Madrid or Barcelona: Which City in Spain Should You See First?

Madrid or Barcelona: Which City in Spain Should You See First?

Embark on a Spain adventure made for you!

One is the vibrant capital of Spain, the other a mecca of Modernist architecture and sun-soaked beaches. Madrid and Barcelona are both such incredible cities that it’s no wonder travellers often struggle to choose between the two. Madrid or Barcelona? Barcelona or Madrid? Read on for a point-by-point comparison that will help you figure out your dream city in Spain!  

Also read: 6 Things in Spain That Surprised Me During Our Family Vacation

1. Attractions


madrid or barcelona

Royal Palace of Madrid | Image credit: WangKun Jia via Canva Pro

As the capital of Spain, Madrid has a wealth of cultural attractions that exemplify the nation’s history. The Royal Palace of Madrid showcases the splendour of the Spanish Empire and remains the ceremonial home of Spain’s royal family today. Step in to marvel at opulent marble floors, frescoes, and the royalty’s crown jewels. 

madrid or barcelona

Prado Museum | Image credit: Andrey Khobostov via Canva Pro

Art lovers in Madrid must pay a pilgrimage to the Prado Museum, a goliath art museum that has been compared to the Louvre. Inside, you’ll find paintings by Goya, Rubens, Titian, Velázquez, and El Greco, along with sculptures dating back to ancient Rome.


Other notable art museums include the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum. The Reina Sofia showcases works of modern art, while the Thyssen holds many works from the impressionist and expressionist movements. 


Overall, Madrid’s attractions cater to art and history enthusiasts. Furthermore, these are quite economical compared to museums in Barcelona. Prado Museum offers free entry two hours before closing time. People under 18 years old and students aged 18 to 25 may also visit for free. The basic ticket price for both the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Reina Sofia is €12. 

Also read: 8 Airbnbs in Madrid That Will Make You Feel Right at Home


madrid or barcelona

Sagrada Família | Image credit: dem10 via Canva Pro

The question of Madrid or Barcelona is simple for architecture fans: Barcelona! The city is renowned for its numerous masterpieces by modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. 

Enter the Sagrada Família to see the architect’s unique vision come to life. The tree-like columns and exquisite sculptures of this one-of-a-kind cathedral will leave you breathless. Other Gaudí works in Barcelona include: Park Güell, a whimsical residential park; and Casa Milà, a bizarre apartment building with an undulating facade and twisting balconies. 

madrid or barcelona

Picasso Museum (left); Barceloneta Beach (right) | Image credit (L-R): Picasso Museum Official Facebook Page; Wronsky Net

For art lovers, there’s the Picasso Museum, which displays over 4,000 of the Spanish icon’s paintings. Here, you can see works from the painter’s adolescence to his mature years. Housed in a medieval palace, the museum is a beautiful place dedicated to beautiful art. 

Being a coastal city, Barcelona boasts a number of gorgeous beaches. Barceloneta Beach, Llevant Beach, and Mar Bella Beach are just some of the sun-soaked magnets that draw beach-goers every summer. 

If you’re an architecture fan, Picasso enthusiast, and/or a beach-goer, choose Barcelona over Madrid. You won’t regret it!

Also read: 10 Stunning Airbnbs in Barcelona You’ll Want to Move Right Into

2. Food

When deciding which is better, Madrid or Barcelona, one of the factors you may consider is the food. After all, Spain is known for being a top foodie destination


Image credit (L-R): Al Gonzalez; Lunamarina via Canva Pro

For a wide variety of food from different regions, Madrid is the way to go. You can get the most authentic Spanish food here, since the city is not as touristy as Barcelona when it comes to foreign influences. Try the local tapas classics such as tortilla de patatas (potato omelette), croquetas (croquettes), and gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce). 


madrid or barcelona

Image credit (L-R): Juan Moyano; eelnosiva via Canva Pro

As the capital of the Catalonia region, Barcelona is the best place to get a taste of Catalan cuisine. Emblematic Catalan dishes include pa amb tomàquet (toast rubbed with tomatoes and garlic), meatballs with cuttlefish, and black rice with allioli (a sauce made with garlic and olive oil). 

In both Madrid and Barcelona, you will also find international cuisines such as Japanese, Italian, French, and Turkish food. Spanish food alone has so much variety that it’s unlikely you’ll get bored at the dinner table. 

3. Day Trips


madrid or barcelona

Toledo | Image credit: Lusiasmile via Canva Pro

In the Madrid vs Barcelona travel showdown, the nation’s capital benefits from its central location. From Madrid Atocha Station, it’s a 30-minute train ride to Toledo, a walled city with Arab, Jewish, and Christian heritage. 

Climb up to the Alcázar de Toledo, a stone fortification on the highest point of the city. Once a Roman palace, it was later taken over by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain. Other sights to see here include the Synagogue of El Tránsito and the Monastery of San Juan de Los Reyes

L-R: Synagogue of El Tránsito; Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes | Image credit (L-R): Miralex; thehague via Canva Pro

The Synagogue of El Tránsito was built in 1357 and turned into a church following the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Today, it is a Sephardic museum dedicated to Spain’s Jewish community. The synagogue building is known for its elaborate stucco work and Mudejar-style ornamentation.

The Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes was built by the Catholic Monarchs to celebrate the birth of their son, Prince John, and their victory over Afonso V of Portugal. Inside the main chapel, you can see the coat of arms of the Catholic Monarchs, supported by eagles and figures of saints. 

Aqueduct of Segovia | Image Credit: SeanPavonePhoto via Canva Pro

Another popular day trip from Madrid is Segovia, which is only a 30-minute train ride from Madrid Chamartin Station. Here is where you can see a stone aqueduct dating back to Roman times. The Aqueduct of Segovia was built between the late first and early second century to transport water from the River Acebeda into the city. This wonder of Roman engineering is 28 metres high and made of over 20,000 blocks of stone. 


Montserrat | Image credit: carlosanchezpeyrera via Canva Pro

From Barcelona, there are a couple of day trips you can take. The first and most obvious would be Montserrat, a one-hour ride on the R5 train from Barcelona’s Plaça Espanya Station. This iconic mountain range is the site of the Santa Maria de Montserrat abbey, which houses the Black Madonna. The Black Madonna is a sacred statue believed to have been carved in Jerusalem at the beginning of Christianity. 

Montserrat comes from the Catalonian word for ‘serrated,’ referring to the jagged rock formations of the mountain range. 

Penedes Wine Region | Image credit: Manel Vinuesa via Canva Pro

Wine aficionados will love Barcelona for its proximity to the Penedes wine region. The Penedes wine region is famous for Cava production. Cava is a sparkling wine made in Catalonia by fermenting wine in bottles for nine months or more. Visit the Penedes with private or small group wine tours, or get there by the R4 train from any of Barcelona’s major stations.

Also read: New High-Speed Trains Make Travelling Across Spain Much Easier

4. Climate


madrid or barcelona

Image credit: SeanPavonePhoto via Canva Pro

Madrid is an inland city and has a slightly harsher climate than Barcelona. In summer, the temperature can go up to 31°C, whereas in winter, it drops to 1°C at night. The city sees an average of 63 rainy days a year. The rainiest seasons are spring and fall, and the driest season is summer. 



Image credit: ake1150sb via Canva Pro

As a coastal city, Barcelona experiences a mild and warm climate. In summer, the average temperature is about 28°C. In winter, temperatures rarely fall below zero and usually stay between 9 and 13°C. The city experiences 55 rainy days a year on average, with fall being the rainiest season. 

Also read: 12 Best Affordable Summer Destinations in Europe

5. Nightlife

No Madrid vs Barcelona travel comparison would be complete without bringing up the party scene in both cities. Their diverse populations mean that you’ll find a wide variety of music genres, ranging from flamenco to hip-hop and soul. The sheer number of people in these cities also results in different kinds of nightlife venues. Whether you’re into chill cocktail bars or raucous party clubs, Madrid and Barcelona will have something for you. 


El Penta Bar | Image credit: El Penta Official Facebook Page

Madrid, being the larger of the two cities, holds a greater variety of nightlife venues to choose from. The city is home to La Movida: a counterculture movement which began with the fall of the Francoist dictatorship in 1975. La Movida is associated with synth pop and punk rock music, heavy makeup, and illicit drug use. 

Experience remnants of the counterculture in the Malasaña district, where you’ll find bars playing trendy music from the 80s. A must-visit would be El Penta, the first bar and DJ venue in Madrid. This bar has been immortalised in the song La Chica de Ayer by Antonio Vega, which is played at closing time every night. 

Chueca Pride (left); A bar in Lavapiés (right) | Image credit (L-R): Ted Eytan; La Noche Boca Arriba Official Facebook Page

In the Chueca neighbourhood, there is a flourishing LGBT nightlife scene. Apart from bars, the district houses many bookshops, travel agencies, and restaurants popular with Madrid’s queer community. 

Head to the Lavapiés neighbourhood to bask in a diverse scene of flamenco, hip-hop, reggae, and electronic music. This multicultural nightlife area offers an intoxicating blend of African, Arabic, and Latino influences. 


Barcelona is famous for its electronic music scene and beachfront bars. If you’re the type who likes to party by the sea, the answer to the question “Madrid or Barcelona?” is the latter, without a doubt. 

Some of the best beach clubs in Barcelona include Opium, which attracts thick crowds with its party atmosphere. There is also Wet Deck, which hosts Sunday night pool parties all summer, and Pacha, which boasts a futuristic vibe and Ibiza-style parties. 

In summer, visitors to Barcelona may take part in the Sonár Music Festival, a mega music event that draws top artistes from all over the world. It often takes place in mid-June, so you might want to schedule your trip in time for this!  The 2023 festival featured acts such as Catalan singer Bad Gyal, British rapper Little Simz, and cult electronic music band Fever Ray. 


6. Other destinations you can explore afterwards



Granada | Image credit: 12019 via Canva Pro

The last point to consider in the Madrid vs Barcelona travel dilemma is each city’s accessibility to and from other destinations.

Madrid is right in the middle of Spain, which means that from here, travellers can hop on a train and get to most of the other major cities. It is closer than Barcelona to destinations in Southern Spain like Granada, Malaga, and Seville

Those planning to visit Portugal can also get there more easily from Madrid. The sleeper train from Madrid to Lisbon takes 10 hours and 45 minutes, with tickets starting from €25. Meanwhile, a flight from Madrid to Lisbon takes only about an hour and a half and costs around €90.


The Pyrénées | Image credit: Mladen Mladenov via Canva Pro

Barcelona lies in the northwestern part of Spain, close to France and Andorra. It is also near the Pyrénées mountain range that divides France and Spain. Fortunately, there are many direct flights and train rides going to and from Barcelona. If you are visiting Paris, you may take a high-speed train from Barcelona Sants Station to Paris-Gare-de-Lyon Station. Each ride costs around 40. The journey lasts nearly seven hours and takes you through the scenic countryside of Southern France.

Meanwhile, there are also smaller cities in Spain that are close to Barcelona. While there are several to choose from, our top recommendations would be Girona, Zaragoza, and Tarragona. These destinations are all less than two hours from Barcelona by train. 

The TZ verdict: Madrid vs Barcelona

Image credit: PocholoCalapre; Together We Watch’s via Canva Pro

Ultimately, there’s no right answer to “Which is better, Madrid or Barcelona?” It all comes down to your interests and travel plans. 

Art, history, and flamenco enthusiasts will love Madrid. The Spanish capital is full of art and history museums which offer unmatched cultural experiences for affordable prices. Flamenco bars are more common here due to the city being closer to Andalusia, the birthplace of this performance art. If you’re planning to visit Portugal or Andalusia afterwards, Madrid will fit nicely into your travel plans. 

Meanwhile, architecture fans and beachgoers will have their needs better served in Barcelona. Apart from Gaudí’s masterpieces, the Catalan city has other architectural gems in the Romanesque, Gothic, and Modernist styles. Since Barcelona is a coastal city, you won’t have to travel far to get your fix of sun and sea. It’s also close to France and Andorra, which you can add to your itinerary.  

Also read: 50 Essential Spanish Phrases for Your Next Vacation

That’s all for our comparison of the two biggest cities in Spain. If you’re still undecided, don’t fret! The two destinations are only a two-and-a-half-hour train ride apart, meaning that you could easily visit both in one trip. 

What do you think of our Madrid vs Barcelona travel guide? Share your top Spain travel tips on our Facebook page today! 

About Author

Joyce Lee
Joyce Lee

Joyce is an aspiring writer who lives on black coffee and Netflix. In her free time, she reads, goes for long walks at sunset, and dreams of faraway places.