5 key differences between Madrid and Barcelona

My first trip to Barcelona fell on a rather tumultuous weekend in October 2017.

“You’re going to Barcelona this weekend?” my boss asked me incredulously. “You know about the Catalan independence referendum, right?”

It was a tense time, as Catalans took to the polls to vote in what Spain deemed an illegal referendum.

I won’t go into the Catalan independence movement, as it’s a rather controversial issue in Spain (feel free to watch this Netflix documentary about it instead) but the vote didn’t really impact tourists in the area.)

The timing of my trip was purely coincidental; I was supporting my cousin Kaori Funahashi as she competed in the Ironman Barcelona race (aka cheer her on from the sidelines with a beer in hand).

I had only been living in—and falling in love with—Madrid for a couple of months, and I was excited to visit Barcelona, a city known for its beaches, nightlife, and architecture.

It’s hard not to compare Madrid and Barcelona—as the two biggest cities in Spain, they share many similarities. But what stood out most to me were their differences. 

They speak different languages.

Barcelona is part of Catalonia, an autonomous region in the northwest of Spain, which speaks Catalan as one of its main languages. Advertisements and street signs are written in Catalan, which looks a bit like a hybrid of Spanish and French.

Due to heavy tourism, many service-industry locals speak basic English, whereas in Madrid, an English-speaking waiter is far from guaranteed. (I’m starting to see why the demand for English teachers like myself is so high in Madrid.)

Barcelona is more touristy.

In Madrid, tourists, locals, and expats often blend together, sharing the city center. In Barcelona however, you’re hard-pressed to find a spot that isn’t filled with tourists, even as the busy season winds down. At risk of overtourism, the city is pushing back.

Someone once told me, “Barcelona is a city to visit, while Madrid is a city to live.” I couldn’t agree more.

Venturing out in Barcelona to find normal-priced restaurants, quieter streets, and a better feel for local life was a bit of a challenge. Madrid may not have as many major tourist sites, but it offers a more pleasant lifestyle for residents.

Madrid is more walkable.

Ah, good public transportation does wonders (get on it, Texas). Both city’s metro systems are extensive and easy to navigate (even though Madrid’s takes the cake for its cleanliness and renovations.)

But aside from that, Barcelona is just harder to get around. Tourist attractions and nightlife hubs are spread out and often require public transportation to get from point A to B.

The center of Madrid is much more compact, guaranteeing that you can walk between neighborhoods, especially once the metro stops running. Parts of Barcelona were completely dead late at night—no people or late-night eats—whereas Madrid is full of life at all hours of the night, so walking feels safe.

Barcelona has a beach.

Okay, one point for Barcelona. One of the main reasons people prefer Barcelona over Madrid is that it has a beach. Indulging in sun, sand, and blue Mediterranean waters are a great way to cure your inevitable hangover, but I wouldn’t exactly call Barcelona a typical beach city; it lacked the laidback, flip-flop-wearing vibe of most urban beach cities.

Maybe it was the hoards of tourists or even the tension surrounding the impending vote, but I found Barcelona to be busy and borderline overwhelming. Madrid is super easygoing for a capital city.

Madrid is more colorful.

Both cities have gorgeous architecture, from towering churches to lively squares.

While Barcelona’s historic Gothic quarter is lovely to wander around, many friends noted that many of the city’s main avenues looked the same—one of the reasons I couldn’t seem to memorize the way back to my hostel after more than a few trips.

It only made me appreciate the bold, varying colors of Madrid’s buildings even more.

Not that it’s a competition, but can you tell which city I like better? Let me know which city is your fave in the comments!

3 thoughts on “5 key differences between Madrid and Barcelona

  1. Hi! I’m happy and suprised to hear that Madrid is less touristic. However, I’m sure you’d disagree over many things if you lived in Barcelona instead of just visiting it. Public transport is amazing especially the "bicing" the bike sharing system. It allows you to go to the other side of the city in 30 minutes. Of course there are less touristic and cheaper places but let’s not spread them ;)What is even more amazing are the surroundings. Many beautiful sea coasts and mountain places are at less than 1 hour by car. Catalunya is a total dream for hikers!

    1. hey Ilario! of course visiting a place and living there are much different. I will say that Madrid has many surrounding mountains and hiking too, but it is missing the beach—perhaps it’s biggest downfall, haha. I will actually be back in Barcelona for a music festival in June!

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