Whenever a major tourism region has more than one amazing city, the age-old question always comes up. Which one to visit? Is it Palermo or Catania that’s better for your travel plans? Is one town really that much different from the other? Let’s find out!
The short story is this: Palermo is bigger, it’s a bit more touristy, and it has more famous attractions. Meanwhile, Catania is a bit more laid-back, you can see the town quicker, but there are some amazing attractions nearby, like the Etna itself. But there’s so much more to it than this quick run down.
For example, which of the towns has better beaches? The airports are also different and the overall atmosphere of the two towns is different yet very similar at times.
So, without further ado, let’s get into our list of things that you can and should compare and see if it’s Catania or Palermo that’s better for you. Oh, yes, for you. We can’t give a straight answer to the question as each of you are a bit different. So we’ll do our best to tell you what you need to know and based on that you can pick one town over the other.
Do you need to choose between Palermo or Sicily?
Let’s get this first question out of the way. We think it’s important. Because if you spend enough time on the beautiful island of Sicily, then you don’t actually need to choose. You should see both! Not just see, but stay in both.
Sicily is a pretty big island. Spending around or more than a week in Sicily and you have an opportunity to see almost everything. However, if you are staying for this long and want to see it all then we recommend switching towns halfway.
It’s simply more practical to spend one half of your vacation in Palermo and the other in Catania. You’ll have access to different areas of the island. It’s important to remember that Palermo is on the western side and Catania is on the eastern side. They are perfect for exploring their respective regions.
So, unless you are staying for a couple of days, we say: both. Stay in both towns. They are great and you’ll have fun. Now, onto the actual comparison!
Which is bigger: Palermo or Catania?
When it comes to size Palermo is the clear winner. The total population of Sicily is around 5 million and the city of Palermo has around 600,000 residents. That’s more than 10% of the whole island’s population.
When summer rolls around this number multiplies due to tourists making Palermo a truly bustling metropolis. It is one of the most important towns in Southern Italy and it’s blooming with life. If you want a place that doesn’t seem to stop even after the sun is down then Palermo is definitely something you’ll like.
Catania on the other hand has around half the population of Palermo. Although it is smaller the central area also feels more compressed with small streets and beautiful buildings. So it definitely does not feel ‘half-as-busy’.
Yet it is true that Catania is more laid-back. It’s a bit easier to avoid the crowds and stroll the streets while taking in the scenery. Don’t expect empty streets though. Catania is still an extremely popular place to visit even if smaller.
Which city is more touristy?
Look, we are talking about the two main tourist hubs of Sicily. Both are touristy. Palermo will feel a bit more on the touristy side but it’s somewhat of an illusion.
For example, the center of Palermo is full of nice restaurants and amazing bars. Some of these are obvious touristy spots and overpriced, but some of these are genuine local places. We sit down at one of the local-looking bars in the center and most of the others were actually Italians.
We’ve found that the bustling atmosphere adds a touch of touristy air to your visit but the locals are not staying home either. They like to go out in the evening.
Catania has its fair share of touristy restaurants but it’s actually a bit easier to find the hidden local spots here. Also, the bars and restaurants are a bit more paced out making it feel less busy in one particular spot.
Sightseeing: Catania or Palermo?
Now, let’s see which town is better if your plans are mostly local sightseeing. Catania is known for its historic center and interesting architecture. Spending one day walking around the city will allow you to see most of what’s important, but if you also want to visit the interiors and take some tours then two days for a pleasant visit.
Catania is absolutely perfect for a weekend getaway. You can see the town, enjoy the local cuisine, and have tons of fun experiences before going home.
Palermo has a few more local attractions like the Cathedral, the Royal Palace, and the historic area is also bigger. Most people can see everything they want in Palermo within two days, but spending 3 or 4 is totally possible if you take it slow.
Overall Palermo has more things to see but Catania has no shortage either. Your time available could be the deciding factor here. If you’ve got only 1 or 2 full days then definitely Catania will be a great visit, but if you can spend more time Palermo is excellent.
Which town has a better market?
In this sense, there is a winner. Palermo’s market is just amazing. It’s honestly one of the best markets that I’ve ever been to. So if you are after a true Italian market, then Palermo is your destination.
On the other hand, the fish market in Catania is also a bustling place and if you just want to see a great market then you should know that Catania has one as well.
Nearby attractions to Palermo and Catania
We’ve seen what’s in town let’s see what’s outside of town. Palermo is on the western side of the island giving you access to a few bigger towns and some interesting places. Meanwhile, Catania is on the eastern side with smaller but more historical cities to visit.
Let’s start with Palermo. One of the most unique places to visit from Palermo is Erice. Erice is a medieval town on a mountaintop. It feels like time stopped in Erice and history lovers must absolutely see this place. We think this is one of the most important places to see from Palermo.
You also got Cefalú which is an amazing beach town. It’s got a big beach, a great historical center, and it’s easily accessible by train. Cefalú and Erice are the two places we recommend the most.
Apart from these towns, you can easily visit Trapani and Marsala. These two are great seaside cities but they are similar to each other. There are also the salt marshes which are a spectacle but not necessarily unique to Sicily.
Catania has two interesting towns nearby that we can highly recommend. One of them is Siracusa. Siracusa is a magical place with amazing architecture and a local atmosphere. The other town is Taormina which is a luxurious place with high-end restaurants, jaw-dropping views, and a famous historical Greco-Roman Theatre.
Also, when you are in Catania, you can easily visit Etna. And you should. A visit to one of the few remaining active volcanoes on Earth is definitely something. For this reason alone, we think that Catania wins when it comes to out-of-town attractions.
Beaches: Palermo or Catania?
Catania has its own beach. It’s kind of far from the center of town but it’s possible to visit. We would not call it an amazing beach but it does an okay job. It’s the easiest to visit out of the other options.
Out of town, you have Schisò to the north and Fontane Bianche to the south. Both are exceptional beaches and are easy to visit. Especially considering Fontane Bianche is close to Siracusa and Schisò is close to Taormina. So you can do sightseeing and beach in one day.
Palermo’s unofficial beach is Mondello Beach. It’s kind of far from town but buses run to the beach so it’s not that hard to visit. However, it’s not huge and when everyone in Palermo wants to enjoy the sun then it will fill up very quickly.
Out of the town you got Cefalú which is a very nice place for a beach day. You can get there by train and honestly, Cefalú should be your main destination if you want to enjoy the beach out of town.
Airports and Transportation
Both towns have airports and great train stations. The airports are not that different. Usually, you don’t even have a choice in this regard as some airlines fly to Catania exclusively while others fly to Palermo exclusively.
If you do have a choice then Palermo’s airport is a bit easier. Catania has the Etna in the distance and as an active volcano, it causes problems. It’s very common to have delays at Catania airport due to planes being able to take off. Of course, most travelers are unaffected by the volcanic activity but it can happen.
When it comes to travel within the island, both towns have their train stations close to the city center. It’s easy to get on trains and see the rest of the island even if you don’t rent a car.
In this regard, there is very little difference between Palermo and Catania.
Car Rentals and Parking: Catania or Palermo
When it comes to car rentals the difference is not huge. Both cities have a mix of local and international car rental agencies. You can rent at the airport or in the town. We recommend trying to go to a local place. They usually give a better price and a more ‘local’ car.
Personally, we rented from Rent Car Al Nuovo Baretto in Catania. They gave way better prices than everyone else. Yes, the car was a bit worn but it fit perfectly into the Sicilian traffic. In fact, I could park in the middle of a residential zone and no one would tell me that it’s a rental. Perfect for a place where car break-ins are not unheard of. I can personally vouch for this car rental place. They speak English and they are very nice.
Parking is another story altogether. Palermo has an extensive ZTL which is a zone where you can’t drive into. This means that if you want to have a rental car you’ll be staying somewhere outside of the ZTL. Not too much of a problem but keep this in mind.
You can usually park closer to the historic center in Catania but parking spaces in this town are few and far between. Two days I had a car, and yes, I managed to park both days. However, it took some time to find a free spot.
Palermo or Catania – FAQ
Catania is better for a weekend getaway.
We vote for Palermo. It offers more variety if you are planning to stay more than just a week.
Both towns are priced fairly similarly. We don’t think one is cheaper than the other.
What kind of a question is that? It’s Sicily! Both! Both have amazing food.
In our opinion, Palermo is better for Nightlife.