Seventeen years ago I flew into sunny, cosmopolitan Barcelona, thinking what a great place this would be to live but not for a minute at the time believing that would ever be possible.
What immediately intrigued me about Barcelona back in 1998 was how quickly and easily you could explore the city -- Spain's second biggest -- because of its compact, well-laid-out design, yet there was so much to do and see. Today, it's even easier to explore and there's just as much if not more on offer. Fantastic art and architecture from pre-Roman to Modernista is everywhere. There are galleries, monuments, theaters, restaurants, shopping -- all the usual stuff of cities -- yet there's also the beach and easy access to the beautiful Costa Brava to the north and the Costa Dorada to the south.
Barcelona is the economic, cultural, and administrative capital of Catalonia, situated in the northeast of Spain, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The city covers a small area but has a large population; it's 100 square kilometers with about 1.6 million people in the city center and another 4 million in the suburbs.
Back in 1998, what struck me most about this city was its great vibe and energy, which continue today despite Spain's ongoing economic woes. People live, work, and shop in most of the city neighborhoods and districts, so each has its own community spirit and most even have their own fiestas.
More than 150 nationalities live in Barcelona, a reflection of the Catalan peoples' open and receptive character that foreigners find so attractive.
Barcelona also welcomes a huge number of tourists throughout the year (almost 8 million in 2013, up 1.77 percent over the previous year), about 80 percent of whom are foreigners. This means a strong short-term rental market in the city providing for all those international visitors, the majority of whom come from France, the U.K., and the United States.
Following the 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona's housing market developed hugely. That run came to a dramatic halt in 2008, the year that marked the start of the property crisis that impacted the lower and middle ends of this market severely. Now, these markets are rebounding. For the past two years, prices of secondhand properties have increased by 1.5 percent year-on-year, and the current per-square-meter average value is 3,192 euros, according to Idealista.com. However, to put that into perspective, since 2007, prices have fallen by almost 35 percent; in 2007, the average cost per meter in this city was 4,888 euros.
The '92 Games also had a tremendous positive impact on Barcelona's infrastructure. There's an inexpensive five-line metro, an airport just outside the city center, plentiful buses, which typically run until 4 a.m., and a well-planned bicycle rental scheme -- all of which make it easy to move around.
The city has 10 districts, but the areas in greatest demand among visitors, property investors, and expats are the oldest part, the Ciutat Vella, which is divided into four regions -- La Ribera, also known as El Borne (or, locally, Born), to the north; Barrio Gótico, which is in the central Gothic quarter; El Raval to the south; and the seaside suburb of Barceloneta.
Add to those four the Eixample (pronounced "eye-sham-pla") and Gracia, each with its own character, advantages, and disadvantages.
A quick overview:
Barceloneta used to be where all the fishermen lived. The streets are narrow and the buildings small and in many cases not at all fancy. But, because of the beach, the easy walk to see the sites, and the great sports facilities, Barceloneta is fast becoming popular with buy-to-rent investors. This district is in the process of finding equilibrium and will see changes over the next few years.
Born, originally built as an extension of the Old Town where the city's richest families lived, has undergone a massive transformation over the past 10 years from rundown to chic and desirable. It is now considered the "in" place for foreigners with decent budgets.
Barrio Gótico is possibly Barcelona's most touristy area. Historically, this was where the wealthy lived; however, when the Eixample was built in the 19th century, the wealth moved out and the area went downhill. Over the last 10 years, this area has become very popular and has undergone a revival, with the chic and trendy moving back in. It is an area of narrow streets, small apartments, and a lot of tourists and, as well, all that intriguing ancient history.
The centrally located Raval is the area for the pioneer investor. This would not be a place that most real estate agents would recommend. Over the centuries, it has been the district that new, low-paid immigrants head to. Petty crime is rife, prostitution is common, and some properties are expected to be labelled "afectada" in the near future. This designation means that the government could issue a compulsory purchase order to knock the building down, as they did when they created the La Rambla El Raval. If you were interested in buying here, you'd want a very good attorney. That said, this area is interesting from an investor's point of view. A luxury hotel has been built, and more affluent expats are moving in (locals are not keen yet).
The Eixample area was purpose built in the 19th century; many large homes were commissioned by wealthy families returning to Spain after having made their fortunes in Cuba. It remains one of the most desirable and exclusive districts of the city, with many fine Modernista buildings.
Gràcia was a small town on its own, but its boundaries and Barcelona's have slowly merged so that it now forms a district on the northern side of the city. The area is popular with young people and creative and "progressive" types and is strongly Catalan. It is perhaps most famed for Park Guell and the fantastic summer festival Festa Major de Gràcia.
I have a special place in my heart for Barcelona, which I'd say appeals to a wide audience. It's a vibrant, colorful, proud, interesting place that's got the benefit of the passion of the Spanish combined with the efficiency and organization of the Catalans.
Further, this is one of the most affordable European cities of note, making it an ideal choice if you're looking for an Old World cosmopolitan lifestyle on a budget.