“Free dinner” – two words that have the ability to warm the insides of any thrifty traveller. Include them before “…and sangria,” and you’re pretty much guaranteed a deal. I smugly clicked “Book Now”, entered my details, and secured a dorm bed in a Barcelona hostel with an alarmingly high rating for “Atmosphere”.
I’d spent the last month conversing in broken English with AirBnb hosts along the French west coast. Despite what the AirBnb website will have you believe, sharing bathrooms with single mothers and their 16-year-old sons is not all smiles and high fives. So when the hostel dorm option popped up in my Barcelona search results, 9.8 out of 10 for Atmosphere sounded like a pleasant change of tempo, even though I knew full well that this is simply a euphemism for permanently loud music and puke-friendly policies.
Despite being the wrong side of 30, or perhaps because of it, the hostel dorm seemed like a socially and financially sound decision. I knew I wanted to be fairly close to La Rambla, a tree-lined street which is considered the epicentre of Barcelona street culture, but any hotel for grownups within a sniff of it costs significantly more than the €25 (R375) per night of my dorm room bed. And even if I could find a hotel room close to my budget, I knew that most nights would end in an oversized starched bathrobe watching foreign language infomercials, willing myself to live a little and drink that €6 bottle of beer in the bar fridge.
So I decided to forgo a private bathroom, and bedroom, and likely most of my post-30-year-old dignity, and embrace the best value accommodation I could find. In doing so I’d also committed to embracing the 9pm pot of overcooked pasta, washing it down with the pitcher of treacly red wine masquerading as sangria, and accompanying the two-dozen 20-something Americans on 11pm walks to the bars, 2am stumbles to the clubs, and then sympathising with them over 11am hangovers the next morning.
For travellers on tight budget, or those of us who have to multiply everything by 15, Barcelona occupies an interesting position. There’s certainly a lot that you could preoccupy yourself with that doesn’t cost a cent. Gawking at pasty sunbathers on Barceloneta beach, or gazing wistfully through the doors of that glamorous ocean-side club as you wander on home, for example.
But when you set foot on Barça soil, you soon realise that to get the most out of the city you’ll actually have to part with cold hard cash, and quite a lot of it. A trip into the Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Família will set you back €15 (R225) without all the trimmings – and €29 (R435) if you want an audio guide to tell you what you’re looking at.
Park Güell, once a free jewel in the city’s crown, now costs €7 (R105) if you buy the ticket online and ahead of time. Tickets to a football game at Camp Nou cost in the region of €70 (R1050) depending on the game, and if you’re planning on fraternising in a bar or club after the game, and drinking an alcoholic beverage, get ready to haemorrhage cash.
Back to AirBnb
When my three pre-booked nights in the hostel dorm came and went in a flash of admittedly enjoyable late nights, I faced a conundrum: continue saving cash and trying to keep up with my significantly more resilient dorm mates, or disappear early in the morning before any of them have risen, or possibly returned?
A quick browse on AirBnb revealed that I could find a room in a fourth floor apartment with my own balcony, in the vibrant but pleasantly tourist-free El Poble-sec neighbourhood, for just €10 more per night. €35 (R525) for a quiet room in a large apartment, away from the 24/7 madness of the hostel, was too good to refuse.
Where to eat
Fernando, the owner of my AirBnb apartment, let me in on a secret about Carre de Blai, a bustling pedestrianised zone where tapas and beers are just one Euro each. On most evenings I would take a saunter past the El Molino theatre, hoping to catch a glimpse of the free two-minute cabaret show that takes place in the building’s windows at select times, and then continue on to Blai. There I would stockpile an array of bite-size dishes – skewered cherry tomatoes and mozzarella, crumbed prawns, smoked salmon and cream cheese on bread, all the pork variations you could wish for – and wash them down with one or two thimble-sized cervezas and feel pleasantly satiated. Most restaurants on the street are in on the deal, but the best, La Tasqueta de Blai, was brimming with patrons all hours of the evening.
Cost-effective dining options do exist elsewhere. On the other side of town I found cheap, tasty and generously portioned sandwiches at Bo de B. As did the three-dozen American exchange students queuing outside, who apparently had also read about it on Yelp.
My AirBnb hosts had gifted me with an email with subject line: Barcelona Tips. The email was packed full of recommendations, most serving up mains in the region of €40. Though I gave these a skip, they also recommended the nearby Federal Café – the perfect location at which to sip a reasonably priced flat white, fuel up for another day in the city, and watch Barcelona’s hippest brunchers come and go.
In fact, Barcelona is brimming with such coffee shops and cafés, many run by Australians who’ve shaken up the scene. But don’t let that dissuade you. Satan’s Coffee Corner in the heart of the Gothic Quarter is so meticulously put together it could be anywhere in the world. But it’s not – it’s hidden away in a dark alley in the middle of Barcelona’s old city, and you could easily spend an hour of your life pressed up against the large windows watching the world float on by against a surreal backdrop.
Beating the bicycle mafia
Staying in El Poble-sec may offer respite from the chaotic artery of La Rambla, but it was a good 15-minute walk from much of the action. Busses, the metro and trains are cheap and reliable, but bicycles, my AirBnb hosts informed me, were the way to go. Unfortunately, their high-end hipster fixies remained locked away in the entrance hall storeroom. Barcelona’s shared bike scheme, which happens to be one of the best in Europe, is also off limits to short termers like me.
Riding along Bareclona’s beachfront isn’t all about the glamour, but it’s a rewarding way to see the city.
Instead, the bicycle rental mafia maintain a firm grip on tourists eager to do a bit of pedalling, and it’s hard to find a reliable ride for less than €18 (R279) a day. I was determined not to be extorted by the Barceloneta bike rental mob, and so tracked down Ajo Bike on a quiet alleyway in El Raval. The beaming greasy-handed owner rents out bikes at just €10 (R150) per 24 hours and didn’t bother charging me a deposit. And because he doesn’t want to work on Tuesdays, if you rent a bike on Monday he’ll let you keep it until Wednesday, at no extra cost.
Bicycles are the most efficient and enjoyable ways to get around the city. A slow ride along the beachfront from the garish Hotel W all the way to the Parc del Fòrum is the perfect way to kick-start a morning. A detour through Ciutadella Park is also worthwhile. And if you’ve got the legs, you could cycle all the way to the Sagrada Familia. Any travel guide will tell you that you have no choice but to go inside. Skip the audio tour – the bare-bones ticket is enough – but splash out on a trip up one of the towers, where you can hang out with the high-altitude construction workers and admire the city from above.
The Sagrada Familia may be the most expensive attraction you’ll visit in Barcelona, but it’s worth every Euro.
If you feel you’ve already given Gaudi’s estate enough of your hard earned cash, a casual ride down Passeig de Gràcia will expose you to the impressive outsides of two more of his famous buildings (Casa Milà and Casa Batlló) that you probably don’t need to see the inside of.
Walking tours without the small talk
When it comes to the labyrinth of narrow streets in the Gothic Quarter, you may want to chain up the bike or leave it at home. Rather than risk riding over toes and knocking over children’s ice-creams, I set out on foot and plugged in to Detour’s interesting Summer of Anarchy GPS audio walk (R71).
These seamless location-based tours are the self-conscious, anti-social traveller’s dream. They run off your pocketed smartphone, and if you hold the right pose, you’ll just look like a regular resident taking in a catchy tune. In actual fact, you’re learning about how the city became the first and only anarchist state. Better yet, unlike regular walking tours, you can explore the city at your own pace without once having to roll your eyes at another tourist’s inane questions.
Cheap views, free museums and missed opportunities
Over the course of the week I’d been up to see the spectacular panoramic view from Búnquers del Carmel high above Barcelona, free except for the public transport up there. The top 10 lists also told me I should visit Park Güell, and they’re probably right – the stunning views and whacky architecture still manage to trump the throngs of tourists treacherously wielding selfie sticks.
I’d also shouldered many a hangover from some of Barcelona’s famous bars and clubs (the grungy Nevermind, traditional absinthe bar Marsella, and old theatre, now thriving club, Sala Apolo, all contributed hazy memories of overpriced drinks in enthralling venues).
As one point I talked myself into not going to a game of football at Camp Nou, and then instantly regretted the decision. Tickets were frighteningly expensive, and the opposition was also a little known Basque side, so instead I pocketed the €70 to spend on something less impressive.
By now it was Sunday, and in an attempt to shake an Apolo hangover I took a slow amble up to the Montjuic Castle. The view from the outside is impressive enough, but because it was after 3pm on a Sunday, they let me inside for free. I shuffled through the doors, feigned intrigue at its unexciting insides, spent too long watching an amateur archery competition, and left grateful that I hadn’t forked up the €5 (R75) to get in. Several museums in Barcelona are also in on the Sunday deal, including the nearby Botanical Gardens, where I marvelled at a few hillside patches of dead or dying plants from around the world before sauntering back down, heavy with the knowledge that my time in Barcelona had come to an end.
Back at the apartment, I took a seat on the balcony high above the pedestrianised street below. Like most afternoons, I waited for the iconic Barcelona Port Cable Car to appear between the buildings at its very end, a fleeting sight which filled me with satisfaction. Except this time, when it did appear, I felt a pang of regret for denying myself an actual ride. As consolation, I snapped a photograph of the red shuttle against the pink sky, and, as is the allure of Barcelona, thought to myself, “Well, there’s always next time.”
Originally written for Getaway Magazine.