You may be familiar with the fact that Catalonia is separate culture, so your decision should be based on which culture attracts you more. Talking about the city itself Madrid is more modern one, while Barcelona is unique and very different from other big cities. The downside of that is that Barcelona is flooded with tourists, while in Madrid there are more locals than tourists on the streets, letting you see and feel real Spanish way of life.
When it comes to art and architecture it is pretty hard to compare Madrid vs Barcelona. Barcelona is more beautiful and unique in architectural sense, especially due to Gaudi’s buildings, that are just out of this world.
Sagrada Familia is telling its story for over a century, while Gaudi’s Park (Park Guell) will make you feel like you are in some fairytale. On the other hand in Madrid you can visit some of the most important museums in Europe like the Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofía.
At the same time Museum of European Modern Art and Picasso’s museum are located in Barcelona. Speaking about surroundings, Barcelona is definitely taking a lead in this one due to its amazing beaches and breathtaking Catalan Pyrenees mountains. Spending a vacation here can literally mean spending one day on Mediterranean beach, sunbathing and zipping a cocktail, while the next day you may end up skiing on the altitude over 2,000 meters.
Madrid does not have beaches, but it is surrounded with mountains, allowing you to make a break from crowds of metropolis and enjoy landscapes that will be hard to forget. There are differences even when it comes to gastronomy. Due to the fact that it is based on the sea, Catalan dishes are more seafood based. Catalonians have special mixed seafood and pork dish that is quite unique and not common in the rest of the Spain.
Like we said at the beginning, the best solution would be to visit both places and experience both destination from your own perspective. However if you, for any reason, have opportunity to visit only one city, think about their main characteristics and what you expect from this adventure and chose the one that suits you more. The bottom line is, comparing Madrid vs Barcelona is hard, mainly because they’re both great cities, but whatever you choose you can’t make a wrong choice, every city has a lot to offer, and you would not be bored or feel disappointed in any of this two Spanish gems.