I spent 2 years living in Barcelona and another 2 years in Madrid, and throughout my time in both cities, I continuously discovered something new and vibrant about Spanish culture.

Madrid was the first city in Spain where I set foot when I secured my first corporate job. It was my introduction to the country, making me fall in love with it. After my contract in Madrid ended, I secured a new job in Barcelona. When I moved there, I was immediately drawn to its artsy, fun, and beautiful ambiance. 

If you’re having trouble deciding whether or not you should visit Madrid or Barcelona for your next trip, here’s an overview of both cities to help you out. But whichever city you choose, you’ll have the holiday of a lifetime! 

Hi, I’m Timon!

I’ve experienced the heartbeat of Spain firsthand. Over the last five years, I’ve immersed myself in the dynamic cities of Spain, truly living the Spanish way. My insights into this beautiful country are rooted in genuine experience.

Exploring Madrid

Spain, Madrid, Royal Palace

Madrid is the capital of Spain and the center of the country’s politics, economy, and tourism. From the famed Puerta del Sol to Spain’s Royal Palace, there is a lot of beauty to see. If you’re considering a trip, you might want to look into the best time to visit Madrid first. Here are some sites you should prioritize in a one-day Madrid itinerary.

Madrid’s Highlights

  • The Royal Palace of Madrid : The Royal Palace of Madrid is the largest palace in Europe and one of the largest in the world. The palace’s interior is notable for its royal armory and wealth of art, including paintings by  Caravaggio, Juan de Flandes, Francisco de Goya, and Velázquez.
  • Retiro Park: Retiro Park is one of the best-known parks in Madrid that was owned by the Spanish monarchy until 1868, when it became a public park. This park is the perfect place to have a picnic, go rollerskating, or even go on a paddleboat ride in its lake. The verdant gardens are a must-see sight for holiday-goers in Madrid. 
  • Temple of Debod: The Temple of Debod is an ancient Egyptian temple that was dismantled as part of the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia. It was rebuilt in the center of Madrid and is now a popular tourist site for those who wish to see a piece of ancient history.
  • The Prado Museum: The Prado Museum is the main Spanish national art museum located in Madrid. It features the single-best collection of Spanish art in the country, with paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and Diego Velázquez.

Personal Experiences in Madrid

Madrid cityscape and aerial view of of Gran Via shopping street

Madrid is the best place to get a closer look at the royal roots of Spain, as well as the liveliest parts of Spanish culture. I definitely recommend doing a bus tour, like this 1 or 2 Day Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Bus Tour, or hiring a tour guide when you first get to the city.

I did this when I first set foot in Madrid, which allowed me to understand the city’s history more intimately. While marveling at Spanish baroque architecture throughout the city center, I learned about why things were built the way they were and how influential artists were to madrileño culture.

I also loved seeing the sights mentioned in my Madrid highlights above, the nightlife, as well as being able to visit the surrounding cities of Madrid, such as Toledo, Avila, and Segovia. This city is truly the center of Spain and offers a lot to see and do as a result.  

Exploring Barcelona

Barcelona skyline in the afternoon at Golden Hour

Now that you’ve learned all about Madrid, you may wonder whether Barcelona is worth visiting. And luckily, it surely is too!

Barcelona is the capital of Spain’s northeastern province, Catalonia, packed with rich regional pride and a Mediterranean vibe. The city also has a unique bohemian charm due to the influence of renowned Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, and most of the sites I love were designed by him in the city. Here are the city’s highlights.

Barcelona’s Highlights

  • Park Güell: Park Güell is an iconic spot filled with colorful mosaics, dragon statues, and viewpoints of the whole city. Antoni Gaudí designed the park between 1900 and 1914. It has become one of Barcelona’s must-see sights ever since.
  • La Sagrada Familia: La Sagrada Familia is a basilica still under construction today that was originally designed by Antoni Gaudí from 1852 to 1926. This is one of the world’s most intricately built churches, combining Gothic and art nouveau styles of architecture to create an awe-inspiring structure. La Sagrada Familia is due to be completed by 2040, with spires reaching over 500 feet high. 
  • Casa Batlló: Casa Batlló is a building in the center of Barcelona that is considered one of Gaudí’s masterpieces. The house’s exterior features colorful and uniquely designed mosaics similar to Parc Güell, and the inside boasts exquisite art nouveau-style furniture and interior design that tourists can enjoy. 
  • La Barceloneta: La Barceloneta is Barcelona’s main beach area with a crystal blue sea, a bohemian atmosphere, and bumping beach clubs all around. If you have some beach fever during your trip, this is a spot you shouldn’t miss. 
  • La Rambla: La Rambla is the most well-known street in central Barcelona that connects the Plaça de Catalunya with the Christopher Columbus Monument at Port Vell. Tourists can visit the popular Las Ramblas market, eat at Catalan restaurants, and enjoy the tree-lined streets on the pedestrian walkway. 

Personal Barcelona Experiences

Barcelona City Spain With Amazing Architecture Aerial View

How many days in Barcelona do you need? I’d say 3 to 5 to give you ample time to enjoy the sights listed above. A weekend or more in Barcelona also allows you to experience the city’s nightlife and explore the surrounding areas like Montserrat, the home of the Black Madonna, and other beach towns.

There are also a lot of opportunities to meet other expats in Barcelona, which can make living in or visiting the city a lot more fun. The Catalan capital is one of the best places to find other English speakers in Spain and people from other cultures.

While living in Barcelona, I met people from Germany, Denmark, France, and Finland at my job. I also met several English speakers at the Barceloneta Beach clubs, which allowed me to learn even more about people from around the world. Barcelona is the perfect place if you’re looking for a Spanish city with a more international feel. 

Budget Insights: Madrid or Barcelona

When it comes to the cheapest places in Spain, unfortunately, Barcelona and Madrid are not. Due to their size, the amount of tourism they receive, as well as the beautiful scenery and historical architecture, it’s easy to see why. However, though Barcelona and Madrid are more expensive, there are ways to budget for a more stress-free experience living or visiting there. 

Daily Life and Expenses

Street in old Madrid downtown with colorful typical houses and balconies, Spain

When it comes to renting apartments in Madrid and Barcelona, you can find a shared apartment where you’re paying between €300 to €500 per month. You can expect to spend more than €700 if you’re living alone, and this price mark is a bit higher in Barcelona.

Regarding nightlife, you can also expect to spend more in Barcelona rather than Madrid due to its beachy location. However, when it comes to food expenses, Madrid and Barcelona are pretty similar.

If you want to save money, spend time eating in rather than eating out. Supermarket prices are quite similar to other regions of Spain, so you can still eat cheaply without breaking the bank. 

Traveling Within the Cities

Barcelona metro line

When traveling within the cities, Madrid definitely felt easier to get around. If you’re a tourist spending most of your time in the city center, you will barely have to take the metro to see Madrid’s iconic sights.

The Museo del Prado, Retiro Park, Puerta del Sol, along with other notable spots like Plaza Mayor, the Reina Sofia Museum, and the Thyssen Museum, are all within walking distance of each other.

In Barcelona, it’s pretty much necessary to take the metro in order to get from one popular tourist site to another. Walking from Parc Guell to Barceloneta Beach, for example, can take over an hour, and with all of the windy streets, being a pedestrian for too long can get chaotic.

Alternatively, you can opt to rent a car in Madrid or Barcelona, if you want to get around more easily and drive to surrounding beach towns near Barcelona and nature. 

Entertainment & Activities: Madrid or Barcelona

Showcase of a restaurant full of people in the city center, Barcelona, Spain

When it comes to entertainment, Madrid and Barcelona have their fair share of fun things to do. Madrid is worth visiting for its 7-story club, Teatro Kapital, its bohemian and hipster bar scene in Malasaña, and Madrid’s own “Soho” district, La Chueca.

Barcelona is worth visiting for the nightlife in its gothic quarter, the famous beach clubs, Opium and Pacha that stay open until 6 am, and epic boat party cruises. However, if you’re not into nightlife or party, don’t fret. Madrid and Barcelona have a lot of other activities for you to try out. 

Things to Do and See in Madrid

Monument to Alfonso XII in the Parque del Buen Retiro

Madrid has a variety of entertainment and leisure activities available for tourists both during the day and at night. However, the best ones are definitely out in the open air. Here’s what I would recommend:

Retiro Park Rooftop Terrace: The Retiro Park rooftop terrace, Florida, offers amazing views of the park and its monuments. You can also order drinks at this modern terraza while experiencing the ambiance around you. 

La Latina on Sundays: Every Sunday, a vibrant market graces the streets of the La Latina neighborhood in Madrid. This draws people to the area, where crowds flock to drink vermouth in bars, eat tapas, and relax on terraces in the sun. This makes it the perfect place to end a fun-filled weekend. 

El Corte Inglés rooftop at Callao: This rooftop of Madrid’s most well-known department store has a delicatessen market and restaurant area called the Gourmet Experience. Food and drinks include dishes and beverages from Spain, Mexico, Japan, and other international cultures.

Flamenco shows in Madrid: Flamenco is a traditional Spanish dance derived from the Romani subculture in the south of the country. Its popularity has grown among tourists because of the dance’s vibrant spectacle. Flamenco musicians play castanets and guitars while female dancers sport in flowy dresses as they move their feet to the song’s rhythm.

Wondering how to enjoy all these attractions in one trip? Read our Madrid guide to help you plan the perfect duration for your trip.

Things to Do and See in Barcelona

Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain - Facade of old apartment buildings

Barcelona has some of the best beach entertainment, nightlife, and outdoor excursions for travelers who are into a bohemian and laid-back lifestyle. Here are some of my favorite spots:

San Sebastia Beach: If you’re up for a place with chill beach-style vibes, San Sebastia Beach in La Barceloneta is definitely the way to go. The beach is connected to the Port Olímpic complex, where shops, clubs, restaurants, and glitzy yachts are the perfect place to have fun.

El Born:  The El Born neighborhood is lined with bars and boutique shops that can provide quality entertainment for adults of all ages. It has a younger vibe than some of the other neighborhoods of Barcelona, but if you’re looking for a hip, nightlife vibe, this is the place to go. 

Tibidabo: Packed with an adventurous vibe, Tibidabo is both the tallest hill in the Serra de Collserola mountain range and an amusement park site. It’s a great place for hikers and dare-devils alike. 

Food & Nightlife: Madrid or Barcelona

Madrid and Barcelona are the two most versatile cities in Spain when it comes to food. You can usually find cuisine from multiple Spanish regions, international delicacies, as well as some of the best vegetarian food in Spain. The nightlife districts of both Madrid and Barcelona are good places to start for those interested in food. Here are some tips for eating in these two cities. 

Madrid’s Gastronomic Adventures

Typical food called tapas in a bar in Madrid, Spain

I’ve had a variety of traditional Spanish foods in Madrid, which include patatas bravas, fried potatoes in a spicy sauce, paella, a Valencian rice dish that can be served with meat, vegetables, and seafood, and tasty filets of steak.

However, Madrid’s well-known local specialties are callos a la madrileña or tripe stew; cocido madrileño, a multi-course stew made with chickpeas, meat, and veggies; and oreja a la plancha, grilled pork ear. I recommend going to Taberna el Sur near the Antón Martín subway stop for this incredible Spanish fare. 

Barcelona’s Culinary Delights

An empty outdoor cafe with wooden chairs and tables in the gothic quarter of Barcelona, Spain

In Barcelona, I’ve tried traditional Catalonian and Spanish dishes, bubbly cava native to the region, and international food from across the world. Catalan cuisine relies heavily on ingredients popular along the Mediterranean coast, so Barcelona is the place to be for those who love seafood.

In addition to fish and shellfish, the traditional Catalonian fare includes fresh vegetables, wheat products, olive oils, wines, legumes, and mushrooms. I recommend Puertecillo Sagrada Familia near La Sagrada Familia Basilica for exquisite Mediterranean seafood and dishes. 

Education and Languages: Madrid or Barcelona

If you’re looking to travel to Spain for a language exchange, study abroad, or teach abroad experience, it may be helpful to think about how the education and culture of Madrid and Barcelona differ. As someone who has lived in both cities in Spain, I know how important this can be. Here’s what you need to know. 

Education: Madrid vs Barcelona

Clock tower of the University of Barcelona through the foliage

The largest university in Spain, the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), is located in Madrid and offers 27 courses of study for bachelor’s degrees, which makes this city an excellent option for study abroad prospects.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the best school in Spain, you may want to consider studying at the University of Barcelona, which is famous for its research and range of 75 undergraduate programs available.

After you research universities for your overseas education, take other factors related to Madrid and Barcelona into account. I recommend studying in Madrid if you like the hustle and bustle of a big city, want to be immersed in the Spanish language, and have easy access to travel around Europe and the rest of Spain.

However, Barcelona may be for you if you prefer a more cosmopolitan and international ambiance, enjoy living near the water, enjoy modern architecture, and don’t feel pressured to learn Spanish. 

Learning Spanish: Madrid vs Barcelona

Barcelona street with a pro-independence flag

Madrid is a great city for learning Spanish because it is the primary language for people who live there. Conversely, Barcelona isn’t the best place to learn it because most people in the city speak a regional language called Catalan.

When I was living in Barcelona, most of the locals would speak to me in English when I tried speaking to them in Spanish. This is due to the strong pride that Barcelona natives have for Catalonia. The city’s locals would rather speak English to tourists than Spanish, which is one of the reasons why I decided to learn Spanish in Valencia, as opposed to Barcelona when I was living there.

Valencia is worth visiting, like Madrid, for those who want to learn Spanish in a city close to Barcelona.

Art, Architecture & Sports: Madrid or Barcelona

Lovely art and architecture, as well as sports, all thrive in both Madrid and Barcelona, offering a variety of activities for tourists to see and enjoy. To choose an artsy and sporty vibe for your trip, here’s what you need to know about the arts and cultural scenes of the two cities. 

Artistic Inspirations

Work by famous artists is plentiful in Madrid. You can see Picasso and Dali paintings at the Reina Sofia Museum, paintings by Velasquez and Caravaggio at the Prado Museum, and works by Monet, Degas, and even Van Gogh at the Thyssen Bornemisza National Museum. Therefore, if you’d like to see the work of those artists, I recommend visiting Madrid. 

Barcelona, on the other hand, has much of a more raw, modern feel when it comes to its artwork, primarily because of Gaudí. If you want to see some masterpieces though, visitors should check out the Picasso Museum, where you can see famous works by the Malagueno artist. 

Architectural Marvels

Personally, I like the majestic buildings in Madrid, but the gothic style of Barcelona is also very appealing. Barcelona is also beautiful for those who prefer architecture that is out of the box with buildings like La Sagrada Familia and Casa Batlló. Madrid is definitely for those who prefer a grandiose style of architecture that reflects Spain’s royal heritage. 

Football Fever

Stadium Santiago Bernabeu

Both Madrid and Barcelona love football (soccer in the United States), and you can clearly see how when you visit the cities’ stadiums.

The Santiago Bernabéu Stadium is home to the Real Madrid football team, and with a current seating capacity of 83,168, it has the second-largest seat capacity in Spain. On the other hand, the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona is home to the FC Barcelona football club, taking the win for the largest seating capacity in Spain as a whole.

With 99,354 seats, Camp Nou is the 5th largest stadium in Europe. Though Camp Nou has a more prominent vibe, I have attended matches in both Bernabeu and Camp Nou and recommend visiting either to see the most popular sport in Spain. The lively fans, boisterous cheers, and the action of the matches will give you experiences you’ll never forget. 

Where to Stay: Comfort in Madrid and Barcelona

Seeking holiday accommodation in these two cities is easy due to the wide variety of hotel options. Here’s where to stay.

Where to stay in Madrid

  • Artrip Hotel: Located in Madrid’s colorful and diverse Lavapiés district, this artsy hotel is only a 10-minute walk from Atocha Metro Station.
  • Ilunion Pio XII: This design hotel in Chamartin is perfect for those who want to stay in a peaceful area of Madrid. Direct buses to Puerta del Sol stop outside, and Madrid’s IFEMA Exhibition Center is a 10-minute drive away.
  • Catalonia El Retiro: This stylish, modern hotel is located in the Retiro neighborhood in Madrid, which is good for being around nature and relaxing. It’s also close to the Méndez Álvaro Bus Station if you plan on visiting the surrounding areas.

For more information about Madrid’s neighborhoods, check out our article: Where to Stay in Madrid.

Where to stay in Barcelona

  • Archie Living: Located in the Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona, this exceptional hotel is situated 1.3 miles from Nova Icaria Beach and 1.4 miles from Somorrostro Beach, with wonderful city views.
  • Wilson Boutique Hotel: This lovely hotel is located on Barcelona’s Avinguda Diagonal in the Sarrià-St.Gervasi neighborhood is the perfect spot to be situated near the Passeig de Gràcia Boulevard, one of the major avenues in Barcelona and one of its most important shopping and business areas.
  • Caterina Santa Monica: Located in the Ciutat Vella neighborhood of Barcelona, Caterina Santa Monica’s holiday apartments are right in the city center. These accommodations are great for those who want to be in the middle of Barcelona’s action and close to the beach. 

The Verdict: Madrid or Barcelona

Between Madrid and Barcelona, there is no clear winner. Both cities have their pros and cons, so for your trip to Spain, visit the city that feels right for you and your preferences.

Go to Madrid if you want to experience traditional Spain, and visit Barcelona if you enjoy the nightlife and bohemian beaches. Your final destination is yours to choose.

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