Island hopping on the Aeolian Islands

Island hopping on the Aeolian Islands

The Aeolian Islands in the south of Italy are a geological paradise. Home to the actively steaming islands of Stromboli and Vulcano, both classified as a specific volcanic eruption type. The phenonemon of eruptive mountains we know as volcanoes is actually named after one of them: the Aeolian island Vulcano.

The Italian volcano islands

Vulcano itself was named after the Roman god of fire. The fiery island was considered to be his sacred workshop where he forged bolts of lightning in its fiery pits. The famous Stromboli, the ancient lighthouse of the Mediterranean, has given its name to the type of gentle fountain eruptions it has been spewing forth almost continuously since Roman times.

Strombolian eruption, Stromboli, Aeolian Islands, Italy
Strombolian action!

Actively steaming archipelago

The archipelago has been around for over 260.000 years and consists of a volcanic arc of 7 islands. Stromboli and Vulcano are still actively steaming and erupting today. The other islands of Lipari, Salina, Filicudi, Alicudi and Panarea have quieted down in the meantime.

But all of them boast spectacular scenery with impressive mountains, lush vegetation, various geological features and laid-back villages with an atmosphere of La dolce vita.

Stromboli, picture-perfect view, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
Picture-perfect view.

Volcanic islands in Europe

Besides the island of Santorini in Greece, Italy is the only country on the European mainland with several active volcanoes within its borders. Other places that are technically part of Europe are the Canary Islands (Spain) and the far-flung islands of Madeira and the Azores (Portugal) in the Atlantic Ocean.

And of course Iceland, which is basically one big volcano with a multitude of cones and fissures by itself.

Naples harbour and rainbow, Vesuvius, Italy.
Departing on the ferry to Stromboli from Naples, with a rainbow over the harbour and the intimidating shape of Vesuvius in the background.

Island hopping between volcanoes

I visited the Aeolian Islands on a trip to the volcanoes of Italy with Dutch organisation Geo Travel. We started in Naples and finished in Catania on Sicily, with an island hopping expedition to Stromboli, Lipari and Vulcano inbetween.

In Naples we visited the intimidating Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei volcanic fields. We also saw the devastating destruction that happened in the year 79 at the historical ruins of Pompei. On Sicily we saw Mount Etna from different angles (but unfortunately not erupting…)

Stromboli volcano and town, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
View to Stromboli volcano, its top hiding in the clouds.

Aeolian Islands: Stromboli

Stromboli is the northernmost of the Aeolian Islands, and can be reached by overnight ferry from Naples. The island is the ancient lighthouse of the Mediterranean; it has been erupting its mesmerizing glow for over 2000 years.

When I saw the volcanic shape of Stromboli looming on the horizon, I was so excited to finally climb to the top and gawk upon its fiery pits. I had visited Stromboli once before on a daytrip from Sicily. But then you only have 2 hours on the island, and the evening summit hike is not an option. If you want to climb to the top of Stromboli, plan to stay for a couple of nights. You will at least have some margin if the weather is not cooperating…

Stromboli boulevard, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
Stromboli harbour and boulevard.

Stromboli transport, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
Local transport on Stromboli. There are no cars on the island.

The classic volcano island 🌋

With its perfect triangular shape and fiery craters on the top, Stromboli is the quintessential volcanic island. Even the ‘volcano icon’ on the smartphone is modelled to its likeness – including a Sciara del Fuoco sliding slope.

Sciara del Fuoco (the Stream of Fire) is a striking feature on the northwest side of Stromboli. A barren volcanic slope where hot rocks and sometimes even lava flows spewed forth from its craters slide down into the sea. The two villages on Stromboli are behind mountain ridges on the northeast and southwest side of the island, and therefore (usually) not affected by the constant stream of material coughed up by the volcano.

Stromboli map, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
A colourful map of Stromboli, the quintessential volcano icon.

Stromboli harbour and beach, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
The beach next to the harbour of Stromboli.

Stromboli beach, Aeolian Islands, Italy.

Hiking to the top of Stromboli

Stromboli rises up to 924 metres above sea level. The path to the top winds its way up over a distance of less than 4 kilometres along very steep and rocky slopes. It is literally breathtaking – and incredibly beautiful. There are dazzling views everywhere, down the slope and over the sea to the other islands.

Guided hikes on Stromboli

You can meander freely around the lower slopes of Stromboli up to about 400 metres altitude. Because of safety reasons and the constantly changing activity, you can only go to the top with a guided hike. These are usually available between the end of March and the end of October. The hike takes about 5 to 6 hours return, including 45 minutes at the top.

The groups usually leave around 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon. You will reach the top just before sunset and walk back down most of the way in the dark.

Stromboli hiking track, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
View from the hiking track to Stromboli village and Strombolicchio, the ‘little Stromboli rock’.

Lava shapes on the lower path of Stromboli, Italy.
Lava shapes on the lower path of Stromboli.

Essential stuff

Needless to say, a flashlight, a jacket, proper walking boots, food and plenty of water are essential items to take on the evening hike to Stromboli – as well as a camera for all the spectacular views you’re going to encounter. The tour company provides a helmet for the hike. You need to wear it at the top in case of rogue flying rocks coming out of the craters.

If the conditions are too dangerous, the hike will be cancelled.

Stromboli hike, steep slopes, Aeolian Islands, Italy,
The steep slopes of Stromboli.

View down the slopes of Stromboli, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
View down from Stromboli, casting its own shadow onto the sea below.

Stromboli hike, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
The progressively misty & barren upper path.

No lava guarantee

But even if the hike goes ahead as planned, there’s no guarantee that you will actually get lucky at the top and see the Strombolian action in all its glory. I started off on a perfectly sunny afternoon at the end of May, but along the way more & more clouds were gathering around the top…

Foggy craters

By the time we got there, the view was completely obscured and I stared into a crater full of fog. I could hear explosions from the spectacular fire-breathing pits going off nearby, but there was nothing to be seen.

View into the fog-filled craters of Stromboli.
Frustration! Craters full of fog on the top of Stromboli.

Strombolian action

The next evening we went to the observatory on the lower flank, where you can have a nice meal while watching the fiery fountains from the veranda. There had been clouds around the top all day, but there were no clouds that evening. I was proverbially screaming in frustration when I could finally see the Strombolian action – in the distance.

If I’d known there would be a clear view that night, I would have climbed it again without hesitation. I will just have to go back to Stromboli again some day… 😉

Stromboli volcano and observatory, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
The observatory on the lower flank of Stromboli.

Aeolian Islands: Lipari

Lipari is the main island of the Aeolian archipelago, and an excellent base to explore the other islands from. Several ferries and hydrofoils depart from the harbour town of Lipari in all directions, including Milazzo on Sicily and Naples on the Italian mainland.

Nestled at the foot of Monte Galina, the port of Lipari is a pretty town with a historical castle and citadel perched on a rock between the two harbours. Here you can find a variety of accommodation, restaurants, shops and coffeehouses to enjoy excellent island- and wilderness espresso. 😉

Lipari street, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
A quaint street in Lipari town.

Viewpoints and enticing islands

Across on the southwest coast of the island is a viewpoint called Quattrocchi. It literally means ‘Four eyes’ – because you will need an extra set of eyes or a panoramic camera to handle the broad sweeping vistas of stunning views.

Quattrocchi viewpoint, Lipari, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
Rocky bays and hidden beaches along the southwest coast of Lipari, with Vulcano and its steaming crater in the background.

Lipari thistles and butterfly, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
Lipari thistles and a butterfly.

View to Salina, Quattrocchi viewpoint, Lipari, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
View from Quattrocchi to the towering twin volcanoes of Salina, beckoning you to come over & climb their lofty tops…

The steep island of Salina

On this trip we didn’t visit Salina, but the view to this stunning twin volcano island definitely makes me want to go there next time. That’s another reason to come back to the Aeolian Islands – besides finally climbing Stromboli on a cloud-free evening…

The mountain in the foreground is Monte Fossa delle Felci. At 962 metres, this is the highest peak in the Aeolian archipelago. It’s even taller and steeper than Stromboli!

Colourful volcanic rocks, Lipari, Aeolian Islands, Italy.

Volcanic features on Lipari

Lipari is especially known for its obsidian and pumice. You can see a variety of volcanic features on a beautiful hike along the west coast. The track meanders from the ancient Roman baths of Terme di San Calógero to the kaolin quarry just outside the village of Quattropiani.

Lava bomb, Lipari, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
A giant lava bomb & various volcanic deposits from different eruptions.

Flowering eucalypt trees, Lipari, Italy.
There are eucalypt trees too! 😀

Kaolin quarry, Lipari, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
Colourful rocks and gullies at the Lipari kaolin quarry.

View to Vulcano, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
View from Quattrocchi to Vulcano and its steaming crater.

Aeolian Islands: Vulcano

The steaming island of Vulcano looms large to the south of Lipari. A giant crater dominates the interior. Its bulky shape rises up behind the main town of Porto di Levante, steam wafting from its edges. This is the ancient forge of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire – and he’s still busy at it.

Vulcanian eruption

Like Stromboli, Surtsey and Hawaii, Vulcano has also given its name to one of 8 volcanic eruption types that are now commonly used to indicate a specific style of activity. A Vulcanian eruption means a dense ash cloud billowing high up from the crater, accompanied by loud explosions at irregular intervals, with lava bombs and various other deposits spread out over a large area.

It’s the same type of eruption that Eyjafjallajökull became famous for in 2010.

This doesn’t sound too encouraging to venture anywhere near the origins of all this doom. But that’s exactly what most visitors to Vulcano come to do. The crater is now peacefully steaming away, and has been fairly quiet since the last eruption between 1888 and 1890.

Porto di Levante and Vulcanello, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
The colourful walls of Gran Cratere, with a view towards Porto di Levante and Vulcanello peninsula, connected by a small isthmus to Vulcano.

Hiking to Fossa Gran Cratere

Vulcano is an easy daytrip from Lipari. The ferry to Porto di Levante on Vulcano takes only 10 minutes and there are regular ferries throughout the day.

The walk from the harbour to the top of Gran Cratere is 3,5 kilometres. It takes about 3 hours return at a leisurely pace. You can circle all around the big crater and up to the ridge behind it, that sits at an altitude of 386 metres. If there’s too much steam wafting from the crater rim, it might be better to skip that part. The sulphur steam can get quite overwhelming in places.

Surreal steaming fumaroles

Nevertheless, it’s worth venturing through it if you can handle it – and be engulfed by a surreal landscape with brightly coloured steaming fumaroles, some of them encrusted with delicate red and yellow sulphur needle crystals. The views from the crater rim are spectacular!

Gran Cratere, Vulcano, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
The giant Gran Cratere in the centre of Vulcano island.

Fumaroles, Vulcano crater, Italy.
Fumaroles wafting from the crater’s edge.

Vulcano crater rim, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
The steaming island of Vulcano, with Lipari and Salina in the distance.

Bubbling mud bath

After the Vulcano crater hike you can reward yourself with a relaxing soak at the Fanghi di Vulcano mudpools. This is a natural spa with great views, right next to the harbour. The minerals and silica will make your skin feel nice & velvety soft. Wash away the sticky mud at the hot water beach on the other side, where mineral springs bubble to the surface in varying temperatures.

Be warned though: a faint but distinct smell of sulphur will follow you as a silent witness for days… And it’s better not take a shiny new swimming suit. 😉

Vulcano mud pools, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
The Fanghi di Vulcano mud pools near Porto di Levante.

Stromboli sea view, Aeolian Islands, Italy.

How to get to the Aeolian Islands

The Aeolian Islands can be easily hopped individually as well. There are many inter-island ferries sailing between Lipari, Vulcano, Panarea, Stromboli, Salina, Filicudi and Alicudi.

From the Italian mainland you can reach the Aeolian archipelago by overnight ferry from Naples. It takes about 10 to 12 hours to Stromboli and the main island of Lipari. Another option is the high-speed hydrofoil from Naples, leaving in the afternoon and arriving on the islands the same evening. The ferry from Milazzo on the northeastern tip of Sicily takes 2,5 to 3 hours to Stromboli, depending on the route and type of boat.

Map of the Aeolian Islands

This handy interactive map shows the 7 Aeolian Islands and the different locations in this article. You can also click on the icons to see the pictures, and zoom in for more details of each island.

If you’re a volcano geek like me, these islands are definitely worth visiting!

@ What is your favourite Aeolian Island and why? Let me know in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you! Your questions, comments and suggestions can also be helpful for other readers. Thank you for sharing.

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Vulcano crater rim, Aeolian Islands, Italy.
The volcano of Vulcano is easier to pronounce than that other infamous one😉

More to explore & discover

La Palma – Cumbre Vieja Volcano Route

Mount Etna – Vigorously steaming from all its craters

Cook Islands – The stuff of Pacific dreams

The zen of Stafsnes – The hidden beach

Vierdaagse of Nijmegen – Four days of long-distance trials & tribulations

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First published: 14 May 2018

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