Barcelona is a top city for expats but it’s not all sunshine, tapas and siesta in the Catalan capital – here are both pros and cons to living the Barcelona expat life.
Here I convey with honesty the best of living in Barcelona as an expat, but also the not-so-fun parts of the experience. I have been living in Barcelona for just over two years, and I can see myself living here for at least two more. So what makes living in Barcelona so wonderful – and what aspects of it could be better? Here are the pros and cons of the Barcelona expat life.
Pros of living in Barcelona
The beach, mountains and everything in between
Barcelona is situated smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and the sub-Pyrenees Mountains. With both water and mountains within walking distance or a short train ride away, it’s hard to find a reason to leave the region of Catalonia. In between the two natural wonders is a bustling international metropolis where locals and foreigners mix in a cosmopolitan culture. As such, Barcelona is certainly spoiling me in terms of proximity to anything and everything I could ever want to do.
If I do need the inevitable city break, trains travel up and down the coast to historic seaside towns where the seafood is even fresher and people are even friendlier.
Speaking of weather, Barcelona definitely has its four seasons: cool in the winter (average temperatures around 50 degrees Fahrenheit or 10 degrees Celsius) and warm in the summer (averaging 88 degrees Fahrenheit or 30 degrees Celsius). But moving from season to season is so slight and gradual that there is ample time to acclimate to new temperatures.
I come from the mid-Atlantic region of the United States where temperatures can be in the 90s Fahrenheit one day and the 40s the next (between 4 to 32 degrees Celsius). Some days of unexpected heat were a welcome respite from the cold, but in terms of adjusting to new seasons, consistency is key.
Food, food and more food
I’ve written about Spanish food ad nauseam, but there is never too much to say about Mediterranean cuisine. Fresh seafood, vegetables, fruits, and – for those who enjoy it, myself not included – pork. Espresso is appropriate at any time of the day, as are afternoon treats such as vermouth, beer and wine.
According to some of my European friends from other countries, Spain could afford to step it up in the bread and cheese departments, but by my standards Spain is doing just fine.
I write this as I peer out of my windowed doors to a cloudless sky and copious rays of sunlight, but the sky isn’t always so perfectly clear. For example, I am editing this post one day later: the clouds have rolled in and rain is falling from the sky. When it rains in Barcelona, it seems as though the entire city shuts down and people opt to stay indoors with their homemade coffee and Spanish televisions.
The majority of year, though, is as I described: sunny, warm, and – during the summer – up to 13 hours of sunlight each day. Nearly every day qualifies as a beach day that can last until the sun goes down after 9pm.
Spain has been instrumental in my ability to let go, relax, and not worry so much about being on time. Of course, there are ingrained personality traits that I may never shake that force me to be reliable, on time and a step ahead of others. But adding a dose of the Spanish lifestyle into the cocktail of my baseline disposition has done wonders for my sanity.
But despite the sun, beach, mountains and delectable cuisine, it’s not all sol y flores (sunshine and flowers).
Cons of living in Barcelona
After waxing poetic about the joys of this gorgeous Mediterranean city, I regret to continue with a list of not-as-pleasant aspects of being an expat living in Barcelona. Not all expats have the same experiences, but from a quick glance through Facebook groups and chatter among the expat community, it’s not difficult to see that many expats face the same following challenges as I did after moving to Barcelona.
If I had 10 cents for every time an expat in Barcelona uttered the word ‘bureaucracy’ followed by an eye roll, I would be the queen of Catalonia. Establishing a legal life in Barcelona is no easy feat, to put it lightly. My friends and family would waste no time backing me up in this view; they listened to me complain for the better part of two years as I worked to become an official resident.
I can safely say that I have succeeded in becoming a legal resident in Spain, but I wish I could say that the process stops there. After digging up documents, waiting in lines, being redirected to different offices, and then redirected twice more, my bureaucratic journey is far from over.
I am not familiar with such processes in other countries; I imagine they require the same documentation, application timelines and vial of your blood. But the difference may be the willingness of other nations to complete these tasks in a timely manner. As I have touted previously, Spain is in no rush to do anything, not even to take part in their endangered siestas.
I am often asked why I put up with it; why I go through all the waiting, all the back and forth, all the miscommunication and all the uncertainty: Clearly there is something appealing about living here, and I wasn’t going to let a few months or years of waiting get in the way.
Hours of (in)operation
There is nothing quite as satisfying as a weekend in America: Two full days of 24 hours each, during which so much can be done yet it always seems like there is not enough time. In Spain, Sunday is the day when the city shuts down. For those of you who are reading from the US, think of Christmas time in the States, when only few convenience stores and Chinese restaurants are open for those who are actually out doing things.
I may be exaggerating a tiny bit here, as not everything is closed on Sundays. I was excited to find that there is a mall in the harbour that is open on Sundays, and that most restaurants welcome sangria-sipping patrons on their patios. On Sunday, Spaniards go to church, the beach or their families’ homes to eat and relax. Sunday is truly a day for rest and nothing more.
Catalan is its own language. I have been told by a Galician that it is ‘a waste of time to learn Catalan’ as nearly everyone in the region speaks Spanish. While some hardcore expats take advantage of the free Catalan language classes that are offered in an attempt to keep the culture alive, most (myself included) consider mastering Spanish the priority.
Expat living in Barcelona
Any expat can tell you that the lifestyle – although invigorating and exciting – can also be heartbreaking. Foreigners come and go. They realise they miss home, that Spain is not for them or that they want to live elsewhere. Expats are less likely to plant roots, especially in a city like Barcelona where the economy is struggling and the desire to fully integrate into Catalan culture is lacking. Making friends as an expat is difficult enough without having to worry about saying goodbye to them in a few months.
My expat stint in Cambodia was an extreme example of this rapid turnover. Nearly every weekend there was at least one going-away party for someone in the tiny expat community of Phnom Penh. Conversations that would normally begin with, “What’s your name?” were replaced with queries such as, “How long do you plan to stay in Cambodia?”
Although this is not a Spain-specific challenge, it merits a mention as a drawback to the precarious expat experience.
Is all of this worth it? I can reply with absolutely certainty, yes.
I may return home one day or I may be a lifelong expat here or in a different country. But the flexibility and resilience I have garnered as an expat living in Barcelona are lessons that I will carry with me no matter where I go.