If you’re looking for a unique way to see Mount Etna, consider riding the Circumetnea Railway that encircles Sicily’s famous volcano! Also known as the Ferrovia Circumetnea, the narrow-gauge railway is a 110-kilometer line constructed in the late 1800’s that follows a route from two directions, winding its way up the slopes of the volcano and meeting in the town of Randazzo. It's one of my favorite things to do on Mt. Etna!
Riding this historic train will take you back in time over 100 years. The tracks follow a route within an arm's reach of terraced vineyards, through quaint villages bordered by lava stone walls, and past fields of petrified lava.
I always say that, in general, traveling in Sicily isn't for rookies. This train is not a tourist attraction. It will take you most of the day to make the complete loop, and the trains don't have air conditioning or bathrooms. However, I believe the authenticity of the experience is what makes it something special. And the view...I can't even begin to explain how beautiful and raw it is.
In order to make your experience a success, it requires some pre-planning, and a little bit of “va bene” attitude, which in this situation means “it’s all good”. When you travel in Sicily, you have to be willing to embrace the fact that things aren’t as convenient as other places in Italy, and they don’t always go as planned. But the rewards are without a doubt worth it! So if you’re feeling adventurous and you’re ready for an experience you’ll never forget, let’s talk about how to ride Mt. Etna's Circumetnea Railway.
Since the railway isn’t a complete loop, you aren’t able to go all the way around Etna in one ride. The end lines are the small town of Riposto on the north side and the Catania Borgo station on the south. Although Riposto is the end of the line, I recommend using the Giarre station on the north side if you’re traveling from that direction. It’s easier to get to, and you won’t miss much between the two.
Here are the route options for riding the Circumetnea!
There and back
Start at either Giarre or Catania Borgo, ride the train up to Randazzo, spend a few hours exploring this amazing town built mostly out of lava stone, then ride the train back down to where you started. This is especially convenient if you have your own car because you will just leave your car in the train station lot. Otherwise, you’ll have to take a taxi or use public transportation to get to your starting location.
This is easy if you’re staying in Catania, as you can either take a bus or metro to the Borgo station, then walk across the street to the Ferrovia Circumetnea station. If you plan to start in Giarre, you will need to take a bus or local train to the Giarre-Riposto station, then it’s a short walk to the Ferrovia Circumetnea station. The train schedule varies throughout the year, so check the timetables on their official site. Plan to arrive at the station 20 - 30 minutes before your desired departure time so you can find a place to park and buy tickets. I recommend clicking on the PDF schedules, as the online search feature doesn’t always work. Va bene.
Taking a loop route on the Circumetnea is a little more complicated. You will start from either Giarre or Catania Borgo, ride up to Randazzo, spend a few hours exploring, then ride down the other side. Here you will need to find a way back to where you started, or to where you are staying. If you have a car waiting for you where you started, you’ll need to use a combination of bus or metro, then a regional train.
For example, if you start in Giarre and end up at Catania Borgo, you will take a bus or metro to Catania Centrale Train Station, then take a regional train to the Giarre-Riposto station. Reverse this route if you started in Catania. It’s possible to buy all these train tickets online, but I think it’s easier just to buy them at the station. That way you can verify the timetables and make sure there is a train back to where you started at the time you want. The first time I tried this, the train station was closed with no explanation or signage. Luckily, we met some workers who told us that the entire northern line of the railway was closed for repairs.
Pro tip: Bring a phone with a translator App. Sicilians are the nicest people you will ever meet, and they are extremely helpful; however, not as many people here speak English as in other parts of Italy. Google translate and hand gestures go a long way.
There are also buses that run between Catania and Giarre. The local bus company is called AST. You can check the schedules here; hopefully, your web browser will translate the site. Their website also gives information on the different ways to buy tickets, just scroll down to the bottom half of the page for the English version. You can buy tickets online, on an App, from the driver, and from some local vendors (Tabacchi stores usually sell bus tickets).
The easiest way to ride the Circumetnea train is by booking a guided trip. Local companies offer excursions where they will meet you at the train station, or even pick you up and take you to the train station. Then your guide will ride the train with you. At the top, you can arrange walking tours of Randazzo or even be picked up by a shuttle for wine tasting! Some of the benefits of booking a guided trip on the Circumetnea are that they will do all of the scheduling, your tickets will be paid for in advance, and you will learn a lot of interesting facts on the ride!
This is not one of the most well-known activities around Mt. Etna, so guided tours are limited. I have seen these on Viator and through Travel Taormina, which include a ride on the Circumetnea as well as stops in the Alcantara Gorge and the volcanic craters.
The tour I took was called the Wine Train, an amazing journey created by the Strada del Vino dell’Etna. This trip is offered every Thursday and Saturday from June to September. It included a guided train ride on the Circumetnea, with a “wine bus” shuttle waiting at the top. First, the shuttle took us into the historic center of Randazzo for a short walking tour and stop at the Pasticceria Santo Musumeci for its award-winning Sicilian granita. Then we were taken to two different Etna wineries for wine tasting, snacks, and tours of their beautiful vineyards.
I can’t say enough about how amazing this experience was. If you decide on this tour, I highly recommend you plan to book several weeks in advance. The booking link on their website doesn’t always work, and we had to submit an email inquiry first, and then wait for a reply. It took several emails back and forth to finally get the booking completed. We also had to pay using a bank transfer, which you may not have if you don’t live in Europe. After doing some research, I see that you can also book through a website called Winery Tasting Sicily, so this may be a better option.
In summary, sometimes the best experiences aren’t easy, and the Circumetnea Railway is an excellent example of this. It took me several months of researching, waiting for repairs on the railway to be completed, and two failed attempts to get it right. Hopefully, my trials and tribulations have paid off and made it easier for others, and you can experience the magic of Mount Etna’s Circumetnea for yourself!
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Check out some of the other articles on my European Destinations page or read more about my Sicilian adventures below!