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Holiday showdown: Barcelona versus Madrid

  • Published 25 March 2019

These two famous Spanish cities may have the beautiful sun and enticing cultures in common, but which one is best for you? 

Both Barcelona and Madrid are two of Europe’s most well-loved and visited cities, especially for those seeking a sun-splashed destination for either a speedy getaway or a longer, more indulgent break. With traditional Spanish architecture, delectable cuisine and world-class football clubs in both of these magnificent cities you may be mistaken for presuming their similarity. We’re here to break down their allures, from the glossy beaches lining the sapphire waters of Barcelona to the grandeur of the historic buildings and sculptures in Madrid. If daily life needs a little fiesta (or siesta!) look no further than our guide to these two bustling cities. 

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Just keep chasing pavements

La Sagrada Familia
Madrid Royal Palace

It’s hard to go to a European city without setting your sights on a blend of modern and historical architecture, all with a creative thread running through the astonishing design. Barcelona flicks open the first page of her portfolio and you’re met with the intriguing curvature of the Gaudi-designed buildings and sculptures sprinkled throughout the city’s districts. The collection of eclectic monuments represents Antoni Gaudi’s utilisation of emerging architectural technology in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the spectrum of the seven rainbow-coloured buildings intensifies as you reach the main act: La Sagrada Familia. Synonymous with Barcelona for almost 130 years, this Roman Catholic church is a picture of absolute magnificence from the exterior with a collage of striking interiors, radiated by rich sunlight penetrating through the stain-glass windows. Although its not set to be finished until 2026, the impact of seeing the eight towering spires and intricately designed structures is no less. Don’t neglect the other six Gaudi works though – they’re equally as impressive, especially if you’re a design-lover, and the whole collection together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Why not pound the pavements working your way around your very own Gaudi treasure hunt? We particularly love Park Guell, where not only does ingenious architecture greet you, but the surrounding panoramic vistas of this wonderful city are a sight to behold and make for a fab backdrop to the perfect selfie. 

If a fusion of contemporary and older architecture is your thing, Madrid is where you should be headed. Be presented with an assortment of landmarks, including the Royal Palace, standing proud with its exotic take on a Buckingham Palace-style structure. Still the official home of the Spanish Royal Family, it’s the largest functioning royal residence in Europe and boy, does it reap the title. The unyielding and rigid lines of the stonewashed building are adorned with intricate details on the facades and statues of the exterior, while the rich tones of the inside walls and ceiling artwork make for a right regal reception. Head to the beating heart of the Spanish capital, Plaza Mayor, once the centre of the old town and now a huge open space reminiscent of St Mark’s Square in Venice. The Palace of Communications is another stunning building, worth a short marvel at as you pass by the collection of Spanish flags surrounding it, proudly waving in the wind. If diverse and modern design are what you’re after, Madrid couldn’t have more to shout about if she tried, with the Parish Church of Santa Monica, Sanchinarro lookout and the world’s first 3D printed bridge all within its realms. One google search and trust us, you’ll want to experience these cutting-edge designs first hand.

Food that’s worth a double tap(as)

It’s perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Spain and that is, of course, the delicious food. Tapas are almost a way of life here as much as they are a menu option, and they evolved from free bar snacks to tide customers over from siesta to the traditional late dinner, to now an international obsession. The classic selection of tortilla, patatas bravas and chorizo summon up the scents and tastes of Spain, and regardless of whether you eat these in Barcelona or Madrid, we can guarantee they’ll leave you wanting more. Along with this staple, Barcelona offers plenty of other Catalan cuisine for those who want to immerse themselves in the authentic flavours of the city. If you’re finding the menu slightly confusing, you can always rely on a trusty Paella, another legendary Spanish dish recreated around the world for its intense flavour and beautiful seafood mix. Why not try the Barcelonan variant of paella called fideuà, which is made with thin noodles instead of rice? Allioli is another food you simply cannot miss, a typical Catalan sauce quite similar to mayonnaise, but with a strong taste of garlic, olive oil and salt, and traditionally eaten with bread, potatoes, fish, meat or vegetables. Basically, it tastes amazing with anything! For something a little sweeter, you can’t go wrong with Crema Catalana, a Barcelona take on a crème brûlée, flavoured with lemon zest and cinnamon. Is your mouth watering yet?

Madrid steps up to the competition with a collection of tempting dishes to rival even the best Catalan cuisine. Head to the Plaza Square for a culinary speciality in a beautiful setting – the calamari sandwich. Composed of a bread bun opened up from one side and packed with calamari battered and fried, is there any better sight after a long day of exploring the city’s gems? As the weather starts to get a little colder, the smells of cocido madrileño, a simmering pork stew, start to float through the streets of Madrid, and nowhere does it better than Taberna La Bola, a family-run restaurant serving only the finest cocido since 1870. Another staple of a Madrilenian’s diet is Churros con Chocolate, a must-have for fiesta-goers during the early hours. The most famous place to get your hands around this indulgent snack is San Ginés, so get in line at Madrid’s oldest chocolatier for a taste of the sweet life. 

Night fever

Soho House Barcelona
Salmon Guru

No great city break is complete without a tour of the glamorous rooftop bars or legendary local hangouts. There’s no better feeling then stirring the tall spoon around the cubes of ice and chopped summer fruits in a jug of refreshing sangria, while watching the world go past. Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla, hosts an array of local hotspots, clubs and bars where one side you have the notorious Gotico, known for its late-night discos, and on the other a hipster neighbourhood lined with cocktail venues.  If you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated, La Isabella at Hotel 1898 on the renowned street is a stylish rooftop terrace with sensational views, house-made cocktails and a dip pool for cooling off after one too many Estrella’s. Or head to the quintessential picture of Spanish chic at Soho House Barcelona, where red and white candy-striped lounge beds perch around the rooftop pool, attracting a cool clientele after the Soho House twist on Sangria made with red, white or cava. 

When it comes to old-school glamour in the Spanish capital, look no further than Museo Chicote, the city’s most famous cocktail bar which opened in the 1930s still retaining much of its original décor. Mirrored alcoves line one side of this historic venue, while forest-green leather chairs invite you to take a well-earned rest with a dry martini in hand – just as Ernest Hemingway once did. If that seems so old-school, Salmon Guru, named one of ‘The World’s 50 Best Bars’, will definitely satisfy the palate, with experimental cocktails crafted by renowned mixologist Diego Cabrera. And all in a setting of squiggle neon lights and printed bar stools, straight out of Club Tropicana. 

Flamenco with all the frill

Mandarin Oriental
Gran Meliá Palacio de Los Duques

Roaming the cobbled alleys and beholding the famous sights of the cities can be an exhausting task, so we don’t blame you for wanting to come back to a haven of luxury to put your feet up in the most relaxing of surroundings. Barcelona may have a host of options for the high-end lover, but one of our favourites has to be the Mandarin Oriental, where the sleek lines and contemporary décor fit snug into the artsy vibes of the city. The rooftop pool and bar make for breath-taking vistas, while the Penthouse Suite is nothing short of pure opulence, occupying the entire top floor of the hotel. The modern spa adds a little something extra, making sure your Barcelona getaway, whether a fleeting trip or as part of a lengthier Spanish itinerary, is one to remember.

When it comes to unapologetic glamour in Madrid, the Gran Meliá Palacio de Los Duques is the cherry on top of a cosmopolitan break. The crushed velvet, regal-red dining chairs and the aristocratic courtyard combine to produce extravagance of epic proportions. You may be in the largest Spanish city, but the moment you step inside this hotel you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a middle-eastern mansion, with plush gold blankets and a team of waiters at your fingertips in the Royal Suite. You couldn’t come across more stupendous luxury if you searched the whole of this Mediterranean gem. 


How long are the flights to the Barcelona and Madrid?
A direct flight from London to both Barcelona or Madrid is just two and a half hours.

When is the best time to visit the Barcelona and Madrid?
The weather in Barcelona and Madrid is pretty comfortable all year round, so if you’re thinking of using your days to sightsee, visit in the months of May or September when the climate is welcoming but not too humid. If a Barcelonan beach break if what you’re after, going in the European summer months could be your best bet when the water is crystal-clear and the sand pristine-white. 

I’m thinking of going to Barcelona for my stag do, do you have any recommendations?
Would any boys trip to Barcelona be complete without experiencing the world-famous Camp Nou stadium? Of course, timing your trip with a Barca match would be the dream, but if this proves hard a stadium tour is just as interesting. Grab some estrellas for the journey and you’ve got yourself a perfect day (and night) out.

I’m taking my family to Madrid and we have some children coming with us, do you know of any family-friendly activities?
Madrid may look like a maze of decorative buildings and cocktail bars but there’s a host of activities suitable for all the family dotted around the capital. El Retiro Park is one of the largest parks in Spain and is the perfect place for them to let off some steam while you absorb the midday rays. As the sun sets behind the zigzag skyline, why not take the little ones to see the Lion King in the world tour of the theatre production? Drum beats radiating around the theatre and immense costumes staring back at you, the children’s’ night will be a treasured memory to tell everyone at school. 

Whether it’s the food, the atmosphere or the outstanding accommodation that’s on the top of your priority list, both Barcelona and Madrid have it all. The alluring party spirit of Barcelona and the historic culture of Madrid are both undeniable, and what the former offers in beach side luxury, the latter offers in stunning green spaces. These two Spanish favourites are undeniably picturesque, injecting some fun into any Instagram feed, so get practising your best angles because you’ll find it hard to resist snapping the Gaudi décor all around. If you’re ready to start planning your bespoke getaway, get in touch with one of our personal travel managers by calling 0203 816 0985 or enquire here.

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