Whether you’ve lived in Spain or not, it’s fairly well-known that any comparison between Madrid and Barcelona often ends in a heated debate. More often than not, football (the world’s most popular sport, of course) is often at the center of such a debate, or at least mentioned. This was, in truth, how it was for me before making the move to Spain in 2012. When I first moved to Madrid that summer, I immediately began planning a trip to Barcelona, the city in Spain that first intrigued me while I grew up in Canada. My first visit to the city made me fall in love with it, leaving just enough to itself to make me want to come back, and even live there. 13 months later, I decided to visit the city again. The differences in my opinion of the city – from my first visit compared to this second visit – were so striking that it seemed necessary to reflect on. Though I didn’t really catch on Barcelona’s obvious differences from Madrid the first time I went – perhaps because I immediately visited Paris after – I took note of them this time. In short, the cities are definitely distinct from each other, even surprising me at times.
1. The Tourist Factor
Both Madrid and Barcelona are cities visited by millions of people every year. Barcelona is, internationally, slightly more well-known as a tourist destination, making it unsurprising that it has about a million more visitors per year than Madrid. Interestingly, though, is how each city comes off to its tourists. Upon my first visit to Madrid, I immediately noticed that while I stood out as a foreigner – mostly because of my clothes – I blended in more easily. Madrid has a lot of hidden gems that aren’t as out in the open for tourists to know about, meaning that if you know a local resident, your experience in the city is vastly different than if you visit it on your own. This became quite clear to me when a friend visited me very recently, as her opinion of Madrid was that it was the kind of city she’d want to live in as she was able to see it more in-depth. I have also observed that Madrid, while it attracts a lot of tourists, mostly contains them in the same areas, and during certain times of the year. It’s easy to walk around central areas without bumping into too many visitors, giving it a very authentic feeling.
Barcelona, however, seems to be constantly visited. The center of the city is also smaller (or so it seems) than Madrid’s, therefore making it harder to walk around without passing dozens of other foreigners. Barcelona, compared to Madrid, appears more tourist-friendly, as everything seems to cater to its visitors. Although the truth is that both cities are quite open to tourists, Barcelona has more of an international aura. On the downside, this means it’s been harder for me to experience, or at least find, more of its local traditions, as it’s very easy to stick to the typical tourist path in Catalonia’s capital. Between the two, Barcelona feels more touristic.
2. The Atmosphere
Anyone who takes a quick look at a map of Spain can point out some very obvious geographical differences between the two cities. Madrid is central, land-locked, bordered by mountains in the north, and more plateau-like land in the south. Barcelona, however, is coastal, with some local mountains giving it an ethereal vibe. As a result of these basic differences, Madrid is more of a concrete jungle, though also amazingly green due to its numerous parks. Barcelona is beachy, but in city form, thus making it an interesting mixture between the two. The funny thing is that although Barcelona seems, at its surface, more relaxed due to its proximity to the beach, I believe that Madrid is actually the more relaxed city of the two. In my experience, Madrid’s local residents appear out in one of its numerous patios more often than in Barcelona, though this could be refuted by a Barcelona local who knows more about the city than I do. In any case, Madrid is fast-paced, but its residents take advantage of the sun more than in most cities I’ve been to. In addition, Madrid’s famous for being alive at night, and while this may be slightly exaggerated by some, it does tend to be more for night owls. Barcelona caters to all types, but many of its hang-out spots shut down earlier than they would in Madrid.
3. The Culture
Often times, it’s easy for foreigners to forget that while both Barcelona and Madrid are technically within Spain, both cities are distinct in its respective culture. As a result of living in Spain for over a year now, and having visited many of its regions, it’s become quite clear that this is an extremely diverse country. In addition to several regions having their own dialects and accents, some even have their own language that is barely recognizable to the Castillian (central Spanish) ear. Catalonia is one of Spain’s regions that is very obviously different in its linguistics, though Catalan – the language of the region – shares similar roots to Castillian. Before I visited Spain, I studied its culture and history very thoroughly, but its political and modern differences were made more clear upon coming here. Madrid has a protoypical “Spanish” background, being smack-dam in the center of the country. Barcelona reflects its Catalan history, which is quite different from that of central Spain.
The culture is also reflected in architectural differences, with Barcelona having quite a bit of Gaudi’s influence. Parc Güell, as pictured above and to the left, is one of Gaudi’s biggest architectural feats. The city also has more of its local artists’ imprints on it at other locations. Architecture isn’t Catalonia’s only major difference, though. Catalonia has its own traditions separate from the rest of Spain, and because of its geo-political location, was one of Spain’s regions unoccupied by the Moors. Similar to Galicia, Spain’s north-western community, this meant that the region was not as influenced by the 700+ year Muslim rule in Spain. While it may not be openly said in all venues, the Muslims who ruled over Spain most definitely infused many aspects of “Moorish” culture in with Spain’s culture, including its language. This means that Madrid, while very Spanish in its current state, owes some of its modern traditions and even lingustics to that period.
For me, it’s hard to put the difference in culture exactly into words. On paper, both cities have a very different history considering their relative proximity to one another. In reality, their similarities are apparent, but the subtle (to the untrained eye) differences make them both very far apart.
Regardless of Madrid and Barcelona’s differences, both are marvelous cities to visit. Whilst I haven’t lived in Barcelona yet, I am certain that it is just as pleasant to live in as Madrid. However, it is my opinion that more visitors to Spain should make a stop to Madrid, rather than merely bypassing it (as some of my friends and acquaintances have admitted to doing) because of Barcelona’s more well-known reputation. These are two of Spain’s biggest, and most important, cities, both of which have equally great things to offer.
Have you been to both Madrid and Barcelona? If so, what obvious differences (or similarities) have you noticed? Do you have a preference?