Barcelona is a city with a lot of quirks and peculiarities that you only truly discover when you move here. At first, you may experience them as culture shocks. But as you spend more time living in this amazing city, they grow on you. You fall in love with all of the city’s unique traditions and adopt a bunch of local habits – without you even noticing! And once you do, you’ll be able to connect with the locals on a deeper level.
Want to know what to expect?
Here are the top 10 culture shocks faced by foreign students – and anyone moving to Barcelona from a different country.
1. People work late…
In Barcelona, people usually start work around 9:00-9:30am. They take a one-hour lunch break around 2:00-3:00 pm and work until 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening.
Nowadays, it’s less common for companies to respect the traditional siesta, but old-fashioned businesses still give their employees two to three hours to go home, have lunch and chill for a bit before returning to work. The siesta is still very much alive in most small shops (especially outside the city centre), post offices and banks, which close between 2:00 and 5:00 pm.
2. … and eat super late.
Dragged-out workdays mean that mealtimes get pushed, too. On weekends, dinner can stretch all the way into the next day: it’s not uncommon for your neighbours to start cooking (and mouthwatering smells to start seeping in through your window) at 10:00 or even 11:00 in the evening. Restaurants take a break between lunchtime and dinnertime, closing at 4:00 pm and reopening at 8:30-9:00 pm.
3. It can get really noisy.
Waking up to the sounds of drums and trumpets on a Sunday morning? It can happen without any warning in Barcelona. Raucous laughter and loud conversations in bars and restaurants are an absolute must. During fiestas or street parades, blasting music, setting off roaring fireworks and singing at the top of your lungs is completely okay – be it day or night.
Truth be told, no matter how loud locals can get when they’re having a good time, a lot of disruptive noise comes from tourists partying and being disrespectful. Make sure you always keep your volume in check during a night out – you don’t want to be shunned as a guiri with no manners.
4. Intimacy gets a different definition…
Locals use the most intimate terms of endearment to refer to strangers in a nonchalant way. It’s not uncommon for cashiers to call you sweetheart (cariño), love (amor) or gorgeous (guapísimo).
It’s also common practice to give everyone (including a person you just met) two kisses on the cheek when greeting each other, starting with the left.
You’ll notice that people are comfortable with touching or bumping into strangers. A tap on the shoulder while riding the bus or a friendly shove when getting on the metro is more than common.
5. … and so does personal space.
In neighbourhoods like El Born, Ciutat Vella and Eixample, people live in tightly packed buildings. If you have a window that opens onto the inner courtyard of your apartment block, you’ll hear everything that’s going on at your neighbours’. Conversations. Quarrels. Washing machines. Music. Even coughs and sneezes. It’s as if you were living in a large, shared living space!
6. Some Christmas traditions have to do with… well, bowel movements.
If you go to a Christmas market in Barcelona, you’ll find vendors selling wooden logs with a face painted on them, and tiny figurines of a man pulling his pants down, squatting above a pile of stool.
The former is the protagonist of every Catalan child’s Christmas. During the Advent period, they “feed” and care for the log as if it were a pet, then beat it with a stick to make it excrete candy on Christmas Eve. It’s not as violent as it sounds: the children sing an adorable song of encouragement while performing the ritual.
The latter, called the caganer, is an indispensable part of the elaborate nativity sets that Catalan families set up in their homes, and is meant to make the profound biblical scene more relatable for everyday people. The caganer was originally conceived as wearing a white-and-black outfit complete with a barretina (a traditional Catalan hat) but has been fully reinvented. The figurine now often takes on the form of famous people or characters, such as Lionel Messi, Donald Trump or Harry Potter.
7. Char-grilling spring onions is a thing.
When you get invited to your first calçotada, you’ll know that you’ve officially made friends in Barcelona.
A calçotada is a traditional Catalan barbecue that happens in late winter-early spring. It features gigantic spring onions – calçots – roasted on the grill until the outer layer completely blackens and the inside softens.
The way to eat them is simple and fun: just peel off the blackened bits, dip the onion in romesco sauce, tilt your head back and lower the onion into your mouth from above. Oh, and never forget to wash it down with a glass of wine!
8. Not everything is a conversation starter.
“Are you the last one standing in line?” – that’s how a local will join a queue.
“Are you getting off?” – they’ll ask when you’re standing in their way on the bus.
These questions are more poetic than transactional, they’re just being polite. You are expected to reply with yes or no, but you definitely don’t need to engage in conversation – unless you want to!
9. No one is scared of fire.
Celebrations like Saint John’s eve or Midsummer Night (Día de Sant Joan) and La Mercè (a festival in September) are always accompanied by fireworks. And lots of them.
On these special occasions, some locals will dress up as monsters and devils and perform a spectacular fire-run (correfoc) on the street that consists of throwing sparks and fireworks in the air as they’re being cheered on by the crowd. It’s an activity that accompanies all major festivals in the city – of which there are many – and if you’re wearing appropriate, non-flammable clothing, it can be quite fun.
10. People dress for the season – not the weather.
Sun’s out, guns out! Not in Barcelona. Here, people debut their seasonal wardrobes whenever the calendar says it’s time, regardless of the weather.
So don’t be surprised if you see someone walking around in a thick jacket on a sunny spring day, or wearing a tiny sundress on an unusually chilly evening.
Have you experienced any other culture shocks in Barcelona? Let us know what they are!
Also, check out our post on 5 reasons why international students should study in Barcelona!