In Spain, the Madrid vs Barcelona debate is serious business. Which is a better place to live and to visit?

Both cities have their pros and cons. Barcelona has its famous Modernisme architecture and miles upon miles of beaches. On the other hand, Madrid is the pretty-yet-gritty capital city: world-class museums, restaurants galore and so much nightlife that occasionally going to work on less than an hour of sleep is a point of pride for locals.

Writer Daniel poses in front of Arc de Triomf in Barcelona, Spain
Daniel at the Arc de Triomf in Barcelona © Gopika Beena / Lonely Planet

I live in both Barcelona and Madrid, so I have a horse in both races. As a freelance writer, I don’t have to live anywhere in particular, so I’m more or less free to be where I love. For most of my adult life, that place has been Madrid. But when my girlfriend suddenly got a job in Barcelona, we decided to pick up and move. Sort of.

Actually, I kept my apartment in Madrid. To be honest, I was half expecting the charm of the capital to wear off after a couple of months of beachside living in Barcelona, but it didn’t. So now, I’m making it official. I live in two cities, and I love them both.

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Exterior view of Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona's unique Catalan modernism architecture is reflected in buildings across the city © Travelpix Ltd / Getty Images

Madrid vs Barcelona: which city is better?

It’s hard to say that Barcelona is better than Madrid or vice versa because the cities are so different in a lot of ways. Barcelona has a noticeably quirky aesthetic seen in its Catalan modernism architecture, and of course its own language and regional independence movement. The Mediterranean climate means it’s not too hot or too cold, and then there are Barcelona's amazing beaches.

Madrid, on the other hand, is the center of Spain: usually either too hot or too cold, it’s less stunning architecturally and much less tourist-focused. And it’s probably better not to talk about Madrid's version of the beach. Instead, go to Parque del Buen Retiro to relax and cool off in the shade or have a nice walk by the Manzanares River. Try to make friends with someone who lives near a swimming pool. But Madrid has a strange hold on many people. I’m far from being the only one who came for a week and found myself still there a decade later.

Daniel sits at an outdoor table with a pint of beer in Madrid, Spain
Daniel out for a pint in Madrid © Natalia Diaz / Lonely Planet

Food in Madrid and Barcelona

One thing you can say about nearly anywhere in Spain: the food’s great. Madrid and Barcelona are no exception. From the typical taverns to newer gastropubs and international cuisine from around the world, there are thousands of restaurants and bars in each city. 

Madrid’s star dishes don’t seem as stellar when compared to Barcelona’s. In the capital, you'll find cocido madrileño (a meaty chickpea soup) and callos a la madrileña (a thick stew made of tripe and other cow parts). Try these local classics at spots like Casa Jacinto for cocido and Casa Toni for callos. Those dishes are not nearly as glamorous as some of the Catalan specialities you can find in Barcelona: bomba catalana (a potato croquette stuffed with ground beef) at La Cova Fumada or esqueixada at Can Ramonet – also known as Catalan ceviche, it’s a cold dish made of marinated salt cod.

There’s no reason to stop at local cuisine, though: Spain has many other regional cuisines, and vibrant immigrant communities mean you can find restaurants serving dishes from nearly anywhere in the world.

People in boats in Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid, Spain
Madrid's Parque del Buen Retiro is a great place to relax © The World in HDR / Shutterstock

Traveling from Madrid and Barcelona

One thing I didn’t appreciate enough when I was living in Madrid full-time is that it’s so well-connected to the rest of Spain and Europe. As the major hub for Iberia airlines as well as the AVE high-speed train network, Madrid feels close to almost everywhere. If you want to take a day trip from Madrid, it’s close to towns like Toledo, famous for its mix of Gothic and Mudéjar architecture, and Segovia with its massive Roman aqueduct and Alcázar fortress.

On the other hand, Barcelona is close to France, which means you can take a short flight and spend the weekend in Bordeaux for some wine culture or Marseille to soak up the grit and grandeur of the famously multicultural port city. The beaches and nature of the Balearic Islands of Mallorca and Menorca aren’t far either, nor is the club scene and nightlife in Ibiza. But all in all, being in Barcelona means it’s a bit harder to travel around Spain, though you can also day trip to beaches and medieval towns nearby.

Whimsical facade of Casa Batlló in Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona is full of stunningly designed buildings, including Casa Batlló © alxpin / Getty Images

Barcelona is tourist heaven… Madrid, not so much

When friends come to visit me in Madrid, it’s not always clear what I should show them. It’s a great city to live in, but after you’ve seen Museo del Prado, Reina Sofía and Plaza Mayor, there aren't lots of big-name attractions left. Madrid is not about tourism, and that’s one of the reasons I love it. Instead, it’s about the lazy Sunday afternoons drinking vermouth in the La Latina neighborhood, enjoying the nightlife in Malasaña, and hanging out in the city's taverns and terrazas with tapas. 

Barcelona, on the other hand, is a tourist paradise. The beaches, the bike tours, the whole Barri Gòtic neighborhood are all set up for the enjoyment of visitors. (Fun fact: much of Barcelona's Gothic Quarter was actually built in the early 20th century as a tourist attraction for visitors to the 1929 International Expo). And then there’s Gaudí and his world-famous architecture: monuments like the perennially unfinished La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló and Park Güell attract long lines of visitors nearly every day of the year.

In Barcelona, prices are higher: you’ll be charged for every tapa. But in Madrid, tapas are free with drinks, and the prices are more reasonable. Spending €6 for breakfast in Madrid used to seem like the height of luxurious waste. In some areas of Barcelona, you can barely get an orange juice for that. There's a bigger downside, which is Barcelona's overtourism problem. Cruise ships the size of stadiums pull in and out of the port several times a day. Recently, residents have protested against rising rents, and you can see "Tourists Go Home" on posters and graffiti around town.

View over Gran Vía in Madrid, Spain
It's not easy to compare Barcelona and Madrid, but one city has this writer's heart © Westend61 / Getty Images

So which Spanish city has my heart?

I’ve thought about it a lot. While Barcelona might seem to be the city with more going for it, I still love Madrid. After all, I spent most of my adult life wandering through the neighborhoods of the capital. You can’t beat watching the moon rise over the ocean in Barcelona, but in the end, Madrid has my heart. 

This article was originally published in September 2019.

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This article was first published September 2019 and updated August 2021

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