This is a question I have been asked more than twice, so I feel it deserves a write-up. Choosing between two great cities is never easy, so I say do BOTH! Ok, ok, fine.. if you really have to choose, here are my thoughts.
Let me caveat by saying I’ve only spent 3 days each at both so far (though I look forward to going back soon!). I went to Barcelona in February and Madrid in March (I am not sure how much weather plays into the experience).
Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city, with a population of about 1.5 million people in Barcelona proper. It is the capital and largest city in the region of Catalonia. Barcelona is a coastal city, located directly on the northeastern Mediterranean coast of Spain.
Madrid is the capital and largest city of Spain. The population of the city is about 3.3 million in Madrid proper. Madrid is located just northeast of the geographical center of the Iberian Peninsula, in the middle of the Spanish central Castillian plateau, at an average altitude of 650m.
I went to Barcelona first and found the city to be vibrant, fun, but yet laid back. It reminded me a lot of any big city, like New York or London. It was obvious that Barcelona is the economic capital of Spain, as I also didn’t find my dollar (or euro) to stretch that far. But that was likely because I stayed in a major touristy area where prices were hiked. For instance, the seafood paella I had for lunch one day was almost 30 Euros! Other than that, there weren’t many negatives at all. Barcelona is beautiful and a lot to see.
My hotel, Hotel Colon was perfectly located just opposite of the Barcelona Cathedral, a short walk to Las Ramblas and a few minutes walk to Catalunya square, so that was great in terms of getting to walk around.
The pigeons own Catalunya square, haha. There was lierally a million of them, which made for great photo ops, but I’d say if you are scared of birds pooping on you like I am, wear a scarf over your head.
Though I heard many horror stories of Las Ramblas, I had absolutely no problem walking around there, even closer to evening time. I do not recommend flaunting any valuables though. You have probably heard that Barcelona is Europe’s pickpocketing capital and a lot of that happens on the subways and at Las Ramblas.
One thing I enjoyed seeing in Barcelona was the graffiti. I love photographing the graffiti of various cities when I travel because I think it tells a story about that city and it’s inhabitants.
I wish I got more graffiti photos…
Another draw that Barcelona has is that it is a shore city, so there are plenty of gorgeous beaches. Though I did not make it to the beach when I was there, I have heard it is not an experience to be missed (though I managed to miss it – another reason to go back ;-)).
The real treat of Barcelona for me however was the proximity to Montserrat which I absolutely encourage anyone in Barcelona to take advantage of a day trip to visit (see my post about Montserrat here). Those mountains are just out of this world!
So that was Barcelona for me… definitely good times, though I do have a lot of unfinished business there. When I go back, preferably in the Spring or Fall, I would like to spend more time exploring Las Ramblas, take in a Flamenco show, visit Park Güell, and enjoy the famed beaches. I am targeting returning to Barcelona sometime in 2014.
Now on to Madrid. Let me just get it out of the way: Madrid is in my top 5 favorite European cities amongst legends like Paris and Prague. Nothing against Barcelona (as they are both great cities), I just felt Madrid had so much more character! I spent 3 days in Madrid and those 3 days were jam packed with things to do that it felt more like a week. Madrid gets a lot of flack for “being in the middle of nowhere“, smack dab in the middle of Spain with no beaches (unlike Barcelona which is a coastal city). But despite that, there was just so much to experience in Madrid!
The best way I can describe Madrid in comparison to Barcelona would be the younger, spunkier brother with a lot more character and personality. In Madrid, I felt like I was in Spain. Whereas in Barcelona, I found it almost interchangeable with any other major metropolitan city.
From the first night we got to Madrid, the city didn’t stop humming and humming loudly! There was hardly a quiet time in Madrid. Perhaps because we stayed at a hotel right in the city center (Hotel Quartro Puerta del Sol – very nice hotel, I highly recommend for proximity, style and affordability).
At every time of the day, there was activity, even till the wee early hours of the morning. There was not a boring second in Madrid, even if you just wanted to sit in your hotel room all day, all you had to do was open the window and feel the energy of the city.
Madrid was just different from Barcelona.. the architecture was different, the streets built differently, and even the food tasted a little different – and was less expensive. Paella for two for dinner in Madrid cost about a third less than the Paella for one for lunch I had in Barcelona (again, that may be because I stayed in a super touristy part of town, but then again, we did stay in the city center in Madrid as well).
The city center streets in Madrid were full of street performers and street artists.. there was ALWAYS something to see. Be it a protest, amazing caricature artists, tin men, or Chewbacca crossing the street.
I also felt Madrid offered more in terms of architecture and monuments to see. For instance, I was in awe of the royal palace. What a sight to behold.
It was also fun to hang out in Mercado de San Miguel market…
Then there was Gran Via, which had some beautiful architecture!
Though I didn’t experience the nightlife in Barcelona, I have a feeling it doesn’t hold a candle to Madrid’s. In Madrid, there is a bar, pub or club literally everywhere. Even if you were tired, you just had this feeling you were missing out if you didn’t go out and enjoy it.
Can you tell that I love Madrid?
In conclusion: both two great cities, but I personally would hands down pick Madrid to return to over and over and over again over Barcelona. I definitely would LOVE to go back to Barcelona again in the near future and at least experience the beach life and get further acquainted in the city. I know 3 days is not long enough to judge a city by, but then again, I spent the same amount of days in Madrid and it captured my heart.
If you want a laid back vibe in a beautiful city full of history and plenty of stores/shopping opportunity, go to Barcelona. But if you want to come alive and dance in the city’s vibe, please pack your bag and hurry on over to Madrid!
PS. Overall, I still have so much I’d like to do in both cities, and then more cities to visit in Spain, such as Seville and Malaga. I do plan on returning to Spain in the very near future and picking up where I left off. Who knows, my opinion might change the more time I spend in both cities..
Have you been to both Barcelona and Madrid? If so, which did you prefer (if you had to choose?)