Surrounding the dominating presence of the most active volcano in Europe, Etna National Park covers an area of 59,000 hectares and contains 20 municipalities with a population exceeding 250,000.
Situated just north of Catania, in the eastern part of Sicily, the area has been protected since 1987 and has been split into four zones, with Zone A carrying the highest level of protection and allowing minimal human intervention. In 2013, Mount Etna was listed as a UNESCO Wold Heritage Site, including 19,237 hectares of uninhabited surrounding land.
The eruptions of Mount Etna have been well documented throughout history, with the most famous and devastating eruption occurring in 1669 and lasting nearly five months. This eruption dramatically changed the landscape of Sicily and is responsible for a lot of the geographical features found on the island today.
The volcano is simultaneously the most active and tallest in Europe at present, viewable from almost anywhere in Sicily. Despite its regular activity, Mount Etna plays a central role in the lives of the locals offering rich, volcanic soil and providing income from tourism. Its slopes are dotted with stunning Sicilian villages with the locals excited to tell stories of the last sporadic lava burst.
Beyond the main attraction of the volcano, Etna National Park has many charming characteristics, with something to appeal to everyone’s tastes. The landscape can hugely vary from one minute to the next going from lavish vineyards, to dense orchards, to forests of chestnut and oak trees, to the majestic slopes and the snow-capped peak of Mount Etna.
A unique variety of plant species can be found in the park such as the Etna broom, which is used as a symbol of the area. There is also an abundance of wildlife roaming the protected area of the park including mammals such as wild cats, foxes, rabbits, hares, martens and porcupines. For bird spotters there are kestrels, buzzards, peregrine falcons, hawks, golden eagles and various types of owls.
Etna National Park provides a huge range of activities from simply soaking up the local culture to adventure activities such as skiing.
Etna National Park produces some of the best wine in Europe and many of the vineyards offer wine tasting tours, including the famous Gambino near Linguaglossa. At the base of Mount Etna there are clusters of souvenir shops and bars where you can interact with locals and other tourists.
A cable car located on the south side of the volcano at Rifugio Sapienza offers access further up the slope of Mount Etna climbing 2,500 metres where it is possible to continue up to 2,800 metres on a specially adapted bus. If you feel uncomfortable with such heights, a train operates from Catania and travels in a loop around the base of Mount Etna offering incredible views and stopping at some of the local towns on the 114km journey.
During the winter months it is sometimes possible to enjoy both downhill and cross-country skiing, depending on recent volcanic activity and snow fall. If the conditions allow, there are five pistes on the southern side and three on the northern side of the volcano.
It is recommended to start early in the morning when visiting Etna National Park and allow plenty of time to absorb the culture, take in the sights and experience this magnificent part of the world.