I'm planning on going to San Fermin in 2021. I'm trying to decide how to spend my time in other cities besides Pamplona. I'll spend either 8 or 10 days (not sure which yet) including my flight to Europe. I'm not sure if I bounce between Barcelona and Pamplona or Madrid and Pamplona. I'd also like to spend a couple of days in Lisbon and fly home from there. What do you think? Would you choose Madrid or Barcelona or maybe another city?
Rick Steves’ program on the San Fermin festival was on my TV just 2 or 3 days ago, and his episode finished west, in Santiago de Campostela. I haven’t been there yet, but it made for a memorable show, including pilgrims doing the 6 week walk to get there.
Other options to possibly consider are Girona and San Sebastián (also known as Donostia), which we visited in 2013, with a start in Madrid and a finish in Barcelona.
Both Barcelona and Madrid offer a lot for a visitor. If you’re considering just one, are you an art aficionado? Madrid has some of the best museums in the world, and could be a highlight. Barcelona’s by the sea - do you want some variety, as Pamplona and Madrid are both inland cities? Any other interests that might make one destination preferable, if you’re picking just one?
There's also San Sebastian, which is on the water, a great foodie city and smaller than the other two cities.
I don't know enough about your interests to recommend Barcelona or Madrid, but with only 8-10 days including Pamplona I'd suggest choosing just one of those cities -- or another city as recommended by other posters. And I'd suggest not trying to fit Lisbon into this trip, unless it becomes your second city besides Pamplona. Basically you won't have time for more than two cities.
It would be easier to stay in the Basque region, San Sebastián, Hondarribia or Bilbao. Otherwise, Madrid makes more sense than Barcelona due to location.
Assuming you’re flying from either Madrid or Barcelona to Lisbon, I’d say Barcelona, only because it is closer to Pamplona. The amount of time you have is limited, especially once you take away the flight days and time you plan on spending in Pamplona, so maybe skip Lisbon on this trip. I assume you know hotel prices are sky high during San Fermin. The hotel In Pamplona we paid $105 a night for in 2017, was going for $500 a night during the festival. Surrounding towns, and there are few of any decent size, won’t be much cheaper. Most people make their hotel reservations a year in advance. Both Madrid and Barcelona are worth visiting, so either is a good choice.
Just agreeing that, with only 8 to 10 days:
1) You should severely limit the number of places you try and see. I only get 10 days for most of my trips, so I know how painful it is to cut places. But you don't want you entire trip to just be memories of bus and train stations.
2) You should investigate transit times between places you are considering. A good start for this is Rome2Rio: https://www.rome2rio.com/. However, you should never take it as the last word - merely a starting point. Be sure to go directly to the website of the bus company, train line, etc. For some bus companies, you may need to use Google Translate.
A corollary: Don't fear buses in Spain. The Spanish train system is not as extensive as many other European countries, and the high speed train system is sparse. So, buses fill in the gaps. Everyone takes them, not just the "wrong element" we associate with bus travel in the US. Some of the buses are pretty fancy; one I took had Wi-Fi, seatback entertainment (like on a plane) and an electrical outlet at every seat!
3) You should not even think of trying to go to Lisbon. This issue comes up on this forum frequently. We in the US think of Spain and Portugal as practically one country, and as a "natural" combination. In reality, the transit links between them are quite skimpy, and they are surprisingly hard to combine in a single trip, particularly when time is short. Between the two countries, there are a very few trains (often at weird hours) and no high speed trains; there are buses (fewer than you would think and often involving more connections than you'd expect); and there are flights (more than you would expect, since there are few other options). A car rented in one country and returned in the other will have a drop charge, reported her to be as high as several hundred euros. So, with only 8-10 days, you'll burn much of day, at minimum, getting to Lisbon from Spain.
If you're committed to Pamplona, start by investigating other places nearby, like San Sebastian, Vitoria, and Bilbao.
As for the questions "Madrid or Barcelona," realize that this is like asking "Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?" or "Dallas or Houston?" or "San Francisco or Los Angeles?" The two cities couldn't be more different, and you will find people who like both, dislike both, or like one but not the other. Read about them and watch some videos, and try to figure out which one appeals to you more (hard to do, I know, when you haven't been there yet!). Here is Rick's video on Barcelona: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/video/tv-show/barcelona-and-catalunya and on Madrid: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/video/tv-show/the-majesty-of-madrid
Have visited both Madrid and Barcelona. Research the logistics of your trip and pick based on efficiency and convenience of travel. You will enjoy either one you choose.
Go to Madrid.
I am choosing Madrid - it looks like it has more appealing museums - the Prado, the Royal Palace, and others. When I go to Spain, I am skipping Barcelona.
If you don’t like museums, go to Barcelona - being by the Mediterranean Sea, the scenery is probably better. There are cable cars.