Madrid or Barcelona? We know Spain has loads of amazing cities and this question is likely to raise a few ‘El-Clasico’ and Catalan eyebrows but if you had to choose to visit one of these two cities, which one would you choose and why?

We’ve often heard that Madrid is highly underrated. Having already previously visited Barcelona, we boarded our ‘crazy-o-clock’ flight from London to explore the Spanish capital in the hope that perhaps, we could find our own answers.

While the jury is still out on the Barcelona vs Madrid debate, we curated our experiences and selected our top five which, in our opinion, make Madrid truly special. We also sampled the views of other bloggers in this piece. We hope you enjoy reading as much as we enjoyed writing it. Please tweet or share your opinion below.


#1: Embracing your inner foodie

Although cliché, we cannot dispute the truism that ‘food is one of the best ways to experience a culture’. With the exception of a few disappointments, almost every city we have visited has made an impressive showing of its local food culture. Madrid was no different.

We decided to feel Madrid’s culinary pulse by literally immersing ourselves in it through a walking tour organised by Devour Madrid Food Tours.

The 17th century Plaza Mayor, once the setting for gory bull fights and executions but now a favourite watering hole for tourists, seemed an apt place to meet up. Bathed in Madrid sunshine, we were soon under the spell of our vivacious hostess who expertly guided us through the entangled back streets of downtown Madrid; uncorking Madrid’s history and culinary secrets like one would open a bottle of fine Rioja.

Mainly avoiding tourist traps, we sampled family run cafes and restaurants which offered a heady mix of delicate pastries, street food, gourmet cooking and soul food. The day’s gastronomic tone was set with a breakfast treat of melted-down chocolate with cinnamon and honey from a café that was once run by the queen’s personal baker in the 1850’s.

Puchero at Taberna La Bola Madrid

Following that high note, our guide proceeded to amuse our taste buds further with a sampling of ‘Regalito de Rabo de Toro’ (bulls tail in pastry) followed by a tasting of ‘Puchero’ broth; a savoury mix of beef, chicken, ham, chorizo, chickpeas and potatoes slow cooked for 4 to 6 hours in a traditional ceramic pot. Somewhere in this stimulating experience, our guide threw in a lesson to explain the differences between Iberian and Serano ham and teased us with some melt-in-your-mouth ‘Tortilla de Patatas’ which went down well with some Vermouth.

Bull Tail Regalito El Anciano Rey de los Vinos Madrid

Taking a pause near Plaza de la Villa, we found ourselves in front of the foreboding looking door of a Spanish monastery. Local ‘legend’ has it that if you whispered the ‘secret code’ at the entrance, the door would open to reveal a dark and mysterious interior, an unusual oasis of tranquility in the midst of a bustling city. Somewhere in that building, the curious foodie will find delicious treats made by cloistered nuns based on a recipe presumably dating back at least 100 years.

Our guide seemed to know how to crack the code to get us in and soon we were served.

HDYTI Tip: Opinions on the best times to visit Madrid vary. We visited in May but learned that temperatures in July can get really hot. August is holiday month for the locals which may mean fewer crowds but potentially less options for restaurants.


#2: Did we say food already?

We travel with our taste buds and Madrid was the ideal place to let them run wild! Click To Tweet

Mercado de San Miguel Madrid Foodie

Early one morning, we were roused by sweet aromas drifting through the window shutters of our apartment. This was all the prompting we needed to get out of bed, head into the city and follow the scents. We soon found our way to Plaza de San Miguel, home to one of Madrid’s famous food markets; the Mercado de San Miguel.

This market is arguably Madrid’s answer to Lisbon’s ‘Time Out Mercado da Ribeira’ and London’s Borough Market, each a formidable foodie oasis in their own right, where the sights, sounds, colours, aromas and converge to create a full sensory experience in an engaging atmosphere.

Mercado de San Miguel Madrid Foodie

Thanks to Madrid Food Tours, we had learned that landlocked Madrid is home to the Mercamadrid Market, the second largest seafood market in the world after Tokyo. Being in no mood for a pre-dawn visit to the Mercamadrid, Mercado de San Miguel was a suitable compromise for satisfying our seafood cravings; offering a colorful combination of tapas, drinks and nibbles.

Mercado de San Miguel Madrid Foodie

In Spanish culture, the food experience is spread across four or five meals, which are evenly spaced out throughout the day. We love the way Spanish food seemingly doesn’t take itself too seriously yet manages to be intentional, delivering an unforgettable experience through a long drawn out but thoughtful process of eating.

Amalia Maloney of Amaliavida, a blogger well versed in travelling in Spain says, “In Spain, life and food are savoured and timing is relaxed…giving the impression that one does not need to worry about time….

Madrid Street View

Does the Madrid food scene have an edge over that of Barcelona? We are none the wiser. If Spanish food expert and founder of Devour Spain, Lauren Aloise whose company runs food tours in both Madrid and Barcelona refuses to pick a side, who are we to do so?

HDYTI Tip: In Madrid, and in many parts of Southern Spain, dinner generally starts around 9pm but can start as late as 10pm. A rule of thumb is that any places which open before then tend to be tourist traps, potentially with dubious quality. For visitors used to eating dinner earlier, stick to tapas and grab a drink (or two) to hold back the hunger pangs for a few hours. La Latina and the area around Puerta del Sol both offer a number of tapas (small plates) options.


#3: Feeling the city’s pulse

Physically located in the middle of Spain, Madrid actually looks like the ‘heart of Spain’, a role which the city proudly lives up to. Despite Madrid’s reputation of not truly awaking until after 9pm, standing at the busy Puerta del Sol just before noon, we could feel the vibe of a city in full gear. The ‘heart of Spain’ was pulsating with infectious energy, a rhythm similar to that of Barcelona’s La Rambla.

HDYTI Tip: Madrid’s Puerta del Sol is always a good place to start out exploring the city and is a great place to feel the pulse of the city. It is easily accessible via the metro from the Madrid Barajas International Airport. Beware of pick pockets though!

King Alfonso XII Monument Buen Retiro Park Madrid

Even big cities needs to breathe and Madrid is no exception. Downtown (central) Madrid is made up of tightly packed streets and narrow roads, an arrangement which makes the city centre a concentration of human energy. In search of green open space, we hopped on the Madrid Metro towards Buen Retiro Park. Not until we walked into the park did we feel the city begin to truly relax and open up.

Palacio de Cristal, Summer Buen Retiro Park Madrid

In the early summer evening when we visited, the park’s grandstand hosted tango dance sessions (‘Milonga El Templete de Retiro‘). In another corner of the park, a group of young women clad in harem pants danced around a solitary drummer; their uneven steps an absurd contrast to the intensity of his drumming. Blue and white rowboats dotted the lake and bobbed around in the gleaming sunshine as we walked past the grand King Alfonso XII monument, dodging skateboarders and roller-bladers along the way. Life was happening all around us. Madrid was breathing.

The magic of Madrid is a slow burn compared with the razzmatazz of Barcelona. But the capital holds a few aces up its sleeve. And the Retiro Park on a sunny spring day is one of them”, says Sanka Guha writing in The Independent in 2013. We certainly agree.

Palacio de Cristal, Buen Retiro Park Madrid

We ended our walk at the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) which began life in the late 1800s as a greenhouse of sorts. It now hosts quirky exhibitions such as this beautiful room of rainbows. We found a park bench by the lake and with the gleaming palace in the foreground; we sat in silence and took it all in, engaging with our thoughts.

Although perhaps not on the same scale as Barcelona’s Parc de Montjuïc, we loved El Retiro Park because despite being such a busy public space, locals and tourists can find their own oasis of calm. Char Taylor, of the UK travel blog Taylor Hearts Travel does an excellent piece called The Unexpected in Retiro Park which is worth a read.

HDYTI Tip: Want to explore Retiro Park like a local? MADride Travel offer walking photography tours in El Retiro Park.

HDYTI Tip: For more green spaces in Madrid, Sienna Brown, founder of Las Morenas de España recommends visiting the Madrid Rio. Situated along the Manzanares River, it features more green spaces and make-shift beaches.


#4: The fashion and art

Visiting Madrid’s Museum Triangle, made up of the Prado Museum, (‘Museo del Prado’), the La Reina Sofía Museum and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, is often cited as one of the top things to do.

On this trip we opted to spend more time outdoors than indoors and so chose to leave the Museum Triangle tour for another time. We also knew we would get our museum/history fix from our day trip to Toledo (read about ourHoly Toledoexperience). However, we were keen to learn more about the Spanish monarchy and conceded to visit the Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid).

Summer day Palacio Real de Madrid

Apart from seeing how the Spanish aristocracy live (or lived), the visit to the palace provided an opportunity to reflect on Spain’s role in world history. Surrounded by deep red tapestries, the spectacular ceiling frescoes in the royal throne room tell a story of the ‘glorious conquests of Spain’ through the centuries including depictions of colonies in Europe, Africa, the Americas and North America.

While there is a lot to celebrate about Spanish history and its positive influence across the world, the throne room frescoes, as mesmerizing as they were, cast a shadow over us, reminding us of the human cost of one nation’s ambition.

Frescoes Palacio Real de Madrid

The Fashion: Ranked the world’s 5th fashion capital in 2012 (Barcelona ranked 3rd), one more thing we observed about Madrid was its fashion style; conservative yet tasteful. A favourite pastime of ours was sitting in a café and watching the older Madrileños strolling by, carrying themselves with an air of distinction. Their fashion was not consistent with the classic European monochromatic palette. Although we didn’t do any shopping on this trip, we appreciated the sharp, edgy and colourful combinations represented in store front window displays.

Barcelona has its Gaudi and Picasso but Madrid holds its own in art and fashion.

Miruna who blogs at TravelAway tries to compare both cities. She says, “I believe the authenticity of Madrid is stronger and more genuine than Barcelona’s charm, but what can I say, I always prefer the unknown….

HDYTI Tip: Madrid may not have the sophistication of Barcelona. However it hosts its fair share of conventional, modern and urban art which blends effortlessly into the city’s equally striking architecture. In our view, the best way to experience Madrid’s art scene is to find a map, chose a route and simply lose yourself in its barrios.


#5: Flamenco, the passion of expression

We are keen dancers and were interested in taking a few Flamenco classes while in Madrid but failed miserably to find any reasonable options.

Therefore on our last night, we opted to dine at the Villa Rosa, arguably the most popular Flamenco club / restaurant in Madrid offering a delectable mix of food and entertainment at reasonable prices. We arrived early and found seats close to the stage, the focal point of what was a rather intimate venue.

Flamenco at Villa Rosa, Plaza de Santa Ana Madird

Three immaculately dressed dancers appeared on a dimly lit wooden stage accompanied by a singer (cante) and guitar player (toque). The singer, a bulky dark haired gentleman, delivered a moving introduction, as if summoning the spirits of the greatest flamenco dancers from the past, present and future onto the stage in that singular moment. As his mournful voice began to fade, our attention was gripped.

The music and the singing picked up again. With soft steps which built up in intensity, one dancer after another took the stage and owned their time and space, working their way into our hearts with each clap, tap, flick, sway and arch; the wooden floor amplifying the acoustics with every beat.

Historians argue that flamenco includes Indian, Arab and Andalusian elements. This is probably what adds to its richness. There’s something about the deliberate movements and the way the dancers communicate with each other and with their audience. The call and response, the intense movements supported by the palmas (handclapping) and the wailing voice of the singer create a steamy fusion of sound and movement.

At the end of the performance, the dancers had succeeded in first gripping then shredding our hearts before masterfully putting the pieces back together. We were in love.

Flamenco at Villa Rosa, Plaza de Santa Ana Madird

Does Madrid win over Barcelona when it comes to dancing? We cannot authoritatively answer this question on the basis of one incredible flamenco performance. However, the performers at Villa Rosa certainly made a strong case for Madrid being the cultural capital of flamenco.

We’re still looking for flamenco classes in Madrid. If you know of any, please share with us! Click To Tweet

HDYTI Tip: Devour Madrid Food Tours has a great compilation called ‘Where To See Flamenco In Madrid


Finally, Barcelona vs Madrid?

We will call time on this story by simply appreciating the experiences Madrid offered us. We will leave the comparison between both cities to you.

TravelAway’s Miruna summarises this debate beautifully when she says, “Barcelona…is sophisticated, daring, and cosmopolitan, it belongs to the future, and it has style, but I would never underestimate Madrid, its culture, traditions and wonderful people.

Mr HDYTI Madrid

Madrid vs Barcelona? Which do you prefer and why? We would love to hear your thoughts. Please leave your comments below, share links to your blog posts on either city (or both) or let’s continue the conversation on Twitter. Send us a tweet with your opinion @dipyourtoesin using #HDYTI.


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