June 19, 2024

Both Madrid and Barcelona are wonderful cities in Spain.

They are the two most visited cities in the country. They each offer a plethora of experiences – culture, history, and food. But which is better to visit for your first trip to Spain – Barcelona or Madrid?

When you need to decide which city to visit you will have a few things to consider. Let me go into a few of those so you can make the best choice for you first visit to either city.  I’ll cover culture, sites, accommodations, and food.

Madrid

Madrid is the capital and has loads of cultural and historical things to see and discover. The city is filled with museums, historical sites, and wonderful food, Madrid could be the perfect destination for your vacation.

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Getting Around

Madrid has very good transportation options. The metro is the easiest and most affordable way to get around the city. There are metro lines that reach as far as the airport and easy access into the city.

The Madrid Metro is one of the finest in Europe. It has 12 separate lines with over 300 stations. There are trains every two minutes at the major stops during the busiest times of day and every 15 minutes after midnight.

There are also buses, taxis, and rideshares available. You can also rent electric bikes that are stationed throughout the city.

You can buy a Tourist Travel Pass that allows you to load tickets for all kinds of public transportation to get around Madrid. If you decide to take a bsy you will need to pay with cash and try to have small bills.

I found Madrid an easy city to get around on foot. Most of the city’s destinations are within walking distance of each other. I enjoy going on foot since it allows me to find hidden treasures on my walks to see the iconic sites.  

You also have the option to take some great day trips from Madrid by bus or train.

Affordability

When it comes to affordability you will find that Madrid tends to be a bit more affordable than Barcelona.

You can get a room at a moderately nice hotel in central Madrid for around $120 per night. And a room in a high-end hotel will be about $220.

Breakfast and lunch are the cheapest meals. It is easy to find coffee and pastry in the local cafes for cheap and lunch will cost around $12-17.  This is usually for a set menu including a starter, main meal, dessert, and a drink.

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Depending on the restaurant you could spend around $25-35 for dinner. This will include a main dish, drink, and possibly an appetizer.

Museum tickets will cost $15 per ticket. If you’re planning on being in Madrid for 2 or 3 days 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 is worth it if you’re visiting for a couple days and if you plan on visiting as many museums as possible. Make sure you investigate which museums are covered by each package; there are some that don’t include Madrid’s most famous art museums.

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Things To Do in Madrid

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. La Reina Sofia museum is home to the famous Guernica piece by Pablo Picasso that brings in thousands of visitors each year.

If you are looking for a market experience that has regional cuisines, visit the San Miguel Market — or head to a neighborhood market like the Mercado Antón Martín in Lavapiés for a more local experience.

Stroll 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 de 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.

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

You have the option for day trips making the Spanish capital a great base for exploring other areas in the region. You should consider visiting Toledo, Segovia and Ávila which are all within reach and worth visiting. Cities like Segovia or Toledo is also accessible by high-speed rain in under 30 minutes.

Where to Stay in Madrid

Ii Castillas Madrid – This mid-range hotel is a great option for those looking for a central place to stay in Madrid. Situated close to the Plaza Callao in the centre of the city, it’s within easy walking distance of Madrid’s top sites, they have comfortable rooms, and they also offer breakfast.

For a more luxury option I would consider the Only YOU Boutique Hotel. This boutique hotel in the central Chueca neighborhood is a great option. They have a range of rooms perfect for exploring the Spanish capital.

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 Gaudí. Here’s everything to know when considering Barcelona.

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Accessibility

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

Like Madrid, Barcelona boasts a reliable and expansive metro system that is by far the easiest way to get around the city. The rail service, or FGC, is the most convenient 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 reaches 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 deals for public transportation. This option is 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 better option if you’re only visiting for 2 or 3 days. Each train station has a kiosk where you can purchase single or multi trip tickets. The public metro reaches all the way to the airport.

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

Barcelona is also home to an 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.

Using the metro is a great option in Barcelona.

Affordability

Barcelona caters to both solo travelers and groups by offering an array of accommodations.

A mid-range hotel is estimated to be around $135 per night whereas a high-end hotel will easily be upward of $220. Bear in mind that May through 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 $7.

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Small and quick breakfasts can cost under $7 per person while a meal at a mid-sized restaurant will most likely be somewhere in the $25-35 range. A nice meal out, including a main, drink, and appetizer, will often be at least $60 per person.

There are many parts of Barcelona you can do for free, such as the Gothic Quarter or the beach. 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. Park Guell, famously designed by renowned architect Gaudí, is almost entirely free to visit, except for the Monumental Zone.

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.

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Things To Do in Barcelona

You will notice that there are a lot of Gaudí-inspired attractions. From La Sagrada Familia, a towering church that Barcelona has become famous for, to Park Guell, a sculptural park where visitors can also walk through Gaudí’s residence, there is no shortage of exceptional architectural feats to admire.

Consider visiting 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- is is a popular attraction.

Walking down Rambla or through Ciutadella Park are two relaxing ways to spend an afternoon. If you are a lover of music, you will appreciate Palau de la Musica Catalana while foodies will marvel at the Mercado de la Boqueria.

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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 Spain’s Catalonia region, visit the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya.

Barcelona is a great base for exploring other towns in Catalonia. Consider going on a day trip to Girona. Or if you’re looking for a coastal day trip, visiting Tarragona or Sitges are also great choices.

Where to Stay in Barcelona

Hotel Condado — This hotel located in the centre of Barcelona is a great option for mid-range travelers 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 looking for a little luxury will love this 4-star boutique hotel. They have a range of wonderful rooms to choose from and a perfect location for exploring the city.

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Madrid or Barcelona: Which is Better to Visit

It will be hard to choose which city to visit first. Consider what you want to get out of the vist. If you are more interested in art and history museums, Madrid is your place. The city is chock full of museums–more than you will 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 often be more expensive in Barcelona.

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

If you are guided by food, you will find that there are more options in Madrid. Barcelona still offers several options for exceptional Spanish cuisine, but Madrid is more of a melting pot of different cuisines. A foodie will have a very good time exploring Madrid.

Madrid is more ideal for solo travelers, but Barcelona has more 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 escape from the noises and chaos that is typical for large European cities.

Select the 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.

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