France vs Italy: Which Cultural Marvel is for You?

About Europe, Anywhere

If ever there were a “Sophie’s Choice” between two beloved countries, this is surely it. France and Italy are two of the best-loved and most-visited countries in the world. They boast incredible cultures with long histories, great food and drink, lovely architecture, comfortable climates, and some of the greatest monuments the world over. Ideally, you needn’t decide between these two incredible nations when planning a European vacation. Unfortunately, you probably do. Not only does a life of travel consist of making hard choices between equally-appealing destinations, but both countries have similar appeal, so picking between the two is a real difficulty. Luckily, we’re here to help you out of your bind.

Ideally, you’d visit both France and Italy, as they’re geographically close together and you can make your international flight tickets count for double by combining both countries into one itinerary. However, we know this isn’t feasible for most globetrotters. Putting aside the matters of cost, each country deserves a dedicated visit in its own right. You don’t want to shortchange France or Italy by skipping some of the major highlights of one to rush a trip to the other. So instead, you have to make the hard choice between two of the world’s most cherished countries.

We’ve broken down a comparative guide to France and Italy, looking at landscape and climate, cost, landmarks, food and drink, and arts and culture. This was no easy task, but hopefully this will give you a better sense of these two nations and help you prioritize one on your next European vacation.

Landscape and Climate

France and Italy share a border so there is some overlap when it comes to climate and geography. However, there are notable differences between the two countries’ landscapes.

France is almost twice as large as Italy in terms of size, so it has a few more variations in geography as a result. Generally speaking, the north is rolling hills and plains – farmland – while the south and east are mountainous, with the French Alps being the highest points in the country. Italy is smaller in size and consists mostly of a rocky coastal terrain, as much of the country is surrounded by water, whether the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, or the Tyrrhenian. However, along the border Italy shares with France, it also has the Alps, and thus mountainous landscapes.

In terms of climate, France is generally cooler and wetter than Italy due to it being more northern. The weather is continental, with warm summers and moderate winters with snow or rain. However, the south region around Provence is warm throughout most of the year and very similar to Italy temperature-wise. The average temperature in Paris is around 5°C in winter and 20°C in summer.

Val d'Isere at sunset, Tarentaise Valley, French Alps, France
Val d’Isere at sunset in the Tarentaise Valley of the, French Alps

Italy is warmer as it’s more southerly and boasts a Mediterranean climate, aside from the mountainous regions in the north. In the south of the country on the island of Sicily, it can get exceedingly hot, almost desert-like. Generally, the country gets less precipitation than France. Average temperatures in Rome are around 8°C in winter and 30°C in summer.

Upper view of bright orange roofs near the sea in Cefalu, Sicily, Italy
Upper view of bright orange roofs of Cefalu near the sea, Sicily

If you automatically favour warmer climates with less precipitation when picking a travel destination for a European vacation, then Italy has to win out in terms of weather. However, both countries boast gorgeous landscapes, so you can’t say that one country is prettier than the other in terms of geography.

Expenses and Infrastructure

France is more expensive. There’s no way around it. While Rome and Venice can get pricey, Paris is one of the most expensive cities to visit in Europe. For instance, a three-star hotel room in December in Paris will cost you around $190CAD for two guests, while the same in Rome would cost you around $130CAD. That’s not an insignificant difference. As well, food, drink, and transportation will likely run higher across France than Italy.

However, as you may discover on your European vacation, the higher prices in France also come with some noticeable benefits. France has a better infrastructure than Italy, for both locals and tourists. Hotels are generally-better kept, roads are in better states of repair, and transportation like buses and trains run more efficiently. It’s not that Italy is inefficient, but Italian roads can get bumpy outside the main cities and the trains are known to run off schedule. You don’t have to worry about delays or major inefficiencies in France the way you might have to in Italy. The country will cost you more, but you’re also likely to get more for your dollar here.

Flights to both countries are comparable as you can reach Paris or Rome on direct flights from many major cities in North America. Both France and Italy are among the most popular destinations in the world, so one country doesn’t get short shrift when it comes to international airfare.

Champs-Elysees at Night, Paris, France
Champs-Elysees at night with Arc de Triomphe
Rome at Sunset with St Peter Cathedral in Background, Italy
Rome at sunset

Landmarks

Let’s not even try to determine a winner here. France and Italy both have some of the world’s most famous sites. A simple rundown of each country’s most famous highlights shows their respective wealth of treasures to be discovered on a European vacation.

France has Paris with Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, and countless other world-class landmarks. It also has Versailles, just outside Paris. It has the region of Normandy, with its rugged coastline, the island castle of Mont Saint-Michel, and towns holding treasures like the Bayeaux Tapestry. Is has Marseilles and the Cote d’Azur and the cliffs of Brittany and Bordeaux and the picturesque villages of Provence as well as the Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct and the Palais des Papes in Avignon and the Cite de Carcassonne, with its incredible medieval castle. France is not lacking for world-class monuments.

Sacre Coeur Basilica of Montmartre in Paris, France
Sacre Coeur Basilica of Montmartre in Paris

Italy is the same. Rome has the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the Pantheon. You’ll also find the Vatican City within the city limits, which boasts St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Italy also has Venice, with St. Mark’s Basilica and the Grand Canal, and Florence, with the Basilica de Santa Maria del Fiore and the masterworks of Michelangelo and all the palaces of the De Medici family. There’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the charming villages of Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast in Naples as well as nearby Pompeii. There’s Sicily in the south and the romantic villages of Tuscany in the north.

Grand Canal and Basilica Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy
Grand Canal and Basilica Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Just look at this list of incredible sights. It’s almost ridiculous how many wonders both of these countries hold within their borders. You won’t be lacking for world-class tourist attractions and masterworks of architecture, regardless of which country you choose on your European vacation. Compare Italy or France to most any other country in the world and it’d probably come out on top in terms of world attractions. But between the two of them, it’s a toss-up. Pick whichever one tickles your fancy and you’ll be happy that you chose it.

Food and Drink

Like with national landmarks, both Italy and France have some of the best food and drink in the world. If you were to ask people what the best national cuisines in the world were, French and Italian food would likely be in the final three.

Haute Cuisine - Gourmet food scallops with asparagus and lardo bacon, France
Haute cuisine – scallops with asparagus and lardo bacon

French cooking essentially invented our modern ways of thinking about food. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, August Escoffier updated traditional cooking methods and helped codify what we now call haute-cuisine. If he and other French chefs hadn’t refined the way we imagine our meals, we’d likely still be eating peasant food in the western world. This innovative attitude has carried over into modern French cooking. French food is all about innovation and refinement. Meals are often simple, but bursting with flavour and stunningly-imaginative in the combination of flavours and style of presentation. You won’t find better gourmet cuisine anywhere else in the world.

However, this doesn’t mean that eating out in France is all about hitting up the fanciest restaurants (although you won’t be lacking for this if you want to taste the cutting edge). The humble dishes of the past remain exceptional, from boeuf bourguignon to duck confit to the baked croissants and baguettes that make mornings so spectacular. French bread and French cheese are the best in the world, so even if your palette is as simple as possible, you’ll be treated well there.

Ossobucco Beef Stew with Polenta, Italy
Italy’s osso bucco beef stew with polenta

If French food is the quintessential gourmet cuisine, Italian food is the best of peasant food. Ingredients are relatively simple in Italian cooking, but the combinations couldn’t be better. If French cooking favours restaurant experiences and eating out, Italian cooking is all about the home and the experience of a big family sharing food around a large table. Recipes are passed down for generations and you can almost taste in the food the number of years spend labouring over the recipe.

Italian food is generally high in calories and fat, but relatively light when you consider how much you’re eating. Pasta is the chief attraction here, with everything from lasagna, Bolognese, carbonara, and ravioli originating here. Italy is also the birthplace of pizza, the world’s favourite food, as well as a haven for risotto and fresh seafood. Most dishes in Italy utilize olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, cream, basil, and cheeses like parmesan and ricotta.

You won’t find flavours lacking in either country, but if you prefer cutting-edge cuisine, you’ll be better suited in France, while more humble yet broadly-appealing food is to be found in Italy. For most people, Italy will likely win out, as Italian food is the general consensus for the world’s favourite food. As for wine, both France and Italy have uniformly-excellent wine. On your European vacation, you can’t do wrong with wine in either country.

Wine and traditional pieces of french and italy hand-made cheese, France, Italy
Wine and traditional pieces of French and Italian hand-made cheese

Arts and Culture

This is becoming something of a broken record, but both Italy and France are among the best destinations in the world when it comes to arts and culture. If you’re wanting to explore the distant past, Italy has more historical sites to discover, while France continues to break new ground into the future.

Paris is arguably the highlight of world art and culture. You’ll find many museums here housing masterpieces of ancient and modern art, with the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay being the standouts of the bunch. You’ll find plenty of medieval and renaissance historical sites here as well, such as Notre Dame de Paris and the Conciergerie, which began as a medieval palace and transformed into a prison during the French Revolution. The city is also a haven for cutting-edge fashion as you’ll want to window shop along the Champs Elysees to see what styles will become the most popular in the following year.

As for general culture, the French can be a bit standoffish to North Americans, but meet them over a drink or a meal, and they’ll open up to you, showcasing the French love of a life well lived. The French appreciate their cities and their artists, and love a good meal and a glass of fine wine. They also have immense national pride and continue to innovate in arts and style. Relatively modern buildings like the Centre Pompidou demonstrate France’s ability to think in radically-new ways, while the many galleries in Montmartre demonstrate that the city is still a haven for painters and sculptors.

Musee d'Orsay from Seine River in Paris, France
Musee d’Orsay from Seine River in Paris

If France delicately straddles the past and present, Italy is more a country rooted in tradition and the past. You’ll find historical sites here going back thousands of years to the beginning of the Roman Empire. The Colosseum and the Roman Forum are only the best-known remnants of the empire; you’ll find Roman sites all across the country. Italy was also the centre of the Renaissance, so cities like Florence and Venice demonstrate the best architecture and artworks of this time period.

In terms of world-class museums, you can see the masterpieces of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in Florence at the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia Gallery. The Vatican Museums offer the largest collection of art in the world and also showcase the paintings of Raphael and Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. In terms of modern culture, Italy is at the high-end of fashion and Milan remains one of the world centres of fashion and style. Italian culture favours food, family, and a life of tradition and purpose. Italians live their lives robustly, so they might surprise you with their gregarious love or loud disapproval of what they witness around them. But it won’t take long to appreciate how much meaning they pack into their everyday lives.

Vatican in Rome, Italy
The Vatican in Rome

Both of these countries boast endless artistic and cultural charms. You can’t make a bad choice between them when planning a European vacation, but France might have the wider breadth of art and culture. If you want to deep-dive into the past, Italy should command your attention, while France should attract you if you’re looking for past and future classics.

Which one is right for you?

After reading about the numerous landmarks France and Italy have, their vast troves of historical treasures and artistic masterpieces, their best-in-the-world cuisines, and their robust cultures, surely you want to visit both countries, right? But do yourself a favour and pick one per trip. Both France and Italy deserve your full attention on a European vacation. They both simply have too much to explore and savour. That’s why we’ve equipped you with the information to make an informed decision between the two.

In most general terms:

  • If you want a warmer climate, cheaper accommodations, plenty of historical landmarks, excellent and accessible food, and a culture rooted in tradition, head to Italy.
  • If you want a explore a larger country with a better infrastructure, a wealth of modern monuments, the best in gourmet cuisine, and a cutting edge culture leading art and fashion, head to France.

Both France and Italy are among the best countries in the world and you should explore their endless wonders for yourself on a European vacation.

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
Eiffel Tower in Paris
Ponte Vecchio over Arno river in Florence, Italy

Ponte Vecchio over Arno River in Florence

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