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Barcelona is the most beautiful haven of thieves. I’ve lived here for 11 years, and I’ve had only one theft, which was my backpack sitting in a stroller. It could have been avoided! While Barcelona is a non-violent city, you DO have to be aware and vigilant of your belongings. In this guide, you’ll learn about smart safety tips, Barcelona pickpocket hotspots, and common scams and techniques. You’ll learn how to avoid pickpockets in Barcelona!
To help out, we have a dependable insider source who’s seen it ALL. Karme Màlaga is a former employee at the Barcelona Police Station. She was an interpreter who worked with local cops and theft victims for three years. (As a polyglot, she speaks five languages: Catalan, Spanish, French, English, and Italian!) Karme’s heard all the horrifying pickpocketing scams. She’s sharing extra tips on the whats, wheres, whos, and hows so you can avoid getting robbed too. She’s also an actor living in Paris, do check her out!) I originally wrote this post in 2014 but updated it with some of Karme’s exclusive advice. Read on for tips on Barcelona safety, 2019!
You don’t have to genetically look like a typical Spanish / Catalan person to blend in with locals. Just dress like a local so you’re not an obvious target. For example, don’t wear shorts and tank tops in March. (Check out my complete guide on what to wear in Barcelona.) It’s fine to BE a tourist, but try not to look lost. If you need to look at a physical map, sit down on a bench discreetly.
I asked Karme, who are the easiest victims? She says, Chinese and Japanese are. (I’m guessing this goes for any Asian tourist that looks innocent.) Also, elderly Americans, Dutch, or German visitors are often targets.
A crossbody purse has a strap that’s long enough to go on one shoulder and is slung diagonally across your torso. Don’t just carry a purse on your shoulder, or else it will get ripped off easily. It should always have a zipper so that its contents are hard to access. No button closures with wide openings! Keep your purse snug close to your body and facing towards your front and back. Keep all your zippers zipped.
For extra security, carry an anti-theft crossbody purse. I wrote a Buyer’s Guide that explains how to select one and the top anti-theft purses on the market. Below is my anti-theft travel purse by Travelon. (It’s got 1,700+ reviews!). It’s made of slash-proof body material, has slash-proof straps, and can carry a day’s worth of stuff. In fact, I use it to carry my DSLR camera as well. My favorite feature is that the main zipper and the front zipper lock. Basically, it would be hard for pickpockets to open! Seriously, I have peace of mind as I’m busy taking photos or looking at a menu. I have two Travelon anti-theft purses, and I use them every day because they’re super practical and fashionable. ALSO, you can unhook the main strap and attach it to a chair or other stationary object. Check out this best-selling dependable purse:
When you’re busy getting around in the city, you’re sitting down, standing up, squeezing through tight spaces, and getting brushed by strangers. With so much contact, you’ll naturally lose sensitivity on your bottom that you couldn’t really feel your wallet sliding out. Plus you can’t see behind you! Keep your wallet in your front pants pocket and keeps his hands close to it.
The risk of carrying one on your back is having a blind spot behind you. Wear the backpack frontwards while you’re navigating thick crowds, at least you’ll have a better view of your things.
ALTERNATIVE! Buy an anti-theft backpack. A lot of these have no accessible pockets from the front, so pickpockets will have a hard time finding a zipper to unzip. They’re also armed with slash-resistant straps and body material in case thieves try to cut them with a sharp object. (Karme says thieves have tried to cut backpacks while in line at the Sagrada Familia.) Check out my guide on buying an anti-theft backpack, or check out this dependable anti-theft slash-proof like this Travelon backpack.
Don’t leave your phone or wallet on the table at a restaurant. Karme says a common scam is when a “charity worker” tries to get you to sign a petition. So they put the paper over your stuff on the table and distract you. All while they take the wallet or phone from the table from your pocket or table.
At a restaurant, keep your purse on your lap and/or still strapped to you. Don’t hang your purse around the back of the chair. I did that once at a cafe in Raval, and a man came close to me and pretended to admire the artwork on the walls. I glanced at him only to realize he was eyeing my purse!
Common metro stations for pickpockets are Plaça Catalunya, Plaça Espanya, and Sagrada Familia.
When you’re on the metro, notice how local women wear their purse. If they’re sitting, their purse is usually on their lap still strapped to their bodies with their arms resting on top of it. One time, I saw a woman sitting by the doors, falling asleep. Just as the doors were closing, a man grabbed her bag and headed out, not giving her enough time to react. I’ve seen this happen with a fancy smartphone as well.
Another tactic I’ve also seen is a group of fake tourists holding an unfolded large map and pretending to study it. They try to slip their hands out in hopes they can grab something valuable.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk to anyone. Just be aware that pickpockets often dress like tourists so they can blend in. Walk away when you suspect someone is a pickpocket. Here are some other situations that I’ve heard of or seen:
– A playful stranger approached a friend’s father and said, “Hey, dance with me!”. My friend’s dad thought it was funny but didn’t realize there was an alibi near him who stole his wallet from his pocket and ran.
– An acquaintance was at a bar and found himself surrounded by several women who struck up a conversation with him. He had his wallet in his jacket pocket but realized later he’d been robbed. Not to mention, his pride was shattered.
– Someone takes your wallet. You run after it. A “kind” stranger comes to help you chase after him. Then he trips you and steals your watch too.
– Realize that pickpockets often work in teams. They work swiftly and quickly. Be careful of the “kind” stranger!
– Don’t trust “undercover cops”. Cops are usually in full uniform. If an “undercover cop” tries to talk to you, just walk away.
– Don’t let your guard down. Be open and friendly, but keep in the back of your mind that a friendly person could be a pickpocket.
– Walk away from the pickpocket.
If you’re carrying minimal valuables like a phone, key, some credit cards, and some cash. There are some SMART travel products on the market where you can “hide” your stuff.
– A scarf with a hidden zipper pocket! It’s ideal if you want to carry light things and maybe you don’t want to carry a purse.
– A travel money belt. It slips conveniently under your clothing. You can also use it when you get home for workouts and everyday use.
– A hidden travel pouch which you slide under your bra. Now, I don’t know how you get this out when you’re at a bar. So it’s great if you have extra cash that you don’t want to leave at the hotel. If you’re a guy, it comes in black 😉 and you can hide it inside your shorts!
You know how people walk with their phone in front of them? Don’t do this at night in the city centre, especially after 11pm and especially in the Gothic Quarter. Pickpockets are preying on tipsy locals and tourists in their merry mood. They can also be playful themselves then throw you off-guard and snatch your stuff. Sorry guys…but I’m hearing about more incidences of pickpockets ripping phones out of hands. Watches off wrists and necklaces of bodies. It hurts me to hear this – as Born and Gothic Quarter are fun bar areas. Keep a kind of a “tough” attitude and be extra vigilant at night!
Here are some common places to get robbed, according to Karme. This list is not exhaustive! Learn more on how to not get pickpocketed in Barcelona:
Plaça Catalunya, Plaça Espanya, and Sagrada Familia. At Sants, here are a few ways to get robbed there:
– Wallet robbed from the pocket. Keep it in the front and your hands nearby.
– Two or three people blocking the entrance into the train to distract the victim and rob him. Stay focused and know where your valuables are.
– Backpacks are cut with knives. Remember, hold your backpack in front of them and between your arms!
– The ticket machine. When you put your credit card inside, it suddenly stuck and it doesn’t work. Then a “kind” stranger approaches, pretending to help you. When he’s gone, you’re robbed. Watch your valuables the whole time.
– If your room is on the first floor, don’t sleep with your balcony door open. Some thieves climb the buildings if they see the balcony doors are open. They come in while the victims are sleeping. They put some kind of product on the victim’s mouth and nose to keep them asleep. Then they rob laptops, cameras, iPhones, EVERYTHING.
– Don’t leave very important items in the room. Thieves also can come in when they are not there. Try the hotel safe.
At the beach
– Don’t go swimming with your personal belongings unattended.
Tip from Justine: If you like taking a dip, bring a waterproof pouch that can go in the water. It won’t leave a drop on your stuff. You can store your phone, money, and hotel key. I have one, and I have peace of mind that I can just leave my towel behind when I want to go in the water.
At a dance club / discoteca
Do NOT accept drinks from people you don’t know. Karme translated cases in which the victim has been drugged by a drink without knowing it and then was abused.
Other places around Barcelona
Of course, Las Ramblas, Born, and the Gothic Quarter, are where most of the tourists are concentrated and are pickpocketing hotspots.
Again, there’s a lot of talk that more pickpockets are hanging around after 11pm until the early daylight hours. BE EXTRA CAUTIOUS HERE. (The residents are quite sick of it, and we are currently working to change these archaic laws, complaining, contacting the press, making lots of noise! We’re hoping for a change soon!)
Sagrada Familia: Tourists are robbed every day in the summer while queueing to buy tickets. Thieves cut tourists’ backpacks with a knife and the victim doesn’t even realize that she/has been robbed. Hold your backpack on the front. Or, as I (Justine) mentioned, get a dependable anti-theft backpack, which is cut-proof like this one.
Parc de la Ciutadella: Lots of people like to sit on the grass with their stuff near them. Thieves will take your bags and run.
Justine, here again. I’m in a few Facebook Barcelona expat groups and “robbery watch” groups, and many people have lost laptops and bikes. Reading off from the last few Facebook posts, I’ve read pickpocketing cases have been around Palau de la Música in Born, Carrer Avinyó, and Verdaguer station. Popular pickpocketing areas change constantly.
BOTTOM LINE: Secure your stuff and keep it close. Be cautious when trusting strangers, even “friendly” ones.
If your passport is stolen. Go to the police first. Then go to your embassy, who will ask for a copy of the police report. You might be able to get a temporary passport so you can fly. Contact your airlines to see if they need a temporary passport.
Thanks, Karme, for your insider information!
Have you ever been robbed? Can you add any more tips to avoid scumbag pickpockets?
California native, churro aficionado, and mom of 3, Justine Ancheta writes fervently about Barcelona and Spain. Since 2008, she's been eating burnt onions (calçots) and tripping on cobblestones in the Gothic Quarter. She shares tips on popular attractions, exposes offbeat non-touristy spots, and gives insight on exploring Barcelona with kids. Her next Catalan culture challenge: top level of a human castle (castellers).
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