These two major cities are each worth a few days, offering different types of experiences. In an ideal world, you would visit both. But if you have limited time in Spain, we recommend focusing your time on one and their surrounding area.
Madrid is Spain's capital and largest city. The city is renowned for history, top museums, and galleries, and provides a gateway to other medieval towns and cities in central and southern Spain.
Barcelona, on Spain's north-eastern Mediterranean coast, is ideal for a beach-centric vacation, both within the city itself and nearby. While fewer people live in the city, the main downtown areas will feel more crowded than Madrid.
Major Differences Between Madrid and Barcelona at a Glance:
- Madrid sees fewer tourists and is generally less expensive than Barcelona
- Madrid is landlocked, while Barcelona is on the coast and near many beaches
- It's easier to find "authentic" Spanish food in Madrid for a good price
- In Madrid, they speak Castillian Spanish; in Barcelona, they speak Catalan
What Do Madrid and Barcelona Have in Common?
Despite their differences, Madrid and Barcelona have a lot in common as well:
- Excellent cultural attractions: Madrid its art museums, Barcelona its architecture
- Excellent dining and nightlife scenes (although Barcelona's is more raucous)
Good day trip opportunities nearby
- Major international airports with good connections to the rest of Spain and Europe
- High-speed train services to most major points of interest in the country
- Extensive public transit networks
Madrid is Spain's capital, home to the government and royal family. It's best known for its grand palaces, parks, and excellent museums, such as the Prado Museum and the Reina Sofia Museum. El Retiro Park is Madrid's version of New York's Central Park. Read more about highlights and getting off the beaten path in Madrid.
Madrid also serves as a simple base for nearby day trips. See the historic mixing of Spanish cultures in Toledo, check out UNESCO-listed Roman aqueducts in Segovia, walk along medieval city walls at Avila, and appreciate the vibe of Salamanca.
The central city also provides a great jumping-off point to explore nearby regions. Andalusia is easy to reach with a 2.5-hour train to Seville.
Explore the Spanish countryside by car to visit smaller towns that are harder to reach by train. South of Madrid, the regions of La Mancha (made famous by Don Quixote) and Extremadura receive few visitors yet are easily accessible from Madrid.
Read more about travel in and around Madrid:
- Southern Spain Road Trip: Madrid to Andalusia - 8 Days
- Highlights of Central and Southern Spain: Madrid, Seville & Barcelona - 12 Days
- Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid, Galicia & the Basque Country - 12 Days
Barcelona is the capital of fiercely independent Catalonia province, with its own language (Catalan), cultural identity, and a long-running campaign for independence. Catalonians are very proud of this identity, which gives Barcelona a distinct character. It's a more quirky and unassuming city than Madrid, but attracts far more tourists.
Barcelona is an ideal destination for travelers who want to experience city life and beach time, with Gaudi's magical modernista Architecture as well as several great beaches.
Barceloneta is the most central beach, but there are plenty more including Nova Icaria, Bogatell, and Mar Bella. Cycling is a great way of getting around this Mediterranean city. Want to spend several days exploring Barcelona? Read more in our highlights of Barcelona itinerary
Nearby, the Costa Brava is a must-visit day trip from Barcelona. The beaches here are more scenic and pristine with lovely beach towns and authentic Spanish culture. Combine Barcelona and the Costa Brava with kayaking near coastal caves, wine tasting in the Empordà region, and the Dali museum in Figueres.
Barcelona is also a great jumping-off point for the Balearic Islands including Mallorca and Menorca. These islands are more relaxed than Ibiza and only a one-hour flight from Barcelona. Spend a couple of days exploring the city attractions of Barcelona, and then a few more hiking, sailing, horseback riding, and relaxing on the islands.
Find out more about travel in and around Barcelona: