Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
Its almost continuous series of eruptions has been documented since ancient times, making it an important destination for the study of volcanology. Etna consists of two volcano types: up to about 2,700 meters, Etna is a (flat) shield volcano, the top is a (conical) stratovolcano. It is 3,326m high and has four summit craters. Various volcanic phenomena such as craters, lava caves, lava flows and cinder cones are clearly visible.
Map of Mount EtnaLoad map
I rarely prioritize nature over culture when traveling. Even with my comparatively short roster of WH sites, Mount Etna is only the fifth natural or mixed site that I visited. My better half is usually even less keen, especially whenever there is a whiff of danger – such as, for instance, going up an active volcano. Nonetheless, it was she who suggested that we modify our plans for the trip to Sicily in the late September of 2021, and take advantage of a private Jeep tour with a local guide for a half-day on the mountain. (“Jeep” is not meant here as a brand name, but rather as a generic term. Our ride was a Land Rover Defender.)
Our guide, who spent his entire life on the slopes of Etna, gave us an unparalleled overview of the volcano, driving us through various vegetation zones and lava plateaus, stopping by and hiking to several key features, and pointing out various details (that, frankly, an unprepared mind cannot possibly absorb and retain in their entirety). Some parts that we drove through you definitely cannot reach in a regular car and without guidance. Also, this being an active volcano, being led by someone able to interpret the seismic activity monitoring system was certainly reassuring (there are usually sufficient advance signals of the heightened activity, so the park would have plenty of warnings – and, likely, be closed – if there was a chance of an imminent eruption).
Etna is, of course, recognized on the WH list as the most active volcano in the world. Our mental picture of a volcanic eruption almost invariably involves a rocket blast from the conical top, but that is just one of the six different types of eruption, called Plinian – the most violent one, notably associated with Mount Vesuvius. Etna erupts differently, in the so-called Icelandic pattern, whereas effusions of molten basaltic lava flow from long parallel fissures on the flanks of the mountain more often than from its top. Such outpourings build lava plateaus and usually are not immediately threatening to people some distance away, since the lava flows fairly slowly. Unlike mountaintop eruptions, once the lava cools and hardens, it acts as a plug in the opening. Therefore, no two eruptions would occur through the same fissure. It also means that there are over 300 craters on Mount Etna all over the place, and many lava flow tunnels.
Our first stop on the tour was Grotta Cicirello, an ancient less-visited lava flow tunnel that looks and feels like a cave. We then proceeded through a variety of landscapes, shaped by thousands of years of lava deposits. At higher altitudes, the surroundings felt increasingly extraterrestrial, with mostly just the Spino Santo plant for vegetation, and the different colors of the lava rocks pointing to the varying ages of the deposits from past eruptions (the basaltic lava starts out black, but oxidation of iron turns it red after a while).
The fog was a constant feature of our visit, in some places creating an impenetrable wall between different elevations. At our main sightseeing stop, a cluster of craters called Silvestri at about 2 kilometers above sea level, the dense fog greeted us, fairly quickly lifted, came back, lifted again. We were able to observe a number of surrounding features, mounds, craters, and even glimpse Catania in the distance.
Silvestri Craters are among the most-visited attractions on Mount Etna, relatively easily accessible by car and never missed by bus tours. Overall, visiting Mount Etna is possible via self-driving and hiking, but a guided Jeep tour is a great way to become familiar with the volcano if you do not mind spending a couple of hundred dollars for a half-day excursion. Some guides may pick you up from your hotel (most likely if you are in Catania), but standard logistics involve meeting your ride somewhere at the foot of the mountain – in our case, it was on a square in Trecastagni. We met the guide at 9 in the morning, and he deposited us back to the same location around 1:30 pm. Mountain hiking shoes and extra layers of warm outer clothing were provided. Snacks and water were up to us to bring along.
Read more from Ilya Burlak here.
Mount Etna had been on my list for quite a while now, but some of the reviews here made me curious and disappointed at the same time: is it that boring and ugly? I started my trip on the 12th of June 2021 with the bus from Catania train station to Rifugio Sapienza. The bus driver got chatty once we left Nicolosi and by the time the bus arrived its destination, I was hooked. Together with a French couple we went for a guided tour (45 euro), first through the compulsory dress-up (only my jacket was deemed suitable) and then we took the cablecar to 2500 m (30 euro return trip). The cablecar is indeed pricey, but I felt it worth it for the spectacle we were about to enjoy.
Etna has been active recently and on that day it was the Southeast crater in full swing. We knew from Nicolosi that for safety reasons we would make it to 2750 m (and the guide seemed doubtful to be able to take tourists farther in 2021), but that was enough. After the cablecar we had a steep hike and then sounds very similar to thunders (volcanic explosions) joined us for the rest of the trip. The thick snow buried under ash and the few burnt plants were proof to a landscape changing all the time. At times I felt I had reached Mordor, with clouds obstructing the cones and everything around being just lava and volcanic rocks of various shapes and colours. Then the guide called us to see the Valle del Bove before it was getting engulfed by fog and just standing within safe distance to the rim felt unreal.
As we started our descent, the clouds cleared around the Southeast crater and we could see the eruption, the bombs and the lava flow. As per the guide, had it been night, everything would have looked red. In day time, the lava flow seemed blue from the gas and the lava, dark smoke.
Returning to Catania, I went searching for the aftermath of the 1669 eruption: the lava at Castello Ursino (built under the same Frederick II of Castel del Monte), the position of the Benedictine Monastery as the lava had breached through the city walls.
In the evening I was at the airport and I kept going in and out to take photos of the show. As we were taking off, I was getting neck pain as we were leaving the volcano behind us. To me this was simply a great experience.
This is the first WHS I saw and visited outside of my home country and possibly the WHS I revisited the most. It is also the first one I had a souvenir from, and it introduced me to the world of geology.
My first primary school outing was a 3 hour flyover flight over Mt Etna. I still clearly remember the red molten magma spewing out of the snow capped volcano crater. It was a mindboggling experience as I wasn't expecting to see snow and lava at the same time. In my imagination they were two separate landscapes. Another image which I'm sure is still relevant is that of the many locals building their homes anew, literally on top of their previous houses engulfed by lava.
The volcano's size is quite impressive and it is quite common for tourists and locals alike to get lost or require the intervention of a rescue team. So if you plan to venture a bit off the beaten track, consider going with a knowledgeable guide. It's relatively easy to get close to the top using the cable car and eruptions take place practically every year. To appreciate any OUV this WHS might have, make sure to visit some of the several geological features already mentioned by other reviewers. That said, the best photo opportunities are from quite a distance away. Probably the most iconic is the view from Taormina's Teatro Greco.
Once you land at Catania airport you can't miss the volcano and at night watching the molten lava in the dark is another unforgettable experience. Lately Mt Etna has been more active than usual and ash clouds led to the local airports closing down for safety reasons. A recent study has hit the headlines especially in Malta as it underlined the concrete possibility that the volcano may trigger a tsunami as it is slowly but surely sliding into the Mediterranean and collapsing under its own weight. Some believe that this might have already occured in Neolithic times basically killing the Neolithic people who built the Megalithic temples of Malta and Gozo.
All in all, even though it's an impressive volcano to visit, I don't think it deserves its place on the list. Worldwide there are much more iconic and important volcanoes which are not inscribed or even nominated. Moreover, there are several 'better' European volcanoes already on the list such as Teide NP in the Canary islands or Vulcano and Stromboli in Italy's Eolian islands.
Last November I was rather excited that planning worked out and that my 200th World Heritage Site would be a natural site: Mount Etna. I had scheduled a day tour that would include an organized 4x4 vehicle drive into the core zone, but I had not counted on three factors: 1) November is within the off season for visitors; 2) the weather on the mountain can be unpredictable; and 3) my day tour was cancelled before I arrived due to a lack of other participants. I regrouped and joined a half day tour that also visited Taormina, but I couldn't help but feel let down about not getting a proper tour of the volcano.
Mount Etna is quite spectacular, dominating the east coast of Sicily. I had a great view of the snow-covered peak as I passed it twice by boat, and I had high hopes that it would be just as clear the day I visited. It was not to be. The small clouds gathering at the top of the mountain as I looked out at it from Taormina grew over the next hour, so that by the time my tour arrived at the top of the mountain I was shrouded in fog and beset by a steady wind (for which I was glad I was prepared with warm layers of clothing). The orange and yellow autumn woods made a beautiful contrast to the lava fields on the drive up the mountain, but all I could see as we completed a short hike near the top of the mountain was the red and black of volcanic rock, with some small snow patches. I suppose the view wouldn't have been much better via a 4x4 vehicle, but I can still wonder what might have been. Some day I will have to return. In summer.
Logistics: Roads provide access to the buffer zone of Mount Etna, but hiking or organized tours are required to go into the core zone.
The first view I got of the Etna were from Catania. The Via Etnea is aligned in such a way that you can see the volcano. Still, I couldn't count that.
To get my tick, I took a bus to Refugio Sapienza and hiked from there up the mountain. On the bus ride we had already passed several (cold) lava fields, clearly indicating that this is an active volcano. It's interesting to see how close Catania is to an active volcano.
Around the Refugio there were several cold craters waiting to be explored. From the refugio, if you want to continue up, you have the option to take a lift or hike; I hiked. But the initial hike to the upper station is mostly via lava fields that are rather terrible to hike. If it weren't for the price, I would probably recommend taking the lift. Eventually, everything was clouded in fog and snow. For a while I couldn't see much further than 10m and was questioning if it made sense to continue. Luckily, when I reached the final spot, the sky cleared briefly and I took the attached picture.
My hiking app kept proposing trails that lead into the snow fields. I decided against it and would recommend to you to do the same. It's really best to follow the road.
At the end of the road, you get a good view of the volcano and can hike along an active crater rim. From this point on, you need a mountain guide. I felt I had gone far enough and returned.
I don't think this is an especially interesting volcano, especially if you compare it to a volcano like the Teide. I would also guess that Chile has plenty similar or better volcanoes by the dozen. And even in the context of Sicily this is underwhelming. The Eolian Islands themselves are part of the same geological feature and way more interesting.
In the morning, there is one bus running from Catania train station to Refugio Sapienza (departing around 8h, returning around 16h). You can find details on the bus connection here. While the referenced blog post states you can buy them in advance, I couldn't. Tickets were only available the same day, so I arrived early to get one. The ticket office is across the street from the train station and is marked on google maps. The bus will stop for breakfast going up the mountain, so you can pick up some provisions. The return goes directly back to Catania.
From Refugio Sapienza you can continue up the mountain via combination of funicular and busses. Alternatively, you can hike. The last ascend to the summit requires a mountain guide, though, as the paths are not well sign posted. The picture is from the start of the summit trail. A few Germans I met on the hike went on their own, but I do not recommend that.
Over 240 community members so far have ticked off Mount Etna as ‘visited’, but I wonder how many of them have just ‘seen’ it from a distance versus entered the core zone and witnessed its OUV. Most reviews to date indeed seem to have been in the former category. By far the best of them is Joel’s video, made during terrible weather conditions. I recently spent a long weekend in the area to try to make mine into a ‘good visit’. It all got off to a fitting start as my flight from Rome was delayed by an hour because air traffic to Catania was temporarily limited due to Etna's ash clouds.
The next day at 5.15 a.m., I left Taormina with my guide for the journey to the northeastern slopes of the Etna. We drove to the parking lot of Rifugio Citelli, which lies already at an altitude of over 1,700 meters. Everything was still dark and quiet, although we were able to stop underway at a bar for an Italian stand-up breakfast of cappuccino and a cornetto. The breakfast bars along the route open early (this one at 4.30!) to serve the local mushroom hunters and the maintenance staff of the park.
Having arrived at the parking lot it became clear that it would be a serious walk: I got a helmet buckled to my backpack, two hiking poles pressed into my hands and even shoes with a better profile fitted on. Also, guide Davide and I each had a headlight as it was still dark. We would be walking route 723, the Citelli Serracozzo. The first part of this route goes through the forest. It struck me how overgrown the volcano is, the scenery is much greener (from chestnut trees to beeches to birches to shrubs) than I had imagined. The climb is done on a technically sometimes difficult trail covered with stones, tree stumps and loose lava stones. I would never have made it without those hiking poles. On this stretch we could not see the top of the volcano, only a dark ash cloud occasionally appeared in the sky.
We made our first longer stop at what looked like a minor cave but turned out to be a lava tube. This is why we brought the helmets! This tunnel is narrow and deep - I had been in a lava cave before (in Jeju, South Korea), but this one felt more impressive due to us being there alone like some early explorers. Above ground you only see an air hole - the tunnel is hidden beneath it.
After climbing a bit more we reached our final destination at slightly over 2,200m: a ridge just above the Valle del Bove and with the active volcanic craters in full view. Really a spectacular spot. The huge Valle del Bove was created by a landslide - nothing grows here anymore. There are currently 4 volcanic craters on the highest part of Mount Etna, all recently active again with explosive eruptions. We found a nice place to sit and watch the spectacle. You first hear a rumble and then a gray ash cloud rises.
Up to this point, we did not meet any other people on our hike: of course, no one sets off this early, and the northern side of Mount Etna is quieter than the southern one anyway.
Around 11 a.m. the clouds came up from the valley and our view threatened to disappear. We, therefore, started the descent via another route than we came, meeting a few people along the way that were just hiking uphill. The path down required a lot of concentration and therefore also took me 2 hours; over 6 hours after departure we arrived back at the parking lot. My final thoughts on the Etna: it may not the most beautiful volcano in the world, but its constant activity draws you in and keeps you mesmerized.
March 2019 - our first journey with daughter. We decided to go to Sicily. It was on our list for ages and finally we made it.
From the plane, landing in Catania, one can see the Aetna Volcano rising above the island.
During our day in Catania, we always were looking up to the Vulcano, hoping to see some fumarols.
Day 2 we took the Circumetnea train to Bronte and back. We got some nice views at the Volcano and understood its extend.
Bronte was not as interesting as exoected, but the stunning views at the lava beds and the train ride itself, were worse it.
Next time Sicily we will definitely visit the top of Aetna, but with a 3 months baby and March with the snow, are not the best circumstences. We drove further to Palermo, than south and than back to Catania. Always in the shade of Aetna.
I was not planning to reach the Etna summit during my trip to Sicily in May 2014. However, it was impossible not to spot the mount Etna (always covered by cloud on the top) when travelling from Val di Notto towards Catania, and then from Nebrodi and Madonie mountains. We went via Bronte, which is famous for pistachio - it is grown almost everywhere around Bronte, and I was pretty surprised how pistachio tree really looks...
From Bronte we did short trip to Rifugio Piano Dei Grilli, which is already in the buffer zone of WHS; (photo: View from Rifugio towards Etna). However, the road from Bronte crossed the lava flow that already belonged to the core zone. From the Rifugio, there are quite a lot of marked trails going inside the national park. I felt like in gardes of Eden there, because everything was in bloom in May.
I enjoyed the trip a lot even without climbing the steep slopes of the Etna stratovolcano.
It's hard to even know where to start with a colossal site like Mount Etna. We decided to base ourselves in the town of Trecastagni, and as luck would have it, our Airbnb host recommended a fantastic local guide, a Sicilian named Dario Vaghi. We'd hoped to do some hiking and really explore the upper reaches of Etna, but unfortunately the day we visited there was a heavy blizzard near the top and the cable car wasn't running! No problem for Dario - he knew several other fascinating spots for us to visit and explore. As you can see from the video, we really got to explore all the different facets of Etna: its climates, ecosystems and various habitats. What a magnificent spot.
Read more from Joel on the Road here.
My journey around Mount Etna was most enjoyable. I viewed the mountain from the south, west and north, and had close up experience of crossing old lava flows. All this was in the comfort of a seat of the Circumetnea train.
I travelled from Catania to Giarre on the Circumetnea, stopping for a refreshment break at Rendezzo on the way. After Rendezzo the mountain was obscured by cloud. From Giarre I returned directly to Catania on the main line.
Mt. Etna is of universal value. As UNESCO notes Mt. Etna is an active volcano that yields information to scientists around the world about geological phenomena that affect millions of people, not only in Sicily but around the world. Because of Mt. Etna's activity a visit to the park can reveal different landscapes (and paths of destruction) from year to year. It has served as a proving ground for a variety of techniques to stop or divert lava flow (some successful, some not) to avoid populated areas.
The surrounding areas of the park are of a stark, stunning beauty and yes, there are some great hikes (or just walks or drives) available in the area. Many of the surrounding cities and towns are built with the volcanic rock that Etna has spewed out over the centuries.
Mt. Etna also holds a place in Western literature. In Greek and Roman mythology it's the home of Hephaestus (Vulcan in the Roman pantheon)and features prominently in Milton's Paradise Lost. It has become the background for any number of generic views of Greek theaters. (Think Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite.")Possibly only second to Vesuvius in notoriety, Mt. Etna is a unique natural wonder.
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