If you’re planning to visit Sicily, you’ve probably realized that both Palermo and Catania are beautiful cities that deserve a visit. But, if you’re stuck between spending more time in one versus the other, which is better? Palermo or Catania?
Figure out how to go between Palermo and Catania by understanding Sicily’s transportation systems.
How to Compare Cities
The best way to compare both cities is to start with the basics: flights & accommodation. These need to be affordable, because realistically, it’s hard to justify a trip when it costs an eyeball to get there.
Next, you should think about the city’s historical significance. It seems that the more significant the city, the more there is to do, which helps further justify the trip.
Finally, you should compare day trips. If you plan to base yourself in a particular city, you should branch out to nearby places that are less travelled. It’s important to find towns that are off the beaten path. These towns are where you develop a deeper understanding of local culture.
Palermo vs Catania: Flights and Accommodation
Most flights that connect to Sicily go through Rome. Both Palermo and Catania have major airports that accept all travelers.
Let’s compare the value of flights and accommodation between Palermo and Catania by quickly comparing the cities on Google Flights, Skyscanner, Hostelworld, and Airbnb.
Glancing at flights from Rome, Palermo is about 20 USD more expensive than Catania. If you’re used to purchasing domestic flights in the United States, this difference is negligible. But, in Europe, that’s a decent difference.
Flights between Rome and Palermo during summer months can range between 80-120 USD.
Flights between Rome and Catania during summer months can range between 60-130 USD.
Both flights are about 1-1.5 hours.
If you’re a budget traveler, that could definitely impact which flight you choose. A difference of 20 USD could be the equivalent of an extra night’s stay in a nice hostel with free breakfast.
However… Catania’s airport is close enough to Mt Etna that volcanic emissions can influence flight schedules. There’s no way to predict this, but it’s almost never a problem unless there was a major recent eruption.
In my opinion, the winner for best flights from Rome is CATANIA.
My go-to accommodation site is Hostelworld, so I’ll start there. Hostels are supposed to be a fun, cheap accommodation option for solo or budget travelers.
When I look for a good hostel, I look for free breakfast and ratings above 8.5/10 by reviewers.
At first, Palermo looks like it could offer the cheapest accommodation… But if you look closely at the value, you’ll quickly realize the opposite.
Palermo does have a few good hostel options, but you’ll notice that very few have breakfast included into the price. If you’re traveling on a budget, a free breakfast is a godsend because you can spend way less on food in the city, which tends to be priced highly for tourists.
Palermo’s hostels tend to be rated much lower than the ones in Catania, which makes me worry about my quality of sleep and cleanliness during my stay. Those are pretty important things to consider.
In Catania, you have more options to choose from. More hostels offer free breakfasts with your stay, and those hostels have great ratings.
Here’s a list of hostel stays I would recommend in each city (with shoulder season prices):
Recommended Hostels in Palermo
- Hostel Agata – Free breakfast, 8.8/10 rating, $35 private rooms only
- A Casa di Amici Boutique Hostel – 9.3/10 rating, $25 dorms, but no breakfast included
Recommended Hostels in Catania
- Ostello degli Elefanti – 9.3/10 rating, free breakfast, $24 dorms (stayed here myself, it’s very nice!)
- UrbanPop – 9.5/10 rating, free breakfast, $26 dorms
- Eco Hostel – 8.9/10 rating, free breakfast, $35 dorms
- 5 Balconi B&B – 9.7/10 rating, free breakfast, $42 privates only
The winner of best hostel accommodations? CATANIA
If a hostel isn’t your style, you may be considering an Airbnb. It’s more pricey, but it offers the privacy that a hostel simply cannot.
Catania’s Airbnb selection is cheaper, but there aren’t as many options near the center. This is great news for the local, but not ideal if you’re a tourist looking for a stay within close walking distance of city center. In this case, going with a hotel or hostel is best.
Palermo’s Airbnb selection is broader, but more expensive. There are some stays that are comparable to Catania’s pricing, and many of those stays are closer to the city center. This isn’t ideal for the locals, though.
If you’re going for budget, Airbnbs in Catania are better, but be prepared to walk the city. If you’re going for experience, Palermo’s Airbnbs may be better, but you’d be paying more.
The winner of valuable Airbnb accommodation? I say TIE.
Palermo vs Catania: Things to Do in the City
It’s safe to say that neither city is boring. Both have rich history and are worth visiting. However, one city’s museums, parks, markets, and ruins may attract you more than the other’s.
Palermo’s history is arguably more dense of any location in Sicily. It’s been around since 8th century BC, and has been invaded countless times, which makes it “the most conquered city in the world.”
North African, Greek, Arabic, and Roman influence can still be seen in Palermo today.
If you’re staying at a hotel or hostel, chances are high that you have access to a free walking tour. Walking tours are the best way to get acquainted with a city. I always try to do a tour on the first day so that I can get my bearings.
If you can’t find a free walking tour through your accommodation, try attending one of Freely’s tours.
The top attractions in Palermo are the cathedrals, catacombs, and archeological museums. Here’s a good list of Palermo’s must-sees:
- Cattedrale di Palermo
- Massimo Theatre
- Norman Palace
- Catacombe di Cappuccini
- Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel
- Regional Archeological Museum
Palermo also has a beach, although it’s nothing special. Mondello Beach is a popular beach in the area, but if you want to see Sicily’s best beaches, they’re not here.
The negative to Palermo is that it’s a bit… dirty. There’s a lot of litter and unkempt buildings, but it is easy to look past that if you’re interested in what the city really has to offer.
Catania’s unique attraction is its natural backdrop. Unlike Palermo, views in Catania are almost always framed by dramatic mountain scenery. Mt Etna, the nearby volcano, is among the mountains that tower over the city.
Mt Etna and its earthquakes have destroyed the area a few times in ancient history, but the volcano also offers fertile land which continues to attract settlements. This region is largely known for its lemons and almonds.
Catania is home to the largest cathedral in Sicily. It also has the oldest university on the island and is considered one of the oldest in Italy. Modern-day Catania is an important industrial center, working closely with the neighboring port towns to import/export goods.
The main attractions in Catania are its cathedrals, natural landscapes, and shopping. Here’s a list of Catania’s must-sees:
- Via Etnea
- Cattedrale di Sant’Agata
- Castello Ursino
- Piazza del Duomo & Fontana dell’Elefante
- Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l’Arena
Catania offers more beach space than Palermo, but this is also not the place to see Sicily’s best beaches. Best to go elsewhere for that.
The winner of things to do in the city? PALERMO
Palermo vs Catania: Day Trips
So far, Catania and Palermo are tied! I told you, they’re both great cities.
I’ve said it already, but it’s worth reiterating: day trips are so important. They offer a way to go off the beaten path, see local culture, and visit nature.
There are plenty of very quick day trips from either Palermo or Catania, but I would argue that one is better than the other.
Hear me out.
Day Trips from Palermo
- Cefalu: This is a beach that sits 1 hour east of Palermo. It’s popular because of its light blue waters and long, sandy beaches.
- Mondello: This is a beach that sits 30 minutes west of Palermo. It is popular for similar reasons that Cefalu is popular, but it does get very crowded in the summer.
- Monreale: Historical towns dot the island, and this one cannot be overlooked (even though I, unfortunately, did). It sits at the base of a volcanic mountain with incredible vistas overlooking the landscape. Monreale is mostly known for its Arabic and Norman architecture and history.
Day Trips from Catania
- Taormina: This is one of the most beautiful day trip destinations from Catania, and the public transport makes it easy to go. Taormina has plenty of natural beauty and ancient history, but also a lot of luxury shopping and expensive eateries. The main attractions are Isola Bella and the still-functioning Ancient Greek Theatre.
- Siracusa: South of Catania sits Siracusa, a town known for its fishing, markets, and ancient seaside fortress. The old town is called Ortigia and sits on its own island. You can read more about Siracusa and the things to do in another blog.
- Mount Etna: By far the coolest day trip, you can climb or ride to Mt Etna and literally stand at the top of the volcano. The caldera’s accessibility fluctuates with the volcano’s activity, but you can still get to the top. I kid you not, I felt as if I could see the earth’s curvature in the horizon.
- Ragusa: I regret not having time to visit here. Ragusa is a small Boroque town which sits on a hilltop. It’s picturesque and very local. Not many tourists make it to this town, myself included.
Maybe I’m biased towards Catania as I write this, but Catania simply has the best variability in its day trips. And, many people don’t even know about the quaint ones like Ragusa.
While Palermo is near beautiful beaches, Catania’s day trips offer a more dramatic spectrum in landscape. Each town and activity offers unique historical density and natural beauty. If you’re going on a shoulder season, you may even get to see these places without many tourists at all.
My vote, obviously, is CATANIA.
Yes, I am Team Catania!
But don’t let me influence your own decision. You should absolutely go explore both cities.
If you value relaxation by the water, Palermo gives you the most opportunity. If you want a variety of cultural and natural activities, I would argue that Catania is best.
If you go to Sicily and visit the two cities, let me know what you think!
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