It is one of the first things I was warned of when I began to plan a visit to Barcelona. “Don’t leave your suitcase even for a moment.” “Keep an eye and hand on your belongings at all times.” “Don’t put your phone down, and hold it tightly.” Petty crime, especially theft and pickpocketing, are viewed as higher here than anywhere else in the world. So, is Barcelona a dangerous place to visit? What is the truth behind these ominous warnings from locals and visitors alike?

Let’s begin with some rather alarming statistics. In the first eight months of 2019, there were 83,472 robberies – pickpocketing included – in the Catalan capital. To give you an idea of comparison, in Los Angeles (a city more than twice the size) there were around 40,000 robberies (violent and non) in all of 2019. Of these more than 80,000 robberies, just over 5,000 were of the violent variety, a fairly small but noticeable segment.

Petty theft in major cities, especially those with significant tourist populations, is certainly not unique to Barcelona. Tourists tend to be easy targets, for a couple of reasons. First, they are in unfamiliar surroundings, often distracted by the sights of a new city, or by looking at a map, taking pictures, etc… Secondly, tourists tend to walk around with more of value: cameras, cash, nice phones. They tend to be easy to pick out by appearance, clothing, and mannerism, and are unsure of how to handle a situation if it were to arise. (I spent three months living in France and don’t know how to call police there, I am ashamed to admit.)

Demonstrations like this make for convenient distractions that pickpockets will use to their advantage.

However, while tourists are targeted everywhere, the numbers in Barcelona are staggering. It is so noticeable that a well-commented thread in the Barcelona forums on TripAdvisor states that “visitors should expect to be robbed” while there. Think about that for a moment. Should expect to be robbed. Locals agree. Not one single local I spoke with, from my Airbnb host to a college friend I visited to my contacts at the tourism board, could claim not having been pickpocketed at least once.

The most common crime seems to be minor petty theft: pickpocketing, purse snatching, phone or luggage grabbing. Spanish law actually makes these crimes more common, as any theft under €400 in value is a misdemeanor, punishable only by a fine as little as €50. This misdemeanor status exists no matter how many times the same individual is caught, so even a success rate of 25% is a net profit. Furthermore, many thieves work in groups, splitting the proceeds so that no individual exceeds the threshold. My university buddy said that thieves are so brazen and so unafraid of consequences that he has caught someone with a hand in his backpack and had that would-be-thief smile sheepishly and say something along the lines of, “I am as surprised to find my hand in your bag as you are,” before walking away to seek another target.

On this trip, I spent a week and a half in Barcelona and did not have a single problem. However, I took some precautions that many tourists don’t. First, I carry all of my valuables (wallet, phone, passport if I have to have it with me) in my front pockets, and default to walking with my hands in those same pockets, especially on crowded sidewalks or public transportation. If I sit at a cafe or on a bus, I keep my arms looped through my backpack (if I am carrying one) and never set my phone down on the table or seat. I wear only plain colored shirts and jeans, nothing that identifies me easily as being from elsewhere, and don’t have anything expensive on me (except my phone – certainly no watch or jewelry). These things all help to make me a harder target, and so would-be-thieves might look to others instead. These are all steps everyone can, and probably should, take.

La Rambla: crowded with tourists and a place would-be-thieves will target.

So is Barcelona safe? Let’s go back to those same statistical periods of Barcelona in the first two thirds of 2019 and Los Angeles for the entire year. During that period, Barcelona had 44 homicides. Los Angeles had 253, albeit in a slightly longer period, and that is also a relatively low rate (the city had more than 1,100 as recently as 1992). So while you are more likely to be the target of petty theft in Barcelona, you are also reasonably safe from extreme physical harm. That is comforting.

At the end of the day, all we can do as travelers is to make informed decisions, and to try to mitigate danger as best as we can. If the petty crime rate in Barcelona – or the malaria rate in Brazil or the fear of anti-Semitism in France – makes you not want to visit, that is entirely up to you. However, in my personal opinion and experience, a visit to Barcelona is entirely possible to do without incident by taking the simple steps mentioned above. Will it guarantee your safety? No. But should you “expect to be robbed?” Also no.

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