#PartyMonthSpain: Words of wisdom from Lucas Fox Blogger-About-Town Julia Collins

Barcelona is very laid back, but still cosmopolitan – effortlessly cool. Before moving there I asked a friend to describe it to me, to which he replied: “Well, it has everything – the amazing history, out of this world food, contemporary art, chic beach scene, luxury, as well as quirky boutiques and crazy politics – it’s just a very complete city.” – which I think sums it up beautifully.

The residents of Barcelona definitely understand a good work/life balance. People I met worked very hard but also knew how to take time out and enjoy the lovely city and surrounding areas. Living there definitely taught me to take things a little slower than hundred-mile-an-hour London. It was very liberating starting completely from scratch somewhere brand new! N.B. The elaborate Gaudí-designed paving stones, though beautiful are not made for walking in heels; even my dress sense relaxed while I was there.

Some people think Barcelona is all about Flamenco and paella. I think people who don’t know the city tend to generalise about Spain in general and not get to know the regional flavours. Many who come to Barcelona make a beeline for the beach, or a football match, which are world-famous and great but there are so many layers deeper than that – like amazing local gastronomy, cultural festivals, exhibitions in smaller galleries etc. It’s so important to explore the city’s winding streets and sample some off-the-beaten-track flavours to get a real taste of the city.

Catalan culture is truly unique and I discovered quirky aspects like Catalan Dancing (Sardanas). I have been told it is both technical and tiring. However to the uninitiated outsider it looks like hopping on each foot in a big circle to Medieval flute music! Other unique traditions include the hilarious Caga Tió (a log that delivers Christmas presents to the children of Catalonia in a particularly unconventional way!).

I often use our own blog LFStyle to make the most of the city. It draws on the knowledge of the whole Lucas Fox Team – like one big international foodie family. Living so centrally, I would dedicate a whole afternoon at a time to exploring a particular corner of the city, trying out different cafes and occasionally (when feeling particularly dedicated), taking notes. I also love blogs such as Barcelona Besotted, Plate Selector, En Route Photography, Foodie in Barcelona and Mini Guide. Time Out launched an English version of their site last year, which is a great resource.

Compared to London the cost of living is hugely different – eating and drinking well is affordable, as is living centrally and public transport is very cheap (€10 for 10 journeys on the metro). It’s officially cheaper to live in Barcelona and commute to London than to live in the big smoke full time!. The main difference between Barcelona and Edinburgh (my home town) is the weather and of course equally rich but totally different history and architecture, which is very inspiring! I moved with my family a lot while growing up, and have been lucky to live around the UK, including Edinburgh and London, as well as the South of France. I grew up on the Mediterranean so I love that element of Barcelona life – impromptu picnics, sitting outside even in winter, lovely fruit and vegetables in the supermarkets instead of tasteless tomatoes.

I had the opportunity to spend a year abroad in a Spanish speaking country as part of my degree. I had contacts in Madrid who had helped me to set up a job out there which fell through at the very last minute, so it was a complete turn of fate that led me to Barcelona. I had absolutely no connections to the city and had never been before, but loved the idea of a completely new challenge so booked a ticket for five days with my mum to explore and pound the pavement with a pile of CVs. We arrived on La Diada (Catalan Independence Day) in September 2013 – the streets were absolutely packed and I fell in love with the city walking through the Barrio Gótico in the pouring rain, and it only got better from there!

I did a five-day crash course in Barcelona geography (armed with some good apps, a wallpaper guide and several life-saving boxes of Compeed). I knew that I wanted to live as centrally as possible (knowing that I would be alone in the city to start with, I wanted to be surrounded by hustle and bustle). I dedicated several days to exploring areas such as Gracia, Barceloneta and the Eixample, and eventually settled on a studio on Calle Pelai – just off Plaça Catalunya, which I absolutely loved! I left myself exactly ten days to go home to Edinburgh, pack up my worldly possessions and return for good.

I sent 183 CVs, with 19 responses, 3 interviews and 2 offers. I was very open, knowing that I only had year’s time frame to work in. I researched a wide range of companies within certain industries that I felt passionate about. Many people were very negative at that time about finding something in Spain due to dark reports in the media of grim job statistics.

Barcelona is jam packed with cool creative international companies in a variety of industries, all looking for dynamic, multilingual people – it’s an oasis of opportunity in a sea of bad press (though that bad press is very much turning into positive news as Spanish unemployment has been consistently falling). Barcelona has a very exciting energy at the moment – whereas young companies might have set their sights on London as a base in the past, prohibitively expensive running costs and a much tougher work-life-balance culture make it much less appealing as a city, and are now turning to Barcelona for its many lifestyle benefits and great connections.

I settled in quickly with lots of lovely visitors which softened the blow of relocating. In terms of logistics, it was fairly straightforward once I had secured somewhere to live. As I was flying in from the UK, I was limited to a meagre Ryanair baggage allowance, which simplified packing a great deal! I was used to living in London away from family and friends so after initially tearful goodbyes, I settled in very quickly.

I adopted a ‘Yes’ policy in my first few weeks, going to every event or gathering to which I was invited. I was very fortunate in that the Lucas Fox team made me feel extremely welcome from the beginning. This made such a world of difference and I count some of the team among my best friends. A few friendly faces from London also found themselves in Barcelona, and through this initially small circle I met so many interesting people.

I tried to do as much as possible outside of work, like fitness and art classesmeetup.com (though it sounds a bit sad!) is a great tool for finding classes and events tailored to your interests (ie photography, life drawing, language exchange groups etc). Needless to say my group of friends in Barcelona is international and eclectic with people from all different backgrounds!

I was unaware of the extent to which Catalan is spoken in Barcelona and the surrounding areas. I had studied Spanish for the majority of my school years (and my degree), so it felt quite good (until I had to speak it). I picked up a few small basics but did get by absolutely fine in Spanish. I only remember one encounter with an elderly shopkeeper who stuck rigidly to Catalan, and refused to speak Spanish, thus initiating a confusing dance in which we spoke broken English and didn’t understand each other despite having a perfectly good language in common! My bigger issue was actually local residents wanting to practise speaking English with me (despite my best efforts to disguise my English twang, almost everyone deduced I was foreign in a split second!).

Bureaucracy is still rife when it comes to legal and administrative aspects. I was quite surprised at how complicated it was to obtain an identity card (the elusive NIE) – the process was very confusing which definitely contrasted with the fast-paced, modern city around me. I definitely expected a more user-friendly experience like an informative website or approachable customer service, but it felt very out-dated and the staff far from helpful! We actually put together a comprehensive guide for the blog – but it’s hard to keep track of the most up to date information.

It’s a terrible cliche but meeting amazing people was a real highlight of my time in Barcelona. At my leaving party I wept, whilst unashamedly clinging to people. There were so many others: exploring the streets of the Old Town and El Borne with my camera in hand; the very first time I walked into the as of yet unfinished Sagrada Família (it gave me goosebumps); one particularly spectacular sunset at Barceloneta when it was an unseasonably warm 28 degrees in October; my first Lucas Fox Christmas Party in an amazing warehouse space just metres from the Sagrada Família (more goosebumps); when a lovely group of my friends threw a BBQ and Calçotada for me in Tarragona on one of the first gloriously sunny days of spring – it was very special; weekend trips to other European hotspots (I know that it’s paradoxical for a Barcelona highlight to be leaving Barcelona but it’s so well located and such cheap flights!); being able to introduce my friends and family to my new found home town – my mum visited me five times!

Julia’s Favourite Haunts

Breakfast & Brunch

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Café Emma on Pau Claris for tasty French pastries and black-as-midnight coffee in a Parisian café-style setting (they make a mean entrecote and frites at lunchtime too).

We Pudding also do a very sweet fixed menu at breakfast time with freshly squeezed OJ then an array of brunch dishes. They always have daily newspapers and in-house ipads on hand for getting up to speed before work, or leisurely browsing at weekends.

For a laid back brunch with friends, I love Picnic in the Born. They serve scrumptious brunch tapas ideal for a big group and I love their eggs benedict with spicy hollandaise sauce or the sobresada toastie (known as a “bikini”) with honey. The local culture tends to favour brief sandwich breakfasts and lengthy lunches over the more “Anglo-Saxon” brunch, but the trend is definitely catching on with an increasing array of establishments opening their doors.

Brunch & Cake on Enric Granados is an old favourite – a fantastic American-style café complete with a retro Smeg fridge and fluffy cream upholstery that matches their frothy coffee. I always order (without fail) the truffled egg and bacon bagel served in its very own huge skillet – a mountainous brunch for the conquering!

I also recently discovered Meatpacking Bistro on the edge of Gracia, a New York style bistro that feels very “Sex & The City” with three set menu brunch “styles” – the “City Brunch” (a tempting eggs benedict + bloody mary combo), the “Oxford Brunch” (a Catalan take on the full English) and the “Sweet Brunch” (tasty pancakes) – as well as their à la carte options.

One of my all time favourite Barcelona brunch experiences is sitting at one of three high wooden tables in front of one particular ham shop (to the far left as you enter from the Ramblas side) inside the Boqueria market, watching the goings on while feasting on a huge plate of jamón, manchego and pa amb tomàquet with a chilled glass of cava.

I have been told that the Café Veranda at the Hotel Arts is a sumptuous affair for a special occasion too.

Vitamin Boost

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Teresa’s Juicery does delicious cold-pressed juices to go, with promising titles like “Green Medicine”.

The Juice House is a gem of a café in Sant Antoni serving healthy seasonal dishes and cold-pressed juices of their own. The bright, quirky space is ideal for leisurely juicin’ and getting some work or reading done.

Woki Organic Market on Ronda de la Universitat is heaven on earth for fans of the Deliciously Ella blog phenomenon – handy for picking up token healthy ingredients (it’s pricier than normal supermarkets, so I stick to the hard-to-find extras like medjool dates and chia seeds etc).

Coffee

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One of my recent favourites is Sky Coffee Co – a vintage Citroën truck serving coffee-from-heaven within the enormous Castel Veciana Architects studios (bright and airy with the highest ceilings – ideal for getting work done for hours on end – or at least from the daily 9am -1.30pm time slot it’s open to the public).

Finnish/Russian owned Slice of Life in El Borne also serves seriously good coffee, as does the fabulously hipster Satan’s Coffee.

A great spot for catching up over a steamy Americano is the ever-chic Jaime Beristain Concept Store – blending industrial design elements with plush textiles – one can’t help coveting the dreamy home ware!

I also put together a list last year of Barcelona’s Coffee Hotspots.

Lunch

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There’s much less of a “grab and go” culture in Barcelona – workers take proper lunch breaks and rarely eat at their desk (there were substantially less crumbs in my Barcelona office keyboard than its London counterpart!). The Menú del Día is an integral part of Spanish life, ensuring that anyone can enjoy a three-course meal for less than €10 at lunchtime on weekdays – this is a fantastic way to try out a variety of restaurants at a fraction of their evening menu cost. I love Foc’s quinoa salad lunch menu and the great value sushi menu at atmospheric Miu.

Sweet Treats

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Happy Pills is a group of concept pick and mix shops dotted throughout the city, designed to look like a pharmacy. The packaging is medically inspired, with labels for different ailments from a broken heart to being scared of the dark – they make very sweet presents (literally!), though perhaps not a good idea for kids!

Another purveyor of sugary treats is Papabubble, an Aussie owned old school sweetie shop serving up customised rock candy – nostalgic and fun to watch them working on new creations in the workshop.

I also love the latest project of the folks behind Happy Pills, Eye Scream and Friends is a design-led ice cream parlour with a cute twist (their Taiwanese style shaved ice cream made with Italian gelato is served up with toppings and a face). They won the Restaurant and Bar Design award in 2013 and I love their concept and clever packaging.

The best cupcakes in the city come from the enigmatically titled Cup & Cake, and I love traditional Churros at Granja M. Viader in the Gótico (now in its third generation of the same family, with a gorgeously vintage interior). The chocolate dipping sauce is rich, viscous and addictive – one would expect nothing less from the family responsible for inventing Catalan favourite Cacaolat (the original chocolate milk, and forefather of Nesquick).

Another great hidden gem is Chök – the Chocolate Kitchen, hiding coyly along one of the many unassuming side streets off the Ramblas. The unlikely design pairing of traditional Modernista features and Scandinavian-inspired minimalism gives way to mouthwatering handmade chocolates and more original packaging (their instagram is to die for). Can you tell I have a sweet tooth / weakness for clever packaging?

Events

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The Rooftop happens every Friday on various terraces around the city (I recently attended one set right under the enormous bronze fish; the light was beautiful at twilight when the sunset light bounced off the metal). From 7pm, this Sunset Market brings together fantastic electronic DJs and a handful of carefully picked local designers to show off their wares for shopping in style.

On a larger scale, is the biannual BCN en las Alturas market popping up in stunning locations (and where we launched our LFStyle Magazine).

The Pop Up food market Eat Street gathers food creatives from across the region (and Europe) for a culinary extravaganza – past spaces include the CREC in Poble-sec, the Fundació Palo Alto in Poblenou and the gorgeous wharf at Moll de Santa Bertrà in the Port. Foodie Heaven!

Each Winter, The Paseo de Gracia Shopping Night is the perfect pre-Christmas shopping event (akin to Grazia Magazine‘s Carnaby Street takeovers in London) – great atmosphere with many freebies!

I also keep an eye on the latest events happening at StudioStore in the Born – ranging from product and collection launches to themed soirees, this popular design and concept store knows how to throw together a party and make it look effortless!

I love the Brunch Elektronik day festivals, for great music and bottomless brunch.

De Mano en Mano is a fantastic vintage market and pop up, appearing across the city from 11am to 9pm on the first weekend of every month.

Shops

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Barcelona is fantastic for shopping, with all the usual high-street brands en masse. Vinçon is an incredibly unique Barcelona institution selling the most extraordinary home ware and stationery I’ve ever seen (though I have recently heard it may be closing down due to the high running costs on Passeig de Gràcia – RIP!).

The MACBA Gallery Shop sells great unusual arty books and gift-y pieces. Montfalcon is good for quirky presents. I love the aforementioned StudioStore on C/Comerç in the Born. LA-A in Gracia is a sweet little space devoted to enhancing your garden or terrace, selling furniture, candles, pots etc. Just around the corner, Nostalgic is a gorgeous little boutique devoted to vintage photography and the resurgence of all things retro / polaroid. Le Monde de Sophie up in Sarrià is a Parisian style clothes shop stocking lesser known brands.

Beachside Haunts

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Surf House at Barceloneta is one of the coolest spots on the coast, with a refreshing cocktail list and Venice Beach vibes. Let their friendly hipster staff transport you to Cali and be sure to book onto their paddle boarding night time sessions by the light of the silvery moon (they also organise fitness classes and running on the beach)!

Maka Maka is a lively burger joint (from the clever people behind Foc). Salt is the glamorous beach bar at the W Hotel (they host crazy Sunday afternoon parties in the summer).

Parks/Outdoor Spaces

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Of course, Park de Ciutadella goes without saying! Touristy but spectacular, nothing beats an early morning coffee at Ocaña in Plaza Real while it’s still quiet and cool. Keep an eye out for the colourful parrots silhouetted against the yellow buildings (not originally native, they were released for the ’92 Olympics and have made a happy home in Barcelona).

A great picnic spot is on the decking down under the swing bridge at the Port Vell – there are plenty of benches (or take a blanket), and its location within the sheltered port makes this a very peaceful corner in what is an otherwise manic area of Barcelona.

Parc del Labirinto is truly magical and feels like one’s very own secret garden.

Culture Vulture

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The World Press Photography exhibition comes to the CCCB in November each year – a gritty, moving recap of the previous year’s headlines in pictures. There are also some great photography exhibitions at the Museu d’Art Catalan up on Montjuïc (the outdoor cinema nights just around the corner are also an unmissable summer event).

Many of Barcelona’s museums are free on the first Sunday of every month, and the majority of cinemas offer half price ticket deals every Monday night.

After-Work Drinks & Cocktails

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Loria on Roger de Lluria – baked brie with thyme and truffle honey makes every day feel like a Friday!

The Wall Street themed bar Dow Jones is a terrible but funny ice breaker for big groups (mimicking the stock market, drinks prices vary depending on demand, and frequently crash, resulting in a flood of orders before prices stabilise!).

Mary Boone, in the heart of gay Eixample, is the imagined apartment of eccentric artist Mary Boone, complete with luscious over the top décor and plenty of champagne.

Milano is a classic Barcelona establishment and serves up huge extravagant G&Ts a la Espagnol (the Spanish drink their G&Ts in enormous fishbowls with obscure accoutrements such as peppercorns…!), with great live jazz nights and the darkly lit “Les Gens que J’aime”, with its velvet banquettes and candelight, was recommended by Gwyneth Paltrow herself.

Atmospheric Bar Pastis evokes post-war France and feels a little “Midnight in Paris”. Boca Chica is my glamorous cocktail bar of choice for a celebration – the colonial-era aesthetic (festooned with flickering candles and a collection of elaborate ornaments) is lavish and eclectic!

Many of my favourite bars are rooftop terraces across the city.

Day Trips

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Montserrat on a crispy December day, Sitges in Spring. I would love to explore more of the Maresme and Costa Brava regions by car!

City Secrets

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The Secret Room BCN is a supremely cool social club meets barber shop meets pop up bar and gallery space. Once housed in a converted Modernista flat on Paseo de Gracia, if I told you its new location I’m afraid I’d have to kill you.

Bar Mutis is absolutely gorgeous and supremely discrete – I couldn’t possibly describe it better than Tara Stevens:

Upstairs from Bar Mut, Díaz has converted a spacious apartment into a clandestine restaurant, cocktail bar and live music venue. It’s well worth booking a slot if you fancy an evening that feels far from the madding crowd – little wonder the celebrities love it – for expertly made classic drinks including a perfectly made Martini (rumour has it Robert de Niro passed on his personal recipe) and sultry jazz singers. It has New York style all over it, but feels thoroughly Barcelona.

Tara Stevens’ Ultimate Guide to Restaurants and Clubbing in Barcelona

Pipa Club is a weird and wonderful Sherlock Holmes themed speakeasy hidden away behind an unmarked door in Placa Reial. Buzz the correct button, climb three flights of stairs and enter a dimly lit world of leather armchairs, intimate jazz gigs and a pool room (there are even complimentary newspapers – it’s very civilised and low key).

My Secret Showroom is an elusive fashion event in Barcelona – reminiscent of a New York Sample Sale à la Carrie Bradshaw, grab amazing pieces 80% off retail price.

Can Paixano is thoroughly hidden on Calle Reina Cristina (blink and you’d miss it, were it not for the burly bouncer guarding the entrance like a Catalan Smaug). The bar itself feels like a converted stable, with enormous hams dangling overhead and a symphony of popping cork sounds. Opt for a delicious sobresada bap and a delicate Gatsby-esque glass of house cava. Organised chaos – not the place for a leisurely lunch (it’s standing room only), but absolutely fantastic!