So You Want to Move to Barcelona ~ A Happy Expat’s Guide

Musings, reflections and advice based on my multiple experiences of moving from the UK to beautiful Barcelona…

Ben Holbrook Barcelona Travel Blogger

It’s taken many years, but Spain finally feels like home.

I’d never been to Barcelona before I moved here. I was 25 years old at the time and it was, in absolutely every sense, a complete whirlwind romance of an experience.

I arrived with a single suitcase and the intention of coming for a year or so, instantly fell in love with the place. I made some amazing friends and some of the happiest memories of my life. But I was young and, frankly, had no idea what I was doing with my life.

After two years of living in Barcelona I moved back to the UK to pursue a career opportunity, but eventually came back to Barcelona three years later, having missed it so much.

These parties wouldn’t stop until the police arrived on the following Monday morning, typically because her wide-eyed guests liked to fight.

All in all I’ve now been in Barcelona for a little over five years, on and off, and have lived in five different apartments around the city, ranging from a shared apartment with fellow expats to a room in an apartment owned by a young women who was either a drug dealer or a prostitute. Things happened in that apartment, which was large and sunny with views of La Sagrada Familia, that led me to believe she was probably both. She certainly had a lot of “cousins” popping in at 3am for a 20-minute visit.

I’d go home on a Friday night to find a raging party, strangers vomiting in the bathroom and rummaging through my wardrobe. These parties wouldn’t stop until the police arrived on the following Monday morning, typically because her wide-eyed guests liked to fight and cause hell for everyone in the building. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, that year with “Puta Paula” as I called her, but I certainly learned a lot.

Later, of course, I lived in a beautiful rooftop apartment, and now in a spacious place brought to life with my three cats, girlfriend and huge pieces of art painted by the couple who own the property.

City views from my apartment's terrace in Barcelona

Four apartments later and I finally had the sunny terrace and sweeping views that I always dreamed of…

Like many expats around the world I learnt the hard way that, as with everything in life, moving to Barcelona is not only a dream come true, but also an extremely challenging experience fraught with problems I had no idea I would ever have to face.

I wish I’d had someone to talk to about my big move, someone who had experienced the unique challenges of moving not only to a new city but also to a new country.

If you’re reading this then I can assume you are dreaming of moving abroad, or more specifically to Barcelona. And though I may not know you personally, I’d like you to think of me as your friend in Barcelona, and to be the guiding hand I wish I’d had when I first arrived here all those years ago.

Part 1 ~ Finding a Home

Home. #Barcelona

A video posted by Ben Holbrook | Barcelona (@driftwood_journals_barcelona) on

Let’s face it, it’s hard enough trying to find a place to live in your own country. And it’s even more difficult in a new country, especially if you don’t speak the language or really know how things work.

When I first arrived I stayed in an apartment with some other expats. It was hugely beneficial as not only could I ask them for their advice (in English) but I also had some sort of support system in place when things became challenging.

Apartments in Poblenou Barcelona (near the beach)

Modern apartments near the beach, a rarity in Barcelona.

Mistakes most people make when trying to find a place to live in Barcelona:

#1. They don’t allow themselves enough time to find a place.

I know people who booked themselves into a hotel for two weeks (TWO!) whilst looking for an apartment. Inevitably, these people either don’t manage to find anything at all (things happen slowly in Barcelona and Spain in general) or they end up paying inflated prices for properties which are targeted at “we need a place to live immediately” market.

Solution: I strongly recommend renting a short-term apartment for at least the first month or two that you are in Barcelona. You can do this before you even land in Barcelona, of course, which will make the move infinitely less stressful. I’m talking Airbnb style, or with local apartment companies like WaytoStay.

This will give you time to suss out the different neighbourhoods (so you can work out which one you want to live in) and allow you to visit more apartments and speak to more agencies. The more you see, the more you’ll be able to gauge in terms of value for money and quality. Everything is relative, after all.

#2. They try to replicate the home they have/had back home.

My apartment in Sants, Barcelona

Home is where your cats and guitars are…

I lived in a fairly large modern house back in the UK. It had a garden, a sun-lounge, a nice kitchen and space to park my bikes. But hardly anyone in Barcelona lives in a house, even very rich people. Here it’s all about “pisos” (apartments).

Another thing to consider is that standards are different in Spain. Many places, the majority of places actually, haven’t been updated since the 1970s/80s and can often be quite a shock for people who are used to the comforts and styles of today.

Modern apartments are of course attainable in Barcelona, but they’ll cost quite a lot more on a monthly basis and are often difficult to find. This is why I strongly recommend seeing as many places as possible in and around your budget so that you can get a feel for what’s is good and what is a rip off.

You might be able to afford to live walking distance from the Mediterranean Sea.

Solution: You have to really commit to the idea that you are moving to a new country, a country where things are done differently. It’s very difficult to do, trust me I know, but you really have to force yourself to stop comparing everything to your home country.

Compromise is key – maybe you won’t be able to afford a place with a brand new kitchen and spacious rooftop terrace, but you might be able to afford to live walking distance from the Mediterranean Sea.

#3. They’ve heard life’s “cheaper” in Spain

It’s true, you can live really well in Barcelona for much less than most cities in the UK or US, but it’s important to remember that Barcelona is a hotspot and rent here is significantly more expensive than most other cities in Spain. In fact, according to some reports, Barcelona is actually the most expensive city to live in in Spain, even more so than Madrid which is the country’s capital city.

Solution: Be sure to do plenty of research before even deciding on Barcelona. After all, there are plenty of beautiful cities in Spain that are drastically cheaper.

Also consider that you will make savings across the board – you may not be able to cut your rental outgoings, but eating out is generally much cheaper, public transport is way cheaper (I go everywhere on my bike), and with the sun shining you can really enjoy Barcelona without spending a penny.

Part 2 ~ Making Friends

Sitges Beach, Barcelona - In the winter

Me and my friends in Sitges, circa 2010.

Making friends can be difficult wherever you are, especially if you’re more of an introvert like me. This is relevant in any city of course, even if it’s your home city, but you notice it more when you’re living in a new and unfamiliar country.

Suddenly you realise your friends are spread out all over the world.

I’ve made some truly fantastic friends, lifelong friends, in Barcelona and it’s broke my heart to see so many of them move back to the US and other parts of the world. I’m still very much in touch with Jason and Naomi, the Californian couple I lived with when I very first arrived in Barcelona, and Heather, another Californian who lived with us in the flat I called “Hotel California”. But only seeing them every few years and watching their lives move on via Facebook photos – they’ve had two children since I last saw them – is heart wrenching.

I’m afraid this is all part and parcel of being an expat – suddenly you realise that your friends are spread out all over the world.

Cafe outside La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Me, Jason, Naomi and Heather having dinner near La Sagrada Familia circa 2011. They’re all back in California now and I miss them dearly.

I actually had a similar experience living in London, where I had no language or cultural barriers, so this is definitely not a “Barcelona issue”.

Luckily I do have a close group of friends that have also stuck around in Barcelona and this has made all the difference to me feeling like Barcelona is actually my “home”.

Solution #1: There’s a huge expat community in Barcelona and it’s really not difficult to meet other people in the same shoes as you are. The only thing you have to be mindful of however is that you might just end up surrounded by people from your home country, or at least by English speakers.

It’s much easier to simply “meet people” than it is to actually “make friends”.

Solution #2: As above, “intercambios” (language exchanges) are not only a great way to practise your Spanish with a local but it’s also an excellent way to make friends who are actually from Barcelona, or at least other parts of Spain.

Making Friends with Shared Interests

Cycling at Barceloneta beach in Barcelona December

I’m interested in meeting people in Barcelona who are into long-distance bicycle touring. Let’s go on a ride!

When you first arrive in a new city you’re happy to connect with anyone you can call a friend. It’s a bit like your first days at school/university, when you end up hanging out with people you share absolutely nothing in common with just because it’s better than being alone. It’s much easier to simply “meet people” than it is to actually “make friends”.

I find myself yearning to connect with people with more specific shared interests.

For me this was all well and good for the first year or so I was in Barcelona, when the shared trials and tribulations of building a life in the city were enough to bind us, but now that I’ve been here a little while and I’m trying to live a relatively “normal” life (as opposed to an “expat life”, I find myself yearning to connect with people with more specific shared interests.

But one of the things I’ve noticed as a long-term expat in Barcelona is that a lot of what currently exists to help expats make friends depends entirely on the simple fact that you have moved to a new country and are desperate for friends.

As I was saying earlier, it’s easy to meet other expats in Barcelona, but most of the communities and technology services are basically designed to simply help you meet other expats – not necessarily good if you’re specifically interested in connecting with other people who have similar interests as you.

Longboarding near the W Hotel in Barcelona

Anyone want to go longboarding at the beach?

You can connect with all sorts of fascinating people who share the exact same interests as you, no matter how quirky they might be.

But once you’ve been living here for a few years and you’ve worked through the initial teething problems, what else do you have in common? For me, it’s been difficult to connect with other musicians, for example, but not just musicians that speak English, I’m talking about musicians with the same taste in music.

Solution: Technology is a wonderful thing. When I first came to Barcelona the concept of a “smartphone” didn’t even exist. But today, with the right app, you can connect with all sorts of fascinating people who share the exact same interests as you, no matter how quirky they might be.

One of my latest finds is the awesome BudUp app, which is completely free to download and use. The basic premise is that it “connects you with new people and lets you to grow your social network”, but more than that, you can be as specific as you want about your interests.

For example, instead of just saying “I’m looking for friends to go hang out at the beach with”, you can say, “I’m looking for friends to play volleyball at the beach with”, or even more specifically, “I’m looking for friends who share my passion for underground disco funk from the years 1972 to 1976”.

I’m really excited about using this app to meet new people to go paddle boarding with and also to share my long-distance cycling trips with!

Part 3 ~ Immersion and Language Barriers

Intercambio party in Barcelona

My intercambio friends. Not quite sure what grammar point we were practising here…

I’m a little bit embarrassed to say this, but my Spanish is terrible. I can speak Spanish, of course, but I’m nowhere near the level that I should be considering the amount of time I’ve spent here over the years. It’s a bit of a sore point for me and it’s something that gets me down on a regular basis because it sometimes feels like I’ll never truly integrate.

Like many expats, I live in a bubble…

And just incase you weren’t aware, which I wasn’t when I first arrived (also very embarrassing), the Catalans speak Catalan, which is a completely different language. No really, it’s not just a different version of Spanish, it’s an actual language all of its own.

The problem for me is that, like many expats, I live in a bubble. My friends are from the UK or the USA, and even though my girlfriend is Spanish, she speaks perfect English. Yes I know what you’re thinking: “Why don’t you just set aside some time or certain days of the week when you speak only Spanish to each other?”.

Well I’ll tell why: because we both live very busy lives and when she gets home tired from work and I’m tired from work, the last thing either of us want to do is listen to me spouting out utter nonsense whilst trying to ask her what she’d like to eat for dinner. Likewise, if she has something important to say, she wants to make sure I understand it.

Ben Holbrook travel and food writer Barcelona, Spain and beyond

My (old) office. Not the best environment for making new friends or learning to speak Spanish.

Then there’s my work, of course, which involves me writing (in English) from home (where no one speaks Spanish). The people I work with are based all over the world – USA, UK, Australia, Singapore, Asia – so the common language is always English.

In fact, apart from ordering at a restaurant or going shopping, I rarely speak any Spanish at all. Another issue is that Barcelona is a relatively large and cosmopolitan city, so plenty of people speak excellent English. As a local person I met recently said recently: “It’s funny, I meet a lot of English speakers that live here who don’t speak Spanish.” Exactly! There are so many of us that you can quite easily just find yourself surrounded by English speakers.

Lots of people I know have moved out to more rural parts of Spain, or to less touristic/international cities, just to surround themselves with people who speak nothing but Spanish.

Even when I introduce myself in Spanish and try to converse in Spanish I am often greeted in English, and it’s normally much better than my Spanish.

If you’re moving to Barcelona because you want to learn Spanish then be aware that it might not be as straight forward as you’d first think. Lots of people I know have moved out to more rural parts of Spain, or to less touristic/international cities, just to surround themselves with people who speak nothing but Spanish.

Rooftop Party in Barcelona

Finally, some Spanish friends! It only took 5 years!

Solution #1: Apart from the obvious fact that the more you study, the better your language skills will be, the main thing I think you need to learn Spanish in Barcelona is a strong motivation. I, for example, don’t really have one. It would be nice to be completely fluent of course and it would really help me feel more integrated, but I don’t really “need” to have perfect Spanish to live the way I do. Especially with my job. It’s sad but true.

I’d suggest getting a job where you have to speak Spanish and no English (which I should imagine is nigh on impossible), or where you are at least required to mix the two languages.

You’ve got to work out what works for you, and make it happen…

But don’t become an English teacher if you want to learn Spanish, because as I discovered all your friends will be English-speakers and your day-to-day life will be in English. If you do plan to be an English teacher, look for job offers at schools where they also run Spanish courses – they normally offer discounted classes for employees.

I’m afraid it’s a “chicken or the egg” type of scenario, i.e. you need to be pretty fluent already to be able to immerse yourself in the language, or you’ll end up like me, learning just enough to get by and losing the incentive to progress any further.

I know I shouldn’t generalise just because I’ve done a lousy job of learning the language and integrating. I have friends here who work as English teachers and have still managed to become enviably fluent in Spanish, so maybe I’m just trying to justify my lackadaisical attempt.

Maybe you’re just more driven than me and have more of an ability with learning languages, in which case I’m sure you’ll do just fine.

Solution #2: One thing that I did really enjoy when I had more time was doing “intercambios” (language exchanges). There are thousands of people in Barcelona who are desperate to practise they hard-earned English speaking skills. In exchange you can also practise your Spanish and, hopefully, make friends with an actual local! Just imagine the possibilities!

To Conclude

Moving apartments in Barcelona

Rosana and I sipping a bottle of red while packing the last of my things before we moved into our new home in Barcelona.

Moving to Barcelona has been one of the most important things I’ve ever done. It’s shaped me as a person and enabled me to become who I wanted to be, to live the life I always dreamed of. But it’s only worked out because I kept trying different ways to make it “my own”.

Kissing Cats in Barcelona - Ben Holbrook

My little family in Barcelona, the main reason I’m so happy here.

And that’s the key, I think, to moving to a new city, and especially a new country: you’ve got to work out what works for you, and make it happen. No one else is going to do it for you, it has to come from you. It’s your life and you are free to shape it and mould it into whatever you want it to be.

Wherever you dream of moving to, whatever you dream of achieving, I wish you all the very best. I hope you find everything that I have found in my own little Spanish adventure.


Please leave me a comment below and let me know about your experiences of moving abroad, and of course please feel free to ask any questions you may have about moving to Barcelona.

6 Comments

  • Marwa says:

    Fantastic article – a very real experience. Wish I had this before learning the hard way :)

  • Sam says:

    Great article , Ben

    Eventhough moving abroad is not really in our path as we just bought a house. Your article was nevertheless VERY inspiring.

    We absolutely do love Barcelona and fly down every year for a few days.
    Another birthday trip planned this year. So I very well understand the choice of moving there !

  • Ade says:

    Great great post! I am now wishing that my boyfriend falls in love with this amazing city like I did so we can pack our suitcases one more time and head to a sunnier place. We relocated to London 3 years ago and after 1 year of living in our home country we miss deeply being abroad. Especially in an English speaking country. Your articles come in handy !

    • Ben Holbrook says:

      Gracias Ade! Glad you enjoyed it – was quite a special post for me. I miss London, also miss living in an English-speaking country… but I guess you can’t have it all. Saludos and happy travels! Ben :)

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