You really should visit Mount Etna when in Sicily.
Visiting Mount Etna is the cherry on the cake during a trip to Sicily. Located on the south east of the island, not far from Catania, this is one of the most active volcanoes in Europe.
Mount Etna actually is a series of stratovolcanoes – a number of volcanoes built by layers of lava flows, ash and blocks of unmelted stone. It has four craters at its summit: the central ones, called Bocca Nuova and Voragine; the Northeast crater; and the newest Southeast one (formed by the 1978 eruption).
Whether you are looking for a hike or you would like to just take it a bit easier when visiting Mount Etna, this post explains everything you need to know to plan your trip, with suggestions for the best Mount Etna tours.
13 Things You Need To Know To Visit Mount Etna
It’s one of the highest volcanoes in Europe
With its 3,350 meters (around 10,991 feet), Mount Etna may not be the highest volcano in Europe (that’s Teide, in Tenerife), but it certainly is the largest one with a base circumference of around 150 km (93.2 miles). It’s so unique that it made the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
As well as one of the most active ones
Mount Etna is the most active volcano in Europe, and one of the most actives in the world, with Strombolian kind of eruptions (producing ash, tephra and lava fountains) that constantly change its shape and elevation.
In 1669, a large eruption destroyed part of the port of Catania. Since then, eruptions have been regular and of a smaller scale, though some can be rather violent. These kind of eruptions are called “paroxysms.”
Mount Etna eruptions and the lava flows occasionally threaten agriculture, transportation, and at times even the local towns surrounding it. The road that the 4×4 buses use to drive visitors up from the cable car has to be regularly re-built by the park authorities, as it gets destroyed by eruptions.
Locals have an affectionate nickname for it
Locals affectionately call Mount Etna “Mongibello” (Beautiful Mountain) – and it is easy to see why. Its sight is mighty, yet stunning. It is a huge resource for local life. Its fertile soil is perfect for the cultivation of olives, grapes and fruit – some of the best Italian olive oil, wines, mandarines and oranges are produced here. And the revenue produced by tourism is thriving, with ski tourism in the winter, and hiking Mount Etna tours the rest of the year.
You need guided Mount Etna tours to reach the peak crater
You can visit Mount Etna independently or on guided tours. The way you do it really depends on your budget and on how much of it you want to see.
If you want to hike all the way to the crater, you need to join a guided tour. Guides are officially appointed among those that know the trail like the palm of their hands, and can navigate them even in bad weather. They are equipped with a radio they can use in case of emergency, too.
Please remember that this is a highly active volcano, where the fumaroles close to the craters eject toxic gases whose direction change depending on the wind. It is not uncommon for guides to have to go rescue groups that venture on their own and eventually get stuck because unable to breathe.
You also have to understand that if the volcano starts erupting, your tour may have to detour, or you may be unable to reach the peak crater – this is for obvious safety reasons.
Guided Mount Etna tours usually meet at the visitor center near Rifugio Sapienza. The price of the tour includes the guide, equipment such as helmets, but not a hotel pick up (you have to make your own way to Rifugio Sapienza) or the cable car and 4×4 that will take you to the beginning of the trail, located at Torre del Filosofo (around 2,950 meters – that’s 9,678.5 feet – above sea level). Tours usually last around 6 hours.
Once in Torre del Filosofo, all groups are met by a local guide to walk around the lower craters. If you are meant to continue hiking, yours will be a strenuous but rewarding experience!
When booking you guided tour of Mount Etna, remember to read the small print. The price doesn’t generally include the cost of the cable car and 4×4 ride to the top.
The starting point to visit Mount Etna is Rifugio Sapienza
The best access point to Mount Etna is on the southern side, where Rifugio Sapienza is located. That’s also where the cable car station is located. Rifugio Sapienza is at around 1,900 meters (6,233.6 feet) above sea level. There, you will find a series of souvenir shops, coffee shops and a couple of restaurants.
There are three ways to get to Rifugio Sapienza
You can get to Rifugio Sapienza by car (the easiest option – you can rent it in Catania or at the airport). You can park the car at the large parking lot.
Make sure to read my post A Guide To Renting A Car In Catania.
If you’d rather travel by public transport, you can get the bus from Stazione Centrale in Catania. The only direct bus leaves at 8:15 am, so you really should book in advance (at least a day before) if this is what you are opting for. It takes about two hours to get to Rifugio Sapienza, as the bus stops in Nicolosi. This means you only get to Rifugio Sapienza at 10:15 or so – making public transportation not a viable option if you have a booked a tour that departs at 9:00 am.
The bus back to Catania leaves at 4:30 pm – so you have plenty of time to explore Mount Etna on your own.
By guided tour
If you don’t have a car and don’t want to juggle public transportation, your best way of getting to Rifugio Sapienza and visit Mount Etna is on organized Mount Etna tours departing from Catania. Make sure to double check that your tour actually includes transportation from Catania, because not all do.
For guided tours of Mount Etna that include transportation from Catania, click here.
Visiting Mount Etna is not exactly cheap
The cheapest (and most difficult) way to visit Mount Etna is to walk all the way up along the path that follows the cable car. Otherwise, here is a breakdown of the costs:
CABLE CAR, ONE WAY – €24
CABLE CAR, ROUND TRIP – €30 – €23 for children up to 11 years of age, free for children up to 4 years old.
COMBINED TICKET – cable car + 4×4 ride to Torre del Filosofo + guided tour around the craters and calderas €68; €50 for children up to 11 years of age.
I know what you are thinking – this is a lot of money! But keep in mind that the maintenance costs for a cable car on the slopes of a volcano that erupts regularly are very high, and the maintenance is indeed ongoing.
Please remember it is not recommended to hike Mount Etna alone. Check out my post on why I don’t go hiking alone.
But you can visit Mount Etna independently to save a bit
If you want to avoid all the fees that visiting Mount Etna implies, you can opt to take the public bus to Rifugio Sapienza, and from there you will need to hike all the way to the Mountain Hut which works as the Cable Car station and coffee shop. The hike lasts about 1.5 hours. It’s not exactly a nice walk – you are mostly walking on volcanic gravel – and if it is a sunny summer day, you may find it way too hot.
From the Mountain Hut, you can follow the windy road to Torre del Filosofo. You will be able to see a small, dormant volcano on the way. It will take you about 45 minutes to get to the Torre del Filosofo, from where you can walk around a massive crater that was formed in the 2003 eruptions.
This is the highest spot you can get to without joining a guided tour. You will have to follow the same path to walk back down.
You need to be properly dressed
Whichever month you plan to go to Mount Etna, remember there’s at least a 10°C difference between the temperature at the base of the volcano and the top. I visited in mid October, and it was quite cold. It will be really cold – and there will be snow – in the winter.
The following list is applicable to those visiting Mount Etna during the warmest months:
- Hiking boots: the terrain is rocky and sandy at the same time and that extra ankle support will be needed.
- Hiking Pants, a Intent Krossback t-shirt, a sweater, and a warmer wind proof jacket: it does get cold at 3000 meters above sea level! I also recommend taking a scarf and a hat, and gloves to be on the safe side.
- Sunglasses: the sun can be fierce on the eyes in the summer months, and there’s a lot of dust flying around.
- A daypack to carry the extra clothes, plenty of water (especially if planning to hike) and food and snacks.
- A camera to catch the amazing views.
You can rent some nice, thick jackets at the cable car station for a few euro.
You can visit Mount Etna throughout the year
Mount Etna can be visited year round, but the experience you’ll have will vary greatly depending on the season. Go in the winter time and it will be covered in snow – you can even ski there! During the spring and summer months you’ll find the largest crowds; whereas the experience tends to be perfect weather and crowds wise during shoulder season (September and October).
There are a few places to eat on Mount Etna
The wisest thing to do if you are traveling on a budget is to pack your own lunch and drinks. However, there are a couple of places where you can eat around Mount Etna.
Rifugio Sapienza has a selection of sandwiches, salads and meals cooked to order. The Mountain Hut where the cable car stops is another option to get a quick bite.
Where to stay when visiting Mount Etna
If you are planning to rent a car during your trip to Sicily, you have a wide choice of places to stay that are not directly in a city.
I stayed at Bosco Ciancio, a beautifully refurbished rural house, once the ancient manor of the Dukes of Ciancio. The building, dating back to the 1800s, is located in Etna Park and completely immersed in nature. All rooms have stunning views of the countryside, and there is a lovely internal garden and an outside patio. The restaurants serves dishes reflecting the local tradition, using seasonal ingredients.
If you’d rather stay in a city, opt to stay in Catania. This is one of Sicily’s largest cities and you are bound to find some excellent accommodation options.
Other useful information
Make sure to read my other posts about Sicily:
- A Great Guide To The Things To Do In Catania, Italy
- Everything You Need To Know To Visit Vulcano Island, Sicily
- Everything You Need To Know To Hike Volcano Stromboli
- A Fantastic 8 Days Sicily Itinerary
These are posts about Italy:
- 17 Reasons To Visit Italy As Soon As Possible
- 67 Extremely Useful Travel Tips For Italy
- 20 Best Movies About Italy You Need To Watch