If you want to visit Spain but don’t have much time, it will be a difficult decision to choose to visit either Barcelona or Madrid. Madrid is Spain’s capital, known for its museums, food, and nightlife. Barcelona is much smaller, yet more popular with tourists because of its connection to Gaudi.
Ideally, you would visit both, but if you have to pick one how do you decide? Or maybe you will visit both but want to know which one you should spend more time in?
It’s best to do a comparison of the two cities side by side. Consider the pros and cons of each. Both are wonderful cities so in reality there is no bad choice, but which one is best for you?
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Madrid vs. Barcelona
It sounds like a high stakes football (soccer) game. When they play each other it is called El Classico. There is a rivalry between the two largest cities in Spain. I’m not going to weigh in on who I think should win the next match. Instead, let’s take a closer look and figure out which one is best when it comes to travel – Madrid or Barcelona.
Both Barcelona and Madrid have plenty of flight options from the USA (and Europe for that matter). They each have major airports with low-cost carriers. One is not necessarily cheaper to fly to than the other, it’s best to be on the lookout for flight deals.
Both airports are clean, modern, and efficient. It’s also easy to get from the airports to the city center. From the El Prat (BCN) airport, we took the Barcelona Aerobus. At Adolfo Suarez (MAD) there are public transportation options including a train and Exprés Aeropuerto bus. Taxis would take roughly a half-hour from the curbside to a central hotel and both cities have Uber.
Things to Do
Both Barcelona and Madrid have plenty of attractions to keep visitors entertained. Museums, castles, parks, cathedrals, markets, shows, and more. Everyone can find something that fits their interests in either city.
In Barcelona, some of the top attraction include:
- La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. Gaudi fans will also enjoy Park Guell, Casa Batlló, and more.
- Interesting museums like the Picasso Museum, Barcelona City History Museum, and Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya.
- La Boqueria Market, a foodie’s paradise.
- Poble Espanyol, a neighborhood created for the 1929 World Fair with 117 buildings that are replicas of Spanish architecture from the 15 regions of the country.
Some of the best things to do in Madrid are:
- Tour the Royal Palace of Madrid
- Visit one of the over 40 museums in Madrid, including Museo Nacional del Prado,Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
- See the only piece of Egyptian architecture in all of Spain, the Temple of Debod
- Relax in El Retiro Park (Don’t miss the iconic Crystal Palace and the picturesque boating lake)
- Enjoy the people watching at Plaza Mayor
It’s tough to say which city has better tourist sights because they both have many exciting options that are all different. I think the place that gets my vote is Barcelona, mainly because La Sagrada Familia is unique and a work of art.
Both cities have spectacular architecture, arguably some of the best in Europe. Madrid has preserved the look and feel of many of its historic neighborhoods and streets, even though its infrastructure is modern. Take the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Royal Theatre, the National Library, and the Prado Museum as examples. More recently a few modern skyscrapers like the Gates of Europe and Ciudad BBVA have been built.
In Barcelona, I fell in love with Gaudi’s architecture. It has a fairy-tale or almost magical feel to it. He was inspired by nature and his designs were far ahead of his time. In recent years, seven of his works were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
In addition to Gaudi’s works, Barcelona has some fine examples of the Southern European Gothic style in the aptly named Gothic Quarter area. It also has some striking contemporary buildings as well including the Torre Diagonal and Museu Disseny de Barcelona.
Both cities have some world-class art museums. Madrid has the Golden Triangle of Art that includes three of Spain’s most famous art museums: the Prado, the modern art of the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. It also has some outdoor sculptures that are worth seeing including the 20-ton bronze statue of a bear and a strawberry tree called El Oso y El Madroño in Puerta del Sol.
Barcelona is not short of art museums, with the Picasso Museum being the most popular. It’s one of the largest collections of the artist’s early works. Other options include Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, and European Museum of Modern Art. If you want to visit the art museums in Barcelona, think about getting the Articket, which can save you 50% on admission.
Some of Gaudi’s creations also include impressive artwork, like the lizard sculpture at Park Guell and the facades of La Sagrada Familia. On Barcelona’s seafront, there is the eye-catching fish sculpture by Frank Gehry.
Even though Barcelona has a lot to offer art lovers, Madrid is the clear winner here. It is one of the best cities in the world when it comes to art museums.
Spain is famous for its tapas, jamon, chorizo, paella, and wine. Just thinking about it makes me hungry. While I think my favorite Spanish food city is San Sebastian with its delectable pintxos, Madrid and Barcelona also have an abundance of fabulous restaurants and some impressive food markets too.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Botín in the old town of Madrid is the oldest restaurant in the world! Barcelona may not have eateries as historic as Madrid, but it does have more Michelin-starred restaurants. The prices for food tends to be higher in Barcelona because there are more tourists.
Since Madrid is located inland, its traditional dishes tend to be on the heartier side, while Barcelona is on the coast with access to the freshest seafood. Vegetarians will find the most options in Barcelona.
In Madrid it’s also not unusual for a bar to offer some kind of small tapas for free with every drink order. It is typically just bar snacks, but some may offer a slice of tortilla or even a small bowl of paella.
I think the only way you can go wrong with food in these two cities is looking for a restaurant serving dinner before 8 pm. The Spanish eat dinner late!
Both cities have some wonderful markets where they sell fresh food and local specialties. In Barcelona, the largest is La Boqueria and in Madrid, there is Mercado de San Miguel. Both are popular with tourists and offer a wide variety of things to try. It’s tough to choose a winner here because both markets are worth a visit, but since La Boqueria is bigger, I will go with that one.
Both Barcelona and Madrid are conveniently located to allow visitors to discover more of Spain. It’s one of the reasons why you should plan on spending more than just a weekend when visiting either city.
From Barcelona, it’s possible to venture to see mountains, beaches, museums, ruins, monasteries, wine regions, and lovely villages. The easiest excursion from Barcelona is probably Montserrat where you can see the famous Black Madonna inside the Basilica. Other popular options for day trips from Barcelona include Girona, Sitges, and Tarragona. You can also visit the Poblet Monastery which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Madrid you can travel to one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Cities – Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, or Córdoba. If you want to escape to nature, plan a day to explore Sierra de Guadarrama National Park. Another day trip option is Buitrago de Lozoya, where there is a castle, a gothic church, and a Picasso Museum.
Both cities are known for their nightlife with parties that often end after the sun comes up. These Spanish cities know how to show you a fun night out. There are plenty of nightclubs to choose from but they don’t get going until late.
Keep your eyes open and you won’t have any trouble finding a bar in Madrid or Barcelona. Each neighborhood has its own style and atmosphere. Madrid may have more (bigger) mega-clubs (like La Riveria and Kapital), but it doesn’t have any beach-front clubs like Barcelona.
Those that would like to visit the beach during their vacation should choose Barcelona since Madrid is nearly 200 miles from the sea. Inside Madrid Rio, there is Madrid Beach where you can swim and get some sun by the river.
Barcelona is on the coast with miles of beaches. The most popular beach is Barceloneta, which can be crowded and dirty. It is worth it to journey a bit outside the city to go to the beaches in Sitges.
The best beaches in Spain are not located in Barcelona or Madrid. For a beach-focused vacation, it might be better to go to San Sebastian, Andalusia, or one of the Balearic Islands. If you want to visit one of Spain’s largest cities and also have some time at the beach, Barcelona fits the bill.
For much of the year, both cities have lovely weather. Madrid can be cold in the winter and uncomfortably hot in the peak of summer. Barcelona’s proximity to the Mediterranean gives it slightly cooler summers than Madrid. Its winters are also milder.
Neither city is known as a popular destination for kids. There are no major attractions aimed at children, but both Madrid and Barcelona have parks worth visiting, whether or not you have kids.
In Madrid, one of it’s largest parks, El Retiro Park, has a lake where rowboats are available to rent. Retiro Pond, many puppet shows perform, and all manner of street performers and fortune-tellers. For children, there are multiple playground areas as well as ponds throughout the park The inside of the Palacio de Cristal has been modified to include a stone slide.
In Barcelona, there is Park Guell. It may not be Disneyland but it feels like something out of Hansel and Gretel, so the kids will want to explore it. The whole family will enjoy the magic fountain light show at Montjüic. There is also a cable car there that offers stunning views of the city. Lastly, the family can always spend a day at the beach.
Ease of Getting Around
Both cities have effective and affordable public transportation systems. Even with my basic Spanish, I did not have trouble navigating either subway system. Madrid’s metro may be slightly better in terms of cleanliness, reliability, and efficiency. Both cities have plenty of buses and taxis.
Despite their sizes, both cities are very walkable. Many of the top attractions are located close to the city center, so you won’t need to rely too much on public transportation anyway.
In general, both Madrid and Barcelona are safe cities. There are issues with pickpockets in touristy areas though. It’s important to keep your guard up and make sure any valuables are hidden and protected.
In recent years, there has been some political unrest in Barcelona because of the Catalonian Independence movement. For the most part, these protests have been peaceful, although there have been issues with access to BCN airport at times. While things remain calm at the moment, the issue is not resolved and could flare up again.
Both cities have made progress in becoming more accessible, but like most of the world, there is still a ways to go. While many of the top attractions are accessible, there are still issues, especially with some restaurants where they have not made bathrooms that can accommodate people with disabilities. Also, not all metro stations have elevators.
Value for Money
Out of the two cities, Barcelona is more popular with tourists which tends to keep prices high, still it is not as expensive as some other European cities like London. Madrid is cheaper especially when it comes to hotels, which offer excellent value.
There are plenty of things to do in either city for those on a budget. Many of the museums offer free admissions on certain days. Barcelona’s gothic churches also have free hours, while Madrid’s Cathedral and Iglesia de San Andres are always free.
Another way to stretch your travel budget is to buy a city pass. Both cities have several options. Barcelona has the Barcelona Pass, Go Barcelona Pass, Barcelona City Pass, Turbo Pass Barcelona, Hola Barcelona Card, and the Barcelona Card. Madrid has the Madrid Card, Go Madrid, and Madrid City Pass.
Overall Winner: Madrid or Barcelona?
This is a tough one! While I love both cities, if I could only visit one it would be Barcelona. Gaudi’s architecture is special and it makes the city feel different than any other one that I visited. Plus, there is more to Barcelona than just Gaudi.
If you have enough time, I definitely recommend trying to fit both cities into the trip. You could fly into one, then either fly or take the high-speed train to the other, then fly home from there.
Have you been to Barcelona or Madrid? Which city was your favorite?
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