Mount Etna is a must for any Sicily trip. Here’s how to get the most out of your time exploring the volcano!
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If you go to Sicily, odds are that you’ll see Mount Etna. From a distance, she sits as a solitary peak overlooking most of the island. If you spend any time on the east coast of Sicily, it’s worth taking a day to explore this active volcano!
There are two ways to best experience Mount Etna. You can either rent a car and explore on your own, or do a guided day trip.
The advantage of renting a car is obvious: you can explore at your own pace, hike as much as you want, and stay for a few nights in one of the many winery agriturismo B&Bs that dot the area. Next trip back, my plan is to rent a car and spend a long weekend relaxing and hiking in the area.
We opted for a guided day trip. Technically we booked a group tour, but our day only had us scheduled, so we lucked into a private tour. Our tour was through Get Your Guide, and our guide Francesco was fantastic!
The real advantage of a guided trip is the guide’s knowledge. Francesco knew so much about Mount Etna, both from a scientific/volcanology perspective (yes, that is in fact a word!) and as a local who’s grown up in its shadow.
For example, Mount Etna is active all the time. To most of us, that sounds a bit scary. But the reality is that Etna’s constant tiny eruptions are what keeps the area safe; it’s constantly releasing pressure that if allowed to build up, would cause much more threatening eruptions.
This past year there has been a significant amount of action – the streets of Catania had even more than usual of the black volcanic sand that occasionally rains down from Mount Etna. We even saw bits of it at the southern tip in Ortigia!
Hiking Mount Etna
In general, the south side has better views, so that’s where the best hiking is. It’s also where you walk amongst the black volcanic rocks, creating an unearthly experience. It really does feel like walking on the moon. Or Mordor.
The best place to base your major exploring is called Nicolosi Nord. There are plenty of shops and a few cafes to grab a bite or a drink, so it’s hard to miss.
From there, you have a few options. One is to hike around at the same elevation as the shops, which gives some very cool views and longer hiking trails.
The other is to take the cable car up the mountain to a significantly higher elevation, where you can ride a massive offroad truck and hike at the highest elevation the park is allow guests on that day. This changes daily based on volcanic activity.
We chose to do the cable car, which was pricey but definitely worth it! It’s important to remember that these kinds of cable cars are ALWAYS expensive, so don’t be too surprised to find this throughout Europe. Besides, you’re paying for the experience, not just the cable car.
The views are insane. Even simply the experience of hiking in volcanic rocks, without any signs of plants or civilization, is incredible. If I hadn’t have been up there myself, I wouldn’t have believed the photos.
Another fascinating thing up here is that at times you’ll see sheets of ice poking through the rocks. In the cooler months, the Mount Etna is snow capped. There are actually two or three ski lodges up there. In the warmer months, some of the snow gets covered in the volcanic rocks and the ice never fully melts, meaning bits of ice poke through the black landscape.
The hike itself at the top is short, enough to soaking in the experience and take in some views. On a clear day you can see the coastline from Taormina to way past Catania! The day we went up it was cloudy, which meant no views. Honestly though, the cloud cover (which we were walking through) just added to the unearthly feeling and I loved it.
If you have room in your suitcase, you may want to bring warm clothing – we were okay but rented jackets. At times they were definitely too warm, but when standing at the highest point waiting for the clouds to clear we were glad to have something.
Another advantage to visiting with a guide is that he knew which lava tubes were the best to visit – and the safest. We pulled off the road to climb into a few, which he was prepared for with hard hats and flashlights. He also explained the different ways lava had shaped the caves, and names for the different phenomena along the walls.
Oro d’Etna Winery & Honey
The other major attraction on Mount Etna is wineries. Volcanic soil is crazy fertile, and the area offers a ecosystem that produces a unique mineralogy in their wines! If you want to visit a winery, head to the north and northeast sides.
We headed to Oro d’Etna, where our guide told us we’d have a light lunch with our private tasting. Francesco tried to emphasize it wasn’t going to be an extensive lunch, just small bites. But in true Italian fashion, the food just kept coming! Everything was grown or produced on-site except for the pizza, which our host apologized that it was handmade next door by his neighbor instead of him! One more thing I love about Italy.
Oro d’Etna produces more than wine: they also make excellent olive oil and honey! I might have filled our checked bag with as much as we could fit.
If we’d had more time, I would’ve booked us into one of the many excellent winery villas! There are some amazing options out here. We only had time for a day trip this round, but I’ll definitely want to stay out here next time.
Another thought on the driving vs. with a guide: driving in most parts of Sicily isn’t nearly as scary as you may have heard. While I don’t recommend driving in any major Italian cities, it’s not nearly the insanity that Naples is for driving. Mostly, you just need to assume people will cut you off regularly and watch for that. But the [lower] level of traffic makes it much less overwhelming than I expected. A car is a great option for exploring Sicilian small towns.
If you’re planning to do a guided tour, I highly recommend Get Your Guide’s day trip. It’s about an hour from Catania, so using that as your home base is really helpful if you’re planning multiple day trips! I’ll be sharing a quick guide to Catana next week, so check back soon!
Want more Italy inspiration? I’m currently doing a whirlwind trip of Italy with family, so follow me on Instagram to see where we are each day!