Day trips from Catania by public transport

Sicily’s second city of Catania makes an ideal base for day trips by public transport to Taormina, Syracuse and Mount Etna. Here’s what to see and how to get there.

Catania day trip 1: Taormina – for ancient ruins and vertiginous viewpoints

Taormina is famed for its ruined Greek theatre, which dates back to the 3rd century BC. Teatro Greco may be hyped up, but it’s worth the visit – the relatively intact amphitheatre looks to the stage, and Mount Etna looms (or smokes!) as a backdrop.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Taormina Teatro Greco

The Teatro Greco in Taormina. Who wouldn’t want to take a day trip here?

The rest of Taormina is postcard pretty, but has the accompanying tourist factor. Prices are far higher than Catania and elsewhere in Sicily.

To escape the crowds, head up to the Monte Tauro viewpoint, a 20 minute signed schlep up from the bypass (Via Circonvallazione), which runs roughly parallel to the tourist drag of Corso Umberto. The views over Taormina are worth the effort.

day trips from Catania by public transport - view over Taormina

A steep hike, but well worth it!

How to get from Catania to Taormina on public transport

The Catania to Taormina bus departs from Catania’s main bus station. The main bus station (not to be confused with the bus stands and small lot in front of the train station) sits a block back from the main road that runs past the train station.

Buses between Catania and Taormina are run by Etna Trasporti. They’re every half hour or hour, depending on the time of day you depart, and take about an hour and ten minutes to make the journey. A return ticket is €8.50. You can find timetables at the Interbus website.

Buses arrive fairly centrally in Taormina in a small bus station. It’s about a 5-10 minute walk from here to the centre – just follow the line of gift shops! Catch the return bus from the same small bus station.

There is a Catania to Taormina train, but the station in Taormina is 2km downhill from the centre. It’s also infrequent. The bus is a better bet.

Catania day trip 2: Syracuse – for beautiful buildings and creepy catacombs

Syracuse’s historical centre is on the peninsula of Ortygia. You could spend hours wandering its alleyways and coastal lookouts.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia

A photo-opp on every corner …

Despite the tourist-attracting UNESCO world heritage status, Syracuse feels a lot more real than Taormina, and prices – even in prime locations – are very reasonable.

The Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is the centre piece of it all. This picture gives a flavour for how spectacular it is, and speaks louder than my words.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia Piazza del Duomo

Niiiiiice! Syracuse’s Piazza del Duomo doesn’t disappoint.

Underneath the square, and accessible from it, are the Catacombs of St John. Now set out as a museum, they have some pretty interesting exhibits down there!

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia catacombs

One of the original inhabitants of Syracuse’s catacombs.

Away from Ortygia, Syracuse is also home to ancient Greek ruins, spread out over the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis. The 5th century Greek theatre is impressive – but – in my opinion, not a patch on the one at Taormina. However, the scale of the park overall is larger, and it’s worth a visit if you have a couple of hours to spare.

How to get from Catania to Syracuse on public transport

You can reach Syracuse by bus or train from Catania.

The train takes between 1hr 5 minutes and 1hr 20 minutes and costs €6.90 each way. Trains are every hour or two hours, depending on the time of day. You can find timetables and buy tickets at the Trenitalia website (available in English as well as Italian). Syracuse is Siracusa in Italian. As with all Italian trains, validate your ticket before you board.

There are also regular (approximately hourly) Interbus buses between Catania and Syracuse. They take around 1 hr 25 minutes. Find the timetable on the Interbus website.

Buses leave from the bus station in Catania, located as described in the Taormina day trip. They arrive at Syracuse’s bus station, which is a couple of blocks from its train station.

It’s a walk from Syracuse’s train and bus stations to the attractions. At a decent pace, it takes about 20 minutes to walk to Ortygia and around 20 minutes to the ruins. They’re in opposite directions from one another.

Catania day trip 3: Mount Etna – for mild adventures at altitude

The summits and craters of Europe’s most active volcano boast an other-worldly atmosphere, alternating between a dark ashy hell and a red landscaped Mars. Both are incredibly photogenic, especially against a bright sky.

day trips from Catania - visiting Mount Etna

A volcano, or Mars? This pic was taken in late April, and the hat/jacket and sunscreen were most definitely needed 🙂

From Refugio Sapienza at 2000 metres above sea level, you can cable car and/or walk/jeep to the summit and craters at 3000 metres.

At this altitude, be prepared for a possible shortness of breath, intense sun, and all weathers. There’s loose ash everywhere, so beach flip flops are not recommended ☺

How to take a day trip from Catania to Mount Etna

There’s only one bus a day each way between Catania and Mount Etna, so don’t miss it ☺

The AST bus from Catania departs from the small lot near the stands outside the railway station (not the main bus station) at 8.15am. It takes 2 hours – with a stop en-route – to reach Refugio Sapienza, which is the closest you can get on public transport. The return bus is at 4.30pm, arriving back in Catania for around 6pm.

Buy your bus tickets in advance from the ticket office, and your cable car / jeep tickets for the summit at the Refugio. Check out my full and detailed post about Mount Etna logistics, timetables and pricing to find out more.

[box type=”info”]I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for most of my time in Catania (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link), and also had a one-night stay in the slightly fancy and recommended Liberty Hotel. I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Sicily as an overview guide. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

These are just three possible day trips from Catania by public transport. And there are more … you could also take day trips to Noto and Enna. Catania itself is also full of charms – sometimes of the shabby chic variety. Just writing this makes me want to go back!

Have you used Catania as a base for day trips? Where else would you recommend? Share your tips and ideas below.

The mountains and monasteries of Meteora, northern Greece

“Suspended in the air”. That’s the meaning of Meteora. These monasteries of northern Greece live up to this translation, perching on rock massifs hundreds of metres above the valley floor, seemingly defying the forces of gravity.

The history of the monasteries

At the height of construction in the 14th & 15th centuries, some 24 monasteries inhabited the peaks.

Their whole ethos was one of remoteness and inaccessibility. The political instability of the era – rather than an overwhelming desire for the solitude of spiritual contemplation – made isolation a necessity at the time.

monasteries of Meteora - isolation

It wasn’t too easy to bob and see your neighbours in 15th century Meteora

The monasteries of Meteora today

monasteries of Meteora - Byzantine artwork

A replica of the intricate artworks that adorn the monastery chapels

Today, only six monasteries – four for men, two for women – remain in working condition. Tourism rather than faith is their economic mainstay.

Each monastery maintains at least a small chapel, adorned with intricate Byzantine paintings. Photography inside the quiet hush of the chapels is forbidden, but a replica painting gives a taste of the level of the dark detail inside their spherical candle-lit domes.

The larger monasteries, such as Melago Meteora (Great Meteora), also house mini museums; with battles and agriculture of eras gone by being the primary themes.

All are incredibly photogenic; the views to neighbouring monasteries or the plains below being the mainstay of many a snapshot.

monasteries of Meteora

vistas like these are round every corner in Meteora

Getting around the monasteries of Meteora

Tour buses plod the winding roads around Meteora, but going under your own steam means you can find some of the peace and solitude that was the essence of early monastic life here.

I explored independently and on foot, taking two days to visit five of the six monasteries from my base in the nearby village of Kastraki.

The roads between the monasteries aren’t crazy distances, and there are also some (unsigned) footpaths if you keep your eyes peeled. I met one other person in two days on these footpaths, so they’re a great way to experience the majesty of Meteora’s isolated setting.

monasteries of Meteora

splendid isolation on one of the footpaths linking the monasteries

My verdict

The most memorable things about Meteora for me: The majestic setting, the wide vistas, the photo opportunities.

However, I felt as though the spiritual essence of this place – its original reason for being – had been lost.

The displays told me nothing of how the monks and nuns – around 10 per monastery – lead their modern-day lives on these sheer cliff faces.

What does a day as a Greek Orthodox nun or monk look like? What do they do? How often do they pray? Do they still sustain themselves through agriculture? Or are their lives nowadays devoted to the tourists whose income maintains their home? These were questions that remain unanswered.

Should you visit Meteora? Definitely.

But leave any expectations of new-found knowledge of the modern-day monastery inhabitants at home.

This is a place where your photographs will be your memories.

monasteries of Meteora

the Meteora landscape makes for some remarkable memories

Practicalities on visiting the monasteries of Meteora

Entrance fees are €3 per monastery. Expect a lot of rock-hewn steps. In days gone by – according to UNESCO’s website – pilgrims were hoisted vertically up the sheer cliff faces.

Rock climbing is popular here, if you fancy emulating James Bond in the 1981 film, “For Your Eyes Only.”

Leave the shorts and sleeveless tops at your accommodation and dress conservatively. Ladies will need to cover up their legs (below the knee) with one of the long skirts provided at the entrance to each monastery (or wear your own).

The nearest major town to Meteora is Kalambaka, around 5-6 hours north of Athens by bus or train. Buses are more frequent than trains, with a one-way ticket in October 2014 costing €29 via Trikala (where you may need to change).

The pretty village of Kastraki is 2km west of Kalambaka and is the nearest base to the Meteora. There are plenty of B&Bs, hotels and restaurants in both Kastraki and Kalambaka, and English is widely spoken. I stayed at Tsikeli B&B in Kastraki.

Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites

If you’re a castle and ruins-aholic like me, then Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites are a dream. An unexpected hive of history; castles peak out over mountain ranges, Greek and Roman-influenced ruins face the Ionian sea.

The settings are as memorable as the remnants of the buildings they’re famous for.

I visited three of Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites – Berat, Gjirokaster and the Greek/Roman ruins of Butrint. Here’s a snapshot of all three.

Berat and Berat Castle

Albania's UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Berat

Church at Berat Castle

Berat’s Castle dates from the 4th century, though most of the structure is from the 13th. It’s a schlep up the cobbled hill from the main highway, and the castle is a neighbourhood in itself. The very pleasure is in ambling through the narrow streets, clambering around the walls, and admiring the outlook from 360 viewpoints.

For eats, a homely local restaurant sits on the right just after the castle entrance (turn right after the café umbrellas). You can be plied with local specialities, including raki, for a few Euro. Delicious. And/or intoxicating.

Berat and Gjirokaster share Ottoman-style architecture, featuring white buildings with portrait rectangular windows facing out from the hillside over the valley below.

It’s a pretty picture, and wandering through the town you’ll find examples of the pre-restored versions of these imposing homes.

Practicalities

  • The bus from Tirana to Berat costs 400lek (less than €3) and takes around 3 hours. It’s not a fancy tourist bus, but it does the trick. It stops centrally in Berat.
  • Berat Castle has an entrance fee of 100 lek (about €0.75). Other museums within the castle complex also cost 100 lek. The Ethnography Museum (not on the castle complex) is 200 lek (€1.50).
  • There’s plenty of accommodation to be found in Berat. I stayed at the Hotel Belgrad Mangalem.
  • The helpful folks at Berat Backpackers are a good source of information on onward buses.

Gjirokaster and Gjirokaster Castle

Gjirokaster has similar 17th century Ottoman architecture to Berat, with a setting even more dramatic. I discovered this the hard way, after kidding myself it would be easy to wheel my case a mile. After all, how hard can a mile be??? Up 30 degree incline cobbles – pretty hard! Mind you, the view is worth it (or it was after I’d collapsed in a heap at the top).

Gjirokaster’s accommodation options – unlike those in Berat – sit far nearer the castle, which means that once you’ve lugged your luggage up there (or for the more sensible, got a taxi), it’s not too much further up to visit the castle.

The castle welcomes you with artillery remnants in an arched vault; and follows up with an only marginally less impressive US fighter plane perched overlooking the city.

Practicalities

  • Albania's UNESCO World Heritage sites - Gjirokaster

    Textiles at the Ethnography Museum, Gjirokaster

    The bus from Sarande to Gjirokaster costs 300lek (less than €3). If you catch the one that’s going through to Tirana, it’s coach style and drops you on the highway that bypasses Gjirokaster.

  • Gjirokaster castle costs 200 lek (about €1.50). The Ethnography Museum is the same price. There are other local museums to visit at a similar cost.
  • Gjirokaster is the only place I visited in Albania where the locals asked me if I needed somewhere to stay, so you shouldn’t get stuck for a room. I stayed at Kotoni B&B; they can help with onward bus details.
  • A taxi from the highway to the part of town near the castle is 400 lek. It’s money well spent (as I did on the journey back down the hill).

Butrint ruins

Butrint – situated south of the Albanian Riviera resort of Sarande – has a history that started Greek, went through Roman, and ended with Venetian. The city was abandoned in the late middle ages, but remnants of all its reinventions remain.

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Practicalities

  • The (roughly hourly) bus from Sarande to Butrint costs 100 lek (around €0.75) and takes around 40 minutes.
  • The Butrint entrance fee is 700 lek for foreigners (about €5). It takes a good couple of hours to fully explore the site.
  • There are zillions of accommodation options in Sarande. I stayed at the Flowers Residence.

If you fancy another dose of Castle in Albania, then Shkodra is another option. It’s been added to my wish list!

Have you visited Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage sites? Is Albania a destination you’ve considered? Spill the beans below.

Not Machu Picchu again!? Here’s three more Peru UNESCO sites you should visit

Peru has a whole lot more going for it than Machu Picchu. Here are three more Peru UNESCO sites you should visit: watch a knitting extravaganza, fly above an astronaut, and see a mummy frozen in time!

1. Textiles on the Island of Taquile, Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca borders both Peru and Bolivia, high in the Peruvian Andes. On the Peruvian side you’ll likely stay on shore in Puno; which can best be described as a handy base.

Tourist and local boats run from Puno to many of the Lake Titicaca islands. For an authentic (if slower and not exactly luxurious) experience, consider the locals’ boat to Taquile island – simply head to the dock to catch it.

Taquile is a picture of serenity, albeit with a growing tourist trade. No roads, no cars, a couple of boat-landing points, and tiny simple houses and farmsteads dotting the slopes of the walkable island. You’ll want decent shoes to do so, but for some here shoes are a luxury – you’ll see kids and adults alike going barefoot, even at this altitude.

Culturally, Taquile is a fascinating place, especially for textile-lovers, and it’s this which has given its status as one of the Peru UNESCO sites. Unlike in Cuzco, locals wear their traditional dress for themselves, not for the tourist dollar. Men knit their own fine hats, and you’ll see boys and men wandering with knitting needles and wool in hand.

Hat dating

The craftsmanship of the knitted hats incredibly intricate, and the boat captain explained to me that the design of the hat signifies the wearers’ marital status – red patterned the whole way means they are married; red patterned part way then plain white means they are not. Mr Captain was very much a confirmed bachelor.

Peru UNESCO sites, World Heritage Sites in Peru - Taquile on Lake Titicaca

Locals on the boat to Taquile, Peru UNESCO site, Lake Titicaca

What to expect on the boat? You’ll be sharing your hard wooden seat with the island’s supplies of toilet paper and rice. Lap it up. However, you’ll also get a flavour of what life here is really like, and that reality-check in itself is worth a bit of a numb bum.

Reality check on the boat to Taquile, Peru UNESCO site

Here we go: the passenger inventory. Me, fellow visitors and a few other locals all dutifully filled out our details and signed our names.

Not for everyone though, as the captain made the rounds of many passengers, interrupting their yarn-spinning to ask their names; before carefully noting them down on the manifesto.

It dawned on me why – not everyone here has had the privilege of an education; and the ability to read and write is one not all islanders are blessed with. A scribbled “x” was the norm in lieu of a signature.

That said, Taquile is becoming more used to tourism; and the positives and negatives that brings. If you’d like more than a couple of hours there, homestays can be arranged. Don’t forget to buy a hat.

Whilst staying in Puno, you can also check out

  • The (very) touristy but worth-a-visit floating Uros islands
  • The Yavari – a boat manufactured in Birmingham (UK) in the 1860s, transported to the South American coast in pieces, and then transported to Lake Titicaca by mules and on foot!
  • The ancient pre-Incan funerary towers of Cutimbo, way out in the altiplano (catch a locals’ combi van to get there)
  • The tranquil Templo de la Fertilidad a few miles from Puno in Chucuito – a lot of phallic objects as an aid (allegedly) to help the local ladies fall pregnant

Top Puno tip: get a room with heating. Even if you’re on a tight budget, splash the cash. Trust me. At a toe-freezing 13,000+ feet above sea level, Puno is decidedly chilly at night.

2. The Nazca Lines

Nazca is a place surrounded by mystery, with miles of desert plains devoted to mammoth geoglyphs dating back 1500 years and more; preserved by the dry climate.

Who decided to make these testimonies to living creatures and plant-life in the harsh desert landscape? Why? And how did their creators make shapes so enormous, accurate and spellbinding without the benefit of aircraft or satellites? No wonder they’re another Peru UNESCO site.

Anywhere in Nazca can book you a flight over the lines, and you’ll depart from the local airfield in a teensy plane at dawn.

Skip breakfast

If you’re of weak stomach, don’t have breakfast if you’re flying over the Nazca lines. Actually, even if you’re not of weak stomach, don’t have breakfast.

As the sun comes up over the horizon, the dawn light gives the murals an even more mysterious air. A monkey, a frog, birds, a tree and even – with some imagination – an astronaut. That question again … why?

I’d love to tell you how I marvelled at the mysteries of the desert as my pilot navigated his way around the desert during the 30-minute flight, determined to give me and my three co-passengers the best photo-opportunities of the lines by banking left and right. Sadly, though, I was too busy being sick.

Fortunately, plastic bags are provided, and friendly local ladies will bring you around upon landing, with smelling salts that helpfully appear – as if from nowhere – under your nose.

Nazca’s museum (“why” theories abound), ancient aquaducts, a lively market and plaza-bingo are other reasons to stick around Nazca for a couple of days. And the climate – welcome warmth after chilly Andean nights.

3. The city of Arequipa

Arequipa is a “mere” 6,000 or so feet above sea level. Surrounded by towering volcanoes, it’s a city famed for its white buildings and its Incan mummies. The former have given Arequipa its Peru UNESCO site status, the latter you can see preserved from ancient rituals by the snow-clad volcanic peaks. I’m not kidding, check out Juanita the mummy in the Santuarios Andinos Museum.

For me though, Arequipa is best remembered for the Monasterio (Convento) de Santa Catalina, a complex of colourful buildings and courtyards; and a paradise for snap-happy visitors that will keep you amused for several hours.

I’ll let the pictures tell the story …

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[box type=”info”]I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Peru and the Lonely Planet Latin American Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary for my trip. Help the site by buying through these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

These are just three of the many Peruvian UNESCO World Heritage sites. Pack an open mind and a healthy sense of adventure, and you’ll come away with memories that will last a lifetime.

Which is your favourite of the Peru UNESCO sites? Tell us about it in the comments below.