The Spanish Canaries, nestled off the coast of northwest Africa, are a firm favorite of European holidaymakers. They’re affordable, diverse, easy to reach, and offer year-round sun, but which one’s right for your getaway? Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria are less than 100 nautical miles apart, but each island has its own personality, and picking just one can be hard.
They’re both known for their rugged landscapes and summer resorts, but Gran Canaria’s black sands and annual carnival have put it on the map, while Fuerteventura’s high winds and neverending beaches have made it a destination for watersports.
Whichever you choose, you won’t be disappointed, with the sumptuous Spanish cuisine, distinct cultures, and baking sun that all the Canaries offer. Still, our guide puts Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria head to head, comparing their sultry shores, ancient history, and annual weather, to decide which gets our vote, once and for all. Let’s get into it.
Fuerteventura or Gran Canaria: The Beaches
Described by many as one long beach, Fuerteventura easily lays claim to having some of the best beaches in all of Europe. Over 150 kilometers of heavenly golden sands wrap around the elongated island, lapped by turquoise waters that no beach-junky could turn down. From the expansive bays flanked by endless dunes to the protected coves and crystal-clear lagoons – sunbathers and watersports enthusiasts unite here.
The island was the first of the Canaries to emerge from the Atlantic, millions of years ago. It hasn’t had a volcanic eruption in over 10,000 years but some of its coves are still flecked with coal-black sand, amidst striking yellow, white, orange, and red shades.
One of the biggest draws to Fuerteventura’s beaches are its winds and waves, those which budding windsurfers and kitesurfers have only ever dreamt about. Fuerteventura is situated at the brink of the Trade Winds, which blow east to west, above and below the equator. The northern beaches provide the perfect conditions for watersports, while surfers in search of Atlantic rollers head northwest to Corralejo. Fuerteventura’s southern coast is mostly sunny and warm, with calmer seas, perfect for family days and snorkeling excursions.
Playa de Cofete is an undoubted highlight. Sheltered from the craziest waves in the western part of the Jandía Peninsula, but still maintaining a sense of wild unease, this broad and secluded stretch of pristine golden sand is backed by the rugged cliffs of Parque Natural. The challenging road leading to Cofete and the mysterious, solitary sands deter crowds, but this only adds to the appeal.
In Gran Canaria, bustling bar-lined promenades replace rolling sand dunes, but the beaches are equally picturesque. Playa del Inglés and Puerto Rico are the liveliest beaches on the southern side of the island, packed with parasols and sun loungers, while the quieter Puerto de Mogán and San Agustín offer some relief from crowds of young families.
Gran Canaria also has its fair share of secluded coves. Sardinia del Norte, located in the small fishing port of the same name, is a little taste of paradise on the island. The black flecked sands are sheltered by the bay with crystal clear waters and spectacular marine life beneath the surface. While the title for the most spectacular stretch of sprawling sand goes to Las Canteras in Las Palmas. Although an urban beach, the white sands go on for three kilometers with perfect swimming conditions and year-round sun.
It’s a close call but Fuerteventura’s rugged beauty and sheer diversity put its beaches at a cut above the rest when compared to the other Canaries’.
Fuerteventura or Gran Canaria: The Landscapes
It might be the oldest Canary Island, but thanks to its long break of volcanic activity, Fuerteventura is arguably the best-preserved. Low mountains form gentle curves across the vast plains, and the scarce vegetation gives the island a lunarscape – a prerequisite of the volcanic canaries, but unique to the rest of Europe.
Fuerteventura is also home to a UNESCO-recognised biosphere reserve with 13 different protected areas across its rolling plains. From the old town of Betancuria to the Tindaya Mountain, Isla de Lobos, Carralejo’s dunes, and Jandía’s 15,000-hectare Parque Natural, there are countless highlights to explore.
The handful of resorts are concentrated along Fuerteventura’s eastern shores, leaving the wild west coast and hundred kilometers of cliffs and beaches largely undisturbed. In fact, Fuerteventura is known as the “virgin island” as one of the lesser populated and underdeveloped Canaries, despite being the second largest in size. You can still find golf courses, shopping areas, and cosmopolitan developments in the center, north, and south, but Fuerteventura is much more stripped back than Gran Canaria.
Despite being more touristy and crowded, Gran Canaria is still a sprawling and dynamic island. Its landscapes won’t fail to impress with high mountains, deep ravines, sweeping valleys, and resort-fringed beaches. Every turn in the winding roads reveals another mesmerizing view – you won’t be able to get far in your hire car before having to stop and snap another picture of the otherworldly panorama that spreads out in front of you.
One of the most picture-perfect locations is the Reserva Natural Especial de Las Dunas de Maspalomas, or the sand dunes of Maspalomas, located at the southern end of the island. The three square kilometers of dunes are ideal for landscape photography, especially if you visit at sunset or after a storm when all the footprints have been blown away. Another highlight is Las Tobas de Colares del Barranco de las Vacas, located on the outskirts of the colonial town of Agüimes to the southeast of Gran Canaria. The deep slot canyons, carved by water into a deep vein of golden volcanic ash, will transport you straight to the deserts of Arizona. They can be hard to find and the area isn’t huge, but it will be worth it when you do.
We also recommend El Bufadero, a blowhole on the eastern coast. It’s another volcanic jewel located in one of the quieter and less touristy towns of Telde on the island. You can feel the ocean’s heartbeat here, but be careful of the rocks, and don’t get too close to the blowhole unless you want to feel the real force of the untamed Atlantic.
Fuerteventura or Gran Canaria: The History
Fuerteventura’s history goes back around 20 million years, as the oldest Canary, while Gran Canaria is a baby in comparison, emerging around 14 million years ago but being mostly destroyed 10 million years later by a huge volcanic eruption. Still, both islands have faced extreme erosion and their modern history doesn’t start until around 3,000 years back.
The native Guanches people were thought to inhabit the Canaries from as early as 1,000 BC, but it wasn’t until the 15th century when the Spanish conquered the seven islands, using them as a base for explorations to the west. Signs of early settlers are far and few on Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria. Farmers and fishermen have claimed the islands for years but mass exodus due to famine has meant inhabitants have lived hard lives, without the same grandeur you might expect in other European cities. Still, there are a few historical towns to explore.
Las Palmas, in the north of Gran Canaria, is the island’s cosmopolitan capital, but it is also brimming with heritage and culture. It might be a major cruise-ship port today, but baroque Spanish plazas, old churches, and colonial houses still punctuate its Old Town. La Vegueta is the island’s original settlement and was the headquarters for the Spanish conquest of Tenerife before becoming a major supply port for ships bound for Latin America.
Las Palmas is the perfect place to learn about Christopher Columbus, tour the old Cathedral, and do a spot of boutique shopping. It’s also the location for the annual Las Palmas de Gran Canaria carnival that brings the island’s people together in flamboyant dress, music, and dancing. How’s that for culture?
Still, Fuerteventura isn’t all wild waves and watersports either. It was the first Canary to be conquered by the Europeans and it’s the best preserved. Betancuria was the island’s first capital and is unmissable if you’re after a dose of history.
Betancuria was founded way back in 1404 and is a landmark in and of itself, as one of the Canaries’ most important colonial monuments. The city has just 200 inhabitants today, but its white-washed historical buildings are a feast for the eyes. You can’t miss its main parish church with its elegant tower that looms over the town. The Archaeology Museum in Betancuria is also worth a visit if you want to dive deeper into Fuerteventura’s pre-Hispanic history.
Fuerteventura or Gran Canaria: The Weather
There isn’t too much variation in the weather among the Canaries. All the islands are popular getaways for winter sun for Europeans, with pleasant temperatures rarely dipping below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, it depends on what you’re after.
Fuerteventura’s northern coast experiences the best weather conditions for watersports, with its high winds that blow across the island and also cool things down in the balmy summer months. The balance of the sunny, southern coast is also perfect for holidaymakers after a more relaxing break.
The annual sea and outside temperatures in Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura are much the same throughout the year, with just five degrees between the average highs in summer and winter on both islands. However, southern Gran Canaria is largely thought to have the best weather in all the Canaries without the scorching heat of sub-Saharan Lanzarote, and much calmer winds than Fuerteventura – which can make the winter sun feel that little bit hotter.
Winner: Gran Canaria
Fuerteventura or Gran Canaria: The Food
Traditional Canarian cuisine is simple and delicious. Grilled meat, fish soups, stews, and vegetables – some of which are surprisingly hearty – adorn every restaurant menu and there are variations on each island to savor.
Thanks to the vast and rugged landscape, wild goat populations are known to thrive on Fuerteventura. The Majorero goat is actually native to the island but widespread throughout the archipelago. When Spanish conquistadors first arrived, there were already around 60,000 goats on Fuerteventura. Today, there are close to 140,000, meaning they actually far surpass the human population in numbers.
It will come as no surprise that goats are therefore integral to Fuerteventura’s cuisine. Not only is goat meat used in stews, specifically a tasty local delicacy called La Cabra en Salsa, but the Majorera goats are also responsible for one of Fuerteventura’s most famous exports. Majorero cheese is one of three Canarian cheeses with protected status, meaning it can only be produced on the island to preserve its longstanding tradition and it has been a favorite of gastronomers for years.
The cheese is highly praised and enjoyed worldwide but it isn’t salty like some goat’s cheeses. Rather, it’s butter and acidic with a gummy texture. Majorero is versatile and served with pasta, potatoes, and vegetables in different Canarian dishes. You can buy it in three different forms: in its rind, rubbed with pimenta, or roasted with gofia, the Canarian grain flour.
One the other hand, Gran Canaria is regarded as one of the best places to try Canarian cuisine thanks to its bustling resort towns and historic capital. Along with the cheesy favorites you can find served up in Fuerteventura, look out for some other Canarian classics on the menus in Gran Canaria, like watercress stew, which is served with corn, vegetables, and, of course, Canarian cheese.
Ropa vieja is also a must-try dish. It might mean “old clothes” in English, but these colorful rags of shredded beef are packed with flavor. The Atlantic is also brimming with sumptuous seafood like tuna, parrot fish, swordfish, and sea bass, all of which you can enjoy overlooking the marina in one of Gran Canaria’s upscale resorts like Puerto Rico or Anfi del Mar. Fuerteventura might have Majorero, but the restaurant scene has much more variety in Gran Canaria and you’ll be spoilt for choice with its fine eateries.
Is Gran Canaria safe?
Gran Canaria, along with the Canary Islands in general, is one of the safest places to go on holiday in Europe with no civil tension, a friendly and helpful police force, and very few problems with crime. Petty, opportunistic theft can occur in touristy areas, but this is avoidable if you have your wits about you. The biggest concern to visitors is a bad case of sunburn.
Is Fuerteventura lively?
Fuerteventura is a more laidback island compared to Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and Lanzarote, but thanks to the surf community in the northwest, Corralejo has a lively strip that offers a good night out. Avenida del General Franco is lined with bars, pubs, and even a few discos to party the night away. The bars around the harbor are also known for their atmosphere and views.
Are there active volcanoes in the Canary Islands?
The unique geology of the Canaries is that they’re dominated by volcanic rock and there is still some volcanic activity. In fact, most of Spain’s volcanoes are in the Canary Islands with around 30 spread out across the islands, although most lie dormant and eruptions are very rare. The Cumbre Vieja and Teneguía, both on La Palma, are the last two active volcanoes and the latter erupted as recently as 2021.
Thanks to scientific developments and the close study of these volcanoes, eruptions are easy to predict, but they can still wreak havoc on La Palma and cause a potential tsunami threat in the Atlantic.