Barcelona is the vibrant heart of the Catalonia region, with its strong and proud identity. This is a modern, young and stylish, city with attention-grabbing tourist attractions, and a focus on contemporary and it’s future more than its history.
Barcelona is hemmed in by the sea and mountains, and this creates a bustling and energetic atmosphere, but it is easy to escape to glorious beaches or stunning scenery. Barcelona is one of the greatest cities of Europe, so long as you are happy to compromise with excessive tourism and indifferent service that this instils.
About this guide: We understand that selecting a destination is challenging and sometimes overwhelming, especially when every web guide or travel book makes each city seems so incredible and memorable.
Choosing a destination is not just about the famed sights of the city, it is also the ambience of the city, the suitability of the weather and if it aligns with your passions and interests.
Which city would I go to? Madrid
Which one would I recommend to my parents? Madrid
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin? Barcelona
Which for my food obsessed friend? Madrid
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)
The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city. We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip.
Barcelona can be fully seen with two intense days of sightseeing, but if you include the beaches, the mountain viewpoints and a more leisurely pace, this leads to the conventional four-day visit.
A trip could be extended by visiting the picturesque Montserrat Monastery and mountains or the attractive coastal town of Sitges. Barcelona is much more suited for a short city break than a longer holiday, and does lack the diversity of day trips as with other destinations.
For Madrid, the length of stay greatly depends on how much you want to devote to visit the three famed art galleries (Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofía), or immerse into Spanish culture. The city can be seen in two days of sightseeing, and a third day is often given to the galleries.
There are many outstanding day trips from Madrid and a trip can be easily extended to 5 or 6 days. A selection of the best day trips includes the medieval town of Segovia, charming Toledo, and the magnificent El Escorial. Madrid makes for a good base from which to explore the region, and is served by inexpensive public transport
Barcelona is almost a year-round destination, and the best time of year to visit is either early spring or later autumn as this is outside of the peak season, but the weather is still pleasant.
The peak tourist season is July and August, and we suggest Barcelona is best avoided, as it is just too hectic and crowded. The weather is suitable for spending time on the beaches from May until October. The winter months are cooler and possibly wet but there is a less hectic pace around the city.
The major consideration for Madrid, is to avoid August, when the entire city shuts down (most restaurants, cafes and independent shops) and everyone heads to the coastal towns. Late spring and early autumn (Jun/July and September) are the best seasons.
Madrid can be surprisingly chilly in the winter, but is comparatively dry to the rest of Europe. As Madrid is in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula it tends to get more extreme weather than the coastal cities.
Madrid is one of the finest cities in Europe. The city may not have the iconic monuments and attention-grabbing tourist attractions, but in reality, there is a lot to see during a city break.
Much of Madrid’s tourist literature focuses on the museums and galleries (which are world-class), but this should not deter you; this is a fun-loving city, which has the best nightlife in Europe. No matter your style of trip, there will be something to love about the Spanish capital.
Madrid excels as a long-stay destination, and if you are able to work here, the city offers perfect work/life balance.
Barcelona is flashy, energetic and modern. The city has vibrant tourist attractions and is without the stuffy atmosphere of many other historic destinations. It generally appeals more to the younger visitor with its heady mix of nightlife, beaches and Instagram ready tourist attractions.
It should be noted that Barcelona is not a cheap city, being the most expensive city in Spain. Barcelona great for a short stay or a one-day visit, such as from a cruise ship.
Barcelona is a tremendous destination for a 48-hours, and excels as a short-stay destination. Below is an interactive map for 48 hours in Barcelona; day 1 is highlighted in green and day 2 in yellow, with optional sights marked grey.
The first morning would start on the La Rambla the authentic shopping street, which is so popular with tourists and locals alike. For the middle of the day explore the Gothic Quarter, which contains the cathedral and Picasso museum.
For the final part of the head towards the harbour and the lively Barceloneta district, that lies the beaches. For the evening both Gothic Quarter or Barceloneta boasts restaurants, atmosphere and entertainment.
The cable car up to Montjuïc Castle provides wonderful views over Barcelona
For the second day begin by visiting the awe-inspiring Sagrada Familia basilica, with is whimsical towers, intricate carvings and masterpiece of Antoni Gaudí. The theme of Gaudí continues with the next sight, the Parc Guell, which was designed by him and includes delightful mosaic-covered buildings and wonderful views of the city.
The final area to discover is Montjuï, where you can ride the cable car to a stunning or visit the MNAC museum housed in the grand Palau Nacional.
The finale for your time in Barcelona is the inspiring Magic Fountain light show, held at the fountain near the MNAC museum (Wed-Sun peak season).
48 hours in Madrid is not just the sights but also the atmosphere of the city. Below is an interactive tour map - day 1 is highlighted in green and day 2 in yellow, with optional sights marked grey.
Begin in the Puerta del Sol, then wander through charming streets of the El Madrid de los Austrias, which is the oldest section of the city. This leads to the Palacio Real, surrounded by its formal gardens and the Catedral de la Almudena to the south.
For the last part of the day explore the La Latina district and have a delicious tapas meal at one of the restaurants along the Cava Alta or Cava Baja. La Latina boasts numerous bars and is always a great place to start a night in Madrid.
The Gran Vía is the bustling main avenue of Madrid
The morning of the second focuses on the three art-museums, the Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofía. Close to the museums is the pretty the El Retiro Park.
For the afternoon head down the Gran Vía, the main shopping street of Madrid, and visit the Malasaña district, with its artisan vibe, independent shops and trendy nightlife. For sunset watch it at the Templo de Debod, and then head back to Malasaña for a memorable meal and evening.
For your first visit, you would want to be based in the Centro or Retiro districts, and this will limit accommodation options. If you do wish a more remote, budget option always ensure it is close to a metro station. While exploring Madrid, you will do a surprising amount of walking.
Everyone knows of Barcelona and its iconic monument, the La Sagrada, is instantly recognisable, along with its football team. Your friends and family will be impressed that you’re heading there, but by an age, everyone has been to Barcelona so it’s hardly unique.
Barcelona score 4/5 - Madrid score 4/5
Madrid nightlife is legendary, it may start late but it will continue for as long as you are still standing. Madrid nightlife always has the perfect balance of Madrileños and foreigners, and the locals are generally social and fun. There are the artisan and fashionable bars of the Malasaña district or the mega clubs of Kapital or Barco. Popular nightlife districts include Lavapiés and La Latina. For something slightly different there a flamenco clubs and performances. Madrid’s nightlife is diverse, social and as wild as you want it, and certainly will not disappoint.
Barcelona nightlife is buzzing, lively and the whole city parties during the summer season. Being an international and tourist heavy city expect many of the most popular venues to be crammed with foreigners and tourists instead of locals. The nightlife of certain areas can be a touch tacky and excessive, that said it’s always fun! For funky bars head to the El Born district or alley of the Gothic Quarter. Barcelona is full of big night memories, but expect a significant chunk of your budget to blown, as it’s not a cheap city.
Madrid score 5/5 - Barcelona score 4/5
Madrid excels with museums and galleries, boasting three of Europe’s finest museum, within walking distance of each other. The Museo del Prado is the national art gallery of Spain and the Reina Sofía focuses on 20th-century art (notably Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí). The Thyssen-Bornemisza has over 1,600 paintings and is one of Europe’s largest private collections. It is easy to spend a day in each of these galleries; for art Madrid cannot be beaten
Madrid score 5/5 - Barcelona score 3/5
Madrid is a city were mealtimes are the focus of the day, and a two-hour lunch is the norm. Madrid is famed for is tapas, but traditional food is much more heart such as Cocido Madrileño (Spanish stew), and a regional favourite is roasted sucking pig. There is decent seafood in Madrid and is surprisingly one of the world’s largest consumers of fish; this can be appreciated in the daily Mercado de Pescados (the fish market).
Eating out in Madrid is always a pleasurable experience. There are so many outstanding family run restaurants in Madrid, most are never mentioned in any guide, and are just waiting for you to discover them.
Madrid score 4.5/5 - Barcelona score 3/5
Barcelona is a worldly and forward-thinking city, which is a great destination if you are planning solo travel. The city attracts a diversity of nationalities and ages, and is well set up for soling. The city is safe for female solo travellers, but as with everywhere, common sense should be used. The only concern is the persistent nuisance of pickpockets and snatch thieves.
Madrid is a social and vibrant city, which generally safe and suitable for solo travellers. There are cases of pick-pockets and opportunistic thefts, but no more than in any large city. Madrid is an important business and cultural centre, which attracts numerous solo travellers, many who may not even class themselves as solo travellers, as they are travelling for work or business. The city is not unfamiliar to solo travellers, and there are always many about.
Madrid score 4/5 - Barcelona score 4/5