Friends and clients always ask me, “should I visit Madrid or visit Barcelona, or which do you think is better?” That is the equivalent of asking Julia Child if she prefers cream or butter!
Madrid and Barcelona are two amazing cities, each offers fantastic food, an enormous buffet of art, history and culture, and incredible spots for great day trips. But there are many differences between the capital and its beach side counter part and how you enjoy them depends very much on your individual taste and your trip objectives. To help frame the question better I often respond by asking if it is their first trip to Spain and do they plan on visiting more than once? If you do know you will be back to visit again you can spend more time in one place to really get to know it more in depth. Then on the next rip you choose another city. This is the best way to really get to know a city like a local. But on the other hand there is the “tapas approach”, try a small plate of each so you get to know more of what you like and do not like. A few days of Madrid, a few days of Barcelona, and a couple plates of Andalusia or northern country.
First of all I will start with Barcelona. I recently revisited Barcelona this past spring and fell in love with it again. All the Gaudi, architecture and food can keep you busy for weeks in this town but to ad to that its right on the sea. If you love the sea Barcelona is the place to go. A beach break is only a short walk or taxi ride away from your hotel. And as it is on the water it never gets nearly as hot as Madrid does in summer or as cold during the winter. There is a downvside, it also receives the lions share of cruise ship tourism. It is absolutely rammed with visitors that descend upon the city for the day, practically all of them in groups no less than twenty. Barcelona has a completely different feel to it than Madrid. The streets are wider, the layout (outside the gothic quarter) is a grid and easier to navigate. It somehow has a familiar feel about it. After some thought and asking friends who know the city I realized that Barcelona is more of a European city. Gaudi and the architecture make it unique but the feel is distinctively European and that may be why many visitors feel more comfortable there initially. Barcelona is also Catalan, a culture and language very different from what we think as typically Spanish. Even the level of experimentation in Catalan cooking sets it apart from the Castilian style.
Madrid on the other hand is the capital of Castilian culture. As a foreigner living here I see Madrid as more typically Spanish, from bullfighting to Jamon Serrano and Manchego cheese. Flamenco artists come to Madrid if they want to be well known, not Barcelona. Madrid intersects all of Spain, it has a little bit of each corner of Spain represented here. As the home to the royal family is does have an elegant air about it, more grand somehow. Madrid has a more serious nature to it, less fantasy more reality. Now whether that is good or bad when it comes to your vacation is entirely up to you.
In short, I think Madrid is distinctively Spanish and more representative of the entire country as opposed to Barcelona is Catalan, first and foremost. So unless you are visiting Spain only once in your life and only for three days why choose? With the high speed AVE from Madrid to Barcelona only being a two hour and thirty minute ride down town to down town there is no excuse not to enjoy both cities in the same trip!