Any survival tips for a non-Spanish speaker going to Barcelona?
March 15, 2009 1:12 AM   Subscribe

Any survival tips for a non-Spanish speaker going to Barcelona?

I'm a male college senior and I was planning on going to Spain for spring break to visit my SO who's studying broad there. Due to some poor circumstances that I won't go into, we're breaking up at probably the worst time possible. The first leg of my flight leaves in about 8 hours and I should arrive in Barcelona Monday morning. I want to stupidly go ahead and try and make the best of it despite not knowing any Spanish, and I'd appreciate any general tips my particular situation.

Some details:
I've been abroad a couple times in Asia, but never in Europe. Ideally my budget will be under 200 or 300e for the week before counting any lodging fees. Right now my plan is just to try and safely get to a hotel with Internet and go from there, as everything was pretty much in my SO's hands until very recently. I see that the Hotel Lleo was recommended in some earlier posts, so I might end up there. I'd rather not try and stay in a hostel or anything like that given my poor language ability.

I think I'll be satisfied with my trip if I can successfully go to some parks and museums and do a little shopping.

Thanks guys.
posted by some idealist to Travel & Transportation around Barcelona, Spain (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Speak English.

Considering the vast majority of the population there probably speaks Catalan as their mother tongue and not Spanish, you'd be better of sticking to English - anecdotal evidence says they don't particularly like to speak Spanish, given the option. You won't have any problems... it's a huge tourist area.
posted by ryanbryan at 1:37 AM on March 15, 2009

Ive been to Madrid and Barcelona and you will be fine in Barcelona with minimal "where is the bathroom?" level spanish. It has quite an international feel and I remember hearing French, Portuguese, SPanish and quite a bit of English spoken all around the city. Worry not. Madrid on the other hand, you would be a lot further up a creek. Have a great trip!
posted by ElmerFishpaw at 1:38 AM on March 15, 2009

You'll be fine with basic, or even no Spanish for a quick trip around Barcelona. Most people who deal with tourists have basic English if they don't speak (relatively) fluently, and they only force Spaniards to speak Catalan - foreigners get a free pass there. If you make a little effort with Spanish, they'll appreciate it. If you make a little effort with Catalan, they'll love you forever.

There's a tourist bus service which goes around all of the major sites and has commentary in English - a ticket will last you 24 hours and you can get on and off wherever you like.
posted by benzo8 at 2:02 AM on March 15, 2009

Definitely agree: you're going to one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. Cruise ships full of English speakers depart there every day for destinations across Europe. Don't worry, there will nearly always be someone willing to translate.

Just be aware that doing the "crappy Spanish is better than nothing" move can be a bit dicey in Catalan-speaking Barcelona. It's like going to Quebec and speaking English--some people get huffy, though others don't.

If you do end up at a hostel (Barcelona, as I recall it, wasn't a particularly cheap city, not a couple three years ago), I recommend Barcelona Mar. They're English friendly, fairly nice as far as hostels go, and pretty cheap.

I'm sure there's a bazillion threads you can consult on the sites to see, La Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell and the Miro museum and Las Ramblas for shopping, but if you can buy a Let's Go Spain/Europe at the airport, it is a truly *awesome* guidebook, for and by college students that gives maps of the city, and the metro system, and hours of museums and other nifty little factoids.

Have fun, and don't worry about your lack of language skills!
posted by librarylis at 2:05 AM on March 15, 2009

Thanks for the reassurance guys, I'm not quite so worried now. Sadly, my Spanish ability is nil. And that bus sounds like it might be a great deal.
posted by some idealist at 2:08 AM on March 15, 2009

It's awesome. Repeating for emphasis, you don't need to speak Spanish. I stayed at HelloBCN hostel, friendly staff and travellers, staff spoke English.

-walk the whole way up Las Ramblas before you buy anything
-get to La Sagrada Familia early in the morning
-approach random friendly people in the hostel and go out to eat/drink with them (or on your own, if you're ok with that. Just try the restaurants.)

Barcelona is literally the only city where I have gone for a holiday and considered moving there. I loved it that much. One day, goddamit, I will.
posted by jacalata at 2:10 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just be aware that doing the "crappy Spanish is better than nothing" move can be a bit dicey in Catalan-speaking Barcelona. It's like going to Quebec and speaking English--some people get huffy, though others don't.

To be honest, I only found one person in five years who would militantly speak only Catalan to me. Still, YMMV but experientially I've learned, if they want your money, they'll speak whatever language gets it out of you!
posted by benzo8 at 2:18 AM on March 15, 2009

Everyone before me has said all the important stuff and I completely agree with them having personally spent some time in Barcelona a few months ago. All I really came to contribute is a suggestion for where to stay. I stayed at a place called Mambo Tango. It's a great location, everyone speaks English, and it is run by the most friendly family of people you could ever hope to meet abroad. They have a 'no drunks' type policy that means it isn't full of your typical partying 'travellers' if that is of any concern. Do yourself a favour and stay at a hostel not a hotel. The best part about travelling is meeting people and Barcelona is a great city for it.

Honestly the main reason I wanted to share this is because staying at Mambo Tango really made my stay in Barcelona, and out of the over 30 hostels I stayed in in my time in Europe it easily had the best atmosphere. Hope you manage to have a great time despite the less than ideal circumstances.
posted by atmosphere at 2:20 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

As Benzo8 says, the people who live from tourism speak multiple languages well. There are a tiny number of people in the whole of Catalonia who do not speak Spanish, and they are mostly in Retirement Homes. Doubt you'll get to meet them. Again the odd militant, separatist but you only tend to meet those in a University debating group, so don't sweat this point, honestly.

Barca is simple one of the best cities to visit in Europe, amazing buildings, sights, sounds.
A sensitive recognition that they have their own language and very long history would be to say Bon Dia, before you ask any question in English. If you can manage Gracies (Grah-sis) thank you, and Adeu (Ah-day-you) Bye, when you leave anywhere, extra points.

Castillian people call the Catalanes the "Germans" (los alemanes del Norte) mainly in recognition of their obvious business skills but also snarkily as they have a reputation as hard workers and not as friendly as other groups on the peninsula. I definitly noticed a cooler reception when I only spoke Spanish, as I pass for someone from Leon. When I used English in public it was a tick warmer.

Like another poster, this is a city I have fantasised about moving to, you'll soon see why!

Good luck!
posted by Wilder at 4:02 AM on March 15, 2009

Watch out for pickpockets. BCN is full of pickpockets. Especially watch out for guys on the street who come up to you and try to "be friends" by putting their arm around your shoulder.
posted by dydecker at 4:22 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the pickpocket warning. I guess it should be kept in mind for any city, but since that was my only personal experience with a pickpocket I'll offer up my own story:

I was there in 2001. I forget the name of it but there's this big square which is really lively at night, lots of bars and cafes, musicians, there's a fountain in the middle. I'd definitely recommend hanging out there, you'll meet lots of other travelers (I became good friens with a guy from Michigan who was living there and supporting himself by selling hash in the square - nice guy!). But one night we were there, incredibly drunk, and a group of guys suddenly surrounded us and started talking, laughing, putting their arms around us trying to get us to dance. Basically tried to confuse us - somewhere in the back of my drunken brain an alarm bell went off and I reached out instinctively and grabbed one guy's arm, and in his hand was my wallet. The guy was tiny and looked terrified that I would knock him out. I just gently took my wallet back and told him to leave, fast, before I had time to get angry. Still to this day I can't believe I caught him.
posted by mannequito at 4:35 AM on March 15, 2009

We stayed at the Hotel Lleo in September and it was fine. The room was very small and utilitarian, but the location was terrific; about two blocks from the Plaza Catalunya (probably what mannequito remembers) and the Ramblas. You could easily walk to many of the important Gaudi structures, the medieval area, etc. The tourist bus system is an excellent deal and all three routes (red, blue and green) stop at the Plaza Catalunya (one stops even closer to the Hotel Lleo). You can also take a public bus from the airport to the Plaza Catalunya for a pretty reasonable price.
posted by carmicha at 5:26 AM on March 15, 2009

Barcelona is a lovely lovely city, but not everyone you will find will be willing to speak English, even if they know it.

They can be a bit proud about their heritage and thus will expect you to at least try and speak Spanish, if not Catalan. But if you learn a couple of basic phrases that you can find all over the Internet, you should be fine. I found the use of a cheap Collins Spanish Phrasebook to be sufficient to cover all my needs.

I'd also recommend reading the WikiTravel guide, it's very useful, as is the official website of the city.

You can try and exercise your Spanish with this very nice newsletter that provides weekly tips about what's trendy in BCN.

I absolutely loved the CosmoCaixa museum, the view from the Tibidabo, from the castle on the Montjuic. Be sure to walk a lot on foot. Barcelona is a very vibrant city that you need to absorb slowly, while walking.

Also, I see you mention parks -- you definitely must visit Park Guell - as designed by Antonio Gaudi (whose work you'll find all over Barcelona, including the famous Sagrada Familia).

And if you feel adventurous, after seeing most of Barcelona, you might try to grab a train to Figueires and see the Salvador Dali museum - a splendid exhibit designed by the genius himself.

Hope you'll have a great time in Barcelona, I absolutely love that city (best one I've ever been in actually)!
posted by Masi at 6:02 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

The major touristy areas will have guides in English and you can always print off info in advance.

As for just getting around, you can figure some of that in advance too, like the metro, which is pretty easy.

I do speak Spanish, so that wasn't an issue for me, but on the group trip I was on, many didn't. We toured around in a group of three, and one girl who came with us just spoke English her whole time.

Lots of tourists around, as well as Europeans and Americans studying and living there. You'll have plenty to occupy you. Plaza Catalunya is gorgeous, and we spent a few nights there. Take a walk down a good length of Las Ramblas. See the sea. It's a gorgeous city, and despite the emotional toll you might be feeling from the breakup, try to enjoy tourself.
posted by cmgonzalez at 6:52 AM on March 15, 2009

Posting real quick from the airport. Thanks for all the great tips guys. I'll defnitely try and check out a few places that have been suggested (while watching for pickpockets).
posted by some idealist at 7:09 AM on March 15, 2009

ryanbryan: Considering the vast majority of the population there probably speaks Catalan as their mother tongue and not Spanish, you'd be better of sticking to English - anecdotal evidence says they don't particularly like to speak Spanish, given the option.

Nah - that anecdotal evidence might be true for some of the rural Northwestern parts of Catalunya, but Barcelona prides itself particularly on being quite cosmopolitan, a true city of Europe and of the world. Almost everyone without exception speaks both Castellano (Castilian Spanish) and Català (Catalan) - even the older folks, since they were not allowed to speak Català in public before Franco's fascist government fell in 1975. There are still some tensions between Barcelona and Madrid, which represents to Barcelona the regions that were favored under Franco's regime; when I was there, a friend from Barcelona told me that whenever the subject of Madrid came up, his mother would swear in a low voice: "my feet will never walk the streets of that city." But for the most part, things have gotten better over the last thirty years, much better. The Catalans always were less, er, 'militant' than the Basques (who are awesome, but that's another story) and Spain has generally given them almost total self-government; they are a separate nation in all but name. (Incidentally, the Catalan government is so eager to reestablish the Catalan culture that I've heard that it's quite easy to get citizenship there; all you have to do, really, is learn Catalan.)

In any case, many people speak English in Barcelona, not even because it's a tourist town but because it's an international city. And what's more, people in Barcelona were, I found, much more likely to speak Spanish slowly - and much more ready to be patient with folks who didn't know the language, since they were bilingual themselves and understood the difficulties of new languages.

Just my experience, anyway.

Hey: enjoy Barcelona. A recommendation: you should see the Museu Nacional d'Art up on the hill; they have the best collection, particularly, of Gothic art in the world. Plus it's a fantastic view of the city from the top of the steps.
posted by koeselitz at 8:53 AM on March 15, 2009

watch out also for cabbies who will screw you over the price. or anyone else who will think you're easy pickings because you're a dumb foreigner who doesn't speak spanish. assert yourelf if you feel like you're getting screwed -- don't let your inability with the language hold you back from kicking up a fuss if you're getting charged twice what is reasonable.
posted by randomstriker at 11:06 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hey, probably my favorite city of the ones I've been to in Europe. I also stayed at the Barcelona Mar, and it was a fun, funky time (old dude in the hall watching tv 24/7, woman having enthusiastic sex in the room above us ALL THE TIME). It's easy to make friends there—for English speakers, hit up the folks who sell bike tours on the beach. They have one of the best contemporary art museums in the world, and there was a fantastic little contemporary restaurant just around the corner about a block south (whose name I forget).

One way to dodge pickpockets is wearing your wallet in the front, as it tends to be harder to get out. Or wear a belt with the wallet in it, under your clothes.

It's about the easiest city to get laid in if you're not full of weeping sores or anything, so see if you can be cool and pull a Spanish girl who can show you around. Tourists are easier, but having someone who speaks the language means that when the bars close early on Sunday, you can find one of the after-hours joints (which seem, coincidentally, to be in plentiful supply around the Barcelona Mar).

"Com es diu en català ...?" means "How do you say that in Catalan?" (more here), and was enough to get my brother and I free food and drink all over the city.
posted by klangklangston at 3:18 PM on March 15, 2009

DO stay in hostels, there are many different atmospheres, some just feel like sort of simple/bare hotels, some feel like a hip dorm with lounges and orange walls. there are reasons to not get into the hostel scene (too many 20-somethings looking to get drunk and talk philosophy, some may be sketchy, etc) but language barrier is definitely NOT one of those reasons.

also, i found the train stations to be a particularly horrible vortex of pickpocketing, i was robbed in one and i witnessed two other parties being robbed/realizing they had been robbed within one visit on one day. do not take your hand off your bags or get distracted by the hustle bustle. i was sitting on a bench with several bags at my feet on the floor, a guy came up and waved a key in my face and was like "oh, you dropped this, is this yours?" i told him it wasn't and didn't really think much of it until 5 minutes later i realized by daypack was no longer there. creepy.

consider taking the easy hour train ride/day trip to figueres to see the Salvador Dali Museum in his hometown, it is really a fantastic experience. consult any guidebook for details or the internet.
posted by dahliachewswell at 6:20 PM on March 15, 2009

Seconding the security measures discussed upthread. Also - beware of slight women who have sneakers on. They may well be able to outrun you and they might have an incentive because some of them are pickpockets. I'm thinking of one in particular in front of La Pedrera who used a cardboard sign as a shield, trying to block my arms while she pulled my wallet halfway out of my pocket. (I kept it, she ran.)

Any physical contact you do not expect should set off alarm bells right away.

It's a terrific city as long as you are aware and careful of the petty crime.
posted by jet_silver at 8:08 PM on March 15, 2009

« Older Tips on getting a federal gov't job   |   Screensaver Scheduler Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.