Messina, Sicily’s third largest city after Palermo and Catania, is where train and car travelers first set foot on Sicilian soil. It is also a popular cruise port. Messina’s well-protected natural harbor and its location on the Strait of Messina close to the mainland have shaped the city’s history from the earliest times. But its location as the gateway to Sicily has also led to tourists rushing through it on their way to the island’s many other attractions. Messina deserves a place on a Sicilian itinerary for the many things to see and do and to meet the cheerful, friendly locals, perhaps during one of the lively festivals that fill the streets with music and colour. The most colorful of these is Vara, each on August 15,
1 Cathedral and Piazza del Duomo
The cathedral forms one end of the wide Piazza del Duomo , the historic center of Messina, and opposite is the Orion Fountain, made from 1547 to 1551 by GA Montorsoli of Florence, a student of Michelangelo. On the left long side of the cathedral is the baroque column of the Virgin Mary by Giuseppe Buceti, built in 1758. The church was built in the 1100s by the Normans, who ruled Sicily at the time, but it was badly damaged by an earthquake that destroyed much of Messina in 1908. Barely recovered from that, the cathedral was once again badly damaged by the bombing of World War II. After both, the reconstruction remained faithful to the original form and retained important later features such as the carved stone portals of the Late Gothic period, medieval relief carvings on the lower facade and three apses on the east side dating from its foundation.
Like all Norman cathedrals in Sicily, the cathedral is a columned basilica with three aisles, a transept and three apses. The monumental interior has a brightly colored roof truss and arcades with pointed arches; the apse mosaics of the enthroned Christ are reconstructions, as are the apostle altars of the aisles. Through all its trials, this remains one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Sicily.
2 The clock tower and astronomical clock
Reconstructed using ancient designs, this 60-meter-tall clock tower contains one of the largest of all astronomical clocks, a work by Strasbourg’s Ungerer who was placed there in 1933. Every day at noon (or sometimes shortly after) the figures begin moving and depict scenes from Messina’s history, including the transfer of the legendary letter of protection from the Madonna to Messina. The show begins with a gilded lion waving a banner and roaring, and the action runs for 15 minutes with animated figures jumping out of the windows. On the side of the tower opposite the facade of the church, a dial shows astronomical information.
3 Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani
The second most important church in Messina is the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani. It is the only building to survive the 1908 earthquake, but was not so fortunate in the bombing of World War II. The church was built in the second half of the 12th century under Norman rule, and the east side dates from this time. The main apse between the transept arms is distinguished by the delicate architectural arrangement of its false arcades on small elegant pillars and by its multicolored building materials. The west side with its three portals dates from the 13th century, when the building underwent a number of changes. In the three-aisled interior, pillars are supported by pillars on columns with different capitals. The central aisle has barrel vaults,
Address: Via Garibaldi Giuseppe 111, Messina
4 Regional Museum
Each of the three sections of the regional museum of Messina – the painting gallery, the sculpture collection and the archaeological section – contains important pieces. Sculpture highlights include a sculpture by Antonello Gagini of St. Anthony, Francesco Laurana’s Madonna and Child, and Goro di Gregorio’s Madonna of the Cripples , as well as the originals of the figures on the Fountain of Neptune. In the Picture Gallery is the double segmented “Polyptychon of Saint Gregory” by Antonello da Messina, painted in 1473 but damaged in the 1908 earthquake. Of particular interest are The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Raising of Lazarus from the Dead by Caravaggio, and finds from ancient Zancle in the archeology section.
5 Neptune Fountain (Neptunus-fontein)
The Fontana del Nettuno, or Neptune’s Fountain, is located in a park separate from the city center. It was built in 1557 and, like the Orion Fountain, is a work of Montorsoli. The fountain depicts the god of the sea caught between Scylla and Charybdis, the two monsters of the Strait of Messina. The Via della Liberta starts at this fountain and leads out of town towards the exhibition park of the Fiera di Messina .
Address: Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, Messina
On the west side of Piazza Dante is the Camposanto, or Cimitero Monumentale, one of Italy’s largest and most beautiful cemeteries. At the top of the hill is an Ionic colonnade, the Pantheon of the leading citizens of the city, from which there is a beautiful view of the city and the strait. The neoclassical and art nouveau sculptures and monuments in gardens make it seem more at an open air art gallery.
Address: Via Catania, Messina
7 Panoramic Road in the Shrine of Christ the King
An attractive panoramic route, Viale Italia , starts west of the university and continues west under various names (Viale Principe Umberto, Viale Regina Margherita). The footbridges and boulevards run above the town, following the course of the old fortifications and ending in the north at the coastal road. The route passes by the botanical garden , the rebuilt Santuario di Montalto , and the votive chapel of Sacrario di Cristo Re. This shrine, with its huge octagonal dome, is a memorial to war dead, and the bell chimes in their memory every hour. Near Prince Umberto Avenue is a beautiful esplanade with a panoramic view of the city and harbor.
Address: Viale Principe Umberto, 89, 98122 Messina
8 Scenic Drive near Lighthouse Tower
A scenic road runs 15 kilometers along the coast northeast of Messina. Villas and gardens line the route, covering two saltwater lagoons, the Pantani, also known as the Laghi di Ganzirri . The road finally ends at the village of Torre di Faro, on the Punta del Faro, the northeastern tip of Sicily. Enjoying beautiful views from the lighthouse here is one of the most popular things to do. From Torre di Faro, the coastal road continues along the northernmost cape of Sicily. You can return to Messina via the Colle San Rizzo , which reaches an altitude of 465 meters.
A promontory protrudes from western Messina into the harbor with the remains of a citadel called the Fort of San Salvatore , which was built in 1681. It forms the basis for a 60-meter octagonal column erected in 1934, surmounted by a statue of the Madonna della Lettera. Locals call it the Madonnina, little Madonna. The monument reads “Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus” (We bless you and your city), a quote from a letter the Virgin Mary is said to have sent the people of Messina. The column can be reached on foot by crossing the tracks at the railway station, although it is better to use the boat service.
10 Vittorio Emanuele III Gallery
Reminiscent of the grand galleria in Milan’s Piazza Duomo, this impressive gallery is also built of iron – rare in Italy – but was built later, at the beginning of the 20th century. Like Milan, it serves as a combination of shopping mall and stylish salon where locals come to see and be seen in the cafes and restaurants. Inside, the galleria is decorated in stucco, with a beautiful black and white mosaic floor.
Address: Piazza Antonello, Messina
Where to Stay in Messina for Sightseeing
More B&Bs than hotels are close to the city center’s top attractions and are often more luxurious choices. If you’re using Messina as a base for exploring the nearby and beautiful northeastern coast, consider staying in one of the seaside towns and seeing Messina on day trips. Here are a few highly rated hotels in and around Messina:
- Luxury Hotels : Guest House Residence is a modern hotel with spacious rooms, parking, and a free breakfast about a 25-minute walk from both the Duomo and the train station and on a tram line. La Casa di Dadda is set in a beautifully decorated 1900s house with a roof terrace and a rich breakfast included, just off the Viale Italia panoramic route and a short walk from the Duomo. Royal Palace Hotel is near the train station and within walking distance of attractions. It has dated but spacious rooms, some with harbor views from the balconies.
- Mid-Range Hotels: B&B Crystal’s bright, modern rooms are convenient to trains and ferries and within walking distance of central attractions. The family-run and family-friendly Oasi Azzurra Village is a beach resort on the north coast, a great base for road trips, with a good restaurant and swimming pool. Garibaldi B&B has windows and small balconies overlooking the bell tower and the main square. It has spacious rooms and includes breakfast with cappuccino.
- Budget Hotels: The Opera Relais B&B is close to the Duomo and restaurants, within walking distance of the station and ferry terminal, and offers breakfast brought to the room. On the north coast, with well-appointed rooms, ocean views and spectacular sunsets, La Casa A Mare B&B is a little hard to find, but a good base for exploring Messina and the coast. On the coast, about 11 kilometers north of central Messina, Hotel Donato is close to restaurants and shuttle services to the city.
More places of interest near Messina
Perhaps more than any other region of Italy, the island of Sicily is filled with treasures from the ancient world and some of the best are within easy reach of Messina. The nearest is the Greek Theater in Taormina, one of many easy day trips from Messina. One of the largest theaters in the ancient Greek Empire is located in the archaeological park at Syracuse, on the coast south of Messina. On the way to Syracuse, stop in Sicily’s second largest city, Catania, known for its baroque buildings. In the interior of Catania, Enna is located in the center of the island, with one of the best preserved villas in the Roman Empire. For stunning coastal scenery, drive along the north coast, where the mountainous interior dips down to the Tyrrhenian Sea, to visit Cefalù. Ahead is the capital of Sicily,