Things I Wish I Knew before Living in Barcelona

I’ve been living and writing about Barcelona now for a year. There are certain things that I wish I’d known about Barcelona before coming here. I did a quick internet search, and found posts that are similar to this one, but most of my suggestions are unique. If you are planning on living in Barcelona, or even just visiting for an extended period, then you would do well to read on.

The best beaches are out of town

If you haven’t heard, the beaches in Barcelona are city beaches. I’m from Chicago, so what I mean by city beaches is murky water, crowded space in the day and sketchy space at night, especially in front of the city’s favorite club, Opium (if you’re a clubber, click this link and try to get yourself on their guest list before you go).

In Catalunya, the beautiful coast is north and east of Barcelona. It’s called the Costa Brava. I’m only going to tell you about the towns I’ve visited, and I can say with conviction that Sant Feliu de Guixols is worth it. It costs 13 euros to get there on a Sarfa bus. It’s small, but not too small. From the town, you can find a trail along the coast that wraps around an extensive rock outcrop, taking you up and over a peninsula that separates the two beaches of Sant Feliu. It’s on this walk that you discover the true beauty of this part of the Costa Brava: the caletas. Inlets capped by tiny hidden beaches, with nothing but nature surrounding them. Camp there, by all means. But no fire.

Caletas in Sant Feliu de Guixols

Caletas in Sant Feliu de Guixols

Costa Brava Barcelona

This is what the Costa Brava can look like

Trail along the coast at Sant Feliu de Guixols

Trail along the coast at Sant Feliu de Guixols

Down the coast from Sant Feliu de Guixols you find Tossa de Mar. It has a long beach, and an old ring wall skirting a rock outcrop. It is a much more touristy town than Sant Feliu, and more partying happens here, I think. Here’s a good summary:

Tossa de Mar

Tossa de Mar

France is really easy to get to

It takes 2 hours and 12 euros by train from Passeig de Gracia to Figueres. From Figueres, home of the trippy Dali museum, it’s another 3.50 euros and 30 minutes to Port Bou. This town is an excellent little coastal town with a nice beach and caleta right on the border with France. 1.50 euros more gets you a train 5 minutes on to Cerebere. And from there you can get a 1 euro bus to the most beautiful of all towns, Collioure, or with two Euros get as far into the Pyranees as Mont Louis. Just inside France the 1 euro bus system is excellent.

Camping overlooking Cerebere, France

Camping overlooking Cerebere, France

Train Barcelona to France

The train that’d bring you from Barcelona to France

Camping in Port Bou

Camping out in Port Bou

Viu Bicing is how you should get around

Viu Bicing, which I made a comic about, is the city’s bike system. 47 euros buys you a magnetic card to use the system for a year and a half. It’s the best way to get around, and besides walking, it’s biking that gets you well-acquainted with the city. It’s frustrating sometimes when you encounter glitches, and other times when a full or empty station stumps you, but all in all it’s a dependable system. And hell, you have the Barcelona metro if all else fails.

Brie at Dia

There’s a cheap brie, if you like brie cheese, at the supermarket Dia. It costs 1.15 euro. Brie with a fresh baguette and some tomates peras in salty olive oil, and you’re set. If you can’t find it in the Dia you know, you will at the Dia near Passeig Sant Juan and Traversera de Gracia.

Let the fuet dry

In Spain, they eat dried, thin pork sausage stuffed in pork gut. In France they call it “Saucission”, but in Catalunya, it’s called Fuet. Fuet is best eaten when it has hardened. Bland, soft fuets are not very satisfying. Somehow I didn’t use common sense, and only bought the hardened fuets, which were rare. I wish I would have realized that I could buy a bland fuet, hang it, and wait for it to dry.

Buy foodstuff online through Mercadona

Mercadona is the cheapest place to buy food because they have a really low-cost generic brand. It’s even friendlier on the wallet if you set up an account to order your food through Mercadona online. They deliver the food to your door. I really wish I knew about this before moving to Barcelona.

Catalonia pride

Catalans aren’t Spanish. They’ll point this out to you often. Avoid that conversation if you don’t want to get into it. If you do, you’re on your own. Catalans (or Spaniards in general) are good at talking incessantly.

Catalunya is after its independence, but Madrid won’t allow a referendum. Barcelona will host a referendum anyway, and if it passes, that’s when the fun will begin. I went to a huge rally recently. The saturation of the red and yellow in their flags puts the 4th of July to shame. There’s a freakish patriotism here. I’m no fan of independence but nor am I against it. If I don’t like hearing a Catalan raving about their independence, I’m even more off put by a Spaniard demeaning it.

Catalan patriotism

Catalan patriotism

It will do you well to learn some Catalan, and there are free classes offered by the government. I gave them up, since Catalan isn’t that different from Spanish. But it might have helped me make friends. It’s really hard to make friends here, and even the Catalans will tell you that it’s because of their culture. Let’s not discredit it outright: Franco prohibited Catalan from being spoken at all, so you can see oppressed the older generations were.

In any case, it’s good to know about the patriotism before you decide on living in Barcelona. Especially if you choose to live in Vila de Gracia, like yours truly.

Arguments and interrupting

Since I’m on the vain of patriotism, which I eschew at every turn and for anyone, I might as well veer into a discussion of discussions. Not only in Catalunya, but in Spain in general, a conversation can quickly turn into an argument. People are aggressive in conversation here. I think Catalans are more aggressive than Spaniards. The rock-gargling voices and palpitating intonations and shrugging shoulders don’t help to make a conversation seem any calmer. If you were thinking that how a conversation looks has nothing to do with its quality, wait. Interrupting and speaking over each other is so common here that I’ve found it difficult to make friends. I quickly get tired with the manner of speaking.

Some will tell you that it’s a rougher way of speaking for a rougher kind of human, that you’re a pussy if you can’t handle it. I disagree. It’s cultural. For some, in an argument, it’s a defense mechanism. Even introverts get high-pitched and start interrupting more than usual (which is already too much). Conversations can be exasperating here. I wish I knew this before living in Barcelona because I would’ve known what to expect.

I’ll balance the table: conversation in the US can be exasperating because we’re too easily offended and we’re loud. There are positives and negatives to every common cultural tendency, and we all have them. So if you think this is an unjust attack on Catalans, then you can’t tell the difference between an attack and an observation.

Bureaucracy

Before I start being nice again, let me attack one last thing, which is something everyone interested in living in Barcelona should know before they decide to come. The God Damn Spanish Appointment System. For all your bureaucratic needs, you’ll have to get appointments. It’s really annoying figuring it out, so have a look around this blog. The more you know about it before you go, the fewer days you’ll have to waist running around the city getting documents and submitting them. And remember, when you’re trying to reserve a “cita” and it says that all the appointments are taken, just be persistent and keep trying.

The Spanish flag

Welcome to Spain, student.

There’s only one tapas bar

Tapas is not Catalan. Tapas is Spanish. Andalusians will tell you that tapas is from the south. What is tapas? It’s coverings. It refers to little plates of finger food that you eat with a beer. In much of Spain, if you order a beer, you get any of dozens of kinds of tapas. Here, tapas only exists as a tourist trap. That and paella… don’t eat paella outside of Valencia unless you do it at Meson David (paella and sepia). Yeah yeah, OK; there are probably other awesome places to eat tapas and paella in Barcelona, but I’m only giving you the places I’ve been to and want to recommend. Use TripAdvisor and find the same good places everyone else has already been to.

That being said, I did find one tapas bar. They serve you only one kind of tapas (fish) with each 2 euro beer. With two beers you will have consumed more than a meal. And the fish is good, cooked in different ways. The bar’s called El Capritxo, and it’s not for prissy tourists. So don’t be that.

Rent in Barcelona

If you live in Horta, you can find an apartment for yourself for under 400 euros. Anywhere else, it’s possible to find a room in a shared apartment for 250 euros, everything included. Look hard. But remember, you seem to get what you pay for around here.

The other trick is to know people. The more people you know, the more likely it is that you’ll find a good situation. Don’t tie yourself down with a contract. Try to avoid a contract. If you rent a room from a company, you’ll have to pay different fees. Rent from the owner!

La Boqueria aint the only market

Everyone goes crazy about La Boqueria, the traditional market lined by kiosks stacked high with Spanish conserves, meats, cheeses, fruit, vegetables, fresh seafood, kiwi juice, nuts, sushi, ostrich eggs, skinned rabbit, and the list goes on. It’s a nice market. But it’s right off Las Ramblas, which is a nightmare of a street if you walk it more than once.

There are other markets throughout the city. I can recommend two of these. One is the Mercat Abaceria, just off Traversera de Gracia. The other is Mercat Galvany. Both of these have what Boqueria has, without the tourists. For you artisans and street vendors, maybe you can wrangle a space here without too much hassle. Oh, and Gracia is a suitable neighborhood for street musicians.

Ostrich eggs in the Mercat Abaceria in Vila de Gracia

Ostrich eggs in the Mercat Abaceria in Vila de Gracia

When to eat

Siesta is a national phenomenon. I call it a phenomenon because in this fast-paced world it seems impossible. It’s excellent for those who get the rest from it, but for visitors and people not used to stopping everything for three hours in the middle of the day, it can be hard to adapt. From 2 to 3, shops close. Some restaurants stay closed from 4 to 8. Dinner is late here. People eat after 9pm.

The best view is from the bunkers

Part of Barcelona’s charm is its slow downward grade from the inland hills to the sea. This same grade will make biking from Barri Gotic to Horta a pain in the ass. But when it comes to vistas, Barcelona is not want for hills. You can see out over the city from Park Guell, Tibidabo, Montjuic and any high building. But the best 360 view incorporates not only the Barcelona of the Sagrada Familia and Torre Agbar, but also of what lies beyond Park Guell, all the way up to the foot of the hills at the University of Barcelona’s Mundet campus. Between the Barcelona you expect and the more obscure Horta lies the bunkers. Spanish civil war-era bunkers that afforded its garrison a full lay of the land now lay in solid ruin, playing host to young people with red wine in tow who come for the sunsets. They’re called the Carmel Turo de la Rovira Bunkers, and you’ll find them beside the Parc del Guinardo.

View from the Carmel Turo de la Rovira bunkers in Barcelona

View from the Carmel Turo de la Rovira bunkers in Barcelona

University prices seem lower than they are

If you’re like me, then you’ll be living in Barcelona as a student, perhaps for a masters program. At the University of Barcelona, a masters course will have 60 or 90 credits, and it’s 82 euros per credit in 2015. That still is far cheaper than any big university in the United States. Still, other parts of Europe have free masters programs. If you have enough money to spend on a program here, then you might have enough to spend on living expenses and go to a better, free university in Holland, Germany, or Scandinavia.

People who go to the UPF (Universitat de Pampeu Fabra) and other more expensive private universities like ESADE are generally pompous about it. My program was between the UB and UPF. I can tell the difference. I would sooner go to a free program in the north than pay a private uni here.

You can walk everywhere

Barcelona is a walkable city. In an hour and a half from the center, you can get to pretty much anywhere of note. The outskirts are of course necessary to see, because those are the only places in Barcelona where you can see impacts from the crisis.

“Pakis” and “Chinos”

As is the case throughout all of Latin America, here in Spain, you wear the name of your ethnicity on your sleeve (but only if you’re not European). That being said, shops also get nicknamed according to the ethnicity of whoever manages them. There are many Chinese-owned stores. These are called the “chinos“. They sell everything, and everything is cheap and fragile. Needless to say I buy shit there.

Then there are the “pakis”, referring to Pakistani-owned groceries. These places sell foodstuffs and beer, and are open later then everything else. They’re also a bit more expensive then a supermarket.

“Pakis” and “chinos” aren’t Spanish, so there’s no siesta for them. Living in Barcelona means knowing this fact.

The cheapest meal is a shwarma

Shwarma or kebab. Here in Barcelona, you’ll find a lot of Lebanese and Syrian kebab joints. I eat a good 3 euro kebab at a place called Petra on Asturies in Vila de Gracia. At a chain called Ugarit, if you’re new and you’re in a good mood, a 3.75 euro shwarma will get you a mint tea. Kebabs are everywhere. Don’t think too much about that processed meat, though.

Its OK to drink the water

Throughout Europe this is true. Drink the tap water. But I’m mentioning it on a list of things to know being moving to live in Barcelona because like many towns in Spain, Barcelona is spotted throughout by free, open water fountains. They look like tall grey fire hydrants, but often with statuettes and brass faucets. You can drink water from here at any hour. Your dog can too.

Barcelona water fountain

Barcelona water fountain

“Guay” means cool

I’ve traveled throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The way to say “cool” changes in every country. “Chido” in Mexico, “chevere” in other countries, “bacan”. In Spain they say “guay”. It sounds like English “why”. It’s confusing. Well, now you know.


This is the Velabas travel blog, which is a complement to the travel stories. These posts are not regular, but I hope that they are useful. If you want to read other similar posts about Barcelona, I recommend these:

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