In a word:
In many countries, ornamental fountains are seen as a part of community furniture. Strolling right into the fountain in Washington Square Park, NYC, is completely acceptable; to dangle one’s feet into the fountains in Trafalgar Square in London is fine too; kids running through the water jets on the Peak in Hong Kong is positively encouraged; and while jumping into the Caritas Well fountain in Copenhagen may be a little frowned on, it isn’t strictly forbidden nor punishable by law.
This is absolutely not the case, anywhere in Italy outside of a water park.
No matter what Anita Ekberg may have led you to believe in the 1960 movie La Dolce Vita, splashing, dipping one’s feet in, or even swimming in any fountain in Rome (no matter how modern or seemingly purpose-built to do so) is totally forbidden by law, as fountains in Italy are rightly regarded as priceless works of art, and some are very delicate indeed.
Beyond the legal aspect, it’s also a moral outrage to get into a fountain: to do so is a huge insult to the locals, and is seen by many as an act of cultural vandalism.
Every year there are incidents of tourists stripping off and showering or bathing in fountains in Rome, and there is an outcry as tourists are branded “barbarians” in the press and on social media, arrested, and fined – or even in some cases expelled from Rome.
It doesn’t matter how hot you or the weather are – don’t do it.
So strong is the moral opprobrium towards splashing in fountains that even ones that appear to have been specifically designed to be paddled in, such as the large open fountain at sidewalk level near the Ara Pacis, are also forbidden to be entered.
Can I drink from the fountains in Rome?
As a rule, also no. But there are in fact exceptions.
Pretty much every ornamental fountain in Rome is a no-go area for drinking. As well as the legal and moral issues around doing this, most of the ornamental fountains in Rome recycle their water, and it is therefore undrinkable, and full of pigeon poop and all sorts of other nasty stuff.
However there are a few times when drinking from a fountain in Rome is acceptable:
- The thousands of fontanelle, or nasoni, of Rome that are specifically designed to dispense drinking water. More here…
- One end of the Barcaccia fountain at the bottom of the Spanish Steps has historically dispensed water fresh direct from an aqueduct since it was built 400 years ago, and the practice is still permitted today. There’s even a specially-designed step above the moat that you are allowed to stand on while you fill up your water bottle from the water pouring from the boat statue. You should not try to drink directly from the fountain itself.
- You can also fill up or drink from other designated decorative drinking water fountains, which are few and far between, such as the 1927 Fontana dei Libri (Fountain of the Books) between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.
Regardless of what you do back home, whether you’re a kid or not, nor how inviting or refreshing the water looks: where it comes to fountains, when in Rome do as the Romans don’t.