Madrid vs Barcelona: Which Spanish city should you choose for the best tapas, culture, and stunning sights?

Having spent extended time in both cities, travel writer Lydia Swinscoe muses on the highlights of these two Spanish gems

montage of images showing the bestof madrid and barcelona
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Spain delights with too many dazzling cities to mention, each one brimming with top-class restaurants, bougainvillea-strewn parks, and charming rustic bars. From glorious Barcelona smattered with the otherworldly architecture of Gaudí to Spain’s unassuming capital, Madrid, which cradles some of the world’s best art in its intriguing galleries: these two powerhouse cities are constantly battling it out for the Spanish crown.

But if you’ve just got time to visit one destination, and are deciding between Madrid and Barcelona, rather than the various hidden gems of Europe how do you make the right choice? Having spent a good amount of time in both Madrid and Barcelona on numerous occasions, I’ve listed the highlights of both destinations from cultural, foodie, and aesthetic perspectives to try and help answer the great debate of whether Madrid vs Barcelona makes the best city break.

Madrid vs Barcelona, which Spanish city should you choose to visit?


birdseye view of a table laid out with tapas in barcelona

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In both cities, you’ll find every kind of cuisine - from all over the globe - whether that’s tapas, ceviche that rivals the best restaurants in Lima, or homemade pasta. Still, you need to know where to look, especially in Barcelona where many tourist-targeted restaurants serve mediocre, overpriced, bland food. For tapas in Barcelona, Bormuth, a two-minute walk from the Picasso Museum is a good option for its relaxed atmosphere and large selection of tapas - the Padrón peppers, secreto Ibérico ham, anchovies, Manchego cheese, and croquettes are all particularly good. Or, in the Gràcia district, Rosa Pinky is a no-frills affair with huge portions and chatty staff - it’s the best place to go after exploring Park Güell. 

plate of tortilla and bread at Pez Tortilla in Madrid

(Image credit: Lydia Swinscoe )

Madrid on the other hand overflows with rustic cafes featuring beautiful old signage, rooftop terraces that are perfect for sipping cocktails, and fun bars that serve up global flavours. But it's the best Spanish tortilla in Madrid, you're going to want to indulge in - head Casa Dani and hip Pez Tortilla for incredible iterations of the Spanish dish. Having tasted a whole host of tortillas across both cities, Madrid always reigns supreme on the most delicious Spanish omelette.


It depends on what you want from your European city break, we all travel in such different ways - some people need to be in proximity to a beach, while others are enamoured with galleries and cafe culture - which is why it’s important to take everyone’s recommendations with a pinch of salt. For me, sun is an instant plus point, and I really don’t mind super hot city days which is why Madrid is a sound year-round option, even through the scorching summer months of July and August.

montage of images from madrid including city scenes and spanish tortilla

(Image credit: Getty Images, Lydia Swinscoe )

Less touristy than its east-coast neighbour Barcelona, Madrid is the place to visit for a seriously authentic Spanish experience. It’s here you’ll find Michelin-starred restaurants alongside brilliant cheap eateries, rooftop city vistas, the stunning Parque del Buen Retiro, and some of the best galleries the country has to offer, including Museo Reina-Sofía, which houses Picasso’s Guernica as well as delights from Dalí and Miró.  

Parque del Buen Retiro

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Museo Reina-Sofia and its classic exhibitions should be on every Madrid itinerary but Madrid is also host to a few more intimate artistic spaces, including the home of artist Joaquín Sorolla, which costs just three euros to visit. A master of capturing blissful long summer days, his studio house features many of his most beautiful works, as well as antique furniture, and a tranquil garden.

inside the sorillo museo in madrid

(Image credit: Lydia Swinscoe )

Barcelona on the other hand was a slow burn for me, I really didn’t like the place when I first visited for a short weekend break, but since returning and spending longer periods getting to know the city, it has grown on me immensely. It’s undeniably touristy but the quieter parts of town are full of pure creative joy. And Barcelona really does have it all – a myriad collection of well-designed places to sleep, cuisine from all over the globe, and reasonably priced authentic tapas (if you know where to look), as well as some of the world’s most celebrated architectural gems, from Park Güell to Casa Vicens and more. 

montage of scenes from barcelona

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The city is synonymous with art thanks to its connections to some of the great artists of our time, including Gaudí, whose architectural gems are dotted all over. Gaudís Park Guell is one world’s most beautiful gardens in the world, set in over 12 hectares of beautiful parkland in the Gracia district of Barcelona, it’s the largest green area in the city and boasts fragrant pine trees, rosemary, and lavender, as well as row upon row of palm trees. 

It’s also in this area of town that you’ll find Gaudís first commissioned masterpiece, Casa Vincens - a gorgeous building inspired by the natural world that is truly remarkable. 


During my time in both cities, I’ve stayed in a total of six hotels and three Airbnbs. In terms of hotel offerings, both cities boast great options, but Madrid seems to have an abundance of creative 5-star boltholes including relaxing, and immaculately decorated, 7 Islas Hotel that sits right in the heart of the city, just a short walk to some of the most authentic bars of Madrid, including Bodega de la Ardosa. Rooms are decorated in earthy tones, linen bedspreads, and quirky woven headboards, and there are bicycles to rent if you want to see the city on two wheels.

Whereas for old-school glamour Heritage Madrid Hotel in the Salamanca district, has 46 super-stylish rooms with immaculate bathrooms. Or for a base that’s a bit more central and slightly more modern, luxury boutique hotel The Principal Madrid is, in my opinion, one of the best hotels in the world. With a terrace that overlooks the beautiful Metrópolis building, an urban garden filled with olive trees, and 76 elegant bedrooms, you’ll struggle to leave this flawless place at the end of your trip.

Barcelona's Airbnbs can get mighty expensive, especially during summer months which is why Hotel 1898 makes a sound option. As the former headquarters of the General Philippeans Tobacco Company, this place has been repurposed to interior perfection with a monochrome colour palette, marble flooring, and retro imagery. On the roof terrace, there’s a delightful pool surrounded by crimson loungers and daybeds - it's quite the oasis and a world away from the bustling Las Ramblas down below. There's also the newly opened Hoxton Poblenou, and relaxed, well-designed DestinationBCN.


Unlike Barcelona, Madrid of course doesn’t have a beach, but what Spain’s capital lacks in sand and sea, it more than makes up for with stunning outdoor pools – the perfect place to enjoy a picnic and swim on a sunny day. Most (including my favourite public pool in Casa de Campo) require a pre-booked slot these days but it’s easy enough to sort on the city council website.

Casa de Campo swimming pool in madrid

(Image credit: Lydia Swinscoe )

And while Barcelona does have a city beach, Barceloneta Beach is by no means a beauty. But you will find locals and tourists alike, all making the most of the sea breeze on a hot day. It’s a riot of characters, music, and traders selling cold bottles of beer – and that’s the sheer joy of it, so shake out your beach towel, sit back, and watch on.

Barceloneta beach in barcelona

(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you have a car it's worth seeking out hidden bays and quaint seaside towns further along the coast, head to Begur, or El Golfet for some seriously stunning views.


It's a tough call. If you've got time it's definitely worth combining both cities into one epic road or train trip. By car, the drive takes around six hours, 30 minutes, or by train it's just a three-hour journey. But if you're looking for a simple trip to just one of these Spanish gems, it really depends on what you're looking for.

Both offer insanely good cuisine, Madrid wins for tapas and a larger selection of good eateries, whereas Barcelona wows too - but you'll have to work harder to seek out those authentic high-quality eateries.

For proximity to beaches, Barcelona, of course, takes the crown, but if you don't mind taking a dip in the translucent pools of Madrid you'll be happy there too.

And culturally they're pretty much on even terms, both offer wonderful galleries and thought-provoking cultural spaces, and the same goes for accommodation - there's just so much choice from luxury interiors, to modern Airbnbs - although you're more likely to pick up a bargain in Madrid, especially out of season. 

Lydia Swinscoe
Lifestyle News Editor

Lydia is woman&home’s Lifestyle News Editor and a freelance travel writer. Day-to-day she manages an international team of nine news writers and oversees all news content on woman& Her travel writing has been published in BBC Good Food, Oh magazine, Harper's Bazaar, Town&Country, ELLE, MailOnline, Woman, and woman&home.