If Barcelona is the party, Madrid is the grown up after party…
Late night, late mornings and strong coffee. If you want an authentically local experience in Spain, don’t wake up at 6am and wander downstairs for a hotel breakfast. No place worth eating is open yet and the same goes for dinner. You’re laughing if you’re thinking early bird 6pm special and in bed by 8. What makes Barcelona, Madrid and Spanish culture et-al so great, is its unwillingness to bend. Planning a trip to Spain is always the right idea, which just leaves one question: Madrid or Barcelona?
Barcelona is a party. The main beaches adorning the city’s coastline are something like Rio De Janeiro, with beautiful people enjoying the perfect weather, usually with bumping music not far away. There’s water polo clubs, tapas bars, bar-bars, clubs, tourist traps and a bustling buzz just about anywhere you step. Sure, it’s the home of the Sagrada Familia and picturesque Park Guell, but this place is alive. Like anywhere in Spain, you’ll find delectable food, but within such a tightly knit city, you’ll need to dig deeper to unlock more local neighborhoods and get beneath it all.
If Barcelona is the party, Madrid is the grown up graduate school after party. More tapas and wine, less vodka on tables with bikinis. Bustling beaches are replaced by quiet leafy parks and stately streets. Sure, you’ll find tourist areas, just like anywhere else, but with so much space to cover, the tourists take up a smaller percentage of the city. Madrid is the place for late morning strolls, hitting a few remarkable art galleries, chowing down on the best tapas imaginable at one of the many mercados and then enjoying some truly outstanding, totally underpriced wine. Rinse and repeat in the abundant mediterranean sun.
Barcelona and Madrid benefit from fairly central major airports with El Prat (BCN) and Adolfo Suarez (MAD) respectively. Most taxi journeys taking roughly a half hour from curbside to central hotel and both cities offer Uber. The airports are clean, modern and efficient, so there’s no real tiebreaker here and travelers can expect a largely straightforward airport experience. Both cities are experiencing record low flight deals, thanks to low cost carriers such as Level and Norwegian, so be on the lookout for great fares.
If you’re in it for the architecture, you’ll be spoiled in either city, but your choice is Barcelona. From modern design hotels along the shore to centuries old cathedrals and Gaudí parks, you’ll find something outstanding at every turn. If you work efficiently, you can lock in most of the key architectural landmarks in two days, and if you can spare an extra day, nearby beach areas along the coast give a welcome reprieve from the busy city. Three days is a perfect starter trip, but more is always great.
While both cities would argue against the other, Madrid wins on food. The price to quality to abundance ratio of delicious street food and quaint cafes is off the charts. There’s the popular markets such as the Mercado San Miguel, and then the lesser trafficked options such as the Mercado San Anton and Mercado San Ildefonso. Madrid is a city where delicious food is not about spending big, but rather keeping your eyes open. Tapas bars such as Triciclo and Taberna Averias are worth the trip alone. If you’re into fine dining, Madrid tends to stay more on the affordable side. Like Barcelona, three days is enough to get a great feel.
Both! If you don’t fall in love with Spanish wine, you probably just don’t actually love wine. Most major Spanish wine production takes place in the northern and central parts part of the country, which bodes very well for visitors. Great wine makes its way into each city in droves and it’s far more affordable than you’d guess. You can start with a classic glass of Rioja but any wine fan will quickly fall in love with beautiful grapes such as Verdejo, Monastrell, Albariño and Garnacha. And yes, the Cava here is 1000% better than anything you’ve tasted back home.
Madrid does museums at a level not really seen anywhere else outside of New York or Paris. The first obvious choice is the Museo Prado and it hardly falls off from there. Thyssen, Reina Sofia, Museo Picasso and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo can impress for days, and strolls around Parque El Retiro in between and beautiful botanical gardens will do the trick, every time. Having said that, Barcelona is off the charts too and also has a Picasso museum! The Museo Picasso, MACBA, CosmaCaixa, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and Design Museum don’t disappoint in the slightest and any history slash art buff should really do both cities.
One of the simplest and best travel tricks is always to “open jaw”, where you fly into one airport and out of another. If you draw your trip on a map, you’ll get something that looks like an open jaw. Barcelona and Madrid are connected by countless daily flights and also high speed rail lines, which make it extremely easy to pop from one city to another. While foodies and museum fans will probably have more fun in Madrid, and sun loving beach goers, who crave some heavenly buildings might enjoy Barcelona more – you’ll just never know until you try both.