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 tradition for outsiders. You always get the real thing.

Planning a trip to Spain is always the right idea, particularly as the country announces its reopening plans for all visitors this summer, which just leaves one question: Madrid or Barcelona?

Here’s how to decide, based on what to expect from each. Short answer: both ; )

Barcelona, The Party

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, and frankly, a little overrun by tourism at hte moment. 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.

Madrid, The After Party

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.

Airports And Access

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.

For The Architecture

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.

For The Food

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.

For The Wine

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.

For The Museums

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 SofiaMuseo 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, CosmaCaixaMuseu 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.

Why Not Open Jaw?

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.

Which city do you prefer, and why?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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17 Comments

  1. Having spent ample time in both cities, I would say Barcelona is more exciting and the one I would recommend for the first time visitor to Spain, but Madrid is the city I prefer coming back to time after time.

  2. Barcelona is ridiculously overcrowded with tourists and incredibly expensive. Madrid is a far more pleasant city, and has better museums. The Picasso Museum, ostensibly Barcelona’s biggest draw, has a mediocre collection

  3. Currently no Uber in Barcelona, only the local options Cabify is working, let’s see if it changes again soon. In Madrid both services are working.

  4. Been in both multiple times and except for party and beach, Madrid wins by far!!
    Barcelona claims not to be Spain but to promote visitors they use all typical Spanish essence…

  5. I agree and like your analogy, they’re 2 sides of the coin.

    My take:
    Bareclona, mi Corazon! The first city I ever visited in Spain, spent 2 days and it definitely piqued my current love for la Madre Patria! Trips 1-3 Think Princess Margaret ;?)

    Madrid, mi Mente! Second year, second trip, first visit to Madrid and found it similar, but, different from Barca. Definitely the older, more statelier sister that still has fun. Unlike her sister that puts it all out on display, Madrid keeps it behind doors hidden away if you will and invites you to search for her goodies and they’re not hard to find. Trips 2 & 3 and upcoming 5th. Think Queen Elizabeth II

    Sevilla, mi Alma! Third year, third trip, first to Sevilla and found it…Amazing! La Madre que pario a todo. Trips 3, 4, and upcoming 5th.

  6. Hands down just 2 of the most incredible cities on the planet. From the airports, the roads and metros, the food, cafes, clubs, streets, affordability, the shopping the modern hotels the weather the beauty – the only thing that sucks in both cities the the salary if you wanna move there (I’ve tried…)

  7. Madrid-great, Barcelona- great, but Sevilla is just flat out wonderful. It is without a doubt the coolest city in the world to actually get lost in while walking around.

  8. This is the worst blog you Will ever see. Madrid is 100000 times better for party than Barcelona. If you want to visit an original place with cool arquitechture, cool, go to Barcelona. But If you want to have fun, feel secure, meet nice people go to Madrid.

  9. my take: Barcelona was cool and had its own vibe from Spanish cities but i feel it was overcrowded and just everything was a rip-off. Madrid was surprisingly a let-down in terms of things to see but the day-trips to Toledo and Segovia were absolutely amazing

  10. Both very different and beautiful cities.
    But where on earth do the tourists go to think Barcelona has better nightlife.
    There is no comparison. Madrid wins hands down.
    Even the Catalans admit that.

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