Barcelona or Madrid: Which Spanish City to Visit?

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by Audrey Webster


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Both Madrid and Barcelona are considered hallmark cities in Spain. After all, year after year, they’re the two most visited in the country. However, that’s largely where the similarities end. Whether you’re visiting vibrant Madrid or heady to beachy Barcelona, you can expect a whirlwind experience of all things Spanish culture, history, and cuisine. 

When choosing which of Spain’s largest cities is best for your vacation, there are a few factors to take into consideration.

In general, choose Madrid if you’re looking for a massive, multicultural city with a thriving tapas scene and world-class art museums. On the other hand, Barcelona is perfect for architecture lovers, seaside views and those interested in Catalonian culture.

Madrid 

As the capital city of Spain, it should come as no surprise that Madrid is a cultural and historical epicentre. Filled with museums, historical sites, and exceptional food, Madrid could be the perfect destination for your vacation. 

Retiro Park in Madrid
Retiro Park in Madrid

Accessibility 

Madrid is a large city that’s well-equipped with public transportation. The metro is by far the easiest and most affordable way to get around this sprawling city. There are some metro lines that reach as far as the Madrid-Barajas Airport if you’re arriving in the city by air.

There are also buses, taxis, and rideshares available. If you want to set out to explore the city, you could also rent an electric bike from charging docks stationed throughout Madrid. 

The Madrid Metro is considered to be one of the finest in Europe. It has numerous lines with countless stations. There are usually trains every two minutes at the major stops during the busiest times of day and every 15 minutes after midnight.

Visitors can purchase a Tourist Travel Pass. This contactless card allows you to load tickets for all kinds of public transportation to seamlessly get around Madrid. If you opt to pay a bus fare with cash, make sure to use a small bill as most drivers do not have change for anything larger. 

All that said, Madrid is an easy city to get around on foot. Most of the city’s iconic destinations are within walking distance from each other. Taking on Madrid by foot also invites you to stumble upon unique parts of Madrid that won’t show up on a map. 

Madrid is also home to a number of different bus and train stations and it is easy to get to other areas of Spain (you can check schedules here) or go for some day trips from the capital.

Metro sign in Madrid
Metro sign in Madrid

Affordability

When you’re weighing whether to visit Madrid or Barcelona, the affordability of each city is most likely a factor you’re considering. Compared to other European cities, Madrid does tend to be on the more affordable side.

You can easily find a room at a moderately nice hotel in central Madrid for around €100 per night. A hostel bed might cost closer to €20 per night whereas a room at a high-end hotel will be upwards of €200. 

Breakfast and lunch are the cheapest meals. You can easily find a pastry and coffee at a local cafe for no more than €5 total. Lunch at a traditional restaurant will cost around €10-15 per person for a set menu including a starter, main meal, dessert or coffee and a drink.

Dinner, depending on the restaurant you visit, could cost anywhere from €20-30 per person, including a main dish, drink, and possibly an appetizer. 

Ticket prices to the city’s museums like the Reina Sofía or the Prado Museum usually cost roughly €15 per ticket. If you’re planning on spending more than 2 or 3 days in Madrid, you can purchase a museum pass. There are different tiers, each valid for a different number of days and offering entry into five or more museums.

It could also be worth purchasing if you’re only visiting for a couple days and if you plan on visiting as many museums as possible. Make sure you look into what museums are covered by each package, as there are some that don’t include Madrid’s most famous art museums.

Overall, it is possible to visit Madrid on a budget and still have a wonderful time. 

Free tapas in Madrid
Free tapas in Madrid

Things To Do In Madrid

First and foremost, Madrid is home to several exceptional art collections. The Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte, the History Museum of Madrid, and the National Museum of Romanticism are all great options. The Reina Sofía Museum is home to the famous Guernica piece by Pablo Picasso that brings in thousands of visitors each year. 

For a stylish market experience that’s home to regional cuisines, visit the San Miguel Market — or head to some neighbourhood markets like the Mercado Antón Martín in Lavapiés for a more local experience.

Take a stroll around the Royal Palace of Madrid to admire the stunning landscaping and spend an afternoon lounging in El Retiro Park. Make sure to stop by the Palacio Cristal, a glasshouse with contemporary art built in 1887. Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol are both vibrant main squares with plenty of shopping and restaurants. 

Plaza Mayor in Sol, Madrid
Plaza Mayor

Madrid is a city that invites its visitors to explore on foot. Without a doubt, you’ll come across historic monuments, statues, and architectural wonders that together create a well-rounded Madrid experience.

Walk the Calle Gran Vía, visit the Mercado El Rastro, and stop to admire the Puerta de Alcalá, a neoclassical gateway that captures any onlooker’s attention. 

Of course, no visit to Madrid is complete without taking advantage of the city’s iconic tapas culture. There are countless incredible bars in Madrid serving up delicious dishes for affordable prices. Consider heading out on a self-guided tapas tour of La Latina or, alternatively, book a guided food tour here.

There are also lots of great day trips from Madrid making the Spanish capital a great base for exploring other areas in the region. Visiting towns like Toledo, Segovia and Ávila are all within easy reach and worth heading out to. Cities like Segovia or Toledo are also accessible by high-speed rail in under 30 minutes.

Beautiful Toledo
Beautiful Toledo

Where to Stay in Madrid

II Castillas Madrid – Those looking for a central place to stay in Madrid near Puerta del Sol will love this mid-range hotel. There are lots of rooms to choose from, discounted parking at a nearby garage, breakfast and a bar and restaurant on site.

Only YOU Boutique Hotel – This swanky boutique hotel in hip Chueca is an excellent, central place to stay in Madrid. There are lots of chic and modern rooms on offer, 24-hour room service available, an on-site bar, a fitness centre and a spa are also available.

Hostal Foster – This is a great budget option for visitors to Madrid. Located near the Santo Domingo metro station, there are a range of comfortable rooms to choose from, air conditioning and breakfast available in the mornings.

The Hat Madrid – A boutique hostel located a stone’s throw from Plaza Mayor, this hostel offers private rooms and dorms (some female-only) – all air-conditioned. There are also great common areas for meeting other visitors to the Spanish capital.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other Madrid hotels!

Lavapies Street Art
Lavapiés Street Art

Barcelona

Barcelona has become famous for its gothic architecture and exquisite nightlife. It’s where you’ll find the famous Sagrada Familia as well as historic sites designed by Antoni Gaudí. Here’s everything to know when considering Barcelona. 

Accessibility

There are many differences between Barcelona and Madrid, but one thing they have in common is the ease with which visitors can navigate these cities.

Like Madrid, Barcelona boasts a reliable and expansive public metro system that is by far the easiest way to get around the city. The rail service, or FGC, is the most convenient and sustainable way to get between destinations in Barcelona.

There are presently eight metro lines throughout the city. There is also a fleet of over 1,000 buses that reach all areas of Barcelona. Taxis and rideshares are also popular options, depending on how far you’re traveling. Rental bikes and electric vehicles are another two great options for exploring the city at your own pace. 

The Hola Barcelona Travel Card, or HolaBCN card, offers travelers favorable deals for public transportation. This option is specifically designed for tourists and gives visitors unlimited access to the city’s public transportation for a set price depending on how long you’re planning on visiting.

Alternatively, the T-Casual card offers 10 rides before expiring, which might be a more realistic option if you’re only visiting for 2 or 3 days. Each train station has a kiosk where you can purchase single- or multi-ride tickets. The public metro reaches all the way to the airport.

The Barcelona Card offers tourists discounted prices on transportation as well as on attraction tickets throughout the city. It’s the more comprehensive option should you want to be able to easily get around and see as many attractions as possible. 

The Catalonian capital is also home to its own large, international airport, making it a great starting-point for any Spanish adventure. The city is also well-connected by both bus and rail to many other destinations within Catalonia and Spain as a whole.

Using the metro is a great option in Barcelona
Barcelona Metro Sign

Affordability

Barcelona caters to both solo travelers and groups by offering an array of accommodations. Visitors can reserve a bed in a shared hostel room for as little as €20 per night whereas a private room in a hostel will be closer to €75.

A mid-range hotel is estimated to be around €125 per night whereas a high-end hotel will easily be upward of €200. Bear in mind that May thru September is the peak tourist season for Barcelona, so hotel prices usually increase during these months.

Food throughout Barcelona will be more expensive near the popular tourist destinations. Eating out in Barcelona does tend to be more expensive compared to Madrid. A visit to a bar near the Sagrada Familia, for example, will price each individual tapa at around €5.

Small and quick breakfasts can cost under €5 per person while a meal at a mid-sized restaurant will most likely be somewhere in the €20-30 range. A nice meal out, including a main, drink, and appetizer, will often be at least €50 per person.

There are many parts of Barcelona you can do for free, like exploring the Gothic Quarter or enjoying the beach. However, nearly every popular tourist site that makes Barcelona famous will require an entry fee.

A visit to the Sagrada Familia, perhaps the city’s most popular attraction, will cost somewhere between €20 and €30, depending on if you opt for a tower visit or a guided tour. Parc Güell, famously designed by renowned architect Gaudí, is almost entirely free to visit, except for the Monumental Zone, which costs just upwards of €10.

Most museums, including the Picasso museum, are free on certain days. Free walking tours, exploring La Rambla, and visiting the Casa Batlló are all free Barcelona attractions and well worth a visit. 

La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia

Things To Do In Barcelona

When looking at things to do in Barcelona, you’ll likely notice there are a lot of Gaudí-inspired attractions. From La Sagrada Familia, a towering church that Barcelona has become famous for, to Parc Güell, a sculptural park where visitors can also walk through Gaudí’s residence, there is no shortage of exceptional architectural feats to admire.

Consider paying a visit to Casa Batlló and La Pedrera-Casa Mila to round out your tour of Gaudí’s Barcelona. 

Art and architecture are big parts of Barcelona. You’ll notice this while walking through the Gothic Quarter or exploring the Cathedral of Barcelona.

Montjuic Castle is a historic fortress and museum that provides exceptional views over the city and a fountain light show after dark. It’s also a go-to spot for sunrise or sunset, but expect crowds as it’s a popular attraction. 

View of Barcelona from Park Guell
View of Barcelona from Parc Güell

A walk down La Rambla or through Ciutadella Park are two relaxing ways to spend an afternoon. Lovers of music will appreciate Palau de la Musica Catalana while gastropods will marvel at the Mercado de la Boqueria.

The Picasso Museum is a must-see while the Museu Nacional d’Arte de Catalunya displays art from the region dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you’re interested in learning more about the unique history of Catalonia, visit the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya. 

Barcelona is a great base for exploring other towns and cities in Catalonia, as well. Going on a day trip to the lovely city of Girona is a viable option, for instance, as is heading to the monasteries of Montserrat or to surrealist Salvador Dalí’s birthplace of Figueres. If you’re looking for a coastal day trip, visiting Tarragona or Sitges is a great choice.

Outside the Dali Museum in Figueres
Outside the Dali Museum in Figueres

Where to Stay in Barcelona

Hotel Condado — This hotel located in the centre of Barcelona is a great option for mid-range travellers to Spain’s second city. Situated perfectly for seeing all this metropolis has to offer, they have a number of great rooms available and also offer breakfast each morning.

Room Mate Anna — Those after a bit of luxury while in Barcelona will love this 4-star boutique hotel. Perfect for visitors looking for a romantic getaway, they have a range of delightful rooms to choose from and a perfect location for exploring the city.

Fabrizzio’s Petit — If you’re visiting Barcelona on a tight budget or travelling solo, this centrally-located hostel is an excellent option. They have both dorm beds and private rooms available, a location close to the city’s top sites, and great self-catering facilities and common areas for guests to enjoy.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Barcelona hotels!

Placa Reial
Placa Reial in Barcelona

Madrid or Barcelona: Which is Better to Visit

So, taking all this into consideration, which city should you visit? If you are more interested in art and history museums, Madrid is your place. The city is chock full of museums–probably more than you’ll have time to visit in a single trip. On the other hand, Barcelona is notorious for its exceptional architecture. 

Madrid is slightly more affordable than Barcelona. It’s larger, the capital, and has more options for lodging and dining. Dining out will more often than not be more expensive in Barcelona.

There isn’t a huge difference between Barcelona vs Madrid when getting around each city, but Madrid does have a more expansive public transportation system compared to Barcelona. 

Anyone whose travels are guided by delicious food will have more options in Madrid. Barcelona still offers several chances to try exceptional Spanish cuisine, but Madrid is more of a melting pot of different foods. A foodie will have a great time exploring Madrid. 

Madrid is more ideal for solo travelers, but Barcelona has ma lot of nightlife to offer. Barcelona is known for being a romantic city, great for those traveling with a partner or who want a relaxing weekend away.

Madrid is a bustling city that offers little respite from the noises and chaos that is typical for large European cities. 

Make sure you choose a city that aligns with what you want out of a vacation. Whether you visit Barcelona or Madrid, you’ll leave the city wanting more. These are the two most popular cities in Spain and they both live up to their reputations. 

Are you trying to choose which Spanish city to visit? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Audrey Webster is a writer for The World Was Here First. She is an Oregon native who has visited countries across the globe and currently spends her weekends exploring the Pacific Northwest and surrounding states. Her approach to traveling combines exploring famous tourist sites and wandering off the beaten path to discover new destinations.

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