How to Avoid Pickpocketing in Rome
Rome is famous for its beautiful sites and spectacular food. It’s certainly no wonder the city such a hotspot for tourists. Unfortunately, tourist hotspots often cause one undesired side effect: pickpockets. Rome is notorious for its clever and persistent pickpockets. Everyone has heard a story of someone who went to Rome, and came back without their wallet or cell phone or another valuable. While these stories can be discouraging and a bit frightening, there’s some simple tricks you can use to avoid being pickpocketed yourself. It can be as simple as making a few style changes or just simply being informed.
When in Rome…
First things first: if you look like a tourist, people are going to think you’re a tourist. Italians are known for their sense of style. If you’re roaming the city in a university t-shirt, shorts and sneakers, you’re going to stand out for all the wrong reasons. Italians often dress more formally than Americans, so it can be worth it to pack button-downs instead of tees. Secondly, Romans will never be seen wearing shorts, even in the hottest weather. For summer travelers, pack pants with a breathable fabric, or a nice dress or skirt for the ladies. Many Roman sites like the Vatican and other churches require covered shoulders and knees for entry, so you’ll have to brave the heat at some point anyway.
In general, try to look as put together as possible. It’s also best to avoid loud colors or patterns. Stick to basics and neutral colors instead. Think of what you would wear to go out to dinner at a moderately nice restaurant. That’s what Italians often wear for casual occasions. For shoes, find the best combination of comfort and style. Sneakers may be comfortable, but they won’t fit in with Rome’s stylish palette. Try nice (but comfortable) sandals or flats. Birkenstocks or Allbirds can work well. You’ll be walking a lot, so make sure you have shoes you’ll feel comfortable wearing all day.
Know Where the Hotspots Are
While pickpockets could be anywhere in the city, there are a few spots where they’re bound to be lurking. These are mainly the busy tourist spots, where big crowds and sights can distract you from your belongings. Throughout the city center, pickpockets like to hang around squares and piazzas, like the Spanish Steps or Piazza Navona. The Trevi Fountain, however, is probably the most dangerous spot in terms of petty crime. The square is much smaller, and often attracts even more crowds in a very dense space. Avoid stopping at street stalls or doing anything that would require you to open your bag when you’re in these areas. Pickpockets can be quick, and may be waiting for an opening to make off with your belongings. If you need to check your phone or take something out of your bag, only do so once you’ve escaped the crowd.
Another place to watch out is on public transportation. Rome is notorious for its busy buses and trains, and these tight quarters are great places for pickpockets to make their move. If you have to get on a busy train or bus (or are waiting at a busy terminal), keep your belongings in sight and in your hand. Definitely don’t leave anything in your pockets. Pickpockets have no qualms about keeping a respectful distance, and they’ll happily get in your personal space if they have a chance to snag your phone or wallet. If you encounter a busy train or bus, wait for the next one if you can, especially if you’ll be the last one on. Stay closer to the center of the train and away from the doors. Pickpockets often wait to board the train last so they can reach into someone’s bag, and make off with valuables as quickly as possible. If you’re waiting in a crowded area, try to keep as much distance as possible. If someone gets too close to you, move away. Even on a crowded train, no regular person would purposefully push up against someone. They may be trying to steal from you.
These rules also apply if you’re sitting at a restaurant or café. Don’t leave your phone or wallet on the table, and keep your bag either on your lap or between your feet. Don’t sling bags over the chair, as they are extremely easy to grab. If you leave a jacket on your chair, make sure the pockets are empty. Don’t leave anything unattended for any reason, even if just for a second.
Bring the Right Bag
If you follow any of the tips from this article, let it be this one. Your choice of bag can seriously make or break your chances of getting pickpocketed. At all costs, avoid backpacks. Wearing a backpack not only means that your belongings will always be out of sight, but you’ll also be immediately identifiable as a tourist. Backpacks are extremely easy to zip open without notice, and in a busy city like Rome, that’s the last thing you want. If you must wear a backpack, try to wear it in front of you at all times, especially when on a busy street or on public transportation. Keep in mind that most museums and tourist attractions do not allow backpacks inside. You’ll have to check them in the coatroom anyway, so it’s probably not worth bringing them at all.
Small bags are highly recommended, and it’s best to have a messenger style bag or purse that has a cross-body strap. This kind of bag means that it will be harder for someone to grab the bag off of you. Plus, it should always be in front of you, leaving fewer windows for pickpockets to target you. If you’d like to be even more careful, many brands offer bags with slash-proof straps. Bags with hidden pockets are also very helpful. If a theif can’t see a way to open your bag, chances are they’re not going to bother trying to steal from you.
There is also an art to keeping your bag safe. If you’re in a crowded place or are otherwise worried about pickpockets, do not under any circumstances let your bag leave your sight. Place your bag in front of you and hold your hand over the opening. Some scams involve people trying to cover your line of sight by holding a newspaper or scarf in front of your bag. Keeping a tight hold and eye on your bag will discourage or stop this from happening.
There are many stories of popular Roman scams and pickpocketing techniques. Some of these can be quite outlandish and are most likely false, but they’re rooted in truth. For example, it’s true that many pickpockets work in tandem with each other. It’s also true that the most common way pickpockets target you is by distracting you. In a city like Rome, it’s easy for people to distract you. There are street vendors, beggars, people asking for pictures or directions, and everything in between. If anyone is asking for money or wants you to buy something, just ignore them.
This is even more important if they are asking for your signature, trying to hand you something, or anything else that would require you to take a hand off your bag. One person could be distracting you while their partner relieves you of your possessions. Be more cautious than you need to be. No matter what happens, don’t lose sight or touch of your bag in these situations, or whenever you suspect something suspicious.
Other things to watch out for are groups of small children, obvious non-tourists asking for pictures, or anything generally disruptive or attention-grabbing. If someone comes up to you and won’t leave you alone, politely declining them alone may not convince them. Do whatever you need to do to exit the situation without incident. Sometimes you might have to be a little rude, but it’s better than being nice and losing your valuables.
Less is More
If you’re really concerned about having your valuables stolen, you should probably leave them at the hotel. Most hotels and hostels have safes or lockers available. Use them! They’re certainly going to keep your belongings safer than in your pocket or purse. If you’re venturing out into the city, chances are you’re only going to need the bare minimum: your phone, wallet and a bottle of water. Anything else you can probably leave behind. However, it really pays to have extras of important items and documents. If you feel really uncomfortable leaving your passport behind, bring a photocopy instead. Having a duplicate of your passport, visa, insurance or other travel documents make replacements or verification much simpler. Should something as important as your passport go missing, having a photocopy to present to the embassy will speed the replacement process.
The same goes for things like credit cards and cash. Never keep all of your payment methods in one place. If you keep all your credit cards and physical cash in your wallet, it will be even more devastating if it’s stolen. Leave at least one backup credit card, and at least a day’s worth of cash for peace of mind. For the same reason, don’t leave one person with all the day’s cash and supplies. That way, you can still make it through the day in an emergency. It’s also a good idea not to have everything in the same place. Keep your wallet in your purse, and then some backup money in an inside pocket or somewhere else equally hidden.
Rome is a beautiful city with lots to see. It’s an experience that shouldn’t be marred by petty crime or pickpocketing. With these tips, you’ll be all set to enjoy the Eternal City worry-free.