Palermo or Catania in Sicily – Which One to Visit?
Consider yourself lucky if you have to choose either Palermo or Catania. Both cities are amongst the nicest in Italy. Every time we visit Sicily, we spend time in both cities. What can we say? The island is a dream!
Deciding over Palermo vs Catania is not that hard. Though both are incredibly beautiful, they are quite different. Thus, you have to choose which one to visit first based on your tastes. You visit the other one on your next trip!
Both places feature historic architecture, culture, and lovely scenery. Besides, both still have a distinctly Italian vibe. That’s probably the one thing where you won’t find any difference. Sicilians are incredible hosts all around the island! You will fall in love with magical Sicily.
Palermo or Catania
Palermo is much bigger than Catania. In fact, the city has a population of almost 1 million people, while 300,000 people live in Catania. Besides, Palermo is the capital of Sicily. No other city on the island is that big.
Both cities sit on the coast, some 120 miles (200 km) apart. Palermo to the northwest and Catania to the south of Sicily. The weather tends to be the same all year round. That’s why you can visit Catania and Palermo in winter.
Green lush hills surround Palermo. The mighty Mount Etna provides the perfect background for Catania. Both cities boast green parks, promenades, and pedestrian streets. Note that more tourists visit Palermo each year. You won’t have any trouble eating delicious food in Catania or Palermo.
If You Have to Choose
Choose Palermo if you want a more cosmopolitan atmosphere. Due to its size, the city is sophisticated and diverse. Catania, on the other hand, feels more like a town. Therefore, Palermo is a bit better for an urban escape.
If you are into nature, choose Catania. Don’t get us wrong. The landscape is lovely all around Palermo, but nothing compares to Mount Etna. You can see it from all over Catania. That said, you can go from Palermo to Mount Etna too with this tour.
Both places are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. However, the architecture in Palermo may be considered a bit more spectacular. The city was the capital of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. Catania excels in Baroque architecture. For day trips and excursions, choose Catania.
Palermo sits on the Mediterranean Sea and is next to the Sircani Mountain Range. The city itself features outstanding Byzantine, Islamic and Italian architecture. That’s why it’s so different from other major Italian cities.
Granted, Palermo is not in perfect shape and can be a bit rough around the edges. However, and maybe precisely because of this, it is pretty authentic. Palermo is not a city for tourists but for the local population.
Take note that the city doesn’t have nice beaches. Don’t panic! You can find splendid beaches nearby. Though it can be extremely hot in summer, the weather in winter in Palermo is fantastic. If you want to experience Italy, Palermo is right for you.
Palermo has more impressive sights than Catania. The main sights are in the old town. You can spend days discovering new buildings. Our favorite churches are Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio and San Cataldo, next to each other. The other UNESCO-listed church you must visit is San Giovanni Degli Eremiti.
You have two cathedrals to visit. Palermo’s Cathedral is in the center. Splendid palaces line the plaza in front. Monreale’s Cathedral is one hour east of the city. Take a public bus or an inexpensive taxi there and enjoy the ride.
The unbelievably lavish Norman Palace deserves at least a couple of hours. The Royal Palace and the Palatine Chapel are next doors. From there, walk to the Orleans Gardens. Locals socialize in pedestrian Corso Vittorio Emanuelle. Stop by Quattro Canti, Palermo’s iconic plaza.
There are over 20 museums in Palermo! The Regional Archaeological Museum in the center exhibits ancient Greek and Roman objects. Walk two blocks to the giant Branciforte Palace from the 16th Century. Its library will take your breath away.
Head to the 15th Century Abatellis Palace to see the Triumph of Death fresco, paintings, and sculptures. For modern art, go to Bonet Palace from the 15th Century. The Tile Museum is nearby. It holds one of the biggest tile collections in the world.
If you like puppets, visit the International Puppet Museum next to the coast. You’ll love the building as much as the collection inside. The Palazzo Conte is a private museum homed in a gorgeous villa in the center. Look out for the Santa Clara graffiti nearby.
Palermo has better hotels than Catania. Our favorite place to stay in Palermo is the lavish Grand Hotel Ed Des Palmes near Politeama Theatre. The original building from 1874 was converted into a belle époque hotel in 1907. Recently refurbished, it has everything you ever dreamed of.
If you have the money to splash, do so at the Rocco Forte Villa Igea, the best luxury hotel in Palermo. The villa from the 19th Century looks like a huge castle. It overlooks the sea and has a splendid garden with ancient trees and a pool.
The Best Western Ai Cavalieri Hotel is great value for money. It’s two blocks from Massimo Theatre and has parking. Therefore you can walk everywhere in no time. The rooms are clean and comfortable. The best ones have a balcony.
Restaurants and Bars
Italians consider Sicilian food the best in the country. We agree! Our favorite restaurant in Palermo is Quattroventi in front of Santa Lucia Church. Our favorite bar is next to the restaurant. Enjoy your favorite cocktail while listening to live music at Miles Davis Jazz Club.
The restaurant at Palacio Banciforte is beautiful. Their wine selection is superb. Another high-end restaurant inside a palace is the one at MEC Palermo. It’s an old luxurious palace dedicated to technology. For pizza, head to Caffe del Kassaro nearby.
For people watching and coffee on pedestrian Corso Emanuelle, stop by Cafeteria del Corso. We always have cocktails at the rooftop Il Bar, on Piazza San Domenico. For a fancy dinner with views over Palermo, book a table at Osservatorio Rooftop.
The best way of moving around Palermo is walking. As mentioned, most of the city’s landmarks are in the center. Thus, you can walk everywhere in no time. Biking is another great way of discovering the city.
However, since it can be crowded, we don’t recommend biking in the center. Tie your bike and walk. You can also bike along the coast. The city will operate a new bike-sharing system soon. They promise to have stations everywhere!
Palermo has a public transportation system that includes buses and trams. You can buy tickets at local kiosks. We advise you to buy several in Palermo Centrale so you have them when needed. Grab a bus map too. Taxis are inexpensive and the best way of moving at night.
Mondello is only 8 miles (11 km) north of Palermo but so very different. It’s the biggest sandy beach near the city. Behind Mondello is the Natural Reserve Capo Gallo. You can walk up the hill and enjoy stunning views of the coast.
Cefalù is 40 miles (70 miles) east of Palermo. The cute little port is famous for its incredible 12th Century Cathedral. Don’t forget to climb the hill that towers above the city. The views from the castle are epic.
If you are into trekking and tiny medieval towns, you must visit Madonie Park, 30 miles (50 km) east of Cefalù. Here you will find pure air, ancient trees, fauna, and unforgettable scenery. You can trek as much or as little as you want.
What’s Special about Palermo
What we love about Palermo is its atmosphere. The city is far from the chaos of Rome or Naples. Therefore, you get the best of both worlds. In Palermo, you can enjoy the culture and nightlife of one of Italy’s biggest cities.
Besides, Palermo’s museums and UNESCO-listed buildings are amongst the best in Europe. That said, you step out of the main streets, and you can enjoy a quieter Palermo. People are more relaxed, and life has a different pace.
Though it is a popular tourist destination, locals outnumber tourists in Palermo. You can get lost in its cobbled streets and get to know people. Finally, Palermo is a vibrant city that attracts people from all corners of the world. The city keeps evolving, and we love it!
Catania is on the coast, in East Sicily. Much smaller than Palermo, its Baroque architecture is amongst the best in the world. However, the beaches in the city are not that great. You have to go out of the city to enjoy the Mediterranean.
Sicily’s biggest airport is in Catania. Most tourists arrive there and continue their trip around the island via train or private car. A lot of people visit just for the day. Thus, you will have the city to yourself in the afternoon.
Mount Etna is one of the most recognized volcanoes in the world. The massive beauty presides over the city. When it comes to views, nothing beats Catania! We reckon that that’s why the locals are so nice. The city will relax you to the bone!
Catania may be smaller than Palermo, but its architecture is also fantastic. Begin your tour in the lavish Biscari Palace, next to the sea. The medieval Platamone Palace is behind. The massive monastery is now a cultural center. The views from the rooftop terrace are epic.
Catania’s baroque Cathedral is nearby. Don’t forget to look out for the city’s iconic Elephant Fountain in front. Countless churches dot the center. Our favorites are: Badia di Sant‘Agata, San Benedetto, Collegiata Basilica, and San Nicolò l’Arena. The latter will take your breath away.
Walk to the ancient Greek Theatre with the Roman Odeon also in the center. Chill in the Gardens of Bellini Villa and the Botanical Gardens of the University. Spend some time admiring the 13th Century Ursino Castle.
The Diocesan Museum of Catania is in the Clerici Palace next to the Cathedral. The complex is huge and incorporates the temple. Don’t forget to check the underground baths beneath and the terrace of Porta Uzeda.
Do not miss the Santa Agata Fountain next to the museum. It’s one of the few structures that survived the earthquake. The small Museum of Contemporary Art is inside the Benedetto Monastery. The Archaeological Museum of Catania holds a vast collection of ancient objects.
Walk to the Zo Cultural Center next to the coast. There are three museums inside the former industrial complex: the Museum of Cinema, the Museum of Writing, and the World War II Sicily Museum. You can also attend concerts and cultural activities.
The best luxury hotel in Catania is the Palazzo Marletta Luxury House next to Elephant Square. The 18th Century baroque Palace is gorgeous. Book a superior room with original wooden ceilings and a balcony with splendid views.
Our favorite place to stay in Catania is Le Suites del Duomo, also on Elephant Square. You can’t beat the location or the views. The best rooms have a spa and a balcony. The service is impeccable. Considering its class and location, it’s a great deal.
We stayed once at the Palace Catania Una Esperienze near Villa Bellini and loved it. The rooms are plush and nicely appointed. The best have balconies. Enjoy the delicious complimentary breakfast on the roof terrace with unbelievable views of the city and Mount Etna.
Restaurants and Bars
Sikulo Restaurant in the center serves the best seafood in Catania. Pasta we always have at La Pentolaccia. It’s a place for locals with a nice courtyard. Our favorite cocktail bar is in the corner. First Lounge Bar has a lovely patio.
Locals flock to the area around the Greek Theatre at night. The Thirsty Corner attracts a young and fun crowd. For live music, wine, and cocktails book a table in advance at Monk Jazz Club. We always have cocktails, aperitifs, and coffee at BarnAut.
Pasticceria Savia in front of Villa Bellini has the best canoli in Catania. However, the bread and cookies at Forno Biancuccia are better. For food and cocktails with epic views of the city and the volcano, go to Etnea Roof Bar & Restaurant.
Since Catania isn’t big, you can walk everywhere without a problem. You can cross the entire city in approximately an hour. That said, you have so much to see, that you will take your time just visiting the best attractions.
Besides, Catania is perfect to relax and enjoy at your own pace. Biking is a great way of moving around too. However, the center can be packed, so tie your bike and walk. We love biking along the coast.
You can bike to the public beaches to the south. The best one is number 3. There are also buses that can take you everywhere and a metro that doesn’t take you anywhere. Unfortunately, these don’t operate frequently at night, so better hop on an inexpensive taxi.
We believe Catania offers better day trips than Palermo. World-famous Taormina is just 30 miles (50 km) north. You can take a train and be there in less than an hour. Taormina is so beautiful you must spend at least a night there.
An excursion to Mount Etna is a must. Since going on your own takes too much time, it makes no sense. We strongly recommend one of these tours. If you are short of time, you can hire this tour to Taormina and Etna.
Syracuse is 40 miles (60 km) south of Catania. We just spent 5 days there and loved it! From Syracuse, you can also go to Ragusa and Modica. We are telling you, Sicily is a dream!
What’s Special about Catania
Nature makes Catania special. Don’t get us wrong: the city is an architect’s dream. However, nothing beats the views of Mount Etna. The massive volcano is always there, reminding you of the power and beauty of nature.
Due to its proximity to the volcano, the soil is extremely rich. That’s why lush plants populate the entire city. You will see lovely plants and trees everywhere! As if that was not enough, you can enjoy the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Catania is a small city where you can take your time and enjoy people. Especially in the afternoons and nights. Most tourists visit for the day and leave. You can walk everywhere admiring the UNESCO-listed architecture and smelling the plants.
If You Still Haven’t Decided
If you still haven’t decided between Catania vs Palermo don’t worry. Go to either on your first trip. There’s no way you will get disappointed. In fact, you will be convinced you made the right choice!
On your next trip to Sicily, you visit the other city. Then, you can have fun debating which one you like the most. We do it all the time! We visit Italy at least twice a year, and we never have enough.
To us, Italy is the prettiest country in Europe. Nowhere in Europe can you see incredible nature with outstanding architecture and culture. Then, of course, you have the food! And as if that was not enough, Italians are fantastic hosts!