Madrid or Barcelona
If you've never been to Spain, which would you choose to visit (foodwise, that is)?
That really depends on your preferences. I've lived in and loved eating in both cities. I would say that Madrid has a stronger tapas culture and better marisquerias and informal neighborhood spots. Madrid has a bit of everything from all over Spain. Barcelona and the surroundings may be more interesting and experimental at the upper echelon--but it also has a very solid (and delicious) local traditional gastronomy.
Barcelona tends to be more accessible and accomodating to tourists, with more a more European schedule, English menus, etc., Madrid is a bit of harder nut to crack.
Can you do both? There are insanely cheap and quick flights between the two cities now (check vueling.com--I've flown for as little and 15 Euros one way).
I love both cities and have returned many times. Barcelona is more showy with it's Modernista architecture, the newly chic El Born and the wide streets of the Eixample. Some of the food relects that with the numerous experiemental modern Catalan restaurants such as Abac, Alkimia, Cinc Sentits, Comerc 24 etc,. It also have great pintxos and tapas bars but more scattered about the city. There is definitely more of a tourist feel to Barcelona, especially around Las Ramblas and Barri Gotic.
Madrid is earthier with the wonderful neighborhoods around Puerto del Sol, each having it's own distinct personality. There is more of a tapas hopping atmosphere as each neighborhood has clusters of great tapa restaurants. Madrid also has some great seafood restaurants such as Combarro and O'Pazo that I haven't found in Barcelona.
I have a bias towards Madrid as it is my favourite city anywhere. But, I can really understand the appeals of Barcelona which is undoubtedly more attractive and a good city to eat in
What it does not have is the bewildering variety of Madrid which was predicated on getting the best of the best from all over Spain. So, in Barcelona, along side the local food you may find one or two Gallego bars etc, in Madrid you will find bars and restaurants that represent the very best Spain has to offer from every region
As someone said, Madrid is earthier and each area has something different to offer. The people too are different and I have found they just exude life and there is an energy that you cannot find anywhere else in the world let alone anywhere else in Spain.
Although Madrid is definitely on the tourist trail, it is vast enough that you can, by avoiding certain areas ( like Sol, Plaza mayor and Santa Ana ) find amazing things at every turn.
Barcelona is almost easy access. Spain with training wheels, as it is more predicated on tourism. Madrid is as Butterfly excellently puts it, a harder nut to crack. But, once you do, it is almost impossible to resist and you will find yourself coming back time and again
I live in Barcelona for part of the year so I am biased towards this city although Madrid, as others have pointed out, is also wonderful.
Being the political and financial capital of Spain, Madrid is more representative of "classical" Spain, which is reflected in its architecture and in its cuisine. As others have mentioned, you can probably get a better overall sample of “Spainish” cuisine in Madrid (e.g. Andalusia, Basque, Galicia, Castillian, etc.). There is also no better place to do tapas hopping than in Madrid given the high concentration of tapas bars in each neighborhood. In Barcelona, you really can’t to tapas crawls because tapas bars are not as common and are spread out across the city.
Barcelona is in Catalunya which worlds apart from Castilla (and the rest of Spain for that matter) both in terms of politics, language and cuisine. Centuries of political oppression from within Spain has made it more welcoming of and open to influences from abroad. In this sense, I think Barcelona is a more modern and progressive city with respect to its architecture (e.g. Modernism), cuisine (e.g. Ferran Adriá-esque experimentation), industrial base (e.g. Barcelona is the center of design, bio-medical research and hi-tech industries in Spain) and politics (e.g. much more left leaning than Madrid).
Strictly regarding food, traditional Catalan cuisine is, in my opinion, is more complex and varied than Castillan cuisine. Castillan cuisine is very hearty. Traditional Catalan cuisine, on the other hand, has more to offer. Infinite varieties of simple, fresh grilled seafood. Seafood stews. More complex sauces that utilize interesting ingredients like nuts, chocolate, and saffron. Offers more varied preparations of vegetables. I think of Castillan cuisine as originating from the hot and rugged landscapes of Cervantes whereas Catalan cuisine comes from a more fertile and forgiving Mediterranean soil. But this is just a general statement about traditional cuisine. Both are modern cities so you can find whatever type of food that suits your tastes.
It is a tough choice. Maybe you can do both?
Both cities are great. I think there is much more of a "party" vibe in Madrid however. Madrid is also a little less expensive. Although I didn't think it was bad, it seemed that many Spaniards feel that crime etc. is getting out of hand in Barcelona (and yes, I sort of felt that myself although next to Detroit and Washington DC it looks pretty damn good).
As to the food, both are good but I think it is easier to try many more different tapas in Madrid than in Barcelona. I guess it depends on whether you are the type who wants to be out LATE all the time, but I would pick Madrid if I could not do both. Barcelona is more architecturally stunning, but I definitely think Madrid is more fun.
There's definitely visible crime, even against tourists, in Barcelona; anyone who's lived in any American city of any size will have no problem (not flashing your wealth, not keeping your wallet sticking out of your back pocket, carrying your purse across your chest, etc.).
If you want tapas, Madrid's where to go. In Barcelona it's mostly Catalan and Basque food. That said, it's less oppressively hot in summer in Barcelona, and they actually have a beach now.
re: Das Ubergeek
These posts express the differences between these cities well, and neither one should be missed. If you are especially into seafood, that would tip the scale toward Barcelona (and don't miss Cal Pep).
Tapas crawling is definitely more varied in Madrid, with hundreds of places concentrated in the city center. The narrow streets keep traffic from dominating and the eating and drinking goes on literally all night long in Madrid (except on Sunday).
Even though Barcelona is generally more spread out, tapas crawling is possible in the Ribera/El Born section with enough places within pleasant walking distance. But beware: food really stops being served most places at midnight in Barcelona! Everyone eats dinner from exactly 10pm to midnight. Of course the clubs open up at 2am...
dont necessarily agree about barcelona having better seafood. Madrid is well known in spain for having the best seafood in spain, being flown in the same day into the markets from Galicia, Mediterranean Coast and Canary Islands. If you're looking for great seafood in Madrid you have to check out "El Cantabrico" (I know butterfly agrees with me on this one), very traditional fresh and some of the best seafood i've ever had. It's pretty expensive, when I went we had lunch for 2:
- 200grams of Gambas blancas de Huelva
- 4 Carabineros
- 1 order of Caracoles de mar
- 2 Cigalas
- 100 grams of Langostinos
- Abadejo (fish) for 2
- 2 bottles of white wine it was a Rene Barbier (Blanc de blancs)
- 2 Arroz con Leche for desert
= 180 Euros
Expensive but as you can see we definately overate and overdrank ourselves. I will never forget this place, a true chowhound gem, not touristy and very, very madrileno.