The El Clásico Debate: Madrid or Barcelona?

The El Clásico Debate: Madrid or Barcelona? | How can you choose between two stunning Spanish cities, but if you had to, which is your favorite? Read on as I try to break it down for you. | Lavi was here.

Twice a year, soccer (football for the non-Americans) in Spain gets really vicious. Real Madrid and FC Barcelona face off and it’s hardly a friendly match. The debate always continues: which team is better, Madrid or Barcelona?

El Clásico

A Real Madrid fan lighting a flare before an El Clásico football match earlier this year

The debate is the same in Spain travel: which city is better? Madrid or Barcelona? For some, it’s an easy choice. Hands-down, it’s…

It’s time to put this debate to rest! Based on five criteria, let’s see which city is really the best.

Madrid or Barcelona

Tourist Attractions

I’ve toured the historical monuments and tourists sights of Madrid many times as a tourist myself and when friends come to visit. Maybe it’s because I live in Madrid, but the tourist attractions in the city have lost its luster for me a bit.

Sagrada Família

Granted, I love watching the sunset at Templo de Debod and the bright lights of Gran Vía and Puerta del Sol at night, I tend to avoid some of these places on a day-to-day basis.

Templo de Debod Sunset

Madrid’s Templo de Debod at sunset

But Barcelona? I don’t think I could ever get tired of walking by Antoni Gaudí’s works like the Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló, or La Pedrera.

Sagrada FamíliaThe Sagrada Família is obvious; it’s Barcelona’s icon, but Casa Batlló really had me staring in bewilderment. I was so blown away by this building that I immediately bought my entrance ticket on my phone without really thinking twice about the fee.

Casa Batlló

Up close and personal with Barcelona’s Casa Batlló

Barcelona’s sights have that kind of pull. I wandered around the winding alleys and narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter with no aim, and found myself marveling at all the architecture around me. The neighborhood itself is a tourist attraction. And how could I forget La Rambla? Sure, it’s crowded and touristy, but this pedestrian mall that leads to the beach is unlike any street in Madrid. It’s unique, and I like that.

Goal: Barcelona
Score: Barcelona: 1 – Madrid: 0

Markets

We’re in Spain here, so we have to talk about the mercados (markets). I am a huge fan of checking out all the different markets in the Spanish cities I visit. Some are more local and are used daily to buy groceries while others mainly draw the crowd for tapas and beers.

La Boqueria in Barcelona is a bit of both. Groceries like meat, fish and veggies can be purchased at this market, but you can also buy fresh juices, tapas, or pintxos. Located just off of La Rambla. La Boqueria hardly appears to be a local experience.

La Boqueria

Madrid has its touristy mercado too –Mercado de San Miguel. It has essentially the same vibe as La Boqueria and is located in the touristy center of Madrid near Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, but the building is more architecturally pleasing and there’s so much more to offer!

Mercado de San Idelfonso

Aside from San Miguel, Madrid has lots of amazing mercados: Mercado de San Idelfonso, Mercado de San Antón, Mercado de San Fernando, just to name a few. These markets are a bit less touristy and have lots of fun Spanish items to try.

Mercado de San Idelfonso

Mercado de San Idelfonso

If you think Barcelona markets, you’ll think of La Boqueria. But in Madrid you can find a cool market in every neighborhood!

Goal: Madrid
Score: Barcelona: 1 – Madrid: 1

Parks

While Barcelona boasts Parc de la Ciutadella and Park Güell, Parque del Buen Retiro is one of Madrid’s major selling points.

I like when city parks transport me from a city to nature and make me forget that I’m actually in a city. Ciutadella didn’t really grab me; it’s a nice park in the center of Barcelona, but it I felt like there was more sand than grass and I still felt like I was smack-dab in the middle of a city.

Located outside the center of Barcelona, Park Güell, displays stunning views of the entire city and Antoni Gaudí’s architecture within the park itself is the real reason anyone goes there at all.

Park Güell

The smooth shards of tile used to create the seat that curves around the park is exquisite, but tourists have to pay €8 to get in! It’s difficult to find a comfortable space to sit between selfie stick and iPad wielding tourists; Park Güell is unfortunately more of a tourist destination than a fun place to just hang out (although there is much more to the park that doesn’t require an entry fee).

Park Güell

Madrid’s Retiro Park is everyone’s favorite place in the city. Regardless of season or weather, people will always visit the park. Along with probably half of the city, I love running in the park. I do feel transported out of the city and into nature, much like Central Park did for me when I lived in NYC.

Retiro Park

When I’m not exercising in the park, Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) and the lake are my favorite spots. In summer, everyone brings a picnic to the park and just hangs out for the day. Going to Retiro Park never gets old in Madrid.

Palacio de Cristal

Goal: Madrid
Score: Barcelona: 1 – Madrid: 2

Beach

It’s plain and simple: Barcelona has a beach, Madrid does not. Madrid will never be able to compete with the beachside concerts and other fun events that are held at Barceloneta or Bogatell Beach in Barcelona.

Bogatell Beach

Bogatell Beach, Barcelona

Goal: Barcelona
Score: Barcelona: 2 – Madrid: 2

Nightlife

Living in Madrid, I don’t jump at the opportunity to check out five-story clubs like Kapital – it’s just not my style. Since I’m not a Madrid tourist anymore, I don’t feel the obligation to go out every night on weekends and stay out until 6AM. I do, however, love checking out low-key bars and restaurants in the city. Although I feel like I’m never actually in Madrid on weekends lately, if I am, you can probably find me at a café, craft beer bar, or restaurant in Malasaña or La Latina, two of my favorite neighborhoods in the city.

Pouring cider in Madrid

In Barcelona, I had the opportunity to partake in a Hipster Bar Crawl, a fun event created by the same people as the award-winning Steel Donkey Bike Tours. We hopped around to different bars in Barcelona’s Raval district, even making a stop for some absinthe along the way! It was a cool, insider’s guide to Barcelona’s nightlife. I had a lot of fun to meeting the small group of like-minded tapas and beer lovers excited to explore a new city. I just want to go back an do it again!

Absinthe in Barcelona

Trying out the absinthe in Barcelona

Goal: It’s a tie! I can’t deny that I enjoy the nightlife that both cities have to offer!

Score: Barcelona: 2 – Madrid: 2

And the winner is…

I admit that I haven’t been to every tourist sight, market, park, beach, or bar in Barcelona or Madrid. I might be a little bit biased because I live in Madrid, but I wanted to come to conclusion for myself and decide which city is “better”. I love living in Madrid and I never wish I lived somewhere else in Spain, but Barcelona opened me up to a quirky and cool part of this country I had never been exposed to before. I loved it and I absolutely want to return and spend more time there in the future.

The truth is, you can’t go wrong with Madrid or Barcelona. Both are culturally vibrant cities with a lot to offer locals and tourists alike.

Are you still going to make me choose?! As a woman who can never make a final decision, I don’t want to have to choose between Madrid and Barcelona! My final score (however biased it may be) is tied. In my heart, Madrid is my home and my winner, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in Barcelona…

It’s your turn! Madrid or Barcelona – Which city do you choose?

9 Comments

  1. May 27, 2015 / 5:09 pm

    Love this article! This is such an ongoing debate and it was about time someone laid the facts out on paper. I’ve got one thing to add that for me is the tie breaker…

    THE PEOPLE!

    People are a big part of a city to me. They really characterize “the vibe” of a place. Thus, I’ve gotta go with Madrid! While the people of Barcelona are generally more cosmopolitan and diverse, the people of Madrid are true, down to the core, “Spanish.” The people of Barcelona speak Catalan, are in a city rush equivalent to our home of NYC, and don’t like to deal with the annoyance of tourists. However, the people of Madrid speak the purest of Spanish, are generally always smiling, friendly and open true to the Spanish way, and when not at work always have a caña in hand! Hence, my kinda people, my kinda city.

    Of course, everyone has a different experience with the people of a city! This is just my take 🙂

    Great write up and hope to see you soon Lav!!!

    Besossss, Casie

    • May 31, 2015 / 4:00 pm

      You’re so right, Casie! The people make a huge difference. I love the people of Madrid and feel really comfortable here after living in the city for 9 months. I also loved Barcelona BECAUSE it gave me that NYC vibe, but you’re right, it’s full of tourists and it is less “Spanish”. For a more authentic experience, I’d say Madrid is the way to go. Still, both cities are so different that it’s hard to choose a favorite!

      I really hope we can meet up again soon either here or in NYC this summer! Love following your adventures 🙂 Besos! xo

  2. May 27, 2015 / 6:31 pm

    I visited both cities last month. Even if Barcelona is a beautiful city, I would vote for Madrid. For me the city center of Madrid is more lively.

  3. January 23, 2016 / 5:49 pm

    I live in Barcelona And i have been to Madrid twice. I would say both cities are Good But i Cant live in a city without a beach . I feel suphocated. Barcelona whenever i feel stressed i go , contemplará the mediterranean and feel new ! I would easily vote for Barcelona !

    • January 25, 2016 / 12:14 pm

      I’ve never lived by the beach before, but I am thinking that the next place I live has to be by the beach now. I do miss Barcelona, but I really miss living in Madrid, too!! 🙂

  4. Fran
    May 17, 2016 / 9:45 pm

    Hola lavi! I’m a spaniard who loves traveling living in Austin right now! Before Austin I was living in Sydney, Australia after spending four years in Madrid. It is not the first time I am living in other country but I feel like US is not for me (I could live in NYC because it has that European style with streets full of people, but my husband thinks is too cold and expensive) the thing is … After a year and a half in the US we are thinking to move to Spain and I miss so much Madrid that I would love to come back there… But! Omg Barcelona has that vibe that I love, the beach, people from everywhere and better weather (very imp for my husband being from Texas..) I’m so confused! We are thinking to move in July and some days I pick Madrid and the next week I’m still thinking in Barcelona! love your blog and your pics btw!

    • May 22, 2016 / 3:49 pm

      Hola Fran! It’s SO hard to choose between Barcelona and Madrid! I think Madrid a little more “Spanish” (fewer tourists and you hear a lot less English in the streets), but I also loved Barcelona. Have you decided where you are going to move to yet?

  5. June 3, 2017 / 11:50 am

    Go Real Madrid! Time to win the finals tonight!

  6. June 3, 2017 / 2:20 pm

    They did win! Go Real!

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