Here is a guide to discover what to see in Acireale, an ancient village of Greek origin overlooking the sea.
Acireale, a small town in the province of Catania, at the foot of Mount Etna on the coast facing the Ionian Sea, enchants for many good reasons.
The first is its location: the city centre rises on a 161-metre-high promontory overlooking the Ionian Sea. Behind the town rises imperiously the volcano Etna, the highest in Europe (3,329 metres) and one of the most active in the world, included in the UNESCO World Natural Heritage list since 2013.
The historic centre is recognisable by the classic urban layout of Sicily’s late-medieval cities and the Baroque influences. However, in the 17th century the city was partly destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in the Baroque style, which you can admire by strolling through the historical centre where the nobles had their palaces built.
Acireale is also known as a centre of ancient thermal traditions and for its characteristic Carnival that takes place in the historical centre. Tourists from all over the world are fascinated by this ancient folklore, the history, the art between the Middle Ages and Sicilian Baroque, and still by the spectacular views and local cuisine.
The busiest season here is summer, with the blue cobalt sea as a wonderful backdrop for cultural visits, events, tastings, and excursions into relaxing nature. To find out how to get around for the best, follow us on this first trip “on paper”.
In this simple, practical and complete guide, you can discover what to see in and around Acireale, with itineraries to visit the city in a day, but also to dedicate several days to discover the neighbouring villages and cities. 👇
What to see in Acireale in one day or more?
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If you have a little time to visit Acireale, it is best to invest it to avoid missing the most beautiful spots. For this reason, we recommend the monuments to visit in the historic centre, which you can easily get around on foot.
1. Historic Centre
In the old town centre, the main street, Corso Umberto I, is usually pedestrianised. Along the Corso, you come across the residences built in the 19th century by the local bourgeoisie, including Palazzo Nicolosi and Palazzo Figuera, the enchanting Villa Belvedere, a public garden overlooking the Ionian Sea and Mount Etna, and the shops, cafés, ice-cream parlours and artisanal patisseries where you can taste local specialities.
2. Piazza Duomo and Acireale Cathedral
What to see in Acireale, if not its scenic Piazza Duomo? It is the main square where the city’s most important Baroque buildings are located: the 15th century Maria Santissima Annunziata Cathedral, in a mix of Gothic-Norman, Baroque and Neo-Gothic styles, which houses the relics of Santa Venera, the city’s patron saint; the 16th-17th century Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul; the 16th-17th century Costa Grimaldi Palace and the 18th century Palazzo Municipale, in late Baroque style, with its wrought-iron balconies and imposing central door.
A very special feature of the square is its paving in concentric circles that recalls the shape of a Gothic rose window, similar to that on the façade of the Cathedral.
3. Villa Belvedere
At the end of Corso Umberto, you can reach Villa Belvedere (1848), the largest public garden in Acireale with many avenues and flowerbeds and which, from its little balcony, allows us to enjoy a beautiful belvedere over the sea, the village of Santa Maria la Scala, Taormina, Augusta, the “La Timpa” nature reserve and Mount Etna. Not to be missed is the centrepiece of the villa, the basin with the marble group of the shepherd boy Aci and the nymph Galatea.
About the shepherd boy and the nymph, the legend that Ovid recounts in the 13th book of the Metamorphoses tells of a shepherd boy, Acis, son of Faunus, who fell in love with Galatea, one of the fifty beautiful sea nymphs, the Nereids, daughters of the sea gods Doris and Nereus.
The Cyclops Polyphemus, who lived in the volcano, was also in love with Galatea, but not reciprocated. One evening, seeing the two boys kissing, furious with jealousy, he picked up a rock and threw it at poor Acis.
Pitying the sad affair, Jupiter and the other gods transformed the shepherd boy’s blood into a small river that rises from Mount Etna and flows into the spot in the sea where Acis and Galatea used to make love. The ancient Greeks called the small river “Akis”, which gave its name to Acireale, Aci Castello, Aci Trezza, Aci Catena, Aci San Filippo, Aci Platani, Aci Santa Lucia and Aci Sant’Antonio.
4. Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
Also worth seeing in Acireale is the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, located next to the Cathedral of Maria Santissima Annunziata. Rebuilt in the 17th century, after damage suffered in the 1693 earthquake, it now presents itself in a combined Baroque and Neoclassical architectural style.
A visit to the interior of the basilica is definitely recommended to admire the valuable works of art, such as the statue of the Divine Christ at the Column, made of wood, plaster and papier-mâché, on the altar of the Holy Sacrament.
5. Basilica of St Sebastian
Not far from Piazza Duomo, you should also visit the Basilica di San Sebastiano, one of the most beautiful churches in the city, especially at night when the façade is all lit up.
Built between the 17th and 18th centuries, the Basilica in Sicilian Baroque style is imposing and glows with the splendour of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Don’t miss the interiors, for the frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the life of the saint in the Blessed Sacrament chapel and the drum of the dome.
In the rooms adjacent to the sacristy, you will find the museum of the Basilica of St. Sebastian, which is open and can be visited daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for €1.00.
6. Church of St. Anthony of Padua
The Church of St. Anthony of Padua is located in the historic centre, on Via Vittorio Emanuele. It dates back to the time when Acireale was still called “Aquilia Nuova”. It is the oldest church in the city, built after the plague of 1466 and dedicated to Saint Sebastian.
The Church of St. Anthony, which had already been built in 1652, was later rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, but all that remains of the ancient building is the portal in white Syracuse stone in late Gothic style embellished with characteristic Catalan stylistic features. Inside, the church is decorated with frescoes by Pietro Paolo Vasta.
Visiting Acireale also means sinking into its historical and cultural traditions. Those who want to delve into these aspects can take advantage of the various museums with free admission:
- Museum of Uniforms, in the Sala Costarelli of the Palazzo del Comune in Piazza del Duomo
- Opera dei Pupi Museum in Acireale
- Biblioteca e Pinacoteca Zelantea (Zelantea Library and Art Gallery) of the Accademia degli Zelanti (Zelanti Academy), full of books and ancient artefacts, paintings and sculptures.
8. Santa Maria la Scala
Santa Maria la Scala is a hamlet of Acireale, a small seaside village of bygone days on the Ionian coast, at the foot of the Timpa. It is worth visiting for its characteristic scenery of a few historic houses, a small church, and a small harbour (Scalo Grande) for local fishermen’s boats.
To see, the small beach with lava stone pebbles, the “Grotta delle Colombe” (Cave of the Doves) and the small port. For a taste of fresh fish, there are several little restaurants.
The beach can be reached in a few minutes from the “Chiazzette” road that climbs up the Timpa, along a nature trail that leads to the “Riserva Naturale Orientata”.
9. La Timpa Oriented Nature Reserve
And here we are at the “La Timpa di Acireale” nature reserve, a rocky escarpment overlooking the sea, descending from the historic centre to Santa Maria la Scala.
Along the route in the oriented nature reserve, one encounters many local animal and plant species. Following the Chiazzette path, you will come across the Fortezza del Tocco, a bastion built for defensive purposes in the first half of the 17th century.
Visit Acireale and surroundings
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We have talked about what to see in Acireale, now let’s go further to discover its surroundings. If you have time to dedicate to visiting the nearby villages, why not take advantage of the most characteristic ones?
Considering that the entire coastline is characterised by lava cliffs among which you can discover small coves of grainy sand, we recommend setting off towards the villages of the Riviera dei Limoni, which extend along the Acireale coastline, where lemon cultivation is typical.
These include Santa Tecla, a characteristic seaside village three kilometres from the centre of Acireale where you can enjoy the sea and the enchanting lemon gardens. Stazzo, another hamlet of Acireale where there is a beach characterised by cliffs and coves, the most important of which is “cala dello Stazzo”.
Pozzillo, another fishermen’s village worth visiting for its landscape characterised by rocky coves. The small seaside village, between the lava hills of Acireale and the sea, is also famous for its mineral water springs.
At the foot of the Timpa we find other seaside villages such as Santa Caterina, Capomulini and Santa Maria La Scala, which we have already mentioned.
Going a little further afield, we find well-known localities such as Riposto, a seaside town near Torre Archirafi, a small fishing village with many small harbours and lava-stone buildings; Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, about 5-6 km from Acireale, both ancient fishing and seafaring villages; and the Isole dei Ciclopi, a small archipelago off the Sicilian coast between the towns of Acicastello and Acireale. There are four islands: Lachea, Faraglione Grande, Faraglione di Mezzo and Faraglione degli Uccelli.
About 30 kilometres from Acireale is Catania, the city that combines all the beauty of Sicily: sea, food, art and history, folkloristic traditions, excursions. A little beyond Catania, adding about 15 kilometres, is the splendid Taormina, also known as the “Pearl of the Mediterranean Sea”, enchanting for its historical-artistic wonders, but loved above all for its beaches. Isola Bella is the most famous.
A visit to the Etna Park is strictly recommended, with the Etna villages in the surrounding area, including Castiglione di Sicilia, Bronte, Randazzo, Linguaglossa and Nicolosi.
The park is worth seeing for its wonderful and unusual scenery: volcanic craters, lava expanses, coniferous forests and views of the Sicilian coastline. In the interior, there are also many open-air activities in every season of the year, such as hiking or mountain biking, jeep or quad biking, and winter sports. There is no shortage of historical and cultural insights: the volcano Etna has lived for millennia, for 550,000 years, and its long geological life is narrated by museum itineraries where you can discover its history.
What to do in Acireale
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Acireale to see and also to experience… Here are a few suggestions that we know will please those who come to visit these areas:
- Shopping in the streets of the centre, among shops, cafés, pastry shops. In Acireale there is a vivid artistic terracotta ceramics with traditional designs production. Also famous are the Pupi Siciliani, the typical traditional puppets used to represent ancient stories and legends; and so popular are food and wine specialities… To which we dedicate a separate paragraph.
- On the trail of the street food: a pleasant pit stop at the stands of local specialities to taste arancini, cannoli, cassate, while strolling…
- By the sea and in the historic centre for aperitifs and dinners in the trattorias and typical restaurants also around Acireale. Here there is no shortage of small places set in picturesque surroundings where you can eat fresh fish and other local dishes. These include, just to name a few, Santa Maria la Scala, Pozzillo, and Santa Tecla.
- Trekking, walking, hiking: there is something to do for all preferences and levels, immersed in nature or in the depths of the sea. Among the most beautiful areas to explore are La Timpa Nature Reserve, the Etna Park, and the Isole Ciclopi.
- Let’s go by the sea: among the most interesting beaches in Acireale, remember the beach and cliffs of Santa Tecla, the beach of Santa Maria La Scala, the beach of Capo Mulini, the beach of Pozzillo, the beach of Mulino.
Local food & wine
Acireale is famous for some food and wine specialities and typical dishes, among which we recommend:
- wine and extra virgin olive oil (the Acireale area is renowned for its fine wines, including the white Etna DOC and the red Faro DOC)
- Cavolo trunzu, Slow Food Presidium
- pistachio, used to make sweets and pesto
- sweet and savoury preserves
- Sicilian sweets: cannoli, cassate, almond pastries, granite with brioche, iris savoury: pane Cunzatu, arancini, cartocciate, cipolline
- typical dishes: fresh fish, pasta alla Norma, spaghetti alla Carrettiera, caponata etc.
Where to taste all these typical specialities?
In and around Acireale, there are many opportunities to taste Sicilian specialties, from local restaurants to wine shops to artisan workshops and street food.
Other occasions are the local festivities, which we discuss in the next section. Finally, those who have a real passion for regional food, and want to take home the Sicilian recipes they loved during their holiday, can have fun learning all the secrets with local cookery courses.
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Among the most important events in Acireale, its traditional Carnival (since 1500) is famous for its allegorical-grotesque papier-mâché floats, with a different theme each year, inspired by history, mythology, nature or popular culture, but also for the cultural and entertainment occasions such as concerts, theatre and dance performances, art exhibitions and fashion shows. Not to forget, the culinary part of the festival with tastings of local specialities.
But Carnival in Acireale is also celebrated in its floral and summer versions. In fact, the Flower Carnival takes place at the end of April, and the Summer Carnival between the end of July and the beginning of August.
There are also folkloristic and gastronomic events:
- Festa di Santa Venera at Acireale to celebrate Santa Venera Vergine e Martire, patron saint of Acireale.
- Sagra do Trunzu di Aci at Acireale with culinary specialities prepared with the “trunzu di aci”, a recognised Slow Food Presidium product.
- Octopus Festival in the village of Pozzillo
- Swordfish Festival at Pozzillo, grilled swordfish tastings in the seaside village surrounded by citrus gardens.
- Fisherman’s Festival in Santa Maria la Scala, on the last weekend of August with tastings of local seafood specialities.
- I Presepi di Acireale – Christmas in Acireale: “Itinerario dei Presepi”
- Flower Festival – Parade of flower-decked floats, street artists, exhibitions and markets.
How to get to Acireale
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By car, you can embark from the ports of Genoa, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Naples, Salerno, Reggio Calabria, to reach the port of Palermo, Messina or Catania.
By train, you can reach the station of Acireale which is located along the Messina-Catania-Siracusa railway line. If departing from mainland cities, you can take a train to Catania and from the Catania Centrale station take the train to Acireale.
By plane, you can arrive at Catania Fontanarossa Airport and from there take a rental car or bus to Acireale (AMT Alibus bus). Or take a train from Catania Centrale railway station to Acireale station.
Now that you know what to see in and around Acireale, all that’s left to do is wish you a happy trip to Sicily! 😍
Cover photo: mateusz-butkiewicz, unsplash
Featured photo: mateusz-butkiewicz, unsplash