For most globetrotters, Spain is synonymous with low prices and its carefully cultivated reputation as a budget destination has made it a long-time magnet for bargain hunters searching for sun on a shoestring. However, away from the budget enclaves of the costa resorts and country retreats, Spain’s most prosperous and visited city can come as an unwelcome surprise to the wallets of the uninitiated. Whilst certainly better value for money than Paris, London or Rome, travellers looking to soak up some Catalan culture can expect to pay around €20 for most of the big museums. Dinner for two at a paella or tapas-style restaurant in the tourist-heavy neighbourhoods of Eixample, Raval, Sants or the Gothic Quarter will rarely cost under €50, and if you don’t know where to look you can expect similarly eye-watering prices for a round of drinks. However, you don’t need to head to the outer barrios to experience the best of Barcelona on a student budget, and this brief guide should demonstrate that there’s no need to exchange quality for affordability in the ‘City of Counts’.
If you’re coming to Barcelona to worship at the temple of Gaudi, then be prepared to pay a hefty tribute. Entrance to the world-famous Sagrada Familia church will set you back €26, whilst the Casa Mila on the city’s posh Passeig de Gracia avenue costs €22. Even the charming Park Güell, nestled in the hills to the north, will cost you €7 (N.B: you can save a couple of euros for some of these attractions by booking online in advance). Luckily there are still plenty of ways to experience the richest aspects of Barcelona’s unique and fiercely independent way of life for the price of a cup of coffee. First off, it’s worth noting that on the first Sunday of every month, many of Barcelona’s biggest museums waive their entrance fee, so if you’ve timed your visit well then you can easily cram in a week’s worth of attractions on the day and pay nothing.
If you’re more interested in learning about the history of the city and the role it has played in shaping regional and national culture, then check out the MUHBA (Museum of the History of Barcelona) Group, which operates at a range of sites across the city. If you go to one of these museums, entrance should cost you less than €5 if you’re under 29 years old and, once you’ve paid for one, your ticket will grant you free or greatly-reduced entry to any of the two dozen other museums currently managed by this organisation (they also offer reduced admission to Park Güell).
I’d recommend the City History Museum as your first port of call; housed in a medieval palace in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, it’s the best place to get a crash course in Barcelona’s turbulent history — and if you venture into the basement you can explore the original foundations of the Roman settlement, built in 15 B.C! Another honourable mention for a cheap and unforgettable museum would be the Museu Frederic Marès just around the corner. I first discovered this spot whilst taking shelter from a thunderstorm in its medieval courtyard, and was lured inside when the alcoves failed to keep me dry. This villa contains what is essentially a mad aristocrat’s collection of high art and bric-a-brac, built-up over eighty years and filling four floors of space, ranging from ancient Greek marbles to a room full of Cuban cigars — a great way to wait out a monsoon and a steal at €2.
Barcelona is one of the world’s great food cities, and while I’m often prone to just getting a sandwich from the local supermarket chain to save money when travelling, it just doesn’t feel right to miss out on the food scene in exchange for a soggy egg sandwich from Aldi. Before getting to the more local fare, it’s worth mentioning just how much Barcelonans love a good burger; burger bars have sprung up in waves across the city in recent years, and connoisseurs have taken advantage of this craze to bring exciting, high-quality and affordable food to the masses.
My personal favourite without a doubt is Cat Bar, a somewhat dirty dive in the back streets of El Born which serves up the best vegan burger I’ve ever had in a city that is notoriously carnivorous. An eclectic and friendly place run by a Mancunian expat, it’s also one of the only places in Barcelona you can get craft beer, if you’re into that. Expect no-frills service from the sassy staff, and the satisfaction of coming out with change from a €10 note. Another good option if you want a guaranteed table at any time of night is one of the several branches of local superstar Bocoa Burger, which serves up juicy burgers with a Catalunyan twist and mountains of patatas bravas for similarly budget prices.
If you’ve come to Barcelona for the empanadas and paella, then your best bet for an authentic, budget version which hasn’t just come out of a microwave is probably La Boqueria indoor market, just off La Rambla. A year-round tourist trap, this place might not seem the ideal spot for a budget lunch upon first entering, where overpriced smoothies and suspiciously colourful dishes abound. However, if you penetrate a little further into the darker, more deserted corners of this gargantuan place, then you’ll find some very high quality local cuisine, at local prices. Looking for lunch here is an experience in itself, where you can watch fired-up grandmothers haggling over the price of blood sausage, next to a regiment of fisherman hauling in the latest catch of swordfish and octopus. While there are plenty of cheap markets to grab lunch, this one stands out in terms of atmosphere and variety.
In the summer, drinking in Barcelona needn’t be an issue for the cash-strapped traveller, when a solid night out doesn’t require more than a few cervezas and a place to sit on the beach or pavement. However, this is a less attractive option in these brisk winter months, and you will be forced to go indoors and pay for your drinks at a bar. Luckily, as it is with most cities, all the best watering holes are the ones that get you loaded for peanuts, and there’s really no need to pay €14 for a watered-down cocktail at a swanky seafront bar.
Honourable mention goes to Betty Ford’s, a legendary queer bar in El Raval which was once the haunt of Barcelona’s BoHo arts scene, but now welcomes a mix of tourists, skaters and students as well as the old crowd. The beer is very cheap, and whilst the cocktails veer a little toward the pricey side, they don’t mess about and will happily empty half a bottle of rum into your mojito whilst jamming to the endlessly funky playlist. Another winner, and a venue that can’t be beaten on price, can be found on the corner facing Barcelona’s infamous superclub Razzmatazz. While I couldn’t figure out the name of this bar (it doesn’t seem to have one), it seems to exist entirely for the purpose of letting would-be revellers get sufficiently buzzed on cheap sangria before facing the extortionate drinks prices in the venue across the street. A litre of beer is around €5, whilst a litre(!) of sangria topped with a dangerously generous dose of vodka should cost you about €6, making this place much more reminiscent of the cheap bars of the Magaluf strip in terms of price.
I hope this guide will give prospective travellers enough info to enjoy this wonderful city on a genuine student budget, and if you’re looking for things which cost nothing, then http://forfree.barcelona will keep you updated on all free activities and events in Barcelona.
Featured image © Rodrigo Paredes