Let’s start with some honest ‘home truths’ about Messina; you didn’t come to Sicily (Italy) to visit Messina, it’s mostly thought of as a transportation connection, and you probably don’t want to spend more than 24 hours there. Put simply, Messina is often overlooked when it comes to Sicilian destinations and that’s fairly understandable when you compare it against everything else on offer across the island. But if you happen to find yourself in Messina (probably after crossing the strait from mainland Italy) and have a few hours or a day to kill before onward travel then there is definitely enough to see and do to keep you entertained. That’s what this post is all about; maximizing your time in a city that otherwise probably wouldn’t be on your itinerary. Here goes…..
I usually start my destination guides at the airport by giving advice on how best to get to the center of town. However, if you’re visiting Messina, a major port, then it’s actually more likely that you’re arriving by ferry from the Italian mainland or by public transportation from another city in Sicily. So, rather than try and work out the myriad routes that might get you between Sicily’s four international airports and Messina it’s probably better that I start by pointing you towards the Trenitalia Website. Trenitalia provide train connections between mainland Italy and Messina (an exciting voyage by train loaded onto a boat awaits you!) as well as other ‘domestic’ Sicilian cities. If you’re just looking for boat connections from the mainland to Sicily then ferries tend to depart from Villa San Giovanni whilst hydrofoils tend to depart from Reggio di Calabria. I’ve included some links to transportation companies you might want to check out in the additional resources section below. Finally, if you’re planning to get to Messina by bus then be sure to check out the Interbus Website (you’ll have to use google translate as at the time of writing) as a good place to start for schedules and tickets.
If you do go by train (and actually, by any public transport in Italy and Sicily) then just make sure you validate your ticket before you board. In Sicily the on-the-spot fines for traveling on invalidated tickets can be pretty extortionate and I believe the inspectors work on commission; so as you can probably guess, they’re pretty eager to catch you out.
The center of Messina, and pretty much all of the city’s major tourist attractions that I highlight below, is easily walkable (subject of course to the potentially overbearing heat and how long it’s been since you last frequented a gym – there are steep inclines in places). For anything outside of the city center your best bet is to start with Messina’s tram line – which runs all the way along the coast to the regional museum towards the north-east of the city center. You might also want to consider hopping off at Villa Dante if you don’t fancy the walk from the city center to Climitero Monumentale in the West of the city. I’ve included the link to the tram route and schedule in the additional resources section below. If you think you might venture further along Messina’s coast towards Capo Peloro, Torre Faro or the lagoons of Ganzirri (see below) then instead of the tram grab the number 79 bus from the city’s main bus station (right outside the train station on the south-side of town by the hydrofoil terminal).
Despite the fact that nearly everything is walkable – and the fact that anything that isn’t is connected by public transport – two different Hop-On-Hop-Off services have sprung up in Messina (which definitely seems like overkill). The first is the local offering called ‘Discover Messina’ and the other is good old ‘City Sightseeing’. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that the commentary they provide describing the history and culture of Messina is scintillating, but I’m just not convinced (especially given the small distances involved) that paying for a hop-on-hop-off service in Messina is worthwhile. That said, you should check out their websites to see if either seems worthwhile for you – if nothing else, the route maps will give you a good idea of where the major tourist sights are in relation to one another. I’ve included the websites to both companies in the additional resources section below.
Piazza del Duomo: Messina’s main public square houses three of the city’s main tourist attractions; Duomo (Cathedral), Campanile del Duomo (Bell Tower) and Fontana di Orione (Orion’s Fountain). The square is the very center of things in Messina and so it’s a great place to start your tour of the city. That said you should make sure to be back in the square for mid-day so that you can watch the 200ft high bell tower clock spring to life. It is the largest and most mechanically complex astronomical clock in the world so I’m led to believe. When it hits mid-day the 12 minute ‘show’ starts which includes a roaring lion, a crowing cockerel and a whole manner of other dioramas magically animating the bronze statues. Once the show is over you can pay a few euros to climb the bell tower for great views across the city and the port as well as seeing how the clocks mechanisms work. Also just around the corner is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele III which is little bit like the shopping arcade of the same name in Milan (except not as grandiose I’m afraid).
Tour Messina’s Other Churches: As is the case elsewhere in Italy, religion plays an important role in everyday Messinesi life (disclaimer: I was reliably informed that people from Messina are referred to as ‘Messinesi’ but it still sounds weird to me). As a result there are a mind-blowing number of other churches dotted across the city (and a similarly mind-blowing number of lengthy Italian names that sounded remarkably similar to my simple English brain; thus making it very easy to confuse them all). What I do remember is that the second most important religious edifice in Messina (second to Duomo) is the Church of Annunziata dei Catalani which sits on the former site of the Temple of Neptune along Messina’s waterfront. Beyond that you’re on your own (other than the fact that I’ll recommend Spirito Santo Church for it impressive interior); but it’s easy to conduct a self-guided church tour simply by gazing up and following the path of church domes and crucifixes along the skyline.
Museo Regionale: Founded in 1914 in an old silk weaving mill, the regional museum displays works from the Byzantine and Norman periods. Most exciting (according to my wife; I’m not much of an art connoisseur like her) is that you’ll have the opportunity to see paintings by Caravaggio, dating back to his visit to Messina in 1608-1609 – during which period he influenced the local art scene fairly significantly. The museum has a number of different sections including those dedicated to archaeology, medieval art and Renaissance art, all set around a courtyard, and offering a historical cross-section of cultural life in Messina…and if that doesn’t sound like an exciting afternoon activity for the whole family then I don’t know what does!
Climitero Monumentale: It’s difficult to suggest that visiting a cemetery whilst on holiday isn’t morbid, but visiting this particular cemetery is more akin to a stroll in a grandiose park twinned with a visit to an outdoors art exhibition. To quote the ‘Association of Significant Cemeteries of Europe’ (yep, that’s an actual real life association – I bet their Christmas parties are a hoot!), ‘the Monumental Cemetery of Messina is one of the most important monumental cemeteries in Italy and after the Staglieno Cemetery, the most artistic one’. If the wise words of the Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe doesn’t sell it to you then I really don’t know what will! In seriousness though, if you do decide to visit then the highlights are the Atrium, the Famedio Memorial Chapel, and the Gothic Convent (also known as the Cenobio).
Sacrario di Cristo Re and Santuario della Madonna di Montalto: In my opinion these are the two most impressive religious buildings in the city (mostly because of the panoramic views they provide). Sacrario di Cristo Re (the Shrine of Christ the King) is definitely the most impressive architecturally (particularly the dome and the giant bell outside) but both buildings provide fantastic views over the entire coastline from their elevated positions. The two are only a 5 minute walk from each other, but if you’re planning to visit from the center of town then be prepared for a decent incline (nothing too strenuous, I promise).
Sicilian Food and Wine: It should go without saying that Sicilian food is amazing (admittedly their wine doesn’t quite match up to that on the mainland). I would therefore heartily recommend spending an afternoon chowing down on some of the local delicacies and snacks. Of course, there is the traditional Italian fare including my favourites of Arancini and Cannoli. Beyond that it’s definitely worth trying the Sicilian and Messinesi specialties (again, I’m going to put that same disclaimer here because it still sounds weird to me!) which include pitoni (Small, fried and stuffed calzones), Mozzarella in Carrozza (basically a bread crumbed mozzarella sandwich which is lovingly deep-fried), pignolata (flour and egg-dough fried and covered in a thick layer of chocolate and lemon glaze) and cassata (a traditional Sicilian cake with ricotta cheese, candied fruit and almond paste). If you want to wash all the calories down with a selection of local wines then Enoteca Provinciale in the center of town (on San Placido Calonero) offer wine tastings focused on the Messina Province; Faro, Mamertino and Malvasia delle Lipari are the three local varieties.
Capo Peloro: Heading north-east on the number 79 bus you’ll eventually find yourself in the Capo Peloro region of Messina. Heading along the coast to the cape is worthwhile for a couple of reasons. The first is that you could choose to undertake an adventurous climb up and down 1,250 steps to reach the top of a massive decommissioned electricity pylon known as the Torre Faro Pylon. I appreciate how ridiculous the suggestion sounds, but despite that fact I think the climb is worth it to get some of the best views over the Messina Strait towards the Italian mainland….and let’s be fair, how many of your friends have come home from holiday and proclaimed that they climbed an electricity pylon!?! The second main reason for visiting the area is to visit the lakes of Ganzirri and Faro to hike/stroll around the marine ecosystem and landscape and to indulge in some excellent seafood in one of the lakeside restaurants.
Day Tours: If you’re basing yourself in Messina for more than 48 hours then you’ll definitely want, nee need, to head out of town to find sights of interest (Messina is nice enough but it’s really a 24 hour town). The good news is that there are three easy day trips that you can take from Messina. If you don’t have a hire car, and don’t want to join any kind of organized tour, then the best bet is to head to Taormina. Taormina is one of the nicest spots in all of Sicily and is worthy of its own destination guide (although it’s also one of the busiest places, especially in the summer months). That said, it’s famed for three things; beaches, shopping and its 10,000 seat ancient Greek Amphitheater (you’ll also find it an excellent place for a spot of people watching from the square-side cafes). The easiest way to get to Taormina is by Interbus from the bus stop outside of Messina’s main train station. You can also get most of the way by train, but you’ll need to swap to bus for the last 20 minutes of the ride so it’s probably easier to just take the bus the whole way in my opinion (it’s about 1 hour and 20 minutes to get there). The other two day trip options are Mount Etna and a tour of the Godfather movie location villages. You’ll find plenty of local tour operators and taxi drivers willing to take you on both trips (or check out the Viator website for inspiration); just remember to barter hard as the prices are definitely negotiable.
Messina Tram Route and Schedule: www.atmmessina.it/orario.asp
Discover Messina Website: www.discovermessina.com
City Sightseeing Messina Website: www.messina.city-sightseeing.it
Sicilian Tourist Board Website: www.visitsicily.info
Interbus Website: http://www.interbus.it/
Trenitalia Website: http://www.trenitalia.com/
Boat Transfers from Italy to Sicily: