All you need to know about a Mount Etna Tour – do it yourself, with a car or with an organised trip
If you are confused about the different options to do a Mont Etna tour then, be sure you are not the only one. There are so many alternatives.
In this post, I am going through all the different ways to do the tour, whether you visit Etna on your own or with a guided trip.
Is it worth visiting Mount Etna (one of the most common questions I receive)?
Let me say that this is, in my opinion, the most spectacular excursion in Sicily, especially considering it’s the highest active volcano in Europe.
This day trip should really be on your bucket list, you will not be disappointed.
But without further ado, let’s get into the different Mount Etna Tours options.
If you are still asking yourself if it’s a safe trip, considering the volcano is still active, be sure that safety is paramount for all tour operators. In fact, it’s not uncommon that access is closed.
If you are venturing on your own then you should check the INGV Observatory for the latest news.
Mount Etna Tours (do it yourself or not) – in a nutshell
- the highest point of Mount Etna is around 3,329 meters (almost 11,000 foot) high. When you trek, if acclimatization to the altitude is a problem, just turn back. If you keep going up, you will not be going to improve, in fact, things can get worst. Typically you will not go to the highest point, so it should not be an issue
- the highest point changes based on the latest eruption. Till two years ago the peak was on the north side of the volcano. Today it is on the south side. It can go up or down even 200 metres, based on the lava deposit/collapse.
- it can be cold, even in summer. Get dressed properly as you would do for trekking in the high mountains. You can also think to rent part of the equipment at the end of the cable car (winter jacket and winter shoes are €5/day, meanwhile socks are €3.5/day)
- yes, you can visit Etna by own car. You can visit Etna on your own and it’s not that complicated either, however, you will not be able to trek to the summit without a guide for safety reasons (the volcano is still active). Read more below
- and yes, you can organise the tour yourself with public transportation. Is it complicated? Not that much if you stay in Catania. You can read more information below on how to.
- Mount Etna north or south side: do not assume they are the same. In fact, they are very different. The north side has a mix of vegetation and black lava stones, a nice colour contrast. It is somehow more spectacular, however, you will be able to reach the summit only from the south side, almost black monotone, and specifically from Rifugio Sapienza.
- Mount Etna Cable Car: it starts from the Rifugio Sapienza, at 1923m, to end, after 15-20 minutes, at the altitude of 2,500m. You would need to buy a return ticket (around €30) if you do it yourself. Keep in mind that even with an organised tour, the ticket may be not included (ask the tour operator if not specified). Read more information about the Cable Car below
- Summit tours: they all start from the end station of the cable car, at 2,500 meters. You have two possibilities: a 4×4 bus and/or trekking. Read more below. At the moment you cannot climb to the absolute peak for safety reasons.
- Mount Etna tours from Catania: you can organise your own, by renting a car in Sicily or a public bus, or alternatively join this easy-going organised tour which includes a wine tasting stop or this more challenging tour that hikes to the top with a professional alpine guide. If you plan to make it to the peak then budget 6 to 8 hours. With public bus add one hour or more. Catania is the closest location to Mount Etna and the best place to stay in Sicily if you plan to visit the volcano. Read more on all possibilities from Catania
- Mount Etna tours from Taormina: the day trip takes 7 to 8 hours, based on the stops you plan to do. There is no public bus from Taormina. You either drive to the Rifugio Sapienza or better take an organised tour for a no worry experience. Read more on all possibilities from Taormina.
- from Palermo: it’s going to be a long day and you will not be able to climb to the pick (not enough time). The trip takes at least 8-9 hours (6 hours only for the driving time, return). You will have enough time to make it to Rifugio Sapienza and have a walk to the Silvestri Craters. You can also opt to add Taormina with this tour which makes it a full, however amazing day. Read more on all possibilities from Palermo.
- Mount Etna tour with kids: is it suggested? It really depends on the attention span of your kids. Physically is not that demanding, unless you want to make it to the summit. You will take the cable car (which is good fun) and the 4×4 bus. From there it’s only a 30 minutes walk to the Bove Valley. The most important thing is that your kids can follow instructions. It may be dangerous if they start running around. On my last trip there, it was an amazing sunny day and there were plenty of families with little kids.
Yes, you can up to the Funivia (Cable Car) and the last part of the road is so spectacular!
If you have already a rented car in Sicily or you have your own, then it’s worth it to visit Etna by own car.
The obvious benefit is that you can organise the day as you like, possibly following also a visit to a couple of wineries.
Vice versa, with an organised tour, you have the great benefit to have a local guide with you that will tell you all she/he knows about the volcano and its history.
You can even think to rent a car for a couple of days to visit Mount Etna on one day and for example, the Noto area, on another day.
I usually book my cars through DiscoverCars, a company that searches for the best price across more than 30 local and global rental agencies. I found on this site some unbeatable prices and with just €7 you can add a no-worries full insurance too.
Driving a car in Sicily may have its own challenges, especially if you are not used to the Italian way, a bit wilder than usual, especially in the cities.
However, in my opinion, it is totally worth it to hide a car in Sicily because it opens up so many possibilities, and it helps to save some money, especially in travelling in a group of 3 or more people.
Always drive very carefully and never leave any visible belonging in the car, like bags or jackets (someone may think there is a wallet inside).
When visiting Mount Etna by car, you have two possibilities:
- drive to the South Side and get the Mount Etna Cable Car up to an altitude of 2,500m. The most popular choice
- drive to the North Side, to Piano Provenzano and start your trekking from there
I have included Mount Etna in one of my scenic drives of Sicily, together with the Alcantara Gorges.
The South Side of the volcano is the most popular because it is the most easily accessible.
Take the SP92 (Strada Provinciale 92) from either Palermo or Taormina or the Via Catania to, well, Catania 🙂
From Catania/Taormina you will reach Rifugio Sapienza in about 1 hour (less if your hotel is not in the centre). From Palermo, it’s a three hours drive.
Rifugio Sapienza is located at an altitude of 1,923 meters.
You can park the car in the main square. Remember to pay the parking ticket (full-day or half-day after 1pm) because you will get certainly fined otherwise. The local police is very motivated.
From there you have three possibilities.
- You can spend 2/3 hours walking around, visiting the Silvestri Craters and the area around. This will give you a good idea of the Mount Etna, however, you will scratch just about the surface.
- Hike up to the arrival of the cable car and the Bove Valley (around 1.5-2.5 hours based on your level of fitness)
- Go for the easy way up. Here is how:
- Take the Mount Etna cable car up to the Bar Funivia at 2,500m (€30 for adults and €23 for kids 5/10 years old). You can have a walk around here (amazing view), or up to the Laghetti Crater. However, I would personally suggest going to the next level, the Bove Valley.
- From the Bar Funivia, take the 4×4 bus to the Bove Valley at 2,900m (add €38). This fee includes also the guide that will take you around to the Valley (based on weather conditions). The tour lasts around 60 minutes.
- On the way down the 4×4 bus stops at the bottom of Laghetti Crater, an amazing spot where you will experience also some steam coming out from the lava stones.
You may also opt to go to the summit at 3,300m (add €40). This fee includes also a volcanologist/alpine guide, essential because as said, the volcano is still active. The tour lasts around 2 hours
Obviously, the summit is the best experience, with an incredible and unique view. Something to remember forever.
In saying that, it’s also the most expensive at €108 Euro (30 + 38 + 40), and this does not include the rent of jackets and trekking shoes (if you don’t already have them), essential on the volcano terrain.
Keep in mind, however, that more often than not the summit hike is closed for safety reasons.
I would personally not suggest to take only the cable car and stop at the Bar Funivia. You will miss so much of the Etna experience
Visit the Silvestri Craters instead around the Rifugio Sapienza if you are on a budget.
A couple of tips:
- if the weather is not good then you may want to reconsider your trip altogether, and surely the ascend to the summit, the Bove Valley or the Torre del Filosofo. You may end up with very poor or no visibility at all. However, you may also end up with a great view over the clouds, very unique. Ask at the Cable Car ticket counter in case. They usually know what’s happening on the peak.
- All of the guides speak English, however, the level may differ quite considerably. There are many organised groups so feel free to swap group if you are not happy. It’s a popular destination and there are plenty of people around.
As you may expect, 10:30-11am is the busiest time of the day. Plan it early to enjoy the volcano almost on your own. The Mount Etna Cable Car opens at 8:30am.
You can also decide to spend the night close to the cable car and in this case, I would suggest staying at the Corsaro Etna Hotel, very close to the cable car and the Silvestri Craters. Great start of the day with a lovely breakfast and view (see photos here). The best location in a nice and clean hotel.
Obviously, staying up in the mountain will allow you to have the most amazing sunrise and sunset.
This is a great alternative, in case you want to avoid the popular south side.
You can drive to Piano Provenzana at 1,800m, where you can park the car and start the trekking from there.
You will not be alone, however, you will have more of a boutique experience.
The drawback is that you cannot make it to the summit from here and there are no cable cars (it’s all about trekking)
You can follow the Puchoz ski lift first and then the Coccinelle one. You will find yourself at around 2,100m.
From there, you can trek even higher to the Observatory at 2,900m.
I suggest downloading the app Maps.Me, where you will find most of the trekking paths. It works also offline (it’s one of my favourite apps).
The length of the trek depends on where you want to go. The full Observatory return trip takes around 7 hours (based on fitness)
You can also decide to ride a mountain bike to the Observatory.
Do not overestimate yourself with the time needed for the walks.
You are doing it at quite a high altitude and, unless you are used to it, you will need a few breaks.
We already talked about the cable car and the trekking options in the visit by car section.
Here we go deeper to see how you can use public transportation to have a full DIY Mount Etna tour, without even the need to rent a car (in case you do not have it already).
Let’s start first with the bad news.
If you are in Palermo or Taormina, there is no public bus available that will take you to Rifugio Sapienza or Piano Provenzana.
You will have to join one of the Mount Etna organised tours, however, you could keep the cost down to the bare minimum booking a tour that provides just transportation (see the section below for organised tours from Palermo and from Taormina).
And now the good news.
From Catania, there is a public bus available that leaves the city at 8:15am and arrives at Rifugio Sapienza at 10:15am.
The time may change, as well as the cost (7Euro return). I really suggest checking the Azienda Sicilia Trasporti website that runs this service.
The Bus Station is 300 metres from the Central Station
On the way back, the bus leaves the Rifugio at 4:30pm and it will be in the city 2 hours later.
You will have 8 hours to spend on the Etna.
My suggestion here is to go for this option if you plan to take the cable car, make it to the Bove Valley or even the summit.
Otherwise, you will spend 2-3 hours around the Silvestri Craters and then you will be bored for the remaining 4-5 hours, waiting till 4:30pm for the bus to leave.
Also, make sure that the weather will be nice (hard to predict in the mountains, I know). Otherwise, even if you want, you may not be allowed to go up.
The point here is that you will have to wait till 4:30pm to come down, no matter what, there are no alternatives.
You will not have that flexibility that a small group tour has, adapting to the weather conditions.
You can catch the bus from Piazza Giovanni XXIII (the Central Station square).
Go there a bit earlier and buy the tickets from the counter (not the bus). Try to have the correct change.
Queue up at least 20 minutes prior to the departure time. Jump on the bus, if already there, and wait for it to leave. Unfortunately, it happens that they overbook the bus.
Also do not expect shiny magnetic buses. But for 7 Euro you can’t really complain, isn’t it?
And if you are wondering where to stay in Catania on a budget, look no further than the Central Station area, right next to the Bus Station, so handy!
How to get to Rifugio Sapienza
There are 3 ways to get to Rifugio Sapienza by car:
- from Catania, it’s a short trip of about 1 hour. There are a couple of possibilities, based on where you stay. The easiest is probably to drive to the town of Nicolosi and from there take the Via San Nicola that becomes later Via Catania up to Rifugio Sapienza.
- from Taormina, it’s a short trip of about 1 hour. Take the Highway E45 till the exit Giarre. From there, follow the signal for Zafferana Etnea where you get the Strada Provinciale 92 (SP92) to Rifugio Sapienza
- from Palermo, it’s a long trip of 3 hours. Take the Highway E90 till the exit Buonfornello where you will join the Highway A19. Keep driving till the exit Gerbini. From there drive through the town of Paterno and Regalna till you will finally find the SP120 that will eventually become SP92 to reach the Rifugio Sapienza. Do not be tempted to follow the coastline on the E90. That will add another hour on top of the three.
The experience with an organised Mount Etna Tour
Here below is a list of tours from the 3 most popular destinations in Sicily.
I have also added other interesting options.
As I said, the great benefit is that you will have a guide with you explaining more about the volcano with some local tips, which is always great to have.
A few tours also stop by wineries on the way back, which is great because the Sicilian wines are absolutely magnificent.
Most, if not all of these tours can be cancelled with a 24-hours notice period. This is why I personally suggest booking as soon as you can (they are popular, especially in summer). If you change your mind, or plan, you can always cancel it at zero cost.
These are the recommended Etna tours from Catania:
- to the summit: this is a special boutique tour (see photos here) run by experienced guides that will take you to the summit. Included is also the cable car ticket as well as the clothes for the hike
- including wine tasting and lunch but no summit: if you want to have some good time around the less explored East of the volcano followed by lunch and some wine tasting then this organised tour is the best fit. It’s more for a relaxed trip to experience also the local food. Pick up is from the hotel
- full day including the Alcantara Gorges: this is absolutely a great way to have a full day experience with a knowledgeable tour leader that will not only guide you through the Etna but also introduce you to the Alcantara Gorges (see photos here), formed by the lava flow in the Alcantara river. Lunch is included in the trip.
Catania is, in my opinion, the best place to stay in Sicily to do the Mount Etna Tour.
There are certainly other towns closer to the volcano, however, you will hardly find any transport or tour starting from there.
If you are planning to rent a car in Sicily, then things can be more flexible and you can think to book you accommodation closer to Etna.
These are the recommended Etna tours from Taormina:
- to the Etna Volano from the East side: this tour will take you the Bove Valley through the Monte Fontana trail. You will even enter in a real lava cave, which is pretty unique.
- full day including the Alcantara Gorges: similarly to the Catania tour, this option will give you an amazing day between Etna volcano and the Alcantara Gorges (see photos here), formed by the lava flow in the Alcantara river.
You can find in Taormina some charming and lovely areas to stay, for couples or families. The hotel selection is quite wide.
I want to stress once again that the Etna is recognised by most as the best experience in Sicily, however, if you want to do it from Palermo remember that your tour operator will need to drive 3 hours, each way. It’s a long day.
This full day including Taormina, this tour led by the popular Michael with take you to the Rifugio Sapienza and Taormina where you will spend around two hours on each site. It’s an 11 hours long day, however, it will give you the possibility to kill two birds with one stone
You can do a summit tour at any time of the day, however, I highly suggest to do it as early as you can in the morning (keeping in mind the cable car opens at 8:30am)
To save time you can book this Summit Tour by Cooperativa Guide Vulcanologiche Etna that meets at 7:45am at Rifugio Sapienza, meters from the cable car.
Being the first to leave means that you will enjoy the Etna Summit almost on your own. In saying that, book well in advance because, as you can imagine, it’s a popular tour with a limited space.
You will have to pay your own cable car and the 4×4 bus. The tour guides will assist you and they will make sure you will have a safe trek up to the Etna summit
Jeep tours Mt Etna
The Jeep Tour with Etna & Sea Excursion will pick you up from Catania and it will take you to an altitude of 2,000 meters where you will start your trekking day. It includes also trekking shoes if you don’t have your own.
This is more of a boutique experience with a small group, at a budget price. It’s great if you are looking for a trip to see the volcano and have some insights from a knowledgeable guide away from the popular and busy sights.
Mount Etna North Side
There are not many tours going on this side of the volcano. In fact, you will not see as many people venturing around the north side.
The Cooperativa Guide Vulcanologiche Etna has a tour starting from Linguaglossa which comes also at an incredible bargain price.
In saying that you will not make it to the summit, however, you will definitely get a great view and experience.
Weather in the Mount Etna
Mount Etna is over 3,000m high and, like any mountain, at that altitude, the weather can really be unpredictable.
You may have your holiday at the beach with over 30 degrees Celsius and at the summit, it’s not uncommon to experience a temperature close to 0 degrees.
You can rent jackets and trekking shoes at the cable car (you may also ask at the tour operator if you go with one)
Trekking shoes are really needed if you go to the summit.
Winter (December to March)
It will be cold, possibly very cold, well under 0 degrees Celsius.
You will find snow and, in fact, you can think to spend a couple of days at the Corsaro Etna Hotel for some skiing too. Definitely a unique experience, unless you live next to an active volcano of course 🙂
Tours to the summit can be done but need more planning and special equipment is also needed (for the snow).
The 4×4 bus is obviously resting in the shed and a snowcat is instead taking its place for the final lift to the Torre del Filosofo at 2,900m
This is the season with the harshest weather condition
Spring (March to June) and Autumn (September to December)
The shoulder seasons can be really unpredictable, especially in April and October.
The day can start with a blue sky and by 10am you will find yourself in a snow storm.
I am a bit exaggerating here, but just be aware to be well prepared with multilayer clothes.
June can be quite warm at Rifugio Sapienza, still up to the summit it will be cold.
The weather is usually sunny and hot down at the beach.
Most probably it will be warm at Rifugio Sapienza.
In can be quite tempting to go up just with a T-shirt, however, believe you me, things can change quickly up in Torre del Filosofo and you will not have a place to cover or hide.
My suggestion here is to have a rucksack with a jumper and a wind jacket. You never know.
Long pants are also recommended, especially if you go to the summit
More reading on Sicily
- Where to stay in Sicily, the best areas (and the worst)
- Best places to visit in Sicily, including unique and hidden gems
- How expensive is Sicily, with a daily budget table