By late November the majority of Christmas markets have opened their doors to locals and tourists alike looking for gifts, entertainment, and a festive drink or two. These markets can be a key reason people take winter city breaks, meaning they draw in huge tourism numbers. Budapest’s popular market draws in over 800,000 people a year, while much larger festive events, like London’s Winter Wonderland, can see more than 2.5 million. Getting into the festive spirit is a big deal for tourism.
Unfortunately, large numbers of tourists can bring a higher risk of scammers and thieves wanting to take advantage.
To understand which Christmas markets run the highest risk of scams, we analysed over 1.2 million online tourist reviews, across 50 of the biggest and most popular Christmas markets around the world, looking for mentions of different scams and thievery like pickpocketing.
- Prague’s Christmas market, located in the Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square) has the most mentions (582) for scams and theft in tourist reviews out of any other city’s market location
- Apart from Prague, Venice’s Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) has the most mentions of pickpockets and having goods stolen (192).
- Spain’s most popular Christmas markets in Barcelona and Madrid are the 3rd and 4th locations where tourists are most likely to face scams.
- Rome’s Christmas market located in the Piazza Navona had the most tourists mentioning how they were overcharged, risking being short-changed (17) making festive purchases
What are tourist scams?
There are a lot of crimes that could be considered tourist scams. For this analysis, we’ve analyzed petty crimes such as bag dipping, mobile phone theft, or pickpocketing, as well as street scams such as overcharging for bracelets or roses. We reviewed how often tourists left reviews for these types of scams and crimes in Christmas market locations around the world. The full list of what we analysed can be seen in the methodology section.
Christmas markets with the most scam, pickpocket, and theft complaints
Prague, a popular winter tourist destination, sees over 300,000 visit their Christmas market each year, and the review data indicates that some travellers are facing scams and pickpockets. Despite London’s Winter Wonderland being much bigger and many more tourists visiting, it ranks far lower, with fewer visitors leaving reviews mentioning scams or theft. This was a common theme in this data – high tourism numbers don’t always equal high scam risks.
Venice and Barcelona make up the rest of the top three, both having various reviews mentioning scam artists and the risk of having goods stolen. Let’s look at the full top ten below and see why some of these cities rank as high as they do.
Top 10 Christmas markets for tourist scams and theft
1. Prague, Staromestske namesti (Old Town Square)
Prague’s Old Town Square, home to one of the city’s most popular Christmas markets, ranks top for combined references of scams, being overcharged, pickpocketing, fraud, thievery and robbery, and being mugged. In fact, this location has more than double the amount of references to scams than the next market location on the list, Venice’s San Marco Christmas Market.
Reviews acting as warnings to other tourists as recent as November 2023 say to ‘be careful with your items’ as reviewer A.G had goods stolen by pickpockets. Another reviewer, Lee commented how they ‘enjoyed the Christmas punch’ but highlighted how people should ‘beware of pickpockets as it’s packed with people’.
Apart from pickpockets, other reviewers highlight food stalls in the area that will advertise one price for food and then charge another based on weight.
2. Venice, Piazza San Marco
With the highest number of pickpocket complaints out of any Christmas market other than Prague, travelers to San Marco Christmas Market in Venice should keep a close eye on their belongings.
Be careful when purchasing Christmas presents – one common scam here is being overcharged for light-up toys. Other advice includes being wary of rose sellers and pigeon-feeding scams. As reviewer, AL, put it “Beware of pickpockets. They blend in by holding maps”.
3. Barcelona, Fira de Santa Llúcia (Gothic Quarter)
Barcelona’s Christmas market, Fira de Santa Llúcia, which typically begins late November outside of The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, ranks highly for scams due to the square and surrounding Gothic Quarter being a hotspot for pickpockets and stealing.
With the greatest number of reviews mentioning stealing, the market in Fira de Santa Llúcia in Barcelona completes the top three. In May 2022, pickpocketing was so bad that the city announced official plans to tackle the crime, but this will be an operation that likely takes years to succeed.
Visitors to this Christmas market and the surrounding Gothic Quarter’s windy streets should again be wary of pickpockets, with pickpockets specifically referred to 135 times in online reviews. Although appealing for a wintery stroll, avoid the romantic side streets at night as these can be hotspots for mugging.
4. Madrid, Plaza Mayor
The Christmas market in the Spanish capital Madrid’s Plaza Mayor Market doesn’t fare much better than its Catalonian Christmas counterpart.
Although this Spanish city ranks lower with fewer mentions of mugging and pickpocketing, there were more than twice as many tourist reviews mentioning scams here than in Barcelona (20 v 8). This location is particularly notorious for photo scams – so be wary of scammers offering to ‘help’ take a photo of you, or scammers in novelty dress demanding money for photos.
5. Rome, Piazza Navona
Rounding off the top five is Rome’s Christmas market in Piazza Navona.
It’s advisable to consider how much you are willing to spend on festive trinkets as this location ranks top of the list for the most mentions of being overcharged. There is an important distinction between someone being actively overcharged and those who feel they have paid too much based on what they think is good value. Regardless, lots of tourists felt the need to comment about prices of goods in their reviews here.
A common ruse in this area is being pressured to buy overpriced bracelets too, with some scammers looking to forcefully wrap one on your wrist claiming you’ve now bought it.
As one reviewer, Tamara, stated “Scam artists are a pest. You can’t even just walk around before they try and talk with you.”. French tourist, Jennifer, highlighted how pickpockets here “tried several times, telling us that our shoelaces were undone” – a common trick to distract you.
What are common Christmas market scams?
Our analysis found that the most common Christmas market scams were:
- Pickpockets and bag snatchers making use of busy crowds.
- People asking for directions and using a map to cover their theft of sunglasses, cameras, phones, jewellery, etc.
- Being overcharged assuming you won’t check your change, or misled on price with ‘by weight’ sales tricks.
- People offering ‘free’ roses, leaves, or bracelets and then demanding payment.
- Fake friends offering to take festive photos only to then charge you for the privilege afterward.
How to avoid tourist scams
Giacomo Piva, travel industry analyst and co-founder here at Radical Storage, had this to say about avoiding tourist scams and enjoying your trip:
“The findings of our research may be daunting, but it is important to remember that millions of tourists visit Christmas markets each year with no problem at all. It is just a small percentage of visitors that are impacted by tourist scams.
However, there are a few steps that you can take to stay safe while traveling and ensure your trip isn’t impacted by criminals looking to take advantage. “
- Be aware of your surroundings – Although this feels like common sense, scammers and pickpockets take advantage of tourists being distracted before swooping in.
- Be comfortable saying no – a lot of the scams such as the bracelet or rose scam rely on you being polite or being scared of causing a public scene, but do not let this pressure you into handing over any money you are not comfortable with.
- Try not to stand out from the crowd – Nothing highlights tourists more than holding a map or using your phone’s navigation to try to find your next destination, and although the majority of the time you will be unaffected, this could be something that criminals use to identify you as the next target. To negate this, stop for a coffee or drink in a cafe and use this time to plan your journey.
- Do your research – As much as you can, research the city you are visiting, and the potential hotspots you could be targeted, as this will help you spot any potential scams. Use forums such as Reddit, which feature real-life experiences, and speak to friends and family who have also visited to understand how they found visiting.
- Keep possessions close by – Again, this may feel like common sense but keeping your phone off the table in outside cafes and bags off the floor will stop any opportunistic thieves. Where possible, keep your expensive items in cross-body bags or zipped purses, and avoid putting phones and wallets in your back pocket. Larger and more expensive items can be held in luggage storage so you don’t have to worry about keeping an eye on your items while exploring the city.
A list of Christmas market cities was created using guides such as TimeOut’s Best Christmas Markets in the World, Culture Trip’s Largest Christmas Markets in the World, and Enjoy Travel’s Best Christmas Markets list.
Over 1.2 million reviews (1,215,883) were analysed specifically looking at Christmas market locations from a range of online tourist review sources including Google Maps. Keywords that were analysed included: scam, scams, pickpocket, pickpockets, fraud, mugged, stolen, theft, thief, con artist, scammed, overcharged, robbed, robbery, mugging, fraudulent, fraudsters, short change, alert, as well as spelling variations.
Manual analysis was performed to remove mentions of keywords that didn’t match our methodology, such as people commenting on ‘stolen’ statues or ‘stolen’ hearts, or when reviews highlight how somewhere is ‘not a scam’ for example.
Data was analysed on 3rd November 2023.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.