How to See Barcelona on a Budget

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The view from Guadi's Parc Güell.

Barcelona is one of the most beautiful, creative and visually inspiring cities I’ve traveled to — and easily among my top three favorite places in the world. I’ve been there twice now, once during spring break while I was studying abroad in Italy and again in 2013 as a young professional. Both times, my experiences made me fall in love with Barcelona in new and different ways. I saw beautiful art and awe-inspiring architecture, ate amazing food and had fun, exciting encounters. Both times, I was also on a pretty strict budget.

Barcelona is by no means a cheap city to travel to and play in. As with many major European cities, prices are high, and it can take some creativity to avoid overstretching your budget. Here are some ideas and tips to help you save money on your trip to Barcelona, based on my experiences.

Stay in a hostel, guesthouse or pension.
Lower-cost accommodation is a major way I’ve managed to save money on overseas travel, and I’ve written in greater detail about them in other articles, such as How I Afford Travel, How Budget Travel Can Lead to More Authentic Experiences and 4 Basic Principles for Saving Money on Any Trip. These options are often cheaper than standard hotels, but the experience can be just as comfortable and private.

In Barcelona, I stayed in a hostel (booked via Hotels.com) that was among the cheapest I could find: Pension Segre, 58 euros per night. It offered private queen bed rooms and Wi-Fi, with a shared bathroom (sinks in-suite but toilets and showers down the hall) and no air conditioning. I’ve stayed in many hostels with arrangements like that before, and this was not my favorite, but cost was my top concern, and it worked out. At four nights, the accommodation cost was about $317. I like to pay far less than $80 a night when I travel overseas, but this wasn’t terrible for Barcelona. I’d have found something for less if I wasn’t being picky about getting a private room and Wi-Fi (when you’re off the U.S. grid with no cell phone data, you’ll definitely want it in your room!).

Catedral de Barcelona, in the Gothic Quarter.

I also could have saved money by choosing to stay a little ways from the center of Barcelona — prices drop the farther you go from Plaça de Catalunya (the heart of town, in my opinion). However, I generally prefer to be near the action. I stayed in Barri Gotic, which is the historic Gothic center of old Barcelona. Full of color, culture and character, with narrow, winding streets, this was the perfect neighborhood to be close to everything and feel truly immersed in it, and I highly recommend it.

Walk or take public transportation everywhere.

One thing I love about European cities is that they really have public transportation figured out. It’s so easy and inexpensive to get around major cities in Europe via train and bus, and Barcelona is no exception. Its great metro system, TMB, will take you almost anywhere you want to go — even Gaudi’s Parc Güell, which is somewhat outside the city.

La Barceloneta.

Spend a day on La Barceloneta.
You can rent sunbeds and umbrellas if you want to, and plenty of places will sell you a delicious sangria or snack along the water, but access to the beach itself is free. All you need are a few borrowed towels from your hotel, a bottle of water, a sandwich or some snacks from a local grocery store, sunscreen, your swimsuit and shades, and you’re set for a relaxing, cheap day on the beach. Be sure to leave valuables at the hostel, as you would before going to any beach. If you’re staying in the Gothic Quarter as I was, you’ll be just a short 10- to 15-minute stroll from the beach. For being so close to the city, it’s surprisingly clean and beautiful. It was even rated one of the top 10 city beaches in the world — and, to my surprise, there’s even free Wi-Fi available. Heaven? I think so.

Street art in Barcelona.

Bear witness to great art.
Part of the beauty of Barcelona is the abundance of visual stimuli and art. Gaudi was an architect, and his influence is felt on nearly every street corner. In fact, you can view his masterpieces from the street — though going inside is certainly recommended. The most famous of these are Casa Mila, Casa Battlo, Parc Guell and the still-unfinished (yet breathtaking) La Sagrada Familia.

La Sagrada Familia.

If you plan to do quite a bit of museum-going, consider the Articket or Barcelona Card, which provide free entrance at a variety of museums and discounts at others. Balance the entry fees of the museums you know you’ll want to see with the cost of the card to determine if it will be a good value for you. Otherwise, soak it in from outside — the architecture itself is gorgeous, and there’s plenty of beautiful and interesting street art to be seen (especially in the Gothic Quarter).

Create your own walking tour.
Several companies offer a variety of walking tours specializing in everything from food to wine to art. They sometimes have information that’s difficult to find on your own — a special shop or family-owned restaurant that’s too unknown for Yelp — but most of the time, there’s no reason you can’t design your own tour using a little research online via a combination of TripAdvisor, Yelp and Wikitravel and researching blog posts written by people who’ve recently visited.

Barcelona’s tourism office even offers a few self-guided tour routes to get you started. There are also a variety of audio tours and free podcasts available to download to help you understand what you’re seeing as you walk around.

Flamenco performance at Los Tarantos.

Meet up with locals.
Some of the aforementioned tours are offered by independent locals, not through tour companies. I have yet to try Vayable, but it seems to be a promising way to see a city through a local’s eyes. Pricing varies based on the rate set by the guide, so you will need to do research on a case-by-case basis. Another way to meet locals is by renting an apartment from them through Airbnb.

You can also meet locals by linking up with them on a language exchange website before you leave, explaining that you’ll be in your conversation partner’s home country soon and would like to meet to practice your language skills. I did this before I went to Colombia and met a very nice woman my age who was beyond hospitable to me during my stay, even picking me up from the airport and showing me around! It goes without saying that a local can help you stay away from the overly touristy areas, which will only overcharge you. As locals, they are likely very well-versed in being efficient with their money in their city, and I can think of no experience more authentic than an afternoon with someone who lives in the city you’ve traveled to.

Embrace the chaos.
One of the things I love most about Barcelona is the feeling that at any moment, anything could happen — you truly never know when something spontaneous and exciting will occur. This was certainly the case when I unknowingly booked my trip for Barcelona during Festes de la Mercè. The biggest annual celebration of Barcelona’s patron saint, Festes de la Mercè features nightly parades and even fireworks in the street.

Festes de la Mercè.

There I was, strolling down the street on my way to dinner, starting to feel puzzled by the drumbeats that seemed to grow louder and louder… until I stumbled upon a huge parade with sparklers and loud fireworks exploding in the street. Clearly sanctioned by the city government with ambulances waiting nearby, I was struck by the idea that this would never be allowed in the United States. It was exciting and a huge rush to be part of this celebration — and I paid nothing for the privilege.

Barcelona can be expensive if you want it to be or if you don’t plan your budget carefully. However, the real beauty of Barcelona comes through from soaking up the city’s energy, embracing the art and culture that pulses through her veins and being open to whatever new experiences she chooses to throw your way. Maybe the reason I love Barcelona so much is that the best things about this city are 100 percent free.

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