Which is best for culture?
Being the capital, Madrid has several of the country’s – if not the continent’s – leading art museums. The Prado is the country’s national art museum and home to a collection of European art from the twelfth to the nineteenth century.
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza has nearly a thousand works of art on display including an American art collection and the Reina Sofía has the country’s national collection of twentieth century art, including Picasso’s famous Guernica. Few cities can boast quite as much historic art as Madrid.
The Garden of Earthly Delights in Madrid's Prado. / CC0
But Barcelona has Gaudí. This Catalonian architect certainly made his mark on the city and there are beautiful examples of his work all over Barcelona, from the still unfinished modernist masterpiece that is the Sagrada Familia basilica to the magical, sculpture-filled Parc Güell.
There’s plenty more modern art here too, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), Museum of European Modern Art (MEAM), Picasso Museum and Miró Museum.
Which is best for food?
Madrid sits inland and its traditional dishes tend towards the heartier – there’s plenty of stew. Two typical meals are the cocido Madrileño, a hearty, chickpea-based stew, and the callos a la Madrileña, a stew made with beef tripe and blood sausage. But it's not all about the meat: bocata de calamares is traditional a fried squid sandwich – try one at the Mercado de San Miguel.
Madrid also has plenty of restaurants serving other regional Spanish cuisines such as Andalucían and Galician, as well as international cuisine of every flavour – there’s plenty of choice here.
Barcelona is a more touristed city and so food tends to be more expensive. Eating is taken very seriously by the Barcelonans, though, and if you know where to go you’ll eat very well here.
Boqueria Market, Barcelona
La Boqueria on Las Ramblas is one of Europe’s best food markets, and Catalunya has a reputation for creative cuisine, thanks to famous chef Ferran Adrià, who was born in Barcelona. Most meals are anchored by pa amb tomàquet, toasted bread topped with a delicious mix of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and salt, and you’ll find plenty of Catalonian cheese, mushrooms and jamón too.
One of the main differences in the food culture of the two cities is that it is far more common in Madrid to be given a free tapas dish with your drink in a bar – in Barcelona this is very rare indeed.
What about nightlife?
It is said that Madrid has more bars per capita than any other city in the European Union and we can believe it – many streets in the city centre are lined with cafés and bars. You certainly won’t go thirsty here.
You might get tired though, as things start very late here indeed; no Madrileño will even consider hitting the dancefloor before 2am. Head to Lavapiés for grungy bars, Barrio de Salamanca for something sleeker and Chueca for the city’s best selection of gay bars and clubs.
Barcelona has plenty of party spirit too, along with a generally more laidback attitude. For upscale clubs head to Port Olímpic, or dodge the tourists among the small but cool bars of the Gothic Quarter. Things start late here, and although not quite as late as in Madrid, a siesta the next day is obligatory in both cities, of course.
Shopping in the Born district, Barcelona
Where should I shop?
Madrid has a huge range of shops, from department stores (mostly around the Gran Vía) to the designer boutiques of the Barrio de Salamanca. Head to Fuencarral for alternative fashions and don’t miss the Sunday flea market El Rastro for antiques and quirky clothing.
Barcelona is generally considered Spain’s fashion capital and here you’ll find plenty of new, chic designers as well as vintage clothing shops. The Born district is the place to head for the best boutiques, while emerging hotspot Sant Antoni has plenty of vintage options.