Madrid or Barcelona

There are numerous struggles in this world. Chocolate or vanilla, deep dish or thin crust, Yankees or Red Sox are just a few among many. Similarly, when it comes to travel, a lot of debate ensues when comparing certain city pairs. Rio or San Paulo, Paris or London, New York or Chicago, Sydney or Melbourne, LA or San Fran, Tulsa or Oklahoma City... Ok, maybe not the last one, but Madrid vs Barcelona debate is certainly a popular one among the people that are planning on visiting Spain or have already done so. Either way, it always seems to be one or the other but not both, so I was curious to see the two and judge for myself.

Madrid's city symbol and Cristóbal Colón statue near Barcelona's port

During my recent trip to TBEX, I got a chance to spend a little time in both cities so hang with me as I pretend to be an expert on this topic for the next few minutes.

Getting there

I landed in Madrid early in the morning after a fairly quick eight hour flight from Washington. I am really starting to dislike these DC to Europe flights - leaving around 5pm, they get in just around midnight according to my biological clock. Because of that, I do not feel sleepy on the flight and as the result, end up forcing myself to get at most a half an hour nap. And then I get in at 7am local time and have the full day ahead of me exploring whichever city I end up at before finally getting some rest in the evening after being awake for over 30 hours.</rant>

Early morning on approach to Madrid

Some of you might wonder why there is an Aer Ligus shevron on the winglet of a United flight (you know who you are). And rightfully so! Turns out that DC-Madrid flight is a weird hybrid - operated by United, using Aer Lingus A330 aircraft and pilots with contract cabin crew that only work that specific flight. Figure that one out!

But we digress...


After checking into my hostel, I asked if there is a "local" breakfast place (being in the middle of the touristy area) and it did not disappoint. The setup was simple - people stand around a very narrow counter with a couple guys serving food in the middle.

Museo de Jamon cafe

I knew it was a local place when the server waived his hands and told me "no English" (again, being right in the middle of the touristy area). Using my 2.5 words of Spanish (and mostly my finger - no, not that one!), I successfully told him what I wanted. When ordering coffee, I asked for grande and he pointedly asked me "Americano?" and was visibly touched when I frantically told him "no, no espresso doble". At that point, the woman standing next to me complemented that my Spanish was very good. And I got some food. Score!

Oh, and the total price for a baguette with chorizo, a ham and cheese croissant and a double espresso - €2.50/$3. I immediately caught myself thinking that I am going to like this part of Europe!

Next, I met up with Yasin, a Turkish couchsurfer and student pilot who was in Madrid for a couple of months to train on Airbus A320 simulators. It was his day off so he gladly joined me for a quick afternoon stroll around the city.

Change of guards at Palacio Real

Palacio Real gardens

In front of Palacio Real

The nice thing about central part of Madrid is that a lot of "must-see" places are all within walking distance of each other so, even thought we did not have much time before Yasin had to go back, we covered quite a bit of ground while geeking out on all sorts of aviation topics. We finished off our walk with a quick lunch right next to my hostel and Yasin invited me to come stay with him and his girlfriend in Istanbul - something I plan on taking advantage of in the very near future.

A refreshing beer with Yasin


From Madrid, I went to Girona, stayed a few days in Empuriabrava, drove through the Pyrenees to Andorra and finally got to Barcelona a couple of weeks later.

When booking my hostel, I saw a review mentioning a great €1 tapas bar around the corner so after checking in, I grabbed my Finish dorm mate and headed straight over there. Once again I could tell it was a popular local place as it was completely packed.

Taberna Blai Tonight and €1 tapas

Oh, and the cheap tapas were delicious! This will definitely be my must-go-to spot during future visits to Barcelona.

Next day was a wash as it was raining buckets so everyone stayed inside. I did not complain too much as it gave me the chance to catch up on some sleep and get better after getting stomach sick (and maybe some altitude sickness) driving around the winding roads in the Pyrenees.

My last day turned out to be a sunny one so I headed out to explore the city, starting with Barcelona port.

Beautiful day at Port Vell

As I was walking along La Rambla from the port to the city center at Plaça de Catalunya, I grew weary of the ridiculous number of tourists there. Reading up on La Rambla, I expected a nice, somewhat historic walk but instead, it was just a zoo of make-shift restaurants, modern boutiques, crowds of kids, and continuous traffic jam. I couldn't help to think no wonder there are so many street scams to watch out for here.

Overcrowded La Ramblas

The last straw was the "biggest produce market" that turned out to be closed on Sunday (what market does not open on Sundays???). So before I even got to Plaça de Catalunya, I decided to cut my loses and turned onto one of the side streets to find the remains of the old (Roman!) city walls.

Roman walls that used to surround the city

There were still crowds of tourist everywhere, so I sought shelter in a nearby tapas place to get some food and come up with the alternate plan.


Instead of going to the "must-see" Sagrada Familia cathedral, where there is always an ocean of tourists, I decided to head up north and stroll around Park Güell - a large city park filled with more of Gaudi's Modern masterpieces.

Gaudi's surreal walkways

The city from Park Güell with Sagrada Familia on the left

Gingerbread-like houses at Park Güell

Not surprisingly, it was also filled with tourists, tour guides screaming at each other (huh?) and arab guys selling all kinds of "hand-made" junk souvenirs (and fleeing for the bushes at the first sign of police). I had enough of that so instead of catching the Metro back, I decided to just walk downhill and wonder through the streets.

The local Barcelona

Finally I was in my groove, strolling mindlessly around, watching the Barceloní sipping coffee, chilling on their balconies, and sitting down at a street-block-long table for a Sunday meal.

The verdict

As much as I would like to pretend I am not biased, I have to admit that a week I spent in Girona and in the Pyrenees made me fall in love with that part of Spain. After that, in my mind both Madrid and Barcelona pale in comparison to the narrow cobblestone streets, medieval castles, and breathtaking mountains and I will have to call it a losing tie between these two.

Have you been there? Which one did you prefer and why?