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!
By Sarah Lavender Smith July 14, 2011 - 8:18 am
Hi Sherry – I’m so glad this worked out for you. YES we loved staying in Barcelona in an apartment, too! We had an apartment in the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) just off Plaza Real. Later, I read some guidebooks that said this area is a bit “seedy” and “not family friendly” but we loved it — in spite of the sex shop on the corner. Apartments are the way to go in Barcelona. Just bring ear plugs for night, as they can get noisy. One tip for apartment hunting: plug in the address of the place you’re considering and look at it in Google Street View. That way you can see if it’s on a busy corner, right over a bar, etc.
By Sherry July 15, 2011 - 5:08 pm
Excellent advice – thanks Sarah!
By Gillian @OneGiantStep July 14, 2011 - 8:50 am
We rented apartments a few times while traveling and loved it for all the reasons you outline. We always made sure the apartment was near public transit so we could easily get into town or the tourist areas. In my future travels this is the number one option!
By Barbara Weibel July 14, 2011 - 9:35 am
This is a mode of accommodation I have long wanted to try. Thanks for the tip and I’ll share it with my readers on Facebook.
By Sherry July 15, 2011 - 5:07 pm
Thanks Barbara! You should give it a go…I think you’d like it! Especially when you travel as much as you do – it’s nice to have a ‘home’ once in a while!
By Susan Greene July 14, 2011 - 10:00 am
I love the idea of living in a place for a short time as opposed to visiting as a tourist. I’m wondering if you have any guidelines for how much time is enough to justify the expense of renting an apt. One month? Two months? Six months?
By Sherry July 15, 2011 - 5:06 pm
I was there 2 weeks and it was definitely enough time enough to really make use of the kitchen and laundry and save money by purchasing my own groceries. If it was just a week I think it could be valuable for simply being able to have a couple of dinners at home and your breakfast at home and the rest of the time out. I don’t know if I would do it for just a couple of days though. But – to really save money I think a minimum of one month is the sweet spot.
By Drew Meyers July 14, 2011 - 11:07 pm
Yup, my friends and I rented 3 apartments in Santorini, Greece last summer in Perissa Beach. Most amazing summer ever. And cheap. A small room with two single beds and a bathroom (and small patio) was 300 euro a month…split between two people, that’s dirt cheap (but we split 3 rooms between 5 people).
By Sherry July 15, 2011 - 5:04 pm
Wow that is a great deal! Santorini isn’t a cheap place – but looks like you found some budget stays!
By Donna Hull July 17, 2011 - 1:32 pm
What a great idea for really getting to know a place. I’ve rented condos at the beach. I’m assuming that short-term apartment rentals offer a similar experience. One way to escape the dining isolation that you mentioned is to dine in for breakfast and/or lunch. Then venture out into the neighborhood for dinner. You’ll be saving money but still introducing yourself to the culture.
By Sherry July 20, 2011 - 2:31 am
Great advice Donna. I absolutely love having breakfast at the apartment – a real easy way to save money and it doesn’t require too many expensive groceries. Plus I can refill my coffee multiple times!
By Faith July 19, 2011 - 1:38 am
Your pictures of Barcelona are fantastic, it’s near the top of my lists of places I’d like to go someday. I’m definitely looking for the less tourist side of the city, when I picture Barcelona I’m yearning for quiet neighborly areas with pretty buildings.
I’m traveling around the US, slowly, staying in cities for a few weeks to a month at a time, and I’m subletting apartments during my stays. I just use things like craigslist and find sublets that way. I like it, I only like staying in hotels for a few nights to a week at a time.
Taking a cooking class is a good suggestion! I love grocery shopping in new areas…a little more than I like going to restaurants, actually, haha.
By Sherry July 20, 2011 - 2:30 am
Faith – enjoy your US trip – it sounds fantastic. Since I don’t have a home base any longer when I go back to the US I end up staying with family and friends for a week at a time…I would much rather have an apartment to rent though! How do you like those grocery stores in the US – they sure are a cultural experience!
By Henry Williams July 26, 2011 - 2:42 pm
I think you enjoy the vacation more when you do something like this because it allows you to feel a bit more settled in
By Dharmendra Kr Rai July 28, 2011 - 6:50 am
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By Sean September 30, 2011 - 9:59 am
I think that renting a apartment is easily the best way to see a city although I have to aggree that I would not like to rent a apartment on my own and much prefer the compnay of others. Also, the point on food is very valid but in the more tourist places, you are not eating local cuisine but you are eating generic interantional junk. Tourists eating paella or tapas on Las Ramblas are paying obscene prices for poor food, not resembling Catalan cuisine. You must research the local area beforehand to find the best local restaurants.
By Lou October 9, 2011 - 2:47 pm
Great post. I totally agree – apartments are great for really experiencing a place. I’ve stayed in apartments in Munich, Berlin and Croatia and loved it every time. There’s nothing like trying to shop for milk in a foreign supermarket! For longer term travel it’s great to be able to have switched off days – wearing your pjs, eating cereal and watching TV with no one to see you do it 🙂
I just finished a solo week in an apartment and I have to say | enjoyed it but I’m looking forward to some forced socialising next week. Will probably pick up another apartment a bit later in my trip for some chill out time though.
By Sherry October 9, 2011 - 4:36 pm
I think that’s my favorite part about staying in an apartment since I’m constantly traveling…the ability to have a ‘home’ in a way!
By Colleen October 9, 2011 - 3:21 pm
Agreed, we just rented our first apt. abroad this summer. We were in the Netherlands for a week and we had a total of 5 people meeting up to make Amsterdam our home base. We could all come and go as we please and meet up when we needed to. The kitchen was fully stocked with dishes, flatware, and pans. So we always ate breakfast there. If I had a group or a family and was staying somewhere for at least a week I’d definitely rent again.
By Sherry October 9, 2011 - 4:36 pm
Yes – it’s super for when you have a group of people traveling and are staying for more then a couple of days! My favorite way to travel!
By Nath October 9, 2011 - 4:03 pm
I rented an apartment in Rome and in Prague. Was the best 3 weeks of a 2 month trip! Just being able to kick back of a night on a lounge and turn on a TV for 5 mins before bed made a huge difference(not that I could understand what was on!) can’t wait to get back over all the way from oz and do it again!
By Heather October 9, 2011 - 8:56 pm
Are there websites you can recommend (other than o Barcelona), to help find apartments (have heard of fipkey and vrbo)
By Sherry October 9, 2011 - 9:52 pm
Yes – are you looking for a specific area? Oh Barcelona also has websites for London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Florence, Dublin, and Viena and a few more I believe. But they are all separate websites. I’ve also used Roomorama in the past and they cover much of the world too. Airbnb.com is also a service that covers the whole world. I have used all three of these companies and have been happy with them. Let me know if you have any other questions!
By S Catalano October 10, 2011 - 9:35 am
Like yourself we rented an apt in Sicily or specifically Siracusa and it was fabulous you got to know the locals and felt like you were living there permanently. We dined out and dined in a great combination. We had wifi access. Our apt came with some of the non perishables already there like salt pepper, sugar, coffee, etc. So going to the market daily to get our food was a truly European experience.
I certainly agree that finding an apt versus a hotel is the way to go. Having the apt was a home base from where we could do day trips to all the surrounding towns.
By Priscilla October 10, 2011 - 9:56 am
Good article with both the pro’s and con’s! I agree with all of them.
We stayed in a long term apartment in London until we rented one and it was hideous – one flush and you had to wait ages for the toilet to fill up. When it was filling from a tank at the end, you would hear drip, drip, drip until it stopped. I found it isolating during the day since my husband was working and I hadn’t found a job yet. If we had a nice one perhaps I would feel better, but it’s pretty much luck of the drawer when you book sight unseen.
There’s no right or wrong answer – personal preference I guess.
By Jo December 11, 2012 - 8:08 am
I love staying in apartments while travelling – it’s just so much more comfortable! It’s true that it can be isolating, but there are other places to meet people other than by staying at a hostel – eg. tour groups, cooking classes, meeting friends of friends.
Home exchange or house swapping is by far the cheapest way to stay in apartments/houses around the world – I highly recommend it!