Messina: A Laid-Back Approach for Tour-Weary Cruisers (SLIDESHOW)

Cruise ship docked in Messina // All photos by Susan J. Young
Cruise ship docked in Messina // All photos by Susan J. Young

Certainly such marquee ports as Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Livorno (for Florence), Civitavecchia (for Rome), Dubrovnik and Venice delight ocean cruisers. But on a week-long or even a 10-day Mediterranean cruise with one port a day, and few (if any) sea days, the schedule can be exhausting.

Add in the dog days of August with extreme heat and that's even more the case. Thus, on two recent summer Mediterranean cruises, I relished being happily free from a structured shore trip while the ship was docked at Messina, Sicily.

During the first cruise, I opted not to get off. I just remained onboard and enjoyed some down time. It's a joy to be on a ship during a shore day. Facilities are less crowded and the onboard aura a bit more relaxing.

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Setting off to Explore Messina

But, on my second voyage to call at Messina -- while still appreciating the down-time from a big city tour experience the previous day -- I opted for a self-guided walking tour of the city with a friend.

After hundreds of fellow travelers left on shore trips to Taormina or Mount Etna, we simply strolled off the ship with no lines. We weren’t hurrying to make a coach departure, looking for our guide or stressing on where to go.

We just ambled off and into the cruise terminal en route to the exit to Messina's city center. Inside the terminal, travelers waited at the information desk to ask about the open-top, “on-off” sightseeing motorcoach tour.

Staff at that desk spoke English well, we observed. This motorcoach "independent" option allows riders to get on and off at set stops as they wish, and the ticket is good for 24 hours. One route begins at Piazza Duomo and heads to Via Garibaldi, the city's high street; it’s a good way to check out the 1852-era Teatro Vittorio Emanuele and several important churches and fountains.

Another route starts at the Piazza Duomo and heads a bit further out including a lake area outside the main city core and the botanical gardens.

One plus of the "on-off"coach is that visitors exploring independently don’t have to pay attention to where they’re driving or walking, so they can just soak in the scenery. Head for the upper deck for the best views.

Just leave plenty of time to return to the ship, particularly on the coach route that heads outside the city.

Messina harborfront // All photos by Susan J. Young
Messina harborfront // All photos by Susan J. Young

A Place in History

However visitors choose to explore, whether on foot or by on-off coach, it helps to know a bit of history. Founded by the Greeks in the eighth century BC, Messina was originally called Zancle, from the Greek for “scythe" – thanks to the shape of its harbor.

Later allied with Rome as a free city and known as Messana, it had an important lighthouse. Through the centuries, it was ruled by the Goths, Byzantine Empire, Arabs, and Normans. In fact, King Richard “The Lionhearted” stopped at Messina en route to the Holy Land during the Crusades.

It’s also thought that Messina was the place where the plague, or “Black Death,” entered Europe – arriving from Genoese ships that had originated in the Crimea.

In 1908, Messina was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake, and then heavy fighting during World War II hit the city hard again. To see what's there today is to recognize the strong spirit of local residents who rebuilt again and again in the face of great hardship.

Parks, Fountains and Churches

Today, this lovely, somewhat sleepy, renovated city makes for a fun "walkabout." No, it doesn’t have the spectacle of Rome or the majesty of Florence or Venice. But those who appreciate a leisurely stroll and take time to peruse the city's lovely architectural features, parks, fountains and historic churches likely won't be disappointed.

City sites we passed during our two-hour walking tour are shown in the slide show below. We didn’t hit all the sites, so pick and choose what works for you.

One of the city’s 16th century gates, Porta Grazia, still stands as a fortress in the harbor area. Other popular places include the Piazza Duomo, Four Fountains or Quattro Fontane, the Botanical Gardens at the University of Messina, an old Lighthouse, and the Museo Regionale or regional museum; the museum has Renaissance art, artifacts recovered from the earthquake, and icons and crucifixes that date from the 15th century.

Not to be missed is the performance of the historical astronomical clock within the belltower at Messina’s Norman-styled Cathedral, which also reflects a Gothic façade. At 11:55 a.m., "Orologio Astronomico” seemingly “comes alive” as a bird flaps its wing, a lion roars, historical figures ring the bell and Jesus appears from a tomb.

If your venture to the cathedral, take time to peruse the nearby 1547-era Orion Fountain, created by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, a Florentine student of Michelangelo’s.

On our walking tour, we admired the lovely 12th century Annunziata dei Catalani Church, essentially the only major building in the city to have survived the earthquake. It’s one of the most historically significant sites anywhere along the Straits of Messina. Originally, this site paid homage to Neptune, the Roman god of the sea.

Interestingly, the 1908 earthquake, which destroyed most of the city, simply stripped away renovations and later additions to the church. It’s no wonder the locals felt a miracle had occurred. The powerful quake brought down most buildings in the city, but the church’s 12th and 13th century architecture remained intact.

The differences in height by the church – which is below current street level – and the surrounding buildings is that the massive amounts of rubble from the earthquake were leveled and the “replacement” buildings constructed atop the rubble. So the church is lower, and while it appears to be sinking, it’s not.

One hint? A walking tour of the downtown area near the cruise pier isn’t probably the best option for shoppers, as Messina’s city core has many government buildings and facilities designed to serve locals, not a plethora of designer outlets or souvenir shops.

Glassware in the Particolari Di Sicilia // All photos by Susan J. Young
Glassware in the Particolari Di Sicilia // All photos by Susan J. Young

One “find” we happened upon during our stroll was Particolari Di Sicilia, an artistic venue with colorful Sicilian pottery and glassware. The clerk was friendly and helpful, wrapped purchases carefully in tissue paper and the selection for gifts and items for the home was extensive.

Most cruise lines that sail to Messina offer shore trips, as do private shore trip operators. For example, MSC Cruises’ (www.msccruisesusa.comMSC Splendida offers a half day city tour that heads to Ganzirri, a small fishing village near several lakes, before continuing to Capo Peloro, the nearest point to the coast of Calabria.

Tour goers then take a panoramic tour of Messina with views to Piazza Cairoli, the Court House, the University and the Cristo Re Church, along with a photo stop. Then it's on to views of the San Francesco Church, the Government Hall, the Fountain of Neptune and the main street, “Viale della Libertá”. Tour goers will then visit the Cathedral. Cost for this MSC Cruises' excursion is $55 for adults and $39 for children on voyages this month.

Similarly, Holland America Line ( offers a half day city tour that includes at least 45 minutes of walking; guests visit the Cathedral Treasury, the Cathedral and its clock, and the Orion Square and its fountain.

Messina typically welcomes about 500,000 cruise passengers annually. Most board motorcoaches at the cruise pier and head about 30 miles away to the spectacular Greek ruins at Taormina. Others venture to a Sicilian wine tasting experience or an eco-excursion up the nearby Mount Etna.

But for cruisers who've done a port a day multiple days in a row, with 10-12 hour tours of Rome, Florence, Dubrovnik, Venice or other destinations, a quiet stroll through Messina may be just what's needed to relax, refresh, savor the architecture, fountains, parklands and churches, before reboarding and regrouping for the next port of call.

Among the resources to help agents learn more about Sicily and Messina are these:

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