After just recently spending a weekend in Barcelona I got to thinking once again about the differences between the two cities as I’ve been asked this question by quite a few people. I’ve been in Spain for 9 years, two of which (in the middle) I spent living in Barcelona. So here’s my take on studying, living, working and just being in Spain’s two largest cities.
Madrid and Barcelona, with populations of 3.2 million and 1.6 million respectively, are both exciting, unique and have a lot to offer. A huge amount of tourists pass through each year with Barcelona even making it into Forbes’ list of the 20 most popular cities to visit (7million+ tourists in 2014) (http://www.forbes.com/sites/deborahljacobs/2014/07/31/the-20-most-popular-cities-in-the-world-to-visit-in-2014/). Both cities are guaranteed to offer you fantastic food, an interesting culture, great weather, beautiful architecture, and in general, a great experience.
So, which one should you pick? This depends a lot on your objective and reason for making the move. Since I’ve lived in both cities (7 years in Madrid and 2 in Barcelona) I think I’ve earned the right to share my opinion, but of course, this is just my opinion, so feel free to challenge it! I didn’t start this blog just to have people agree with me…
Studying in Spain
Chances are if you’re an American looking to study abroad in Spain during college (university), most likely you’re considering one of these two cities. For me, even though I liked the idea of Barcelona and the beach, I decided to go to Madrid during college since I figured it would be “a little less touristy”. (Similar thinking used when I spent my second semester abroad in Melbourne, Australia instead of Sydney). Both Madrid and Barcelona are great choices for “studying” abroad as they have many organized university programs and lots of students roaming the city. There are plenty of cultural, touristic offerings in both, and it’s easy to jump on a plane and check out other European cities on the weekend. Having said this, there are a couple big differences:
- Touristy feeling. Madrid, for me, really feels less touristy than Barcelona. The general sense of the city when you walk around is that a lot of people don’t speak English, and you can easily feel like a foreigner, even in the center. On the other hand, in Barcelona, you can often feel like you’re in the middle of a tourist parade (depending on what part of the city you’re in of course). This past weekend I went back to Barcelona for my 5 year MBA reunion (TBC below). At the airport I asked an employee a quick question about one of the buses. Now I know I have an accent, but I’ve been in Spain 9 years now… He answered me in English. Not cool. So I answered back in Spanish. To which he replied back again in English. Not cool again. [sigh]
- Sightseeing. In pure aesthetic terms, Barcelona is a prettier, more eye-friendly city than Madrid. Not only does it have the ocean and the mountains with beautiful views, but it also has a lot of fantastic camera-worthy areas like Passeig de Gracia, the Gothic District, Plaza de Catalunya and architecture greats like Gaudi buildings and La Sagrada Familia. Madrid on the other hand has beautiful areas like the Opera Royal Palace Area, central Sol, Gran Vía, Cibeles, etc., but there aren’t as many top destination need-to-sees like in Barcelona. For me, what’s more standout-ish is the nightlife and tapas bar “sightseeing”.
- Language. If your goal is to try to assimilate into the Spanish culture and practice that Spanish you’ve been studying, then it probably makes more sense to go to Madrid. In Barcelona the main language is Catalan. You can almost understand everything that’s written in Catalan if you understand Castillan spanish, but spoken is a whole other can of worms. And since Catalan is only in Catalunya, if you’re looking to improve your Spanish to use anywhere else in the future, it might make more sense to go to the place where it’s primarily spoken. If you’re just planning to study in a school there and hang out with international students, then this isn’t a key point.
In my case I was lucky enough to study in both cities as 8 years after my undergrad experience (4 month stance in Madrid) I completed my MBA at IESE Business School (www.iese.edu) in Barcelona (2 year program). My decision to do the MBA in Barcelona was 100% because of the school itself and the education/reputation, not because of the location (although it being in Barcelona was definitely a pro). By this point if you’re considering a Master/post-grad program I definitely recommend choosing based on the program offerings and school reputation, not the location. During undergrad this really isn’t that important as it just factors into your total undergrad degree. However, during the MBA I was a bit in a school “bubble” constantly with the people in my program, so the idea of assimilating into the culture really wasn’t a factor for me anyway.
Bottom line for undergrad study abroad: both cities are great options. It just depends on the kind of atmosphere you’re looking for and what interests you more (more authentic “madrileño” lifestyle or a prettier, more international setting with the beach). And for Post-grad: pick based on the program, not the location since you won’t be lounging on the beach or in tapas bars as much as in undergrad (maybe)…
Living/Working in Spain
I’ve only actually worked in Madrid, so it’s a bit tough for me to compare the two, but I do have some ideas from what people have told me about the different working cultures. In Madrid it’s quite common to have extended relationships with coworkers outside of the office, often getting cañas together and developing closer friendships. As far as I’ve heard, the Barcelona working atmosphere and Catalan culture is more closed and usually the work and work relationships end at the office. Grabbing a caña with coworkers is not as much of a norm.
Another thing to consider is the language. I’ve been told that in general it’s not necessary to speak catalan to work in Barcelona (unless you want to work in anything government-related where it would be a must). However, a lot or most people from Cataluña speak Catalan, so it would help. If you’re interested in picking up Catalan then it’s a good option, but if that doesn’t interest you, it’s something to consider. For me I think it would just be more confusing. I actually had an interesting experience at one of my jobs where a coworker moved from Barcelona to work in the Madrid office and had a hard time adapting with the language. Even I was catching his grammatical mistakes! As for “living”, obviously this can be done very well in either place! If you’re more of a beach person and like the international feel, Barcelona is better. For me, even though I think Barcelona is a fantastic city and beautiful with the beach and the mountains right there at your fingertips, I have to say that in general Madrid is friendlier and more “acogedora” (warm/inviting/friendly) than Barcelona to live/work as a foreigner.
Just Being an American in Spain
This is easy, and it is pretty much a reflection/summary of the entire post: it completely depends on what you’re looking for and your goals! Do you want to hang out with other Americans and foreigners or do you really want to speak only Spanish and try to fit in with the local culture? Do you love the idea of a city with beautiful, top tourist destinations and the beach at your fingertips or do you like the idea of a less touristy, smaller-feel city? The real answer is that you can do both of these things in either Madrid or Barcelona; it just completely depends on the choices you make and how you decide to go about your daily life.
As for me? Well, I chose Madrid. Of course I was influenced by the fact that my (now) husband was living and working in Madrid, but I have to say that I love it here. Maybe if I had fallen in love with a Catalan my story would be different, but you can only relate what you know… I may be from Boston and have a pretty decent American accent, but most of my friends here in Madrid are Spanish, and you usually don’t catch me speaking English out on the street.
Until someone stops me on the street and asks me for directions (which happens more often than you would think), I’m just being an undercover American in Spain…