On the slopes of Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, one of the most evocative landscapes in Sicily can be enjoyed. Cradle of a civilisation rich in customs and myths, the area boasts a centuries-old tradition of food and wine. Not to mention the presence of tourist destinations, including the small villages of the Etna Park, which attract visitors from all over the world. It is no coincidence that the Rome-Catania air route is the busiest nationally and the fourth busiest in Europe. Counted in Catania-Fontanarossa airport more than 10 million passengers transited in 2019 alone.
Many Catanese choose the villages at the foot of Mount Etna as their place of residence thanks to the favourable climate and excellent infrastructure. Not to mention the presence of an unrivalled food and wine culture.
Etna Park – UNESCO World Heritage Site
Tourists and residents of the surrounding areas are attracted by the unusual landscapes of Etna Park, which have been branded over the centuries by Etna’s eruptive power. Known as “a’ muntagna” to the locals, it is Europe’s largest active volcano. For at least 2,700 years it has been the protagonist of one of the longest documented histories of volcanism. Its scientific importance is considerable, making it a key research destination. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013, it has also been on the prestigious World Heritage List. It has also been described as one of the “most emblematic and active volcanoes in the world”.
Etna Park represents a unique natural environment, with an extraordinary landscape surrounding the volume Etna offers a high level of biodiversity with 92 endemic species, a rich Mediterranean maquis and numerous woodland species.
Tourists attracted by the wonders of Etna Park and Etna villages
With its trails, unique panoramas, typical products and the historic centres of its municipalities, the Park is an attractive invitation all year round. Especially for travellers and lovers of nature, food and wine, and outdoor sports in unique settings.
In addition to hiking, canyoning and volcano caving, which can be practised in the spring, summer and autumn seasons, the slopes of the volcano are covered in snow in winter. They are therefore ideal for winter sports (cross-country skiing, ski mountaineering and snowboarding), with slopes open from mid-December to mid-April. In all seasons, it is possible to enjoy breathtaking views of the Gulf of Catania or Taormina, with the shores of Calabria in the background.
Thanks to the UNESCO effect, tourist flows in Etna Park have increased by about 50% since 2013. What is the profile of the typical tourist who goes to the Etna Park? A sportsman (also a cyclist), a lover of nature and trekking, of excursions (paths and the route to the summit craters), of open-air activities in the mountains. Without forgetting food and wine.
“The craters, ashes, lava flows, lava caves and depression of the Bove valley make Mount Etna a privileged destination and an important international research centre with a long history of influence on volcanology, geology and other earth science disciplines. Its notoriety, scientific importance, cultural and educational values are of worldwide importance”.
(Extract from the UNESCO document for the declaration of the Sicilian volcano as a World Heritage Site)
Here’s a list of most beautiful Etna Park villages.
Castiglione di Sicilia
Ranked among the most beautiful villages in Italy – in total 21 in the Sicilian region – Castiglione di Sicilia was probably founded by exiles from Naxos in 403 BC. In a privileged position, it is lulled on one side by the Alcantara Valley and the Geological Park of the Alcantara Gorges, and on the other by the Etna Park. The view from this small town of just 3,000 inhabitants is unique. It is lost among the woods, lava gorges, orange groves, vineyards and hazelnut groves downstream, as well as the splendid snow-capped Mount Etna, which stands out against the blue sky on clear days.
Francavilla di Sicilia
A village of just over 3,700 residents, Francavilla di Sicilia has unknown remote origins, which are lost in time to resurface around the year 1000. In fact, the remains of the castle around which the small town is built date back to the Middle Ages.
The small town is located right in the centre of the Alcantara Valley, which owes its name to the river of the same name. It is a place where trekking enthusiasts never disdain a visit. It is a realm of magical beauty in terms of landscape and fauna, with various species of rare plants and animals.
Tradition has it that the name of this Etnean village derives from that of a princess, Maletta or Marietta. The legend, which has a basis in historical truth, says that the princess dominated the village with her band of outlaws who sought refuge here, safe from prosecution.
Located at an altitude of 960 m, Maletto is the highest of Etna’s villages. It is the origin of several trails that can be covered on foot without any particular physical effort, and from here it is possible to reach the Grotta del Gelo (Frost Cave). So called because of the perennial presence of ice inside, the lava flow cave does not exceed 5 degrees below zero even in the summer months.
Lying on the southern slope of the volcano, Nicolosi, a municipality in the Catania metropolitan area and one of the best-known villages near Etna Park, is traditionally considered the “Gateway to Etna”. Due to its strategic location, it is both a privileged access point to Europe’s highest volcano and only 15 km from the city of Catania. The official headquarters of the Etna Park, Nicolosi is the ideal starting point for those who want to undertake the ascent to the summit of the craters. Thanks to its mild climate and healthy air, Nicolosi is now a splendid holiday resort. Perfect in all seasons of the year, since the 18th century it has welcomed a large number of illustrious figures such as Giovanni Verga, Queen Eleonora D’Angiò, Johann Hermann von Riedesel and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Nicolosi offers a unique landscape of lush vegetation. Its colours range from the black of the lava flows to the deep green of the woods and the golden yellow of the broom. Given its proximity to Catania, Nicolosi is also chosen by those who prefer to live in less crowded places, especially after the new housing needs that have emerged following the lockdown. Places that allow them to live in nature and reconcile family, work and leisure time.
Ibla Mayor in ancient times, the locality that today bears the name of Paternò stands on two distinct strips of land: on the one hand, land of lava origin, in the districts to the east, and on the other, land of alluvial origin, along the Simeto Valley to the south. Over the centuries, Paternò has stood out for having many water springs, including Monafria, Maimonide and Currone. The best known is undoubtedly that of Maimonide, which, however, does not yet have adequate facilities for opening to the public.
The late-medieval charm of this pearl among Etna’s villages blends with the flavours and aromas of an uncontaminated, volcanic nature. Not forgetting its proximity to the Church of Maria Santissima Annunziata and the Sanctuary of the Madonna della Consolazione.
A long triangle with the vertex touching the summit of Etna, with patches of bright green alternating with dark peaks of lava, reaching towards the sky like the spires of a Gothic cathedral. We are in the province of Catania, in the Etna Park, and this is what the Ragalna area looks like from above.
Nicknamed the “terrace of Etna”, one of the features that characterises this small town on Etna is its location at 830 m a. s. l. A favourite destination for tourists, mainly from June to October, it hosts around 15-18,000 people per year. Tourists here can enjoy the tranquillity of the location and the salubrity of the air, as well as the pleasure of tasting a wide range of food and wine products.
On summer evenings, from June to September, keen observers of the heavens should not miss a visit to the famous Astrophysical Observatory on Etna’s southern slope.
A stone’s throw from Catania and the Ionian coast, Viagrande is a cozy town on Etna’s foothills. This Etnean village is known for its ancient traditions, its vineyards and its rich gastronomy. It also boasts PDO products such as prickly pears, cherries and Etna extra virgin olive oil. It is home to the Benanti winery, the only company in Sicily to make wine from the indigenous Minnella vine. Viagrande – developed around the park of Monte Serra, an ancient inactive volcanic cone – is also considered an important cultural and tourist hub for the entire Catanese area.
There are many sports activities that can be practised in the area in different seasons of the year. Downhill and cross-country skiing, ski mountaineering, trekking, rafting, paragliding, horse riding, to name but a few, as well as bathing on the coast.
Thanks to the careful protection of the territory, the flora and fauna of this environment have been increasingly enriched with new elements, boasting today the stable presence of species of great naturalistic value. The Monteserra Butterfly House, the first in southern Italy, can be regarded as a large tropical aviary. Here hundreds of butterflies, some of the most beautiful and extraordinary in the world, with the most varied shapes and colours, are free to fly.
Zafferana Etnea lies on the eastern slopes of Mount Etna. The cozy village is known for the ‘Brancati’ literary prize. The latter was established in 1967 at the behest of great names in Italian journalism and literature. Among them: Dacia Maraini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Leonardo Sciascia and Vanni Ronsisvalle. Throughout the year, the village is the stage for numerous festivals dedicated to typical local products, from chestnuts to mushrooms and apples.
From an architectural point of view, the charm of this little jewel at the foot of Etna branches out from the central square dedicated to Umberto I to the lush public garden, meticulously cared for, to the village’s two best-known churches: Chiesa Madre and Chiesa Madonna delle Grazie.