When planning a visit to Spain, people often find it hard to decide between Barcelona or Madrid. Let my comparison of the two cities help you make the decision that's best for you.
The city that never sleeps… at night.
My first stop on my European adventure landed me in Barcelona, Spain. As a solo traveler, I arrived with no plans or commitments and was free to explore Barcelona as I pleased. I booked a week at my hostel and figured that would be enough to explore this great city. Many friends that have traveled Europe previously, have labeled Barcelona as their favorite destination on their travels so I did have high expectations coming in. I was not disappointed at all. Walking down Las Ramblas, working out on the beach, visiting La Sagrada Familia, and being in the city during El Clásico kept me more than entertained throughout my stay.
There are many touristy activities in Barcelona, so if you are aiming to do the majority of them then I would say you’d need more than a week in Barcelona alone. I visited Mont Juic which is a magnificent hill with the National Catalonian Art Museum at the summit. The Olympic stadium from the 1992 Olympics (which featured the legendary U.S. Dream Team in Men’s basketball) is also across the street and worth checking out. There are also endless museums and churches that you can see, but I restricted myself to the main ones. The Barcelona cathedral is a sight to behold, however it is La Sagrada Familia that is the crown jewel of churches in Barcelona. This is the final masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi, who is iconic in his architectural work around Barcelona. It is still in construction with an expected end date of 2026 (after beginning construction in 1882). You may have heard of the Gaudi houses or the Parc Guell which are other pieces of his work you can see around the city which I highly recommend. I also checked out the Picasso museum which was cool but paled in comparison to the architectural work by Gaudi that I sawaround the city. With that said, to each his own, I was never huge on paintings anyway. Now I am no art or history buff but a lot of this stuff you can learn from many free walking tours offered around the city which I think is always a great first stop when in a new European city.
As Barcelona is a very touristy area it is very accommodating and you can usually do most things at very convenient hours, unless you are experiencing one of the 3 S’ of Barcelona; Siesta, Sunday, and Soccer. Siesta is an afternoon nap that a lot of the city tends to slow down for. Many shops will close and it may be a bit more difficult to accomplish things, however I found many touristy areas were just fine. Sunday however was far more difficult, the majority of shops shut down including “La Boqueria” which is a huge market in Las Ramblas worth checking out and grabbing a 1 Euro fruit smoothie. The final S is “Soccer” or rather, futbol. If Barcelona FC is playing, get a ticket to the game or get to a local bar to enjoy the match, however, get there early as it is sure to fill up. The whole city stops to watch this game and even if you aren’t much of a futbol fan it is well worth it to join in on the festivities. I was in Barcelona for El Clásico which is a the biggest match of the year against rival team Real Madrid (the team I really support but wasn't going to openly cheer for around crazed Barca FC fans). I couldn’t find a ticket for under 500 Euros which was out of my price range however I managed to get one to a Champions League game against Atletico Madrid which had more serious implications for the team and was very exciting as well. I definitely recommend catching a soccer game if you are there during season.
The nightlife in Barcelona is also nothing to overlook. Clubs do not close until 6am and they don’t even get busy until about 3am. I found myself taking naps after dinner (which was usually around 9:00 pm) just to be able to make it through the night. Barcelona offers all types of clubs for many different types of travellers. Traveling alone you meet all types of people and have to be flexible in terms of where you choose to go out if you want to please all parties, with that said the purpose of traveling alone was to do whatever I wanted and so I did find myself in Jamboree nightclub in the Placa Reial which was a Hip-Hop/RnB joint with a DJ that could give DJ Esco a run for his money. Outside of Jamboree, I went to a few other clubs but the one that stood out the most was Opium which is a huge nightclub on the beach. This place does not stop. Top 40, EDM, Hip-Hop they have it all and they did not disappoint. You can walk out onto the beach and to the water and come back into the club with no hassle.
Definitely a place you have to check out if you’re looking for a wild night club.
Barcelona is also situated near the Balearic Islands with destinations such as Ibiza and Mallorca. I will be returning here in August to do these islands and so I can not comment yet, however it’s definitely something to look into if you’re coming for a visit.
And lastly in Barcelona there is the beach…. it’s one of the best in the world. Sun. Surf. Sand. Enjoy!
The centre of Spain. The battleground of religious civilizations.
Madrid definitely has a different pace to it than Barcelona. Although it is the 3rd largest city in the EU, I found it more relaxing than Barcelona, most likely because of the types of activities I chose to do. Many people I spoke to told me to spend more of my time in Barcelona than in Madrid which gave me a bit of a low expectation when I arrived. I was pleasantly surprised with the experience I had.
Madrid does not require nearly as much time as Barcelona to explore however do not short change it as there are many things to do. Two parks I visited here were unbelievable and even though I thoroughly enjoyed Parc Guell in Barcelona, it was no match for Buen Retiro Park. This was absolutely the most beautiful park I have seen and it is massive. There is also another park with an Egyptian temple “Temple de Debod” that I highly recommend seeing around sunset as it is two different experiences to see during daylight and at night. It is also situated at a cliff overlooking all of Madrid. Another stop to make is at the Royal Palace and Almudena Cathedral. Brilliant architecture and tons of history, one of my favourite stops on my walking tour. My walking tour was also instrumental in educating me on the long history of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century and how and why there is a large Muslim influence on Madrid and even more so in Andalusia in southern Spain. I won’t get into it here but if you are travelling to Madrid you will enjoy it more if you understand a bit of the history. Madrid is also the center of Spain and is a great site for day trips to places like Toledo and Segovia. I was unable to do these as I was only able to stay for a few days having to head to Lisbon, Portugal to watch a friend’s game who is playing basketball in the 1st division over there. After hearing my roommates in Madrid talk about it I will be headed back to Madrid soon enough to take day trips to those places.
Another great event to check out if possible is a futbol match of Real Madrid FC. The fans here are just as enthusiastic as Barca FC fans and they have in my opinion the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo. I had a chance to see them stomp Eibar FC in a 4-0 victory. HALA MADRID!
Now on to the night life. Madrid is right up there with Barcelona. I only went out one night while in Madrid as I needed to recover from Barcelona however it was unbelievable. I went on a pub crawl and it ended at a club called Kapitol which is a 7 story giant with each floor offering different DJs and a different atmosphere; EDM, Hip-Hop, Reggaetón, Karaoke, Hookah, etc. Whatever you needed, it was there. After an amazing time in Barcelona, I still crown Teatro Kapital the best club I have been to.
So who wins?
If I had to choose one, it’s Barcelona. For most of us, it is set up perfect for a touristy experience and the beach is really what puts it over the top. It truly is remarkable. With that said, Madrid is definitely a place to check out if you can make the stop on your journey.