Should I Study Abroad in Barcelona or Madrid?

by Laura Jelich

Though located in the same country, a mere six hour car ride apart (or half the time by high-speed rail), Barcelona and Madrid each offer study abroad students in Spain unique academic strengths, distinct personalities, and different spoken languages. So, before assuming the close proximity between these two cities means an identical Spanish experience, students should take a closer look at these three important characteristics of each location, in order to determine which is the best fit for their own needs, wants, and goals for study abroad in Spain.

Park guell, Barcelona

Park guell in Barcelona, Spain

1. Academics


Barcelona remains one of the world’s major global cities and offers numerous public and private universities for students to attend, as well as several study abroad centers conveniently located within the city.

Popular Areas of Study in Barcelona:

  • Spanish
  • Art and Architecture 
  • Media Communications 
  • International Business or Marketing

Check out this article for more tips: Top Majors to Study in Barcelona

Top Institutions in Barcelona:

  • The University of Barcelona has over 560 years of history, was awarded the Best University of Spain in 2011, and was recognized by the Spanish Ministry of Education as a Campus of International Excellence in 2009. International students can join top-notch academic programs or get some general education courses out of the way with the 63,000 other students by studying at the University of Barcelona.
  • Polytechnic University of Catalonia (Barcelona Tech), though smaller than the University of Barcelona with 2,500 students entering each year, has exchange agreements with over 130 countries. Barcelona Tech offers international students the option to pursue their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees - twenty-one of which are taught completely in English! For students struggling to find science-related majors available abroad, Barcelona Tech may be just what you are looking for.


Madrid acts as an industrial, commercial, and financial hub in Spain, and continues to be a major European influence in the world of business, fashion, art, science, and entertainment.

Popular Areas of Study in Madrid:

  • Spanish
  • Technological Research
  • Engineering
  • Architecture
  • Science

Arco de la Victoria in Madrid, Spain

Arco de la Victoria in Madrid, Spain

Top Institutions in Madrid:

  • Complutense University is one of six public universities in Madrid and is recognized as a Campus of International Excellence, with a reputation for being the best University in Europe. With over 77 courses of study to offer, Complutense enrolls study abroad students from all over Europe, the U.S., Middle East, Oceania, and Asia.
  • Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) boasts an environmentally sustainable campus and small attentive class sizes despite the more than 30,000 (1,000 international) students that choose to study at UAM. The top-notch language and culture classes make UAM the ideal fit for international students new to studying in a Spanish-speaking country.

Term Schedule & Accommodation

Program duration options for study abroad in Madrid and Barcelona include summer, semester, trimester, or full academic years. Semesters run from January to June, and pick up again in September through December. While homestays are the most common form of accommodation in both major cities, other forms of housing (such as apartments or dormitory style living) are also sometimes available for interested individuals.

2. Culture & Personality


As the second largest city in Spain, Barcelona’s influence extends well into the Mediterranean. Students and tourist alike flock to Barcelona to enjoy the lazy beachside lifestyle, lively sporting events, and variety of music, venues, and dancing until early morning hours. Not to mention the eight World Heritage Sites that call Barcelona home! While there are an astounding 68 city parks located throughout Barcelona itself, outdoor enthusiasts can also get their fill by hiking the hills surrounding the city limits. Known for its quality and quantity of cultural architecture that spans over 2,000 years, Barcelona has a variety of artistic structures that study abroad students interested in art will greatly appreciate. As a result of the abundant attractions, prices in Barcelona maintain a slightly higher rate than Madrid, however.

As the original primary location and largest remaining population of Catalan people, Barcelona serves as the official capital for this ethnic group and continues to reflect a tangible Catalan influence throughout its language, culture, and cooking. As a result, seafood, meat, poultry, and jamón (ham) are staples in Barcelona cuisine. 

Due to its close proximity to the rest of Europe, many study abroad programs in Barcelona include out-of-country course components or excursions, allowing students to take advantage of accessible neighbors such as France to the North, Morocco to the South, or Italy just across the Balearic sea.


Madrid is comprised of 21 districts and boasts a vibrant night-life sustained by more bars than any other city on earth. The traditional, laid-back Spanish lifestyle in Madrid is balanced by the refreshingly modern vibe that buzzes through Spain’s capital city. Though slightly less touristy than Barcelona, Madrid is certainly not lacking in entertainment. Home to 73 museums, a collection of high pedigree art, noteworthy architecture, various street performers and promoters, and countless traditional festivals (including the infamous Spanish Bull fights), study abroad programs in Madrid offer endless down-time options.

The Madrid metro makes it easy for students to explore all that Europe’s third-largest city has to offer. Although La Puerta de Sol is often compared to New York’s Times Square, the prices in Madrid remain slightly lower than those traditionally found in major cities around the globe. Students will enjoy sampling Madrid’s innovative and meat-filled culinary creations and strolling the eight percent of green space that earns Madrid a spot on the list of greenest cities in the world. The phrase “if you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid” sums up the welcoming atmosphere that will make students feel right at home while studying abroad in Madrid. Outgoing students who revel in living life to the fullest will love studying abroad in the central hub of Spain.

3. Language, Location, & Culture


Barcelonians are fiercely proud of their strong Catalan heritage, as evidenced by its enduring influence in daily life and the fact that Catalan remains the official language of Barcelona. Although 75 percent of the population speaks Catalan, Spanish is also widely understood, and students studying abroad in Barcelona will find that classes are generally taught in either English or Spanish. Barcelona's coastal location provides a constant Mediterranean sea breeze that perfectly complements the year-round temperate climate. Bordering the bustling city, you can find rolling wooded hills, the nearby Pyrenees Mountains, and outlying vineyards and orchards all ripe for exploration.

Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid, Spain

Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid, Spain


Locals speak Castilian Spanish in Madrid, which is often referred to as the pure or traditional form of Spanish you typically learn in school. This makes studying abroad in Madrid an easy choice for students focused primarily on improving Spanish-speaking abilities while studying abroad in Spain. The generally chilly Madrid weather is broken up by three months of intense summer heat, which are buffered by agreeably low humidity levels. Located in the smack dab center of Spain, Madrid places students in prime position for in-country exploration.

So, should you study abroad in Barcelona or Madrid?

Although the laid back vibe in Barcelona might be exactly the relaxing atmosphere that some students are looking for, the lack of timeliness may drive others crazy. Conversely, the lively buzz of centralized Madrid will energize outgoing students, but may create anxiety for those that can’t handle the pressure of participating. While both study abroad in Madrid and Barcelona has much to offer international students, students should definitely compare and contrast these three aspects in order to figure out which location meets their reasons and goals for studying abroad in Spain.