Madrid or Barcelona: which should you visit first?

written by
Helen Ochyra

updated 05.04.2024

Spain’s two biggest cities have long had a friendly rivalry – and it goes far beyond football. Madrid is, of course, Spain’s capital city and as well as being more or less geographically at the centre of the country, it is also the centre politically, economically and culturally – as well as the home of the Spanish monarchy.

But Barcelona is a capital city too, of the autonomous area of Catalunya, in Spain’s far northeast. On the coast, it has a more Mediterranean vibe, which means both a more laidback character and higher numbers of more tourists.

So, Madrid or Barcelona, which should be your next city break destination? Here’s our lowdown on what they have to offer.

Madrid or Barcelona: which should you visit first?

A visit to Spain promises a tapestry of rich history, vibrant culture, and an array of experiences that is, to say the least, bewildering. Deciding between the two most illustrious cities of the country, Barcelona and Madrid, would be almost an impossible decision. As an explorer of the exciting world of travel, I had a chance to plunge into both cities, each being a thumping heart with their own rhythm and melody.

Barcelona—with its Mediterranean beaches, basking in the sun, and the whimsy of Gaudí's creations amid electric blue water—seems like something from a daydream, fixed in stone and sand. It is a city that combines the vivacious dance of colours and flavours into some past-future mix. 

Madrid contrasts Barcelona with its regal splendour and vibrant cultural life. It boasts wide avenues, historical monuments, and lively squares. Centrally located, Madrid experiences hot summers and cold winters. Art lovers gravitate towards its famed museums, while food enthusiasts explore its markets for diverse flavors. The city's nightlife pulsates with energy, offering endless entertainment.

Madrid La Latina district © Shutterstock

Madrid La Latina district © Shutterstock

Which is best for culture?

Being the capital, Madrid has several of the country’s – if not the continent’s – leading art museums. The Prado is the country’s national art museum and home to a collection of European art from the twelfth to the nineteenth century.

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza has nearly a thousand works of art on display including an American art collection and the Reina Sofía has the country’s national collection of twentieth century art, including Picasso’s famous Guernica. Few cities can boast quite as much historic art as Madrid.

But Barcelona has Gaudí. This Catalonian architect certainly made his mark on the city and there are beautiful examples of his work all over Barcelona, from the still unfinished modernist masterpiece that is the Sagrada Familia basilica to the magical, sculpture-filled Parc Güell.

There’s plenty more modern art here too, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), Museum of European Modern Art (MEAM), Picasso Museum and Miró Museum.

Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, Museo del Prado, Madrid © Pixabay

The Garden of Earthly Delights in Madrid's Prado.

Which is best for food?

Madrid sits inland and its traditional dishes tend towards the heartier – there’s plenty of stew. Two typical meals are the cocido Madrileño, a hearty, chickpea-based stew, and the callos a la Madrileña, a stew made with beef tripe and blood sausage. But it's not all about the meat: bocata de calamares is traditional a fried squid sandwich – try one at the Mercado de San Miguel.

Madrid also has plenty of restaurants serving other regional Spanish cuisines such as Andalucían and Galician, as well as international cuisine of every flavour – there’s plenty of choice here.

Barcelona is a more touristed city and so food tends to be more expensive. Eating is taken very seriously by the Barcelonans, though, and if you know where to go you’ll eat very well here.

La Boqueria on Las Ramblas is one of Europe’s best food markets, and Catalunya has a reputation for creative cuisine, thanks to famous chef Ferran Adrià, who was born in Barcelona. Most meals are anchored by pa amb tomàquet, toasted bread topped with a delicious mix of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and salt, and you’ll find plenty of Catalonian cheese, mushrooms and jamón too.

One of the main differences in the food culture of the two cities is that it is far more common in Madrid to be given a free tapas dish with your drink in a bar – in Barcelona this is very rare indeed.

Barcelona is also famous for its tapas bars. You can find out more about them in our guide to the best tapas bars in Barcelona.

Traditional Paella served at restaurant in Formentera, Spain

© Shutterstock

What about nightlife?

It is said that Madrid has more bars per capita than any other city in the European Union and we can believe it – many streets in the city centre are lined with cafés and bars. You certainly won’t go thirsty here.

You might get tired though, as things start very late here indeed; no Madrileño will even consider hitting the dancefloor before 2am. Head to Lavapiés for grungy bars, Barrio de Salamanca for something sleeker and Chueca for the city’s best selection of gay bars and clubs.

Barcelona has plenty of party spirit too, along with a generally more laidback attitude. For upscale clubs head to Port Olímpic, or dodge the tourists among the small but cool bars of the Gothic Quarter. Things start late here, and although not quite as late as in Madrid, a siesta the next day is obligatory in both cities, of course.

Park Guell Barcelona, Spain © Shutterstock

Park Guell Barcelona, Spain © Shutterstock

Where should I shop?

Madrid has a huge range of shops, from department stores (mostly around the Gran Vía) to the designer boutiques of the Barrio de Salamanca. Head to Fuencarral for alternative fashions and don’t miss the Sunday flea market El Rastro for antiques and quirky clothing.

Barcelona is generally considered Spain’s fashion capital and here you’ll find plenty of new, chic designers as well as vintage clothing shops. The Born district is the place to head for the best boutiques, while emerging hotspot Sant Antoni has plenty of vintage options.

Which is the best base for day trips?

Madrid’s central location means plenty of day trip options within easy reach. Toledo is just half an hour south by train and a real heavyweight when it comes to history – don’t miss the cathedral or the Alcázar. Slightly less crowded is Segovia, a two-hour train ride north of Madrid, where you’ll find a magnificent Roman aqueduct, a Gothic cathedral and a fairytale-esque Alcázar.

Barcelona has the beach and there’s no need to go far to enjoy it – La Barceloneta is just minutes from the city centre and home to sandy beaches and seafood restaurants. Just one hour by train along the coast is Tarragona, with its Roman forum and city walls, while even closer (thirty minutes by train) is Sitges, with its fabulous beachfront promenade and lively beach bars.

Panorama of the Alcazar of Toledo, near Madrid, Spain © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Panorama of the Alcazar of Toledo, near Madrid, Spain © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

So which one should I go to?

Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. If it’s traditional culture, Madrid can offer classy museums and easy day trips to historic cities, but if it’s a more laidback, perhaps beachy break then it has to be Barcelona.

Both cities are fun, with great nightlife, food and shopping, so take your pick – you can always visit your second choice next time after all.

Deciding to visit Madrid, check out our list to where to stay in Madrid, and if you've decided on Barcelona - our list of the best areas to stay in Barcelona will help you to find an accommodation option that suits you best.

Explore more of Spain with the Rough Guide to Spain. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Featured image Pixabay / CC0.

Helen Ochyra

written by
Helen Ochyra

updated 05.04.2024

Helen Ochyra is a Scotland-obsessed freelance travel writer and author of the critically acclaimed Scottish travel book "Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes", a Times Travel “book of the week” and one of Wanderlust’s “best travel books of 2020”. Helen specialises in British travel and is currently studying towards a Masters in British Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Helen's work has recently appeared in the Times, the Telegraph and Grazia among many others. She lives in London with her husband and two young daughters.

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