Madrid vs. Barcelona: Which City Is Best?
For many people looking to visit or relocate to Spain, the choice comes down to Madrid or Barcelona. Both are world-class cities renowned for their vibrant culture. To be honest, you should visit each at some point!
But which one makes sense for you to live in? This comparison will help you decide.
Madrid or Barcelona: Overview
Let’s begin with a brief overview of each city’s rich history.
Madrid, located in Central Spain, is the European Union’s second-largest city. That should give you an idea of what to expect in the capital of Spain. With 6.6 million locals to keep you company, you’ll have no shortage of new faces to meet.
Walking the streets of Madrid, you get a sense of its immense history. You can still see signs of its Muslim era via the Muralla Islamica de Madrid.
Madrid officially became Spain’s capital in 1978 thanks to a resolution declaring the nation as a constitutional monarchy. In the decades since, it has grown as an international hub for tourism, business, and entertainment.
Barcelona is several centuries older than Madrid, having been founded at the end of the 1st Century B.C. by Romans.
The city later served as the Western Mediterranean’s economic and political center. Many structures in the Gothic Quarter harken back to this era.
Today, Barcelona, which lies on the northeastern coast of Spain, is recognized as an important international hub for finance and transport in Europe. 5.5 million people call Barcelona home, according to World Population Review.
Barcelona is also a central part of Catalonia, a community in northeastern Spain that has pushed for independence at various points throughout history. As you’ll see later on, this distinguishes Barcelona from Madrid quite a bit.
Barcelona or Madrid: Direct Comparison
While the previous section may have made Barcelona and Madrid seem even harder to choose between, don’t worry. It should all become much clearer as we compare each city based on a few key criteria in this section.
Cost of Living
Numbeo provides the following averages for rent in Barcelona.
|Type of Dwelling||Monthly Cost (USD)|
|Single Bedroom Apt. Downtown||$1,036.13|
|Single Bedroom Apt. Outside of Downtown||$789.04|
|Three-Bedroom Apt. Downtown||$1,639.73|
|Three-Bedroom Apt. Outside of Downtown||$1,175.38|
For comparison, a single-bedroom apartment in downtown New York City will cost you an average of $3,298.72 per month, according to Numbeo. So while Barcelona’s rent isn’t cheap compared to countries in, say, South America, your wallet will feel much fatter at the end of each month if you’re moving from an American city.
As for your meals, Numbeo lists the cost of an average mid-range meal for two in Barcelona at $48.35, compared to $100 in New York City.
Here’s what you can expect to spend on rent in Madrid, according to Numbeo.
|Type of Dwelling||Monthly Cost (USD)|
|Single Bedroom Apt. Downtown||$1,058.88|
|Single Bedroom Apt. Outside of Downtown||$793.79|
|Three-Bedroom Apt. Downtown||$1,852.82|
|Three-Bedroom Apt. Outside of Downtown||$1,275.77|
As you can see, the average cost of rent in Madrid is higher than what you’ll pay in Barcelona. Depending on the type of dwelling you choose, however, the difference may be negligible (i.e. a single bedroom in Madrid costs just $4 more on average than in Barcelona).
Mid-range meals for two in Madrid also bear a similar cost as in Barcelona. You’ll pay an average of $48.89.
So which city wins here?
Well, it depends. If you’re moving to Spain with your entire family, you’ll find rent much cheaper in Barcelona. If you’re moving by yourself, the cost of rent in either city probably isn’t going to help you decide.
Here’s where Barcelona and Madrid really begin to diverge.
Barcelona has a Mediterranean climate, which is to say you can expect mild weather. Winters are rainy with an average temperature of 9° Celsius in January. Summers are hot but not too intense; you’ll find an average temperature of 24.5° Celsius in August.
Madrid, on the other hand, is located in central Spain and experiences a wider range of temperatures throughout the year than Barcelona does.
In January, you’ll experience an average temperature of 5.5° Celsius while the thermostat can rise as high as 40° Celsius in summer.
If you’re from the northern United States, either city’s climate will seem very moderate. Those from the south might prefer Barcelona’s milder winters.
Some travelers have referred to Barcelona as the “pickpocket capital of the world.” If you’ve ever visited other major European cities, though, you likely have the knowledge and awareness to avoid becoming a victim.
While some types of violent crime have also increased in prevalence on the streets of Barcelona lately, Numbeo still rates the city as being quite safe. It has a safety index of 55.41, just a touch higher than New York City’s 54.68.
Madrid, meanwhile, has a safety index of 70.20, making it much safer according to Numbeo.
What little crime does happen there is largely non-violent according to the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council.
My tendency to travel alone means I’d likely choose Madrid based on safety.
Recreation & Culture
Some travelers describe Barcelona as feeling “more European” and cosmopolitan than Madrid. One reason for this is Barcelona’s fierce Catalan nationalism, which stands at odds with Madrid’s Spanish nationalism.
Barcelona is objectively more popular among tourists; 9.12 million tourists visited in 2018 compared to 7.14 million in Madrid.
If you don’t enjoy being around tourists, Madrid is the obvious choice.
Barcelona and Madrid are both home to major football clubs. Each city’s fanbase is so fierce that there’s a term (El Clásico) used to describe any match that happens between them.
At these matchups, politics and sports combine in a way that might stun anyone not from Spain.
These matches are held in either Barcelona’s Camp Nou or Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu.
A match in either city will be widely attended but Camp Nou holds about 18,000 more people than its Madrid counterpart. If you’re looking for a truly out-of-this-world sporting experience with lots more people, you’ll likely prefer Barcelona.
At least one reviewer has described Madrid’s food scene as more accessible.
Popular Spanish-style dishes in Madrid include:
- Cocido madrileño (beef and vegetable stew)
- Gallinejas (fried sheep entrails)
- Patatas bravas (fried potatoes in spicy tomato sauce)
- Caracoles a la madrileña (snails cooked in spicy sauce)
Barcelona is well-known for its Catalonian cuisine, which includes:
- Escalivada (vegetables grilled in ashes)
- Canelons (a pasta dish influenced by Italy)
- Esqueixada (a salad containing salted cod, tomatoes, and olive oil)
- Fricandó (sliced beef covered in flour and stewed in white wine)
Personally, I’d prefer Barcelona’s cuisine. To me, it offers interesting insights into the mishmash of cultures that is Catalonia. While the food in Madrid is nothing to scoff at by any means, Barcelona has a certain charm to it that those not looking for a traditional Spanish experience might like.
Madrid was the birthplace of La Movida Madrileña, a counterculture movement that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. You can still see echoes of this movement in Madrid’s numerous clubs, such as La Riviera.
Madrid’s larger population arguably gives the edge in terms of nightlife. No matter what type of partier you are, you’ll find a club (or even an entire neighborhood of clubs) that showcases it.
Barcelona, on the other hand, is arguably partial to electronic music. The Sonar Music Festival attracts some of the biggest names in EDM.
Personally, I’m an EDM fan, which is why I’d prefer Barcelona’s scene.
Suitability for Digital Nomads
If you’re looking to make one of these cities your home base as a digital nomad, here’s what you need to know.
Barcelona has received a lot of hype as a digital nomad hotspot lately — and arguably for good reason. As you may recall, living here can be substantially cheaper depending on your situation.
There are also tons of coworking spaces, including Mob, which even has 3D printing equipment. Digital Nomads Spain is a popular Facebook group that you can use to make friends before you move to Barcelona.
Barcelona’s transit system is also regarded as one of the world’s best, which you’ll appreciate if you like bouncing from one part of town to another. Madrid’s system is still much better than anything you’d find in the United States, mind you.
Madrid has not received as much attention as a digital nomad hotspot but you can still find plenty of popular coworking cafes and get by just fine there. Just remember that Madrid has many more people than Barcelona, which may impact your ability to access some of the most popular spaces.
So, which city do you prefer: Barcelona or Madrid?
Overall, I’d pick the latter. Barcelona’s food, EDM-centric nightlife, and affordability are all major advantages in my book. The city is also a bit smaller and more walkable than Madrid.
I could see Madrid being preferable if you’re looking for a rich Spanish experience that you can only find in the very nationalist capital.
Truth be told, however, you’d be sorely mistaken if you didn’t visit both Barcelona and Madrid at some point (particularly if you’re planning on living in one or the other for a while). The two lie just a four-hour train ride from each other, making whichever city you’re not living in a perfect weekend getaway destination.
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