I sat outside in my neighborhood in Barcelona at one of the many outdoor cafes on Avenue de Gaudi. The avenue was lined with little shoe and fashion shops I had never heard of, coffee shops, mobile phone retailers, and some small tapas cafes. I was surrounded by locals of all ages at other tables drinking coffee enthusiastically and talking to each other in Spanish at a rapid pace. The sun was shining, but everyone was protected under the café’s tents. The atmosphere seemed lazy and laid back. Most of the people were clearly friends or neighbors catching up with each other this morning before running their errands to the market.
Contrast this with the Las Ramblas – the Times Square of Barcelona where most visitors to the city stay near. Las Ramblas is loud, packed to capacity, and lined with Burger Kings and Starbucks among Zara’s and H&M’s. The place is heaving with excitement, people trying to sell you things, and simultaneously take things (pick pockets). That’s what most people see when they come to Barcelona.
Don’t get me wrong Las Ramblas can be a ton of fun and excitement, but for me it’s not really what I look for when visiting a city and it certainly isn’t where I want to stay.
As a long term traveler and nomad, where I sleep is quite important to me. Over the past few years I’ve been experimenting with various types of accommodations when I travel. I’ve done hostels , house-sitting, couchsurfing, guest houses, and regular hotels. But with my recent trip to Spain I decided to try yet another form of accommodation – short-term apartment rental.
I stayed in an Oh-Barcelona apartment for 2 weeks in a local neighborhood near Sagrada Familia. I had ample time to explore my quiet little neighborhood and critically look at the benefits and downfalls of staying in an apartment while traveling.
Benefits of Staying in an Apartment While Traveling:
This is one of the best ways to meet local people, understand local culture and feel like a local. You see the real culture of the city, not the tourism culture; trust me, there is a big difference. I met my neighbors, I learned where my local markets, pharmacies, and post offices were. I even learned about the grocery shopping culture which can be quite unique to each country! It’s hard to imagine, but as I walked down the street to my apartment, I felt like I belonged. Granted, you can stay in the more touristy areas, but I really loved visiting sites and then coming ‘home’ to my quiet little neighborhood.
This is probably the most concrete benefit. Short term apartment rental might be a similar cost as a hotel, however you save money in other ways that are huge. I went out and got 100 Euro worth of food which lasted me 4 nights of dinner, 5 lunches, and about 7 breakfasts. If I would have had to go out for all of those meals and cups of coffee it would have been about 300 Euros easily. In addition, the internet access was included and it was FAST. Most hotels make you pay for wifi these days – ridiculous rates for crappy bandwidth. Here it was all included. In addition, I was able to do laundry in my apartment which also saved money and made it much cheaper than a hotel.
Home Sweet Home
Basically you have a real home, a couch you can nap on, comfy chairs and a place to really relax. When I travel a lot one of the things I miss most is a real chair. I get tired of sitting on hotel bed or uncomfortable hotel ‘office’ chairs. My apartment also had an ipod doc, dvds, and a nice kitchen. You have your privacy and don’t have to deal with any front desk clerk or common space. It’s all blissfully yours, and because of that, it’s also more secure than staying in a hostel or hotel where people come in and out of your room.
You will really get to know your neighborhood. After a few days I had figured out where the post office was, running routes, grocery stores, butchers, bus routes, and the pharmacy. A few more weeks and I’m pretty positive I would have known everyone on my block! One of my big surprises is that the nightlife in my neighborhood was very quiet. I used to have this vision of Spain as the party capital of the world, and it held true in the tourist areas I went to. But in my neighborhood, it was laid back, and comfortable. Restaurants closed at midnight and few people were out.
It’s also important to note that most apartment rental companies make sure they you aren’t missing out on a concierge serve – they provide you with loads of information to help you get around your new location. My apartment had maps, subway routes, guides, and Oh Barcelona provided me with a huge stack of discounts for tours and sites. Oh Barcelona also provided great information on their Facebook page as well as their Barcelona Blog. I honestly used it as my guidebook and to find out what events were going on in the city during my stay.
Disadvantages to Staying in an Apartment While Traveling:
No maid service
You’ve got to keep the place tidy yourself; if you are like Pigpen from the Peanuts gang, you may be in trouble. And if you are staying for an extended time then you have to clean the sheets and towels too – or you can opt for just being gross.
You have to remember you are staying in an apartment – not a hotel. You don’t always get everything you need and end up having to buy daily things that are expected in a hotel – soap and toilet paper for example. Most places will have some staples for cooking such as oil – but there is no guarantee. My apartment didn’t have any soap, kitchen towels, pepper, or close-pins to hang up your clothes after washing them. In this respect, if you aren’t staying in the apartment for a short time, this can become expensive. You have to purchase all of these staples and you barely get to use them. Especially when you cook, you have to buy a whole bag of sugar, but you may only need a couple of teaspoons. I look at it as karma….leave the non-perishable things for the next person!
Here you are in a new city that is known for their amazing cuisine, but you have your own kitchen in which you can save money and cook for yourself. I went out to eat at restaurants very minimally for the two weeks I was in Barcelona because I felt guilty about having this great kitchen that I should be using. I sort of felt like I missed out on the food culture in Barcelona (however my pocket book was happy about it!). My best advice to combat this loss of country food culture is to take a cooking class when you arrive and learn how to cook the local cuisines. Then you can have the joy of learning how to shop in a foreign country, get your supplies, and cook up the local food yourself immediately practicing what you learned!
If you are a solo traveler, staying in an apartment by yourself is a bit isolating. In hostels or couchsurfing it’s easy to meet people and other solo travelers, but when you have your own apartment, it becomes harder. I honestly think this is a great lodging solution for couples and family, but it’s certainly possible to do it solo too. If your solo, you’ll just need to make some extra effort to meet others which I actually prefer to do.
Overall I would absolutely recommend this type of lodging for travelers – especially long-term or career break travelers. It’s a great way to slow down, save money, and feel part of a community that is very foreign to you. You’ll connect more with the country and the people.
Rating my Lodging Experiments:
1. House sitting
2. Apartment stays and Couchsurfing (tie)
5. Guest Houses
Have you ever stayed in an apartment as part of your travels, what was the best and worst thing about it?
Disclosure: Oh Barcelona Apartments is hosting my accommodation in Barcelona. However, all of the opinions expressed here though are my own – as you know how I love to speak my mind!