Are you thinking about moving to Barcelona?
There’s no doubt that Barcelona is one of the most exciting cities in the world and filled with history, culture and life.
Colonised by the Romans in the first century BC and withstanding the ages since the Catalan capital is now known as the political and economic centre of the Western Mediterranean. The eco-city is ranked among the world’s best for numerous accolades, including equality and quality of life, but at what cost to residents?
Amidst the excitement, living in Barcelona comes with challenging experiences as the city is plagued by greed, corruption, chaos and desperation.
While the capital of Cataluña is ranked amongst the world’s best cities for expats, it is important to know a little bit about what goes on before moving to a place like Barcelona.
What you should know before moving to Barcelona.
Low salaries and high rental prices
The average monthly salary in Spain is less than the average monthly salary across Europe, however, the cost of living in Spain is also relatively low.
In saying this, Barcelona is an outlier with an average rental housing price of 17.6€ per square meter, 10% higher than the price in Madrid and 70% higher than the national average. Barcelona’s general pricing of food and other essential items is also significantly higher than the rest of both Cataluña and Spain.
The combination of low incomes and a high cost of living in Barcelona make it much more common for expats to seek shared accommodation than to rent their own property. There are also numerous traps renters have to watch out for when house-hunting so many feel more comfortable renting through a subletter than an agency.
It’s hard enough to find reasonably priced accommodation in Barcelona without having to filter through all the scams or listings requesting thousands of euros in deposits.
While the housing prices are already highly inflated, many landlords and property agencies make a lot of money from fleecing tenants for large “refundable deposits,” which are just never returned. This isn’t just limited to Facebook listings either, numerous, well-marketed agencies are notorious for shady business practices.
On top of this, renters also have to watch out for sophisticated internet scams run by people posing as landlords with a property for rent. You guessed it, someone transfers them a deposit and they disappear forever. It’s not hard to identify the fraudulent listings, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.
My poorest experiences were with a private landlord, who refused to return deposits to any of his tenants renting individual bedrooms, and similarly with a holiday letting agency called Stay Barcelona Apartments, who refused to return my partner’s deposit on the grounds of enormous utility bills which predated our arrival.
Property lawyers are in huge demand due to the number of cases there are between tenants and their ex-landlord or agency. My experiences have been pleasant compared to some friends, including one who is fighting for the return of her 6000€ deposit, which was retained for “cleaning fees” by an agency which has since closed.
Renting in Barcelona can be a stressful experience but, since the loss of tourism in 2020, both Airbnb owner’s and hotel chains alike have been offering reduced rates on their apartments and rooms, providing more secure and somewhat more affordable opportunities for renters. The bottom line, always do some research into who you give your rent money to.
Thieves and violent robberies
Barcelona has a 13% rate of unemployment, the second-highest of all EU states. Coupled with such a high cost of living and so many residents either unemployed or unable to work, many are driven to crime to survive.
From January to October 2019, there were more than 83,000 thefts and 5,300 violent robberies reported within the city. The national police also confirmed that the degree of violence had risen.
The problem is, thieves are a protected species in Barcelona and there’s no real penalty for the theft of items valued below 400€. What’s worse, even repeat and violent offenders are quickly released following the “processing” of their crimes, meaning they are immediately sent back to the streets to continue terrorising the innocent and defenceless.
The most shocking part? If someone tries to defend themselves in a robbery situation and causes any harm, the thief is the one who ends up pressing charges. Go figure.
Drug and mafia presence
Barcelona is well known for its festivals, parties and nightlife in general. Along with such a huge presence of party animals, there’s also a free-flowing supply of narcotics.
The Costa Brava coastline is home to numerous different mafia factions, including groups from Italy, Albania, Nigeria and Russia. While these factions are all present in Barcelona, the Catalan capital is also home to numerous other organised crime groups originating from parts of Asia and Eastern Europe.
As Spain is so close to Northern Africa, paperless visitors are illegally taxied across the Mediterranean Sea and into Spanish territory. Although these people are only seeking a safer life, there is no way for them to receive an income after arriving in Europe so many end up working for criminal organisations to survive.
Most areas of Barcelona are free from violence but the presence of so many Moroccan street gangs and numerous organised crime groups greatly contributes to the city’s free for all mentality.
My post about safety in Barcelona details where and how caution should be taken in Spain’s most dangerous city.
Ocupas and narcopisos
It’s common knowledge that you have to keep your bags close when out and about in Barcelona but, would you believe, in certain areas you also have to protect your home from being stolen as well?
Like street thieves, squatters are also protected in Barcelona. Whether they are tenants who have stopped paying rent or addicts who have broken into an apartment before changing the locks and claiming it as their own, removing squatters can be a traumatic experience costing a lot of time and money.
The following documentary from Vice explains the lengths one woman had to go in order to remove squatters who took over her Barcelona flat to sell drugs.
Living in Barcelona has taught me how important it is to read both business’ customer reviews, as well as their terms and conditions.
I see daily social media posts from expats who are trying to understand why their local Catalan bank has just drained their accounts with inexplicable fees. I also fell victim to this after mistakenly believing a BBVA employee’s promises that the account I was setting up had no fees, without also reading the terms and conditions.
While local banks are notorious for robbing their customers, I’ve had excellent experiences with international banks such as ING and Transferwise. ING has been a fantastic alternative to BBVA and Transferwise has been incredible for receiving, converting and sending any fiat currencies to any destination. The bottom line, always do some research into who you give control of your money to.
When it comes to Spanish customer service, you never know what you’re going to get. From restaurants and cafes to specialty stores and supermarkets, the varying levels of hospitality in Spain are something that takes a long time to get used to.
While I have had some fantastic customer service experiences in Barcelona, the general rudeness and attitudes of laziness I’ve witnessed have been nothing short of astonishing, but no one moves to Cataluña for the people.
What you can enjoy while living in Barcelona.
In 2013, Barcelona introduced an urban sustainability plan which aimed to reduce global emissions from tourism and transport. Numerous planning restrictions were introduced and the transport industry was reshaped with the prohibition high emission vehicles.
Barcelona is perfectly designed for the use of motorbikes, bicycles and scooters, but you don’t need a vehicle, or even public transport, as the city-wide Bicing service is conveniently available for use 24/7.
The works of the world’s most famous architect, Antonio Gaudí, are scattered throughout the streets of Barcelona and have been preserved timelessly for all to enjoy. While the great architect passed almost 100 years ago, his final masterpiece is not due for completion until 2026, almost 150 years after commencing construction.
World class transport
Not only does Barcelona boast a world-class public transport system, but it’s also an international travel hub providing easy access to numerous domestic and international travel methods.
Take a boat ride to Ibiza, hop on a bus to Portugal or catch a high-speed train to France. Or just fly low cost to pretty much anywhere in Europe, the options from Barcelona are endless.
Quality public health
Spain is consistently ranked at the top of the worlds healthiest countries, as well as amongst the world’s best public healthcare providers. CatSalut, the Catalan public health system, is also known for its high-quality facilities but better known for its painfully long waits so many residents choose Sanitas as a health care provider.
Lazy police and forgotten laws make Barcelona a haven for rebellious activity and, while this does work both ways, it certainly makes the capital of Cataluña a very exciting place to live.
Barcelona is one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, attracting both short and long-term visitors from all over the world. The city is home to 190,000 university students and is consistently ranked by Top Universities as one of the best 10 cities in Europe, as well as one of the best 20 cities worldwide for university students to live.
In the business world, Barcelona has become a base destination for small startups and multinational corporations alike. The expatriate community is made up of more than 300,000 foreigners from more than 170 different countries and one expat group alone has more than 52,000 members.
Statistics report that 49.9% of Barcelona’s 1.62 million residents were also born abroad so, if you want to make some friends from other countries, the Catalan capital is a pretty good place to start.
World-class food and dining
Spain is ranked among the very best in the world when it comes to the cuisine and locally produced wine. Although modern Spanish cuisine has been influenced over the years, the cooking methods have been shaped over centuries by societies inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula.
While the Mediterranean dining experience is incredible, there are 179 different cultures in Barcelona which help to create one of the world’s most diverse mixes of international cuisines, however, “Spanish” restaurants in should be treated with caution as many are just low-quality tourist traps with expensive menus. It pays to read reviews about anywhere you plan on spending money in Barcelona.
Residents of Coastal Cataluña are spoilt for choices when it comes to beaches.
La Costa Brava, translating to The Rugged Coast, is known for its beautiful old Mediterranean fishing towns upon rough landscapes which overlook clear blue waters. Starting at Blanes, 70km northeast of Barcelona, the rugged coastline stretches 200km all the way up to the French Border and is the favourite summer holiday spot for locals from both Cataluña and southern France.
Anyone more into the island vibes doesn’t have to travel far from Barcelona to experience the magic of the Islas Balearies. Minorca, Mallorca and Ibiza are hot destinations for travellers from all over the world and sometimes even visible from the Spanish coastline, making them perfect for a quick weekend getaway.
For anyone that doesn’t want to travel too far from home, there are always good vibes and good times to be had at playa de la Barceloneta. Just don’t leave your belongings unguarded.
Barcelona is a hub of activity, rich in history, culture and energy. Residents love to enjoy the Mediterranean lifestyle with world famous paella by a Mediterranean harbour or basking on the beach under the summer sun. All with a crisp local beer as well.
Barcelona is ranked among the best cities worldwide for both equality and quality of life and residents have easy access to a healthy lifestyle through beaches, mountainous national parks, urban green spaces and a city plan that’s been remodelled for ecological transport and sustainable living.
All in all?
You don’t need to spend long in the Catalan capital to understand why it’s one of the top-ranked destinations for expats to live and work.
Make yourself aware of the less glamorous side of Barcelona before deciding if the city is right for you.