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.
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.
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.
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!