A Lifestyle Designer’s Guide to Barcelona

September 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent the last 13 and a half months living and working, both online and offline, in Barcelona.  I could easily be considered a “Lifestyle Designer”, and I’d like to share some cold hard facts (perhaps with a slice of subjectivity if you’re lucky) with the community.  Buckle up for a 3,000-word guide (or scroll down to the section that most interests you)..

Prices – Cost of Living

So let’s get straight to the grain.  Is Barcelona a lifestyle possibility for you right now?  If you’re single and earning at least 1,500€ ($1,912) a month, after tax, then yes.  This amount will afford you a fair standard of living, eating out a few times a week, weekends away, but renting a room in a shared apartment in a central part of town.  The average wage here for an “offline” entry-level job is between 1,000-1,200€, and such people get by without too many frills.  If you’re a family, then the required income is going to vary greatly depending on the size of your family and the services you need.  If you’re looking to stay long term, I’d suggest you find some more relevant information elsewhere, but for a few months of Lifestyle Design, 3,500€ ($4,462) after tax per household should suffice for Mum, Dad and the 2.4 to have a great time.  What can I say, this is a European tourist capital.  It’s certainly livable with less income, but be prepared to go the ‘starving artist’ route.

  • Beer in a city-centre bar – 2,50€ – 4€  ($3.20 – $5.20);  Cocktails – 3,50€ – 8€  ($4.50 – $10.25)
  • Beer in the street/beach (from Pakistani vendor) – 1€  ($1.28 – do not pay more – learn to hustle!)
  • 10 x Rides in the Metro/Bus – 7,95€  (($10.20)
  • Rental Car – from 60€/day  ($77)
  • A 3-course menu including wine and coffee – 8 – 15€ per person from 1 – 4pm only ($10 – $20 for good quality; but of course, there is no glass ceiling on what restaurants can charge).
  • A bag of pasta, 3x tins of tuna, an onion and bolognese sauce – 4,65€ for three separate meals  ($5.95, when income is low!)
  • Rent for room in a shared apartment – 400€ in all central areas ($520).  Going lower may seriously affect your quality of life/sleep/mental health.
  • A 3-bedroom apartment to rent – from about 900€/month in good locations  ($1,150 – links to rental websites below).
  • Entrance to MACBA (top museum of contemporary art) – 7.50€  ($9.60)
  • Entrance to Sagrada Familia + Gaudí’s House (Famous Cathedral & Architect’s house) – 14€  ($18)
  • Private Spanish class – from 13€  ($16.65);  “Intercambio” – free.

Internet Access

Okay, the other piece of juice for the lifestyle designer..  When renting a room in an apartment you’re 95% guaranteed to have wifi (6Mb) included in the cost, or at least for some pocket change extra every month.  Always double check.  If renting an entire apartment, you should be able to get a place with wifi pre-installed.  If the flat you’re looking at doesn’t have it, look elsewhere – Spanish telecommunications companies are notoriously bad and you could wait at least couple of weeks without a connection.  And if you thought call-centers and waiting lines back home were bad, try doing it in Spanish with even poorer customer service!  On arrival, most hotels and hostels have wifi access and will often charge, and given the sheer amount of people crammed into hostels here, peace and quiet is a huge luxury.  Cyber cafés are common throughout the city, but again, are often crammed and unpredictable in terms of noise and clientele.  If you need to work, check out one of the many city libraries, not many cafés have wifi and are generally noisy.  If you need to consult over Skype – get to your own place asap.

Airports – Flights & Getting Away

If you’re coming from outside Europe, one of the first and most obvious wonders about Barcelona is it’s access to more travel opportunities at a low cost.  My parents live in Oxford, UK, and a 2-hour flight from nearby Girona to nearby Bristol can cost as little as 6€.  That’s right.  The bus from Barcelona to Girona to catch the plane costs 12€ and Bristol-home about the same.  As you can imagine, Europe’s now a world leader in the CO2 emissions race.

Ryanair is the cheapest airline and you can get to rare and wonderful cities across Scandinavia and Eastern Europe for little more than 30€ return.  You will have to be creative when you travel as flights rarely go to the exact destination you want, although through Easyjet and Berlin Air you can often get to “top-rate” tourist destinations for less than 100€ return if you book ahead.  Travel within Spain is usually more expensive: Madrid is best served by the Ave – the high-speed train – and a return ticket can cost 85€ with two week’s planning.  A return flight to Seville and the wonderful Andalucía will go for around 140€ return.

Arrival from New York will cost around $660, the West Coast around $1,000, and anywhere in Latin America from 700€.  If it’s difficult to arrive from further afield, try flying to London to cut costs and connecting with Easyjet or Ryanair.  Be sure to travel light as these airlines charge extra for every piece of luggage, but you’ve read articles on flashpacking and already know that, right ;)


Surroundings – Excursions, Sea

Closer to home, the Northeastern Spanish province (most would prefer it as a country in its own right) of Catalunya boasts both wild and developed beaches, stretching two hours south to Deltebre, a wildlife reserve on an outstretched delta – and two hours north of Barcelona to Cadaqués, certainly the most beautiful part of this stretch of coast.  In between you have a beach for all tastes: from gay pride carnivals at Sitges to nudist heaven at Sant Pol, to drunken Dutch and British madness at Lloret de Mar.  Surf is very average all over the Mediterranean but people try, diving’s OK at Cap Begur, windsurf is good in many locations and you can learn to sail at a school at Port Olímpic, Barcelona.

Catalunya also has mountains, skiing, rock-climbing; and the small tax-free principality of Andorra, wedged high into the mountains on the French border, is just three hours away by bus or car.  Tarragona, Girona and Lleida – medieval cities far less crowded than Barcelona – are all worth an excursion.

However, for those with a bit of cash to spare and in search of a party spirit, a huge bonus that Barcelona has is it’s sea connections to the French and Italian islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and to the Balearic islands of Mallorca, Menorca, world-famous Ibiza and laid-back Formentera.  Round trip prices start from around 100€ depending on season, and the amount of money you’ll spend whilst there is virtually impossible to pin down!

Some of the best free or cheap things are laid out in the 6 Best Things section below..

University, Learning, Self-Development

Most lifestyle designers appear to travel in order to learn or develop themselves in some way.  Being a city of 1.5 million people (and serving a community of 4 million), in Barcelona you can pretty much take up anything you’d wish.  Although not the official language here, most foreigners arrive and immediately enroll for Spanish classes which is essential for day-to-day living as the standard of English here is much poorer compared with other European countries.  Only real long-termers tend to take advantage of the City Hall’s free Catalan courses, which will generally help you impress the local population, even if you do only manage to grasp a handful of phrases.

There are several Universities and Business schools within city limits, but for shorter stays almost anyone can enroll for courses in yoga, music, art, dance and pretty much any type of psychological or physiological therapy.  Some 50km away there is Spain’s top vipassana meditation centre where you can carry out the 10-day silence.  Spanish would be pretty necessary at most of these courses, barring this last one of course, and to find events put on for English-speakers, look no further than your school’s noticeboard or in free publications such as BCNWeek and Metropolitan magazine, available all over the tourist centre. (Don’t forget TimeOut!).  Thousands of people come to Barcelona from all over Europe, Africa, Asia and South America, and finding courses and contacts and information about anything in any language is possible once you get out there and get your eyes and ears open.

Sport is a real strength in Catalunya, and without even mentioning possibly the world’s best football club and their 98 or 120,000-seater stadium (depending on who you ask), there are a huge number of options for your participation.  Three large and separate ports mean schools and services for sailors, 4km of sandy beaches mean daily football, volleyball, footvolley, paddle (short tennis), running, rollerblading, open-air iron-pumping and anything you can imagine.  Add to that the sea and mountain options outside the city, a couple of golf courses, climbing walls and a Formula One track and you have pretty much a full sporting menu.  If you fancy a five-a-side football match shortly after arrival, look no further than here.

Lifestyle Design Community:

Barcelona is certainly a top destination for established digital nomads, and by making friends and socializing often you’ll come across people with different stories almost on a daily basis.  The best way to find a selection of different people at the same time would be by checking out Meetup.com, with Sun, Sand and Startups being the most outstanding networking meeting, and also Barcelona Brunch and Cinebar good places to check out for socializing.  Couchsurfing is decidedly weak in Barcelona, and although on most days you can find a couple of people going out drinking, the transience of the city makes it difficult to form real friendships, and people who live in the city very rarely offer their couch to passers by.  The Couchsurfing system is indeed broken in Spain, but by making the most of the friends that you do meet and following up and attending parties, you can create a good group of friends.

Going back to business, I participated in the excellent iWeekend last November, which is a celebration of internet start-ups inviting 50 people with different experience to sit in a room for 48 hours voting for ideas.  The best ideas will be invited to form a team out of the programmers and marketers that remain and a company should ideally be set up by the Sunday evening.  Ideas that emerged from last year’s edition seem to have disappeared from the face of the internet but some videos of us working can be found here.  This event took place in Barcelona Activa, a government initiative aimed at educating the average Joe in all things entrepreneurial that supplies a whole host of services – but it has to be said now that if you don’t speak an advanced level Spanish, you will not get very far in these institutions.

In general, entrepreneurship is something on the rise in Barcelona, and events and government stimulus are becoming increasingly apparent.  However, in a country where 60% of University graduates want to be civil servants, the get-up-and-go attitude is certainly not as developed here as in Northern Europe or North America: people are less willing to take risks with their money and time, and customer service is generally rather lackluster.

The 6 Best Things about Barcelona:

Beaches – 4km within city limits that take you from the bustling ex-fisherman neighbourhood up to Forum, where there is an olympic-sized seawater swimming pool sheltered from the ocean by a spectator’s area.  Add to this the Bicing facility; public rental bikes that are spread all over the city for residents to use (31€ ($40)/year) then you have yourself a morning triathlon.  And if you happen to get tired, during summer there’s always abundant fauna below on the beach..

Tapear – Wandering from bar to bar, trying their various tapas is a true wonder in Barcelona and in Spain in general.  Hams and cheeses and fried fish are the most common choices, but in truth there is no end to the quality and creativity in these small plates of food if you want to explore.  Pimientos de Padrón (Small green sometimes-spicy peppers) are my favourite to have with a glass of beer, and in places like the Xampanyeria, you can try various glasses of sparkling wine for less than a euro each.  Rather than eating one meal in one place, you can stagger dinner over three hours and four different restaurants.  It’s as good as it sounds.

Plazas at Night – There are loads of bars to check out in the historic centre, as well as in trendy Gràcia and further afield.  In fact, it would be impossible to get to know them all even after spending five years in the city.  However, especially during summer months, the real value is buying alcohol from a shop or a Pakistani vendor and sitting in one of the plazas or on the beach, watching life go by and not having to die from second-hand smoke. (No anti-smoking law in bars yet, watch out!)

Parks – The parks are great here in Barcelona, offering enough green to make the city an attractive place to live.  If you search hard enough you should be able to find a great place to sit and read, and for a very romantic pic-nic.  The best are the central Parc de la Ciutadella; Parc Güell – Gaudí’s über.kitsch fantasyland; and Monjuïc, a huge expanse of park up a mountain, housing over a hundred museums and many key sites from Barcelona’s 1992 Olympic Games.

Calçotadas – A Catalan tradition, and one you want to work on getting invited to.  (If you don’t you can always turn up to a restaurant like this in Valls).  A calçot is a special type of onion, often growing over two feet long.  A special cultivation process that takes over six months to complete stimulates a ridiculously good flavour once barbecued and dipped in a savoury sauce.  Between rounds of chargrilled meat and a variety of different local wines and cavas, this winter tradition will keep your spirits (and your belly) up during the winter months.

Sports – Have pretty much been covered in the sections above.  There is a lot going on here, winter and summer.

Disadvantages

Barcelona does have a couple of disadvantages for the Lifestyle Designer.  Firstly, looking for work or to grow a business offline can be very difficult indeed.  Things are often slow in working themselves out here, most “serious” activity stops for two-and-a-half months over the summer, and Catalans are typically quite suspicious people and don’t open their wallets gladly.  Gaining trust and becoming integrated into the local community can be a very difficult affair, and it’s not uncommon that even after marrying a local and spending fifteen years here, foreigners still feel that they don’t have any kind of secure social safety net: nowhere to find a job or clients when the chips are down, and no-one to really confide in.  Also, for the offline LDer there are just too many chances to spend good money and not enough chances to earn it.  And whilst approaching the last quarter of 2010 at time of writing, Spain is pretty much the only European economy still in recession.  With businesses still closing down across the city, the hard times are well and truly here for many.

But if you work over the internet with a cushty income that won’t worry you.  But if you have been an intrepid traveler up until now the next thing I’m going to mention possibly might.  Although with it’s gothic centre, rolling hills and hours of nearby beaches, Barcelona can seem an exotic place (especially if you’re coming from the “New World”); the Catalan people are far from having an exotic, tropical outlook on life.  Now that’s not to say that there aren’t fun or kind Catalan people around – there certainly are – but if you’re looking for one of these places where the locals are eager to get to know you, embrace you with open arms, introduce you freely to family and friends and invite you over for dinner: this just ain’t the place.  Friendships require effort to initiate and maintain, and being a modern European “Capital of Cool”, there is a hell of a lot of ego floating around, and a hell of a lot of people desiring to live the European dream but slowly realizing just how difficult that is with so much competition.

Now if you’re very young and this is your first time away – or if you’re older and more relaxed with a family – this may not bother you.  But if you’re in the middle like me and looking for a fun and lively “authentic” foreign experience, you may find Barcelona spiritually lacking.

Areas – Barrios (Where to Stay), Getting Around

Most people on arrival flock to the historic centre – comprised of the Born, the Gothic Quarters and the Raval.  And it makes a lot of sense as herein lies the charm of Barcelona, seen from outside.  Nightlife happens here, daylife happens also, but after a month or two you could find that the constant stream of tourists taking your picture as you pop out to by milk in your pijamas in the morning a little too much.  The Born is perhaps the most beautiful and elegant of the three areas, the Gothic the most awe-inspiring in terms of history and architecture.  However, many find these areas stressful to live in and all kinds of neighbour-wars occur due to noise pollution and pissing.  The Raval is not much different – edgy and exciting for nightlife but also full of whores, drug-dealers and pickpockets 24 hours a day.  Gràcia is a more sophisticated option, a couple of kilometres north of the chaos and 15 minutes by metro.  Here the streets are much quieter, and house a huge array of bohemian and cosmopolitan people from around the world.  The choice of restaurants is enormous throughout this neighbourhood, as are shops, indie cinemas and alternative therapies.  Decent apartments are hard to come by though, and it’s not the most friendly of places.  These are the zones where all the guiris (gringos, i.e. you) live, but If I were to stay for a second year I’d migrate to one of the following:

Poble Sec – In between the Raval and the huge mountainous park, Montjuïc, this is the neighbourhood with the highest air quality in all the city, is very central, and has a lively and welcoming mix of immigrant inhabitants from four corners of the globe.

Poble Nou – Is the most modern part of the city.  Apartment blocks that look like Playstations line the huge avenues, trees abound and traffic and noise is much reduced.  The recent housing crisis has left many apartments here vacant and a few hot deals on very luxurious spaces could be made.  Oh yeah, you’re also going to be 5-10 minutes walk from the 11km of sandy beaches.

Sarrià – A quaint little village that’s been swallowed up by the ever-expanding business zone of the city, Sarrià is where most of the money lives in Barcelona.  Quiet, leafy, and with easy escapes to more countryside settings, I would live in Sarrià for the ability to really escape the mayhem of the centre, and to find affluent local clients for my Coaching business.  As a chap from suburban Oxfordshire, this is a neighbourhood that not only feels more like home, but has the potential for a higher quality of life, with better options of integration into local culture.

Just to add, there is an extensive Metro and Bus system, although it comes to a halt at midnight during the week; and the aforementioned Bicing system is fantastic (apart from when your brakes are broken or you’re in a rush and your destination station is full).

To sum up: Who is Barcelona for?

Lifestyle Designers that are well established in their respective fields with decent income who want a good standard of living somewhere somewhat exotic – but still a fairly comfortable and predictable experience.

What to do next – information, arrival

Barcelona is a very safe city, violence is almost unheard of, even in the subway at 3am on a Saturday night you can sit comfortably given that nothing is likely to happen to you, even if you are a lone woman.  The big annoyance in the tourist centre is the amount of Pickpockets that are at work (chiefly in the Ramblas, Raval and in the metro).  Keep your hands over your valuables and try not to look like a first-time gringo (if you can!).

Coming from the airport, you can take a direct bus to Plaza Catalunya – bang in the middle of the city.  As a Lifestyle Designer, I’m sure you can follow the suggestion of using social media to get yourself a couple of friends or guides for the first few days.  It’s a great way to connect with people that share your interests that already live in the area.

The following sentence offers links to up-to-date information on Health, finding a place to Rent, information on Residency and Visas, good Food, Dance Music, Tourist Information and Guides.  And yes, there are places to keep up with English football, although U.S. sports will be a lot trickier.  (For Aussie Rules or Ice-Hockey, don’t even ask!)

Now I’ve come to the end of this post I’ve realized I’ve written more than I expected, and feel as if I’ve done a pretty thorough job.  If there’s anything else you feel is important or would like to know from this post – please let me know in the comments below, that way I can keep updating the information to make as good a guide for you as possible.

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