Nestled on Sicily’s coast, Messina is a thriving harbor city, renowned for its vibrancy. As the third-largest city on the island, it enjoys a prime location just off the southern tip of Italy’s boot. The Strait of Messina acts as a natural boundary, separating it from the Italian mainland. Its popularity as a port of call for numerous Mediterranean cruises is ever-increasing.
In the 8th century B.C., the Greeks established a colony in Messina, naming it Zancle due to its scythe-like shape. However, it was renamed Messene three centuries later as a tribute to the eponymous Greek city. Despite its rich history, both ancient and recent, Messina has been plagued by a multitude of natural and man-made disasters. Over the centuries, it has been beset by the Carthaginians, Mamertines, and Goths, among others. Located in Italy, Messina is one of the many beautiful islands of Sicily.
Messina has been plagued by a series of natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis, throughout its history. The most catastrophic of these occurred on December 28, 1908, which claimed the lives of over 100,000 people and left most of the ancient architecture in ruins. Although the city was reconstructed the following year, it faced further destruction during the Allied bombardment in 1943.
Today, the city boasts a unique blend of ancient structures, which weathered natural disasters and war, and contemporary constructions erected after the 1908 catastrophe. Due to its strategic location on the Strait of Messina, and the presence of a naturally protected harbor, the city enjoys a burgeoning shipping industry that caters to container ships, cruise ships, and ferries. For curious tourists, Messina serves as an entryway to the marvels of the larger Sicilian region.
As cruise enthusiasts, my companions and I have docked in Messina several times. While the city itself offers only a handful of attractions, many visitors treat it as a mere stopover on the way to exploring the charming towns of Taormina, hiking Mount Etna, or venturing into Calabria, only three miles away on the mainland. Yet, Messina deserves at least a day’s visit to indulge in its culinary delights and local wines. Allow me to suggest a few ways to spend your time in Messina.
If you’re in Messina, be sure to pay a visit to the Cathedral Square and take in the awe-inspiring Cathedral. This Norman-style cathedral, dating back to the 12th century, was commissioned by Henry VI of Hohenstauffen. Despite being severely damaged by the 1908 earthquake, it was rebuilt with utmost authenticity. Regarded as one of Sicily’s most magnificent cathedrals, it boasts of a vividly colored roof truss and mosaics. Be sure to explore the treasury museum, with over 400 historical art pieces crafted in gold and silver, before you leave.
The Orion Fountain in Messina’s historic city center is a sight to behold. Located in the Piazza del Duomo or Cathedral Square, this magnificent fountain was created by G.A. Montorsoli, a student of the famed artist Michelangelo, between 1554 and 1551. Surrounded by mythical figures, the fountain was built in honor of the arrival of running water in the city.
One of the most impressive sights in the city is the Bell Tower and Astronomical Clock, located adjacent to the Messina Cathedral. Standing tall at 60 meters, the tower was reconstructed using original designs and boasts one of the greatest astronomical clocks from the renowned Strasbourg firm of Ungerer. This clock was installed in the tower in 1933 and every day, at precisely noon or shortly thereafter, intricate figures come to life, beginning with a banner-waving lion. The show, which lasts for 15 minutes, depicts scenes from Messina’s history, with figures popping out of windows to enhance the spectacle. It’s an experience that should not be missed.
Experience a scenic tour of the city on the charming tourist train, which departs from the cathedral’s doorstep. For €10 per adult and €5 per child, you’ll enjoy a 50-minute ride around town, with a brief interlude at Cristo Re offering panoramic city views. Take a boat ride to see the awe-inspiring Madoninna, located on a strip of land on the west side of Messina’s harbor. While there, explore the remnants of the 1681 citadel, Fort of San Salvatore, which serves as the base of the impressive 60-meter column erected in 1934, capped by the iconic statue of Madonna della Lettera.
Dubbed the Madonnina or little Madonna by locals, the monument bears an inscription that reads “Vos et ipsam civitatem benedicimus” (We bless you and your city), which was taken from a letter that the Virgin Mary purportedly sent to the people of Messina. Amidst the flurry of activities in the city, it’s worth pausing to sample the delicacies offered by local cafes and restaurants. Regional specialties like Arancini, fried rice balls stuffed with ragu, Pignolata, a soft pastry infused with chocolate and lemon flavors, and the irresistible Cannolis, fried pastry tubes brimming with a sweet ricotta filling, are definite must-tries.
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