Visitors will have to decide whether to ascend Mount Etna from the northern or southern approach. I prefer the north-facing side, more forested, and much richer in wildflowers that thrive in the volcanic soil. The south side is mostly covered with barren black rock from the lava flows, which gives it an eerie, otherworldly appearance. Its access routes are more crowded, and its views less appealing. Nonetheless, many visitors to Catania come up Etna's south side.
If you decide to come up the north side, simply take the highway to its end, Piano Provenzana, which stops at a complex of Alpine-inspired chalets selling souvenirs. During the heat of a Sicilian summer, they appear visibly out of place, but in winter, because of the high altitude (2,700m/8,858 ft.), they function as the centerpiece of a small-scale but thriving ski colony. The ski facilities include five downhill ski lifts and a network of cross-country ski trails.
It is from this artificial-looking alpine hamlet of Piano Provenzana that you buy tickets for bus excursions to the top of Mount Etna. Many hikers walk from Piano Provenzana to the cone of Etna in about 3 hours, following the track used by the buses.
The buses are specially equipped for the harsh terrain, and resemble an armored car. They wind their way laboriously uphill, through gravel beds and rocky gullies, past barren, lichen-covered, gray-green landscapes. At the top, the bus parks near a seismic exploration station, which is mostly abandoned, and visitors walk a bit farther to a point near the top, across gravel-covered ground, but the main crater is often out of bounds when it's too dangerous to get that close. If the crater is active, bus trips are stopped immediately, so you won't see molten lava spouting out unless it's from a great distance.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.