind historic stone walls near the marina, this bright, bustling seafood restaurant is a Catania institution, much favored by locals for its faithful renditions of traditional cuisine. The well-thought-out wine list includes more than 200 Sicilian wines.
Osteria Antica Marina
Just steps from Catania’s famous fish market, this bustling osteria makes a perfect stop for ultrafresh seafood, surrounded by an energetic mix of locals and in-the-know tourists. You'd do well to follow their lead and start with the seafood antipasti, a rotating selection of whatever's freshest that day. Antica Marina's famed for its linguine with sea urchin, but you also can't go wrong with spaghetti with mussels and algae or ricotta panzotti in black-squid-ink sauce; just save room for the freshly grilled whole fish.
The lively Pasticceria Savia makes superlative arancini with ragù (a slow-cooked, tomato-based meat sauce). Or you could choose cannoli or other snacks to munch on while you rest. It's closed Monday.
Outdoor Fish and Food Market
Starting from behind the Fontana Amenano at the corner of Piazza Duomo and spreading westwards between Via Garibaldi and Via Transito, this is one of Italy's most memorable markets. It's a feast for the senses, with thousands of just-caught fish (some still wriggling), endless varieties of meats, ricotta, and fresh produce, plus a symphony of vendor shouts to fill the ears. Open Monday–Saturday, the market is at its best in the early morning and finishes up around lunchtime.
I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza
The selection of almond-based delights here may be small, but everything is fresh and phenomenally good. Ask for boxes of mixed cookies by weight, and enjoy the grab-bag selection at your leisure later. International shipping is available. Other stores can be found on Via G. d'Annunzio 216/218, and at Catania airport.
Caffè del Duomo
Sample the hustle and bustle of Catania at Caffè del Duomo, which has handmade cookies and cakes and a great local atmosphere. Take a seat outside in the piazza and order one of the excellent cannoli to eat with your coffee as you watch the world go by.
Catania's greatest native son was the composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801–35), whose operas have thrilled audiences since their premieres in Naples and Milan. His home, now the Museo Belliniano, preserves memorabilia of the man and his work.
Cattedrale di Sant'Agata (Duomo)
The Giovanni Vaccarini–designed facade of the cathedral dominates the Piazza del Duomo; composer Vincenzo Bellini is buried inside. Also of note are the three apses of lava that survive from the original Norman structure and a fresco from 1675 in the sacristy that portrays Catania's submission to Etna's attack. Underneath the Cathedral are the ruins of Greco-Roman baths: guided tours of the museum and baths are available with a reservation.
Piazza del Duomo
Shining from a 21st-century renovation, this piazza, which is closed to traffic, has at its heart an elephant carved out of lava, balancing an Egyptian obelisk. This is the city's informal mascot, called "u Liotru" in Sicilian dialect. The square also marks the entrance to Catania's famous pescheria (fish market) and is one of the few points in the city where you can see the River Amenano aboveground. Another point of interest is Via Garibaldi, which runs from Piazza Duomo up toward the impressively huge Porta Garibaldi, a black-and-white triumphal arch built in 1768 to commemorate the marriage of Ferdinando I.
Lined with cafés and stores selling high-street jewelry, clothing, and shoes, this street is host to one of Sicily's most enthusiastic passeggiate (early-evening strolls), in which Catanese of all ages take part. It is closed to automobile traffic until 10 pm during the week and all day on weekends.
Agorà Youth Hostel
An underground river, the Amenano, flows through much of Catania. You can glimpse it at the Fontana dell'Amenano, but the best place to experience the river is at the bar-restaurant of the Agorà Youth Hostel. Here you can sit at an underground table as swirls of water rush by. If you're not there when the bar is open, someone at the reception desk can let you in. Apart from the underground river, the bar area aboveground is a lively, fun area to hang out on a Monday evening when many other places are closed.
Festa di Sant'Agata
Each February 3–5, the Festa di Sant'Agata honors Catania's patron saint with one of Italy's biggest religious festivals. The saint herself was first tortured, then killed, when she spurned a Roman suitor in favor of keeping her religious purity. Since then, the Catanese have honored her memory by pulling her relics through the streets of Catania on an enormous silver-encrusted carriage. The entire festival is enormously affecting, even for nonbelievers, and is not to be missed by February visitors.
Black lava stone from Etna, combined with largely Baroque architecture, give Catania's historic center a very distinctive feel. Look out for elephants! Not real ones, of course, but symbols and carvings abound; the main one to see is "U Liotru," guarding the city from his viewpoint on top of the fountain in the middle of the cathedral square. After Catania's destruction by lava and earthquake at the end of the 17th century, the city was rebuilt and U Liotru placed outside the cathedral as a kind of talisman. Also of note in the center are Castello Ursino, which is now a museum, the Greco-Roman theater next to Piazza Duomo, and the Roman amphitheater in Piazza Stesicoro.