Bathrooms in Italy: What to know before you “go”

bathrooms in italyI guess our group of irreverent expats has collectively decided that our recent posts have been a bit too high-brow for our audience.  Hence, this week we’re discussing the important topic of lavatory protocols in Italy.  Yes, when living or traveling abroad, there’s nothing quite so interesting as other people’s plumbing—apparently.

I’ve actually addressed this vital issue once before in one of my most popular articles which delved into the fascinating history of the ubiquitous bidet.  No Italian household is without one.  I’ve even seen them in the public restrooms in the lobby of one of Rome’s fancier hotels.  This is no joking matter, so please gentle reader, wipe that sixth-grade, bathroom-humor smirk off your face, and pay attention to the wisdom we are about to impart upon you.  Your hygiene—and by extension, your reputation—may depend upon it.

Bathrooms in Italy

This is an interesting debate, because there are many public bathrooms in Italy which seem to disregard the innovations of modern plumbing, while the restrooms in most homes are the very height of civility (yes, I’m referring to the aforementioned bidet).  But the spotlessly clean, bidet-flaunting private toilets provide little fodder for our ridicule, so let’s focus on the public facilities.



The first thing that an American will notice is the scarcity of public bathrooms in Italy.  In the U.S., they’re everywhere, and free for everyone to use as needed.  You don’t even have to purchase anything to stop into a restaurant or store, and ask to use their bathroom.  Even fancy stores don’t seem to mind.  I guess they figure that if you come in to pee, you might accidentally buy a Gucci handbag on your way out.  Good marketing, actually, in my opinion.  Sell one extra handbag a month, and your entire water/sewer bill is paid for.  Sell two or three more and you can even renovate said bathroom.

nunsConsequently, your average American bladder is not trained for Italian society as it relates to available toilets.  Ladies in particular are challenged, for reasons that seem unnecessary to highlight.  But suffice to say that women with especially weak bladders would be well advised to plan out their day around available bathroom facilities, and don’t be swayed by people who implore you to “stay hydrated” when touring about Rome or Florence.  This can only spell disaster, or at the very least, enough discomfort to make you want to skip the view inside the Sistine Chapel in favor of the view inside a lavatory.

Your best bet is to find a coffee bar and purchase a coffee for €1.  This strategy is not without risk, however, since: 1) there’s 50% chance that the toilet will be guasto (broken), and; 2) there’s a 90% chance that there will be no toilet paper.  Not to mention the fact that coffee is a known diuretic, so it will only increase your need to find another bathroom in the very near future.  The take-away here: order the coffee, but don’t drink it.  And always carry your own toilet paper.

If you should be lucky enough to locate a functioning toilet when the urge strikes you, then you’ll encounter the second remarkable feature of Italian bathrooms: they have been designed for someone with the physical dimensions of an adolescent gnome.  Being a man, it’s easier for me since I can remain vertical while tending to my business.  However, being 6’4” and 200 pounds, I usually have to bend, crouch, or otherwise fold myself into an unnatural position just to step into a bathroom.  Then I must attempt to further contort myself in such a way that my aim is on the mark, so to speak.  I don’t even bother to try closing the door at that point.

These relics were recently uncovered at Ostia and fully restored to their original beauty. The ancient Romans were geniuses at bathroom solutions.

These relics were recently uncovered at Ostia and fully restored to their original beauty. The ancient Romans were geniuses at bathroom solutions.

In contrast, walk into a public restroom at one of the many chain restaurants in my home state of Florida and you’ll have plenty of space to rollerblade or practice your golf swing.  If you happen to encounter 9 other gentlemen while in there (not at all out of the question), you can even play a quick game of pickup basketball or calcetto, provided that someone thought to bring a ball (less likely, but amusing to contemplate).

Finally, IF you happen to find a working bathroom, and IF you’re able to fit through the door without dislocating a joint or two, then you’ll get to enjoy the best part of the experience: the potential to discover any and every type of toilet ever invented throughout the 19th  and early 20th centuries.  Not often touted by its tourist board, Italy is a virtual museum of creative plumbing efforts by well-intended but poorly trained designers, who obviously had precious little insight into human anatomy and physiology.

Some intrepid young entrepreneur should develop a touring itinerary of these fascinating discoveries.  After all, many tour companies offer food tours, wine tastings, pub crawls—it would seem that bathroom visits would be the next logical evolution on these themes, if you catch my drift.squatter

The most common example of perplexing plumbing is the lamentable “hole” type of toilet, which calls to mind the facilities offered at East Asian prison camps during World War II.  The uninspired engineers who designed these commodes evidently couldn’t be bothered to strain their collective imaginations beyond recruiting the forces of gravity alone to do the proverbial dirty work.

You might argue, “OK, but it works!”  Well, yes.  In the same way that a tree or a lamppost “works” as a urinal.

My favorite ones have “footprints” painted on either side of the hole, as if the proper method of use could possibly be misunderstood, even by the most dense among us.  Where else are you supposed to place your feet during this delicate maneuver?  I’d love to witness a few examples of someone’s misadventures after attempting an alternate position.

Baby changing tables?  Ha!!  My wife has developed an uncanny ability to change the baby on her lap aboard a crowded train, while talking on her cell phone and filing her fingernails at the same time.  Her greatest feat so far was on the flight from Catania to Milan, containing a spontaneous “explosion” that occurred in our baby’s diaper at 35,000 feet during extreme air turbulence.  Everybody else was fastening their seat belts and clinging to their armrests, while Jessica was giving our daughter a bidet in the tiny airplane bathroom.  Then again, having lived most of her life in Italy, airplane bathrooms must seem quite spacious to her.

Other Views on Bathroom Humor

Well, that’s all I have to say about the topic, but don’t believe for a moment that this discussion is conclusive.  Click over to my friends’ pages and learn about their bathroom misadventures in the Bel Paese:

Bathroom Poets:

“You all are polite and kind, so don’t vomit in the sinks. I ask you cordially and sincerely, vomit in the toilet.”

Well, in Italian it rhymes.

  • Dee says:

    Love this

  • Penny Sadler says:

    Being of small stature Italy and me are a good fit. However, the bathroom situation is exactly as you describe it. I never found it much of a problem, until it was. A couple of years ago I encountered my first squat toilet in Italy. I waited. Those markers for your feet, covered in urine. ufff!

  • […] Meanwhile my wife was explaining the whole story, and registering a reasonable complaint.  This is when one of the employees took her firmly by the arm and escorted her to the restroom. […]

  • […] and its sense of morality as it relates to the human body, once played an important role in bathroom protocol.  Saint Jerome, for example, recommended that young girls never (yes, never) take a bath, so as […]

  • Thanks for your post, Rick. Did you know that Turkish style loos (hole in the ground) are supposed to be healthier because they make constipation less likely? Anyway, after reading your post I have decided that I will include comments on and pictures of loos in my blog whenever I want to, instead of being embarrassed about being a typical loo-obsessed Anglo-Saxon. Turkish loos are rare in Le Marche, thank goodness.

    • Rick says:

      Ha, ha! Thanks for the input, Alys! Yes, behind every cultural quirk in Italy, there’s a health-related reason to back it up! Ciao!

  • Ha! Ha! I just came upon this amusing and informative post. I am exactly one of those women you describe. In Italy I often plan my day around usable toilet facilities. Complimenti also on some of the humorous comments by fellow readers.
    One particular insult to injury that I’ve come across a handful of times and would like to share is the toilet without seat but with a full rack of paper toilet seat covers attached to the wall above it. That has left me scratching my head to this day.

  • So clever AND informational as I’m about to leave for Italy.
    Warm regards, Irene

  • Connor says:

    Rick, this post is filed under healthcare, and I tried to do a search for the word Dental but couldn’t pull anything relevant up. So as per directions in your contact page, I’ll ask here (hoping you see it !) How is the Dental scene in Italy in comparison to what is found in the USA? is it much more affordable? is it free to Italian citizens? any insight would be appreciated =]

  • GP says:

    Ok, but still no answer on why every. single. proprietor of an establishment with a public restroom in Italy MUST ensure that the toilet seat is removed. Is there some obscure articolo di legge regarding toilet seats which the Guardia di Finanza goes around covertly enforcing while ensuring that scontrini are issued? A reverse colpo d’aria where if your posterior gets too close to the water, it will affect its chemical balance? That number twos, much like cappucini, cannot be had after 11am, therefore toilet seats in bars are simply not required? WHY NO TOILET SEATS???

    • Rick says:

      Excellent point!! I’m on the case…will report back with findings soon!!

      • Looking forward to hearing back on this bit of “research” Rick…why, why why??

        • giuseppe Tomaselli says:

          It is all to do with hygiene. No toilet seat no contamination from previous occupant. That is why the preferred type of toilette is the hole in the ground, also known as Turkish toilet. The same for toilet paper. Would you touch some contaminated by other people? The size of the toilet is based on the average Italian who is much smaller than the typical American.

          • Rick says:

            Hmm…I’m not sure it’ all about hygiene (at least not in public bathrooms) considering the general condition one discovers upon entering a random toilet. And regarding the size, I’m quite certain it has much more to do with the amount of real estate available rather than the dimensions of the average customer.

            In any case, these posts with the COSI group are merely meant to be humorous, which I understand doesn’t always translate well.

  • […] ‘What you need to know before you go‘ — Rick’s Rome […]

  • […] Rick Zullo from Rick’s Rome and some wise words … what to know before you go! […]

  • Wendy says:

    My daughters and I recently moved to Italy and just shared our “peeing in the hole at the beach” story with our family in California! This story will undoubtedly provide us with years of hysterical stories! We are checking off all our “Well, that was a first!” moments one day at a time.

    • Rick says:

      As long as you can laugh at it all, then you’re going to do find…and as you say, lots of great stories!!

      • Daviduccio says:

        Hi Rick – Part of my marriage vow was that I must always scout out an Italian public bathroom before my wife attempts to use it and report on not only the the cleanliness factor but also the type of commode, the supply of toilet paper and the operation of the faucet (i.e. automatic, knobs, foot pedal etc.). My favorite public bathrooms in Rome: McDonalds! (No golden arches jokes, please).

        My most embarrassing public bathroom moment in Rome included a changing table. My niece had a meeting at the Vatican and her husband and I were entrusted with their 6 month old daughter. While attempting a diaper change in a stall in the men’s room at St. Peter’s, we were accosted by a custodian, who wanted to know what we thought we were doing. When I explained we were changing the baby he called in a Vatican security guard, who instructed us to follow him. I assumed that he assumed that we were trying to kidnap a baby and he was taking us to the Holy Roman Catholic hoosegow but instead he lead us into the ladies room, folded down a changing table, shouting “Eccola!” and left us to our business.

        • Rick says:

          Wow, that’s great…you guys located quite possibly the only changing table in Rome! Actually, it was in the Vatican, so I guess it doesn’t count!!

  • Ha! Having been to Italy four times, the only time I thought I was going to die was at the museum on the Palantine Hill. OMG when I saw that, I just couldn’t, it was some type of hole! So we trudged around until we found something that at least resembled a toilet!!! BTW…I wasn’t the only one there! I guess to date, we have been pretty lucky by going for lunch at places with bathrooms and then stopping for a coffee or drink later again at a place with a bathroom. Although I have been known to run into a bar and hand over $$ just to use the facilities! Mind you, I am talking only of Tuscany, Umbria and Rome, have no idea about other places!! Good recommendation about taking your own toilette paper!

  • Joan Schmelzle says:

    Hi,
    Just have to throw in that I first saw the “hole” type over 50 years ago, maybe Italy maybe France. But the best part was in the “stall” next to me was a woman from out tour probably mid 60’s or a bit more. All of a sudden I heard, “What perfect aim!” Can’t remember much of my own effort.
    Last time I was in San Gimignano I found a public pay toilet. I figured it would be ugly but regular plumbing. How wrong I was. There was the hole–more difficult to use because now we can wear slacks as well as unies. I think I gave up and went to a nearby gelato place ordered the treat and asked to use the facilities first. No problem. Indeed bathrooms can be a myster!

  • Lyn says:

    Spot on Rick. Very good. Very true. Very funny. I know when I am in Rome or any of Italys major cities bathroom breaks must be in the plan of the day. The regional areas are not much better but they are easier

    • Rick says:

      True, in the smaller areas they seem more inclined to help you than make you feel like you’re annoying them with your “needs.” Thanks, Lyn!!

  • Why Rick, you failed to mention the Italian showers. Most of the ones I used were really easy. I just soaped the walls and then simply rotated my 6′ 2″ 280 pound frame like a washing machine. The results were satisfactory except for one shower near Bari which had a door so narrow, that I had to soap my body and recruit my wife to push from behind to get me in.

  • Earl Owens says:

    For Americans, the Italian public bathroom situation can be quite shocking, but like anything new, one quickly adapts. I used to think it would be a huge problem for someone like me who drinks lots of non-alcoholic liquids, but I don’t even think about it now.

    • Rick says:

      Very true, Earl. We’re having a little fun with the topic because it’s easy pickings. But the truth is, you learn to adapt and it’s no big deal. Still fun to talk about, though. 🙂