Mt. Etna trip planner

The largest volcano in Europe

Mt. EtnaEtna is big.

I remember looking for it on my first visit to Sicily when I was 12 years old.

We were driving down Sicily's eastern coastal road and I kept looking insland, trying to see Etna. After a few frustrated minutes, I complained I couldn't see the mountain.

"But it's right there," my dad pointed.

I peered again into the dark blue-grey horizon, trying to pick out the mountain.

Then it hit me.

That wasn't the horizon.

That was the volcano.

About Mt. Etna

Mt. Etna is the biggest, baddest volcano in Europe and one of the largest in the world, 10,990 feet of massive molten energy that dominates eastern Sicily like a Earth-borne storm cloud. The Greeks believed that the mighty god Hephaestus (Vulcan) used it as a forge to fashion Zeus' thunderbolts with the aid of his Cyclops assistants, and that the eruptions and earthquakes were caused by the Titan Enceladus imprisoned at the mountain's root, eternally struggling to break free.

Etna's summit constantly smokes, and every few years it goes into a volcanic fit. In 1989 at the summit, a new crater grew over 330 feet in just a month. From 1991 to 1993, it erupted almost continuously, and in 1998, eight months of violent activity culminated in an eruption on July 12 that spewed ash almost a mile into the air, closing Catania's airport and covering the mountain with a fresh layer of pumice and lava.

I've been to Sicily about a dozen times over 25 years, and Etna was spewing lava on at least half of those occasions. This makes the locals rather nervous. Etna's lava flows have threatened, and occasionally actually swallowed, several of the small towns that brave the danger to take agricultural advantage of the rich volcanic soil.

Exploring Mt. Etna

The gateway to getting up Etna is the Rifugio Sapienza above the town of Nicolosi. There, you can buy a ticket to cover either just the first or all three stages to the top:

  1. The funivia cable car takes you as far as the La Montagnola station at 2,500m (8,250 feet)—for €27 (
  2. A Jeep runs from the top of the funivia to the Torre del Filosofo, an espresso stop at 2,920m (9,636 feet)—for €51 total.
  3. A guide will walk you from here to as close to the top as it is currently safe to get.

The vistas from up here on a clear day can literally encompass all of Sicily.

On the Jeep ride back to the cable car the driver pulls over so you can gaze down into the spectacular Valle delle Bove, an enormous yawning cleft measuring 11 miles around and almost 4,000 feet deep scooped out of the southeast slope. Much of the lava flows this century have found their way safely into this channel, away from inhabited soil.

Back down at the Rifugio, you can explore some nearby extinct craters more fully.

The Rifugio also offers two dozen spartan rooms (doubles €65; tel. +39-095-915-321; and half-pension deals (from €75 per person).

Tips & links

Tours of Mt. Etna
How to get to Mt. Etna

From the A18 highway, a road leads up through the town of Nicolosi and then winds up the mountain to the Rifugio Sapienza souvenir-driven snack bar/funivia waystation at 6,300 feet (tel. +39-095-915-321 for cable car and conditions information).

From Catania to Mt. Etna: You can also catch an early morning AST bus from Catania. It takes 2 hours and leaves Catania (several stops along Corso Italia) at 8:15am (June 15–Sept 15, there's a second bus Mondays through Saturdays leaving Catania at 11:20am). The return bus leaves the Rifugio at 4:30pm. For more info: AST (tel. +39-095-723-0535,

From Taormina to Mt. Etna: If you're in Taormina and have no car, you can either take public transport to Catania then proceed as above or (far, far easier, and worth the extra cost) simply take the SAT suttle service (, which departs Taormina Mondays and Saturdays at 8:30am for the Rifugio, leaves you plenty of time to arrange your own visit to the top of the volcano (though they will also arrange it for you), and gets back to Taormina around 4pm. There is also an "Etna Sunset" trip on Tuesdays and Thrusdays that includes the funivia/jeep visit all the way to the summit, leaves Taormina at 3pm, stays atop Etna for sunet and a meal (for which you pay separately) and returns to Taormina around midnight. For more: SAT Group (tel. +39-0942-24-653,

A train ride around (but not up) Mt. Etna: This won't get you to the top of the mountain, but you can also take a leisurely, vista-blessed train ride on the private Circumetnea train line (tel. +39-095-541-250, almost all the way around the foot of the montain, passing little villages and castles built on the lower slopes and through the lush vegetations the volcanically rich soil supports. One line goes west from Catania's Borgo station and wraps sround the south side of the mountain to Randazzo. Another line continues from Randazzo across the nothern slopes to the seaside town of Riposto north of Catania.

Ski Etna

In winter (when there's snow), you can get a ski pass from the rifugio (More:

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