Planning a trip to Spain and debating whether you should visit Barcelona or Madrid? Or possibly you just want to know where you should allocate more time? I had the same dilemma when researching my first trip. I'll take you through what each city has to offer and which might be best for you!
Spain is one of my favorite and most visited countries. It's affordable, the food is insanely good, and the sights are memorable. There are so many worthwhile cities to visit and spend time in, planning a first trip can be overwhelming.
Barcelona and Madrid are usually the cities visitors start researching first. They are, after all, the top two cities to visit in Spain. When discussing whether to visit Barcelona or Madrid, everyone seems to have a strong opinion.
Some prefer Madrid for its museums and authenticity, others prefer Barcelona for its old-world charm and fantastical sights like the Sagrada Familia.
I really wasn't sure which way I would lean until I visited both cities back to back...and then returned to each multiple times. One was a clear winner for my travel style and taste, which I'll share below. I can also see and will take you through, why the other city might be best for you.
Continue reading to discover if you should visit Barcelona or Madrid!
Why decide between Barcelona or Madrid if you can do both?
Before we get into Barcelona vs Madrid, let me first say that I've really enjoyed spending time in both cities. In fact, I've returned to each more than once.
A direct 3-hour train connects Madrid and Barcelona, making it possible and easy to do both.
If you have four days or more before heading to other cities, you could see both Barcelona and Madrid. Depending on where you're headed next, it actually might make sense to include both.
For example, if Barcelona seems more your style, but you also plan on visiting Seville and Granada, it would make sense to spend one or two nights in Madrid since a high-speed train connects Madrid to Seville. If you left from Barcelona you would have to fly.
Generally speaking, Barcelona deserves a minimum of 2 nights (3 or 4 would be ideal). Madrid can be seen in a (very rushed) day, though 2 days in Madrid would be preferable.
The short and sweet answer to Barcelona vs. Madrid travel wise
Since you’re reading this post on Barcelona or Madrid, I'll assume you are either short on time or would like to explore one city to the fullest and not feel rushed. Therefore, fitting both cities into your itinerary is not an option.
The quick answer to Madrid or Barcelona is Barcelona (for me). Overall, Barcelona has more to do and see, is more enjoyable to wander, boasts old-world charm, and has some incredible day trips to choose from.
Madrid feels a bit more modern and there aren't as many sights (though there are more museums).
While it's a close call, there is one reason I would choose Madrid over Barcelona. If you're on a very tight schedule and plan to visit southern Spain (Seville and/or Granada), Madrid makes for a better choice.
You can get to Seville in 2.5 hours via the high-speed train from Madrid. It's easy and you save a lot of time by skipping another trip to the airport when you're forced to fly (which is the case for Barcelona).
Barcelona or Madrid - Who should pick Barcelona
Barcelona is more popular than Madrid
Barcelona has consistently been ranked in the ten most visited cities in Europe. Madrid usually makes the top twenty, but is further down the list. If you put any stock into where most people choose to spend their holiday, Barcelona has won that argument for years.
Barcelona has more things to do to keep the average tourist busy for three to four days
Barcelona has more tourists sights and activities. In general, I feel that Barcelona's attractions are more memorable. Antoni Gaudi plays a big role in why many tourists are drawn to Barcelona over Madrid.
The Sagrada Familia is one of the most well-known sights in the world. For those not familiar, the Sagrada Familia is a church like no other that's been under construction for the last 140 years. When finished, it will be the tallest religious building in Europe.
There's also Parc Guell with its wavy mosaic bench overlooking the Barcelona skyline and the residential buildings scattered throughout Barcelona including Casa Mila and Casa Batlllo. His designs really do feel like they're from a fairytale and are truly one of a kind.
Barcelona's other popular sights include the Picasso Museum, Las Ramblas (popular pedestrianized street), Gothic Quarter, Barcelona Cathedral, Barceloneta (beach), Montjuic and the Magic Fountains, and Ciutadella Park.
Madrid has fewer sights and activities and can be seen in two days
While Madrid is the capital, there are fewer sights to keep the average tourist engaged. The top attractions include the Royal Palace of Madrid, Retiro Park, Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia Museum, and Plaza Mayor.
These sights are all relatively close to each other and make it possible to fit a lot into a short amount of time.
The city center and "tourist zone" of Madrid is clean and easy to get around, but in general, I much prefer wandering around Barcelona to Madrid.
Barcelona is a city I would spend extra days in to soak up the atmosphere, wander aimlessly, shop, and revisit my favorite cafes. Madrid just doesn't have that effect on me. Some people prefer this though, as it feels like a city people live and work in vs a city made for tourists.
Barcelona wins for most memorable day trips
Both Madrid and Barcelona have several fantastic day trips.
Toledo is hands down my favorite day trip from Madrid and Girona is my favorite day trip from Barcelona.
Girona really won my heart. Game of Thrones was filmed here and it doesn't take long to see why. It's picturesque with ancient city walls and cobblestone streets. When you find yourself alone on a street resembling Westeros or Braavos (from Game of Thrones), you'll feel transported to another world.
Don't get me wrong, Toledo was fantastic, but Girona was better. I would return to Girona, but don't feel the need to do Toledo again any time soon.
Other worthwhile day trips from Barcelona include the beach town of Sitges, a combined tour of Montserrat and surrounding wineries with a tapas lunch, and the city of Figueres with the Dali Museum.
Barcelona has slightly better weather
Barcelona is on the coast and therefore has slightly better weather than Madrid. It's a few degrees warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer...though there's a tad more humidity in Barcelona.
Barcelona has better hotels
Because Barcelona sees more tourists than Madrid, I've found the options of hotels are limitless for every taste and budget. Madrid has a nice selection of hotels, but it's not nearly as extensive as Barcelona.
A summary of who should choose Barcelona over Madrid
If you want to experience unique sights by Antoni Gaudi, prefer old-world vibes, and enough tourist sights to keep you busy for three to four days, Barcelona is the right choice for you.
Barcelona also has more varied and memorable day trips including Girona, which was used as a Game of Thrones filming site, a visit to the beach town of Sitges, or a winery tour with a stop at a mountain top monastery.
I could wander Barcelona for days on the end with the picturesque Gothic Quarter and posh Eixample neighborhood.
While the city center (and main tourist zone) of Madrid is picturesque, once beyond that it starts to feel more residential and lacks the charm Barcelona brings to the table.
Madrid or Barcelona - Who should pick Madrid
Moving on to part two of whether you should visit Madrid or Barcelona…Madrid. I've already shared some of the reasons I prefer Barcelona to Madrid, and why I would allocate more time there when visiting both cities is an option.
There are a few reasons why I would take Barcelona off the itinerary and include Madrid instead.
MADRID IS BETTER CONNECTED TO SOUTHERN SPAIN
The number one reason I would pick Madrid vs Barcelona is if you're very limited on time and plan to include southern Spain in your itinerary. It's easier and more convenient to travel to southern Spain (Seville and Granada) from Madrid than from Barcelona.
A direct train will get you to Seville in under 2.5 hours or Granada in 3. Traveling to southern Spain from Barcelona requires a flight (unless you want to spend 5+ hours on a train).
Madrid is the better option for those with very limited time
Madrid is less daunting on a quick itinerary. If you're itching to get to southern Spain and only have one or two days to allocate to Madrid or Barcelona, Madrid will feel easy. It's not overwhelming and you can see all the main sights and get a feel for the city in two days.
Barcelona on the other hand has a lot more to see and do. Trying to do Barcelona in a day (even two) would be tough. If you're a person that wants to tick off all the "musts", trying to squeeze Barcelona in just a day or two will be frustrating.
In this situation, I would save Barcelona for another trip when you have more time.
Madrid feels less touristy/crowded, and gives a more realistic look into a working, living Spanish city
Those that prefer a "real" city compared to a tourist city will prefer Madrid to Barcelona. Madrid is not only the capital of Spain, but also a financial hub of Europe (just behind London, Paris, and Frankfurt).
This is a city where people have "real" jobs and not where everything seems to revolve around tourism.
The neighborhoods outside the tourist center have a distinctly residential feel to them.
Madrid isn't as popular as Barcelona and therefore is less crowded. Barcelona is a popular stop for cruise ships with its seaside location. Not so for Madrid. If you happen to be in Barcelona when several cruise ships have docked, get ready for a massive increase in crowds.
In general, Madrid feels calmer than Barcelona...especially once you leave the tourist zone. It's not hard to find quiet cafes and deserted streets. If you visit in the morning, you can even enjoy an almost empty Retiro Park, one of the most popular spots in Madrid.
Madrid is slightly cheaper than Barcelona
It's not surprising Madrid is slightly cheaper than Barcelona. Tourists are Barcelona's bread and butter. They can charge higher prices and get away with it. While Madrid does have its fair share of tourist traps, there are far fewer than Barcelona.
If you stay away from the tourist hot spots, you'll find prices catered to locals, not tourists.
MADRID is easier to get to with more non-stop flights
Lastly, there are far more non-stop flights to Madrid; especially from the United States. Not only does this save travel time, but also means you'll have a better chance of finding a deal on airfare.
A SUMMARY FOR WHO SHOULD CHOOSE Madrid over Barcelona
If you prefer a more authentic and "real" city, Madrid is the better choice for you. For quick itineraries where you'll be visiting southern Spain, not only is Madrid better connected via train but is also less daunting since you can experience the city and its sights in one to two days.
In terms of sights, Madrid also has more museums and the Royal Palace of Madrid is beyond stunning and grandiose.
Summary of Barcelona or Madrid
To sum up whether you should visit Barcelona or Madrid…if you’re looking for old-world vibes, enough sights to keep you busy for three or four days, some memorable day trip options, fantastical Gaudi sights, areas made for wandering like the Barri Gothic...Barcelona is for you.
Barcelona is a city I would happily bake in a few extra days just to take it all in, revisit some favorites, shop, and eat.
Madrid is better suited for those that prefer cities that are a bit more realistic and less touristy. Madrid doesn't become inundated with cruise ship passengers and caters to both the locals that live and work there alongside tourists.
Another significant perk to Madrid is how quickly you can get to southern Spain via train. It takes just 2.5 hours to reach Seville and 3 to get to Granada. I highly recommend making southern Spain a priority on a first visit to Spain.
If you only have a few days to spare after allocating your time in southern Spain, Madrid is the better choice.
Still debating whether to visit Barcelona or Madrid? Feel free to leave a comment below on what type of trip you want and I'll help you out!