Madrid or Barcelona: At a Glance
La Sagrada Família
|Catalonia (Northeastern Spain)
|Capital of Spain
|History & art museums
|Parks & architecture
|How Many Days
Madrid or Barcelona: Overview
Despite being very different cities with complex histories and unique cultures, Madrid and Barcelona also have a lot in common. Either city will provide you with excellent cultural attractions. Madrid has its art museums, while Barcelona is better known for its architecture. Both cities also have beautiful Medieval centers, so you can stroll through the enchanting cobbled streets, ending at the famous Plaza Mayor in Madrid or the Gothic cathedral in Barcelona.
Another shared characteristic is excellent dining and nightlife scenes. You can get traditional tapas in either city, though keep in mind that they're different throughout Spain. Madrid has its famed tapas street, Calle de las Huertas, whereas Barcelona's scene is a bit more spread out and rowdy, with the El Born district being the go-to.
Madrid or Barcelona: What's The Difference?
Now that you know what these cities have in common—a reminder that either one is a good pick—it might help to understand what types of experiences these two cities offer to travelers and what sets them apart.
As Patricia Marqués from YourTripToSpain&Portugal puts it, "Madrid is more interesting for those seeking history, museums, art... Barcelona is more relaxed, by the Mediterranean, but very interesting in terms of contemporary art and different buildings."
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. For some outdoor fun, El Retiro Park is Madrid's version of New York's Central Park.
Local specialist Becca Franks of MOBT Global shares, "To me, Madrid is the more traditional side of Spain, where you'll find all the monuments, food, and traditions that reflect the origins of Spanish culture."
Read more about highlights and getting off the beaten path in Madrid.
Though both cities offer day-trip opportunities, the destinations will be different. From Madrid, you can see the historical mixing of Spanish cultures in Toledo, check out UNESCO-listed Roman aqueducts in Segovia, walk along medieval city walls at Ávila, and appreciate the young 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. Generally, Madrid sees fewer tourists and is less expensive than Barcelona. Plus, it's easier to find "authentic" Spanish food in Madrid for a good price.
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 a 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 Gaudí's magical modernista architecture as well as several great beaches.
Becca continues, "Barcelona, being part of Catalonia, is very much its own culture, with its own language and history. So, while it's a much less traditional city in the sense of "Spanish culture," it has its own vibrant traditions, which are equally intriguing. Personally, I prefer Barcelona."
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.
For day trips outside of Barcelona, the main destination is the Costa Brava, a must-visit from Barcelona. The beaches here are more scenic and pristine, with lovely towns and authentic Spanish culture. Combine Barcelona and the Costa Brava with kayaking near coastal caves, wine tasting in the Empordà region, and the Dalí 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 unwinding on the islands.
Find out more about travel in and around Barcelona:
- Best of Barcelona and Ibiza - 8 Days
- Barcelona and Rural Catalonia - 7 Days
- Spain Beach Getaway: Barcelona & Menorca - 8 Days
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Madrid or Barcelona: Best Things to Do
Perhaps knowing what activities are available in each city will help you make your decision. As mentioned above, there's plenty to do in either hub, including day trips and travel pairings, but each has a distinct twist.
What to Do in Madrid
Because it's a city known for its museums and art galleries, some of the best things to do in Madrid include visiting these famed sites. To make it a little more interesting, you can enhance your experience with a private visit to the Prado Museum with an art historian. Or, combine your Prado visit with lunch at Botín, one of the oldest restaurants in the world. See how to choose the best Madrid museum for you.
Other popular activities include private walking tours in Madrid, visiting the Royal Palace, checking out the local markets, attending a jamón ibérico workshop, participating in a flamenco and tapas night, enjoying a history and taverns walk, renting a boat in Retiro Park, seeing a show on Gran Vía, perusing Lavapies street art, and much more.
Luis Fernandez de Vega Chavarri from Hidden in Spain offers a tip on how to spend your time in Madrid. "The Old Quarter is full of bars where you can sit and enjoy a drink, and one of my favorite activities is visiting the green areas of the city, like the Retiro Park or the Parque del Oeste."
Day Trip Activities
What to Do in Barcelona
Barcelona has quite a few activities to choose from, with a bit more variety than Madrid. Still, you can't think of the city without envisioning the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, so visiting his sites is definitely one of the best things to do in Barcelona. Enjoy a Gaudí architecture walk with La Sagrada Família, and add on Park Güell if you'd like. These activities also include Casa Milà and Casa Batlló.
Other activities to enjoy in Barcelona include a private stroll through the Gothic Quarter, a vermouth-tasting experience, visiting local markets with a cooking class, discovering the stories of FC Barcelona with a Camp Nou tour, enjoying a sunset sail along the waterfront, checking out Montjuïc Hill and Castle, strolling La Rambla pedestrian street, tasting tapas in the evening, riding the Ferris wheel atop Tibidabo, and more. As Patricia Marqués of YourTripToSpain&Portugal puts it, "Barcelona has more activities to do in the city and its surroundings."
Day Trip Activities
A popular excursion is kayaking and hiking in the Costa Brava or visiting a few Costa Brava sites, including Girona and the Dalí Museum in Figueres, or checking out medieval villages like Begur and Pals. You can also visit Montserrat and pair it with a hot-air balloon ride and lunch at a farmhouse.
Madrid or Barcelona: Where to Stay
Another deciding factor is lodging. Luckily, both cities are full of excellent choices, including some of the best boutique hotels and luxury accommodations in Spain. Whether you're on a budget or ready to splurge, there's an amazing hotel for you in either Madrid or Barcelona.
Where to Stay in Madrid
It's best to stay as central as possible, which is easy to do thanks to Madrid's relatively compact city center. It's surprisingly easy to walk through Madrid, but when needed, you can always take the metro. There are plenty of historical hotels in Madrid if you're looking for some character, or grab a hotel near Plaza Mayor if you want to be in the middle of the action.
Tip: Book one of the rooftop hotels in Madrid for extra common space and the perfect spot to watch the sunset over the city.
See the best boutique hotels in Madrid, ranging from luxury to budget-friendly.
Where to Stay in Barcelona
Likewise, Barcelona is filled with charming accommodations, particularly in its historic districts. Book one of Barcelona's rooftop hotels, as they're known for incredible views and trendy bars and eateries. You'll also find several rooftops with pools–perfect for a summer trip. And if you want to sleep among the medieval history, grab a hotel in the Gothic Quarter.
See the best boutique hotels in Barcelona, with plenty of options for any budget.
Madrid or Barcelona: How to Get There
Finally, it's helpful to know how to get to each city and what's the most convenient option for you if that's a factor in your decision. Luckily, as Spain's two biggest cities, both have international airports, so they're essentially equal in terms of accessibility. If traveling from the United States, you have your choice of direct flights to Madrid and/or Barcelona from:
- New York
- New Jersey
If Madrid is at the top of your list, know that you can easily get to the city by air, train, and bus. And once you're in the city, you can rely on its extensive public transportation network, which includes several metro lines, buses, and urban trains. The metro reaches all major transport hubs, including the airport, train stations, and bus stations.
- By Air: Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD) is one of the largest and busiest in Europe. It welcomes flights from all over the world, making the city easily accessible from nearly any international location.
- By Train: Madrid's primary train station, Madrid Atocha, serves as a major hub for Spain's high-speed rail network, the AVE. From here, you can catch direct trains to many Spanish cities, including a swift journey to or from Barcelona, if you'd like to combine the two.
- By Bus: The Estación Sur bus station in Madrid is one of the busiest in Spain, with numerous national and international connections. Buses might be slower than trains, but they can offer cost-effective alternatives.
Barcelona is also a major hub, so you'll find just as much convenience here as in the country's capital. You'll also find a metro and bus system in Barcelona, but keep in mind that traveling from the airport to the city center requires an airport bus.
- By Air: Barcelona El Prat Airport (BCN) is the primary international gateway to Catalonia. It has extensive European connections and several intercontinental flights.
- By Train: Barcelona Sants is the city's main railway station, offering high-speed AVE connections to Madrid, Seville, Valencia, and more. The journey between Madrid and Barcelona can take as little as 2.5 hours.
- By Bus: Barcelona Nord Bus Station is the primary terminal for regional, national, and international bus routes. While not as fast as the AVE train, buses can provide a more economical option for certain routes.
From other major cities, you'll need to connect in North America or Europe before reaching Madrid or Barcelona. See our Spain FAQ article for more helpful logistical information.
Madrid or Barcelona: The Verdict
When deciding between Madrid and Barcelona, consider your priorities and your desired experience. If seeing the sites of Antoni Gaudí, enjoying a lively culinary scene, and spending time on the beach is important, Barcelona is the perfect destination. On the other hand, if you're seeking a less crowded, more affordable experience diving into Spain's history and art galleries, Madrid is the way to go.
Ultimately, both destinations offer unique and memorable experiences, so you can't go wrong with either choice! Giving her best advice, Patricia adds, "When traveling in Spain, I like to suggest starting in Madrid and finishing in Barcelona. So at the end of the trip, everything is more relaxed."