Are you planning a trip to Sicily and looking for things to see and do? Look no further than the most iconic symbol of the island, Mount Etna!
Mount Etna, majestically standing on the Eastern coast of Sicily, is the tallest and most active volcano in Europe. Here, they call her Mother Etna or the Great Smoking Lady. I'm not sure why both scenarios involve her being a female, maybe because she makes the soil so fertile, or perhaps because she’s always “venting”? Either way, if there's one thing I've learned living in Sicily, it's that everything here is either feminine or masculine; from parts of speech to foods, and yes, even volcanoes.
As its name suggests, Mt. Etna is both a volcano and a mountain. In addition to the nicknames above, it is also called “Montebello” or “Mongibello” in Italian (beautiful mountain). Sicilian dialect offers the variation “Mungibeddu”, as well as “a Muntagna”, simply meaning “mountain”. No matter what you call Mt. Etna, it is an impressive sight, rising up from the Mediterranean Sea to a height of over 10,000 feet! Did you know that its height actually changes? Over time, the height can fluctuate due to lava flows increasing it or eruptions blowing the top and decreasing it.
Mother Etna affects the agriculture that grows here, with extremely fertile soil that gives us blood oranges, mineral-rich wines, gigantic lemons, and the famous Bronte pistachios, to name a few. She also provides unique and beautiful scenery, towering in the background from almost any vantage point in Eastern Sicily. Etna is especially spectacular when she’s “smoking” at sunset, turning the entire sky into a collage of pink, purple, and orange that will leave you breathless.
So what are all the ways to explore Mount Etna? Whether your interest lies in wine, local foods, hiking, or adrenaline activities, Etna has something for you! Here are all the best things to do on Mount Etna.
1. Best things to do on Mount Etna: Cable Car
Taking the cable car, or gondola, up to the craters on Mt. Etna is one of the easiest ways to reach the top. Also called the Funivia dell’Etna, the cable car station is located at Rifugio Sapienza on the southern slopes of the mountain. The ride is a little bit pricey at €50 per person round trip, but it is definitely something worth splurging on. Where else can you stand in the clouds on the top of a mountain covered in black, sandy volcanic ash?
Once you reach the top there are a few different ways you can explore, depending on your fitness level and budget. You can wander around at your own pace, walking or hiking up the different craters. There’s also a snack bar, a 7D projection room with a brand new immersive video experience, and a panoramic terrace. Be sure to snap some photos of the coastline from up here if the skies are clear. It’s a once in a lifetime view!
You can also pay for a guided tour that leaves the upper gondola station on a four-wheel-drive bus. The guided tour will take you to a higher elevation on one of the craters where you’ll benefit from even better views, along with a knowledgeable guide. You’ll need to pay for this option with your gondola ride at the ticket counter before riding to the top. Find details and ticket prices here.
In the winter, Etna is almost always covered in snow. This offers the opportunity for some especially unique experiences. Instead of the four-wheel drive bus, your guided tour will take you on a Snowcat vehicle that looks like some sort of moon-rover. And if you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can even test your skiing and sledding skills up there!
Not feeling brave enough to go to the top? If your nerves or your pocketbook hold you back from riding the gondola to see the craters, not to worry! You can hike to the lower Silvestri craters from parking lot level. Just look for the signs!
How to get to the Etna cable car:
If you’re driving your own vehicle, search for Funivia dell’Etna on your map app and it will take you to the parking area. There are several parking lots, along with a lookout point, coffee bar, restaurant, and souvenir shops where you can buy lava stone jewelry, trinkets, clothing and typical Sicilian products such as honey and “Fuoco dell'Etna”, a 70 proof liqueur made with an infusion of local herbs from the mountain.
Public transportation to Mt. Etna is possible on the AST bus line. There is one bus that leaves daily from the bus station at Piazza Giovanni XXIII (close to the Catania Centrale train station). It leaves at 8:15 a.m., arriving at Rifugio Sapienza two hours later. During peak summer season (June 15 through September 15) an additional bus leaves Catania at 11:30. The return bus leaves Rifugio Sapienza at 16:30. Don’t miss it, or you’ll be spending the night on a bed of lava. The round trip ticket costs around €6.00 and can be bought from the bus driver or on the AST website here.
Weather on Mt. Etna:
Mt. Etna is 10,000 feet tall and the temperature at the top is much colder than at sea level. Even in the summer, a light jacket is needed. In cooler months, you’ll definitely need the standard Sicilian puffy coat, hat and gloves. You also need tennis shoes, hiking boots, or some other sturdy closed-toe shoe for walking on any of the craters.
Keep in mind that there are always clouds circling around Mt. Etna, as it literally creates its own weather. Clouds seem to form out of nothing, but they roll over the top of the mountain pretty quickly. Sometimes it feels like they float right across you! Don’t let a few clouds stop you from taking a trip up to the top, it’s all part of the experience.
2. Best things to do on Mount Etna: Excursions to the Craters
Whether you want to get up close and personal with the craters on Mount Etna, or you’re looking for an adrenaline boost, booking a guided excursion with a local tour company will give you an experience of a lifetime. You can take guided hikes with geologists who will lead you through lava tubes and right up to the edge of active craters, and tell you everything you ever wanted to know about volcanoes. In the winter, you can even take snow shoe treks!
If you really want to get your blood pumping, try an excursion up the slopes of Etna in a jeep or on quads (my American brain still thinks of these as 4-wheelers, but here they call them quads). There are quite a few local companies who do these types of tours, some that will even pick you up from your hotel. A few I recommend are Etna Sicily Tours, Go-Etna, Euro Etna Tourism, or Etna Quad Adventure.
3. Best things to do on Mount Etna: Hiking
Mt. Etna is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also a National Park. Etna has plenty of hiking trails on (and off) the beaten path for you to choose from. You can explore valleys, caves, and craters, and walk right alongside old (and not so old) lava flows. Hikes on Mt. Etna offer panoramic views of the Mediterranean Sea that stretch all the way across to the mainland on a clear day. My favorite hike is the Schiena dell’asino, purely for its incredible views of the coastline and the Bove Valley! See my review here.
Information on visitor centers and other hiking trails can be found on the official Parco dell’Etna website. I’m a fan of using the All Trails app or website as well, they have good options with a wide range of length and difficulty.
4. Best things to do on Mount Etna: Circumetnea Train
One of my absolute favorite experiences on Mt. Etna was riding the Circumetnea train, a narrow-gauge railway constructed in the late 1800s. As you would expect based on its name, this railway encircles Mt. Etna, almost completely. Also known as the Ferrovia Circumetnea, the 110-kilometer line follows a route from two directions that meet in the town of Randazzo, one of the highest cities on the mountain. For full details on how to ride the Circumetnea train, see my article here!
5. Best things to do on Mount Etna: Food and Drink
The most delicious way to visit Mt. Etna is by experiencing the food and wine grown on its slopes. Here are some of my favorite Etna food and drink experiences.
Explore the town of Bronte and taste its world-famous pistachios. For an amazing farm and culinary experience, try one of the tours offered by Italia Delight.
Visit the town of Zafferana Etnea for a sampling of the best local honey around. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up here on a weekend when they’re having their local arts and crafts market. They even put on an incredible Oktoberfest (Ottobrata Zafferanese) that lasts all month long! But whatever you do, don’t leave Zafferana without eating Pizza Siciliana at one of the street-side cafes or pizzerias. It's Sicily’s deep-fried answer to a calzone, made with Tuma cheese straight from the Nebrodi mountains. Two of our favorite places to find this delicious deep-fried slice of heaven are Le Gioie del Grano for street side tables or take-away, and Il Castello di Bacco for a nice sit-down meal in the town's main piazza.
Head to Piedimonte Etneo to sip on Volcano Gin, made with botanicals found right on the mountain. Read more about it and book tastings on their website here.
Last but certainly not least, you absolutely must try some of Mt. Etna’s distinctive and mineral-rich wines! From Etna Rosso’s intense and fruity reds to Etna Bianco’s crisp and citrusy whites, and my personal favorite, the full-bodied Nero d’avola. A rich and fruity red that will slap you in the face but leave you with a smile. With over 180 wineries on Mt. Etna, you're sure to find one that you'll like!
I digress, as usual, when I start talking and thinking about food. Stay tuned for a more detailed post on all the best food and drink experiences on Mt. Etna. But if you truly want a special experience, visit Sicily during the fall and take part in the yearly grape harvest called “vendemmia”. Read about my experience here!
Needless to say, a trip to Sicily would not be complete without experiencing this unique geological feature in some way. There are certainly a myriad of experiences to suit all tastes, and no matter what you choose, it will be an experience you’ll never forget!
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Check out some of the other articles on my European Destinations page or read more about my Sicilian adventures below!