Madrid and Barcelona are, respectively, the two largest cities in Spain, both by physical size and population, but in terms of culture they could not be more different. We recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Barcelona, with a short side trip to Madrid.
After spending several months in Spain and experiencing a majority of the country, Barcelona is the last place I will recommend for someone looking to go to Spain on a short vacation... ok, second to last just ahead of Benidorm. Don't get me wrong, Barcelona is not a bad place but seemed the least Spanish of any of the places we've been in Spain. This is partly due to the Catalan culture that makes a point of separating itself from the rest of the country. The other part is that it is absolutely flooded with tourists and not in a charming, "oh, you're here from the US too" kind of way. Experiencing Barcelona for a week or less finds the city short on quality, overpriced and overrated.
Perhaps if one had a month or longer to spend in Barcelona, the view might be different. The few times we were able to get out of the touristy areas and blend in with the locals were most enjoyable. The challenge is finding these areas in this large and spread out city.
Pickpocketing is a serious problem in Barcelona. You will hear this everywhere and for as prepared as you feel, it will hit you when you least expect it. You must be on full alert... constantly. Now in all fairness it is not the US, so you're not likely to get randomly shot, mugged, carjacked or raped... just pick pocketed. However, you should count on a pickpocketing attempt to happen to you while you're there. Perhaps consider it part of the Barcelona experience... see the nearly 20 year old Olympic ruins, the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi architecture, Las Ramblas, get pick pocketed and return home. We (and our friends visiting from the US) knew of the pickpocketing problem and took all precautions to prevent it. Hurrying to catch the green line metro from Sants, with suitcases in tow we must have looked the perfect targets. A couple guys entering the train in front of us suddenly wanted to get off the train, while their 'partners' were behind us pushing to get on. This created the perfect 'sandwich' for them to attempt to clear our pockets. However when one has nothing in their pockets, there is nothing to steal and so this turned out to be just a quick 'TSA pat down' and the would be thieves left empty handed. I call this out because it is so pervasive that everyone should be aware and expect it when you least expect it... it is not always subtle.
Here is a great article that talks about the scams and ways to protect against them while in Barcelona. It is just no fun to have to be on guard every second you're trying to enjoy the experience of a new place. However, if you are overly-cautious and bring only what you're willing to get stolen with you when you leave the house... you will survive. It doesn't hurt to try to fit in with the locals and not make yourself a target by outwardly appearing to be a tourist.
As for Barcelona itself - the city is clean and the public transportation is cheap and efficient. The city does have some charm. The 'Magic Fountain' is just off of Plaza Espanya and on weekend nights it has a very nice water display choreographed to music. Barcelona has a nice hop-on/hop-off bus tour with 2 routes through the city (3 in the summer) that hit the popular spots. The former Bull Ring converted into shopping mall is popular. The Gothic District just off the Ramblas is reminiscent, albeit much more touristy and expensive, of the Old Towns we've seen in other Spanish cities. The Picasso Museum is quite good.
There are some nice neighborhood tapas bars and taverns in the Poble Sec area of town on either side of The Paral-lel. There were a few stand outs. 'Lolita', a small, modern tapas bar with an excellent variety of seafood, beef and veggies. 'Casa Jacinta', a tiny, old tapas bar with excellent food, drink and rock-n-roll atmosphere served by the owners. On the other side of The Paral-lel is 'Raxeria', a tap on your table, pour your own beer bar... quickly becoming my favorite kind of place.
The highlight of Barcelona for me was not actually in Barcelona, but an hour train ride out of town... Montserrat. This is a small tourist town built around a working Monastery at the top of a mountain. There are several ways to get up to Montserrat, we chose the 'gondola' over the train. The funicular was under repair and closed the day we went. The Basilica is beautiful and the town has wonderful views of the surrounding areas and the valley looking toward Barcelona.
Overall Barcelona was nice to see and I am happy we went, but it is very easy to hit the few highlights worth seeing in a day or two. For fans of Gaudi, the city does not disappoint and aside from that, one does not need a lot of time here. It is an overly expensive place, especially for what you get and the quality compared to other cities in Spain.
Madrid on the other hand, was fantastic. There is no doubt you are in Spain, and the capital no less, from the second you enter. We took the high speed AVE train from Barcelona that gets you into Madrid in around 3 hours. Driving would take more than 6.
We stayed at a very nice hotel - Hotel Opera, which is just off Plaza Isabelle II near the Opera House, Theater and Palace. Our first night there we we joined 'The Old Madrid Tapas and Wine Walking Tour'. The host, Andres, is very knowledgeable about wine and took us through the oldest part of Madrid, popping in and out of tapas bars sampling the house specialty at each place. We tasted Spanish vermouth which although dark amber in color, actually starts as a white wine. Up to 40 different spices are added as it ages. Very tasty on its own - on the rocks with a slice of orange, or in a martini. As we discovered, if you want to try this tasty unique vermouth, ask for "vermut de grifo" (on tap) and make sure it is poured from the wooden barrel. The Tapas tour is well worth the 60 euro (includes all the food and wine) a person. We sampled fantastic wines and ate enough tapas that we were full and satisfied. This is a must if in Madrid.
Our second day in Madrid we took the obligatory trip to The Prado Museum which is vast and worth seeing, even if it is just a quick pass through. You could, of course, spend all day (or more than one) at The Prado, but there is so much more to see in Madrid. We enjoyed a great lunch
just across from the Market San Miguel and ended our day by taking in a Bull Fight.
Before taking the afternoon AVE train back to Barcelona, we spent our last morning in Madrid touring the Palace. The 3rd largest in the Europe, the Madrid Palace is typical of European Palaces and worth the trip. The line to get in was long, but it moved at a steady pace. The view from the main courtyard overlooking the countryside was vast. The Cathedral is situated right next to the Palace, but as it was under renovation we were only able to see the outside... next time.
Just walking the streets of Madrid, viewing the Spanish architecture, people, culture and town plazas is a treat in and of itself. Cheerful (and somewhat talented) musicians play for money in the subway cars while locals sometimes sing along and tourists get a laugh. When people think of Spain, they typically think of Andalucia - Seville, Granada, the White Hill towns - sunshine, beaches, Flameno, Sherry, Grand Cathedrals, etc. and with good reason, however while Andalucia may be the soul of Spain, Madrid is definitely its heart. Our few days there were just enough to whet our thirst for more. The next time we are in this wonderful country, Madrid and a minimum of a week there is at the top of the itinerary.