When the Greeks settled in this scenic land, they called it Zancle, which means sickle, for the shape of its natural harbour. Its current name comes from Messenia, the Greek town from which the colonists who inhabit it later came.
Many other populations lived there over the centuries, leaving signs of their passage into language and culture.
1 – The Duomo and its surroundings
At the top of our ten-things list there is, of course, the Cathedral with its three late-Gothic portals and its great mosaic of Christ Pantocrator over the apse. The best way to start our tour is to take a walk in the historic area around the Duomo, and let us inebriate by the scent of the sea while admiring the passage of typical horseback carriages, an expression of the Belle Epoque of Messina.
Once in the Church we can admire an impressive polyphonic organ, one of the largest in Europe, still perfectly functioning. Not to be missed is also the Treasury of the Cathedral containing sacred vestments by the famous goldsmith school of Messina and a collection of items dating back to the Middle Ages. Messina had many silver mines, from which the Spanish government got the raw material to mint its own coins.
Messina’s Cathedral has the largest and most complex mechanical and astronomical clock of the world. At noon let’s move to the square and raise our eyes to the golden bronze statues carousel , placed on the Bell Tower.
Let’s go to the right of the Duomo where the Statue of Don Giovanni d’Austria recalls the victory in the naval battle of Lepanto against the Turks on October 7, 1571.
Behind it, the Church of SS. Annunziata dei Catalani, a jewel of Arab Norman art, dating back to the XII century, rising on the site where the Temple of Neptune once stood. Not far away, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele III, designed in the Art Nouveau style: three branches converging toward the dome-enclosed center, with colorful stained glass ceilings and mosaics decorated floors.
2 – The fountains
At the left side of the Duomo’s bell tower, there is the most beautiful European fountain of the 1500s, as defined by art historian Berenson: it is the monumental Fountain of Orion, dedicated to the mythical founder of the city. It is one of the five historical Messina fountains built by a disciple of Michelangelo, the Florentine Montorsoli.
Another work by Montorsoli, dating back to 1557, is the beautiful Fountain of Neptune, kept in the Museo Regionale. An exact copy of it is located at Piazza Unità d’Italia. An allegory of the waters of the Strait, the fountain reproduces the sea god with its trident, and Scylla and Charybdis, the two monsters guarding the Straits, chained at his sides. Charybdis was a voracious nymph who lived in the waters of cape Peloro and was punished by Zeus for stealing Hercules’ oxen. Scylla, was a very beautiful nymph and Glaucus, Neptune’s son, had fallen in love with her but his love was unrequitted so she was transformed into a monster.
In Via Sant’Agostino we find the beautiful fountain realized by architect Falconieri in 1842: a sculpture of four sea monsters with heads of man, dolphins, griffins and lions. Don’t forget the two fountains in Via I Settembre, built in the 1700s and inspired by the sea: a circular pool with steles, tritons and sea monsters, with the Imperial Spanish crest and the city of Messina’s crest on top. Other two fountains of the same period are kept in the Museo Regionale.
3 – Granita and cannoli while admiring the Strait
Take a break to enjoy this pleasure just tasting the typical lemon granita (shaved ice), or the famous mezza con panna al caffè , a half glass of coffee-flavoured granita and cream . Or, as an alternative, try the typical Messina cannolo with ricotta.
In the meantime, admire the largest natural harbour in the Mediterranean Sea that embraces the blue sea of Messina Strait. That same sea that saw the passage of St. Paul the Apostle and of Ulysses facing with the threatening waves of these waters.
From here, the ships, loaded with wheat and silk produced in the city, sailed off to Europe. It is so exciting to watch the 35 meter tall octagonal stele of the Madonnina del Porto that blesses all ships entering the port. The statue is built on the extreme edge of the peninsular arch: the Virgin, the city’s Patron Saint, holds in her left hand the Holy Letter that she had given to the Messina embassy, which visited Palestine in the year 42 A.D.
Not far behind, the old Forte San Salvatore built in 1546 on the site of the former Basilian monastery founded by Count Roger in 1086 , the beautiful Lanterna di San Raineri, another work by Montorsoli realized in 1555, under the reign of Charles V, built to catch sight for enemy’s ships, now the oldest lighthouse in Italy, and the remains of the Royal Cittadella. You can admire a trace of the ancient fortress on Piazza Casa Pia where the seventeenth-century Porta Grazia now stands. This was the main entrance to the Cittadella.
4 – A tour around the churches
The Church of San Francesco d’Assisi, was built in 1254, during the Angevin period. Designed in Gothic Sicilian style it is the first temple of the Franciscan order in Sicily and hosts the tomb of the king of Sicily, Frederick III of Aragon. The temple is depicted in the painting Pietà with Three Angels, by Antonello da Messina. If you go down Viale Boccetta, one of the green hearts of the city, you find the 1832 Villa Mazzini and on its left, the Church of San Giovanni di Malta, designed by Giacomo Del Duca, one of Michelangelo’s pupils. Here you can see the relics of Placido, the holy martyr of Messina and the tomb of scientist Francesco Maurolico from Messina. The Church was the historical site of the Order of the Knights of Malta. Inside it hosts a permanent exhibition of the Treasures of the Palatine Chapel, many sacred objects, goldsmiths’ and silversmiths’ wares, silk vestments. Not far away, in Via XXIV Maggio, you can find the seventeenth-century Montevergine Monastery of the Santa Eustochia Poor Clares, with a part of the historical complex founded in 1453. Eustochia Smeralda Calafato, whose incorrupt body is preserved in the same monastery, was loved by the famous painter Antonello da Messina and it seems that he would have painted her in the famous work of the Annunciation.
Along Via Santa Cecilia, the Pontifical Basilica of Sant’Antonio da Padova with Sant’Annibale Maria Museum in France, houses memories and clothes of the Saint from Messina along with objects coming from Avignon, the nearby, poor neighborhood , where the saint welcomed, rescued and educated, under both civil and religious point of view, the most needy youth. The remains of St. Annibale are on public display inside the crypt
Further north of the city, at the foot of the Peloritani mountains, you can visit the ruins of an ancient Norman church with an attached convent dedicated to Santa Maria della Valle, better known as “Badiazza“. The wedding between King Frederick III of Aragon and Eleanor of Anjou took place in this three-nave basilica.
In the ancient village of Briga Marina, you can visit the little Church San Paolo, built in 1200, and the stone where St. Paul paused and sat down to preach to the people of Messina in the year 38 AD.
5 – Places of culture
You cannot miss a visit to the University of Studies, established in 1548 as a Jesuit College. Its main portal is now inside the University, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the fifteenth Century. It is good to know that among the professors were Giovanni Pascoli, who composed the famous poem “L’Aquilone” in Messina, Salvatore Pugliatti and Gaetano Martino, founders of the European Community.
The Teatro Vittorio Emanuele, a few steps from the port, is based on the neoclassical style. It was built by the Bourbons in 1800. A valuable painting by Renato Guttuso, depicting the myth of Colapesce, covers the ceiling,
The Museo Regionale was built on the site of the sixteenth century Basilian monastery of SS. Salvatore of the Greeks; the fourteen rooms of the museum allow you to trace the history of the city from the twelfth to the eighteenth century.
Among many important works, the famous Polyptich of Saint Gregory by Antonello da Messina dated 1473 (fourth room) , the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Resurrection of Lazarus, two oils on canvas by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, painted between 1608 and 1609.
6 – Breath-taking panoramas
Messina is full of breath-taking panoramas. The Sacrario di Cristo Re, the monumental tomb of the fallen, with the great bell; the Santuario di Montalto, built on the Capperina hill, where in 1282, the people of Messina organized an uprising against the Anjou’s siege .
Overlooking both the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas, there is the Pilone d’acciaio, rightly dubbed the Eiffel Tower of Messina, a listed building located in the village of Faro. It is 232 meters high and its 1,250 steps are almost suspended in space. It is a disused trellis of the old electrical line, now accessible, illuminated at night by 32 headlamps.
7 – Sea and fishing
Messina is linked to the sea and many legends orbit around it. Among them the one of Colapesce, a young fisherman from Messina who, at the bottom of the sea, holds one of the three columns of Sicily on his shoulder, and Fata Morgana related to an optical phenomenon typical of the Strait. These and other legends are told by the poetess of the Strait, Maria Costa, the voice of the sea and the myths. You can meet her in the small fishing village of Case Basse, in the town of Paradiso. In 2006 she has been included in the Register of Intangible Heritage – Living Human Treasure Book of the Sicilian Region.
On the seafront, you can see the typical boats, felucas, going up and down the Strait to catch swordfish, sometimes even 3 meters long. Swordfish fishing takes place from May to August and is a very old art form, passed down from father to son, which inspired a famous song by Domenico Modugno.
Ganzirri is the perfect place to eat typical seafood dishes. There are farms here and around the lakes of the Nature Reserve, where you’ll find the typical Messina cuisine.
A little further, placed right on Punta del Faro, Capo Peloro, the easternmost point of Sicily, where the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas embrace the Peloro lands. In Parco Horcynus Orca, there is an interesting permanent exhibition called “Alphabets of Duemari” about the knowledge of the seas and the Strait. The exposition, halfway between scientific divulgation and contemporary arts, shows the surface natural environments but also the millenarian swordfish fishing, beasts and killer whales, the chaotic motion of currents, the predator-prey relationships of zooplankton and the Strait’s flora and fauna. Of Of course there is no shortage of submarine wrecks that give suggestions about the abysses. Finally, in the darkest spaces, a unique collection of abyssal fish, the monsters of the Strait.
In the ancient district of Faro, let’s take a break for tasting the Faro DOC, a red wine of the Mycenaean age. It is obtained from grapes of the Nerello Mascales, Nocera and Nerello Cappuccio varieties, which are grown in the same area, one of the three wines with registered designation of origin of this area of Messina.
Finally, we visit the Historic Aquarium, opposite Villa Mazzini, with 22 tanks containing about 100,000 liters of sea water from Messina Strait and over 60 different fish species coming from the Mediterranean Sea.
8 – Villa De Pasquale
Recently restored to its former glory, in Contesse, you find Villa De Pasquale. A wonderful example of Liberty Style , surrounded by a beautiful park, it houses laboratories for the production of refined essences.
9 – Museum of Culture and Popular Music of Peloritani of Gesso
The Museum houses an original collection of folk music instruments from Messina area and many objects from daily life of the pastoral culture of the Peloritani Mountains. It is a trip inside the agro-pastoral world of Messina, through the tools used in agricultural and pastoral activities, in sacred or profane festivals.
10 – Lemonade in the parlour and the shopping streets
A break in the central Piazza Cairoli and then shopping on Viale San Martino. In the parlour of the city, nestled among the trees and cooled by the charming fountain, let’s taste the typical salty lemonade and other delicacies such as syrups, horchata, tamarind, gazzosa (soda), orange juice with granita and sciampagnino (alcohol-free beverage, based on fruit syrup) , made at the Old Kiosk. Built in 1871 in one of the city’s foundries, this once was a meeting place for Messina’s nobility.
At the end of Via San Martino we find the place where the film director Michelangelo Antonioni shot a famous scene for his masterpiece “The Adventure” in December 1959
After shopping, you might need to recharge your energy reserves: so make a stop in down town at one of the delies and try the “arancino”, the typical fried rice balls filled with ragù sauce, or the traditional focaccia, with curly endive, salted anchovies, tuma cheese and grape tomatoes, or try the “pitone”, a type of calzone with escarole, tomato, first salted cheese and anchovy.