Barcelona or Madrid: Which should you visit?
Many first-time visitors to Spain ask questions like: Which should I visit first, Madrid or Barcelona? Which is better? Which one will I like most? Both! The honest answer is you should travel to both!
However, if time is limited and you are forced to choose one, opinions will differ wildly depending on who you ask. It is like asking what's better, chocolate or vanilla? apples or oranges? You get the gist.
Madrid and Barcelona are Spain's biggest and most important cities, and their rivalry goes deeper than sports. It is worth understanding some context first and then comparing them like-for-like in a number of different areas, but you can skip the next part altogether if you don't like history or politics.
There is a before and after moment in Barcelona's recent history. You can watch it here if you missed it.
By hosting the '92 Olympics the city left behind its industrial, grey past and regained confidence transformed into an avant-garde metropolis. Not only were the games a success (they will forever be remembered for the basketball's Dream Team and Derek Redmond's inspiring race finish), they also proved to be a great advert. As well as building new Olympic venues and regenerating the urban center, Barcelona revitalized the entire sea front. With this recipe for success, the number of tourists exploded. Over 8M people visited Barcelona last year, including many cruise tourists, for whom the Ciutat Comtal (City of Counts) is a mandatory stop.
This is key to understanding Barcelona today, for everything in this city is geared towards tourism. Even though Barcelona is significantly smaller than Madrid, it feels more cosmopolitan and is better known around the world (if you don't believe us, try to name a famous Madrid landmark without looking it up on Google). City officials have done an excellent job projecting the city to the world. Indeed, Barcelona has appeared in many music clips and films.
The irony is that, while Barcelona may appear to be more outward-looking than Madrid, many people inside Spain feel the opposite is actually true.
Spain was under the rule of General Francisco Franco for almost forty years, who emerged victorious from Spain's civil war between 1936-39. During his time in power, many civil liberties were suppressed, often violently.
In Barcelona, people were barred from speaking Catalan, the local language. In fact it is said that FC Barcelona is more than a club (més que un club), because the Camp Nou was one of the few public spaces where Catalans were able to express their identity.
After Franco's death, democracy was eventually restored in Spain in 1978, and gradually more and more powers were devolved to the regions. The autonomous communities, as they are known in Spanish, now have significant powers and control areas such as health and education.
In Catalonia, this situation led them to increasingly manage their own affairs, even setting up embassies abroad, and wiping out the Spanishness out of many institutions including schools, where Spanish is taught as if it were a foreign language. As is not hard to imagine, this situation has created much resentment, both in Catalonia as well as the rest of Spain. In essence, the Catalans were deprived of their freedoms for a long time, and now it's payback time.
The tension entered a new phase in 2010, when the Constitutional Court of Spain rejected the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia that had been approved by the Catalan government four years earlier. This unleashed a series of separatist forces calling for a referendum on the issue of self-determination and demonstrating in huge numbers every diada (national day of Catalonia). Polls vary, but generally about 40% of the Catalan population want to secede from Spain. Politically, the region remains locked in a stalemate between groups who clearly want to advance towards independence and those who want to remain a part of Spain.
While Barcelona is busy facing an identity crisis, Madrid has been asserting itself in its role as the kingdom's capital. An impressive new airport terminal was constructed, more AVE high-speed rail links were built, Madrid Rio provided the city with a much needed new green space, the metro network was extended, and imposing skyscrapers were erected that wouldn't look out of place in Dubai or Hong Kong. There were also three consecutive Olympic games bids, but that didn't go to plan.
In the 1970s, however, Madrid was old-fashioned and staid while Barcelona was a magnet for creativity. Famous Spanish language writers like Mario Vargas Llosa or Gabriel García Marquez lived there at the time. Barcelona was also where people could express themselves in gay relationships that were still frowned upon in the rest of Spain. This all changed with the cultural scene of the movida madrileña in the 1980s, where a young director named Pedro Almodóvar made his first movie. The rest, as they say, is history.
Madrid still retains much of the charm of its glorious past, with ample boulevards, medieval squares and royal palaces. Metro stations with names like Colombia, Islas Filipinas, or Tetuán are a constant reminder of the extent of an empire where the sun never set. But it would be unfair to think of Madrid as just an old European capital. Madrid is at the center -quite literally- of everything that happens in Spain. Congress, the Prime Minister, the Royal Family, the Royal Spanish Academy and many more national institutions call this city home. It is the pulsating heart of the economy, where Spain's biggest corporations such as Iberia*, Repsol, Santander or Teléfonica hold their headquarters. The city is also a hive of cultural activity. And the nightlife… with its thousands of bars, pubs and clubs, is an absolute blast. Gay marriage is now legal in all of Spain, and Madrid can finally regard itself as a global city, with expatriates from all over the world. You could easily be fooled to think Madrid is a city that has it all…. except a beach.
While Barcelona enjoys a mediterranean climate, with warm summers and mild winters, Madrid has a cold semi-arid climate, with scorching hot summers and cool winters. It is not unusual there to experience 40C (104F) temperatures in the summer and snow in winter. While Barcelona is not as hot, it is quite humid, so you sweat a lot more. Rainfall is also more abundant in Barcelona, especially in spring and autumn, but there is not such a big difference.
With the warm weather, many Barcelonians flock to the beach. Locals complain Barceloneta is filthy and tend to prefer going to beaches in neighboring towns like Premià or Casteldefels. Although it isn't as bad as they say, it surely does get very crowded in the summer.
Winner: Barcelona wins for its better climate and beach.
Sightseeing & activities
It is easy to fall in love with Barcelona at first sight. Ideally positioned between the sea and the mountains, with Modernist buildings, urban beaches and bustling streets, it exudes a truly contagious vitality.
There are just so many places to see; Visit the Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló and Park Güell to explore Antoni Gaudí's legacy. Those with a keen interest in the artist's life and work should go on a Gaudí guided tour* and explore all the sites at once. Stroll along the Ramblas, and grab a bite to eat in the Boqueria market, walk along the Barri Gòtic and the Born neighborhoods. Take the cable car to Montjuïc where you can visit the castle and the Olympic stadium, or venture all the way up toTibidabo* for the amusement park and the best views of the city. For sightseeing in Barcelona we highly recommend advance booking a free walking tour, with guides who all have a great understanding of the city. Alternatively, a bike tour* as a way to explore wider areas of the city, or a segway tour* for the same thrill but without the effort. You can also consider one of those hop-on hop-off bus tours* which are extremely popular with tourists.
Madrid, on the other hand, is a bit rough around the edges. This city does not seduce you with stunning architecture and never had an Olympic makeover either. However, there are plenty of things to do; Start in Sol, the "km. 0" or center of all Spanish roads, and walk towards Plaza Mayor. Gran Vía shopping street is a short walk away, and you can also eat something in the markets of San Miguel* or San Antón. A walk in Retiro a must, and at one end of the park, take a selfie at the Puerta de Alcalá gate which has been welcoming visitors for centuries. Then there is the Palacio Real* (Royal Palace), where the royals don't live, or the Debod temple, a gift from Egypt. And in the Letras Quarter you can still feel the golden age of Spanish literature. On Sundays, you can take part in the traditional Rastro flea market. If you want to do sightseeing you have a number of options; we recommend a free walking tour with a guide, a bike* or a segway tour* for a more fun experience, or there are also hop-on, hop-off bus tours* in Madrid
Winner: It is hard to argue against the beauty of Barcelona, winning this category comfortably.
Arts and Culture
For some reason, Barcelona's top museums are known by acronyms. There is MACBA, CCCB, and MNAC, the two former ones focusing on contemporary art, while the latter is the national Catalan museum. Luckily, there are other museums with actual names, like the Joan Miró or Antoni Tàpies Foundations, and Poble Espanyol, dedicated to Spain. The Picasso museum, with many of the artists earlier works is probably the most visited museum in Barcelona, and there is a great Picasso guided tour* available which includes a walking tour and skip-the-line entry to the museum. The maritime museum is the best of its kind in Spain, but there are also museums like the Gaudi Experience or the Hemp museum that will leave you feeling indifferent and your pocket a few Euros lighter. The Liceu opera house is simply beautiful, and the TNC (again more acronyms) is best for classical theater. There are also creative spaces like FAD or Hangar with more contemporary exhibits.
In Madrid's museum district, you will find three of the finest art museums in Europe: Prado, Reina Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza. There are many prodigious artists represented, like Caravaggio, Dalí, Goya, El Greco, Kandinsky, Miró, Picasso, Rubens, Rothko, Tintoretto, Velázquez, or Van Gogh, to name a just a handful. It is a good idea to join this Prado tour* which includes a guide and skip-the-line tickets as it does get quite busy. But, best of all, the three museums have a free entry policy during certain hours! Times are limited, and they do change, so check the museum's website for more information.
Beyond these incredible museums, you can also visit the Sorolla Museum, dedicated to the artist of the same name, the Casa Museo Lope de Vega, where the Spanish playwright lived, or the poetry oriented Museum of Romanticism. The Railway Museum, houses the largest historic rolling stock collection in the continent.
Madrid is a city with a great opera and theatre tradition, with places like the Teatro Real and Teatro Zarzuela, and the musicals in Gran Vía. There are also multidisciplinary arts centers like the Centro de Bellas Artes or Matadero.
Bullfighting aficionados can also visit Ventas, one of the most important venues of this bloody spectacle. And while Barcelona has several tablaos too, Madrid arguably has the best flamenco shows in the country.
Winner: Barcelona performs well, but Madrid is the deserved winner.
Both cities attract many night owls. Unlike Brits, who are usually already too intoxicated by 10pm, Spaniards keep going all night. If in England people are sprinting to get drunk before closing time, in Spain it is more like a marathon, so endurance is required. It is common to eat late in the evening, and most people will wait until at least 2am to enter a club.
There are too many bares de copas, tascas, pubs, tabernas, discotecas, and after-hours to name them all, but there is something for everyone. Important events in the calendar for Barcelona are: Primavera Sound, a festival that takes place at the end of May, Sónar, a three day electronic music festival in June, the popular Festes in the Gràcia neighbourhood in August, and la Mercè, which is the official local holiday in September. In Madrid, the highlights include San Isidro, the local holiday in May, the Get Mad festival, with events all year-round, the traditional fiestas of La Paloma in August, and Madrid Orgullo, Europe's proudest LGBT celebration in July.
Winner: Too close to call, so this one is a draw.
It is impossible to talk about sports in Madrid and Barcelona, and ignore football (soccer). The fierce rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona transcends sport and is a symbol of the Catalonia versus Spain clash that happens on a political level. El Clásico as the match is known, takes places twice yearly in the Spanish league. Acquiring tickets is difficult and expensive, but worth it if you are a fan and want to witness first-hand one of the most anticipated football matches in the world. If you would like to buy tickets for a FC Barcelona match, click here*, while if you would like to attend a Real Madrid match click here* instead.
Other than Madrid-Barça, Atlético de Madrid have some of most loyal fans in the sport. While in Barcelona, RCD Espanyol have their fair share of periquito supporters too, who gather in Cornellà-El Prat to watch their team play.
Beyond football, basketball is also very popular in Spain. And the two top teams are, you guessed right, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
You can also practice any sport. It is an important part of the culture and many Spaniards belong to sports clubs. In the Retiro park alone you can practice yoga, tai chi, cycle, run, skate, play tennis, bootcamp workouts and other sports. In Barcelona with the sea of course you can sail, windsurf, kitesurf, dive, jetski and more.
Winner: Draw, as we would not dare take sides and upset any Real Madrid or Barça fans out there.
It was in the suburb of Hospitalet del Llobregat that one of the world's most renowned chefs was born. Ferran Adrià, with his molecular gastronomy concept at El Bulli, took the restaurant scene by storm by winning the title of world's best restaurant a record five times. The restaurant has since closed and Adrià himself is now working on a new project, ElBullilab, a gastronomy laboratory. This detail is important as it symbolizes the cutting-edge cuisine that can be found in Barcelona.
However, the restaurant scene is very hit and miss. There are many tourist traps around the city, especially those with paella and sangria on the menu. Avoid eating around the Ramblas or Port Olímpic unless it has been recommended by a friend. Traditional Catalan cuisine, with dishes like butifarra sausage and beans, rabbit or snails, is delicious. But this city doesn't do traditional well, and instead you will find many more fusion and international cuisine restaurants.
One of the best things about Madrid is the huge tapas culture, which barely exists in Barcelona. Walk into any bar in Madrid, and order a caña (a small beer). It will always come with a snack, and the more upmarket the place is, the more sophisticated the tapas get. Traditional cuisine in Madrid is hearty; tripes, meat stews and pigs ears, and much liked by locals. There even exists a cocido stew appreciation club too (in Spanish).
And despite being nowhere near the coast, it is in the capital where you will eat the best fish and seafood in Spain. That is because of MercaMadrid, the wholesale market with the second biggest fish market in the world after Japan. There are several marisquerías where you can taste sublime seafood, and restaurants where to sample the cuisine from every single region in Spain. The food in Madrid is consistently better, and often cheaper than Barcelona.
Winner: Madrid wins this one because we love tapas.
Madrid is located in the geographical center of the Iberian peninsula. It has the most important airport in the country, and the biggest train station, so it has a clear advantage over Barcelona, which is located in the north-eastern corner of Spain.
Popular excursions from Barcelona are Sitges, a beach town, Montserrat*, a natural park with an abbey, and the Còlonia Güell*, an unfinished Gaudí church. The skiing slopes of Andorra are just a 3h drive from Barcelona.
From Madrid, popular excursions include El Escorial*, the historical residence of the monarchs, Toledo*, the old capital of Spain, Segovia, a town with a Roman aqueduct or the walled town of Ávila. Madrid is so well connected to the rest of Spain though, that visiting places up and down the country like Alicante, Barcelona, Bilbao, Córdoba, Granada, Ibiza, Seville, Valencia or Zaragoza is very easy to do.
Winner: Madrid's capital city status makes it the clear winner here.
And the overall winner is… Madrid! The capital wins by a nose against their Catalan arch-rivals.
If only it were so simple though… Many people will surely disagree with us. And this is the reason why we recommend visiting both cities. Madrid is more urban, inequivocally Spanish, and the perfect starting point for those who want to explore the rest of country. While Barcelona is an international city, more stylish, and modern. So in the end it comes down to personal choice.
And you, what do you prefer? Madrid or Barcelona? Let us know.