If you’re planning a Sicily itinerary but don’t have a lot of time to devote to it, you may find yourself in the position of having to choose between visiting Palermo or Catania. While I would always encourage trying to find a way to visit both of this Italian island’s biggest cities, sometimes this isn’t always practical.
Both cities have so much to offer and are well worth a visit, but they do offer different things. From unique city streets to different local culinary specialities to day trip destinations, both Palermo and Catania can be fantastic destinations in and of themselves.
In general, Palermo has more tourist attractions and markets to explore as well as being a better base for exploring Western Sicily. Catania, on the other hand, has fewer visitors and is a better base for visiting Etna and Eastern Sicily.
However, there is a lot more to unpack when deciding which city to visit. For those keen to explore a large Sicilian city but can’t figure out which is the right one for you, follow this guide to help choose between Palermo and Catania. While there certainly isn’t a bad choice, there are a number of things you need to consider when deciding between the two.
Looking for a place to stay? These are some of the best choices in both cities:
Palermo: A Casa di Amici Boutique Hostel (Budget), Alma Hotel (Mid-Range), Casa Nostra Boutique Hotel (Luxury) & Appartamento Piazza Pretoria (Apartments).
Catania: The Yard Hostel (Budget), Hotel Centrum (Mid-Range), Liberty Hotel (Luxury) & La Dimora del Barbiere (Apartments).
The most populous city and capital of Sicily is one of the most lively and dynamic places to visit on the entirety of the island. With a fascinating history that spans several centuries, bustling street markets and vibrant neighbourhoods, Palermo has a lot of chaos but it also has a lot to love.
One of the first things you need to assess when choosing between Palermo and Catania is the accessibility of either city. As the capital of Sicily (and the fifth-largest city in Italy), it is relatively easy to get to Palermo from elsewhere in Italy and beyond.
Palermo is home to the second-highest-traffic international airport in Sicily and it serves a number of destinations within Italy and in Europe and it serves a range of different airlines – so it is relatively easy to visit Palermo as a city break destination from further afield in Europe. If you need a transfer from the airport, you can book one here.
The Sicilian capital is also easily accessed by train (you can view schedules here) and it is very well-connected not only within Sicily but to other major Italian cities. You can, for instance, get direct trains from cities like Naples or even Rome so it’s easy to reach Palermo overland, as well.
Once in Palermo, the city is quite easy to get around on foot. The city centre is compact and the main tourist sites are within easy reach of one another so even the use of public transport isn’t entirely necessary.
However, if you’re interested in venturing further afield (for instance, on a day trip to Agrigento or Cefalu or even to the beach at Mondello), you’ll easily be able to catch a train or local bus to these destinations.
All in all, it’s relatively to get to and around Palermo as it’s well-connected both to other places in Sicily and further afield.
Is Palermo more affordable than Catania? Is it more expensive? Well, in all honesty, there isn’t a huge discrepancy between prices in Palermo vs Catania. Both are affordable cities — especially when it comes to other major European cities — and prices for things such as food and accommodation are quite low.
In general, if cost is a major factor in choosing between these two cities, then you really cannot go wrong with either as Palermo is not more or less affordable than Catania or vice versa.
Things to do in Palermo
Now onto the most important thing (arguably) when trying to decide between visiting Catania or Palermo – which city has more to do? In general, I will be the first to admit that Palermo may be a bit more tourist-friendly than Catania and it probably has a bit more to offer for a number of days than Catania does.
Palermo is a lively and chaotic city — much like Catania — but it is a little bit more manageable and feels more equipped for tourism than the other city.
There are countless tourist sites – from the grand Cathedral to the Norman Palace to the Quattro Canti and the Pretoria Fountain. The city streets are incredibly picturesque and bursting with life – especially in the evening in the charming Kalsa neighbourhood.
And while Catania boasts a few street markets, Palermo really goes above and beyond with the lively market culture. The energy at the Mercato di Ballaro is electric and visiting is a great cultural experience. You can sample local favourites at places like the Mercato di Capo or Vucciria, as well.
If you’re keen to explore a few destinations from Palermo, the city can make a good base, as well. For instance, you have access to the highlights and beautiful beaches of Western Sicily, easy reach to the archaeological site of Segesta, visit lovely Cefalu or even see the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.
Where to Stay in Palermo
Alma Hotel – This centrally-located hotel is perfect for mid-range travellers. They have a number of different rooms on offer and they also have a great buffer breakfast available each morning.
Casa Nostra Boutique Hotel – For those looking for luxury, this boutique hotel is a great choice. They have a great, central location and a number of lovely rooms to choose from. There are also plenty of other amenities to ensure you have a great stay.
Appartamento Piazza Pretoria – This 2-bedroom flat is a great option for those looking for a self-catering option in Palermo. It has an excellent location near the Pretoria Fountain and Quattro Canti and comes fully equipped with everything you may need.
A Casa di Amici Boutique Hostel – For those travelling on a budget or solo, this hostel is a great choice for you. They have a good, social atmosphere, offer both dorms and private rooms and it is well-located to explore all Palermo has to offer.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Palermo hotels!
The second-largest city in Sicily is a major hub for budget airlines and is often the starting point for those travelling to this Mediterranean island. However, Catania doesn’t usually get nearly as much love as busy Palermo – and this is a shame.
With a lot to offer and an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the highlights of Eastern Sicily, Catania is a city that is very much worth visiting in its own right.
As mentioned earlier, Catania is a hub for countless budget (and other) airlines and is actually the highest-traffic airport on the island. Because of this, countless European cities have direct connections to Catania and it is generally the easiest (and cheapest) destination on Sicily to reach from outside of Italy. You can organise transfers from the airport here.
Much like Palermo, Catania is also well-connected in Sicily and to mainland Italy, with direct train connections to major cities. There are also ferry routes that arrive into the port of Catania – you can check ferry schedules here.
Also similarly to Palermo, the city centre of Catania is easily accessed on foot. The top sites are close to each other and it is unlikely that you will need to use the public transit system in order to enjoy the highlights of the city.
If you want to use Catania as a base to explore some of the nearby attractions, it works quite well for that, too. There are easy buses and trains to destinations like Mt Etna, Taormina and Siracusa that making it a great place to visit if you’re interested in these areas of Sicily.
As mentioned in the Palermo section, both Catania and Palermo are quite affordable cities to visit by European standards and there isn’t a significant difference between the two.
If you’re a budget traveller looking to maximise your experience without breaking the bank, you really can’t go wrong with visiting either Sicilian city.
Things to do in Catania
Catania isn’t quite as popular a city to visit amongst tourists as Palermo is, however, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t a number of wonderful things to do in this city. In fact, there is enough going on that it’s worth spending at least 2 full days in Catania and you could easily find ways to spend more.
Catania has a more “lived-in” feel than Palermo and doesn’t necessarily feel like there are distinct tourist areas vs local areas. For instance, one of Catania’s top attractions — the fish market — is located just off of the main square. It’s rare for the main marketplace of a city to still boast its location near the main square.
Obviously, visiting this lively fish market is a top thing to do in the city. Make sure not to miss the nearby Cathedral and, if you’re looking to get some fantastic views of the city and Mt Etna in the distance, climb up to the dome of the Chiesa Badia di Sant’Agata.
Wander over to the Villa Bellini and, if you’re looking for more lively markets to explore, the Mercato di Piazza Carlo Alberto is something you cannot miss.
If you’re interested in some day trips, there are also countless options from Catania. For those looking for something active, consider heading to Mt Etna to hike amongst the craters and explore the lava caves. An iconic symbol of Sicily, it really isn’t practical to visit Etna from Palermo so if this is something that interests you, then Catania is a good choice for you.
The historic coastal city of Taormina is another popular day trip destination, located only about an hour away and easily accessed by both bus and train. The city of Siracusa (Syracuse) to the south is also another great day trip option from Catania.
Where to Stay in Catania
Hotel Centrum – This hotel is a great choice for those travelling on a mid-range budget. Located close to the Teatro Bellini and near the top sites of the city, they have a number of clean, bright and comfortable rooms on offer and there is also breakfast available daily.
Liberty Hotel – If you’re looking for luxury while in Catania, this luxury hotel is a great high-end choice in Sicily’s second city. There are a number of lovely rooms on offer, a buffet breakfast each morning, an airport shuttle available and a fantastic location for exploring the top sites of the city.
La Dimora del Barbiere – For those looking for their own holiday home in Catania, then this is a great place to choose. There are a range of flats to choose from (varying in size for whatever your group size is) and an excellent location for exploring Sicily’s second-largest city.
The Yard Hostel – This cool hostel is a great choice for both solo and budget travellers. They have a great, central location, offer both dorm and private rooms and have a number of great common areas that make socialising easy.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other options in Catania!
Palermo or Catania: The Verdict
So which city should you choose for your Sicilian urban destination? Well, it really depends on what exactly you’re after.
Palermo can be a bit more touristy than Catania and has a few more “big name” sites – such as the Palermo Cathedral and Norman Palace. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s hard to avoid tourist crowds in Palermo and it’s definitely possible to easily experience a more local side of the city.
For those keen to explore Sicilian market culture, Palermo may be a better choice. With markets such as the Mercato di Ballaro, the Mercato di Capo and even the Vucciria night market, there are a few more to choose from that are easily accessible for tourists when compared to Catania.
If you’re interested in using either city as a base for day trips, then Palermo is a great place for exploring the highlights of the northern and western parts of the island – such as Cefalu or Trapani.
And if you’re interested in heading to the famed Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Palermo is a bit closer and easier to get there from.
However, if you’re looking for a more gritty and less touristy place to visit, then Catania may be the right choice for you. It’s also the city to choose if you’re interested in heading to Mt Etna — whether you’re keen to hike to the crater or sip wine in its foothills.
Catania is also better located to explore destinations in the eastern part of the island, such as Taormina or Siracusa.
Whichever city you choose to visit, you’re sure to fall in love with the vibrant energy that persists in both Catania and Palermo!
Are you struggling to choose between these two Sicilian cities? Have any questions about either city? Let us know in the comments!