5 key differences between Madrid and Barcelona
"You're going to Barcelona this weekend?" my boss asked incredulously. "You know the Catalan independence referendum is happening this weekend there, right?"
It was set to be a tense weekend as Catalans take to the polls on Oct. 1 in what Spain has deemed an illegal referendum. (A complicated situation for locals, but one that didn't ultimately impact tourists in the area.) The timing of my trip was purely coincidental, as I was going to support my cousin Kaori Funahashi in the Ironman Barcelona race—aka cheer her on from the sidelines with a beer in hand. Since it was my first trip to Barcelona, I planned a long weekend to spend time exploring the city, well-known for its beaches and party scene.
It's hard not to compare Barcelona and Madrid—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.
As part of Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain, Barcelona speaks Catalan as one of its main languages. Advertisements and street signs are written in Catalan, which to a foreigner looks like a hybrid of Spanish and French. Because of heavy tourism, most seem to speak English as well, contrasted with Madrid where an English-speaking waiter is far from guaranteed (hence why I work in Madrid).
Barcelona is more touristy.
In Madrid, tourists and locals often blend together, and it's more likely that a foreigner is an expat rather than just a tourist. In Barcelona, it's hard to find a spot that isn't filled with tourists—even as the busier travel months wind down. Venturing outside of the city's many attractions to find normal-priced restaurants, quieter streets, and to get a better feel for local life is a challenge. In Madrid, you may not have as many hotspots circled on your map, but it offers a more pleasant lifestyle for residents.
Madrid is more compact.
Ah, what a good transportation system can do for a city (get on it, Texas). Both metro systems are easy to navigate and can get you pretty much anywhere. However, aside from the fact that Barcelona doesn't have Uber, it's also harder to get around. Nightlife hotspots are spread out and require some form of public transportation to get from point A to B. Since Madrid is easily walkable, you can make a late-night walk from Lavapiés to Malasaña in less than half an hour—or is that just me?
Barcelona has a beach.
Okay, one point for Barcelona. One of the main reasons people like Barcelona more than Madrid is that it has a beach. It's true: indulging in the sun, sand, and blue Mediterranean waters are a great way to cure your inevitable hangover—er, spend a relaxing afternoon—but Barcelona seemed to lack the laidback, flip-flop-wearing vibe of most 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. For a capital city, Madrid is super easygoing.
Madrid is more colorful.
Both cities have gorgeous architecture, from towering churches to lively squares. But while Barcelona's historic Gothic quarter is lovely to wander around, many friends noted that the city's main avenues all 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 avenues 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!