50 Things Every College Student Needs to Know About Barcelona
Quick tips from a student living in Barcelona.
By Morgan Juraco, Iowa State University
1. Learn the city—or at least your neighborhood. When I first got to Barcelona I had no idea how to navigate around it. Every street looked alike and the rounded street corners made me lose track of which direction I was going in. I refused to carry around a map, so I would spend hours at a time walking around my neighborhood to familiarize myself with the area. When I got comfortable with that I would branch out a little more. It might seem stupid just walking with no endpoint in mind, but it helped me learn Barcelona. The sooner you get to know it the sooner it will feel like home. Now I’m an expert!
2. Carry a water bottle with you.From my American persepective, almost anywhere you go a cup of water is free. If you order water at a restaurant in Spain, however, they will bring you a bottle of water and an empty glass to pour it into. This normally costs about two euro, which adds up! Save yourself some money, and get a reusable water bottle. You can also go to a 24 hour store and buy a plastic bottle of water and just refill it. Those cost as low as 40 cents and are easy to transport. When you constantly have to buy water it is easy to just not drink it and a lot easier to get dehydrated.
3. Check the weather. When it’s 55 degrees in Barcelona people dress like they’re in a tundra: down coats, scarves, gloves, boots, etc. As someone from the Midwest who came to Barcelona from -16 degree weather I thought this was ridiculous; but after walking around without a coat for a week I caught a cold. Now I listen to my host mom when she tells me to put on a scarf and I always check the weather before leaving the apartment.
4. Barcelona is amongst some of the worst cities in the world for pickpockets. Everyone warned me about this when I left the US: my parents, teachers, even the guy who checked my boarding pass for my flight from London to Barcelona. After arriving in the city and talking to people who had personally been pickpocketed, I realized this was no joke. As long as you pay attention to your surroundings you probably won’t have any problems, but it’s good to be aware of the risks.
5. Eat with an open mind. Speaking of my host mom, she has made some really great food that I’d never had before coming to Barcelona. I’d never been a fan of tomatoes, but almost every dinner she cooks has some form of them in it. After at first only eating them to be polite, I now kind of like tomatoes! Whether you eat with a host family or out at restaurants, always at least be willing to try new foods, even just a small bite. The food in Barcelona is amazing and there are so many different types. Trying new restaurants and tasting new things is one of the best parts of living in a new city.
6. Walk with confidence…this is a good thing to do in any big city, but especially abroad where pickpockets are everywhere, eluding confidence won’t make you as much of a target. Even if you aren’t exactly positive where you’re going, at least act like you do.
7. …But don’t be overconfident. Yes, at least act like you know the city, but if you need help don’t be afraid to ask. Especially if you get lost at night. Barcelona is a relatively safe city in terms of violent crimes, but you still shouldn’t walk alone in the dark in areas you’re unfamiliar with. If you ever get in a situation you aren’t comfortable with, don’t hesitate to hail a taxi. They’re everywhere and relatively inexpensive!
8. Blend in with the locals. It’s pretty easy to spot Americans by the brands they wear and the way they dress. If you’re fine with that, great, but if not it’s pretty easy to catch on to Barcelona trends. And fun trying to blend in and embrace living in Barcelona.
9. Be on the guest list for nightclubs. If you want to go to big dance clubs in Barcelona, it’s easiest to get in if you’re on their list. This can usually be done online on Facebook. Study abroad program leaders may advise you not to do this though, since these places target study abroad students. If you decide to go to big nightclubs while in Barcelona, be careful with your belongs because they’re popular places for pick pocketing.
10. Find that amazing hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It’s easy to get drawn into all the restaurants on Las Ramblas or Passeig de Gracia, but instead of letting that happen every time, try to find the smaller, more local restaurants. They’re often much more reasonably priced, in cool areas of the city, and have incredible food. The best thing I’ve eaten so far in Barcelona was a random kebab that I got at a tiny place by the beach. I can never remember the street or restaurant name, but can somehow always find my way back it was so good!
11. To the mountains or to the sea. I honestly don’t know if there’s anyone in Barcelona who knows which way North is. It made getting to know the city very difficult for me, until I got used to people saying “to the sea” or “to the mountains.” These phrases are used all the time to give directions. Once you adjust to hearing it, it’s pretty simple. Things towards the sea are always downhill and towards the mountains, uphill.
12. Always bring warm enough clothing on trips. When packing for trips outside of Barcelona, make sure to check the weather beforehand. It’s easy to under pack, especially when flying with only a carry-on. But you’ll regret not bringing a warmer jacket and scarf if you’re stuck in 40 degree weather.
13. Don’t be flattered if people ask you for directions. Pickpockets often work in groups to distract the person they plan to steal from, so if a stranger asks you for directions (or even initiates a conversation) have your guard up. Being from the Midwest, I’m used to smiling at and saying hi to people I don’t know, but that isn’t common here.
14. Educate yourself on the regions in Spain. When I got to Barcelona I was happy that I’d learned so much about the Basque Country and Catalan regions in previous classes. Having some background info helped me understand current events in Barcelona and why the Catalan people are so proud.
15. The nightlife in Barca really is as wild as you’ve probably heard. And by wild, I mean that it’s unusual to show up to a club before midnight since they’re open until 6 am. Because dinner in Spain can be as late as 10 pm, most people don’t go out to bars or clubs before then. Bars are a little more practical though and usually close around 3 am on weekends.
16. Keep a journal or blog. It might seem silly to keep a journal but you will love looking back and reading about the experiences you had during your semester abroad. Even the little details, like that great shoe store you found off Las Ramblas, will be fun to remember. So record your memories in some way! (Or better yet, create a College Tourist writer’s profile and share your story here)
17. Stay in touch with your family. It’s a good idea not to spend all your time on social media while studying abroad. You waste time online instead of getting out and enjoying the amazing city you’re in. But definitely keep in touch with family and friends, too. At home in the US, I talk to my mom on the phone almost every day, so coming to Spain and not being able to do that was difficult. After you get used to the time differences work out a schedule of some sort to keep in contact.
18. Boots, tights, and scarves: they’re everywhere. Literally in some form, every person is wearing boots. It’s overwhelming at first because you want to buy five new pairs of shoes in the first week. But hold out for a month or so and decide what is really worth spending money on.
19. Take a bazillion pictures. Even if it’s raining and cold, take pictures. You will regret not doing so later if you don’t.
20. Explore a new place in the city every week. It’s super easy to fall into a routine like you would at home once classes actually start: eat, sleep, homework, sleep. But you’re in Barcelona! Make the effort to go to a new part of the city or see a new monument at least once a week. Even if you study abroad here for a year, you still wouldn’t be able to do it all, so take advantage of the time you do have in Barcelona.
21. Go to the bathroom before you leave home. Public bathrooms aren’t as common in Europe as in the US, and you often have to go to a café and buy something in order to use the restroom. On that note, it might be a good idea to keep some tissues/toilet paper with you, because for some reason that isn’t as common either!
22. Don’t completely forget that you are STUDYING abroad. Luckily, some classes that students take abroad aren’t super challenging and don’t require a lot of studying; however, those tests, presentations, and papers that you do have sneak up on you. Write important dates in a planner or calendar at the beginning of the semester so you don’t lose track of when things are due.
23. Eat the gelato. I’m a diehard ice cream lover and so far Barcelona has had some pretty great stuff. Some things aren’t worth skimping out on and Gelato is one of those things for me!
24. Meet some Spanish students. While it’s awesome to get to know other kids studying abroad in your program, it’s also really cool to meet Spanish students studying in Barcelona. They can give you a new perspective on a lot of topics, like the situation in Cataluña and some of the culture differences between Barcelona and where you’re from.
25. Buy as much as you can before leaving home. Packing for almost four months was a challenge for me. While the 50lbs weight limit made things difficult, I brought as much things as I could from home that I knew I’d need: razors, shampoo, deodorant to name a few. Having those things before means you can save some euros later.
26. Take the neck pillow. I had two layovers and at least 10 hours of actual flying on my way from Iowa to Barcelona. If it hadn’t been for my simple yet fantastic neck pillow, I probably would have been miserable. You might think it’s easier just to leave it at home, but a neck pillow is definitely worth bringing.
27. Use ATMs as rarely as possible. Depending on your bank at home and the ATM you use in Barcelona, there are different charges that will appear on your card each time you withdraw cash. Check with your bank before leaving home and also tell them when you’ll be out of the country. I take out as much cash as I can, as few times as possible. And always in the daylight or when I’m with a friend.
28. Start a packing-list weeks before you actually leave. Write everything you can think of that you’ll need to pack and bring a couple weeks before your trip. Continue adding things you think of to your list, and actually pack a few days before you leave. That gives you enough time to repack and double check airline guidelines.
29. Learn the metro. For a solid month I only used the metro when I was with friends because I didn’t understand the system. One day, I forced myself to take different lines and figure it out. I’m glad I did because now I can get places much more efficiently. Invest in a metro card and learn how to use it. The sooner the better!
30. Adjust to the Spanish schedule. Do not take a seven hour nap as soon as you arrive in Europe! Force yourself to stay up until the Spaniards go to bed. I went through a solid couple weeks of insomnia before I was able to sleep and get up when everyone else did.
31. Wear more casual going out clothes. When going to bars, don’t overdo it. You’ll notice that the Spaniards tend to dress nicely but casually. Lots of sweaters, tights, and dark clothing. Be mindful of the local dress code and culture.
32. Find places to relax. Sometimes it’s difficult to find places to go hangout and do homework where you don’t have to spend money. Find a local park or library that you can go to for some down time.
33. Appreciate all of the unique bars Barcelona has to offer. Instead of going to the huge dance clubs that are known for hosting study abroad students, try some local bars and clubs. There are tons of different types depending on the neighborhoods they’re in, and it’s a lot of fun when you find somewhere that’s popular with the locals.
34. Plan shopping around siesta hour. Don’t expect to make a quick trip to a shoe store between 1 and 4 pm. Lots of stores are closed around this time for siesta, although some of the more populated areas will stay open. This goes for Sundays too, don’t expect to do really any shopping!
35. Get to know new people. Even if you’re studying abroad with friends from home or people you know, go out of your way to make new friends. You’re studying abroad to experience new friends, and that should include people.
36. Take advantage of all the delicious chocolate and bread. It’s pretty much on every street corner, so don’t hesitate to stop into some delicious bakeries. Just don’t go too crazy and spend all your money on food.
37. Practice your Spanish. It’s easy to be intimidated to speak Spanish when living in Barcelona. Don’t let something like embarrassment stop you from learning the language. The more you practice, even just in cafes and bars, the better you’ll be and more natural it will come. Maybe even practice some Catalan!
38. Sangria is as cheap as water. In restaurants and cafes water can be expensive. Sangria is affordable and way better than what you can find in the US. Same goes for cava, a drink made in Cataluña that is like champagne and wine. You can drink the best cava for the best prices in Barcelona.
39. Dogs are everywhere. The Spanish love their dogs and walking the streets of Barcelona you’ll see many. It’s very interesting too, since these dogs seem to be well behaved, and often their owners don’t even have them on leashes. Watch where you step though because not everyone is good at picking up after their pets.
40. Alcohol is everywhere. Since the drinking age in Barcelona is 18, alcohol is accessible in most places. That even includes McDonalds! #DrinkResponsibly
41. Tapas, Tapas, Tapas. Since people eat dinner so late in Spain, tapas are very popular. Usually eaten around 5 pm, they’re a light snack to hold you over until dinnertime. As a student on a budget you might not be able to afford tapas every night, but at least experience them a few times. They’re a big part of the Spanish culture.
42. Show your student ID. Many places, like museums and tourist sites, give students discounts if they show their ID. Once you receive a card from the school you’re studying abroad at make sure to carry it around with you. Even American student ID cards can often be used.
43. Have a versatile bag. This can be a tote bag, duffel, or backpack. I use a sturdy tote bag for class and three-day weekend trips, but lots of people take backpacks. Either way, having a small bag that you can use for different activities makes packing a lot easier.
44. The Spanish are on a clock of their own. Even in a big city like Barcelona, meals are meant to be enjoyed and can last for a couple hours. Also, at restaurants and cafes you need to ask for the check when you’re done eating: they don’t just bring it to your table. Even my Spanish professors are often late for class!
45. Smoking, smoking, smoking. Everyone seems to smoke in Barcelona, even 16 year olds outside of their schools. For some people this is hard to adjust to. Smoking is just a way of life though in Spain, and you’ll probably see a lot of it.
46. Learn some useful Spanish phrases. Even if you aren’t studying Spanish, it’s helpful to know how to say common phrases, especially if you have to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak English. These phrases can even come in handy if you travel outside of Spain.
47. Have a power adapter before you travel. Buy an adapter at home to make things easier once you arrive in Barcelona. Many often have outlets for different areas of Europe, which is convenient for weekend trips.
48. Be a College Tourist. To me, a big part of studying abroad for a semester in Barcelona is the actual living experience. Barcelona has tons of sites you can’t go a whole semester without seeing. So do all the typical touristy things as soon as possible. Don’t leave them to the last minute.
49. Don’t leave a tip. This may feel rude at first, but most places in Barcelona don’t require that you leave a tip, and it can even be offensive if you do. This includes taxis and restaurants. If you check your receipt, the tip is probably already factored in.
50. Realize you aren’t staying forever. Maybe you’re studying abroad for a year, or a semester, or even just visiting for a week. Regardless of why you’re in Barcelona, you probably won’t stay forever. Once you realize that your visit is temporary, it’s easier to push away that feeling of homesickness.