Is Barcelona Overrated as the Top Destination in Spain?

Having lived in Spain now for a year, I've continued to have a jaded image of Barcelona since our first trip to back in July 2012. After spending a week in Madrid, the bustling capital that we now call home, we went to Barcelona expecting a similar scene. When we arrived we were inundated by the crowds, couldn't find decent accommodations and never really saw the appeal of the city. At the time, we just couldn't see why tourists from across the globe thought Barcelona was so great and how it managed to be the most touristic city in Spain.

Having this bad impression of Barcelona, I knew I had to re-visit the city with a clean slate and really decide for myself:Is Barcelona Really Overrated?

This time I planned ahead to ensure my accommodation was fully arranged and well situated, as this one was of the fatal flaws of our first trip. I spent my first two nights staying at the Aspasios Barcelona apartments located off of Rambla Catalunya. It was centrally located within walking distance to many sites and easily accessible my metro. The apartment was fantastic – it’s was a huge 2-bedroom space, with updated furnishings and a comfortable work space where I planned out my visit.

So, this time I set out a plan to discover Barcelona more than I ever had before. But before I decided if Barcelona was in fact overrated, I wanted to re-explore some of the aspects of the city.

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The Crowds

The crowds of tourists in Barcelona were one of the main reasons that I didn’t like the city on our first visit. It didn’t help that our first trip was during July, the peak travel season. Of course, Barcelona isn’t so different in this regard compared to cities like Rome or Paris, though my initial impression was based on our previous visit to Madrid just days before. But this time around, I discovered why Barcelona draws the crowds. Madrid is the financial and political capital of Spain. There are plenty of things to do and see in Madrid, but I will admittedly say that Barcelona has more to experience from a tourist’s perspective. Madrid doesn’t quite have the same grandeur of Barcelona so it doesn’t draw the same amount of tourists.

photo 51Getting Around

Our first trip to Spain back in 2012 started with a week-long visit to Madrid during gay pride. And during those 7 days in the city, we probably took the train maybe 4 or 5 times total. In contrast, our first day in Barcelona involved 6 or 7 train rides just on the first day. The fact is that Barcelona has so much to see, but not all the sites are centrally located. On a positive note, the public transit is fantastic. The metro is simple to navigate and the bus system is extensive if the metro doesn’t go where you need. Madrid is a more walkable city because all the sites are located within the city center. So if you stay centrally you often don’t need to even use public transit very frequently. Like its European counterparts London, Paris or Berlin – these are fantastic destinations but the cities are large and spread out so you’ll need to spend more time traveling around Barcelona to really see the city. Madrid is unique in this aspect being that it’s a city of 3 million people, but the chances that you need to travel outside of a 2km radius of the center is rare.

Architecture

Barcelona is well known for having one of the most unique collections of architecture in Spain. Sure, Madrid has its Palacio Real, Granada the Alhambra and Seville the Plaza de España. But while Barcelona is probably most famous for Gaudi’s most elaborate work, the Sagrada Familia, the city is equally packed with countless other modernista and gothic buildings, parks and monuments that are one of a kind. Naturally, Barcelona is an excellent destination for its architecture and it’s difficult to argue otherwise.

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The Beach

Yes, Barcelona has a beach. It is a natural beach…? No. In fact, the beach seen today was only created in the early 90’s as part of the costal redevelopment for the 1992 Summer Olympics. But the city does have a beach and you can’t say the same for very many other major European capital cities. The weather in Barcelona is also warm and mild so taking a relaxing afternoon at the beach is a nice break from exploring the city, which can leave you exhausted at the end of the day. Truth be told, there are much better beaches both north and south of Barcelona, including one of our favorites, Sitges, which is just a 40 minute train ride south. But for the sake of convenience, the beach culture and generally decent facilities, the beaches in Barcelona are still worthwhile if you don’t want to leave the city.

Nightlife

Barcelona has a good nightlife scene and most tourists looking for that will find great spots to party all night long. Though what does irk me about Barcelona is the perception that it’s the gay capital of Spain. Just about every non-Spaniard I’ve ever met thinks that Barcelona is a haven for LGBT tourists and gay nightlife. It’s true that Barcelona has a gay neighborhood (called E’xaimple) with a good collection of gay bars, clubs and cafes. But it simply does not compare with the nightlife options that Madrid offers. So if you’re a gay traveler seeking a vibrant nightlife scene, head to Madrid to find the best. After all, Madrid has an LGBT population of half a million people, which alone is nearly 1/3 the size of the entire city of Barcelona. Madrid Pride also draws a crowd of 2 million people each year, while Barcelona’s pride is relatively new and draws just 300,000 people. So for the straight traveler, Barcelona definitely has your nightlife. But for the LGBT scene, Barcelona is definitely overrated.

Sites and Attractions

I have always told people that Barcelona has more to see than Madrid from a tourist’s perspective. I would put Barcelona on the list of other famous cities like Rome, Paris and London for having well-known and famous attractions that tourists are dying to see. We admittedly have always known this, hence why we wrote about The One Thing You Must Do in Madrid, which ultimately describes that the city itself is the site and that you won’t really miss out too much if you don’t see any one particular site. So yes, Barcelona – you have Gaudi’s works and impressive Park Guell, you have the stunning National Palace and the impressive Montjuic Fountain, you have the Mediterranean and a beach to go along side, you have the weather and finally, the famous Gothic Quarter, which might be considered unrivaled.

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The Verdict

Barcelona is undoubtedly a city was tons of architectural masterpieces, history, culture and numerous activities. I’ll always be partial to Madrid as it’s our home, has less tourists crowding the streets and has a more local vibe not found in the Catalan capital of Barcelona. But for a first time traveler to Spain, or even a repeat visitor, it’s definitely worth a making a visit, though it took a second trip for me to realize.

Like many European capitals popular in the tourist route, an extra bit of research and planning can help make the most of your trip. Below are a few suggestions to consider if you’re planning a trip to Barcelona that might make your visit more enjoyable.

1. Visit during spring, early summer or fall. The weather in Barcelona is still nice and you’ll avoid the major tourist crowds seen during the peak season in July and August.

2. If you’re looking for restaurants or tapas places in the tourist areas, check out Tapas 24, Cata 181 or Bar La Plata to ensure you get tasty, high quality food. Many other places in the city center are low quality and overpriced, taking advantage of tourists’ lack of knowledge.

3. There are many discounted hotels, hostels and apartments outside the city center but it may be worth the extra money to stay central as you can walk more and don’t have to worry about the metro closing before you return to your room. A few extra metro or taxi rides could make up the price difference.

4. Consider taking a day trip to several cities including Sitges, Figueres or Girona as they are just an hour or less away by train and will give you a totally different impression of Catalonia and Spain overall.

5. When visiting popular sites like Sagrada Familia, Park Guell or any of the Gaudi sites, consider arriving very early or very late in the day to avoid the lines.

6. Consider visiting lesser known sites like Parc del Laberint, which happens to be one of my favorite spots in Barcelona. You’ll see a different side to the city where fewer tourists go.

7. For some suggestions about various walks you can do in the city, you can check out my 10 Barcelona walks I published via the app Kamino including: E’ixample Tapas Tour,  Barcelona SecretsBarcelona with a Hangover and Really Old Stuff in the Gothic Quarter

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So what’s my verdict? Do I still think Barcelona is overrated? After spending a week in the city for a second time, I finally discovered all the elements of the city that make it special and have changed my initial opinion about not liking Barcelona. Sure, some sites and activities might be overrated and if you don’t have interest in architecture, maybe there are better places to visit. But overall, Barcelona is definitely worth a visit and, like any city, it has its must-see sites and others certainly worth skipping.

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What's your opinion about Barcelona?

28 Comments on “Is Barcelona Overrated as the Top Destination in Spain?”

  1. Sam says:

    I probably have a rose-tinted image of Barcelona as I only visited once about 10 years ago for a long weekend and mostly just ran around looking for Gaudi’s works for an art project. It was in high summer, but somehow I don’t remember massive crowds or the intense heat – probably blocked that stuff out! I’d love to go back, though.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      Yes I’m sure a visit today would be much different than one in high school Sam. Also, I don’t handle humidity well so it’s another reason why I’m partial to Madrid over Barcelona.

  2. I had the opposite opinion of you on my first trip to Spain. I loved Barcelona and thought there was nothing to do in Madrid. Since the first trip I have been back to Barcelona once and Madrid twice. It took time for Madrid to grow on me and now I really like it.

    The best part about Madrid is just walking around the city. The good thing about both cities is that you can get away from the tourist crowds by walking a few streets over from the popular attractions. It is like you are in a different world.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      Great point Jeff. We always say the best thing about Madrid is Madrid. Just being there and enjoying the streets and grabbing a drink on an outdoor terrace. There’s less to see in Madrid but I think that’s why we like it.

  3. Very beautiful place for visit. thanks for posting nice views.

  4. I didn’t know that about the beach! I always assumed it was natural!

    I was in Barcelona in 2012 for a weekend and while I loved the architecture and nightlife, I felt it was kind of “artificial”. Now I’ll be back for one full week so let’s see how much my perspective has changed.

  5. I never really felt a strong desire to go to Spain, but seeing these pictures of the architecture, I think it would be amazing to see Barcelona.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      It’s a pretty city. Lot’s of great sites.

  6. Kemkem says:

    My husband and l felt the same way as you did. We like Barcelona, but think it is a little bit overrated. Madrid was just cooler. We loved it there, and actually thought about making it our next destination to live in for a bit. We liked it that much, didn’t even consider Barcelona. Great post.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      We always find that people are usually more passionate about one or the other. Very rare that someone feels equal about both. And of course, we are team Madrid!

  7. Trevor Mark says:

    Not at all. Barcelona is one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. It’s sheer delight to visit this marvelous city.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      It’s true. I think it’s difficult to argue that it’s not beautiful :-)

  8. Roser says:

    Great post! I’m from Barcelona and I agree with you. As soon as I was able to, I left Barcelona, but it wasn’t because I didn’t like it, but because I needed to live somewhere else, somewhere new.
    It’s funny what you said about the LGTB scene, I didn’t know Barcelona’s was supposed to be anything special, we always think of Madrid, and Sitges!
    El Parc del Laberint is awesome, and you’re right, most people don’t know about it.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      Madrid and Sitges all the way! We love them both :-)

  9. Jermaine says:

    Crudely comparing cities is rarely illuminating. In particular, comparing Barcelona and Madrid is both tedious and silly because the cities have little in common. If they weren’t in the same country it wouldn’t even occur to anyone to compare them. Barcelona is an ancient Roman city and the soul of the Catalans, who increasingly reject Spain entirely. Madrid is an elegant planned city of the Spanish Empire. Barcelona is a European marvel. Madrid is Spain 2.0. It’s really okay to appreciate them both.

    1. Auston Matta says:

      Thanks for your opinion. We do like to compare the two cities because many travelers visiting Spain travel to both and have a strong opinion. But yes, naturally everyone will form their own opinion and this one is ours. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Gerardo says:

    I spent a month working in Barcelona and felt the city was just a tourist playground, almost a theme park full of these tourist attractions. I dont believe Barcelona to be held in the same regard as London, rome, Berlin and Paris in terms of their importance, politically and in European History. Barcelona had an artificial feel about it and perhaps lacked some soul and depth.
    needless to say, I much prefer Madrid!

    1. Auston Matta says:

      Team Madrid! haha. Well it’s true that Barcelona is a beautiful city with many things to do. But yes, Madrid definitely has a more intimate and local feel.

  11. Durhamite says:

    Barcelona is fine, but I think there is more to see and do in Madrid. The Spanish capital is full of museums, some of the best in the world: El Prado, Reina Sofia, Thyssen and many lesser known ones. There are beautiful neighborhoods like Hapsburg-era Madrid. Nightlife is wonderful. Some of the best flamenco clubs in the country. The Royal Palace also includes the Sabatini Gardens and the future Royal Collections Museum. Madrid is the best place for tapas and food from the rest of Spain. There is so much to do in Madrid, I’m truly shocked to hear from some people that there is little to do.

  12. Maya says:

    Hey there! Am planning a trip to Spain this summer and one of our criteria was to find some small quaint towns in Spain. Your post was really helpful! Thanks!

    1. Auston Matta says:

      Sounds great, glad it helped :-)

  13. Arturo says:

    I think BARCELONA is overrated. I moved here expecting the best, so far I’m not happy here and wanting to move out, here’s why:

    a) Everybody says is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, really? Have you visited Prague, or Venice? Granted, you can’t live in Venice but you can live in Prague and trust me, moving around is so easy and it is incredibly beautiful no matter where you look.

    Barcelona has nice buildings but it’s hard to appreciate them because they are tall, there are lots of trees blocking the view and most buildings are gray or sand in color, there’s something odd about the street’s layout, you can’t really appreciate them.
    Sagrada Familia is 20 euros to get in, really?
    Park Guell is 7 euros
    Labyrinth park is 1 hour from the center
    Barceloneta has extremely ugly gray buildings, dark and terrifying streets and just a recently made artificial beach.
    The only charming part of the city IMO was El Born.

    Finding good accommodation is really hard, wanna see what people here call charming? Go to El Raval, a neighborhood full of hookers and third world immigrants, homeless people, dirty and loud as hell yet students like to come to bars and restaurants here, these are not even cheap by the way.

    The weather is great, only problem is that during the summer it is humid and hot as hell, this is usually no problem in most beach destinations since you have pools and A/C, here, not many people have them.

    And finally, the people, it is full of people everywhere, not only tourists but lots and lots of South American immigrants so you don’t even get the Spanish experience because you have Catalans who are a bit rude and keep to themselves.

    Super overrated, I’m gonna try to get my deposit back from the landlord and get the hell out!

    1. Auston Matta says:

      Well it seems you agree it’s overrated :-) Actually, we do like Barcelona, but like any major tourist destination it has its pros and cons. We are partial to Madrid (as we live there) but usually enjoy visiting from time to time. Just gotta watch out for the crowds.

  14. Jesse says:

    Thanks for this great article dear!! I have spent some of our most fantastic time in Spain, in Barcelona and Our balcony overlooked the cliff- and everything in Barcelona was fabulous. Enjoy it!

  15. Andy says:

    Please, Barcelona sucks and stinks. Disgusting arab like city with artificial and pretentious art from Gaudi but nothing really solid and interesting to see, only drunken tourists go there to spean a day from the beach where they are having holiday.

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