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Spain Travel Guide

Which Is Better to Visit: Madrid or Barcelona?

Both Madrid and Barcelona are beautiful Spanish cities boasting plenty of sights, so how do you choose between the two?

During a recent trip to Madrid that saw me delicately maneuvering shiny new hybrid cars into and out of the crowded capital, I overheard a conversation between a fellow journalist and two Spanish natives, one a Madridista who calls the capital city home, the other hailing from Barcelona. The journalist, who was making his first trip to Spain, was jokingly trying to pit the two against each other to figure out which city is better. The answer, of course, is that both are fabulous cities worthy of a long weekend visit. But we lay out which city has the best outdoor public space, most delicious food and passionate sports culture, the coolest art museums, and more! And if you still can’t decide, here are our recommendations for the best things to do in Madrid and Barcelona.

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Restaurants and the Food Scene

At the top end of the spectrum, when using Michelin-starred restaurants as your guide, Barcelona (24) just beats Madrid (22), but the overall breadth of the food scene is heartier in the capital of Spain. Barcelona, however, has one distinct advantage: The Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria (or simply La Boqueria for short). If massive food markets are your jam (literally), this legendary, sprawling hub of fruits, fish, flowers, spices, candies, and gifts is your first port of call in Spain. It’s located on the famed La Rambla and is world-renowned for good reason: it’s a full sensory food experience unlike anything in Spain–or the world, for that matter.

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Soccer Culture (And Other Sports, Too!)

Two of the biggest and most beloved soccer clubs in the world are located in these two cities. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona each have millions of fans around the globe and have been home to some of the most legendary players of all time, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, respectively. But the soccer and sporting culture in each city go far beyond those two behemoths.

Including its suburbs, Madrid regularly has five clubs in the top flight of Spanish soccer, while Barcelona has a pair. Futsal (a fast-paced version of indoor soccer) and basketball are also wildly popular in Spain, and it’s no surprise that the most popular and well-funded teams, with the biggest star players, are also located in Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid has over two times the population of Barcelona, so it makes sense that the sporting scene there is also doubled, giving the capital city the edge on the pitch.

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Arts and Culture

Madrid has Picasso’s Guernica, one of the 20th-century’s most powerful pieces of art (which hangs at the Museo Reina Sofía), Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez in the marvelous Prado Museum, plus the largest and most important collection of Goya in the world. Barcelona, on the other hand, has the Picasso Museum tucked into its stone-encased Gothic Quarter, showcasing his work from childhood through the Blue Period, as well as prints and his ceramics.

The seaside city also literally has Gaudi’s fingerprints all over it, plus a marvelous Joan Miró Foundation (the painter, sculptor, and ceramicist was born in Barcelona) on the hill they call Montjuïc. If you prefer strolling galleries indoors, Madrid is your city. If being in a city that itself feels like an open-air art museum peeks your fancy, there is no better place on Earth than Barcelona, thanks to the Sagrada Familia, Case Batló, Miró mosaics, and a parade of sculptures including Frank Gehry’s Fish rising up along the sea.

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Outdoor Space

Sorry, Madrid, but Barcelona not only has sandy beaches (some of which are topless, if that’s of interest to you) running the entire length of the city, but there’s also a bevy of playgrounds for tiny tots to be found in the middle of wide boulevards. Plus, Antoni Gaudi’s crown jewel of public space, Parc Güell, with its bone-like structures and fractured tile benches, looks out over the city. Even with Madrid’s glorious La Fuente De Cibeles, a landmark fountain designed in 1777 by architect Ventura Rodríguez, and its many green parks, there’s just no competition regarding outdoor public space.

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Madrid and Barcelona are each home to a wide range of hotel options, from hostels to five-star luxury suites. Madrid has the chic, brand new Edition Hotel in the heart of the city that is a luxurious minimalist’s dream of a hotel. Barcelona is home to Hotel Arts, one of the great hotels in all of Europe, thanks to its multi-floor penthouses featuring 360-degree views of the sea, Sagrada Familia, and the entire city below from the highest perch in all of Barcelona. Those two-story villas in the sky come with complimentary use of cherry red Mini Coopers too! There’s also a two-star Michelin restaurant inside, Enoteca Paco Pérez, where you can have one of the most memorable meals of your life.
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Being between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea is something of a blessing as Barcelona tends to enjoy a temperate climate with a comfortable breeze year-round. While Barcelona’s summers can be warm, with highs in the 80s during July and August, it is usually dry and comfortable to walk around the Gothic Quarter and be on the beach. Madrid has more extreme weather, hotter summer days and even some snow in the winter isn’t totally unusual.
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Whether you are an avid walker or prefer to take public transportation to and fro while traveling, both Madrid and Barcelona have fantastic subway systems with clean and safe metro stations, many of which are accessible. Both cities are also a joy to see, experience, and explore on foot, with awe-inspiration architecture and aromatic street food, churros, and gelato awaiting around every corner.

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Considering that while walking around the city center of Madrid, you will see numerous concert posters advertising events in Barcelona, the seaside city located an easy three-hour train ride away proves itself to be the entertainment capital of Spain when it comes to live music, although the massive, multi-weekend music festival Primevera Sound is happening across both cities in June 2023. If nightlife and parties that rage on deep into the early morning hours are your thing when traveling abroad, Madrid is world-famous in this department!

As you can see, both cities are rich with things to do, see, and eat, places to stay, and ways of getting around easily. Our best advice is to incorporate both the classy capital of Spain and the modernist Catalonian capital into your Iberian Peninsula travel plans and decide for yourself which one takes the (tres leches) cake!