The question for many when trying to decide between Italy or Spain, is what separates these European holiday destinations from each other?
Yet while both nations have similar climates and are great coastal destinations, each has its own distinct histories, cultures, sights to visit, and cuisines that set them apart.
After visiting each country many times, we pit Spain vs Italy below.
We compare both before looking at the sights to explore, the food you can try, what natural attractions you can see in each, as well some amazing towns and cities you should visit.
We guarantee that by the time you’ve finished reading this, your mind will be well and truly made up!
Italy or Spain: Which is the Better Vacation Destination?
Both Italy and Spain are known for their superb coastlines and iconic cities, so you’re guaranteed a great holiday whichever country you choose.
However, in our experience the beaches are a little better in Spain than in Italy. In fact Spain has more Blue Flag beaches than any other country in Europe, and that’s despite having less coastline than Italy.
So if you’re looking for a beach getaway more than anything else, Spain will likely be the best choice for you.
Away from the coastline and Spain appears to have it all too. Every city and region of the country is packed with things to see and do. A trip to Seville or Barcelona, for example, can easily last a few days and you still won’t be bored.
However Italy is one of those countries that does give Spain a run for its money when it comes to holiday destinations.
Italy has a rich history, and architectural gems from the Roman Empire are everywhere. Furthermore, cosmopolitan cities like Milan, Rome, Florence, and Venice are famous throughout the world for their galleries, museums, and beauty.
The dramatic scenery in Italy, from the Dolomites mountain range to the islands of Sardinia and Scilly, and the beautiful lake district in the north, means Italy is arguably more beautiful than Spain. At least in our eyes.
The food scene is also phenomenal in Italy, so if cuisine is top of your holiday list then Italy may be the better choice. Although Spain – the home of tapas – is a culinary giant in its own right.
However in terms of expenses, we’ve found Spain to be slightly cheaper than Italy when it comes to accommodation and eating out. Although saying that, they’re both quite similar destinations cost wise.
Below we look at the natural sights to explore in both countries, the cities you can visit, and the culture and food scene in each. As you’ll see, there’s plenty more things that separate these two nations.
Italy or Spain: Alluring Natural Wonders
While Spain may be a bigger beach destination, Northern Italy has some fantastic beaches. The capital of seaside tourism in north Italy is Rimini on the Adriatic coast – famous for its fine sandy beaches and promenade of bars, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.
Northern Italy also happens to have some of Europe’s most iconic and beautiful lakes. The stunning Como, Garda, Iseo and the highly underrated Orta lakes are all within easy traveling distance from Milan.
Further north are the hiking and winter sport paradises of the Italian Alps and the Dolomites – possibly Europe’s most easily recognisable mountain range.
The island of Sicily in the south has an attractive climate, historic cities such as Palermo and Catania, miles of fine sandy beaches, vineyards, Greek temples, Roman sites, and gorgeous baroque towns.
Back on the mainland of Southern Italy is Cinque Terre – the postcard-perfect collection of ancient villages on the Liguria coastline.
This National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site receives 2.4 million visitors a year. Why? It’s gorgeous! From north to south the villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, each with unique character and superb sea views. This is mostly a place for beaches, outdoor activities, and water sports.
The rocky mountainside of Aspromonte National Park in Calabria has the abandoned ghost town of Pentedattilo and a wild untouched landscape that is well worth visiting too.
Spain is a great holiday destination because you can easily enjoy a day at the beach and then spend that evening in one of the country’s iconic cities.
Some parts of Spain have gorgeous coastlines. The protected coastline at Cabo de Gata (Andalusia) is wild, isolated and rarely frequented by tourists. Expect hidden coves, white sandy beaches, and dramatic cliffs in this national natural park.
Spain’s Costa de la Luz in the south has vast expanses of sand perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and a cocktail under blue skies. If you want something livelier, then head to the party island of Ibiza, where drinks, dancing and celebrity spotting is the aim of the game on the island’s most popular beaches.
If you’re feeling adventurous then get the ferry from Ibizia to Formentera – the smallest of Spain’s Balearic islands. The beaches here are beautiful and the water is crystal clear and Caribbean-esque. As it’s quite remote, there are very few tourists in comparison to other parts of Spain too.
When it comes to the coast, Spain has variety in abundance.
If you pry yourself away from the sand you’ll find Spain has a huge amount to offer inland too. Take a visit to El Tajo de Ronda – a spectacular gorge not far from the Costa del Sol, which has a town perched on the clifftop above. It almost looks like a movie set.
At the opposite end of the country is the majestic Pyrenees mountain range in the north. Made up of over 200 mountains that are over 3000 meters tall, this region is comprised of quaint villages in the foothills connected by some of Europe’s best hiking trails. It’s a great place to go camping too – as we’ve written about before.
Another set of Spanish mountains – the Cantabrians – make up part of the Somiedo Natural Park.
This lush park, which was voted one of Spain’s seven natural wonders, is home to spectacular lakes, thick forest, and is a stronghold of the endangered Cantabrian brown bear.
Italy vs Spain: Fascinating Cities and Towns
City breaks to Italy are popular throughout Europe due to the cosmopolitan feel, and perfect mix between old and modern.
Indeed when it comes to city tourism, Italy is arguably the best destination in Europe with the likes of Milan, Venice and Rome on millions of bucket lists around the world. And for good reason too.
Of course there’s other cities that shine too. Bologna is a gorgeous medieval city in North Italy that has thrived with a steady flow of students that has kept this city a vibrant place to visit.
Food lovers can delight in Bologna’s food festivals like Eataly and a slew of food markets where you can learn more about its cuisine. This is also an excellent choice for art, music and Italian film enthusiasts who are all catered for inside Bologna’s galleries and museums.
Face the tourists and head to Venice, but take your time strolling its hidden side streets, canals, piazzas and local shops and cafes.
Discover a treasure trove of history in its museums, visit St Mark’s Cathedral and Venice’s ornate churches, the exquisite old theatre Teatro La Fenice and the sprawling art museum Gallerie dell ’Accademia. Or take a boat to see the colorful island of Burano.
In the heel of Italy’s boot is the region of Puglia which is home to the charming city of Lecce.
The streets of Leece are perfect for wandering as you can discover its hidden piazzas, beautifully detailed buildings and churches – including the baroque Santa Croce.
The city’s main square is Piazza Sant’Oronzo, the site of a Roman amphitheater and in the evening you must join in with the local tradition of strolling down the evening passeggiata before dinner. Day trips include the lovely seaside towns of Otranto and Gallipoli for moreish local flavors.
The cosmopolitan city of Milan is not known for being incredibly ‘Italian’ – it lacks the cobbled streets and ochre buildings that Italy is best known for – but it has a wealth of culture to discover.
The main sights in Milan include the majestic Sforza Castle, the incredibly detailed Duomo where you can climb up onto the roof and the ornate Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – a shopping center with beautiful mosaics and designer stores. Outside of this, the canal area offers chic eateries, all-you-can-eat sushi, street art galore and vintage shops plus bars to enjoy the city’s lively aperitif culture.
Spain is packed with beautiful towns that appear little-changed in centuries. However it’s the cities here that really pull in the crowds.
City breaks to the likes of Barcelona are popular throughout Europe due to the cosmopolitan feel and historic backdrop.
The stunning Basilica of the Sagrada Familia should be one of your first visits in the city, followed by a walk around Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.
Barcelona is also famous for its shopping, with Passeig de Gracia and the streets around it providing some of the best places to spend your money.
The capital of Andalusia, Seville, is popular and no wonder. Myth has it that this city was built by Hercules, and while that may not be true, the culture here is certainly Herculean.
Seville is the home of Flamenco dancing and experiencing a show at the Tablao Flamenco Los Gallos will take your breath away. As the capital of Muslim Spain during the Al-Andalus period, Seville’s spectacular buildings from that time will transport you back in time too.
Nearby Córdoba was an important city during that period as well, and is famous for the immense La Mezquita mosque.
Italy or Spain: Tempting Cuisines
The traditional food of Italy and Spain is a Mediterranean cocktail of the various civilizations that have inhabited these nations.
The eight provinces of Northern Italy all offer unique culinary traditions, influenced by neighboring countries such as France, Austria, and Slovenia.
In the Aosta Valley try Fontina cheese, with its milky and sweet flavors. In Emilia-Romagna you’ll come across piadini sandwiches, a flatbread stuffed with cheeses, hams, or salad.
Of course, the north is most famous for prosciutto di Parma (from Parma); balsamic vinegar (from Modena and Reggio); and Parmigiano Reggiano.
In Venice, sample, Risotto al Neri di Seppi, risotto flavored with cuttlefish and colored with its black ink.
South Italy is the birthplace of pizza! Go to Naples for an authentic classic Margherita pizza and fried pizza calzone style.
The Amalfi coast offers fresh seafood while you sip your Limoncello lemon liqueur – which also tastes good in cake form!
On Sicily, sample Nero d’Avola red wine, a native grape to the island and don’t leave without trying the wonderful couscous of Trapani or the pastries of Noto.
When it comes to cuisine and food culture, not only do we think Italy beats Spain, it probably beats almost all other countries in the world too!
Expect fresh vegetables, a lot of herbs, and a good amount of olive oil when eating out in Spain.
However, Spain’s most famous cuisine is surely tapas. This is a selection of appetizers that are served in both restaurants and bars, and will almost always include jamon iberico – an air-dried Spanish ham.
For hot days you should try gazpacho – a thick soup made from vegetables that is typically served cold.
There’s some good wine made in Spain, but a favourite holiday drink of many is Sangria. This punch is made up of red wine and chopped fruits, and sometimes other spirits depending on the house style of the bar or restaurant you’re in. It’s delicious, colorful and pairs well with tapas.
Italy or Spain: Which Should You Choose?
Both Italy and Spain will provide an unforgettable holiday. However if beaches are your priority then Spain is probably the better choice. Spain is also slightly cheaper than Italy, although that does vary depending on the region you’re staying in.
Both countries also have some iconic city destinations. We think Italy probably has the better cities (but it’s close), however the dramatic scenery throughout the country also makes it arguably more beautiful than Spain too.
Italy can also lay claim to having one of the best culinary traditions in the world too.