Everything you need to know about staying safe amidst the theft and crime in Barcelona.
There’s something truly magical about the capital of Cataluña. Whether it’s the energy in the streets from the mountains down to the sea, or the architecture, music and arts that people flock from around the globe to experience.
Everyone wants a taste of the Mediterranean lifestyle and, after arriving in Barcelona for the first time, it doesn’t take long to understand why.
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I first came to Spain in the Summer of 2018. I’d just finished my undergraduate studies and was meeting a few friends in Barcelona to embark on a five-week trip through Europe. Having come from Brisbane, which is more of a big country town than a city, I was in awe of absolutely everything I saw in Barcelona. From the first day I arrived, I knew that I would be back one day to live. This turned out to be much sooner than expected after I met my partner, Cyndi, here in Barcelona during my first visit. Coincidentally, she was travelling to Australia at the end of that year, allowing us to meet again upon her arrival in Brisbane, just a few months later. It was just a few weeks until I’d been persuaded to pack what I could carry and leave the rest behind. I was off to Spain again.
The most valuable piece of advice that I was given when I first arrived in Barcelona was to protect your belongings and keep your phone out of sight. After two years in the Catalan capital, this is the first thing I would tell anyone who is looking for advice. I saw more robberies during my first six months in Barcelona than I did over 24 years in Australia. Most of the thieves are swift, vanishing before their victim even has a chance to realise they’ve been robbed. It works easily when there are seas full of unsuspecting tourists everywhere and absolutely no criminal charges for robbing another person in broad daylight. But many don’t fear being seen. They roam around in groups, looking for absolutely anyone they can overpower to take bags, phones, watches, and anything of value from.
Since Covid, there have been several distressing videos released which show such crimes taking place. The video below, which sums things up well, is of an English tourist, who is begging to get into a taxi after being targeted a group of Maghrebi men. The guy is absolutely terrified, but the driver denies the man entry and tells him to get into another car, which to no surprise, is being guarded by the assailants. The tourist enters the taxi, closely followed by the three others who then proceed to assault and rob him.
During my first visit to Barcelona in 2018, in the very same place the above video was captured, my friends and I got into a taxi to return home after a night out. My good mate, Doug, got into the front seat, and I witnessed him holding his phone at multiple points during the journey home. When we arrived and went to get out of the taxi, Doug’s phone was nowhere to be seen. We turned the car upside down before the thieving driver started getting pretty aggressive. So Doug accepted that his phone was gone and we went home without it.
Another one of my good mates, Lachie, came to visit in 2019. As it was when I was preparing for my Yachtmaster exam, I stayed home one evening that he went out to see the city. After meeting a guy in a bar, near the infamous La Rambla, and talking for just a few minutes, Lachie realised the moment that the man’s hand was sliding out of his pocket with his iPhone.
In efforts to save his mobile phone, Lachie grabbed the mans hand and tried to wrestle it back from him. But the man calmly told him that he shouldn’t try anything as they were surrounded by the thief’s accomplices and my friend had no chance of winning this fight. They then escorted him to a cash machine where Lachie purchased the phone back from the thief for 200€, only to have it stolen again not two days later.
My partner also had her phone stolen three times in the space of two months in Barcelona. Once with violence, where she was hit in the head by the thief from behind, and on the other two occasions, on the metro and a restaurant terrace where the thieves were gone before anyone realised what had happened.
These are just the stories from those who are close to me, some of the other victims of robberies here have not been so fortunate though. It was also around this time that a report surfaced which detailed the fatal stabbing of a young woman in a Port Olympic nightclub. All for an iPhone. story
The thieves you see in the videos are just opportunist cowards who, for their own safety, will only ever hunt in groups. They are usually looking for phones, wallets, bags and jewellery in areas that they can make a quick offload and escape; but, wallets and bags will usually just be emptied and discarded nearby. Most are actually quite scared of being confronted though, even though their crimes usually carry no punishments if they get caught.
So how do you avoid becoming a victim or a target altogether?
5 Tips for safety in Barcelona:
A high percentage of Barcelona’s crime is isolated to an area that I’m going to call the Red Zone. Ciutat Vella, meaning old city, is one of Spain’s most frequently visited tourist destinations for so many reasons. It is also one of the countries’ worst areas for crime, covering more than half of the Red Zone on the map below. This is an area where particular caution is required, but this is also no secret to most people who visit Barcelona. My advice for anyone who doesn’t want to become a robbery Victim in Barcelona is simple.
1: Be cautious in the Red Zone, especially at night
The Red Zone houses some of Spain’s most frequently visited tourist destinations and is also home to some of the Barcelona’s best-known places to eat, drink and dance. It is also the quarters for numerous mafia presences within the city who continuously fight for control of the area, causing death and violence predating my arrival here. Drug factions of different nationalities can often be seen fighting on the streets, and many flats are being stolen from their rightful occupants and converted into narcopisos. After living in the area for over a year, I would definitely say that it’s a place you must exercise caution at all times. If you have to go anywhere within this area alone, especially late at night, then it’s worth considering Pepper Spray as a pocket-sized deterrent for someone trying to harm you. It’s cheap and readily available from surplus stores around the city and best of all, completely legal to carry. A little tin of spice juice could give you the time you need to escape a nasty situation, as long as you don’t blind yourself first, but just being careful and not talking to strangers will get you pretty far as well.
2: Try not to look like a tourist
‘Guiris‘ stand out in Barcelona and, as the locals aren’t overly receptive of tourists, thieves can happily live off their prizes from robbing them. As long as the thieves don’t rob the Catalans, they can go about their business with little resistance from any of the locals. Tourists are by far the biggest target for thieves in Barcelona, and that’s the way the locals like it. People here do not speak English unless they come from overseas, and out of principle, many of the Catalan people do not even speak Spanish unless they absolutely must. For this reason, just a basic understanding of Spanish can get you very far in Barcelona. Whether you are asking for help or directions, or even trying to file a police report, you are not going to get help in any language that isn’t Spanish or Catalan. I was very fortunate to have a partner that speaks Spanish fluently but, if I could change one thing, it would be putting much more effort into learning the Spanish tongue when I first arrived. Life here is a lot more enjoyable when you can communicate with the people around you. I also regularly hear stories from people who have had their passports stolen while on holiday in Barcelona and unfortunately, if you don’t speak any Spanish then you will get no help from the authorities, and getting home can turn into a horror story in itself.
While knowing Spanish isn’t the most valuable recommendation I can offer, it is definitely worth a mention and at least some consideration if you have time to learn before visiting. Just a couple of hours of practice can make a huge difference.
3: Travel light and keep your essentials close
This one depends a bit more on where you are going and what you are doing. I personally try to avoid going anywhere with more than just my wallet, phone, and keys, but, I understand that not everyone can be in the same boat. Just try to keep your valuables close to your body and out of sight and never put your phone or bag down on, or under, a table if sitting outside. My partner had her phone swiped from a restaurant table of four people, and no one even saw it happen. These guys are quick so, don’t give them a chance. In my honest opinion, Bum Bags and Satchels are incredibly underrated when it comes to keeping your personal belongings safe.
4: Go easy on the jewellery
There are eyes on most of the busy pedestrian areas and metro stations observing what people are wearing and carrying. If the patrolling thieves see something they like, they’ll follow the owner until they can try and take it. Watches seem to be one of the biggest targets in Barcelona, as seen from two of the videos above. Here is another video from 2020 where a group of men attack a Brazilian tourist and try to remove his watch outside a hotel in the Gotic Quarter. Luckily, they failed. But it still would have been a horrible welcome to Barcelona for this family.
Another recent instance was a Russian footballer who was wearing a flashy watch in a Port Olympic nightclub while in town for a match with his team. The wrong people saw the watch and the Russian went home without it. But that’s just how it goes here. As a watch lover, it hurts to say this, but don’t wear a fancy piece on your wrist unless you’re prepared to lose it. These guys are trained professionals and know how to spot something worth stealing. One of my partner’s friends got held up at gunpoint for some expensive shoes she was wearing while walking next to La Rambla. I guess that was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but if you’re not wearing thousands of dollars for people to see, then you’re far less likely to become a target.
5: Don’t trust people, trust your instincts
I hate to say this because I’m a friendly guy who loves making friends and connections everywhere I go, but don’t be too trusting of anyone you don’t know. I’ve found Barcelona to be quite a cold place at times, especially for foreigners. Even businesses and restaurants can be very unwelcoming at the best of times, so be extra careful of anyone that comes up to you on the street, who’s overly friendly or asking for help, as I can guarantee that its just a distraction for someone approaching you out of sight. Also, watch out for anyone that offers you drugs or membership to a coffee shop, these guys are also everywhere and no more trustworthy the thieves. Just ignore them and move on.
The element of surprise is all these cowards really have in most robbery attempts, so if you can see them coming, then you should be able to foil their plans. It doesn’t take long to figure out whether or not someone is out to cause harm, and on the occasion that I get that gut feeling of danger, I make sure whoever looks suspicious knows that I’m confidently watching them and ready for whatever they want to throw at me. If you have a bad feeling about a person or situation, trust it, ten times out of ten. Your body never lies.
Staying safe in Barcelona isn’t too difficult as long as you understand the potential threats and dangers. This alone gives you a much greater chance of resolving undesirable situations to achieve desirable outcomes. Be aware of your belongings, situation, and surroundings, and always be alert. Like I said earlier though, if you do wish for that little bit of extra protection then Pepper Spray is definitely my go-to (I don’t let Cyndi leave home without it). But simply being alert and realising that someone may have harmful intentions can often be enough to foil their plans.
Most of the city is quite safe, but it’s always a good idea to be careful when visiting an area you’re unfamiliar with. Exercising caution can be as simple as keeping your valuables secure, but goes as far as always being aware of your surroundings, exit strategies, or emergency responses to certain situations.