All cities are inherently dangerous. The mixture is combustible: great privilege, great privation, virtual anonymity… And when you throw a bunch of wide-eyed tourists into the mix, you’ve got a landscape where criminals of every persuasion can ply their trade.
But, of course, crime isn’t the only thing that can make a city dangerous. There’s also pollution, corruption, and mismanagement — just to name a few.
Here are 17 of the world’s most surprisingly dangerous cities, for one reason or another.
Note: We’re not including cities in war zones. There’s really nothing surprising about the fact that Kabul, Damascus, and Baghdad are pretty much off-limits for the foreseeable future.
1. New Delhi, India
India is an ancient land, rich with tradition, must-visit sites, and delightful food. That said, the capital, New Delhi is a good place to start this list because it’s potentially dangerous in a number of different ways.
Although we wouldn’t want to discourage you from going, women visiting India need to be aware of the dangers they may face. Sexual assault and harassment are much more commonplace and, frankly, socially acceptable here than in the west. Some Indian men act on the premise that foreign women, especially westerners, are sexually easy. So, much as it pains us to say this, it’s best to dress conservatively and be cautious when meeting unknown men.
Pickpockets are not your biggest worry where petty crime is concerned, although they are rife. But be on your guard for con artists who may try to tell you your hotel is closed in order to divert you to somewhere more expensive (where they will receive a cut). Don’t take advice from cab drivers or random dudes hanging around the airport who want to take you somewhere other than your destination.
Finally, with a metro area population approaching 20 million, New Delhi is perhaps the most polluted city on earth. Last year, during Diwali celebrations, air quality got so bad that simply breathing was the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes a day.
2. St. Louis, Missouri
Yes, the Gateway to the West makes a somewhat surprising appearance on this list. “Why?” you ask.
Well, the highest murder rate in the U.S. doesn’t belong to Chicago, Detroit, or Bodymore, Murderland. Sadly, that distinction goes to St. Louis. In 2017, this city of just over 300,000 saw 205 murders. For context, Detroit, with more than twice the population, had 267.
When I was in St. Louis a few months ago, I was baffled to hear a friend boast that the parking lot of the bar we were going to was “really safe.” Another friend told me that, although she lived only five minutes from the bar, she would never risk that walk at night.
It’s not hard to see why. In just one weekend in 2018, there were 6 fatal shootings in St. Louis. With a lack of economic opportunity and huge racial tensions plaguing the city, police here are facing what some would call an impossible task as they struggle to quell the violence.
3. Los Cabos, Mexico
Los Cabos is not one city, but two: Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, two traditional travel hotspots on the southern spur on the Baja California peninsula on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
First discovered by travelers in the 1970s, Los Cabos has drawn ever-growing crowds on account of its great resorts, diving, watersports, golfing, and party scene. For many years, Los Cabos was considered too touristy and too removed from the U.S. border to be of much interest to drug cartels.
However, the arrest of the infamous drug lord El Chapo in 2014 sparked a power struggle in Baja California, and the violence in Los Cabos reached astonishing proportions. In 2017, with a population of 326,000, these twin cities racked 369 homicides. That’s more than 111 murders per 100,000 residents — the worst rate in the world.
Despite these alarming numbers, tourism has not slowed. Indeed, most of the violence is criminal-on-criminal, as rival factions fight over turf, so outsiders tend to be left alone.
Still, the U.S. State Department warns: “While most homicides appeared to be targeted, criminal organization assassinations and turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens. Bystanders have been injured or killed in shooting incidents.”
The good news is that the murder rate seems to be coming down in recent years.
4. Beijing, China
Beijing isn’t especially dangerous with regard to crime. Actually, for a city of more than 20 million people, it’s surprisingly safe. (Perhaps this has something to do with the armed soldiers you will see at most tourist attractions, or the plethora of checkpoints and other methods of control exercised by the Chinese government.)
The real danger in Beijing is pollution, which can easily reach hazardous levels. If you have any kind of respiratory issues, you should really think twice about visiting Beijing — or anywhere else in the country. According to the World Health Organization, a million people in China die as a result of air pollution every year.
The good news is that the Chinese government has been trying to improve air quality by curtailing the country’s dependence on coal. With any luck, there will be improvement over the coming decades.
The other risk of visiting Beijing right now pertains especially to Americans and Canadians. Ever since Canada detained an executive of the Chinese tech company Huawei on the request of the U.S. government, the threat of Chinese retaliation against tourists has skyrocketed.
As a result, the State Department has issued a travel advisory warning that Americans may face arbitrary detention in China.
5. Kingston, Jamaica
Danger isn’t something the trusting traveler would necessarily associate with Jamaica. After all, it’s a beachy Caribbean paradise, known for good tunes, good vibes, good coffee, and good *ahem* greenery.
Sadly, Jamaica also has one of the higher murder rates in the world. The capital city, Kingston, cracks the top 20 most dangerous cities, recording 705 murders in 2017 with a population of just 1,200,000.
Jamaica is also possibly the most dangerous destination in the Western Hemisphere for LGBTQ travelers — particularly gay men. Homosexuality is not socially acceptable here, and public displays of affection between same sex couples will be met with slurs (at a minimum).
The bright side is that a handful of brave activists have been fighting to change attitudes in Jamaica, with some success. There are even tentative pride events in Kingston these days!
6. Jerusalem, Israel
Jerusalem is one of the most ancient cities in the world, with archaeological discoveries demonstrating humans settled the area at least 6,000 years ago. It is also holy ground for the world’s three major monotheistic faiths — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. But you would have to be from another planet to assume this shared religious history engenders peace or understanding.
Jerusalem is not just a city; it’s an idea. Through much of its history, the principal significance of the city has been its religious heritage, since its location is not strategically or economically advantageous and it is far from the sea.
Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their capital — hence the danger. Terror is an ever-present threat here, not that that’s likely to stem the flow of pilgrims who have made their way to the city’s scared places since time immemorial.
7. Albuquerque, New Mexico
We tend to have this stereotype about big cities being cesspools: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles — that’s where the real crimes happen! The numbers, however, don’t bear this out. Bigger cities may have more overall crime, but the per capita crime rates in a city like Albuquerque are far more alarming.
Between 2016 and 2017, serious crime increased by 23% here, making Albuquerque the 11th most dangerous city in America. In 2017, there were more than 1,300 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
Property crime — AKA theft — is even more of a problem. In 2017, there were more than 7,300 thefts per 100,000 residents. That translates to a 7.3% chance of being robbed in some way.
All this in a rather unassuming, laid back city of about 550,000…
8. Cape Town, South Africa
While we’re accustomed to thinking of South Africa as a nation that has come a long way since the end of Apartheid, parts of it are still much more dangerous than you would expect. Cape Town, tucked between the iconic Table Mountain and the sea, is one such place.
Cape Town had the 15th highest murder rate in the world in 2017, with a staggering 2,493 homicides amongst a population of about 4,000,000.
Pickpockets are distressingly common, as are drug addicts and drug dealers in the downtown core. Unfortunately, this includes children; you may see street kids who are addicted to huffing glue and make their living picking pockets. Under no circumstances should you walk the city at night — especially around the clubbing district near Long Street.
Even the baboons in the areas surrounding Cape Town might give you trouble. They may seem cute, but they’re extremely clever, tough, and they know how to fleece tourists. If you have food on your person when you encounter baboons, they will likely try to rob you. And don’t think you’re safe in your rental car either; many of the baboons have learned how to open doors, so be sure to lock up.
9. Little Rock, Arkansas
Here’s another candidate for most surprisingly dangerous place in America. Little Rock is a city of just 200,000 people, yet its violent crime rates have been spiralling out of control in recent years, and travel writers have taken note.
The city itself (not including surrounding areas) had a violent crime rate of 1,634 per 100,000 residents in 2017. That’s high enough to make it the 6th most dangerous city in America, outpacing more traditional contenders like Chicago and Oakland by a healthy margin.
As with most places, tourists are seldom targeted for more than mere robbery. Still, it’s hard to fathom why a charming, relatively small community like Little Rock has such a problem with violence.
10. San Salvador, El Salvador
This one isn’t so much surprising as obscure. El Salvador has yet to really emerge as a major draw for tourists, and crime likely has a lot to do with that. It’s a shame, really; the country offers truly dramatic views of its many volcanoes, and the people are generally friendly.
Sadly, gang violence and crime in general make San Salvador (and much of El Salvador) risky choices for travelers.
In 2017, San Salvador was rocked by more than 1,000 murders. You can bet that most of those were gang related, but it still doesn’t inspire confidence. Gangs are the major force to be reckoned with in urban areas, and they will definitely rob unwary tourists.
Be sure to ask your hotel which taxi companies are trustworthy; as elsewhere, unlicensed cab drivers will cheat and rob you.
It’s also a good idea to avoid showing any outward signs of affluence — but that’s sound advice wherever you’re traveling.
11. Guatemala City, Guatemala
Located to the north-northwest of El Salvador, Guatemala has similarly lamentable problems with organized crime and violence. It’s capital, the aptly named Guatemala City, is no exception.
This city of 3,000,000 suffered more than 1,700 murders in 2017, enough to make it the 24th most dangerous city in the world. But, as elsewhere, the real threat to tourists is theft.
Gangs in Guatemala City have been known to get quite brazen in their quest to rob foreigners blind, going so far as to carjack taxis and tour buses on their way into town. Trying to be brave with these criminals will most likely earn you a beating — or worse.
The U.S. government cautions against visiting Guatemala City.
“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common,” according to the State Department. “Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
They add: “Do not hail taxis on the street in Guatemala City. Use radio-dispatched taxis (Taxi Amarillo), INGUAT approved taxis from the ‘SAFE’ stand from the airport or hotel taxis.”
12. New Orleans, Louisiana
It’s probably not surprising to you that the Big Easy has a pretty strong criminal element. The whole city has a sort of ominous mystery to it in the first place. However, after Hurricane Katrina, there was a large influx of vagrants who set themselves up in abandoned parts of town. That mini-migration led to an uptick in drug use.
More surprisingly, New Orleans has actually topped Detroit’s violent crime rate in recent years. In 2017, there were 157 murders, over 40 per 100,000 citizens.
Crooks know where tourists are most likely to be found in New Orleans — the French Quarter — so be on your guard for petty thieves and smooth-talkers. Car robberies are also common here, so be mindful of where you park.
Finally, if you’re the sort of traveler who likes to creep yourself out… Don’t go wandering into the city’s historic cemeteries at night. Take a daylight tour instead. Criminals are known to lurk in graveyards after dark, waiting to prey on foolhardy tourists.
13. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
What could possibly be dangerous about a city of 1.5 million people in the middle of the Asian steppe, the capital of a famously remote and sparsely populated nation?
The answer, surprisingly, is pollution. Despite the fact that Ulaanbaatar is a comparatively small and underdeveloped town, it has been called the most polluted capital in the world — even rivalling New Delhi or Beijing, cities 15-20 times larger! In winter, Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution levels can reach as high as 133 times recommended levels, putting the young, the elderly, and the sick at risk of pneumonia.
There are two reasons the situation is so bad here. Firstly, many people in Ulaanbaatar still burn coal and other solid fuels to warm their homes, which leads to terrible smog during the coldest months. Secondly, the city is located in a valley, and the surrounding mountains keep the air pollution hemmed in.
14. Naples, Italy
You might guess that organized crime is the big danger in this part of Italy. You would be incorrect.
It is true that criminal elements are quite powerful in the south of Italy. When I was in Naples, a local pointed out a number of unfinished bridges and overpasses. He explained that the Camorra criminal syndicate bids on government contracts through front companies, finishes half the work, and then demands more money to complete the project. Sometimes the government pays up, sometimes it doesn’t.
But the real danger here is volcanic — and I’m not talking about the obvious threat, Mount Vesuvius, whose fury destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD.
The real danger lies beneath Naples. It turns out the city sits atop a massive magma chamber that could erupt in a supervolcanic explosion orders of magnitude larger than the cataclysm that buried Pompeii. Such an event would kill millions almost immediately, and the ensuing climatic effects of ash in the upper atmosphere could kill millions more around the world.
There’s no silver lining here: recent research suggests an explosion in the near future could be more likely than previously hoped.
15. Memphis, Tennesse
The home of the blues, the site of Elvis’ Graceland mansion, Memphis is one of America’s great cultural meccas. Unfortunately, it has also been mired in crime in recent years, and has developed an unfortunate reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in America.
The good news is that police take pains to patrol hotspots like Beale Street since Memphis obviously takes in a lot of revenue from its visitors. The bad news is that you really don’t want to stray off the beaten path. The best bet is to stick to the tourist traps.
16. Caracas, Venezuela
If you read the news at all, it will come as no surprise that the capital of Venezuela is in a state of complete disarray and random violence. But the sheer scale of the calamity really is surprising, especially when you consider that this used to be the most prosperous country in South America.
As Venezuela continues to spiral further down the drain of political instability and public unrest, Caracas has become the most dangerous major city on Earth. In 2017, this capital of 3,000,000 people dealt with 3,387 murders.
But the truth is no one really knows what is going on in Caracas. Even experts admit the numbers are basically estimates; it’s impossible to determine how much crime has gone unreported in the chaos that has wracked the country.
The stats may be disputed, but what is not in dispute is that the government can scarcely keep control of the populace. The Venezulean police and courts simply can’t deal with the level of crime that seems to be occurring, giving perpetrators free reign to steal and assault with impunity.
The U.S. government strongly advises against non-essential travel to Venezuela at this time, given that a full-blown civil war could break out any day.
17. Venice, Italy
This one’s a twist. It’s not that Venice is dangerous to tourists, rather tourists are dangerous to Venice.
The old city of Venice — with its canals, narrow avenues, and romantic old homes, has been hollowed out of permanent residents. Less than 60,000 people live in what was once the grandest city state in Europe. It’s mostly a city for show at this point.
Meanwhile, the enormous cruise ships that ferry thousands of tourists into the lagoon and onto St. Mark’s Square are doing potentially irreparable damage to the foundations of the city. The vibrations from their engines is chipping away at the centuries of petrified wood that prop Venice up.
Finally, rising water levels have put the entire city at risk of flooding. If things don’t change, Venice will be no more.
It’s worth remembering that, while cities can be dangerous for us, we too can be dangerous for cities.
18. Orlando, Florida
It turns out the most magical place on Earth has a bit of a dark side — which is only to be expected considering how many tourists flock here every year. But even wary tourists might raise an eyebrow when confronted with the crime rates in this tropical oasis and family fun Mecca.
Every year, the website WalletHub assesses the safety of major American cities. Somewhat surprisingly, Orlando ranked 164th out of 182 cities surveyed in 2018. In the area of ‘Home and Community Safety’, it ranked a dismal 175th.
19. Acapulco, Mexico
Acapulco is a major port of call on Mexico’s Pacific coast, popular with shipping lines, cruise ships, and formerly with well-heeled American tourists. In the 50s, it was famous as the ‘it’ destination for millionaires and movie stars looking to recharge their batters with a little sand and sun.
No more, I’m afraid.
Acapulco has largely gone to seed in recent decades, partly because newer destinations have stolen its thunder, partly because of poverty, and partly because of gang-related violence. Its once celebrated beaches are now flooded with touts and beggars, while the murder rate has reached truly shocking proportions. In 2017, Acapulco was the 3rd most dangerous city in the world, with 106.63 murders per 100,000 residents.
20. Baltimore, Maryland
This one may not be a surprise to devotees of The Wire, many of whom will know the city by the moniker “Bodymore, Murderland” (or its more flattering nickname, “Charm City”). But what’s sad is how little seems to have changed; in fact, the violence has worsened considerably in recent years.
Long plagued by poverty, unemployment, gang activity, and addiction, Baltimore’s murder rate actually dropped in 2018 (to 51 per 100,000), but that’s still high enough to make it the 23rd most dangerous city in the world, outpacing cities we would imagine to be more dangerous like San Salvador. After St. Louis, Baltimore is now the second most dangerous city in America.
21. Pripyat, Ukraine
Pripyat is a ghost town. As history buffs (and HBO viewers) will know, it was originally built to house the staff of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant and their families. Of course, no such persons have lived there since April 26, 1986, when the infamous disaster at that facility forced residents to evacuate, never to return.
What is surprising is that the town remains dangerous due to the radioactive fallout. You can (and many people do) tour what remains of the city, but don’t linger; staying too long can have deleterious effects on your health. The fact that a threat still lingers here 44 years later is a testament to the awesome power of atomic energy.