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Barcelona or Madrid, which one to choose? – If you are dreaming of a cool Spain city break, let’s try to figure out together which city will be your best match.

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Barcelona or Madrid? – Where would you travel first and which one of the two is your best match?

In fact, everyone knows that both cities are authentic Spanish gems in terms of landmarks, architecture, and unique vibes. So, to be fair, you can´t really say that one is better than the other. Ever.

Nevertheless, whether it´s Barcelona or Madrid, one of the two might still appeal to you more than the other one.

Barcelona or Madrid: More to the story

Politics

Barcelona or Madrid? – This question has actually been a long-time debate on many levels in Spain.

Of course, the politics come into the picture first. Barcelona and Catalonia have been seeking independence from Spain for a while, and Madrid embodies the traditional union, and monarchy, while also serving as a headquarters for the mail Spanish authorities. While Spaniards usually try to avoid talking politics with strangers, the topic of Catalan independence usually gathers lots of people with strong opposite opinions.

Also read: 5 Most Underrated Cities in Spain You Can´t Miss

Actually, the statistic on Spanish national travel speaks for itself. Overall, Madrid gets around 5 mln visitors per year and Barcelona – 6mln. Nevertheless, for national tourism in Spain, the data is quite different: Madrid gets 4 mln Spaniards and Barcelona only 1 mln. This actually finds reflection in my personal life: everyone in my Spanish friends-family circle prefers Madrid to Barcelona.

But at the same time, most of my international friends have undeniably fallen for Barcelona. So, you may see right from the start that the Barcelona or Madrid question does not have a simple answer.

Football

Another big one to choose either Barcelona or Madrid is football. El clasico (a match between FC Barcelona and FC Madrid) is always one of the most expected events of the year. A few years ago I was lucky to attend it: long story short, it was one of my most unusual experiences in Spain so far.

puerta alcala madrid
Puerta de Alcala / Madrid

Tourism

Somehow no one among my friends&family has said they liked both cities equally. Literally, no one.

I mean, that would be a typical thing to say, right? When you try to compare two very different cities, both of which are really cool, you say that you liked both. Nevertheless, when it comes to choosing either Barcelona or Madrid – travelers seem to have no problems jumping to conclusions.

It´s obvious that both of these Spanish cities have a very different vibe. But, let´s try to compare Barcelona and Madrid from the touristic point of view. So that you can feel free to decide where to head next, in case you don’t have time for both cities. Or simply give me an argument based on your own travel experiences (that´s totally acceptable).

Also read: Dreamy Travel Quotes About Spain

Let me also underline that despite my 15 expat years in Spain, this post is simply a personal opinion. Feel free to disagree. With places and travelers there´s no such thing as an absolute truth, don’t forget it. So, just get all the information you can, go through the inspiring pictures, and then listen to your own intuition…

barcelona barrio gotico
Gothic Quarter / Barcelona

Important spoiler: As much as I initially aimed to write an impartial post to compare both Barcelona and Madrid, my personal experiences were much better with the second one. What´s the point of putting on my rose-colored glasses and write about unicorns if there were some real stuff I did not like in Barcelona? – So, if you are a Barcelona-lover, visited the city on numerous occasions, had the best time of your life, and reading this post out of curiosity – you probably should not! In the end of the day, my personal experience does not mean that the same should happen to you. I´d never want this to discourage your next trip.

Comparing Barcelona and Madrid

As I have visited both Barcelona and Madrid countless amount of times – let´s try to compare the incomparable and talk about what makes both so different.

1. The Vibe

Both Barcelona and Madrid have very different atmospheres and appeal.

For me, Madrid is elegant and classy, while Barcelona is more artsy and extravagant (again, this is my personal impression only). Don’t get me wrong – you can still find elegant places in Barcelona, and extravagant neighborhoods in Madrid. I am talking more about the general architecture and the feel each city might give you.

Also read: Favorite 2022 Travel Experiences in Spain

The appearance of Barcelona can be traced back to the Roman times on the Iberian Peninsula, when the Romans established in Monjuic, back in 218 A.C. Due to its strategic location, Barcelona has always been a key city in connecting Spain and France, as well as one of the most important Mediterranean ports.

palacio real madrid
Royal Palace of Madrid

On the other hand, Madrid started with the establishment of a fortress Mayarit by El Emir Muhammad I (second half of the IXth century). Later on, in 1561 King Philipp II took the decision to establish the Spanish royal court in Madrid (instead of Toledo). The city has been the Spanish capital ever since. Not only is it the official residence of the Spanish monarchs, but also the headquarters for the main governmental institutions, as well as Real Academia Española de la Lengua, and the World Tourism Organization.

As for me, I´m definitely into the Madrid vibe myself. But at the same time, I can´t really say that the appeal of Barcelona is any less unique. No way. In terms of the atmosphere, both cities are personable and beautiful each in its own way.

Best Atmosphere: Both

2. The Landmarks

In terms of Spanish landmarks, I really can’t pick favorites and choose one over another.

In Madrid, it´s Royal Palace, Congreso de los Diputados, Plaza Mayor, Prado Museum, The Bank of Spain, the impressive fountains of Cibeles, Neptuno, and Angel Caido, Cybele Palace. In Barcelona, it´s everything related to GaudiLa Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, Park Guell, etc., and also the Modernist Palau de la Musica Catalana, Arc de Triomf, and Cascade Monument.

la pedrera gaudi barcelona
La Pedrera / Barcelona

Back when I visited Madrid for the first time I was mostly impressed by how huge and grandiose the center was. At the same time, in Barcelona, I was smitten by all the beautiful and original details.

Nevertheless, when it comes to landmarks, Barcelona might be a favorite pick for the majority here, as the fairytale&colorful Gaudi architecture is quite unmatched. While Madrid has a bit of everything – barocco, neoclassical, modern, contemporary – so, on the one hand, it feels way more similar to the other European capitals.

Also read: Christmas Madrid – Top Places to Get into the Holiday Spirit

But on the other hand, Madrid is quite more walkable, as most of the top landmarks are located close to each other, while Barcelona is more spread out. So, personally, I enjoy a stroll through top Madrid landmarks across the city center.

Best in Landmarks: Both

3. The weather

autumn madrid
Autumn in Madrid – my favorite time to visit the city

When it comes to climate, you can’t beat the Mediterranean coast. Barcelona definitely has all of its best attributes due to the seaside location.

During the summer days, Madrid feels draining both physically and mentally. The temperatures rise up to +35C, or even +40C at times. You might think that it´s not much of a big deal after Cordoba or Seville (with an occasional +50C). But it’s honestly a lot like when I visited Hamburg, Germany in January. Only -5C outside, but somehow it felt way colder than the snowed villages of Baqeira Beret or Andorra. The summer heat of Madrid is not pleasant at all. Given the choice, I would travel to the rainy Asturias in summer, only to avoid Madrid´s dry heat.

Also read: Best Places to visit in Spain for Ceramics Lovers

Also, Madrid in winter might get colder than one could ever expect from Spain in winter (even though it almost never drops below zero). On the contrary, Barcelona is a great match for every season.

Best in Climate: Barcelona

4. Tourism & Locals

barcelona weekend with kids

Either you pick Barcelona or Madrid, it will be touristy.

The numbers vary each year, but it’s around 6mln visitors per year for Barcelona and 5mln for Madrid. Nevertheless, somehow in Madrid, I have always noticed this overcrowdedness significantly less. Except for the public holidays and Wednesdays/Mondays, when many museums announce free entrance.

As happens with most of the big cities around the world – the locals in Barcelona or Madrid are way less friendly. Probably friendlier than in New York, but not as welcoming as the Spaniards you´d meet when exploring Undiscovered Spain.

Also read: 10 Most Epic Hikes in Spain Everyone Should Try

Nevertheless, if we set our eyes on Barcelona or Madrid only – the second one wins from my experience. I feel like in Barcelona locals often have the most negative attitude towards tourism. In Madrid I have never ever seen the slogans against tourism on the city walls, while in Barcelona I had this unpleasant surprise quite a few times – “Barcelona is not for sale” and “tourists go home”, to name a few. Not to mention my trip to Cambrils, which happened during the independence protests. Tourists had no fault in any of this, yet thousands of them could not reach the airport because the roads were blocked.

Everyone knows that Barcelona suffers from mass over-tourism, but hey, not all tourists are evil, right? At least pretending to be hospitable never hurts. On top of that, the tourism industry leaves around 30 bln in the city and gives jobs against an unemployment rate of 13,26%.

The Best in Tourism&Locals: Madrid

5. Language

Well, on this one I have a lot to say based on my personal experiences.

But first of all, if learning and practicing a bit of Spanish is not of interest, both Barcelona and Madrid are fine for English speakers. Probably, Barcelona is even slightly better. I visited both even before learning Spanish and had no problems getting around.

While it might not seem obvious to many international visitors booking a flight to Spain – the most common language in Barcelona is not Spanish, it’s Catalan. At the same time, the Madrid natives speak el castellano (e.g. the traditional Castilian Spanish).

Also read: Music of Spain at Home

After years of travels to Catalonia and Barcelona, I still feel a bit confused every time locals insist on speaking Catalan to me (even though they clearly see and hear that I´m not from Catalonia). There´s absolutely nothing wrong with embracing your own language and origins, but I am not obliged to know Catalan, if not residing in Catalonia. It´s like they always switch to Spanish reluctantly (I almost feel as if it was me personally standing in the way of their independence).

barcelona parc ciutadella
Ciutadella Park / Barcelona

When I travel with my husband, who speaks Valencian (which is very close to Catalan), it gets even worse. He often replies automatically when locals ask for something, the conversation goes on and no one ever bothers whether I get it (even if it´s clear I am a tourist over here). In terms of statistics, only 9 mln people in the world speak Catalan, against 534 million Spanish speakers. So, I don’t know… maybe it would be polite to try speaking Spanish with those who are clearly non-local?

Don’t get me wrong. Nothing against Catalan or any other language in Spain. I am a complete language junkie myself, but my interest in Catalan has been completely killed by this attitude of the locals. I could tell you tonnes of comic situations when in restaurants they would answer in Catalan to my questions in Spanish. My husband would get it, but I would not, at least not always. Then I would ask again – I mean, not understanding a menu in the restaurant is sort of a big deal, right? So, here comes my favorite part – the staff would reply to me in Spanish, and then politely switch back to Catalan.

Also read: 10 Best Spanish Islands to Visit

This might not always be about pro-independent locals who don´t want to speak Spanish as a way of protest. Many people across Catalonia speak Catalan on a daily basis. In fact, in some remote villages, they might not even have the best Spanish skills. Or maybe, they feel like if I get some Catalan – there´s no need to switch to Spanish at all. But my point here is that as a visitor, all this just adds to my plate some unnecessary hustle.

Temple of Debod Madrid
Temple of Debod / Madrid

Therefore, if you know some basic Spanish, have a crush on culture and history, and expect locals to compliment you on it – Barcelona won´t always fit the bill. While overall, Spain is a great country for cultural immersion. Locals are usually friendly to strangers, and love gathering in bars and meeting new people. On top of that, the older generation of Spaniards does not speak English at all(some might speak a bit of French though). Therefore, most of the frequent visitors and expats in Spain end up learning the language basics against their will.

So, in Madrid all this might simply come easier to you (unless you are specifically learning Catalan).

The easiest in Language: Madrid

6. Security

Pickpocketers will be an unmissable attribute whether you travel to Barcelona or Madrid.

However, it´s Barcelona often getting called the City of Pickpockets. On our last Mediterranean cruise, we were talking to a couple from Barcelona, who complained about the city being one of the most criminal cities in Europe. With the architectural beauty and the chilly vibe of Barcelona, you don’t usually feel insecure. But you should take all the extra precautions and be really careful about where and when you go.

Also read: The Most Epic Cliffs in Spain

Personally, I haven’t been robbed in Barcelona (touching the wood). But I guess every third person I know was robbed while visiting the city. When you know so many people who had never been pickpocketer victims before Barcelona – this only shows that the illegal industry of the city is huge.

Cybele Palace Madrid
Cybele Palace – Madrid

Unfortunately, the Spanish legal system is to blame here. If pickpockets are caught with less than 400 euros of stolen property nothing really happens to them, while in other countries they might face significant fines. Even though the robberies are usually non-violent, this is quite a discreditable situation for the cities with millions of international visitors per year.

Which one is better in terms of security? – Madrid

7. Food

In general terms, I prefer the coastal cuisine of the Mediterranean cities to the traditional dishes of central Spain.

So you´d expect this score to go to Barcelona immediately. But, sorry, it won’t.

crema catalana village food
Crema Catalanaread more Traditional Spanish Food

While both the Spanish capitals of Barcelona and Madrid are renowned for their great cuisine, in my experience the city center of Barcelona has much more tourist traps than the one of Madrid. Sometimes, if you go near the popular local landmarks of Barcelona, finding authentic local dishes and restaurants almost turns into a quest. Plus, dining in Barcelona is more overpriced.

Best in Spanish Food: Madrid

8. Value for Money

Whether you pick Barcelona or Madrid – it won´t be a budget destination in Spain (like, Extremadura, for instance).

Yet somehow, the average daily cost of my Madrid trips has always been lower than the one of Barcelona. This unofficial rule applies to hotels, restaurants, and even tourist sights. Especially, as lots of museums in Madrid have a free entrance on Wednesdays and some public holidays (May 18, Oct 12, Dec 6).

barcelona or madrid spain
Ciutadella Park / Barcelona

However, it is always easier to find cheap flight deals to one of the Catalonia airports – Barcelona, Girona, or Reus.

Best Value For Money: Madrid

9. Best Day Trips

Both Madrid and Barcelona are surrounded by interesting day trips. But most of the iconic Spanish landmarks are definitely closer to Madrid than they are to Barcelona.

From Barcelona, you can mostly visit the beautiful small towns of Costa Brava, Figueres with its Dali Museum, Empuries, Tossa del Mar, Girona, Monserrat Monastery, Sitges, Tarragona, the medieval gem of Besalu.

Montserrat Spain Barcelona
Montserrat

From Madrid, you can easily reach some Spanish top cities on a day trip – Toledo, Segovia, Avila, Salamanca, Toledo, Alcala de Henares. Even Valencia or Cuenca are easily reachable by train. Moreover, you can cross out of your Spanish Bucket listSan Lorenzo del Escorial, El Valle de los Caidos, Aranjuez Palace, Chinchon Square. Madrid is set in the center of Spain, so the list of Madrid Day Trips is almost endless.

Best Day Trips: Madrid

Sum up

To conclude, Madrid won this competition for me. But again, that´s only my personal preference.

contemporary buildings in Madrid
Buildings in Madrid

Ideally, you should not choose either Barcelona or Madrid – you should visit both. But in case, you can´t – just go through this post again and evaluate all the aspects that might be your personal priorities in Spain. If you want a laid-back vacation, great weather, or daydream of Gaudi architecture – no reason will be enough for you to pick Madrid. And vice versa – if you prioritize value for money, want to learn/practice Spanish, and cover as many epic landmarks in Spain as you can – Madrid is your answer.

For more Spain travel tips and itineraries check my Pinterest boards Best of Spain and Spain Travel Collection.

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