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BlogTravel tipsMadrid vs Barcelona: Which city is right for you?
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Travel tips

Madrid vs Barcelona: Which city is right for you?

Jul 12, 2022 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

Whether you’re planning a Madrid tour or a trip to Barcelona, you’re in for an unforgettable experience. Both cities boast the kind of cultural cache that will mesmerize every type of traveler. They’re full of rich history, enthralling art, delicious food, and fantastic shopping—which is why our Spain tours are some of our most popular! But that’s also why it can be tricky to pick which city to visit first. If you need a little nudge when deciding between Madrid vs Barcelona, read on to find out which of Spain’s two most captivating cities is right for you.

What are Madrid and Barcelona like?

Travelers often ask, “How far is Barcelona from Madrid?” and the answer is it isn’t far at all. You can travel between the two cities in about three hours on a high-speed train, but each still has a distinct culture, history, and lifestyle. Before you dive into this Madrid vs Barcelona travel edition, check out some quick-hit historical and cultural overviews for each city.

Madrid

Madrid has been the capital of Spain since 1561, is the country’s most populous metropolis, and is all about imperial heritage. Boulevards are wide, parks are expansive, plazas are bustling, and buildings are regal. Its location in the middle of the country, surrounded by mountains, even speaks to its status as one of Spain’s top cities. This is where the Spanish empire was built! The bigger-is-better ethos can be felt everywhere, whether it’s in the royal palaces you’re exploring, the grand museums you’re discovering, or even the tapas bars you’re visiting on our Madrid tours. It has capital-city energy all the way.

Barcelona

Barcelona may not be Spain’s capital city today, but it did briefly hold the title from 1937 to 1939—and it remains one of Europe’s most important cities. It’s the capital of the province of Catalonia and is Spain’s biggest industrial hub. The city has also had human settlements since around 2,500 B.C. (including some that date back to the Roman Empire). There’s intrigue everywhere you turn on our Barcelona tours, which makes the city an ideal place to take on leisurely pursuits. Think: relaxing at the beach, studying the city’s whimsical architectural heritage, eating at innovative restaurants, or meandering through mysterious Gothic passageways.

Would you rather: tour Madrid’s top-notch museums or discover Barcelona’s architectural wonders?


Madrid

One of the top things to do in Madrid is dig into its countless world-class museums and art galleries. Yes, you’ll find museums everywhere in the world, but Madrid is truly one of the world’s most captivating art cities. Our Madrid tours give you many opportunities to marvel at these exquisite collections. The Prado, for instance, is among the most renowned museums thanks to its vast inventory of blue-chip artworks, especially those by Spanish masters like Velasquez and El Greco. Over in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, you’ll find Pablo Picasso’s world-famous Guernica, an anti-war piece he painted in 1937. There are countless smaller galleries all over the city, too. If you only have 48 hours in Madrid, swinging by these museums should be at the top of your list of things to do.

Tours that take you there: Whether you’re on our Grand Tour of Spain or our shorter A Week in Spain: Barcelona, Madrid & Seville tour, you’ll have guided visits to top museums—as well as free time to explore one or two more on your own.

Museum-hop in Madrid

Barcelona

Is Madrid or Barcelona better for art? Well, that depends on what type of art you want to see. If you’re interested in paintings and sculptures in a museum setting, take a Madrid tour. But if you’re looking for some of the most unique pieces of architecture, then you need to sign up for one of our Barcelona tours! This city offers a buffet of architectural wonders, and chief among them is one of Antoni Gaudí’s most famous creations: La Sagrada Família, which was started in 1882 but is still unfinished. Exploring the structural intricacies of this masterpiece is one of the most unforgettable things to do in Barcelona. “At the staggering La Sagrada Família, light filters in through the stained glass windows, filling the unfinished cathedral with ever-changing color throughout the day,” said staffer Claire. “I could have spent hours and hours just looking up.”

If you can’t get enough of Gaudí’s whimsical buildings (and who can blame you?), pay a visit to Park Güell. It’s the place to stroll amongst stunning buildings, see intricate stonework, and admire colorful mosaics—and to marvel at the brilliant views of Barcelona at the top of the park.

Tour that takes you there: Did you know that Spain is one of the best countries to travel to solo? On our Spain for Solo Travelers: Barcelona, Madrid & Seville tour, your Tour Director won’t just lead you through a visit of the Sagrada Família, but you’ll also explore Casa Batlló. It’s locally called “the House of Bones” thanks to its skeletal exterior. There’s also an optional Park Güell & La Pedrera excursion that will focus on two more of Gaudi’s iconic creations.

Wander through Gaudi's masterpieces

Would you rather: savor classic Spanish cuisine in Madrid or sample innovative cooking in Barcelona?


Madrid

In the Barcelona vs Madrid face-off, the best food is difficult to call—the cuisine in both cities is, simply put, delicious. In fact, the entire country is a diner’s paradise. That’s why all of our Spain tours include tastings of authentic food! We would say that food in Madrid is a bit more classic. This is where you’ll tuck into culinary icons like tapas (small shareable dishes), tortilla Española (the potato-loaded omelet), and paella (the famous rice platter of Spain). No Madrid tour would be complete without tasting all of the above.

How to taste it all on tour: On our Food & Wine: A Taste of Spain tour, the days you spend in Madrid will include a fun combo of sightseeing and food-related activities. During the day, you’ll tour the Royal Palace, visit the striking Temple of Debod (a reassembled Egyptian relic), and walk through Plaza Mayor, one of the most important squares in Spain. You’ll also visit food markets to sample local treats and sit down for a traditional Castilian feast in Restaurante Botín, a historic Madrid restaurant. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the restaurant is considered the oldest in the world. Dig into their two specialties: Castilian-style roasted lamb and the suckling pig.

Explore food markets in Madrid

Barcelona

Madrid’s cuisine is classic, and Barcelona’s could be considered more avant-garde. Some of the most creative restaurants in the world were born and raised in Barcelona, which is known as a playground for molecular gastronomy and Michelin-starred success. There are dozens of fancy, fine-dining hotspots in this city, where you might sample interesting dishes made with unexpected cooking techniques. Many of the world’s most celebrated chefs and restaurants sharpened their skills and knives right here. You may have heard of El Bulli and the Adrià brothers—names that put Barcelona on the culinary map. But of course, you can taste delicious paella and tapas in Barcelona, too. It’s the perfect destination for a food-loving traveler.

How to taste it all on tour: When it comes to food in Barcelona, our Spain tours mix and match different types of dining experiences. On our Food & Wine: Barcelona & Northern Spain with America’s Test Kitchen tour, the three-night stay in Barcelona offers a fantastic variety of culinary moments. You’ll get to take a cooking class that explores the flavors of the Catalan kitchen. You’ll also spend time browsing the freshest local ingredients in Santa Caterina Market—which you’ll whip together in a cooking class. Love sparkling wine? There will be a guided visit to the Cava-making region, where you’ll sip and savor the tastiest bubbles around.

Plus, there’s still plenty of free time for you to experience Barcelona’s contemporary restaurants on your own. If you want to spend a free night indulging in the best from one of their menus, we recommend booking that reservation way in advance of your trip to Barcelona.

Break into Barcelona’s food scene

Would you rather: spend your free time in a park in Madrid or on a beach in Barcelona?


Madrid

Due to Madrid’s location in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, getting to the sea is a bit tougher to pull off. But on our immersive Madrid tours, you’ll still have some free time to relax and soak in the local lifestyle. While the beach may be a great choice for Barcelona, sprawling parks are the places to be in Madrid. The city is one of the greenest destinations in Europe, with an extensive collection of parklands.

There are more than 40 parks in Madrid, and the most famous of them all is El Retiro—Spain’s answer to Central Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This leafy retreat is located in the heart of the city, and was once owned by the Spanish monarchy until 1868, when it became a public park. People-watching at El Retiro is one of our favorite things to do in Madrid, but one of the park’s can’t-miss highlights is the Crystal Palace, a 19th-century conservatory made almost entirely of glass. It’s primarily used for art exhibitions these days. El Retiro might be the most well-known park in Madrid, but the largest is Casa de Campo Park, which measures over 4,257 acres. It’s the largest in Spain.

Tour that takes you there: Some say that Spring is the best time to visit Madrid, when the city’s many parks are beginning to bloom. On our Barcelona, Madrid & Seville tour, you’ll have plenty of free time in Madrid to visit a few of these stunning, verdant oases.

Pass the day away in Madrid’s parks

Barcelona

When it comes to leisurely moments, the Madrid vs Barcelona conversation revolves around whether you want to be at the beach or at the park. Barcelona has 2.5 miles of sandy Mediterranean coastline, and on any Barcelona tour, you simply must get to water. When the weather warms up, this is where you’ll find the locals, too.

Tour that takes you there: In many ways, Barcelona’s beachfront district, Barceloneta, is the heart of the city’s social scene. You’ll find everyone there, and you’re more than welcome to join to soak it all in. On our Grand Tour of Portugal & Spain: Porto to Barcelona, you’ll have free time upon arrival in Barcelona to experience the special atmosphere of Barceloneta. You can bring a blanket and people watch, participate in some water sports, or visit any of the restaurants that line the sand—some of them are perfect for a meandering paella dinner.

Enjoy Barcelona’s beaches on tour

Would you rather: take a day trip to the historic towns outside of Madrid or to Barcelona’s wine country?


Madrid

When considering Madrid vs Barcelona, you should always dream about your day trips! That’s one of the joys of traveling to Europe—there are so many exciting regions and towns to explore just outside big cities. No Travel Guide to Spain would be complete without highlighting some of these special places—especially if you’re headed to Madrid, which is surrounded by even more bucket list locales.

Tours to take: Our Madrid tours typically offer the option of taking a day trip to Toledo on an added excursion. This beautifully preserved clifftop city is just 45 miles southwest of Madrid, and is a must-visit for history buffs. On our Grand Tour of Spain, a free day in Madrid could be spent discovering the fascinating heritage of this destination. Your Tour Director will lead a visit through Toledo Cathedral, a massive Gothic structure made even more beautiful by its countless stained glass windows and gilded decorations. Its sacristy is almost like an art gallery thanks to a collection of masterpieces by Van Dyck, El Greco, Rubens, and Titian. You’ll also pay your respects in the Church of Santo Tomé, which was once a mosque back in the12th century. It, too, is home to one of El Greco’s finest works, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. As we’ve said: A trip to Madrid will include a lot of incredible art.

Admire historic towns near Madrid

Barcelona

If a day trip in Madrid is all about art and history, then one in Barcelona is all about wine. The city of Barcelona is close to one of Spain’s prized wine countries, so wine lovers should be sure to visit a winery or two on their Barcelona tour. If you love sparkling wine, there are plenty of sips made by award-winning Cava producers at your fingertips. Cava is what they call sparkling wine in Spain, and the nearby region of Penedes is dedicated specifically to this style of winemaking. Trust us: Sipping a delicious glass of Cava is one of the best things to do in Barcelona.

Tours to take: Our Food & Wine: Barcelona & Northern Spain with America’s Test Kitchen tour includes an afternoon stop in the Cava region, where you’ll sip sparkling wine and walk through gorgeous gardens. On our Barcelona: The City Experience tour, you can sign up for our Montserrat & Cava Cellars excursion, which pairs a visit to the mountaintop village Montserrat with a trip to a local Cava producer. Montserrat is known for a stunning monastery and offers equally breathtaking views of Catalonia. As you explore, you may even be able to hear the L’Escolania, the boys’ choir that practices daily at the abbey. Then, you’ll be whisked to Cava country where you can toast to your Barcelona trip with a crisp glass of bubbles.

Sip sparkling wine with us

Would you rather: cheer for Real Madrid or FC Barcelona at a soccer game?


Madrid

The city of Madrid is home to one of the most successful soccer clubs in the world: Real Madrid. You may have heard of one its most famous players, Cristiano Ronaldo. The club was first founded in 1902, and the word “real,” which is Spanish for “royal,” was actually given to the club by King Alfonso XIII in 1920. This prompted the inclusion of a crown in the club’s emblem. Remember when we said that Madrid is buzzing with imperial heritage? That extends to their soccer club, too! Today, you can watch one of their home matches at Santiago Bernabéu, a 85-000-capacity stadium in central Madrid.

Pro tip, though: Madrid actually has a second big-name soccer team called Atletico Madrid. They’re great, too, and worth watching, but just make sure you’re buying tickets for the club you want to see.

How to watch a match on tour: Our Lisbon, Seville & Madrid tour includes a free day in the Spanish capital, which is your chance to cheer for one of Spain’s most prominent football teams.

Root for Real Madrid on tour

Barcelona

Real Madrid fans, please forgive us, but seeing Camp Nou is possibly one of the best things to do in Barcelona if you’re a sports fan. Camp Nou is the enormous home of one of the world’s most prestigious football clubs, FC Barcelona (known as Barça by the locals). Seating nearly 100,000 fans, the stadium is the highest-capacity sports arena in Europe. Visit the stadium to walk through the team’s museum and see the club’s rich history up close and personal. If you want a true glimpse into Spanish culture, there’s nothing like feeling the energy and passion at a match. In the spirit of this post, maybe you can catch Madrid vs. Barcelona!

How to watch a match on tour: All you need is a bit of free time (and tickets, of course) to catch an FC Barcelona game—which makes our Barcelona: The City Experience tour the perfect pick! You can use your free days to add excursions, or opt for a bit of sports entertainment.

Cheer on FC Barcelona on tour

So, have you chosen a winner in this Madrid vs Barcelona head-to-head? Browse our Madrid tours and Barcelona tours now, and get ready for an unforgettable trip to Spain! (After all, having both Madrid or Barcelona to visit means you have bucket list moments ahead.)


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About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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