10 Reasons I Love Barcelona (Las Ramblas decidedly absent)

10 Reasons to love Barcelona

Amor vertader /a.ˈmo βəɾ.tə.ˈðe/ Language: Catalan. Meaning: True love. I’ve found it with the Catalan capital, and I’ve learned how to say it in the Catalan tongue. 

I’ve lived in Barcelona for seven months now and strangely, I don’t have much up on the blog to show for it. Part of that is because I wanted to become a relative expert before writing the inevitable “The Best Crap To Do in Barcelona!!!” lists. Another part is because there is so much already out there on Barcelona, perhaps I’m intimidated to throw my hat into the ring as well.

But let’s break the silence, shall we? Because, basically, I can’t keep it in anymore. I’m in love with this city. I’ve lived in Granada and Bilbao; I’ve traveled extensively by foot, car, bus, train, and plane throughout most of the Iberian Peninsula. And while I’ve been awed by many parts of this country, Barcelona is unequivocally the right place for me in Spain. 

I’ll admit, I’m almost embarrassed to gush so much about it. It seems so typical, this effusive praise for the Catalonian capital. There are a few dissenters out there, but in general, who doesn’t love Barcelona? In 2014, it was the 3rd most visited city in Europe, and the 11th most visited city in the world. Chances are, if you have a passport, Barcelona’s on your travel hit-list. So yes, I’m one of a gazillion American 20-somethings who cross the pond and discover a super-awesome-old-but-modern-beachside-party-city, where they speak a flowery romantic language and cured ham is revered like Jesus.

But ugh, I can’t help it! It’s a city that has justly earned its praise! It’s gush-worthy!

swinging park

In truth, because Barcelona has become known as the ultimate tourist destination, and a place for study-abroaders to do anything but study abroad, part of me feels like I have to defend myself for loving Barcelona. Like I have to prove that I have the chops to talk about it. I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I’m not fresh off the boat either—I spent two years wandering around this country before landing in Barcelona.

I specifically didn’t choose Barcelona for my junior year abroad during college, opting instead for Granada, because my main goal was to learn Spanish, and I knew the strong Catalan/English presence in Barcelona would hinder that. (I still stand by that, by the way—don’t study in Barcelona if learning Spanish is your main goal.) I immersed myself for a year in Andalusia, fell absolutely in love with the city of Granada, and couldn’t have been happier with my decision to study in a smaller, less international, more Spanish-feeling city.

I spent all of last year up north, in Bilbao. Basque Country is a stark contrast from Andalusia and, actually, a stark contrast from any other part of Spain. It’s rugged and rainy and independent-minded and full of its own unique traditions, like a mountain coal-miner as a replacement for Santa Claus (bit of a let-down, really). I learned a lot while there, about the region and about myself, and am grateful for my year spent there, even if it wasn’t total bliss.

And now Barcelona sits together and in contrast with these past experiences. I don’t know if I could fully appreciate the city had I not seen beforehand what other treasures Spain has to offer, or what diversity really exists in a supposedly unified country. But thanks to those prior experiences, I’ve begun to gather a checklist of what I need in a city in order to feel at home abroad, and Barcelona ticks all the boxes.

rowboats barcelona

Rowing boats in Parc de la Ciutadella

I have many loves in Spain—Granada, San Sebastian, the Cantabrian coast, Santiago de Compostela, Sevilla—but Barcelona is my amor vertader, and my favorite place so far to live and work, as opposed to study or visit. Here’s why.

My 10 Reasons to Love Barcelona

1. It’s not super Spanish.

Right out of the gate and I’m already stepping on toes. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spain—how else could I have spent 3 years here?—but I need to come up for air every once in a while. I’ve never had the sense I could live permanently in Spain, until I landed in Barcelona. Even in Granada, where I was living the best year of my life (hopefully more good ones to come!!), I knew I would return to California. I wasn’t desperately seeking a loophole to stay, a Spanish man to marry, or a university that I could transfer to. I enjoyed every minute of it (except crazy roommates), but once it was done, I was ready to go home. And I didn’t expect to be back again—the Auxiliares program to teach English sort of just popped up, and I took advantage.

I think anyone who’s ever traveled to Spain would agree, that the country just feels Spanish. “Spain is different,” as the motto goes, and that’s undeniably true. More often than not, we love it for that. But sometimes I just wish it were a little less different.

Barcelona is still Spain, despite a large chunk of the Catalan population crying for independence. It retains the Spanish feel—meal times, culinary flavors, yearly festivals, friendly people—but also has a decidedly European element.

It’s hard to put a finger on what that really means, and I don’t want to litter this post with stereotypes—sure, Catalonia has banned bull-fighting, and Flamenco is hard to come by in these parts. But there’s just something about this city, from the restaurants and cafés to the international presence and mentality, that makes Barcelona different. Well, different from Spain, that is. And most of the time, I have to say, I’m grateful for that.

2. Size matters.

I’m from right outside of San Francisco back home, but my town has only 13,000 people. I went to university in an isolated pocket of Santa Barbara, where the population was basically us, the students, clocking in at around 20,000. Granada was the first city I’d ever lived in, and with around 250,000 residents, it began to feel a bit suffocating by the end of the year. Bilbao is slightly bigger, with around 350,000, and I was still running into people I knew everywhere—and I knew like six people, so that’s saying something. Barcelona isn’t a big city by any means, but it feels like a perfect size. It’s approaching the 2 million mark, but you can still get to where you need by bike or foot, in most cases.

sunset barcelona

Sunset in the city

3. It’s cosmopolitan.

Once again, I chose to study in Granada precisely because it was smaller and less international. I chose Bilbao because I wanted to continue improving my Spanish and throw myself into the little northern region that is proud, unique, and decidedly ONE thing: Basque.

I can safely say, after two years of that, that I need, love, crave foreigners.

I’m one of them. And there’s nothing like living in as closed a place as Basque Country to teach you that no matter how much you think you can blend in, it’s nice to have expats by your side. Also, hanging out with other expats provides a whole new slew of insights and experiences that you wouldn’t get by just keeping with Americans or Spaniards. Living with two Russians has taught me that. So has taking Catalan classes with an Armenian woman who’s childhood was defined by war.  Its diversity is one of the top reasons to love Barcelona.

4. Brunch.

So sue me. I get excited that there are Starbucks here. Even though I’ve yet to go inside one, and actually almost refuse, I like knowing the option’s there. I like walking past a Sunday brunch place and seeing Eggs Benedict on the menu, even if I have yet to order them. I like having subtle reminders of home in Barcelona, so even while I dedicate myself to “blending in culturally” for a third year, I have a safety net when I need it.

5. THINGS to do.

Language exchanges. Couchsurfing meetups. Volleyball games. Concerts in the park. English book clubs. Running groups. Writing courses. Art openings. Beaches and mountains. Barcelona is is a cultural hub and a place where things happen

mercat at night

Mercat de Mercats, a weekend-long celebration of food and wine.

6. Location.

The Mediterranean Sea is my backyard, and the beach is my playground. France is 3 hours to the north. So is cute little unassuming Andorra, so you can push another pin in your world travels map. There’s a massive airport with really cheap flights just a 20 minute bus-ride away. There’s skiing in the Pyrenees, if you’re into that sort of thing, but I’ve mentioned the beach already, right?

I traded higher pay for this. Can you really blame me?

Beach day

7. Friend of a friend.

The nice thing about moving to Barcelona alone is that you probably have friends who have friends here. Most people know someone who also thought it would be cool to pack up and live in Catalonia’s paradise. So you may come here alone, but within a matter of days you’ll be going on blind friendship dates with so many friend-of-a-friends that you’ll wonder where all your alone time has gone.

8. Catalan identity.

Say what you will about the Catalans and their push for independence, but I value the fact that they feel so strongly about their identity. And as a language nerd, I love living in a bilingual region—one where I actually have a chance of learning the second language, as opposed to the impossibly difficult Basque. 

Once again, I’m happy I didn’t study abroad here because of the language factor. But I’m so glad I did move here once I was already fluent in Spanish, so I could focus my efforts on picking up Catalan next. It’s not the most useful language in the world, sure, but it’s also not as demoralizingly difficult to learn as Basque or Mandarin. If you want to learn another language with next to no effort and you already speak Spanish, Catalan’s your best friend. I was reading signs here with 70% accuracy like two days after stepping off the plane.


Catalonia Independence Day

9. Warm fuzzy sunshine.

Yes, I’m a California wuss. I couldn’t quite hang with Bilbao’s rain, or Granada’s mountainous arctic nights. Barcelona’s Mediterranean climate is more my style. When it rains here it’s like the event of the year. People look at me funny when I pull out my heavy-duty rain boots that I bought in Basque Country. “Why do you even own those?” I can feel them thinking, and I love them for it.

10. Opportunities.

The economic crisis in Spain is bad, to put it lightly, and there’s a general air of despair that no one knows when will lift. But Barcelona feels slightly more hopeful. There is industry here; there are Spanish and international headquarters; there are opportunities. I’m not just talking about jobs, but networking opportunities, organized events to get involved with, English language publications, and start-ups. Barcelona feels like a human brain, and the cogs are spinning.

Can you see why I’m in love?

Sure, Barcelona can be a tourist trap. It’s more expensive than most places in Spain. Sometimes the streets smell. It’s known for pickpockets.

But who hasn’t heard of Barcelona? There’s a reason it’s one of the top visited cities in the world. It’s an astounding place, and if you can get beyond Las Ramblas or the lines at La Sagrada Familia, and really live in it—giving yourself time to discover every nook and cranny of the winding old streets; experience the festivals, the day-trips, the Catalan identity—the city becomes so much more than what I could have imagined on my prior visits just touring Barcelona.

I still don’t know if I could live in Spain forever. But I feel at home in this city in a way I haven’t quite experienced anywhere else in the country.

Mercat wine tasting

Cheers to this city.

Have you been to Barcelona? Do you love it, hate it, or somewhere in between? Let me know in the comments below! Also, keep up with A Thing For Wor(l)ds by receiving future posts directly to your inbox, and make sure to give a Like (or Love) on Facebook!

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  • Kika

    Sinceramente, te repitea mucho con lo del pais. Comparas una ciudad pequeña como Granada y su gente con una ciudad como Barcelona. En Madrid o Sevilla thubieras sentido igual que en Barcelona. Son ciudades cosmopolitan. Pero es como su comparas London con una ciudad tipo Leeds. O Roma con Livorno. Yo he vivido en Madrid, Alicante,Malaga, London, Sydney, Cork, Houston y Austin. Y Austin me parece lo peor en comparacion con Madrid Sydney o londres. Evidentementr no hay color. Pero no voy a describir el resto del pais solo por una ciudad.. Granada esta genial, pero es muy pequeña, y bueno el norte…. Pues have mucho frio. Yo, son ciudades en las que no viviria por mil razones, pero no entiendo que te guste Barcelona porque tienes menos Spanish culture porque en Madrid por ejemplo hay incluso mas! Simplemente somos diferentes. Ami me pasa en tu pais, es el unico pais del mundo en el que he estado (y viajo muchisimo) en el que me cuesta a adaptarme. A LA mentalidad de no andar, tener que cojer el coche para todo, comida basura a todas horas porque lo bueno se paga, y dedicarte a trabajar para mantener un casuton y 3 o 4 coches por familia. Pues nosotros los Spanish,.. No somos asi. Pero vete a cualquier lugar de Europa y veras que es igual. Nosotros no necesitamos brunch porque estamos todo el dia comiendo y aparte porque nos encanta cocinar. Siento si piensas que mi mensaje es negative pero al leer tu post me he sentido un poco rara y confundia con tu explicacion . por ultimo decirte que veo normal que no te veas viviendo en Spain el resto de tu Vida.. Yo tmpoco me voy en los estados el resto de mi Vida… Hasta entonces disfruta y espero que seguro que tienes gente espanola conozcaa se verdad cualquier familia y gente del resto del pais. Saludos

  • Sean

    I went to Barcelona in October for 10 days and then 6 days after that in a couple other European countries. I loved Barcelona the most. I’m nowhere near to fluent in Spanish and since everything is so touristy I didn’t have any problems and a lot of people speak English anyway. I was so exhausted biking up Tibidabo (mostly walking the bike up), but it felt great to finally get up to the top and to bike down. The weather was fantastic (I’d never get sunburned in VA in October) and I think I spent 3 days at the beach boardwalk/area. I’m a ping pong fanatic and I’m sure you’ve seen all the outdoor tables so I could so get used to that. Rolling up on some teenagers and challenging them to a game was one of the highlights of my trip.

    • Sounds like you did Barcelona right!! Glad to hear you had such a good time in my adopted city. It’s well loved for a reason!

  • I only spent three days in Barcelona, and it snowed during that trip (imagine that!), so I never really got to see the true side of the city. Of course I’ve heard lots about it from the typical tourist perspective, so it’s great to hear the deeper reasons you love it as a local.

    • It SNOWED?? That completely negates my point about the great weather…..I hope you get to see it again someday in all its sunny glory.

      • Yes! It hadn’t snowed that much in about ten years, and everything shut down. I hope I can return too!

  • taylor

    i just stumbled upon your blog about an hour ago & i’m totally hooked! i studied in madrid for a semester in undergrad and just applied to meddeas in my own attempt to get back to spain:) i’d love to be in madrid or barcelona, so hopefully something works out! thanks for all of your great posts–i’ll definitely keep reading!

  • I’m with Trevor – but BRUNCH. Miss that.

    • I know you’re not Barcelona’s #1 Foodie fan but if I showed you the place I had the best brunch sandwich of my life you might be swayed.

  • Jenn

    So glad to hear that you enjoy Barcelona, it makes me want to visit there again. It has so such to offer and so easy to travel around. Regarding the rainy and cold Bilbao comments, second that! I miss Cali and the sun!

    • I’ve definitely found that it has the most to offer of anywhere in Spain, at least for the boxes I’m looking to tick :)

  • I love your blog! It is one of my favorites. I need another trip there with you!

  • Sounds like Barcelona is the perfect fit for you :) I’m not a huge fan of the city (and *gasp* would actually prefer Madrid) but at the same time I’m looking forward to returning there in June for the first time in two years. When do you fly back home for the summer?

    • Hahah Trevor, there are certainly many people out there who prefer Madrid (though they’re all MISTAKEN ;) I have no idea yet what I’m doing when my contract ends in June but I should be around here for at least June and maybe into the summer. I’d love to meet if we’re here at the same time!