Tragically, there are very few public toilets in Rome (hence the horrible odor you’ll encounter near alleyways and on the beautiful but isolated Lungotevere (banks of the Tiber). The few that are available can be nasty indeed.
Where can I find a public bathroom in Rome?
A few train stations have them, usually requiring a €1 coin to enter, but rarely any Metro stations. Some of these are even clean-ish, particularly in Termini. All museums have them (usually well maintained) and there is one particularly spotless example in Villa Torlonia. Shopping malls – themselves quite rare – such as Rinascente and Coin may have them too.
There’s also a new scheme for fancy tourist information booths that also have (clean) bathrooms in them – known, no coincidence, as P.Stop.
Finally if you’re really worried, there’s an app for Android and iOS that gives you a map of the city with the nearest bathrooms shown and details about them (Italian language only though). Be warned though: many will be shut, and the ones that are open are very unlikely to be sanitary.
So what do Rome locals do when they need the bathroom?
One of the things to understand about the locals in Rome is that they rarely poop away from home. This is partly because the use of the bidet is so embedded into personal hygiene practices (by law all houses must have a bidet as well as a toilet) that for many people, doing a ‘number two’ without cleaning up after using soap and water is almost unthinkable.
This reduces the need for public bathrooms in the city. And their lack probably increases the local population’s almost supernatural ability to hold it in.
If a Roman is ‘caught short’ they will tend to go to a bar (the word for café here) and use the bathroom there. By law, as part of their licensing conditions, every bar must allow their customers to use the bathroom – though customers only. They’re not obliged to allow free use to anyone who just walks in off the street. To become a customer, even if you’re not in the mood for another coffee, buying a small bottle of water or a pack of gum will suffice.
In practice this can prove fraught, as in highly trafficked areas you may sometimes find that “the bathroom is out of order”.
If this should happen, some locals have told me you should mention the cops (“vigili“), since it is illegal to have premises with tables for eating or drinking without viable bathroom facilities.
Our advice is, find another bar. If it’s a crowded, busy bar then you can probably just walk in, scope out where the bathroom is, and brazen it out – my thinking being, what’s the worst they can do if you’ve already made it into the stall – shout at you as you leave?
However if it’s a small/quiet place, then it’s polite to ask to use the bathroom: “posso usare il bagno?” (POSS-oh oo-ZAR-eh eel BAN-yo?) or just ask where the bathroom is: “dov’è il bagno?” (doh-VEH eel BAN-yo?), but to be really polite then you should indeed buy a coffee, a bottle of water, or a pack of gum, then ask to use the bathroom and they’ll be perfectly happy to allow you.
People also try to use bathrooms in pubs, or fast food joints McDonald’s (though recently a receipt has been required to get a code for the door), or hotel lobbies – for the latter you need to look like you belong there.
Our advice: go before you leave, plan in advance, download the app, and carry small change in case of necessity.