Spain’s two biggest cities have long had a friendly rivalry – and it goes far beyond football. Madrid Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content is a capital city too, of the autonomous area of Catalunya Dropdown content, 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.
Being the capital, Madrid has several of the country’s – if not the continent’s – leading art museums. The Prado Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content has nearly a thousand works of art on display including an American art collection and the Reina Sofía Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content. 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 Dropdown content.
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.
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 Dropdown content and Galician Dropdown content, 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 Dropdown content on Las Ramblas Dropdown content 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.
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 Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content, or dodge the tourists among the small but cool bars of the Gothic Quarter Dropdown content. 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.
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 Dropdown content 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.
Madrid’s central location means plenty of day trip options within easy reach. Toledo Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content, 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 Dropdown content, with its Roman forum and city walls, while even closer (thirty minutes by train) is Sitges Dropdown content, with its fabulous beachfront promenade and lively beach bars.
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.
Explore more of Spain with the Rough Guide to Spain Dropdown content. Compare flights Dropdown content, find tours Dropdown content, book hostels Dropdown content and hotels Dropdown content for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance Dropdown content before you go. Featured image Pixabay / CC0.