Barcelona is a vibrant, colorful, proud and interesting place that combines the passion of the Spanish with the efficiency and organization of the Catalans. Spain's second largest city is also bursting with things to do and see. The art and architecture range from pre-Roman to Modernista, and the city is bustling with theaters, restaurants, shopping, parks, plazas and even great beaches.
Barcelona, the economic, cultural and administrative capital of Catalonia, is in the northeast of Spain on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. About 1.6 million people call the city home, including more than 150 nationalities, a reflection of the Catalan peoples' open and receptive character.
Barcelona is not a budget city compared with Latin America or Southeast Asia. However, neither is this the developing world. This is one of Europe's most dynamic and multi-cultural cities. Considering the quality of life available, the cost of living qualifies as one of the world's best bargains. A retired couple could live here on as little as $2,000 per month. And this city's property market is a global buy.
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 beginning to rebound, meaning this is the time to be shopping. The current average value per square meter is 3,192 euros, which is a fall of 35 percent from 2007 highs. This is not a bargain compared with top retirement options in the Americas or Asia. However, Barcelona would be better compared with a city like Paris, where the average cost per square meter for older apartments is 8,140 euros.
Barcelona has 10 districts, but the area of greatest interest for retirees is the oldest part, the Ciutat Vella, which is divided into four districts: 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.
Also appealing for retirement living are Eixample; Gràcia, on the northern side of the Ciutat Vella; Poublenou, in the Sant Marti district; and, for retirees with bigger budgets, Reina Elisenda in the Zona Alta on the northwest side of the city. Each of these neighborhoods has its own flavor, character, advantages and disadvantages.
La Ribera. La Ribera was originally an extension of the Old Town where the city's richest families lived. It has undergone a massive transformation over the past 10 years from rundown to chic and desirable and is now considered the choice among foreigners with decent budgets. The recently opened Born Cultural Center forms a new heart to the area. It is also home to the Picasso Museum and the awe-inspiring Santa Maria del Mar Church. Many of the buildings retain their original historic facades, which conceal cleverly modernized apartments.
Barri Gòtico. The Gothic Quarter is Barcelona's most touristy area. Historically, this is 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 decade, this area, like La Ribera, has undergone a revival, with the chic and trendy moving back in. Barri Gòtico is an area of narrow streets, small apartments and intriguing ancient history. The famous pedestrianized La Rambla forms the backbone of the area, with beautiful ancient buildings flowing off it as it heads toward the sea. Much of this area is difficult to access by car and most buildings do not have elevators, so this would not be a district to consider if you have a walking disability.
El Raval. Centrally located and gritty, Raval is the area for the pioneer investor. This neighborhood is expected to be the next La Rivera. It is undergoing a renaissance to become chic and could become much more expensive over time. Already, there are signs of this.
Barceloneta. This is where all the fishermen used to live. It is one of the smallest barrios in Barcelona, with around 16,000 inhabitants. The streets are narrow and the buildings are small. Apartments average just 30 to 40 square meters and largely are not modernized or at all fancy. However, because of the beach, the easy walk to see the sites and the great sports facilities, Barceloneta is becoming popular with buy-to-rent investors.
The Eixample. The Eixample (the Ensanche in Spanish) district was purpose-built in the 19th century and designed on a grid by the visionary architect Ildefons Cerdà, whose plans gave consideration to space, light, ventilation and the well-being of inhabitants. You can see that in the wide roads and large buildings. Every block of apartments has been designed to include a large central patio (known in Spanish as a patio de manzana), so that homes have light in the front and back. At the intersection of each pair of roads the corners of the blocks are cut to form mini-plazas, delightful spaces to sit and enjoy the views of the ornate architecture.
The Eixample is divided into the Right and the Left. The Left Eixample includes the Gay Eixample, an area that was in decline until the gay community stepped in and beautified it. You'll find more bars and restaurants here than on the Right.
Gràcia. 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 Ciutat Vella. Many of the streets are narrow, but there are also pretty, quiet plaças where you can sit and enjoy the community feel.
Sant Martí. Sant Martí includes Poblenou, the area that backs onto Barcelona's best beaches. This is the neighborhood that until very recently had its "back to the beach," and for good reason: the "beaches" were unpleasant, dirty industrial areas. Until the end of the last century, only fishermen, factory workers and local tradesmen lived here.
The announcement that the 1992 Olympics would be held in Barcelona changed this neighborhood forever and for the better. The area along the seafront was developed into the Villa Olympica to house visiting athletes. The Icaria shopping and movie complex was built and the new Olympic Port was opened. The whole area was cleaned up and the beaches transformed from dirty to blue-flag status (the height of European cleanliness). This is where you'll find the nudist and gay beaches.
La Zona Alta. Away from all the hubbub and tourists is the Pedralbes district in the Zona Alta. Located on the northwest side of the city, this is recognized as Barcelona's most prestigious neighborhood and one of the biggest. It is a place of mansions, elegant apartment blocks and the leading international schools. This area has a quiet, residential feel, almost as if you are in another city compared to the Gothic Quarter.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 28 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her newest book, "How To Buy Real Estate Overseas", published by Wiley & Sons, is the culmination of decades of personal experience living and investing around the world.
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