If you’re heading to Sicily, Italy, with your family, one of your must-visit spots has to be Mount Etna: the iconic and massive active volcano. This post will help you figure out how to visit Mount Etna on your own, without a tour or a guide.
When I started researching how to visit Mount Etna on our own I was overwhelmed, confused, and stressed. There were so many tour groups and options available. And here’s the thing: they all offer pretty much the same experience. The problem (in our case) is that we didn’t have the time most of them required, and the price added up significantly considering there were five of us and three of our party were under the age of nine.
But when I looked into how to get to Etna on our own, I came up slightly empty-handed; almost everything I read said a tour was the way to do it.
So hopefully that’s why you’re here: to know how to visit Mount Etna on your own.
NOTE: If you want to go to the tippy-top, aka: the summit, you do need a tour to take you there. If you just want to check this off your bucket list and go stand on the volcano without the fuss and cost of a tour group, then this post is for you.
Quick Tips for Visiting Mount Etna on Your Own
Whatever your reason: whether your short on time, just want to go up the volcano and come back down to say you’ve done it, don’t want to mess with a tour group, want to save some cash, or simply want to explore solo, here’s how to visit Mount Etna on your own.
- Keep an eye on updates for current eruptions before you go! Mount Etna is an active volcano that could have actual real live lava flow and exploding fire.
- I highly recommend renting a car and driving to Mount Etna. But despite what your directions say, factor in extra time to get there; the road is twisty and cars drive extra slow.
- Put “Rifugio Sapienza” into your GPS for a few parking lots at the cable car point.
- Dress appropriately…even in the summer (see “what to bring” tips below) When you’re up on Mount Etna, even if you just go to the first stop at 2,500 meters, you’re going to be at a high altitude with a drastic temperature drop, so bring layers and great hiking shoes…even if you don’t plan on going to the summit.
- If you want to go to the summit, you have to go with a guide.
How to Get to Etna by Car
You can get to Mount Etna, (Etna Sud) in your own vehicle. If you don’t have a car while in Sicily, I suggest finding a Mount Etna tour since almost all of them include hotel pick-up and drop off. There is technically a way to get there via train and a bus, but it got super complicated and didn’t seem very reliable at all.
Plan for extra time when driving: we allotted about 45 minutes of driving time, but it took at least an hour to get there. The roads were twisty and cars were going slower than usual. Our GPS also got confused halfway up so we had to recalculate things.
One of my favorite parts of visiting Etna was seeing the vegetation change on our way up, especially once the lava rocks started to appear.
Since you’re going up in elevation, keep in mind that your ears may pop. We had to explain this to the kids since they started freaking out about their ears hurting.
Where to Park
Plug this spot into your GPS: “Etna Sud,” Rifugio Sapienza, Piazzale Rifugio Sapienza, 95030 Nicolosi CT, Italy.
There are three parking lots in the area, and they’re all technically free. However, there was a guy “watching” the cars, so we gave him a couple Euro when we left. (Pretty typical in European places, so we didn’t really blink an eye at this.)
It’s a pretty touristy area, so you’ll find places to eat souvenir shops, and bathrooms.
How to Visit Mount Etna on Your Own
Once you’ve parked you have three options for exploring Mount Etna: you can take the funivia (cable car) up, you can hike up, or you can do a mixture of both.
If you want to go higher than Montagnola (2,500 meters) you will need to pay almost double to take a 4×4 bus from the cable car stop to the next area called Torre del Filosofo (2900 meters), and you’ll need a guide.
If you choose to take the cable car up…
From the parking lot, look up towards the volcano and you’ll see Funivia dell’Etna: aka, the entrance for the cable car.
You’ll need to pick your options when you get your tickets (see photo below), and then you’ll hop on a cable car and head up 500 meters to Montagnola in about 10 minutes.
Or, if you’re like us and the cable car is down (they never told us why it was down that morning), you’ll take an off-roading bus up the volcano that hugs some of the tightest corners and steepest super rocky cliffs you’ve ever seen. It may also be super foggy so you can’t actually see where the cliff ends and your impending fall to death begins. They’ll act totally normal while you’re bouncing around in the back, white-knuckling it and praying you make it to your destination okay. (Not that I’m overreacting or anything…)
Once you’ve made it to Montagnola, if that’s as high as you paid to go, your tour kind of stops there.
For us, this was our stop. It started snowing while we were up there, and even though the kids were appropriately dressed, they were “freezing,” and had enough of the experience.
We marveled at how they were literally standing on lava, we scarfed down some meat, cheese, and baguette that we brought for a snack; we bought a magnet from the gift shop and used the bathroom, and then we took the off-roading bus back down.
If you choose to hike up…
First of all: more power to you!
We saw several people/groups hiking up and I’m not going to lie: it didn’t look easy at all. The lava rocks were sometimes more like loose gravel and “pebble-like.” It wasn’t very stable ground; it’s steep and very easy to slip. Hiking poles are very much recommended.
The advantage to hiking is that you don’t have to pay, and you can go as high as 2,900 meters to Torre del Filosofo without a guide.
If you want to do a little of both…
On the flip side: you could take the cable car up to Montagnola (2,500 meters), and hike as high as 2,900 meters to (2,900 meters). You just can’t go past that point since you will need an official guide to lead you higher. (I know I’ve mentioned that several times already; I just want to make sure it’s crystal clear.)
A little of both was our original plan, but visibility up there, plus the snow, and the already-whining kids, made us thankful that we just decided to go as high as the cable car allowed us.
More Mount Etna Cable Car Info
Cable car info:
Open daily from 9am—6pm
Cost: 30-68 euros (I honestly can’t remember if there was a discount for kids. I’m 99% sure there was, but can’t remember the specifics off hand, and info online is hard to come by. If you go, PLEASE let me know so I can update this!)
If you’re wondering why the prices are so high for such a short trip, you’re not alone. I scoffed at them the first time I saw them.
The cable car is built on Europe’s most active volcano, and because of that, when there’s an eruption, the lava will, in fact, destroy everything in its path…including the cable car infrastructure. They’ve had to rebuild the entire cable car multiple times over the years, so that’s why the cost is higher.
Makes total sense now, right?
PRO TIP: most tour groups will require an additional payment for the actual tickets, so if you go with a tour group: check the fine print of your tour and ask about additional fees.
Visit Mount Etna with a Tour Group
If our circumstances were a little different, we would’ve opted for a tour group. If that’s what you’re leaning towards, here are some top-rated tours to pick from:
See the Silvestri Craters
Just a few feet north of the parking lots are two craters called Silvestri. You can walk over to them for free without a guide.
We were going to check them out, but there was so much cloud cover by that point on our way down that visibility was pretty limited.
What to Bring for a Trip up Etna
We traveled to Sicily and Mount Etna at the end of February. The weather—not on the volcano—was perfect. Shorts and tank tops during the day with a light sweat at night. But on Mount Etna it was freezing and snowing, and I’m thankful we packed the way we did, even if it was just for half a day.
- Wear layers
- We each had a base layer (top and bottom), jeans, long sleeve top, winter jacket, warm socks, hiking shoes/boots.
- Wish we brought hats and gloves
- rumor that you can rent outerwear around the cable car area; we didn’t confirm this, though.
- For the spring/summer/fall: I’d for sure bring a jacket and pants/leggings
- You’ll be at high altitude, so don’t forget to hydrate!
- There is a gift shop and snack bar area at Montagnola. Much to my surprise, a few things we saw in that gift shop were cheaper than the ones at the bottom.
- You’re close to the sun, so don’t forget that sunscreen.
- Baby/Toddler Carrier
- I’d 100 percent leave the stroller at home and just baby wear.
- We brought snacks with us: baguette, meats, cheese, chips, etc. Just remember to clean up after yourself.
- Since we were there in the off season I wasn’t sure how many people would be around to take a picture of us, so I brought our tripod just in case (this is the one we have with a remote). We only used it for one photo, and the ground was really unstable, but I’m glad I brought it.
Best Area to Stay to Visit Mount Etna
Here’s another thing that I found little to no information about when researching our trip. We ended up staying on the “wrong” side of Mount Etna. It worked out in the end, but there were better places to stay.
Keep in mind that there are two “sides” to Mount Etna with a road that technically connects both, but what looks like a short distance can actually be more than an hour’s drive.
The north side, according to our AirBnB host, is used more for skiing and mountain hiking…no lava on this side.
If you want to see the lava rocks and the “attraction” side of Mount Etna, you want to stay closer to the south side. The southern side is where the lava actually flowed.
We stayed in a town called Lingoglassa; a village on the north side that you can get to by driving on a winding road that looks like it should be a one-lane passage half the time (but it’s really for two cars). Lingoglossa is popular for wineries because of the super fertile and unique soil from the volcano. We visited one of them for a tasting, but honestly, that was probably the only reason we’d need to be on that side.
For the purpose of visiting Mount Etna, if we had a do-over, I would have stayed in a smaller village like Belpasso, Nicolosi, or Massannunziata. Those are still a decent drive, but closer than on the other side of the volcano.
If you’re staying in the area for a longer time, then Taormina would be my pick as a base.
Visiting Mount Etna with Kids
We went to Mount Etna with our kids (5, 7, and 9 years old), and honestly: they weren’t nearly as excited as we thought they’d be. I’m still slightly bitter, because I thought it was just the coolest thing ever!
The three of them play “The Floor is Lava” every single chance they get, so we really thought that venturing up an actual, active volcano where the floor is actually lava would be a total highlight for them. But in true traveling-with-kids fashion: they just wanted to get back down, have a snack, and go to the beach.
Tips for Etna with Kids
Dress them in layers and talk to them about the weather. I’ve already mentioned the weather a few times, but this played a huge factor in their impression of the volcano. They were dressed warmly, but were still “freezing.”
It’s also a good idea to explain to them safety up there since it is an active volcano and the ground is more rocky than what they my be used to. Our kids tried climbing (as they do) and quickly discovered they slipped a lot more often.
Bathrooms on the Volcano
There are bathrooms at the base where the cable car is, and again at Montagnola (2500 meters up) in the gift shop. We didn’t go higher than this, so I’m not certain about the facilities past that point.
Our Overall Thoughts on Visiting Mount Etna
This was one of the coolest things I’ve done, and I’m so thankful we did it. I’m also happy with the way we did it. Sometimes going with a tour group is awesome, but this was one of those times when I think we did just fine on our own.
Have you been to Mount Etna before? Did you go on your own or with a tour? If this post is helpful I’d love to hear about your trip!