That Mediterranean paradise, where fabulous architecture, beautiful people, and world-class cuisine combine and create an enviable, affordable lifestyle in the sun.
Or something like that. I don’t know.
I’ve lived here for 5 or 6 years now, so I don’t see it with the fresh eyes of a tourist or recent arrival. And “affordable”, of course, depends on how much you’re earning.
But the other day, a friend sent me a link to Tim Ferriss’ recent podcast, in which Noah Kagan declares that “Barcelona is the new Austin”.
You can watch the conversation right there in the video – the Barcelona bit starts at the 3:43 mark.
Is Barcelona the new Austin?
Well, I agree with a lot of things Kagan said. And have some doubts about others.
For example, Spain in general has a high density of attractive people, like he says in the podcast. But is it true that Barcelona is like “California without all the bullshit”?
I have no way of knowing. I haven’t been to California since about 2002.
And what does “the new Austin” mean, exactly?
I assume that Mr Kagan (of AppSumo fame, in case you’re not keeping track) means it’s sunny, offers a good lifestyle, and might be a great value for the money in the minds of a lot of tech people from the US, used to California prices.
And with that I agree.
It’s a good place to work remotely, and it has a bit of a startup scene – it’s even (slowly) becoming one of Europe’s tech hubs, or so they say. So let’s talk about some of the good things about Barcelona, as well as a few things you might want to watch out for before you settle here.
Barcelona is a walkable city.
This is true. Barcelona isn’t a huge place, and it’s very densely populated.
The buildings are all right next to each other, the streets are (mostly) narrow and there aren’t a lot of parks. All this leads to a dense urban population, and a lot of walkability. In fact, I recently read that some of the most densely populated areas in Europe are right here in the Barcelona metro area.
So yeah: dense and walkable.
In fact, if you have a couple of hours, you can walk across the entire city.
There’s also not a lot of room to expand – built on a strip of land between the mountains in Parc de Collserrola and the sea, most of the available space is already being used. Across the mountains there are other towns like Sabadell and Terrassa, and the flatter areas up and down the coast are populated as well.
If you’re just looking for the basics, in almost any neighborhood you’ll be able to walk to cafés, bars, restaurants and food shops.
(The public transport’s not bad either, if you’re going a bit further. But personally, I can do all my daily shopping and errands on foot. I only take the metro to go to my Jiu Jitsu gym, these days.)
Also, I haven’t driven a car since I left the US, and there’s no real reason I’d ever need one, within the city.
Spain has more “social fabric”.
There is indeed more of a community and social fabric in a city that’s built this way.
I usually just call it “vida de barrio” and it’s something I really enjoy. As an introvert, I don’t have to constantly be surrounded by people, but it’s nice to see the same community of people every day, and have people around who (to some extent) recognise and know you.
In my current area, the Clot neighborhood, I’ve already got people I see almost every day: the Pakistani guy in the supermarket downstairs (Morena speaks to him in Hindi); the lady butcher just up the street, who’s getting to know my protein needs; the people who work at the café where I go to write in the afternoons.
All this is within a few blocks of home, and creates a sense of community that you might not have living in a far-flung suburb where you rarely see your neighbors.
Of course, marrying into a Spanish family will get you a lot more “social fabric” too. But that’s not for everybody. Dating the locals can be fun, or not. Depends on what you’re looking for.
Girona, Puigcerdà and nude beaches on Costa Brava
Kagan mentions a few other things about Barcelona (or, more accurately, Catalonia).
He mentions, for example, the cycling around Girona. I’ve heard a bit about that, but I’ve only visited Girona once, and that was years ago. Allegedly the cycling scene in the mountains up there is world famous.
Also, I was shocked to hear that Kagan thinks Puigcerdà is “better than Lake Tahoe”. I think he’s probably referring to the skiing up in the Pyrenees or something, because when I was up in Puigcerdà a few months ago I found it a bit underwhelming.
Then again, it was summer, and I was just walking around. And I’ve never been to Tahoe.
I do like Costa Brava a lot. It’s up the coast from Barcelona, and Kagan particularly mentions the nude beaches.
As I mentioned in a previous article on nudity (among other things), you can technically go nude on any beach in Spain, but some beaches are “traditionally nudist”. Recently, in fact, the local nudist communities are complaining that too many people are wearing swimsuits on “their” beaches.
Public nudity, then, seems to be in decline these days. Still, I’m pretty sure almost any Spanish beach is going to seem like a nudist paradise compared to what we’ve got in the US.
And Barcelona is certainly well-located. It’s a couple hours’ flight to anywhere else in Europe, and the immediate surroundings (and the rest of Spain) aren’t bad either.
We even (like California) have our own wine country: check out the Penedès area, just a quick train ride away. It’s the home of Cava, the “Catalan Champagne”, and a lot of bodegas set up visits.
Possible downsides to living in Barcelona
All that’s on the plus side.
Is it time to leave the US and make the move to sunny Barcelona, then?
Well, maybe. But let’s not be too rash. I don’t know what the downsides to living in Austin are, but Barcelona has a few things going against it that you may want to think about before moving here.
On the other hand, Spain in general has very few downsides. I love this country.
And if you just want to come over for a few months to check it out, none of these things will be a problem… except maybe the drought. More on that in a bit.
The Catalan Independence movement
In case you haven’t been keeping up with Spanish political news the past several years (and you probably haven’t), Barcelona is part of a region called Catalonia, which has been trying for some time to gain independence from Spain.
(It’s a very long story, and quite controversial. I have a series of articles about it here.)
Anyway, I think full Catalan independence is unlikely to happen. But if it does, watch out. According to history, being a foreigner in a newly-formed ethno-state is a bad idea.
Like I said, though, a splitting of Spain to form an independent Catalan nation seems unlikely. And if you’re a foreigner in Barcelona, you can comfortably ignore most of the political stuff. It won’t really affect you.
However, in my five or so years here there have been at least two or three big riots over the independence thing.
The civil unrest seems to have died down as people have slowly lost interest after the unconstitutional 2017 “referendum for independence”, but I guess it could come back. In any case, the riots I’ve seen weren’t very dangerous.
There’s some smashing of windows and some burning of dumpsters, but it’s more symbolic than anything – I had a nice Chinese dinner with some friends during one of the 2019 riots, just 50 meters or so from the police barricade. It was fine.
The Barcelona Drought
This could also become a bigger problem, or not. Currently, the Barcelona area is in something of a drought.
There’s plenty of water down the coast in Tarragona, and officially Barcelona has a right to pipe some of it up this way. But it’s an election year, and (according to La Vanguardia) it would be politically costly to do so.
Apparently, all our regional politicians would rather see restrictions on water in Barcelona than grow a pair and face some protests. Oh well. For now, we’re happy every time it rains.
Last week, in fact, the Catalan government declared a state of emergency in 200 towns and cities, including Barcelona. This sounds more dramatic than it is: so far I think it’s mostly going to effect public fountains and swimming pools.
Last time there was a drought up here was in 2008, and that one suddenly ended with a particularly rainy month of May, saving the local leadership from the pain of having to divert any water from other regions.
This time it might be worse. Or maybe the whole thing will be over by next week. Only time will tell.
Finally, there’s the legal issue, which may be a problem if you want to stay longer than your tourist visa allows.
Visas for moving to Spain
Kagan says he’s spent many months (and 1500€ in lawyer fees) applying for the digital nomad visa, and it still hasn’t been approved.
That sounds totally normal to me. I wrote about the digital nomad visa in another article – the government promised quick resolutions, but honestly, I’ve been here for almost 20 years and I don’t trust the Spanish government to do anything quickly.
But of course you can apply.
Talk to a good lawyer about what you’d need: it might end up being quicker eventually, once they’ve got the kinks worked out of the system.
Other visas that’ll get you into Spain are the Non-Lucrative Visa, which lets you live here temporarily if you have enough passive income (or a large enough bank balance).
Then there’s the Golden Visa, which they’ll give you if you spend 500,000€ on a house, a million euros on stock in Spanish companies (or on starting a Spain-based business) or 2,000,000€ on Spanish government bonds.
In other words, there are various visas, both for remote work and just for hanging out. Being rich helps, but the Spanish definition of rich may be lower than what you’re used to back home.
(A 500,000€ house, for example, is totally out of reach for most people in Spain. But I bet there are currently 20 million baby boomers in the US who could sell the house they bought in the 80s or 90s for that much and move to Spain to spend their retirement in style. Rich is relative.)
Finally, Kagan says he’s looking into getting legal with the pareja de hecho visa, which is what I ended up doing with Morena a few years ago. (I got legal through “arraigo social” about 12 years ago, which is a different story. Pareja de hecho is how we kept Morena legal after her first visa expired.)
Setting up a “pareja de hecho” – sort of a civil union, I guess – isn’t difficult in Catalonia, but getting a work permit out of it afterwards is a bit complicated. It may be less so if one of the people is actually Spanish. So, as most of the lawyers told me back in the day, “Just marry a Spanish person!”
It might still be the easiest way… unless you’re ready to drop a few million on Spanish government bonds.
So… is Barcelona really the new Austin?
Maybe. I’ve been in Barcelona for several years, but I still prefer Madrid. That’s probably because I spent my 20s there, and life is a lot of fun when you’re in your 20s.
The big conversation stopper in any Barcelona vs Madrid debate is that Barcelona has all the beaches. Which is true. If that’s your thing, you’ll love it up here.
I guess in time we’ll see how many Americans (and other tech-savvy nomads) end up living in Barcelona. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a bunch of people did something because they heard about it on Tim Ferriss’ podcast.
For now, there’s plenty of office space: La Vanguardia newspaper reports that Distrito 22@ – a tech-friendly rebranding of the old industrial Poblenou area – has a lot of new buildings standing half-empty, just waiting for you and (perhaps) your startup to move in.
Hit me up if you’re in the area. I’m right up the street.
Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.
P.S. The drought thing might be worth an extra article at some point. For now the government says its going to send boats full of water from the desalination plant down near Valencia. And like I said, the whole thing could be over by this time next week, if we get some rain. Then again, it could get worse, too. I’ll keep you informed. For another drought, this one down in Andalucía, see my article about the olive oil crisis. ¡Hasta la próxima!