Cycling Mount Etna is on the must-do list for many cyclists looking at cycling holidays in Italy.
Etna’s popularity is partly due to its recent appearances in the Giro d’Italia, but also thanks to the fact you’re cycling up an active volcano. I mean, that’s pretty cool, right?!
Cycling in Sicily has been on our to-do list for some time now, so when Epic Road Rides reader Marta Gawryszczak got in touch to say she was going there, we asked her to share her experiences with us – and you!
Sadly Marta only managed to squeeze in one day of cycling in Sicily, but it was spent cycling Etna, so we won’t hold it against her!
In this article Marta shares her experience of cycling Etna including how to get to Mount Etna from Catania and the best places to stay, eat and drink while on your cycling holiday in Sicily.
We hope it helps you plan your trip!
Part 1: Cycling Mount Etna
Why did you want to cycle Mount Etna?
If you’re visiting Sicily, Mount Etna feels like the must-do climb on the island. It’s a challenging climb, it’s always on the skyline, and with the Giro d’Italia history having now visited six times, it’s an obvious place to spend a day or two.
Once you’ve climbed it, there are plenty of great roads for cycling around it. And in fact I found Etna more impressive looking up at it from below rather than the views from it!
Where did you stay to ride Mount Etna?
I stayed in central Catania, which I would recommend, and then ventured out every day. It is a nice city but there’s much more to do outside of it, especially if you are into cycling!
Catania is ideally located just at the foot of Mount Etna and is surrounded by some wonderful places, such as Taormina and Siracusa which are very easily accessible by car or a train (about four to seven euros each way).
I also stayed in Palermo (more on that below!).
How do you get to Catania?
There are four main airports in Sicily. Palermo and Catania are the main two. Budget airlines fly to both of these and British Airways flies to Catania.
If you do end up flying to Palermo, be aware that Catania is on the other side of Sicily from Palermo… take a look at the map below!
The best bet is to drive, though there are also bus and train options.
Nearby Messina has rail and ferry links to mainland Italy, including a rail link by ferry where the train rolls onto a boat to cross the water.
Routes up Etna
Etna stands at 3,350m above sea level. When it’s not cloudy, it dominates the skyline and so it’s definitely something that has to be conquered if you come to Sicily!
There are six different potential climbs up Etna, depending where you want to start.
The classic route up Etna is from the south. It starts from the middle of Nicolosi, just to the north of Catania and takes you 18km to the 1,892m Rifugio Sapienza at an average gradient of 7%.
This is the route the Giro d’Italia usually takes (though they have also taken the route from Ragalna to the Astrophysical Observatory – and in 2020, the year I visited, they took the route from the north).
My route: Mount Etna from the north
I chose to climb from Linguaglossa in the north because the Giro d’Italia were going to be doing this route up Etna for the first time a few days later.
I got the train from Catania to Taormina. It was only about four euros each way. Trains in Italy are quite cheap in comparison to the UK, so it’s a really good means of transport. I rented my bike from the Sicily Cycling Club in Catania and took it with me on the train – you can easily do this and you do not need to pay extra for the bike. Also, no reservation was needed in my case.
You can buy the ticket at the station or on Trenitalia.com – there is no difference in price and there is no need to book tickets earlier, as the price always stays the same (unlike in the UK!).
Statistics for my route
I rode the Linguaglossa – Piano Provenzana route up Mount Etna.
Statistics for this climb up Etna:
1,040 metres of climbing
Statistics for my ride from Taormina to Catania via Etna:
Distance – approx. 90km
Elevation gain – 2,100m
Here’s my route on Strava.
What was the Mount Etna climb like?
Etna Nord (from Taormina)
The climb up Etna starts (gently) about 5km in, shortly after you leave Taormina. You cycle through some nice little towns, you can see the sea in the distance when you look back; it’s quite picturesque.
However the proper climb (and its best part, I would say) starts from Linguaglossa. You will notice that the landscape starts to change slightly and soon you will be cycling through a pine forest. Thanks to the forests, the road is very shaded, which is a blessing if you are cycling in the summer/early autumn when the temperature is really high and there is not a cloud in the sky.
I found the road surface to be perfect – they always make sure it is before the Giro. If you see a brand new shiny, smooth tarmac in Sicily, it generally means that the Giro has recently been there or will be there soon. (As an aside, it was particularly noticeable in Monreale, Palermo where the Giro did the TT – you could genuinely tell what the route was by looking at the road surface!)
You continue like this until you reach Rifugio Ragabo, where you can stop for some coffee (and delicious profiteroles if that is your preferred cycling fuel).
After that little stop, the hardest part of the climb starts. From this point you have to climb about 400m over about 3-4km. The scenery will be very different and you will soon see more lunar landscapes.
You continue through the forest until you reach Piano Provenzana, which is located at 1,800m. It’s the highest point you can reach on the bike.
Piano Provenzana is a local ski resort with downhill and cross country skiing. You’re at 1,800m above sea level and the peak of Etna stands at 3,350m. So if you want to get to the very top, you’ll want to walk, go on a mountain bike or a donkey (see below!).
The climb is really enjoyable, it’s quite regular throughout and it just gently goes up and up. There are quite a lot of sharp turns and a few steeper moments, but overall it’s a nice, steady climb that you can ride up with just a few gear changes.
There’s not very much at Piano Provenzana, just a few huts which are probably open during winter. Better to stop at Rifugio Ragabo before you get to the top!
The descent was long, smooth and fabulous. There were a few little climbs on the way but it’s mostly just downhill all the way to Catania. It is nice to see the scenery/landscape change again and to finally feel warm again.
Etna Sud (Southern side of Etna)
I originally planned to cycle Etna from the south.
I intended to cycle from Catania, towards Nicolosi, then cycle along SP92, all the way to Rifugio Sapienza and then do a loop back to Catania via Via Catania.
Although I didn’t cycle this route, I drove up there as I did some mountain biking on the southern side of Etna. This was the climb done during the Giro in the past few years.
Whilst I absolutely enjoyed the northern climb, it did not feel like I was cycling up a volcano (until the last 300-400m of climbing).
The southern side is completely different – it is much more open, there is nothing blocking your view so you can see the sea and all the little towns behind you and craters and lava fields in front of you. For that reason, this route may be a bit more exciting to ride, but again, I could only enjoy it from the car, so the actual cycling experience may be different (I doubt it but it may…).
Once you get to Rifugio Sapienza, you have one of the craters, Silverstri, just a few steps away.
Like the Piano Pianzano summit on the other side, the Rifugio Sapienza summit is a bit disappointing as it’s just a small ski resort with a big car park, souvenir shops. I imagine there would have been lots of tourists here too had it not been 2020 and the time of Covid…
Having seen both sides, the southern climb is still on my bucket list. I’ll just have to book another Sicily cycling holiday again soon!
Mountain biking Mount Etna
I am a MTB beginner, so I decided to do an MTB experience which I booked through Airbnb. Hands down, it was one of the best things I did there, so I would highly recommend it. The guide’s name was Luca and you can book this through Airbnb, Tripadvisor or their website (just search for Luca, MTB, Etna and you’ll find it).
We started in Etna Ragalna and did a little 15km loop with about 450m of climbing which was a perfect mix of climbing and downhills, lava fields and forests. 15km does not seem like a lot but it was about 1.5 hours of just cycling, without stops. Again, I am an absolute MTB beginner so I was not the fastest!
Etna is a fantastic place for MTB so if that is something you enjoy, definitely have a go when you’re there.
Did you hire your bike to ride Mount Etna?
Yes, I did, from Sicily Cycling Club. Tommaso was incredibly helpful and I picked up the bike from a tiny local bike shop/mechanics (which they work with, I believe) – VDCycle, Via Gorizia n48.
I met with one of the mechanics there (who sadly did not speak much English), but since I was talking with Tommaso quite a bit before my trip, he offered to come and meet me there.
They lent me a multitool, as I forgot to take mine with me, and provided me with two water bottles and a spare tube/levers/helmet at no extra cost.
I paid 30 euros for a whole day and Tommaso was happy for me to keep the bike as long as I wanted, there was no rush with the return. In fact, he then offered to pick it up from my place, as he was in the area and wanted to save me the trouble. I genuinely cannot recommend him/Sicily Cycling Club enough.
Tips for Mount Etna
Cycling Mount Etna
Driving in Catania is just pure chaos. The closer you get to Catania the busier it will be, so just be extra careful.
It’s also important to mention the difference in temperature. Due to the difference in altitude, the temperature is about 10 degrees lower when you get to the top of Etna (it was about 26 degrees in Taormina). When I had my little stop in Rifugio Ragabo I was actually really cold and the descent was absolutely freezing! I do not usually listen to advice like this, since I am almost never cold, but please DO listen to it; take arm warmers/a long sleeve jersey and gloves with you. It is an 18km descent after all so there’s plenty of time to get very cold!
It can also get really windy on Mount Etna and it can be covered by clouds for days on end. The cloud won’t stop you riding, but of course, it’s much nicer if you can see where you’re going/the views. If you can pick your day then obviously a still, clear day is perfect.
Take extra care not to crash on Etna… The exposed volcanic rock is very harsh and abrasive that will lead to a severe case of road rash, wrecked kit and possibly wrecked bike if you hit the deck.
I visited in 2020 when there was much less tourism than usual due to Covid. If you visit at another time, expect to see tourists and tourist buses on the roads of Etna. By all accounts, Etna is a big tourist attraction on Sicily and it can get busy.
Volcanic eruptions on Mount Etna
Etna is an active volcano. Although the roads are generally open all year, it’s important to listen to any warnings or local advice before setting out.
Most eruptions occur at the summit, where there are five craters, but eruptions can also happen in one of the 300 vents on the flanks. Though the summit eruptions can be large and highly explosive, they rarely affect the inhabited areas below. However flank eruptions have sometimes happened lower down in the inhabited areas. The most recent summit eruption at Mount Etna (at the time of writing!) occurred in December 2018, but there hasn’t been a flank eruption since 2009. More information on Mount Etna’s volcanic activity can be found here.
More information about Mount Etna
Mount Etna was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. It’s known as “the mountain” to locals and as Mongibello on some of the older maps. It is the highest volcano in Europe and one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
Rifugio Sapienza translates as “Knowledge Refuge”. Rather than being a research station or something, it was built by the Italian Alpine Club after the Second World War and is named after Giovannino Sapienza, who was a rock climber who died in the war.
If you climb the southern side, from Piano Provenzana you can go trekking along the volcano slopes with guides from the ETNA NORD association. You can also visit the volcano craters including the one from 1809 and the 2020 eruption.
If you want to get to the highest point/the main crater of Etna at 3,300m, you will have to go with a guide. There are plenty of summit tours available that will let you reach that point, but this is the only way. There are even donkey treks, which would be quite a novel way to get up close and personal with the volcano!
Cycling history on Mount Etna
The list of stage winners on Mount Etna include Franco Bitossi in 1967, Acacio da Silva in 1989, Alberto Contador in 2011 (but was later disqualified so José Rujano was the official winner), Jan Polanc in 2017 and Estaban Chaves in 2018.
Part 2: Other important things to know about a holiday/cycling holiday in Sicily
Did you find any good coffee/bar/café stops near Etna/on Sicily?
Yes! Sicily is full of good food and coffee. Here are some of my recommendations:
Rifugio Ragabo (mentioned above) is a nice little place in the middle of a forest – perfect for a little break. The profiteroles were delicious and so was the coffee. You can’t really get a bad coffee in Italy though!
There are lots of fantastic looking restaurants and cafes, hidden in little narrow streets. I’m not a total expert on Catania but I’d recommend:
Cafe Savia – for coffee and granita (and arancini apparently too). Granita is a dessert which is also a typical Sicilian breakfast (eaten together with a warm brioche) – it’s a bit like ice cream, but not quite, as it’s made with shaved ice and different flavourings. It’s good!
Trattoria La Norma – delicious food (especially if you like seafood). I was taken there by a local who I met in Catania. It’s a very cosy place attended mostly by locals, so if you’re after that genuine Sicilian food experience, it’s a place to go.
Canusciuti – another nice cafe/restaurant. More modern, delicious food, you must try their seafood cone!
Scirocco – little seafood bar just next to the seafood market – again, try the seafood cone and some of their sandwiches.
If you are into wine, there are a lot of wine tours and vineyards you can visit – Etna wine is quite famous. I found out that lava is a perfect fertiliser – the soil in that region is packed with nutrients as a result and that in turn affects the taste of the products grown there, so even vegetables and fruit grown in that region may look and taste slightly different.
I fell in love with Taormina so much that I went there twice!
It’s a gorgeous little town (quite smart) with lots of little shops, gourmet food stores, restaurants and cafes. Check out:
- Bam Bam – for granita.
- Le Quattro Fontane – delicious food, homemade pasta and seafood.
- L’Arco – you must try their “la scacciata” – it’s a bit like a folded pizza, but not a calzone. I tried one with mozzarella and aubergines and it was to die for. I went there by a complete accident and I’m so glad I did.
Definitely visit Isola Bella if you fancy some time at the beach. The beach is really tiny and probably not the best I have been to, but it is very picturesque. I stayed there in the morning and then climbed up the stairs to Taormina in the afternoon.
Another gorgeous little town – similar vibe/experience to Taormina but slightly different architectural style. If you can drive, definitely visit the Cavagrande Canyon!
In terms of food, I have one recommendation – Caseifico Borderi. Located at the end of the Ortigia market, with a never-ending queue. The place where you will get THE BEST panini – I queued for mine for about an hour and it was worth it!
The man who prepares them is a local legend, all paninis are the same (there is a meat/veg option) and he makes 10 at the same time using the freshest ingredients, lots of fresh ricotta, mozzarella, homemade spreads and local vegetables and meats (if you eat meat).
What’s the best town/city to stay in in Sicily?
Catania is great for the south, and I’ve mentioned information on it above.
If you want to visit the north side of the island, I could not recommend Palermo enough. It’s the regional capital of Sicily and lies on a plain overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and the limestone mountains. Monte Pellegrino is the symbol of the city.
Palermo has a long history, and was the capital of Sicily from 1130 – as such the old city centre is very old and very beautiful, with plenty of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
If you do stay in Palermo, here are a few personal recommendations:
Sadly, I did not cycle in Palermo but I saw lots of cyclists and heard that it is an incredible spot for MTB. In fact, the opening stage of the 2020 Giro d’Italia was a 15km TT that started in the beautiful town of Monreale and finished in Palermo. It also hosted stage finishes in 1930, in 1954 (a team time trial on Monte Pellegrino), in 1961, 1965, 1967 (again on Monte Pellegrino), 1976, 1982, 1986, 1993 and 2008!
Palermo is a fantastic place for sport in general – from diving (which I also did in Catania and highly recommend), to rock climbing (Mount Pellegrino), windsurfing, paddle boarding, MTB/cycling, hiking.
If you enjoy beaches and water sports, this is the place to go. It’s located about a 20 minute drive from the centre of Palermo. Really nice beach between Mount Pellegrino and Capo Gallo – both great if you like a little hike.
Food and street food, specifically, is a big thing in Palermo. I booked a street food tour and a cooking class through Airbnb (again, highly recommended especially if you travel solo, like me). There are three different markets in Palermo, each packed with fresh produce and also little places where you can grab a quick bite.
I’d recommend pane con panelle e crocche, which is a freshly baked roll with chickpea fritters (delicious) and potato croquettes (also delicious) – it’s an absolute carb bomb, but it will keep you going for a whole day!
Another recommendation is arancini (rice balls with different filling) – there’s an arancini war between Catania and Palermo, but Palermo definitely wins, their arancini are the best. They have the same war when it comes to granita, which is much better in Catania.
Sfincione is a Palermitan pizza/focaccia – worth trying as well.
The highlight of every street food tour is a spleen sandwich (spleen and lungs) – everyone is scared of it, but it tastes really nice (I am a vegetarian who used to eat meat and who loves cooking, so I do like to try different local things even if it is meat). It tastes a bit like a steak sandwich, with lots of salt and lemon juice – it’s a must try when you’re there! Picture below to prove it doesn’t look (and taste) as bad as it sounds.
When’s the best time to visit?
I have been to Italy many times and I’d say September/October is best – the weather is still great and you can avoid the crowds (although that hasn’t really been an issue in the new 2020 Covid era…).
A huge thank you to Marta for sharing her insights on cycling Etna and her trip to Sicily. Editing this has made us want to go even more!
Have you cycled in Sicily?
Share your tips below!
If you’re interested in some other ideas for where to cycle in Italy, you should also check out our pick of the best cycling destinations in Italy and our in-depth guides to cycling the Dolomites and Stelvio region of Italy.
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