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Barcelona or Madrid: Which to Choose for Your Trip?

Barcelona or Madrid: Which to Choose for Your Trip?

Should I go to Barcelona or Madrid? Both? If both – which one to prioritize?

Spain’s two largest cities are like chalk and cheese. Madrid is surrounded by mountains whereas Barcelona sits on the breezy Mediterranean coast. Madrid peels back the layers of art history through to contemporary day, Barcelona stuns with its Catalan Modernist facades.

The cities have entirely different climates and a same-same-but-different food scene. Barcelona could bankrupt you, Madrid is somewhere you can treat yourself and not leave in the red.

If time is on your side, it’s perfectly possible to visit both as part of a 7-day Spain itinerary or a 10-day Spanish itinerary. They’re only 2.5 hours apart by high-speed train or 7.5 hours by bus.

In terms of a Madrid vs Barcelona city break, that’s where this post comes in handy.

Madrid or Barcelona to visit: At a Glance

Here are the main pointers when mulling over whether to visit Barcelona or Madrid first.

Barcelona

  • More tourist attractions and sights
  • Has beaches
  • Awesome day trips
  • More spread out which makes planning an itinerary harder
  • Good backpacker scene (but pricey)
  • Popular with couples
  • Excellent public transport
  • Good airport connections
  • More expensive – everything costs 10-20% more compared to Madrid 
  • Fun and popular but pricier for solo travelers
angled image of Casa Batllo in Barcelona with the windows and colorful walls as a close up.

There is so much amazing architecture and art to explore around Barcelona, including Gaudi’s Casa Batllo.

Madrid

  • Incredible museums and history to explore
  • Cool, walkable neighborhoods
  • Incredible events and festivals
  • Better churro and traditional tapas culture
  • Awesome day trips
  • No beaches (not even as a day trip)
  • Awesome for couples and families
  • Less of a backpacker culture
  • Excellent public transport
  • Good airport connections
  • More affordable
inside of atocha station which is full of tropical trees.

Atocha Station in Madrid doubles as a tropical garden, what a wonderful place to arrive to the city!

Barcelona or Madrid: Beaches and Parks

Barcelona’s beaches give it an instant edge over Madrid. La Barceloneta, the seaside neighborhood, is within walking distance of the main tourist hub around La Rambla and the Gothic Quarter.

The city also has splendid green spaces including Ciutadella Park, Montjuïc Hill, Barcelona Botanical Garden, and Guinardó Park.

Madrid doesn’t have any beaches – well, not technically.

Playa de Madrid Río is a makeshift beach on the banks of the Manzanares. It’s not quite the same as frolicking in the Med but still a lovely place to unfurl a towel and snooze under the summer sun.

You can also enjoy strolling along the riverside, boating in Retiro Park, and walking in Casa de Campo. If you are time it well, technically you could take the fast train to Valencia or Alicante for the day to enjoy the beach. It’s two hours each way on the fast train.

But of course, if you want to blend city and beach, then Barcelona has it all.

The verdict on beaches and parks: Barcelona.

cured meat sliced thinly and displayed on a white plate and a side of bread with tomato puree on it at a tapas bar in Madrid.

The tapas bars in Madrid are truly one of the best experiences you can have in all of Spain.

Madrid or Barcelona: Activities and attractions

At a closer look, there are a lot more attractions and things to do in Barcelona. You’d need a bare minimum of two days in Barcelona but three or four is better.

You could see the highlights of Madrid during an albeit heavily packed-in day. At least two days in Madrid is recommended for a more pleasant experience.

Things to do in Madrid

  • Explore the gardens and monuments of Retiro Park.
  • Tour the Royal Palace and Madrid Cathedral.
  • Delve into Madrid’s Golden Triangle of art on Paseo del Prado: Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and Reina Sofía Art Center.
  • Hunt for street art in Lavapiés/Embajadores or take a tour.
  • See the Temple of Debod.
  • Visit the train station that doubles as a botanical garden at Atocha Station.
  • Cruise the tapas bars of Calle de la Cava Baja in La Latina.
  • Do some amazing people watching in Plaza Mayor.
  • Take a tour or cheer on Real Madrid at Bernabéu Stadium.
  • Eat a huge bowl of Cocido Madrileño.

Things to do in Barcelona

  • Go for a stroll down La Rambla and Rambla de Mar.
  • Eat seafood by the sea.
  • Visit the churches, monuments, and plazas of the Gothic Quarter and El Born.
  • See street art and contemporary galleries in El Raval.
  • Browse the daily stock at La Boqueria Market.
  • Trace Gaudí’s heritage at La Sagrada Família, Park Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Batlló, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), and the Church of Colònia Güell.
  • Explore and relax in Ciutadella Park.
  • See the museums, parks, and viewpoints of Montjuïc Hill.
  • Swim or sunbathe in La Barceloneta’s beaches.
  • Take a tour of Camp Nou Stadium or bag tickets to watch a Barça practice.

The verdict on things to do: So, is Barcelona better than Madrid? Well, it depends on what you want from your trip. Barcelona has the edge for diversity and amount of attractions but Madrid is unbeatable for a relaxed experience. A week in Barcelona can swiftly add up so pay attention to free things to see and do.

outside of sagrada familia cathedral in Barcelona with a red double decker tour bus and taxis sitting outside of it.

Barcelona is PACKED with tourists, but for good reason. Nothing can quite prepare you for the beauty of the Sagrada Familia.

Madrid vs. Barcelona: Food and Restaurants

The food scene in Madrid feels slightly less polished – which is only a plus. The tapas taverns have a cozy ambiance and tapas are still handed out for free in most places in Madrid. The food scene is a mix of traditional spots with a family feel and trendy new openings.

Madrid’s countless churrería will appeal to churro fanatics. If you fancy a change from Spanish food, head to Lavapiés for international eats.

Barcelona has an eclectic food scene across mellow cafes, tapas bars, and upscale restaurants.

As a coastal city, Barcelona wins for seafood (although, honestly you’ll not really struggle to find fish dishes in Madrid). There’s a lot of seafood paella, grilled fish, and Catalan ceviche to chow down after a day at the beach.

Tapas culture is alive and kicking too, with regional specialties such as potato bombas and escalivada to sample. Dining out in Barcelona works out pricier but you can reduce costs by eating at delis and markets.

As it’s more touristic, vegans and travelers with dietary requirements may find it easier to source food in Barcelona. Vegetarians will be more than satisfied by Madrid’s culinary scene.

The verdict on food: Madrid.

bowl of soup with a large shrimp across the top and pieces of shrimp floating in the top.

The food in Madrid, both the tapas bars and the more traditional restaurants are truly out of this world.

Madrid vs. Barcelona: Markets

This is Spain; naturally, food markets deserve their own chapter.

Mercat de la Boqueria serves as a place for Barcelonians to stock their cupboards and a tourist attraction. It’s incredible to visit for the atmosphere although it has to be said that the prices are pretty steep and it does wade toward “tourist trap” territory.

Don’t skip it but do squeeze in a trip to Mercat de Sant Antoni and Mercat de la Llibertat for comparative purposes.

Mercado de San Miguel is Madrid’s headliner market. It’s quite classy and pulled together, much like La Boqueria. Again, it’s worth a lap but you’ll find a more village-like experience elsewhere.

Cast the net further afield to Mercado de Santa María de la Cabeza, Mercado de San Fernando, and Mercado de la Cebada for neighborhood-shopping vibes.

The verdict on markets: Both offer an eclectic mix of tourist-facing and everyday markets.

Madrid vs. Barcelona: Nightlife

Both have exciting nightlife spread across cultural pursuits, late-night heart-to-hearts over vermouth, and boozier shenanigans.

Barcelona is a party town in the sense that you’ll find more clubs and bars. It’s particularly lively in the summer months. Head to El Raval for low-key nightlife, El Born for rowdier evenings, and Port Olímpic for Ibiza-esque clubs. Don’t miss out on all of the rooftop bars in Barcelona while you’re there.

Madrid has a wonderful live music scene and lots of flamenco theaters. This is very much a nocturnal city although Malasaña, Chueca, and Lavapiés are the best places to stay out late in Madrid.

The verdict on nightlife: Tie.

two glasses of vermouth on a bar in madrid with olives sticking out of the glass.

There are great bars and nightclubs in both Barcelona and Madrid, you’ll have to sample both cities to see whose nightlife you prefer!

Barcelona vs. Madrid: Weather and Climate

Barcelona’s Mediterranean setting yields mild winters, hot summers, and gorgeous shoulder seasons. Autumn can be wet but not so much as to impact a Barcelona city break.

Madrid is a joy in spring and autumn. However, the winters are quite harsh in comparison with Barcelona’s and the summers are stifling.

There are a couple of months where a visit to Madrid isn’t recommended if you are sensitive to extreme weather. Namely, July/August and January/February.

The verdict on weather and climate: Barcelona.

Barcelona vs. Madrid: Accommodation

Both have an eclectic spread of luxury hotels, boutique hotels, wallet-friendly posadas (guest house), and hostels. You’ll also find a range of self-catered apartments ideal for a longer stay and alleviating meal expenses.

Barcelona is more expensive and accommodation reflects that. You’ll struggle to find a budget hotel in the tourist center, especially at the last minute.

Nightly rates for a comfortable three-star hotel linger around $200 and luxury options are closer to $500 per night. Prices soar over summer.

That said, Barcelona is a popular destination for backpackers. You can find dorm beds for around $25 a night in low season ($50 in summer).

Self-catered accommodation is worth it if you’re traveling with a partner or as a group/family and are staying for more than a few nights.

Something neat about Madrid is that a lot of the airport hotels offer a complimentary shuttle service.

The verdict on accommodation: Madrid for affordability, Barcelona for luxury.

stone arches with a walkway underneath in parc guell, a gaudi-designed park in Barcelona.

Parc Guell is one of my absolute favorite places to explore in Barcelona. I could easily spend a whole day here with a picnic of jamon, fresh bread, cheese, and olives. You can bring your own food and drinks in and spend as much time here as you want.

Madrid vs. Barcelona: Day Trips

Madrid and Barcelona are well-served by train and organized day trips. There’s little need to rent a car in either although it’s straightforward to do so if you prefer.

Day trips from Barcelona typically focus on the Costa Brava resort towns north of the city. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can cross the border into France.

Day trips from Madrid lean more on the historical side. The closest options include the former capital, Toledo, and the imposing Segovia. At a push, you can squeeze in an outing to Valencia for a beach fix.

The verdict on great day trips: Barcelona.

Barcelona vs. Madrid: Safety

Spain has a solid track record for safety, especially concerning tourists. Pickpocketing and similar petty thefts are the main risks for travelers.

That so, Barcelona has a slightly higher prevalence for petty theft, especially on the metro, around La Rambla, and La Sagrada Família. Exercise caution while in transit and when taking photos of attractions.

Taxis are safe in both. Always make sure you’re using a licensed cab.

In both cases, all the usual advice applies. Avoid roaming dark alleyways at night, don’t flash your valuables, and monitor your drinks in bars.

It’s also wise to use a VPN when using public Wi-Fi.

The verdict on safety: Madrid.

inside of an old bar in madrid with dusty bottles on several high shelves and then bar signs and memorabilia on the walls.

The bars in Madrid are some of the best in Spain, usually offering a free snack with your drinks. The more drinks you order, the better the snacks get.

Madrid vs. Barcelona: Getting there

Crucial when weighing up a Madrid vs Barcelona city break, both are easy to get to.

Madrid Barajas Airport is humongous. Watch out if you’re assigned Terminal 4 as it’s a bit of an expedition. Dozens of airlines serve Madrid and it often (but not always) works out as the cheapest airport to fly into from outside Europe.

Barcelona El Prat Airport is the second-largest airport in Spain. It’s a similar set-up to Madrid and you’ll find premium and budget airline connections.

Both airports are connected to the city center by metro and bus services which are cost-effective and reliable.

A taxi from Barcelona Airport to the city center has a minimum charge of €21 and usually winds up around €35-45 and takes 25/30 minutes. A taxi from Madrid Airport costs around €30 (20 minutes).

Atocha is Madrid’s main train station. National, high-speed rail services depart from Puerta de Atocha while Atocha-Cercanías has more suburban connections. It’s only five minutes from Sol by metro.

Chamartín Station is where northbound trains depart and sleeper trains to Lisbon.

Barcelona Sants is the main train station and from where trains to Madrid depart. It’s quite far from the center and requires a 10-minute metro ride from La Rambla.

If you travel by train in Spain, you’ll need to book in advance and travel at off-peak times to avoid price hikes.

The verdict on getting there: Tie. See which airport is cheapest and factor in whether you need a taxi. Madrid’s train station feels more central.

parc guell entrance in barcelona with bright blue skies above and a large zebra crossing in front for pedestrians to reach the entrance.

Parc Guell is usually packed with visitors, so be sure to book a time slot before you arrive so that you don’t get turned away at the entrance.

Barcelona vs. Madrid: Getting around

When choosing between Barcelona or Madrid for travel, bear in mind that you will have to use public transport. Both have exemplary metro and bus systems.

Madrid is more compact and walkable on the whole. However, you’ll need to hop on the metro from time to time. Buy a rechargeable multi card (€2.50) at any station and use the Madrid Metro app to plan journeys.

Barcelona is more spread out and even the happiest hikers depend on the metro.
Buy a Hola Barcelona travel card which permits unlimited journeys for 48, 72, 96, or 120 hours. It’s slightly cheaper when you buy online.

Both are also featured on the Citymapper app. This app is a godsend when you visit Barcelona or Madrid as it shows you the options for metro, bus, walking, and hailing a cab. It also provides a cost estimate.

The verdict on getting around: Tie.

entrance to ciutadella park in Barcelona with arches that are known as the arch de triumph made of brick and with a walkway underneath for people to stroll, bike, or jog under.

The parks in Barcelona are perfect for exploring on the mostly sunny days in the city.

Final Verdict: Should I go to Barcelona or Madrid?

Still undecided on Madrid vs Barcelona to visit? Sorry to break it to you but you just might have to travel to both!

In summary, beachy Barcelona is the place to go if you’re looking to pad out an itinerary with lots to see and, ideally, aren’t on a tight budget. Artsy Madrid is calmer and lovely for a relaxing shoulder season weekend away.

From the perspective of someone who could never choose a favorite: you might leave feeling more bowled away by Barcelona. There’s so much to see, the beaches are ace, and it has an electricity to it.

Madrid’s beauty lies in its subtlety. It may pale slightly in comparison, especially if you love seaside places, but there’s a lot of magic to be found. It’s energetic like Barcelona (especially at night and during festivals) but more pared-back.

So, is Barcelona better than Madrid? Only at the height of summer or the depths of winter.