Mount Etna may be the tallest volcano in Europe, but there’s no definitive answer to exactly how tall it is. Continuous eruptions mean that its height is ceaselessly changing, with volcanic fallout stockpiling at the summit, or crater edges collapsing under the pressure of hot lava flows. This isn’t unusual for volcanoes, and, of course, Mount Etna is one of the most active mountains in the world, releasing the tectonic tension between the African and the Eurasian plates.
It almost seems illogical that this fiery colossus is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Sicily. But it seems we can’t help being drawn in, like a moth to a flame - nearly everyone who visits Sicily heads up the ashen slopes of Mongibello, or “beautiful mountain” as it’s known in Italian.
Mount Etna is woven into the history of Sicily. Known in Roman times as the home of Vulcan, god of fire, the people blamed his unfaithful partner Venus for every red-hot outburst. But rather than being feared, Etna is revered as a vital resource and stalwart of island life. There are more than 200 caves on the volcano, used over the centuries to store food, wine, and loved ones as sacred burial places.
Mount Etna is the focal point of Sicily’s eastern shores, and the base circumference alone measures around 150 kilometres. The soil at the foot of the mountain, fertilised by the ash, produces almost three-quarters of Sicily’s crops. Vineyards of Nerello grapes line the slopes, used to create the robust Etna Rosso wine (which has a unique ‘minerality’).
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Etna National Park covers around 581 square kilometres in total, but attempts to tame it with roads to the summit have often been swept away by vast lava flows. Etna welcomes all who visit, but don’t forget for a moment that this unwavering volcano is still very much alive.
Something about Etna’s magma chemistry means its lava does not solidify inside the chambers (which would cause pressure to build up until it exploded), but instead flows out through numerous natural ‘safety valves’. This doesn’t mean it’s benign, but the last big eruption happened way back in 1669, and was slow to get going, with locals fruitlessly attempting to divert the flow rather than evacuate.
That said, Mother Nature is unpredictable. Mount Etna has toxic sulphurous fumes, deep underground chambers, and the changeable weather conditions you’ll find on any large mountain.
It pays to have a plan when visiting the volcano, and to stick to it – and if you’re planning on venturing to high altitudes, seek the help of a local guide. Of course, it’s imperative to take the advice of locals, authorities and guides, and there are early warning systems in case of future eruptions.
You can visit Etna without a guide by visiting the Rifugio Sapienza (1920m), a visitor centre high on the southern flanks of Etna. Drive up the switchbacks through huge lava flows before you arrive at the central car park, where there are restaurants and gift shops.
From here, you can go on several self-guided hikes, including the Cratères Silvestri, just a short walk from the car park. Take extra care in winter, when snow can blanket the area and make many paths inaccessible.
You can also jump on the Etna Cable Car to go up to 2500 metres, simply admire the view, go hiking on old lava fields, or join an alpine guide in a 4x4 off-road excursion up to the Belvedere on the Valle del Bove and the Cratere Laghetto.
Alternatively, you could choose to visit the quieter northeastern side of Etna. Mostly destroyed by an eruption in 2002, Piano Provenzana offers extinct craters, volcanic caves, nature trails and far fewer crowds.
While you can certainly visit Etna without going to the top, the summit is a once-in-a-lifetime experience where you can see any fresh lava and get a true sense of the volcano’s scale.
It’s important to note that you can only go up to 2,900 metres without a guide. So, if you want to see the highest summit craters, at around 3300 metres, a tour guide is (understandably) required for safety.
Your guide will choose the places to visit depending on the conditions, and though it’s possible to book on the day from operators at Rifugio Sapienza (take cash), booking online is often cheaper and more reliable.
There are plenty of options online with everything from summit hikes, to food and wine tours, to the very first 100 % electric Eco Mount Etna Tour. Many operators offer transport and will supply any necessary equipment like walking poles, helmets, headlamps, and even warm clothing.
But the main benefit of booking a Mount Etna tour is the knowledge of the guide: Whether you’re visiting the highest peaks or the sloping vineyards, a guide will deepen your experience and provide an extra layer of safety.
The Etna cable car costs € 50 per person, € 30 for children from 5 to 10 years (under 5’s are free). The cars run daily throughout the year from 08.30 to 16.10 (the last descent is at 15.50). Tours by 4x4 froma the top of the cable car cost an additional €19 for adults/ €11 for children plus an obligatory mountain guide (€9). See the official website for more information.
It’s possible to visit Etna for free (just pay for parking), and hike the lower craters on your own. From Rifugio Sapienza you can take the 1.5 hour hike to the cable car exit (Torre Del Filosofo), then hike another 2 hours along the winding track to the authorised crater area at around 2900 metres (Etna's South Eastern Crater).
There are also lower hikes like the popular Acqua rocca degli zappini, the relatively easy Schiena dell'asino, or the Grotta del Gatto - great for children.
Alternatively, there are many great tours that will help you to avoid the queues, stay safe, and save you from navigating the often changeable rules of the Italian authorities. Below we look at some of the options as well as the general prices of tours to Mount Etna.
Again there are lots of options. If you are looking to conquer the mountain, there's the classic Mount Etna Summit Tour which will take you to the highest authorised safety altitude of Etna.
After catching the cable car and a short 4x4 ride, a professional alpine guide will escort you from 2900 metres up to 3,340 metres. This tour is only recommended for fit travellers without health conditions, and the routes may be changed due to seismic activity or bad weather on the day (from € 119 per person).
Avoid the crowds with this off-the-beaten path tour of Mount Etna with a naturalist guide. Starting from Catania, you will avoid the busy routes by travelling along off-road passages through old lava flows as you learn about Etna’s history from a local. Highlights include hiking to recent lava flows, a visit to a lava cave, and seeing the southeastern crater within Etna's most active area (from € 65 per person).
If you’re more interested in the lower regions, this top notch wine tour of Etna and the Alcantara Gorges has a perfect mix of the region's best bits. After heading to the craters of northeast Etna (2000 metres), you will explore lava caves by lamplight, stop for a Sicilian lunch with locally made wine, then travel to the clear pools and basalt columns of the Alcantara Gorges.
This is a great alternative to the summit tours, especially if you are concerned about altitude sickness (from €104 per person).
It's easy to get to Rifugio Sapienza near the mountain town of Nicolosi by hire car or public bus from any major town. Nearly every nearby local community has some sort of link to the volcano; wherever you stay, all roads lead to Etna.
Tours with included transport to Mount Etna can be booked from the nearby city of Catania and the tourist town of Taormina, one of the most popular places to visit in Sicily. Or, for a more laid-back experience, rail aficionados will love the Etna round-trip on the Circumetnea train. Hop on at the Borgo metro station in Catania for a three-hour multifaceted view of Etna’s dark towering slopes.
Last Updated 4 September 2023