Living in Barcelona: Move to Spain before Brexit

There's so much more to living in Barcelona than Las Ramblas – one former resident offers a guide to starting a life in Spain's vibrant coastal city before the Brexit hauls us out of the EU

Article by Claire Francis | 10 Nov 2016

Energy. Barcelona is buzzing with it, and you're going to need a whole lot of it to keep up. Like the laundry drying on the ubiquitous washing lines strung above its streets, the city is open, bright and breezy. It's sunshine and seaside by day, with a thumping nightlife at its core. An international city, Barcelona is full of people from all walks of life. This is a place where making friends is easy, and its summery temperatures and proximity to the Mediterranean gives Spain's second-largest city a laid-back vibe that is reflected in both work and play.

Adjust your body clock

You're a true Barcelona expat when you're breakfasting at midday, when lunch happens sometime after two, and dinner plans are made for 10pm. Bars are quiet before midnight, and the time people stumble home tends to correspond with the sunrise. The first thing to do when you arrive in Barcelona is alter your pace. The siesta is still very much an institution of Barcelona life, with shops, bars and eateries closing down between 2pm and 4pm. Be mindful that this easy-going mentality also seeps into everyday interactions – don't expect quick service in restaurants, banks, post offices and the like. While its relaxed pace is just one of Barcelona's many charms, it also means that nothing gets done in a hurry.

Know your history, mind your language

Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain. Street signs, maps, and names of landmarks and neighbourhoods are primarily in Catalan, the city's co-offcial language. Catalan history and identity is an integral part of the city – you'll spot many pro-independence estelada flags pinned to balconies above the streets. Catalans are proud of their heritage and many Scots in particular find that they closely identify with the Catalan fight for indepence, which has similarities with Scotland's own pro-independence movement (visit the elegant, and free, El Born Centre Cultural for an eye-opening timeline of Catalan history).

It is possible to live in Barcelona and not speak a word of Spanish, but aside from being cuturally indolent, you'll find it means being labelled as a guiri (a disparaging term for foreigners). There are plenty of language schools in Barcelona, and some employers also offer Spanish lessons as part of their salary packages. One of the Romantic languages, Spanish is a relatively easy language to learn and its poetic rewards are infinite. Take the phrase Lo siento (‘I'm sorry’), for example, which translates literally to ‘I feel it.’ Or rasaca – the word used for hangover which literally means ‘the undertow that leaves debris and driftwood scattered across a shore following a storm.’ A metaphorical state you're bound to find yourself in after dipping a toe in Barcelona's famed nightlife.

Get to know the neighbourhood

Barcelona is a big city, but it's the perfect size to explore on foot. The metro is easy to use and cheap, or consider investing in a bike and making the most of the sunshine. Las Ramblas is the city's wearying main thoroughfare, bogged down with ambling holidaymakers, pickpockets and touts. It's a necessary evil that divides the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter, from El Raval. The former is a gorgeous labyrinth of bars and beautiful architecture, while El Raval is shaking off its seedy past and has become a mecca for the bearded, tattooed hipster set. For a Barcelona you won't find in guidebooks, check out the lesser-known Sant Antoni, an upcoming hot spot for good food and drink; Eixample, Barcelona's elegant 19th century neighbourhood; and Gracia, a lively, bohemian area that was an independent town until the late 19th century and even now feels like a different world from the rest of the city. 

Eat, drink and be merry

Though Barcelona boasts a colourful, quality array of international cusines, it's somewhat harder to find authentic Spanish food in the city. Though more synonymous with Andalusia and Madrid, tapas is big in Barcelona, with good options to be found in quiet Poble Sec and the aforementioned Sant Antoni. Catalan cuisine is also taking off; try the rustic Ca l' Andreu, or for a contemporary twist visit La Cuina d'en Garriga. Satan's Coffee Corner and Federal Cafe (both in the Gothic Quarter) do good coffee; in El Raval, try Caravelle for brunch, Bun Bo for cheap Vietnamese and even cheaper cocktails, and Betty Ford's for after-dinner drinks. La Boqueria is Barcelona's giant produce market and though it can be suffocating with tourists, it's a must-see, though it's cheaper to do your grocery shop at smaller, local markets and supermercados. Don't forget to stock up for the weekend – virtually all shops close on a Sunday.

The 'gin tonic' rivals the Aperol Spritz as Barcelona's hipster drink of choice – think fishbowl-sized glasses and generous pours – Bobby Gin in Gracia is a modern bar specialising in the stuff. Craft beer is also big in Barcelona, with micro-brews springing up all over the city; there's even a Brewdog outpost if you're feeling homesick. At the more recreational end of the spectrum, it's a little known fact that Barcelona is full of private cannabis clubs. You show your ID, pay a small membership fee (around €20) and the club essentially acts as a dispensary. Whereas Amsterdam’s coffee shops feel like you’re out at a bar, Barcelona’s cannabis clubs feel like you’re hanging out in your own living room. Remember that weed in Barcelona is only legal inside the cannabis club. Yeah, everyone smokes in public, but be aware you risk big fines. 

Whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of ordering expensive seafood paella at touristy restaurants (it's often factory made and frozen) or drinking overpriced sangria (it's the same Don Simon you can buy for €1 a carton in supermarkets). Spend a year in Barcelona and you still won't have discovered all of its culinary treasures and drinking spots – finding them for yourself is half the fun.

Food for the soul

If you're a dreamer, a gypsy, or a romantic, Barcelona is your spiritual home. The birthplace of Joan Miro, the place where Picasso spent his formative years, with cityscape shaped by the designs of architect Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona is imbued with a rich artistic history full of cultural landmarks. There's a strong contemporary art and design scene too, which is spearheaded by the modernist-inspired MACBA (Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona), situated in a wide concrete plaza that's also a skating hotspot and prime people-watching location. Music wise, Barcelona ranks as one of Europe's best clubbing locations. There are nightclubs galore to choose from, but Sidecar is the place to go for your indie-rock fix, Razzmatazz is a five-clubs-in-one affair in an industrial part of El Poublenou, and Moog's small, smoky basement space might be Barcelona's best appromimation of Sub Club. You'll also have international music festivals Primavera Sound, Sonar and Vida on your doorstep.

Living, working and the red tape

Spain's economic crisis still weighs heavily on the country, with the youth unemployment rate (for people under 25) hitting upwards of 50% in recent years. Thanks in part to Barcelona's huge tourism industry, it's easy enough to find a bar job, a waitering gig or a stint as a club PR, though beware that these jobs tend to dry up after the peak summer period. For any other vocations, you'll need a proficient level of Spanish, unless you're working for an international company. Some food and beveridge jobs and promotional work will pay cash, but for pretty much any other job you'll need a NIE – a tax identification number in Spain known as the Número de Identidad de Extranjero. Obtaining a NIE involves a complicated, infuriating system of online appointments, obtaining employer's documentation, in-person appointments, and waiting in a long line at a bank to pay your application fee. The rule of thumb in Barcelona is, take the whole day off whenever there's official paperwork to do. 

A knock-on effect of the city's popularity with tourists and seasonal visitors is that housing in Barcelona is in high demand. Sites like Craigslist offer rooms on a short term basis, but quality varies, and expect to pay anything from €300-500 a month for a room in a shared apartment. Longer term, a better option financially is to rent your own apartment directly from an agency or private landlord. English isn't always spoken when it comes to dealing with landlords and bureaucrats, so this is where those Spanish lessons you've been taking will come in handy. Also, pillows are (inexplicably) difficult to find in shops. Bring a couple from home – seriously.

A champagne lifestyle...

On a shoetring budget this isn't completely attainable in Barcelona, but the beauty of the city is that la vida is best enjoyed on a modest income. Grab a book, a picnic blanket, and head to the enchanting Parc de la Ciutadella for chill time and people watching; take a leafy stroll up Montjuïc mountain for some fresh air and be rewarded with spectacular views; spend an afternoon basking in the sun and swimming at Barceloneta beach; or pop a couple of cheap beers in your backpack and meet up with your new friends at the palm-lined Plaza Real. Barcelona's radiant weather, laid back lifestyle and multicultural mix of people from across the globe make it a unique destination for forging friendships and wild adventures, and they're the kinds of experiences that money can't buy.