Feeling lazy or adventurous? What about artsy or classy? Or maybe a bit hungry? Spain can accommodate all these vacation cravings and the indecision that may come along with them! Gabriel and I have been fortunate enough to visit two of the largest cities in Spain, Madrid and Barcelona on two individual occasions, and I am here to share with you some differences, similarities, and micro-cultures.
Madrid, the capital of Spain, boasts beautiful parks and a plethora of history. Our trip to Madrid was definitely more of an adventurous one, which involved walking many miles a day to explore what there was to offer. Simply walking down Gran Via, the main thoroughfare in Madrid, made me feel like I was in just another big city. In my opinion, it lacked cultural flare as the hustle and bustle ate away at the high expectations I had. The people and taxis and shopping here did not contribute much to my positive take on this international destination. However, straying from the main streets revealed many gems. Plaza Mayor was decked out in holiday decor at the beginning of January and offered restaurants and shopping galore. The Royal Palace, just across the courtyard from one of Madrid’s famous cathedrals, was enchanted with gold plated accents on its scaffold and fence. My two personal favorites were El Retiro Park and the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace). We were lucky enough to hit these two spots on a beautiful sunny day. The park came alive with vegetation; an open air market selling books, sweets, and more; small boats in the pond; and street performers. Near the heart of the park was the Crystal Palace, originally used as a conservatory, but which now houses exhibits from local artists. Madrid offered a thriving nightlife and when dinner is typically around 10:00 at night, it became easy to stay out late.
Barcelona lived up to its expectations as the arts capital of the world. The city offered a huge variety of street art, fine art, and architectural art. The works of Gaudi, Miro, Picasso, Dali, and more were scattered across the city, and both Picasso and Miro had entire art museums dedicated to themselves. The Picasso museum, located in the city center, was everything I could have asked for and we found that Picasso had quite the comedic personality. I was a fan of Picasso’s style both in life and on canvas! The Miro museum was removed from downtown and located in the surrounding green hills. This was a bit more refined and Gabriel took a liking to Miro’s modern and abstract take on art. Barcelona is on the East coast of Spain in the Catalonia region, so much of the written and spoken language was in Catalan. Catalan is Latin based just like Spanish, so we were still able to decipher enough to get by. For those that enjoy some relaxation and fun in the sun, Barcelona sits on the coast serving as a port city, a seafood haven, and a beach destination! The Mediterranean water attracts many locals and tourists during the day while the boardwalk and beachside restaurants and bars come alive in the evening. We chose long days trekking across the city in the sun rather than soaking in the sun on the beach, so we did not stay out late to experience the nightlife. However, there was plenty to do and see during daylight hours. Barcelona is a walkable city with attractions being grouped together in convenient clusters across the city. That being said, we walked an average of 12 miles a day by choice, and to get the most out of our visit.
No matter what type of scene you are into or whatever your religious beliefs may be, you cannot help but notice the steeples that give depth to the city skylines. Both Madrid and Barcelona offered cathedrals and churches worth a visit. Catedral de Almudena in Madrid housed beautiful carved doors depicting religious stories and a light stone interior with a modern feel. Barcelona on the other hand brought La Segrada Familia to the table. I had always seen far away pictures of this masterpiece, so it was beyond impressive to see it up close. We arrived too late in the day to get a tour of the inside, but the outside alone was a marvel. The original front scaffolding intricacies could hold you captivated for hours. What I found unbelievably fascinating was that the construction of this cathedral began in the late 1800s and STILL is not complete. There were cranes and construction scaffolding surrounding the project areas. And given the time lapse of this construction project, we saw the apparent change in style from the front side to the back side. While Gaudi, the more recent architect, was able to blend many of the style characteristics into the newer portion of the cathedral, there were many modern contributions to the back half including brightly colored tiling and accentuated edges in the sculptures. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, this is a must see. I could have spent all day observing this beauty.
And last but not least, the food! You got it right, Spain = tapas. In Madrid, a huge variety of tapas bars line the streets and I found that many were slightly classier than I expected. Many offered pricey samplings and full wine menus, but a glass of wine or sangria with three to five tapas plates split among a group was typically enough to feel full and not empty the wallet. And if dinner did not properly fill your stomach, the purchase of a few regularly priced beers for the group at any pub-style bar was automatically paired with a fried food feast…for FREE! I was not expecting this part. I suppose the salty, cheap food leads to the ordering of more drinks ultimately bringing in more money. Across the street from La Segrada Familia, Gabriel had me try turrones, which is a nougat and often nut based candy. One final shout out to Spanish cuisine goes to the churros and chocolate at Chocolateria San Gines. This cute subway-style shop with white and black tile specialized in churros (both big and small) and cups of melted chocolate to dip these churros. The chocolate smell welcomed us inside on a cold January morning for a carb-heavy breakfast! Barcelona also offered tapas, chocolate, and sangria, but it was the seafood that was completely on point! We splurged on a paella dinner one evening maxing out around $25/plate. The night before, there was no need to splurge however. We ended up in a tapas sports bar and ordered three tapas plates for the two of us. One of which was a $10 bowl of mussels, and boy it was worth it! There had to be at least 35 mussels in the bowl and they were cooked to perfection. Food in Europe is often very reasonably priced, but getting seafood for so cheap felt like a steal!
When comparing these two cities, I will reveal some factors that may have swayed my opinions and experiences: we were in Madrid in January but had a friend as a tour guide and stayed in an Airbnb; Our trip to Barcelona, on the other hand, was in August with no tour guide and we stayed in a hotel (SB Icaria for about $85/night); This trip was also two days longer than our stay in Madrid. Now, I have laid it all out on the line for you to decide which city more closely fits your personality and travel interests. In addition to your own research, I hope my descriptions made at least one of these destinations sound enticing and worth the trip!