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Mediterranean & Adriatic

Taormina Village

About Messina

Celebrated as one of Europe’s ten great cities when it fell under Spain’s purview in the 17th century, the picturesque coastal city of Messina is surrounded by undulating mountains, orange and olive groves and vineyards. Its location at the northeast tip of Sicily on the Strait of Messina—which separates the Ionian Sea to the south and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north—puts it within just two miles of the Italian mainland. Founded by settlers from Chalcis in ancient times, Messina changed hands frequently before being occupied by Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines and Arabs. Under the Normans, descendants of the Vikings who settled in modern-day Normandy, Messina prospered both commercially and culturally.

During World War II, the city was the destination of the unofficial “Race to Messina” between US General Patton and British Field Marshall Montgomery. In the end, Patton received credit for securing Sicily, arriving in the city just hours before his British comrade. Today, Messina is a remarkable repository of architecture that spans the centuries, much of it lovingly rebuilt after a 1908 earthquake. Tourism, commerce and agriculture form the backbone of the economy. But centuries ago, it was the University of Messina that played a central role in the city’s identity; founded in 1548, it became the model for hundreds of Jesuit colleges that came after.

Messina Lifestyle and Culture

While only a small strip of water separates Messina from the mainland, locals will tell you that they are not just Italians, but Sicilians through and through. UNESCO even recognizes Sicilian as its own language, different enough from standard Italian to be more than a dialect. The Sicilian identity was cultivated over millennia, transcending the unification of Italy in 1861. Influences from its varied history have rippled through the centuries as, for instance, a Norman church may have once been a mosque, and before that a Greek temple.

Messina is a compact city with pedestrian-friendly streets, making exploring by foot both easy and enjoyable. Joining the locals in their picturesque parks and bustling piazzas and alongside their fountains and historic churches provides a snapshot of this large city with a small town ambiance. The city’s panoramic route known as Viale Italia, with its walkways and boulevards, follows old forts and winds around the Botanic Garden. The Via Garibaldi leads from the expansive Piazza Municipio to Piazza Cairoli, the heart of the Old Town. A beautiful esplanade, with views of the harbor, can be found near Prince Umberto Avenue.

The founding of this picturesque city is celebrated each August during the Passegiata dei Giganti (Ride of the Giants). During the festivities, huge statues of the city’s mythical founders, Grifone and Mata, sit on horseback as locals parade them through the city.

Messina Sights and Landmarks

The Piazza del Duomo is the highlight of Messina with its imposing Norman cathedral and Fountain of Orion. The church was originally built in the 12th century, but was reconstructed twice: once after the 1908 earthquake and again after World War II. Its bell tower houses one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world. Every day at noon, animated figurines emerge to depict scenes from the history of Messina. Another Norman church worth seeking out is Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani.

The grand Neptune Fountain on Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, where it runs into Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia, was built in 1557 and depicts the god of the sea caught between Scylla and Charybdis, the two monsters of the Strait of Messina. For fine art, visit the Museo Regionale, where masterworks span the ages. See paintings by Caravaggio and the San Gregorio polyptych by Antonello da Messina, the museum’s most famous piece.

The gorgeously ornate Porta Grazia gate, in Piazza Casa Pia, marked the passage to the old citadel of the city; it is definitely worth a visit. The lavish entryway was named for the church that was destroyed in order to make way for the Real Cittadella.

Messina Entertainment and Activities

Messina’s Punta del Faro is one of the most celebrated promontories of Sicily, the nearest point to the Italian mainland where the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas meet. The ancient district of Faro is also a winemaking region where Nerello Mascales, Nocera and Nerello Cappuccio varieties are grown. Pick up a bottle at Le Casematte, a vineyard overlooking the Strait of Messina.

The Orto Botanico di Messina, run by the University of Messina, houses a number of exotic plants, succulents, reptiles, fish, amphibians and birds. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, this picturesque botanical garden celebrates Sicily’s natural beauty.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele III is unique as one of the few architectural works in Southern Italy to use iron. The shopping gallery calls to mind the vast and elegant galleries of Milan. Here, stucco work and a beautiful mosaic floor make shopping a pleasure and lingering over espresso at a café an indulgence.

Messina Restaurants and Shopping

While Sicilian food shares a lot in common with Italian, it also boasts Greek, Spanish, French and Arab influences. With its proximity to the sea, pasta with sea urchin and with sardines are both popular preparations. Swordfish is another regional favorite and may be prepared in a multitude of ways. Granita, a semi-frozen dessert with sugar and fruit flavoring provides the perfect ending to a Sicilian feast.

Authentic Sicilian pizza, of course, is excellent in Messina, and Pizza Capitano prepares delicious pies in its wood-burning oven. Osteria del Campanile, just behind the Duomo (the Cathedral), serves fantastic coastal cuisine on tables that fan out onto the street, and Al Padrino keeps things simple with meat and fish dishes with Sicilian pasta.

Viale San Martino and its adjacent streets comprise Messina's principal shopping zone; the Polynesian collection and international toys at Moai Tiki draw a curious crowd. Find jewelry, chocolate, wine, souvenirs and more along this vibrant thoroughfare. Piazza Cairoli also has a range of shops offering clothing and shoes.