Things I Wish I Knew Before Studying in Barcelona

Victoria Ernst headshot
Victoria Ernst
May 9, 2024

1. Spanish. No, you don’t need Spanish to get around the city, but it helps. I found myself struggling to adjust during my first few weeks here. I recall spending an hour in the supermarket looking for disinfecting wipes. Of course, I eventually figured it out, but knowing a little bit of Spanish will make your experience so much easier. The good news is if you’re staying in the city center, you’ll find more English speakers. Download Duolingo if you can and start picking up phrases. 


2. Your lifestyle completely changes when you move abroad.  In the U.S., I’m the kind of person who goes to the gym at 6 a.m. and makes it to class at 9 a.m. Here, I had to say goodbye to that lifestyle. Most facilities here are open Monday- Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (and closed Sunday). The closest gym to me that’s 24 hours is a 25-minute walk from my apartment. Although I have learned to navigate my schedule, it would have been nice to know that Barcelona is not a morning-person city before making my class schedules.


3. SAVE, SAVE, SAVE YOUR MONEY! You’re going to spend so much more money than you expect. I am so glad that I have been saving for years for this.


4. If you want to get to know a local, do a homestay. This is such a great way to really get to know the Spanish culture. It’s honestly hard to get to know locals here- especially if you don’t speak Spanish. If you do a homestay, you immediately get connected with a resident of Barcelona who can teach you about the culture and make you feel welcome. Plus, you can get two great home-cooked meals and avoid the annoyance of apartment maintenance. I also know many IES Abroad students who got placed in a homestay together, so it’s a great way to make new friends from the United States, too!


5. If you’re coming alone to Barcelona without a friend group, opt for a homestay or mixed apartment. Apartments and homestays are both great ways to meet new students. There are tons of “residence hall” buildings in Barcelona that have apartments or six to eight people who each have their own bedroom and en suite with a communal kitchen and living room. As someone living in a studio, I’m jealous of my friends in these beautiful apartments!


6. Say yes to everything before classes start. The two weeks before class will feel like a whirlwind of events: you’re jet-lagged, meeting a ton of new people, navigating a new place, and you go to Tarragona for two days. I recommend saying yes to everyone and everything in those two weeks. Going to dinner with someone you met in orientation? Say yes. Invited to walk through the Gothic Quarter with your roommate from the Tarragona trip? Say yes—some of the longest-lasting friendships I’ve made here started in those first two weeks. Take advantage while you can.


7.  Don’t mistake “Europe” for Spain. It’s easy to generalize a whole continent when you live in a country as big as the United States. My only other abroad experience was in Germany, where I interned in the summer of 2023. Before I came to Barcelona, I expected the city to be exactly like Germany. News flash, it wasn’t. I made the mistake of overgeneralizing. So if you’ve been to other European countries or cities, don’t expect Barcelona to be exactly like those.


8. Bring more comfy clothing than you expect! In my experience, Barcelona is a lot more casual in attire than other European cities, but you shouldn’t feel pressured to dress up if you don’t want to. Something I regret was not bringing enough sweatpants and sweatshirts. Trust me, if you’re sick, the last thing you’ll want to do is lie on the couch in your jeans!


9. If you’re picky about cosmetics, make sure you bring enough products for your time abroad. Stores don’t carry the same brands and products as in the United States- especially face wash, toothpaste and deodorant. If you’re partial to your products, make sure you stock up for your trip.


10. Leave empty space in your suitcase. You’ll go shopping when you’re here (maybe it’s just a girl thing, but I promise you will). Whether you want a new wardrobe for a European style or you want to stock up on basics while the exchange rate is in your favor, you will find yourself shopping. To avoid those overweight bag fees, leave some empty space in your suitcase- especially if you’re coming winter semester; all the Spanish stores have after-Christmas sales that go throughout the month of January.


11. Always be courteous and respectful. You know you’ll experience cultural differences when you’re in a different country. Remember your place as a guest and that you reflect your country. One thing that especially bothers the Spanish is when Americans go shopping and say everything is “so cheap”. Yes, compared to the dollar value of American vs Spanish goods, it is cheaper to shop here. However, remember that the wages are also much lower. This one especially bothers me as someone who earned a European salary last summer. Just remember to watch your words and think before you speak.


12. Enjoy it. It’s so cliche, but the time really flies by. You’ll probably never have this experience again in your life, so make the most of it. 


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Victoria Ernst

Hi, my name is Vic. I'm a junior at Washington and Lee University, and I am a strategic communication and German double major and entrepreneurship minor. I interned in Germany last summer and hope to live abroad after graduation!

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