Two Weeks in Spain, how to divide up the time between cities?
November 20, 2015 12:46 AM   Subscribe

We're going to Spain for two weeks in January. I've been told Barcelona is very fun and Madrid is dull but has great museums. How many days should we devote to each city? We like fine food, queer events, second hand clothes shopping, fancy bars, historical sites, and things you don't need a car to see. Would love to go out into the countryside if we can on public transportation. Is there a great reason to stay in Bracelona and just day trip to Madrid? Or vice versa?

Also, general recommendations on hotels and such are welcome and appreciated.
posted by The Whelk to Travel & Transportation around Spain (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend Bilbao. Was just there & Barca a month ago. I did 5 days in Barca and 6 in Bilbao, but I had native Spanish-speaking friends in the latter.

In Barca, I found the Olivia Barmes hotel very nicely located and the staff is excellent. We mostly did AirBnBs though. Our best outings in Barca were in the Gracia neighborhood. Cool to just wander for hours down little alleys, emerging every so often into a bustling plaza perfect for food & drinks.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:06 AM on November 20, 2015

I have not been to Madrid but I went to Barcelona for a long weekend a few months ago and loved it! We did not have a car, we took public transportation everywhere and it was fine (didn't even take a cab). We stayed at the Praktik Bakery, which yes it has a real working bakery downstairs and you can't really argue with being greeted with the smell of fresh bread! It's not quite central, but that's what made the price pretty reasonable for us.

Food is insane. You can get good food at all price points and it's fresh and inventive and ughhhh I need to go back. Contact me and I'll send you a link to all the restaurants I went to in Barcelona that I reviewed in Trip Advisor. And beer and wine is so cheap. And so good! And so cheap!

We didn't do a ton of sightseeing, everyone said to go to the Picasso museum but it was just too darned busy and I didn't want to queue. Maybe if we go back during a weekday. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND the Sagrada Familia. I was blown away by the stained glass inside. Honestly one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life and something I will remember forever. And I'm a cynical agnostic. Go for the full audio tour. And of course there's a lot of Gaudi which you can appreciate just walking around although I do know one or two museums came highly recommended as well.

For outdoorsy stuff (I'm not really into beach lounging), we took public transport to have an afternoon walking around the Parque del Laberinto de Horta. Now if "laberinto" makes you think "maze" you'd be right because it has a really fun hedge maze! My husband and I actually got a bit lost in it and joked that we just needed to get comfortable with the fact that we now live in a hedge maze.
posted by like_neon at 1:28 AM on November 20, 2015

For a very central location in Barcelona, I always recommend the 5 rooms. It's absolutely splendid.
posted by pipeski at 1:30 AM on November 20, 2015

Madrid isn't dull but it is a big city and therefore takes time to get around. I highly recommend mid-sized cities in Spain, don't just go to Madrid and Barcelona. Take a day trip from Madrid to Toledo or stay overnight in Seville, Pamplona, 2nding Bilbao. Food in all those places is incredible. We don't drive and have always taken trains or buses, they are excellent. All the stories about pickpockets in Barcelona are true unfortunately, so take care.

Just noting that if you head into the North it can get colder than you might expect, we were there in February and there was a lot of snow between Bilbao and Pamplona, no disruption to the buses though.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:07 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

See, I prefer the refined elegance of Madrid to the boisterous energy of Barcelona, but I realize I am in the minority with this opinion.

The Hotel de las Letras in Madrid is in a great location for exploring Gran Vía, Plaza Mayor, and the major museums, plus it has easy access to the train station for day trips (or longer) to Toledo or El Escorial.

I also agree with wingless_angel - get to some of the mid-sized cities - Pamplona, Bilbao, Salamanca, Segovia.
posted by tmharris65 at 2:58 AM on November 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Daytriping Madrid from Barcalona or vice versa requires 2 1/2 hours by fast train each way.

I was in Barcelona this June. Most of what I read about the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic) was out of date. Recent changes in Spanish rental laws means the mom and pop stores which have been there for decades or generations couldn't afford new leases. It's rapidly becoming an extension of Las Ramblas, which is a main stream tourist trap.
posted by Homer42 at 3:25 AM on November 20, 2015

I liked Barcelona a lot but LOVED Madrid even more. I'd definitely recommend a few days there and can give some specific suggestions if you'd like. I'd add another city into the mix as well: Rick Steve's Guide to Spain is actually pretty good if you are looking for a place to start.
posted by smorgasbord at 4:05 AM on November 20, 2015

I've been to both, and would firmly recommend more than a day in Madrid. The museums are really amazing and more generally Madrid is less showy than Barcelona, but has a vibrant alternative life, and feels less touristy. I stayed in the neighbourhood of the El Rasto market, and there are great second hand / vintage shops open on the market day (Sunday), as well as good stalls on the market itself.

On the Madrid museum front: the Prado needs the majority of a day. The other main museum is the Reina Sofia national art museum, which has a great modern art collection, and needs at least half a day.
posted by yesbut at 4:05 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should spend one day between the Prado and the Reina Sofía museums in Madrid but the Museo Arqueológico Nacional is also good, and for Barcelona I'd go to the MNAC (because I don't like Picasso, that's why).

The hipster/queer-friendly neighborhood in Madrid is Chueca. You can get to Sitges from BCN via the commuting trains (Rodalíes), but beach resorts in winter are... well, beach resorts in winter.

Would love to go out into the countryside if we can on public transportation.

Generally speaking, public transportation won't take you hiking, but I'd recommend day trips from Madrid to Toledo, Segovia, Salamanca, Alcalá de Henares or Ávila (Toledo can be reached by AVE high speed train). From Barcelona you can visit Montserrat, Girona or Tarragona.
posted by sukeban at 4:35 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd spend a week in Barcelona and a week in Madrid. Madrid is much more Spanish than Barcelona, probably because Barcelona is more Catalonian.

From Madrid, a day trip to Toledo is a must. We've actually spent almost a week in Toledo and had more than enough to do. It is tiny but it is packed so densely with history.

Madrid takes a but more time but it is stylish and interesting. You're more likely to find older bars and restaurants with history and stuffed with Madrileños whose grandfathers came to the same place. The food markets in Madrid are great. I'd say you will eat better in Madrid than in Barcelona. It is also more of a royal palatial buildings type place. And the museums are truly amazing. Far from dull.

Barcelona skews younger and feels more compressed. It is eclectic and hectic but its heart is extremely touristy in a way that I don't see in Madrid (except perhaps a small part around Puerta del Sol) and it is changing very fast.

I'm not sure I'd go outside the cities in the winter. The smaller towns will be fairly cold and dismal. If it was summer, I'd allocate more time to Barcelona since the Catalan coast is vibrant and beautiful. In winter, everything is shut down on the coast.
posted by vacapinta at 5:09 AM on November 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Madrid is awesome. I'd spend a week there and do day trips to break it up to towns you can get to within an hour.
posted by sandmanwv at 6:10 AM on November 20, 2015

Went to Madrid last year; on the museum front I found the Thyssen-Bornemisza (so many highlights, so many styles), Reina Sofia (Picasso: Guernica) & Prado (Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights) all to be worthwhile visits, sorry if that makes it harder.
As for "fancy bars", maybe not exactly what you are looking for, but my best night there was definitely at Toni 2 Piano Bar, went on a lark, not expecting much, but it was so much fun watching different people go up to the piano & sing. The crowd generally sung along, basically Spanish karaoke in a nice setting.
posted by Laura in Canada at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2015

One thing to keep in mind is that the big museums in Madrid are all free at some point during the week. I'm not a huge art museum person, preferring cultural or history museums, but I did want to see the famous masterpieces in both the Prado and Reina Sofia, so we popped in at the free times to catch the highlights and it ended up being plenty. There was an enormous line of people waiting to get into the Prado once the free hours began, but we didn't bother and instead came back fifteen minutes after the doors opened and walked straight in.
posted by something something at 6:59 AM on November 20, 2015

I have not been to Barcelona, but I loved Madrid. It is not dull. I've heard that opinion batted around as common knowledge as well, and now that I've been there, I think it's nuts.

I was there for four days and would have loved to stay for at least four more. There are whole swaths of the city that I didn't even get a chance to explore.
posted by desuetude at 7:28 AM on November 20, 2015

I lived in Madrid briefly and thought it was just OK. A lot of people love it though. Barcelona was cool if only to see La Sagrada. I LOVED Seville and even more San Sebastian in Basque Country. Some of the best food I've ever had. Although not Spain I really enjoyed Lisbon on my trip to seville.
posted by 4Lnqvv at 7:30 AM on November 20, 2015

if you're in Barcelona and want to take public transportation to the countryside, then get thee to Montserrat. Fantastic views both at the top and on the way up (I recommend the cable car).
posted by Old Kentucky Shark at 7:37 AM on November 20, 2015

I am much more fond of Barcelona than Madrid. It's a port city regenerated and the Catalans are a good people who love their art, their food and their drink.
Seconding the 5 rooms. Really excellent and very relaxed.
January isn't beach weather and temperatures will be low but days are often sunny, when lunch at Kaiku should be considered.
Barça has some great museums MEAM is just around the corner from the Picasso museum which you really should try to visit because Picasso right. The museum of Contemporary art MACBA always has something of interest and the textile museum is a gorgeous surprise.
Get into the city most foreigners miss; Poble Sec is great and Carrer de Blai is one long tapas bar. A bit up the hill is La Perla - you wont leave hungry.
In the Gothic area Cafe L'Academia is an old favourite as is Agut.
Time Out Barcelona is probably your best english language guide to what is on when you are there.

Madrid will be freezing. The Carlton is well placed and is now a Marriott.
posted by adamvasco at 7:50 AM on November 20, 2015

Prado (Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights)

The Prado has the best collection of Goya, Velázquez and some other Siglo de Oro painters like Ribera, Murillo and Zurbarán in the world, with a sizeable bunch of Titians (he came to Philip II's court in his mature age) and some stuff from Dürer, Brueghel (his Triumph of Death is in the next room to The Garden of Earthly Delights) and other Flemish masters. There's also lots of Romanesque and Gothic religious art.
posted by sukeban at 9:20 AM on November 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would recommend splitting your trip evenly between the two. (That's roughly what I did. I think I did 5 days in Madrid, and spent a night in Seville) The food in Madrid was amazing. See if you can get a reservation at Botín, the Guinness world record holder for oldest restaurant in the world. The suckling pig was one of the best things I've ever eaten. Also, Madrid is great if you're in to history. When I was there, I downloaded some walking tour podcasts (maybe Rick Steves?) and just wandered the city.
posted by bluloo at 10:32 AM on November 20, 2015

I visited both and Madrid seemed to have an amazing, not overly-touristy night life. I loved Madrid and definitely preferred it to Barcelona. Have fun!
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 12:22 PM on November 20, 2015

Like some above, I enjoyed Madrid a lot more; really under-rated city. To me Barcelona feels a little overbearingly "WOOO WE ARE A CAREFREE HIP YOUTHFUL CITY, DON'T YOU FEEL CAREFREE RIGHT NOW", whereas Madrid has a wonderful understated, lived-in vibe that I really appreciated.
posted by threeants at 12:35 PM on November 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just came here to amplify the suggestions above that when in Barcelona DO NOT miss Familia Sagrada. It was awesome, and I am so glad I got to see it. Take the elevator up in the spires and take in the views of the city and enjoy being up close with all that wild tile-work. Really, if you only do one Gaudi, make it this one!
posted by The Vice Admiral of the Narrow Seas at 7:36 AM on November 21, 2015

Hey, I'm going to Barcelona in January for work, and I love it there - so much to do and see. Barcelona is an amazing city, and if you had only one week in Spain, I'd recommend Barcelona as your main focus. Among the near-by attractions, I like Girona the best. Go to Girona and stay for the night.
BUT, in spite of only having been to Madrid for 24 hours, and not knowing anything, from the hearsay of my friends, I'd definitely split the holiday half and half. Look for travelogues on youtube, they confirm what my friends say: Madrid is more intense, less touristy and great fun.
posted by mumimor at 10:07 AM on November 22, 2015

Come to one of my bars in Barcelna (Rubi Bar, The Lime House or the new one yet to be named that will be opened on Dec. 31) while I'm working, and I'll buy you a drink and help you out with pointers if I can.
posted by conifer at 11:10 AM on November 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

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