Last updated on April 13, 2024 by Stefano Ferro, founder of MEL365, following extensive travelling in Sicily

Catania or Palermo – Which one is better

You will probably land in Catania or Palermo International Airport if you fly to Sicily.

These are the two main cities on the island; but which one would be the better place to stay?

You really have to consider the type of trip you want to take before deciding if Catania or Palermo is best for you.

Both cities are amazing, but they also have some distinct disadvantages that would make most people choose or exclude one of them right away.

Below you will find a detailed Catania vs Palermo comparison to assist you in picking a destination.

Please leave a comment if you cannot find the answer you need. Typically, I reply in no time.

You can read also

Catania or Palermo - A full comparison
Catania or Palermo – A full comparison

Catania or Palermo – in a nutshell

Despite their differences, both cities have a special place in my heart.

I discuss the pros and cons of both cities in this post, along with some pictures of Palermo, Catania, and the surrounding area

The following are a few quick points which I will elaborate on later in the post:

  • Is it better to fly into Catania or Palermo? You need to factor in your ultimate destination and the available flights from your departure airport. Although Catania Airport serves more destinations, it is often very busy, particularly during check-in times. When it comes to itinerary trips, I recommend flying into Catania and out of Palermo, where check-in is faster and less hectic. I may add here that a third international airport, in Trapani, is growing in popularity thanks to new low-cost flights. This may be another possible place to land or depart.
  • Palermo or Catania for families: Families with small children will find Palermo more accommodating. Along with parks and playgrounds, there is also an awesome local beach, Mondello, where you can build sandcastles. Catania‘s extensive shopping opportunities may make it a better choice for older kids. Read more on a family trip in Palermo vs Catania
  • Catania or Palermo for beaches: Palermo is the winner here. Mondello, the local beach of the city, is one of the best in Sicily. Rent a car to drive to San Vito Lo Capo (1.5 hours one way), one of the best beaches in Europe. Don’t keep me wrong, also Catania has nice beaches, but Mondello is unbeatable. Read more on Palermo and the beaches
  • Which one works best for couples: Palermo is more romantic. You will have more of a town feel with plenty of small lanes and hidden alleys. The old town is the second biggest in Europe and the local street food is fabulous and cheap too. You can, of course, have also a glamorous night in one of the many beautiful restaurants.
  • What is better for history: This is a tight fight. Although the two cities are only 3 hours apart, they are so different. Palermo architecture is influenced by the Arab and Norman cultures. Catania was entirely destroyed in the 1693 earthquake and rebuilt in the than popular Baroque style. In Catania you will find also access to the underground city with the ruins of the old settlement, a fascinating walk into the old Catania
  • Palermo vs Catania for trekking: Catania is the winner, mainly because of the unmissable trekking to the mount Etna. In my guide to the Etna hike, you can see how to do it on your own, with the bus from Catania or by car, from the busy and easy route or the challenging but costless west side.
  • Palermo or Catania for restaurants and food: There are great restaurants in both cities. I will add a few suggestions below. It’s really a hard call. Palermo may have a small advantage thanks to its renowned street food, something you have to try. Read more on restaurants in both cities
  • Palermo or Catania for nightlife: Palermo has a good nightlife scene, however, Catania is unbeatable for partying. The pedestrian old centre is full of bars and restaurants that get so busy the all night. Read more about the nightlife
  • Catania or Palermo for a 3-days itinerary: doesn’t matter where you will land, you will love this island. With just 3 days in Sicily, I suggest flying to Catania for a more historical holiday that includes day trips to Noto and Taormina, with the possibility of swapping one of the day with some trekking on the Etna Vulcano. Alternatively, fly to Palermo for its beaches, art and possibly a day tour to Cefalu and/or Erice/Trapani. Check below two itineraries that I have drafted for both cities.
  • What about shopping: both cities offer good shopping. Catania has probably more pedestrian areas, but Palermo is today increasing them as well. Another hard call. Having to choose one, then Catania.
  • Is it cheaper to stay in Catania or Palermo: Palermo tends to be cheaper on both accommodations and food, but by a small margin, probably around 10-15%. You can read more on my guide to how expensive is Sicily, with reference to Palermo and a possible daily budget.
  • Where to stay in Palermo and Catania: There are many options in both cities. Just avoid the few noisy streets if you want to have a quiet sleep. Read more below on the best places to stay
  • How easy is to move between the Palermo and Catania: very easy. You have essentially 3 possibilities. You can rent a car in Sicily and drive the direct way (3 hours). Alternatively, chill out take one of the multi-day Sicily itineraries I described in my guide. You can also take a bus or a train. This is a guide with all you need to know to get around Sicily.
  • Is parking easier in Palermo or Catania: it can be complicated in both cases. I personally suggest parking the car at your accommodation and take the public transportation. Catania has a modern underground and Palermo buses well connect the prime destinations in the city. Taxis are another option but make sure the meter actually works correctly when you jump in the car. Uber and the likes do not work in both cities (and in the whole of Italy).
  • Overall, Is Palermo or Catania nicer? the only thing I know is that it’s a hard choice. Catania has more of a city feeling and in this respect, I like it slightly less than Palermo. But it’s the perfect destination for a visit to the Etna and the lovely and charming Taormina, besides the unique Noto. Mondello Beach in Palermo is, however, so beautiful and unmissable if visiting in summer. You get the point, such a hard choice. Having the possibility, fly in to one and out from the other.
The lovely Palermo
The lovely Palermo

Palermo or Catania for families

Palermo may work better for you if you are travelling with little kids.

Book your accommodation in the Mondello area, where you will have one of the most spectacular and popular beaches of Sicily.

You can take a direct public bus to the old city where in the last few years, more pedestrian areas have been opened, great to have a stroll with the little ones.

If you decide to stay in an Airbnb, head to the Ballaro’ market for your food, one of most characteristic of Italy.

Catania may be better if travelling with grown-ups.

First off, you have a great pedestrian area with plenty of shopping options.

Then, you can organise trips like the hike to the Etna Mountain that would be challenging with the little ones, of course.

You can also take a quick train to Siracusa, Taormina or Noto for an interesting day-trip.

There is also a nice local beach south of Catania, but not as outstanding as Mondello.

Amazing colours of Etna
Amazing colours of Etna

Catania or Palermo for beaches

As already mentioned, Palermo is very famous for its local Mondello Beach.

The great thing is that sometimes the summer season extends as long and October or even November, with the sea still warm enough for a swim.

You can also check the other city beach, the Spiaggia dell’Arenella, smaller than Mondello but still has plenty of space, but no sunbeds service.

The drawback of the Spiaggia dell’Arenella is that it is not so well looked after and it is not uncommon to find rubbish.

Once there, you should check out also the so-called Rocky Beach of Mondello.

Catania has also a beach, a long one actually, south of the city, called Playa di Catania.

There are a few organised sections with sunbeds and other public areas that are free to enter.

Unfortunately, the public areas can be dirty and unpleasant.

For a much better beach, take the train south for a day trip to Fontane Bianche, a good contender to Mondello, but it is over 1 hour from Catania.

Palermo or Catania for restaurants and food

Palermo is so famous for its street food (cibo da strada) which is a mix of European and Middle East flavours, the typical local Sicilian flavour.

The city is famous for its panelle (chickpea fritters), spleen sandwiches, caponata, and cannoli.

Plus, Palermo’s food markets are some of the best in Italy, offering a sensory feast of sights, smells, and tastes.

For sandwiches, you should check out the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, Franco u Vastiddaru and Pani ca’ Meusa

Another great spot is the Focacceria San Giovanni degli Eremiti.

Are you looking for a proper restaurant?

Add to your bucket list Flor (design), Bepop (tasting menu), Bistrot 107 (Cafe/restaurant), Trattoria Trapani (cosy family run)

Catania has great restaurants too, almost impossible to get it wrong in Sicily, unless you really go for the super touristic restaurants.

You have to try arancini and pasta alla Norma, the most traditional dishes in the city.

You should check out:

Food is king in Sicily
Food is king in Sicily

Palermo or Catania for a 3-days itinerary

Both destinations are amazing, and they will keep you quite busy for the entire stay, especially if you add one, or even two, day trips to nearby attractions.

This is a possible itinerary for Palermo:

  • Day 1: explore the city and go to the beach in the late afternoon, or take this exclusive art tour to see and understand more of the city
  • Day 2: Take the train to Cefalù, one of the Sicilian jewels
  • Day 3: Take a trip to the Segesta ruins as well as other attractions in the west of the island

And for Catania:

For more options, you should check this guide to 3 days in Sicily, with itineraries that mostly start or stay from Palermo and Catania.

3 days in Sicily
3 days in Sicily

Palermo or Catania for nightlife

Catania is well known for its nightlife, the best in Sicily, as the locals always say.

Ask someone in Palermo and he will probably not agree.

One thing has to be said about Catania. The nightlife is more accessible, and I mean physically.

Most of the bars, restaurants and clubs are located in the Golden Square, between Piazza del Duomo, Piazza Teatro Massimo and Piazza Universita’.

You can easily spend the night there till the early hours of the morning, without having to move around the city. It’s all walking distance.

Indeed, there are clubs outside this area, and the beach area gets alive in summer, but if you prefer to spend the night on a pub crawl, you can do that in the Golden Square.

Palermo‘s nightlife is not as concentrated and you need a taxi to get around.

In the last ten years, new bars and pubs have opened in the Ballarò and the Vucciria area.

Unfortunately, the Covid situation has not helped, but things are starting again to open up.

Start from the Vucciria area your night out.

In summer, things are totally different, with the area of Mondello taking the lead, thanks to its beach bars open till late.

Nightlife in Heraklion
Nightlife in Catania

Where to stay in Catania and Palermo

Both cities offer a wide range of options.

The most important tip I can give you is to avoid booking in the restaurant and bar areas if you want a quiet sleep.

Some streets can get quite noisy, especially in the old centre.

I wrote an exhaustive guide to Sicily’s areas and accommodation options, where you will also find a few hotels that are absolutely fantastic in both quality and price in the sections about Palermo and Catania.

After my last trip to Sicily, I have also organised two great guides to the best areas to stay in Palermo and the best neighbours to book your accommodation in Catania.

Here are some of the best options for a stay in the two cities:

Read more about Palermo and Catania stay

Best places to stay in Sicily
Best places to stay in Sicily

Architecture in Catania and Palermo

This is another hard call but I do have my favourite and I will tell you why

Let me say first that Catania‘s architecture is a stunning mix of Baroque and Neoclassical styles, with buildings mostly dating back to the late 17th century, following one of the worst earthquakes experienced in Italy.

The Cathedral of Saint Agatha and the Ursino Castle are must-see attractions, as well as the unfinished Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena.

And finally, the entire historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This city will blow your mind!

Palermo did not suffer the destruction of 1693 earthquake and you will find therefore a treasure trove of architectural gems.

It’s a blend of different styles – from Norman to Baroque and Arab.

The Palermo Cathedral, the Palazzo dei Normanni, and the Teatro Massimo are just a few of the impressive buildings that you can explore.

On my last trip, I was able to join the guided tour inside the Massimo Theatre and I was blown away by the largest theatre in Italy. 

Plus, the city is like an outdoor museum, showcasing the history and cultural heritage of Sicily. 

My favourite is Palermo, just for the quantity and variety of architectural styles you can find in the city

Inside the Massimo Theatre
Inside the Massimo Theatre

What is best for nature? Catania or Palermo

Catania is the winner here, mostly the easy access to a day tour of the Etna volcano.

Catania is next to Mount Etna, the highest and most active volcano in Europe.

You can take a guided tour of the volcano, or go hiking in the surrounding national park.

There is a daily bus that for €7 will take you there in the early morning and back in the last afternoon.

The Alcantara Gorges are also a must-visit natural wonder.

There are a few tours organising both the Alcantara and the Etna on a single-day tour, however, personally suggest dedicating a day to each. It would be too much of a rush, otherwise.

Palermo‘s surrounding area is also full of natural wonders.

The Riserva Naturale Orientata dello Zingaro, Monte Pellegrino, and Capo Gallo are just a few of the stunning natural parks and reserves that you can explore, although you need some time to go there and possibly you have to rent a car

The volcano summit
The volcano summit

Markets in Catania vs Palermo

Another hard call but I must admit that Palermo has something more about markets

Catania‘s main market, La Pescheria, is a must-visit for the vibe that you can experience, especially in the early morning, when most locals visit it.

This bustling fish market is open every day just around the square of the Duomo and sells a wide variety of fresh seafood.

There are also plenty of other stalls selling fruits, vegetables, and souvenirs.

You can also grab some take-away food and seat in one of the many restaurants around the market

On the other side, Palermo’s market Ballarò is legendary, not only for what you can find but also for its street food.

It covers an extensive area of the Old Centre and they sell everything from fresh produce to clothing.

Be sure to try the arancini, a popular Sicilian snack.

The Fish Market in the Historical Centre
The Fish Market in the Historical Centre of Catania

Main festivals in Catania and Palermo

Catania‘s Saint Agatha Festival celebrates the city’s patron meanwhile Palermo‘s Santa Rosalia Festival honours the city’s protector.

Both festivals are incredible, but the Saint Agatha Festival in Catania is a must-see.

Catania or Palermo: FAQ

Which is better, Catania or Palermo?

Both cities have unique charms. Palermo is known for its historical sites, while Catania is famous for its shopping and proximity to Mount Etna.

Is Palermo or Catania safer?

Both cities are generally safe for tourists, but like any city, it’s important to stay vigilant and aware of your surroundings.

Which has better beaches, Palermo or Catania?

Palermo has one of the most famous in Italy, Mondello, a truly gem of Sicily

What is the prettiest part of Sicily?

Sicily is full of beautiful places. Some of the most beautiful include the Aeolian Islands, Taormina, and the Baroque towns of the Val di Noto.

Which city is bigger, Palermo or Catania?

Palermo is larger than Catania, with a population of almost 1 million people compared to Catania’s 300,000.

Which city is better for shopping, Palermo or Catania?

Catania is known for its traditional mall shopping and well-known brands, while Palermo is known for its markets.

Which city is better for nightlife, Palermo or Catania?

Both cities have vibrant nightlife. Palermo is known for its lively bars and clubs, while Catania has a thriving music scene.

Which city is better for a short visit, Palermo or Catania?

Both cities have plenty to offer for a short visit. If you have specific interests, such as history or shopping, one may be more appealing than the other.

More photos on Palermo and Catania

Catania

Palermo

Stefano Ferro - MEL365.com Founder and Editor

About the Author

Stefano is a seasoned travel expert and the visionary founder of MEL365.com, a leading travel website with traffic across 6 continents. With a rich background in the travel industry, Stefano spent four pivotal years at Amadeus Travel Distribution System, gaining invaluable insights into travel technologies and distribution.

4 thoughts on “Catania or Palermo? The best (and the worst) of both”

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