Finding a toilet in Europe

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 59 of the July 2011 issue.

by Rick Steves

Tracking down decent public toilets in Europe can be frustrating. I once dropped off a tour group in a town for a potty stop, and when I picked them up 20 minutes later, no one had had any luck. Most European countries are short on public restrooms, but I can teach you how to sniff out a biffy in a jiffy.

If you ask for a “restroom” or “bathroom,” you’ll get no relief. Instead, say “toilet” or “WC” (short for “water closet”). These terms are direct, simple and understood. It’s smart to carry along tissues, as some WCs are poorly supplied.

My strategy is to use free toilets whenever possible. Like Mom always said, “Just try.” Never leave a museum without taking advantage of its restrooms — free, clean and decorated with artistic graffiti.

Keep in mind that you can walk into nearly any restaurant or café, politely and confidently, and find a bathroom. Assume it’s somewhere in the back, either upstairs or downstairs. It’s easiest in large places that have outdoor seating, because waiters will think you’re a customer just making a quick trip inside. Some call it rude; I call it survival.

American-type fast-food places are very common these days and usually have a decent and fairly “public” restroom. Timid people buy a drink they don’t want in order to use the bathroom, but that’s generally unnecessary (although sometimes the secret bathroom-door code is printed only on your receipt).

Even at American chains, be prepared for bathroom culture shock. At a new big Starbucks in Bern, Switzerland, I opened the door to find an extremely blue space. It took me a minute to realize that the blue lights made it impossible for junkies to find their veins.

When nature beckons and there’s no restaurant or bar handy, look in train stations, government buildings and the upper floors of department stores. Large, classy, old hotel lobbies are as impressive as many palaces you’ll pay to see. You can always find a royal retreat there — and plenty of soft TP.

Some large cities, such as Paris, London and Amsterdam, are dotted with coin-operated, telephone-booth-type WCs on street corners. Insert a coin, the door opens and you have 15 minutes of toilet use accompanied by Sinatra Muzak. When you leave, it even disinfects itself.

Some cities have free, low-tech public urinals (called “pissoirs” — no joke) that offer just enough privacy for men to find relief… sometimes with a view. Munich had outdoor urinals until the 1972 Olympics and then decided to beautify the city by doing away with them. What about the people’s needs? There’s a law: any place serving beer must admit the public (whether or not they’re customers) to use the toilets.

Rail travelers use the free toilets on the train rather than those in the station to save time and money. Toilets on first-class cars are a cut above second-class toilets. I go first class even with a second-class ticket.

Train toilets are located on the ends of cars, where it’s most jiggly. (A trip to the train’s john always reminds me of the rodeo.) Some toilets empty directly on the tracks, so never use a train’s WC while stopped in a station (unless you didn’t like that particular town).

Often you’ll have to pay to use a public WC — a European custom that irks many Americans. But isn’t it really worth a few coins, considering the cost of water, maintenance and cleanliness? And you’re probably in no state to argue, anyway.

Sometimes the toilet is free but there’s a woman in the corner selling sheets of toilet paper. Most common is the tip dish by the entry; the local equivalent of about 25 cents is plenty.

Caution: many attendant ladies leave only bills and too-big coins in the tray to bewilder the full-bladdered tourist. The keepers of Europe’s public toilets have earned a reputation for crabbiness. You’d be crabby, too, if you lived under the street in a room full of public toilets.

Western-style toilets are the norm nowadays, but don’t be surprised if you run across a “squat toilet,” also known as a “Turkish toilet,” even though you may find them in, say, Italy. This porcelain hole in the ground is flanked by platforms for your feet. If this seems outrageous to you, ponder the fact that those of us who need a throne to sit on are in the minority; most humans sit on their haunches and nothing more.

Getting comfortable in foreign restrooms takes a little adjusting, but that’s travel. When in Rome, do as the Romans do and, before you know it, Euro-peein’.