Last updated on March 31, 2023 by Wandering our World
The Italian island of Sicily is a fabulous place to have a vacation, and since it’s so vast – it’s the largest island in the entire Mediterranean – it almost feels like a country in its own right, with many different sights to see, things to do, and cities to visit, like Palermo and Catania.
But should you base yourself in either Palermo on the island’s northern coast or Catania to the east? Well, it may not be an easy choice, as both Palermo and Catania have so much to offer, while also being quite different…
For example, Palermo serves as the island’s capital and is the liveliest place in all of Sicily, while Catania is the island’s second-biggest city and sits nearby the mighty Mt. Etna, making it a popular spot for hikers and nature lovers.
Palermo and Catania also both offer beautiful architecture, fun cultural experiences, and easy access to beautiful beaches. But they tend to differ in several key areas, like their range of activities, shopping, restaurants, and general vibes.
But that’s where we can help!
We know both cities well, so right here we’ll put Palermo and Catania side-by-side and show you which is better for activities, beaches, accessibility, budget-travelers, families and more. All so you can make the right holiday decision!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Best For Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Better For Hiking?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Better For Shopping?
- Which Is Best For Day Trips?
- Which Is Better For Families?
- Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons?
- Which Is Better For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget?
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is The Best Choice?
A Quick Overview: Palermo vs Catania
Palermo: A Quick Overview
Palermo is the capital city of Sicily. It’s situated on the northern coast in the northwest section of the island, looking out over the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Close to 700,000 people live in the city, with more than 1.2 million in the full metropolitan area, making Palermo not just the busiest city in Sicily, but also one of the most populous in all of Italy.
There’s a lot of history in Palermo, dating all the way back to 734 BC, when the city was founded by Phoenicians.
Over the years, the city fell under the rule of Romans, Arabs, Normans, and more – traces of their influence can still be seen today in Palermo’s diverse architecture and landmarks, like the Norman Palace and Zisa Museum of Islamic Art.
Serving as the economic and cultural hub of Sicily, Palermo is also the island’s touristm capital, with a long list of landmarks and attractions for travelers to enjoy.
It’s well-known for its culinary scene, numerous palaces and museums, impressive churches, opera houses, and other sights, and with so much to see and do, you may need a little more time here compared to Catania.
Catania: A Quick Overview
Catania is Sicily’s second most populous city. It’s located on the island’s eastern coast, north of Syracuse and south of Taormina, which are both popular touristic hotspots.
It looks over the Ionian Sea and houses over 300,000 people, with more than a million in the surrounding metropolitan area.
Despite being second to Palermo in population, Catania is a physically larger city, spreading out across many square miles of land and boasting the island’s biggest airport, too.
The city is known for its artistic and cultural past, but has also undergone hardship, having been damaged and destroyed repeatedly in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions from nearby Mt. Etna.
Etna is one of the main reasons people come to this city, as it’s a great starting point for hikes and other tours of the active volcano.
It’s also a vibrant and fun city in its own right, with a large student population and great nightlife, as well as beautiful Baroque architecture, Roman ruins, and easy access to other popular Sicilian towns.
Which Is Best For Beaches?
With more than 600 miles of coastline, Sicily has dozens of wonderful beaches to explore, and many can be found in the areas around Palermo and Catania. But, if you love to sunbathe or stroll along soft, powdery sands, which destination is best for you?
Well, Palermo doesn’t really have any beaches of its own, but if you don’t mind taking a short drive or bus ride out of the city, you can find some real gems.
Mondello, for example, is by far one of Sicily’s most picturesque beaches, and it’s only a short distance from Palermo. Here, you’ll find white sands and an array of blue hues among the gentle waters.
There are several other pleasant beaches just a short distance from Palermo. Capo Gallo is a really pristine and pretty location with colorful, scenic surroundings, while Addaura is a top spot for snorkeling and Capaci is a very family-friendly destination.
Unlike Palermo, Catania does have its own beach, and it’s quite an impressive one – the Playa di Catania runs for several miles, offering golden sand and amazing views of Mount Etna.
It’s a family-friendly spot, and there’s so much space, so it never feels overly crowded, even at the height of summer.
Other local beaches include the wonderful Cyclops Riviera with its volcanic rock formations and unspoiled surroundings, as well as Torre Pozzillo Beach, so-called due to the presence of an old coastal tower at one end.
Fondachello Beach is great for snorkeling and Santa Tecla is a pleasant rocky spot with lush, green surroundings.
Overall, both cities have plenty to offer for beach lovers. Catania is more convenient, as it has a beach you can simply walk to from the city center, but many of its beaches are quite rocky and rough.
Meanwhile, the beaches around Palermo take more time to get to but are arguably more beautiful and diverse.
Which Is Best For Activities?
Along with fabulous beaches for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing, Palermo and Catania also have plenty to offer in terms of cultural activities, historic landmarks and natural excursions.
There’s lots to do in both of these cities and their surrounding areas, but you might find that one is a little better-suited to your tastes than the other.
That’s why we look at the activity highlights in each city below:
Palermo: The Activities
One of the best things about Palermo is its incredible array of landmarks and attractions, from its Norman Palace to its magnificent 12th century cathedral.
There’s simply so much to see here, you can easily take a full week in the city and spend each day doing something new and different. In contrast, Catania may only need a few days to fully appreciate.
Most of your time in Palermo may be spent sightseeing. From the Massimo Theater to the Quattro Canti, the city’s list of must-see monuments and buildings goes on and on.
History buffs will be amazed at the Antonino Salinas Regional Archeological Museum, while those who appreciate art and architecture can admire the Cuba Palace and the Palazzo Abatellis.
The Palatine Chapel is another must-see, home to some extraordinary Byzantine art and detailed mosaics.
While the Capuchin Catacombs rank among the Sicily’s most unique attractions – home to over 8,000 bodies, the catacombs aren’t for the faint of heart, but provide a one-of-a-kind experience for those who are bold enough to enter.
Shopping is a popular activity in Palermo, too, and there are lots of lively food markets around the city, like the Mercato di Ballaro.
Meanwhile, outdoor enthusiasts might like to try a hike up nearby Monte Pellegrino. Or, if you’re looking to explore more of Sicily, Palermo is well-placed for trips to the coastal resort of Cefalu or the wine-making port of Marsala.
Catania: The Activities
Compared to Palermo, Catania isn’t quite as touristic and doesn’t have such an extensive selection of landmarks and palaces.
However, there are still many sights to see, and the historic city center of Catania has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its unique beauty and Baroque architecture.
The Cathedral of Saint Agatha (or Catania Cathedral) is one of the prettiest buildings in Catania, while tours of Palazzo Biscari and Castello Ursino should certainly entertain history lovers.
The San Nicolo l’Arena is also a great place to learn about Catania’s past, and various Greek and Roman ruins can be found, still standing, like the Roman Forum and Greek Acropolis.
Of course, given Catania’s proximity to Mt. Etna, one of the main reasons people come here is to visit the legendary volcano.
There are a few ways to make the trip, including a magical cable car journey out of Nicolosi, which is just a short drive north from Catania. You can also arrange various hiking and jeep tours to the top of the mountain.
Other things to do in Catania include visiting the city’s famous fish market – even if you don’t buy anything, simply walking around this bustling space is an experience of its own.
Or stop off at the Fountain of the Elephant – widely considered to be the symbol of the city, local legends say that this elephant protects the city against invaders and natural disasters.
Overall, both Palermo and Catania can offer an impressive array of activities and attractions. There’s definitely more to do in Palermo in terms of castles, palaces, and other historic buildings, but Catania has the advantage of being beside Mt. Etna, giving it more appeal for those who want to hike and appreciate the miracles of Mother Nature.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
When it comes to Sicilian nightlife, Palermo and Catania are two of the best places to be.
These cities boast the biggest concentrations of bars, clubs, and evening entertainment venues, and if you like to stay out late sipping drinks and having fun until the early hours, both of these locations should have you covered.
Palermo’s nightlife scene is very impressive, with a super selection of bars and clubs to appeal to all crowds.
There are lively discos for students, as well as subdued wine bars and lounges, and the Vucciria neighborhood keeps the party going right into the morning – there’s even an exciting night market here, but travelers should be cautious, as it’s not the safest spot in the city.
Catania is well-known around Sicily and Italy in general for its nightlife scene, which is growing more active and energetic with each passing year.
There are lots of clubs and bars all clustered together in the historic center, with everything from English-style pubs to jazz clubs, wine bars, and open-air clubs with live DJ performances.
Overall, both cities work well for nightlife lovers. You can have longer nights out in Palermo, thanks to the clubs and bars of Vucciria that never seem to close, but you may find the nightlife experiences in Catania to be more comfortable and convenient, with so many venues situated close to one another.
Which Is Better For Hiking?
With so many hills and mountains, Sicily is one of the best hiking islands in the whole of the Mediterranean, and you can enjoy great hiking and trekking experiences in the areas around Palermo and Catania, but it’s Catania that takes the win in this particular category.
As previously mentioned, Catania is considered the gateway to Mt. Etna, and it’s here that you’ll find some of the most amazing hiking experiences not only in Sicily, but in all of Europe. After all, many travelers dream of making their way to the craters of Etna, and this is something that you can do quite easily from Catania.
Mt. Etna obviously steals the show here, but there are many more trails and great hiking spots to explore in the Catania region.
The Schiena dell’Asino trail, for example, takes you through a forest, while also offering great views over the Ionian waters, while the Calanna Valley also has some fantastic hiking opportunities for the whole family.
Palermo isn’t a bad place to hike, either. The Cape Gallo Nature Reserve has many miles of trails winding along beaches and into forests, while hills and mountains like Monte Cape Gallo and Monte Santa Margherita are climbable, for those looking for a challenge.
Nearby towns like Cefalu also have pleasant coastal trails.
Which Is Better For Food?
Sicilian cuisine is considered to be some of the best, if not the best in all of Italy, and people come to this island specifically to sample the seafood and local delicacies like sfincione, arancini, and ricotta-filled cannoli.
Unsurprisingly, you can eat well in both Palermo and Catania, but which one is best, and are there any big differences between them?
Well, visitors to Palermo can take their pick from gourmet-grade restaurants to street food stalls, and local favorites include panelle – chickpea fritters – and pasta chi sardi, a simple but flavorful pasta and sardine dish.
In Catania, you can find some amazing street food. This city has some of the best arancini in all of Sicily, and crispelle – deep fried dough stuffed with ricotta – are also out-of-this-world.
Other traditional dishes here include pasta alla norma – a simple eggplant pasta dish – and maccu, a purée made from fava beans.
Overall, we can’t say that one city is particularly better than the other in this category. But the larger size of Palermo means that you can find a slightly more diverse range of eateries in the island’s capital, when compared to Catania, plus there’s some food tours you can enjoy in the city too.
Which Has The Best Shopping?
Shopping is a popular activity in the cities of Palermo and Catania, and you can enjoy a wide range of shopping experiences, from fancy brands and designer boutiques to traditional markets and craft shops.
Palermo’s shopping scene is particularly varied and eclectic; you’ll find lots of big-name brands lining the main shopping districts of the historic center, while more obscure, independent stores are hidden away down winding alleys and side streets.
The city also has numerous markets, including the Mercato di La Vucciria, which spreads out across Old Town and feels more like a Moroccan bazaar than a traditional Italian market, with lots of hustle, bustle, and rich aromas filling the air.
Catania is also a fantastic city for shopping, with numerous malls. The Catania Shpping Center is very impressive, with lots of shops selling almost everything you can imagine. Etnapolis is another terrific spot, boasting more than a hundred stores.
The Via Etnea is one of the city’s main shopping streets, lined on either side with glamorous boutiques and souvenir stores, and you can also find outlets, antique shops, and the famous fish market, too.
Once again, it’s tough to call a winner in this category. Catania is probably better for traditional mall shopping and works well for those who want to buy items from well-known brands, while Palermo is better-suited for markets and authentic Sicilian products.
Which Is Best For Day Trips?
While Palermo and Catania both have plenty of attractions and activities to fill your days, you might like to leave these cities behind at some stage of your trip in order to explore and experience some other aspects of Sicilian life.
So, which one works best for day trips around the island?
Well, since Palermo is located in the northwest corner, some of the best local places to visit are the coastal resort town of Cefalu, famed for its majestic 12th century cathedral, and the medieval village of Erice.
Wine lovers may also want to stop off at Marsala to tour a winery or vineyard, while history fans should head south to Agrigento, home of the Valley of the Temples archaeological site.
If you’re in Catania, Mt. Etna is one of the most obvious and popular day trip destinations, but there are plenty of other great places to visit up and down the eastern coast.
But from Catania the hilltop of Taormina is a really romantic place worth visiting, while Syracuse (Siracusa), to the south, is famed for its many ancient ruins. Messina is also worth a visit, being home to a Gothic cathedral and marble fountains.
Overall, there are great day trips to take out of either Palermo or Catania, and the best option for you will depend on which parts of the island you want to see the most.
Which Is Better For Families?
For families, Palermo stands out as one of the top spots to visit. Kids of almost any age should appreciate the city’s fantastic castles and palaces, and the Capuchin Catacombs can be a fun place to go with older kids.
The Botanical Gardens are also nice for families to wander around, and there are lots of safe swimming beaches nearby.
In Catania, you’ll also find castles and historic buildings to keep kids entertained, as well as some intriguing museums, like the Zoology Museum or Puppetry Museum.
But, overall, there’s slightly less to do in Catania, so younger children, in particular, might get a little bored after the first few days.
Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons?
For couples, Palermo may once again be the better choice, simply due to the fact that it has more things to do.
With so many beautiful historic buildings and little alleys to explore, there’s a really romantic atmosphere throughout large parts of the city, and there’s no shortage of luxurious hotels and fancy restaurants where you can enjoy quality time with your partner.
Palermo also has the advantage of being close by to many of Sicily’s prettiest beaches.
However, active couples might favor Catania for its Mt. Etna hikes. Like Palermo, Catania also has attractive architecture and romantic restaurants, but the options are slightly more limited for couples and honeymooners.
Which Is Better For Backpackers?
For backpackers, both Palermo and Catania are great options.
They both have similar prices for accommodation and food, and they both have multiple comfortable hostels where you can rest your head at night, meet other travelers, and store your luggage safely, without having to worry about expensive room rates.
However, Catania is probably the more appealing option for the backpacking crowd, purely due to its location.
Lots of backpackers in Sicily plan on hiking up Mt. Etna, and this is much easier and more accessible for those who choose to stay in Catania over Palermo.
Catania also tends to be a little easier to get around (more on that later), with less crowded buses and metros.
Which Is Cheaper?
If you’re wondering which city is cheapest between Palermo and Catania, there’s really not much difference between them.
However, if we look closely at average prices for meals and accommodation, Palermo is about 10% more affordable overall.
Since it’s a bigger city, there are more options, and it’s ever-so-slightly easier to arrange a budget-friendly trip here.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Luxury: Located just opposite Piazza Duomo, a stay at Le Suites Del Duomo provides not only the perfect location and stunning views from your room, but even spa baths in your suite. See photos and rates!
Budget: Kasa Kala is a lovely budget accommodation with a shared terrace, wonderful marina views, and just five minutes walk from the Vucciria street market. The price for staying is easily one of the best on the island. See photos and rates!
Luxury: With panoramic views of the Bay of Palermo, an outside swimming pool, tennis courts and celebrity treatment, the five-star Rocco Forte Villa Igiea is a true taste of luxury in the heart of Palermo. See photos and rates!
Which Is Easier To Get To?
One of the first things to think about when planning your Sicilian vacation is how you’re going to get there.
Fortunately, the island has several international airports, including one in Catania and one in Palermo, so these two cities are generally the easiest parts of the island to get to.
Of the two, Catania Airport is the larger and busier. It also has more direct flights, with connections to many countries around Europe, like the UK, France, Spain, Germany, and Belgium.
Catania also has some direct flights to North Africa and the Middle East, too. There are also various ferry services to Catania from mainland Italy, Spain, Greece, and other nations.
In comparison, Palermo Airport is very easy to access from Europe, but doesn’t offer as many direct flights. Ferries to Palermo run from mainland Italy and Tunisia, so it’s not quite as easy to access by boat as Catania, either.
Most travelers won’t have any trouble getting to Palermo, but Catania is easier to access overall.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Next, let’s talk about how you’re going to get around in either Palermo or Catania.
Fortunately, with most of the attractions and landmarks being quite close together in both of these cities, Palermo and Catania are very walkable places, and if you only want to see the main sights, you might not even need to use public transport at all.
But with busy roads and tricky parking, plus Italy’s famous ZTLs – Limited Traffic Areas where tourists can be fined for driving in rental cars – it’s best to avoid hiring a car unless you really plan on exploring large parts of the island.
Palermo has a very vast public bus network that can take you almost anywhere you’d want to go within the city limits, as well as buses to other local towns or even across the island.
There’s also a metro system, but it’s not particularly useful and is mainly relied upon by local commuters, rather than tourists.
Catania famously once had the shortest metro system on the planet, but recent expansions have made it more useful for travelers. It’s a good way of getting around the main areas, and you can also rely on buses, with many routes winding their way around the city.
Due to the lower population, Catania doesn’t feel quite as hectic as Palermo, so it’s slightly easier to navigate. But there’s not a big difference between the two and most travelers will simply walk around from landmark to landmark.
Palermo vs Catania: Which Is The Better Choice?
It’s a very tough choice between Palermo and Catania, as both of these cities are rich, beautiful places with amazing architecture, interesting pasts, and diverse activities for travelers to enjoy.
If you have to pick between them, there’s no bad option, and you should have a terrific time in either location.
However, for the purposes of our comparison, we have to say that Palermo is the overall winner. It has much more to see and do, with so many castles, palaces, monuments, and more, and it’s the best place in all of Sicily to go if you want to meet the locals, learn about the island’s past, and engage with Sicilian culture.
With that said, Catania still has several advantages that could make it the better selection for some people. It’s definitely the top choice for outdoor enthusiasts, with Mt. Etna towering overhead, and it’s also got superb nightlife and decent shopping experiences, too.