European Toilet Tricks to Know Before You Go

Modern Toilets, Greece
These artsy toilets greet ferry travelers in the Greek port of Piraeus.
Automated Toilet, Paris, France
Parisian “pissoirs” have been replaced by self-disinfecting toilets.
By Rick Steves

Every traveler has one or two great toilet stories. Foreign toilets can be traumatic, but they are one of those little things that can make travel so much more interesting than staying at home. If you plan to venture away from the international-style hotels in your Mediterranean travels and become a temporary resident, “going local” may take on a very real meaning.

Squat Toilets: The vast majority of European toilets are similar to our own. But in a few out-of-the-way places, you might find one that consists simply of porcelain footprints and a squat-and-aim hole. If faced with one, remember: Those of us who need a throne to sit on are in the minority. Throughout the world, most humans sit on their haunches and nothing more. Sometimes called “Turkish toilets,” these are more commonly found in, well, Turkey.

Flummoxing Flushers: In Europe, you may or may not encounter a familiar flushing mechanism. In older bathrooms, toilets may come with a pull string instead of a handle (generally with the tank affixed to the wall rather than the toilet itself). In modern bathrooms, you may see two buttons on top of the tank — one performs a regular flush, the other (for lighter jobs) conserves water. In Great Britain, you’ll likely come across the “pump toilet,” with a flushing handle that doesn’t kick in unless you push it just right: too hard or too soft, and it won’t go. (Be decisive but not ruthless.)

Toilet Paper: Like a spoon or a fork, this is another Western “essential” that many people on our planet do not use. What they use varies. I won’t get too graphic, but remember that a billion civilized people on this planet never eat with their left hand. While Europeans do use toilet paper, WCs may not always be well stocked. If you’re averse to the occasional drip-dry, carry pocket-size tissue packs (easy to buy in Europe) for WCs sans TP. Some countries, such as Greece and Turkey, have very frail plumbing. If you see an wastebasket adjacent to the toilet with used toilet paper in it, that’s a sign that the local sewer has a hard time handling TP. (The rule of thumb in those places: Don’t put anything in the toilet unless you’ve eaten it first.)

Paid Toilets: Paying to use a public WC is 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 the person in the corner sells sheets of toilet paper. Most common is the tip dish by the entry — the local equivalent of about 50 cents is plenty. Caution: Many attendants 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. Humor them, understand them, and carry some change so you can leave them a coin or two.

Women in the Men’s Room: The female attendants who seem to inhabit Europe’s WCs are a popular topic of conversation among Yankee males. Sooner or later you’ll be minding your own business at the urinal, and the lady will bring you your change or sweep under your feet. Yes, it is distracting, but you’ll just have to get used to it — she has.

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, you’ll be Euro-peein’.

Finding a Public Restroom

I once dropped a tour group off in a town for a potty stop, and when I picked them up 20 minutes later, none had found relief. Locating a decent public toilet can be frustrating. But with a few tips, you can sniff out a biffy in a jiffy.

Coin-op Toilets on the Street

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, the entire chamber disinfects itself.

Some cities have free, low-tech public urinals (called pissoirs) 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 in Munich: Any place serving beer must admit the public (whether or not they’re customers) to use the toilets.

Restaurants

Any place that serves food or drinks has a restroom. No restaurateur would label his WC so those on the street can see, but 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 — waiters will think you’re a customer just making a quick trip inside. Some call it rude; I call it survival. If you feel like it, ask permission. Just smile, “Toilet?” I’m rarely turned down. American-type fast-food places are very common and usually have a decent and fairly accessible “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 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.

Public Buildings

When nature beckons and there’s no restaurant or bar handy, look in train stations, government buildings, libraries, large bookstores, and upper floors of department stores. Parks often have restrooms, sometimes of the gag-a-maggot variety. Never leave a museum without taking advantage of its restrooms — they’re free, clean, and decorated with artistic graffiti. Large, classy, old hotel lobbies are as impressive as many palaces you’ll pay to see. You can always find a royal retreat here, and plenty of soft TP.