Bad Side of Barcelona – How To Avoid It

Beaches of Barcelona, watch your stuff.

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Barcelona is known for its bling of beaches, architecture, discos, and over 70 museums.  It is a vibrant, glorious city and has its problems for residents and tourists.  Julie Sheridan relays her experiences that have been challenges.  The Scoopettes have been robbed. Come on cops, stop this *#>*.

 By Julie Sheridan

I adore Barcelona, but the city’s reputation precedes it. When I announced to friends and colleagues in Edinburgh last year that I was moving here, the reaction was always the same. “Oh my god, I love Barcelona!” Followed by a frown. “Except it’s really dangerous…”

The city doesn’t have a bad track record on violent crime, and it’s certainly nowhere near as dangerous as the likes of New York, London or Naples. But when it comes to ‘petty’ crime Barcelona’s in a league of its own. Just a few months ago it was revealed that that there are over 400 robberies a day in the city – and that’s only the ones that that are officially reported.  Like any big city, Barcelona has its downsides.

Being robbed

You have to hand it to them (literally), the pickpockets in this city are an accomplished bunch. You name it, if it’s a scam to part tourists with their possessions, they’re already doing it. You need to keep your wits about it wherever you are in the city. If you are robbed, they police are likely to be sympathetic but ultimately uninterested in tracking down the culprit.

1. Don’t have any preconceptions about what a pickpocket looks like. They can be any age, any nationality, and might even be well dressed. They’re not the obvious down-and-out! Be especially wary of sweet-looking little old ladies who approach you with a begging cup or trying to sell you a flower. They’re often the decoy as part of an organised gang.

2. Pickpockets often work in groups. Typically, one person will do something to distract you (it could be bumping into you, spraying what looks like bird shit or ketchup on you, or even just smiling at you) while their accomplices move in unnoticed.

Barcelona has the mountains and the sea.

3. Not all thefts involve devious scams – outright bag snatching happens too. I heard one story of an elderly couple walking through the Gothic quarter with the woman’s handbag slung over her shoulder, only for a robber to cut the strap from behind and run off with the camera. Her husband tried to run after the thief, only to fall and break his hip. Carry your handbag or rucksack in front of you at all times, so that you can see it’s safe.

4. Be extra vigilant with your bag in bars, cafés and restaurants. Don’t hang it over the chair where it’s very easy to nick. Keep it tucked firmly between your feet on the ground.

5. Spanish people have different ideas to a lot of other nationalities when it comes to personal space. And of course on a packed metro train it’s tricky not to be sardined up against someone. But if anyone does press against you, be very suspicious. This isn’t normal behaviour and could well be an attempt to get at your stuff.

6. Don’t walk around with a sign on our back saying ‘rob me’. As a tourist, you’re a target, but there are things you can do not to advertise the fact. Mimic how local people dress so’s not to stand out.

7. Plan your route from your hotel or apartment in the morning so that you’re less likely to need to consult a map. Most of Barcelona’s streets are laid out as a grid-like pattern, apart from the labyrinthine-like parts of the old town. It’s easy to get lost in the Gothic quarter but then again, that’s part of its appeal.

8. Be especially protective of your belongings when you’re at the beach. It’s not just a case of not leaving your stuff unattended while you’re in swimming…a friend of mine was approached by an old man asking her for help, and while she was talking to him a young guy appeared from nowhere and made off with her bag.

Being ripped off

The first thing I should point out is that in nearly a year of living in Barcelona, I have never once been ripped off by a local person. Catalans have a reputation throughout Spain for being tight with their money. They certainly are very careful with it, but one thing I’ve noticed time and again is that they’re also very careful to make sure they pay their fair share and that you do the same. In shops, restaurants and taxi rides across the city I’ve never once been short changed.

But of course, there are the inevitable tourist traps. The tourist site I’ve been most disappointed in is the Aquarium, down at the port. (Which is ironic, because it’s Barcelona’s most visited attraction after the Sagrada Familia.) It costs 18€ for an adult to get in, which seems grossly over-inflated when you consider the meager range of specimens inside. It’s a shame, because with its setting right next to the Mediterranean Sea, they could have done so much more with it.


The Rambla

Then there’s the Ramblas, which is the first port of call for most visitors to the city. On this tree-lined boulevard you can achieve many things. Get your shoes shined, coo at baby bunnies, hopscotch over a Miró mosaic, get your photo taken with a giant cockroach, get your wallet nicked and generally indulge in a whole lot of people watching. It’s a crucible of all that is famous and infamous about the Catalan capital and you should revel in it. But please don’t buy anything on it! Veer off into the narrow streets to either side just a few minutes away and you’ll pay half the price for food and souvenirs.

Gaudi’s Casa Batllo

Another major draw on the tourist trail are the spectacular town-houses designed by Antoni Gaudí on the glamorous Passeig de Gràcia. The two main ones are La Pedrera (aka Casa Milà) and Casa Batlló. Of the two, I’d recommend you admire Casa Batlló from the pavement rather than pay the hefty entry fee. Save your cash for entrance to La Pedrera, where you’ll be rewarded by the sight of ‘witch-scarer’ chimney stacks on the roof.  Casa Batlló – best seen from the outside.

Being sexually harassed

For me, this is the worst aspect of Barcelona and one I still haven’t figured out how to deal with effectively. I can be walking along the central Plaça de Catalunya when a smartly dressed middle-aged guy walks past and mouths puta! (whore!) at me. Or in the posh L’Eixample area where on one block after another men from all walks of life direct overtly sexual comments at me. It’s made worse, Spanish friends tell me, by the fact that I’m going about the city as a single female, rather than as part of a couple or in a big group.

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to women, either. If you’re a guy, at some point in the old town you’re bound to encounter the attentions of prostitutes touting for business. The worst area for this is on the Ramblas and the ropey area to one side of it, the Raval. The Barcelonan authorities have taken massive steps over recent years to clean up this notoriously dodgy district, and it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be. But I’ve wandered through the Raval in broad daylight and still seen prostitutes everywhere.

I’m struggling to know what advice to give you about this seedy side of the city, because I haven’t got to grips with it myself yet. Just be aware that you could encounter it and try not to pay it any attention – comments and stares are likely to be as bad as it gets.

For more on robberies and theft in Barcelona check out Robbed In Barcelona, a website connected to the popular Facebook page, I Know Someone Who Got Robbed In Barcelona.

Julie Sheridan made the move to Barcelona from her native Scotland in Spring 2011, after 10 years living under Scotch mist in Edinburgh. Out of an innate love of making things difficult for herself she deliberately chose a part of Spain where she knew no-one and couldn’t speak the local language. Her blog focuses on the social and cultural differences between Scotland and Spain, Caledonia and Catalonia.   Guiri girl in Barca is her site.

20 Responses

  1. Had my passport stolen there. Pretty traumatic. I’ve been not-so-fond ever since, even though I know it’s unfair.

  2. admin says:

    You’re not alone on that one. Lot’s of folks have a bad taste in their mouth after getting robbed in Barcelona. Sad, but true and something needs to be done about it. One would think more action would be taken by the city, considering we’re in ‘crisis’ here and tourism is one of the biggest money makers in Barcelona……one would think…..

  3. David says:

    Excellent advice. Attended a conference in Barcelona and 3 of our group were victims of theft. Be vigilant, be aware and if you intend to have a few drinks leave any valuables in the hotel safe so you don’t become a victim whilst your guard is down.

  4. admin says:

    Hi David, glad you found the advice useful. The thieves are so fast, even the wary have been robbed.

  5. Julie,
    Thanks for this honest post. I have a question about the bag you carry during the day. I have a small day pack that zips off my main backpack and I was wondering if that would be a good back to use even though it’s on my back. The zipper is on the side facing my back. What do you think?

  6. admin says:

    Sounds good, but don’t keep anything of value in it if you’ll wear it like a backpack!

  7. Julie Sheridan says:

    Hi Casey,

    If the zip is facing into your back this will help, but you’ll be safer not to wear the rucksack on your back on the metro. I use a normal handbag every day going to work on the metro, but keep it in front of me with my arm over the opening at all times. I have Spanish friends who’ve been robbed on the metro – please be extra cautious. You may feel slightly paranoid but you’d be amazed how slick the thieves are.

    Hope you have no problems and enjoy your trip:)


  8. Esther says:

    I’m living in BCN since 7 years ago and unfortunately you are right. I am pretty insecure when I walk by the streets and that sucks, even for me, that I am not a tourist.
    Anyway, I recommend to visit BCN because is beautiful and it’s worth it.

    Some advices: on the subway, tour bag ALWAYS in front of you and be sure it’s closed. Nothing in the pockets.
    When you enter at the train, look around you and keep your hands in your pockets. Be specially careful in the Passeig de Gracia, Sagrada Familia, Urquinaona and Sants stops. I always see how tourists enter to the train with their bag on back with the open zip and looking a map. Or leave their bags in the floor when they are taking a photo. Please, I could steal that bag if I want!

    So, don’t be afraid. I haven’t been robbed yet but I am extremely cautious!

  9. admin says:

    Thanks Esther. We agree. DON’T BE AFRAID! Barcelona is NOT dangerous, you just need to keep an eye on your stuff all the time.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Regina & Nancy

  10. Alejandro says:

    There’s a thin line between sexual harrassment and complimenting a pretty girl. Obviously, being called “puta” is downright rude, but “piropos” (telling a single woman how beautiful she is) are a very Spanish thing, and are meant to be fun and absolutely non-threatening. Most Spanish women I know enjoy them, although it is true that a lot of women from other cultures find them aggressive.

  11. Alejandro says:

    Of course, “piropos”, like anything else, are an art: one has to know how to give them!

  12. admin says:

    I think it is a thin line Alejandro. And you’re right, there is a cultural element, too! Thanks for commenting.

  13. Phil says:

    This post just about sums up why I can’t make myself like Barcelona, even though I’ve tried so many times.

    In my view petty crime is one of Spain’s biggest problems, but in Barcelona it is rampant. It’s true that you only need to keep your whits about you, but how many tourists don’t? And if we’re being honest, they shouldn’t have to.

    One other thing to add to above is the case of spiking drinks in pubs and clubs, this happened to my female cousin, and the police were uninterested. And I’ve since heard of multiple instances of this occurring.

    It’s very sad, because the city is so beautiful.
    Phil recently posted…Basque CountryMy Profile

  14. admin says:

    Hi Phil,

    We’ve not heard of people getting their drinks drugged here, but it could happen. With 8 million tourists a year in BCN, there are many pickpockets. It’s a big problem. But, generally, Barcelona, and Spain, are safe for travelers — especially women travelers (compared to other places).

    Thanks for your comment.

  15. Janice says:

    As a fellow Scot who has also lived in Barcelona (I´m now in Madrid), I´m afraid that all you say is true, although it’s a great city. I´d even recommend keeping your bag on your lap in busy bars and restaurants as I found out to my disappointment when my bag was stolen from between my feet in a restaurant. One pickpocket bumped into me and the other must have gone under the table whilst I was distracted.

  16. admin says:

    Sad but true Janice. Theft is common in Barcelona and you’re very right about keeping your bag in your lap.

  17. Valerie_uk says:

    I’ve just returned from a lovely (5th) visit to Barcelona – a place that I really love, but unfortunately, the end of my trip was marred by a drink spiking incident.

    I went with a girlfriend, we shared a twin room in a nice hotel, and on the last night, had a couple of drinks in a bar on Paral-lel, a short walk from the hotel. We sat at the bar and chatted to a couple of people either side of us, and the barman. We didn’t leave our drinks unattended and neither of us went to the loo. All seemed fine. We left, possibly earlier that someone expected us to.

    We were both fine, certainly not drunk and got to the hotel. I used my keycard to enter the room and switch on the power. And then I woke up 7 or 8 hours later sharply, fully clothed on the bed. My friend said that suddenly I had just collapsed on the floor, my bag spilling out all its contents quite dramatically. She’d managed to get me on the bed. She was absolutely fine and we’d been drinking the same things.

    I feel extremely lucky that nothing worse happened and that we got to the hotel when we did.

    It’s difficult to know what we could have done to prevent this happening…

  18. The Spain Scoop says:

    That’s terrible. Do you remember the name of the bar? Why did your friend not call an ambulance?

  19. Robert M says:

    We as a family are off to BCN in Jul16. I notice no-one mentions trying to catch a thief. I’m a big guy and never worried about controversy and if I catch one of these scumbags they’ll consider a new career, I assure you. The police will be a welcome sight for them. Mousetraps in a decoy bag is one idea. Cops could use mod tech to track thieves, etc. A quick click of camera could catch thief/accomplice I’d, etc. I don’t drink alcohol and am a suspicious person naturally so look forward to it !!
    Robert M recently posted…Visit One of Spain’s Most Unique ‘Pueblos Blancos’ in the Málaga MountainsMy Profile

  20. The Spain Scoop says:

    We have seen thieves caught a few times. Once a bag was stolen off the back of a chair at a restaurant we were at and a bunch of tourist guys at the next table got up and chased the theif down, eventually catching him and returning the bag. But be careful, many thieves work in groups and are armed with knives, etc.

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