GENERAL TRAVEL SAFETY: In recent years, Spain has begun to be considered a somewhat unsafe destination for tourists. This is only partly justified. The risk of a terrorist attack is not necessarily higher in Spain than in other places – the Basque group ETA has not made an indiscriminate attack in over 15 years and fundamentalist Islamist groups are under close investigation by Spanish police.
If this issue concerns you deeply, you should look at the US State Department Travel Advisories. But please also note that most expat locals here in Spain, at least in my immediate circles, do not feel at risk in Spain. Keeping safe without obsessing, prudence without neurosis, that may seem a difficult balance in today’s world. For some personal reflections on travel safety and terrorism, click HERE.
CITY SMARTS – URBAN SAFETY The other issue that often worries travelers is theft. Both Madrid and Barcelona have rather tarnished reputations for street safety. This concern is somewhat more justified, as there are groups of pickpockets who sometimes target foreigners as easy marks who will probably be carrying lots of good stuff – cash, cameras, passports or whatever.
But don’t let that spoil your trip. Knowing what to expect before you go can minimize the risks of being a target and minimize possible loss if you do get hit. For the record, these thefts are not usually associated with violence, much less with guns or knives. Usually you won’t even realize what happened. As a visitor from New York (robbed on the subway) said “I didn’t feel a thing. I thought I knew everything, but these guys are REALLY good”.
Most of this information is common sense, applicable to any big city, so if you live in a city or have traveled a lot, you can probably skip most of the first part and see the end for specific techniques thieves use in Spain. If you are from a smaller city or town, or if you haven’t traveled much, it might be a good idea to at least skim all of this.
BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL AROUND PLAZA DE SOL – PLAZA MAYOR – ROYAL PALACE – GRAN VIA, extensible to the Prado-Thyssen museum area. The last few years have brought an upswing of non-violent pickpocketing around these areas – police admit to this and claim even locals are getting hit, not just tourists. Don’t avoid the area but do be alert. City Hall is “working on this”, with increased police presence (the ones you see and the plainclothes ones you don’t see!) but it’s a tough problem – do your part by not being a good target.
Try to fit in as much as possible. You will probably be easily identified as a traveler but you can take some basic steps to lower your profile. Some things you could do: Avoid wearing attention-grabbing clothes. Avoid speaking in loud voices, especially in languages other than Spanish. Try to camouflage some of your more “touristy” items: brown-paper wrap your guideb