Both Spain and Italy conjure up images of sunshine, delicious food and wine, beautiful beaches, and a relaxed lifestyle. While the two countries have a lot in common, they are also wildly different. How, then, does one choose which country to visit if the budget doesn't allow for both? We've put the two destinations head to head in several categories, including food, culture, beaches, and more, to help you make the right decision. But don't worry, whichever you pick, you're likely to have a memorable trip. And hey, there's always next year for visiting the other.
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Spain may have fewer miles of coastline than Italy, but it certainly wins when it comes to the best beaches. Not only does it have more Blue Flag beaches than any other European country, but, unlike Italy, all of these beaches are public property. Spain’s beaches vary greatly, from the Brit-packed stretches of Costa del Sol to the fun-filled areas in Barcelona to the stunning white-sand spots in Asturias and Galicia. The islands are no less fortunate, with the gorgeous coves in the Balearics and the dramatic sands in the Canaries.
Italy certainly isn’t lacking in beaches, either. However, there’s a heavier presence of paid entry beach bars and hotel beaches with loungers, meaning it’s not easy to pull up and throw your towel down on the sand. There are some spectacular sandy stretches in Puglia, as well as on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Meanwhile, the famous Amalfi Coast is home to cliff-backed pebble beaches that are often only accessible by boat.
Food and Drink
Eating should be high on your agenda no matter which country you choose. In Italy, there’s so much more to taste than pizza and pasta, and you can eat like a king whether you’re a carnivore or vegetarian. It’s impossible to list every food worth trying, as every region produces different specialities, but wild boar ragu on pappardelle pasta is a must-try in Tuscany (wash it down with a delicious glass of Chianti). Any visit to Sicily will certainly stretch your waistband — make sure to try arancini (deep-fried risotto balls) and cannolis (crisp pastry tubes stuffed with sweet ricotta filling). And don’t forget to fill up on as much gelato as possible. Just watch out for the often astronomically priced Italian ice-cream in Rome and Florence.
Much like Italy, Spain’s culture focuses heavily on eating and drinking, and again, the food varies greatly from region to region. It’s the perfect country to visit if you like lots of small plates and bar snacks, in the form of tapas. Red wine, beer, and great coffee are in plentiful supply wherever you go, and the city of San Sebastian in northern Spain is a culinary wonderland, with one of the highest numbers of Michelin stars per square meter, fantastic seafood, and endless pintxos (Basque-style tapas in the form of bite-size snacks, usually atop a slice of bread). The one downside of Spanish cuisine is the general lack of variety for vegetarians.
Art and Culture
Both countries are heavy hitters when it comes to this category. It’s true that Rome boasts an astonishing number of art galleries. Even walking around the Italian capital can feel like strolling through an open-air museum. You’ll find some of the world’s richest classical art collections in Galleria Borghese and Capitoline Museums, as well as some modern masterpieces in MAXXI, a museum of contemporary art and architecture. Of course, Florence also offers a fabulous array of artwork, including many Renaissance pieces.
However, culture vultures certainly won’t be disappointed with Spain’s offerings, starting with the Prado Museum in Madrid. Sheltering over 8,000 paintings, this is the largest art gallery in the world. Alternatively, head to the Reina Sofía Museum to marvel at Picasso’s world-famous “Guernica.” The country’s other main artistic center, Barcelona, also offers some dazzling venues that display more contemporary collections from native and non-Spanish artists.
There’s almost no escaping the historic architecture in Italy. Wandering around any of the main cities, or even a small hilltop town, will allow you take in some mind-blowing buildings. Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, Rome’s Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Florence’s Duomo are a few iconic landmarks. And let’s not forget Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel — world-famous for its frescoed ceiling by Michelangelo.
That’s not to say that Spain does not have its own architectural wonders, because it most certainly does. Madrid’s elegant streets are lined with beautiful buildings, and host the Baroque Royal Palace, the stunning Palacio de Cristal, and the largest bullring in the world. Even far-flung Spanish islands like Lanzarote feature innovative architecture, with local architect and artist César Manrique having left his mark on the Volcano House. However, it is Barcelona, with its wealth of modernist Gaudi buildings, that wears the crown. Iconic buildings, such as La Sagrada Familia, Casa Milà, and Casa Batlló, are all worth checking out.
Both Spain and Italy are easy to navigate, with clean, efficient, and surprisingly cheap public transport systems. The rail networks in both countries are great, and internal flights can be reasonably priced, too. It often makes much more sense to catch a train than hire a car, particularly if you’re not used to driving in Europe — driving in Rome can be especially scary.
If you’re on a tight budget, Spain is probably a better option, as food, accommodations, and entertainment in Italy are likely to be pricey and can add up quickly. Spain is a little easier on the wallet, and although there are plenty of high-end spots to spend your money, it’s also reasonably easy to find places that won’t blow your budget.
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