This time next week, I’ll be off to Barcelona for the first time in nearly 10 years…
My husband and I toured Spain together in 2007, long before we were married, and Barcelona was the highlight for me. (I can’t wait to see how much progress has been made on La Sagrada Familia in the meantime!)
Regular readers will know that I’m a city girl… I like the occasional trip to the countryside, beach, village, mountains, etc., but I don’t think I could be happy long-term anywhere but a metropolis.
I’ve often said that I’d like to live in Barcelona… she checks every box for me.
Because while I’d be comfortable in many cities around the world, it’s the ones that are steeped in history that really captivate me. Paris, where I’m based, is another of these, as are many of Europe’s cities. Perhaps it’s why I generally prefer Europe to other continents…
A son of Barcelona, novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón, described his home as, “a very old city in which you can feel the weight of history; it is haunted by history. You cannot walk around it without perceiving it.”
It’s not just the history of the streets, though, it’s something deeper. These are the places that inspire and attract great artists, writers, architects, and leaders… and that inspires me.
What people cite most about Barcelona is its energy, and I think this is what I also pick up on in all the cities I love… the energy of a place that captures me just as it did all those great minds over the centuries.
Following this train of thought led me to compare Paris and Barcelona…
Paris Versus Barcelona
As I’ve said, both are old cities. Each offers a gorgeous medieval historical center and boasts gothic masterpieces. Both cities also underwent large-scale modernization, Paris during the Haussmann period from 1850 to 1870 and Barcelona not long after when Antoni Gaudí made his colorful mark on the city. Each city rejected these well-intentioned pioneers during their times but have since become renowned for their works.
Each city is especially associated with its cathedral: Paris with Le Notre-Dame, Barcelona with La Sagrada Familia…
Food And Drink
Each city has world-famous regional wine and cuisine. Paris’ steak frites, coq au vin, and boeuf bourguignon, Barcelona’s paella, tapas, tortillas, and gazpacho. France’s baguettes, Spain’s churros… France’s cheeses, Spain’s cured meats…
And the wines from each to complement each dish perfectly—including champagne and cava, each country’s trademarked sparkling wine variety.
“You’d have a hard time finding anything better than Barcelona for food, as far as being a hub,” according to the inimitable Anthony Bourdain. Of Paris, he noted, “They suffer from the burden of a tradition of fabulously oozing cheeses, rich sauces, historic wines. At the same time, he says, “The food scene is in Paris today in some ways feels way more like Brooklyn: independent and surprisingly casual.”
Culture And Entertainment
Art and music thrive in each, both historically and today. These powerhouse cultures have produced and attracted countless authors, painters, philosophers, and revolutionary thinkers. They each continue to nurture artistic education and cultivate the arts for their residents.
Want to see an opera next Monday? The ballet on Tuesday? The symphony Wednesday and a fashion show Thursday? Dinner at one of the world’s top 10 restaurants Friday night? A cooking class Saturday and a lazy day sunbathing in the park Sunday? Either city can satisfy the most indefatigable socializers.
As for museums and galleries… they abound in both cities, but Paris has the edge here. “…the whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music… it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in Everything,” said writer James Thurber. Paris is said to have over 130 museums, Barcelona over 80—so she’s not too far behind.
Both cities have been famous for their nightlife entertainment for a century and more. Clubs, bars, cabarets, and all-night parties in Paris… Barcelona, one of the world’s best party cities, offers all of the above, as well as late night beach clubs, boat parties, and street fiestas.
Walkability And Public Transport
Paris and Barcelona are similar in size and also in the breakdown of the city. Each is comprised of distinct neighborhoods with their own feel. In Paris, walking from one arrondisement to another can feel like going from one city to another, and Barcelona is much the same with its Gothic Quarter, Eixample, Barceloneta, and many other unique neighborhoods.
Both cities are very walkable and offer metro, bus, and bikes to get around, and Barcelona also has a couple tram lines. You wouldn’t want or need a car in either city, and the local lifestyles encourage using your feet or public transport to get around.
As Jefferson said, “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.”
Parks And Green Space
What about the great outdoors beyond the sidewalks?
Each offers more green space than you’d imagine for cities so compact. Barcelona’s Parc Güell would have beaten any of Paris’ parks hands down 10 years ago… unfortunately, it was privatized in 2013 and you now have to buy tickets (for a staggering 10 euros) to visit this fantastical Eden. I’m sure this is a positive move for the wellbeing of the park, which was seeing too many visitors in a day, but for residents of the city, I can’t help thinking this was a major loss.
Paris boasts a staggering amount of—free to access—green space. With two woods at edges of the city, plus several large parks, and countless small green corners, you’ll never go far without grass or trees in Paris.
Within an hour of either city, you could be hiking in the depth of the woods, and near Barcelona you also have the Montserrat mountains to climb or ski.
Where the cities really differ is in these three places…
Cost Of Living
Barcelona is much cheaper than Paris—by up to 45% according to some sources. Food and rent are notably more affordable in Barcelona. Whether you’re eating out or buying groceries, you’ll generally save money in Spain, no matter where you are in the country. Utilities cost about the same in each place, as does gas…
Which brings me to the geographical difference: Barcelona is a lot more temperate than Paris, which gets a full four seasons. In Paris you’d be unlikely to have air conditioning to add to your bills in summer, simply because it doesn’t exist in most apartments. In Barcelona, you’re more likely to have climate control available, and if you have it, you’re likely to use it in summer. On the other hand, you’d need more heating in Paris throughout the winter than you’d need in Barcelona, where it doesn’t usually get as cold…
Personally, I love seasonal change, especially after living without it for seven years in Panama, so I love Paris’ climate. While Barcelona does get a hot summer, its winter rarely gets below 50°F, and that’s not winter enough for me.
The final difference is the hardest to describe, but perhaps the most obvious once you’ve experienced both: their personalities.
Barcelona and its people are open, eccentric, welcoming, warm, lively… a little rambunctious.
You could almost say that Paris and Parisians are the opposite. I don’t mean it as an insult—I’ve chosen Paris as my home because I love it and its personality more than any other city I’ve yet experienced. But there’s no denying (and it’s a cliché for a reason) that Parisians are standoffish and can come off as cold. The city is traditional and staid.
Finally, the geographical difference… one that means so little to me I nearly forgot it, but which may be the entire reason some people would visit or move to Barcelona: the beach!
Barcelona is the only true waterfront metropolis in Europe, and this claim to fame is enough to attract millions of tourists a year. Locals run on the beach in the morning, surf, swim and fish on the weekend, and enjoy romantic walks in the evening… you don’t get that in Paris.
Editor, In Focus: Europe