As Spain's two premier cities, you can't go wrong whichever you choose. But if you had to elect one, which should it be?
Of course, really you should visit both. And with the high-speed AVE train now serving the route between Madrid and Barcelona, the journey is quicker and easier than ever. Read more: Madrid to Barcelona.
But if you do have to choose? Read on...
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Value for Money
In Madrid you can get cod tapas thirty seconds from Sol (Madrid's main square) at Casa Labra or a great meal for 10 euros just off Gran Via (Madrid's main street) at Con Dos Fogones. The equivalent restaurants in Barcelona are too busy doing paella and sangria 'deals' to offer real value for money.
Meanwhile, Madrid's two best museums (the Reina Sofia and the Prado) have free entry every night of the week, something you'd never see in Barcelona.
See also: Barcelona Travel Tips
See more Madrid v Barcelona comparisons below.
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Access to the Rest of Spain
Heard of Toledo and Segovia? They're both near Madrid. The satellite cities around Madrid are some of Spain's most interesting and diverse. Barcelona also has some good day trips, including Figueres (for the Dali museum) and Sitges (for the beach), but Madrid's day trips are unbeatable.
When it comes to exploring the rest of Spain, Madrid's central location makes it fare superior to the north-western Barcelona. The AVE train can get you to many Spanish cities incredibly quickly, while normal trains and buses will get you everywhere else.
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Architecture
Architecture is the main reason tourists visit Barcelona. Most of Gaudi's madcap modernist buildings are in Barcelona and it is on these designs that the city's reputation is hinged. Madrid has some attractive buildings, especially along Gran Via, but it can't complete with Barcelona.
See also: Barcelona Architecture
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Art
Madrid has three of Spain's most famous art museums: the Prado (which ranks up there with the Louvre for pre-20th century art), the modern art of the Reina Sofia (featuring Picasso's masterpiece, the Guernica), and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, said to be one of the best private art collections in the world.
Barcelona is not short of art museums, with the Picasso museum being its most famous, Madrid is a clear winner here.
See also: Madrid's Best Art Museums
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Beach
Barcelona has a beach, Madrid doesn't. Or at least not a real one. But in 2011, Madrid council unveiled Madrid Rio, a new complex by the Manzanares river with its own beach. But if you want a real beach, you need a coast, something Barcelona has. However, Barcelona's beach is horrible and should be avoided. Luckily, there are plenty of beaches nearby (such as in Sitges) to make Barcelona a good destination for catching some rays.
See also: Best Beaches in Spain
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Food
Catalan cuisine is well respected throughout Spain. Not far from the touristy areas you'll find some great food, but it takes more effort than in Madrid, and you'll always end up paying more.
Madrid's restaurant scene takes in all the regions of Spain and countries of the world and it isn't spoiled by tourist-conscious eateries that always cut corners with quality.
Winner: A close one, but Madrid has it.
See also: Madrid Food
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Kids
Kids are well looked after in both Madrid and Barcelona. There are some good science museums in both cities. Kids will appreciate the modern art of Picasso and Dali (perhaps more than most adults), and there's plenty of them in both cities. But it is Barcelona's modernist art that, like with their parents, will capture the children's imagination the most.
See also: Barcelona for Kids
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Wow Factor
When I last visited Barcelona (after two months in China and Siberia), I couldn't help but go 'wow'. Madrid's appeal is a little more subtle; it takes much longer to get a real feel for the capital than for Barcelona. You could find several reasons for this - the architecture of Barcelona is an obvious point in its favor, as is its setting between the mountains of Montjuic and Tibidabo and its more obvious 'center'. If you only had a weekend in Spain, you'd feel like you 'got' Barcelona much faster than you would Madrid.
On the other hand, the longer you stay in Madrid, the more you'll appreciate it (I don't think you could say the same for Barcelona).
See also: Things to Do in Barcelona
Which is Better, Madrid or Barcelona?: Nightlife
Two of my favorite nightclubs are in Barcelona (Sidecar and Razzmatazz). However, while Barcelona has some great individual bars and clubs, Madrid has whole streets of cool nightspots. Whatever your age or taste in music, Madrid will have somewhere for you.
See also: Madrid Nightlife
Final Score: Madrid 5 - 4 BarcelonaGaudi has a lot to answer for. Through his weird and wacky architecture, Barcelona has become the city that captures the imagination of most visitors to Spain. If you have only a brief time in the city, you cannot fail to be impressed by Barcelona.
But take a little more time and Madrid's charms become apparent. Cheaper, with more variety, better food and generally more to do than Barcelona, Madrid gets the top prize.
But what are you looking for? If you're in the south of France and want a quick weekend in Spain and to experience Gaudi's architecture, Barcelona is the one for you. But if you have a week to spare to explore a bit more and you like art, go for Madrid.