France and Spain are both large and influential countries in Europe and on the world stage.
They share a common border of the stunningly beautiful Pyrenees mountains, both have stretches of the raw and wild Atlantic and gentler, but more commercialised, Mediterranian coasts. They also share large swathes of their rural interiors which are mountainous, remote and de-populated in favour of the bright lights of vibrant city life.
So far, so similar right?
They couldn’t be more different….
We were lucky enough to spend three months in France and six months in Spain travelling in 2018; we think we know both countries well. Here are our thoughts on which will give you the best bang for your buck, the best travel experience and ultimately, which one you should visit.
Street in Mijas, Spain
It’s hard to make a sweeping statement about a countries’ culture as clearly, not everyone who lives in that country will conform; there is always the exception to the rule. However, there are some generalisations that we have realised during our travels are broadly accurate about both France and Spain.
France is a proud country, pre-occupied with having the best of things and living their best lives at all times.
French people can be perceived as arrogant and chilly towards visitors; they are not but it takes time to build relationships and get past the proud and cool exterior. France is an incredibly cultured environment, with art galleries on every corner, regal and grandiose public spaces and most French people dressing quite formally.
Spain is much more relaxed and much less preoccupied with how they might be perceived.
They are friendly and generous and will always stop for a chat; be warned, most Spaniards will talk the hind leg of a donkey if given the chance!
Spain owes much of it’s architectural style to the Moors who occupied the country for much of the middle ages; it’s now a bit of a hodge-podge of styles with lots of unfinished projects which failed during the credit crunch of the late nineties; as a result, the environment is not always easy on the eye.
France vs Spain Culture Winner: Spain, we wanna be relaxed on holiday!
The infrastructure in France is second to none; well-designed buildings, superb roads, and modern hospitals.
The wifi here is universal, we could get fast 4G wherever we went, even in remote places. Historic buildings are maintained sympathetically and the public areas and centers of towns and cities are generally scrupulously clean. Everything works as it should and is on time, like a well-oiled machine.
Spain is totally the opposite.
Mañana (tomorrow) is a common refrain when you want to achieve something; nothing is ever on time and shops will often open 30 minutes past the stated sign on the door.
In some rural villages, a bar or restaurant will open whenever the owner feels like it and you take pot luck; this makes planning hard…but in Spain nothing much seems to be planned it just sort of happens!
However, the internet is just as good as anywhere we have visited, and we know from friends living in Spain that the health system is excellent.
France vs Spain Infrastructure Winner: Spain (because we like to go with the flow!)
Hiking in the French Pyrenees Mountains
Oh boy, this is a tough category to call!
Both these countries are beautiful with views to take your breath away and access to wide-open spaces and nature seemingly around every corner.
France is a very sportive country with outdoor pursuits such as hiking and cycling being incredibly popular. Wild swimming is also high on the agenda here and we loved our time exploring lakes, rivers, and gorges on hot summer days, marvelling at the crystal clear water perfect for cooling off in. There are also some fantastic rivers for kayaking and canoeing and of course the mighty Atlantic to the west, with huge rollers ideal for surfing.
France also boasts the awe-inspiring Alps alongside the Pyrenees, both have accessible, well-marked and signed hiking routes of varying degrees of difficulty, many of which are family-friendly.
Spain is a bit more laid back about sports, understandable when it’s often 30° C plus for six months of the year! Swimming generally takes place in the pool or sea, by which much of the Spanish population lives and where most people head on holiday.
As well as the Pyrenees, Spain boasts the stunning Sierra Nevada mountain range, with Mulhacén sitting at 3,478 meters above sea level.
There are a further nine mountain ranges in Spain, making it the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland. If you are into mountain sports such as hiking, downhill mountain biking, para-gliding, and skiing, then Spain offers it all. You will have to work harder at finding routes and activities but it’s well worth it.
France vs Spain Outdoor Pursuits Winner: France just gets it!
Wine in France
The food (and wine, of course!) of these two countries is wildly different considering they share a border.
Both are large producers of wine and tend to have a Mediterranean diet with a focus on meat. It is possible to be vegetarian in both countries, but it can be challenging in rural areas to find dishes without some form of meat.
France is known for its fine dining and classic dishes, much copied by chefs around the world.
The dining experience in France is sacrosanct; meal-times are seen as hugely pleasurable and not to be rushed. France is not a nation of snackers, they tend to eat a healthy meal with small portion sizes, although they do eat bread with every meal!
The wine is generally superb, as you would expect, although the habit of drinking a bottle a night as might happen in the UK is frowned upon. Everything in moderation is the rule here.
Spain is not really known for its food, other than paella, tapas, and jamon; all delicious examples of the best of Spanish cuisine. Tapas though has been ruined by tourism, and most bars now only serve the standard fare of patatas bravas and deep-fried octopus. Try dining in local or off-the-beaten-track bars for a more authentic experience.
The wine in Spain can be surprisingly good, although it does not have the reputation of French wine. To compensate, it is often less than a quarter of the price with a good bottle being bought for around three euros.
Many Spanish towns and villages operate co-operatives where you can buy local fruit, vegetables and olive oil direct for the growers; these are much cheaper than the touristic French farmer’s markets and the quality of the produce is superb.
France vs Spain Food Winner: France
Ronda, a mountaintop town in Andalusia, Spain
Ease of Tourism
Both countries are very accessible, by plane, train, boat or car.
France has worked hard and been accessible longer to tourists and as such, has their offer worked out and clearly identified.
The French Tourist Board has offices in all major towns and cities and they provide excellent information on attractions and will help with regional visits and planning. France is not a cheap country to visit; it wants your tourism euros and will work hard to get them!
This means you generally have a great experience when visiting attractions, museums and the like.
Spain has really only been on the tourism map since the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. They are still finding their feet in promoting what they have to offer and their marketing to tourists is far less sophisticated than their neighbour France.
Many attractions run by the local authority are free to enter and if not free, will not cost much. In Spain, you have to work harder at finding the attractions, especially if you’re off the beaten track, but this often means fewer people and more freedom once inside to take your time and enjoy.
France vs Spain Ease of Tourism Winner: Too close to call!
The famous lavender fields in Provence, France
And the Winner of France vs Spain is…
Both of these countries are really worth visiting.
France for its sublime wine and well-manicured culture; where you’ll be blown away by the natural beauty and quintessential France in Provence and the impressive castles, vineyards and medieval villages of the Dordogne.
France is just so French and will give you everything you have expected or wanted from visiting, although it might be a tad predictable.
Spain is colourful, alive and loud. A bit lackadaisical and most certainly laid-back, Spain will make you smile with its’ love of live and open-armed approach to visitors. Nothing here is as you expect and nothing will happen when you want it to but that makes life a little bit more interesting!
France vs Spain Overall Winner: Spain (but only by a really teensy margin!)
Written by Phil and Izzy, aka The Gap Decaders. They live and travel in their motorhome in Europe and share destination information, practical motorhome tips and everything they have learned about life on the road. Follow along with their journey on their blog or on Facebook and Instagram!
This article is part of the EU Smackdown series. Read the rest below:
Then, check out the complete Country Comparison series for more showdowns from around the world!