‘I’M from Barcelona and I’ve chosen to live in Madrid,” beams the waiter Pablo at Bar Tomate in a ringing endorsement of the Spanish capital. “But then again, I love Barcelona and there are so many great things about it too.”

I’m not surprised to hear Pablo torn between the two, as most Spaniards I meet just cannot decide which city shines brightest. This year I headed back to both to find out.

Arriving back in Madrid, I’m instantly struck by its big city vibe. The capital boasts the grand boulevards of Haussmann’s Paris, or London. It looks, feels and is important – the epicentre of Spain today and at one point the hub of a vast empire that threatened Britannia’s ruling of the waves.

The National: A tale of two Spanish cities

My base is suitably grand at The Pavilions (www.pavilionshotels.com). This plush hotel sits on the fringes of the poshest district of Salamanca. Being Madrid, it has an artistic flair, with private tours of the Taller del Prado gallery. My room is large and the breakfast fit for King Felipe VI , awash with gorgeous tostada smothered in fresh tomato and garlic.

I’m straight into food and that is no surprise as Madrid is simply Spain’s best place to eat. Yes, Seville has its tapas and the coast superb seafood, but you can savour both of those in Madrid. And much else from around the world. At Bar Tomate, which functions as the Pavilions’ de facto restaurant, I feast on sea bass ceviche-style spiced up with a taste of Japan. My steak may be from Galicia, but it’s lifted with a chimichurri sauce and my tiramisu hails from Italy.

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I spend three glorious nights in Madrid swirling from one great eating venue to the next. In Latina, I lose count of the tapas bars I visit and make it back to Casa Mingo, where 30 years on the roast chicken with their homemade cider is still as delicious. I cannot resist the city’s best churros too at San Ginés – with that silky chocolate sauce. Then there are the charms of the San Miguel foodie market and the less touristy San Antón.

Madrid by night feeds the belly and the soul; by day the mind and the heart. The capital overflows with unmissable sights. I don’t recommend you visit one of the city’s trio of world-class art galleries. You have to visit them all. Velázquez’s mastery of light and colour in Las Meninas and Goya almost single-handedly inventing modern painting at the Prado, Picasso’s synapse-popping La Guernica at the Reina Sofia and the glorious Thyssen-Bornemisza, are all unmissable.

Don’t stop there. I don’t, as I am using the Tiqets app (www.tiqets.com), an online platform that curates stand-out museums and attractions at a discounted price. They include the Madrid Pass, with entrance to the Prado and the Palacio Real, Spain’s Buckingham Palace. Here I wander the grand corridors, vast dining rooms and more intimate spaces.

The Madrid Pass also includes a hop-on-hop-off bus pass, which I use to refresh my memory of the main sites and to get back to Retiro, my favourite Madrid green lung with a boating lake.

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Madrid impresses; Catalunya’s capital is quick to seduce too. I check into a hotel I’ve always wanted to experience – the Hotel Arts Barcelona. More a 44-floor urban resort than a hotel, the views over Barcelona’s necklace of beaches, sprawling port and old town are breathtaking. The best rooms offer access to a private lounge where you can feast on gourmet treats as you survey the skyline.

And feasting in Barcelona is a joy. My hotel sports a two Michelin star restaurant, but I don’t need that. Not when Marina serves salt-baked sea bass overlooking the beach with crisp Catalan white wine. Their sublime Roka eatery conjures up the likes of yellowfin tuna spiced with truffle and prime Wagyu beef, with a delicious Japanese plum liqueur accompanying dessert. It’s hard to eat badly in Barcelona. I don’t, with another highlight being the famous Boqueria market, with its foodie stalls.

The National: A tale of two Spanish cities

The easy-to-use Tiqets app snares me a city pass that handily includes transport to the airport. It also gives me fast-track access to Gaudí’s sublime Sagrada Familia. This is my favourite church in the world after the Italian Chapel in Orkney, a tribute to Gaudí’s spirit and unique vision, a vision whose pushing of the boundaries of art nouveau reminds me of our own Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

My Tiqets package also includes Parc Guell. Barcelona has really boomed as a city break and it’s now ticketed. I’m glad I have mine as they are not allowing walk-ins. It’s a sublime experience easing around the tall trees savouring how Gaudí playfully works in harmony with nature. The views from his ornate, gleamingly colourful terraces peer out across the city and over the Sagrada Familia.

I easily lose three days to Barcelona. It is a whirl of early morning swims, mooching around the narrow streets of the Gothic quarter, café chilling on Las Ramblas and local bar searching in Barceloneta. I emerge now back at the airport, still gloriously unsure – like many Spaniards – which of Spain’s two great cities shines the brightest. So I thoroughly recommend visiting both if you can and deciding for yourself.

EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) fly to both Barcelona and Madrid from Scotland. Lonely Planet publishes excellent Pocket guides to each city

Fairmont St Andrews

THIS welcoming bolthole to the south of town has a lot going for it. There are sweeping views across St Andrews Bay to the spires of the landmark cathedral. They’ve got golf courses too and a superb restaurant in the Clubhouse & Grill with spot-on steak, St Andrews lobster and East Neuk crab. The Fife Coastal Path handily sweeps below this spectacularly located clifftop hotel. www.fairmont.com