{Un}Glamorous Paris: Les Toilettes

Week after week through my {Un}Glamorous Paris series, I think I’ve come up with the most unglamorous side of Paris. But then I remembered: les toilettes.

Starting close to home is the best way to set the stage here. The older I get, not only do my apartments get smaller, but the toilet is no larger part of my actual living space. Yes, while “normal” people typically have to go down the hall to use the bathroom in their own homes, I do the same. I just share it with 5 other people. I also have the added “benefit” of a “fresh” toilette experience, as our shared hallway toilet is not heated and quite freezing in the small, unglamorous tiled room whose lock is shoddy, and multiple times a day I fear being locked in there forever. The other “perk” is that I have the privilege of bringing my own toilet paper with me each time I go, so I know no one is using mine. Talk about glam! But the good news is most of my student friends in Paris are in the same boat. Oddly, we are becoming French and realizing, c’est normale!

Despite being a shared toilet, the cleanliness isn’t really an issue (I have good neighbors, except for the one who decided to have a party from 1:30- 6:30am last Tuesday “night”). It’s just a toilet. Then I come back into my apartment to wash my hands. A sink with the toilet would be a nice perk, but alas, non.

But this isn’t just me in mon petit appartement. Many apartments in France have a separate “toilet room” and then you have to find where you are supposed to go to wash your hands. Usually there is another room for this, but I usually just opt for the kitchen because you are insured to have water and soap available. The other trick you must understand about French apartments is that the French are very private people. They like to keep all doors closed. So it’s a bit of a guessing game as to where to find les toilettes. Hence, it is also a mission to find where the sink is. I’m telling you, when in doubt, just go to the kitchen!

One of my favorite things in Paris is to wander the city for hours on end. It’s a great activity that falls nicely into my budget. The only catch is finding a bathroom. So here are a few tips: McDonald’s besides having the best free Wi-Fi in the city is always sure to have a bathroom, Le Starbuck – also bathrooms, and les grands magasins [the big department stores]. Note: sometimes you need a code printed on your receipt to get into the door – because of people like me – but just wait for someone to come out, or politely ask someone to give you the code (I’ve been asked before and happy to share my knowledge). If you’re not a complete cheapskate like me, you can go to the local brasserie, and order un café while standing at the bar (the cheapest way to get a beverage in a cafe) and take advantage of their facilities.

When you’re out and about in the city, the other option are the free, public, gray “les toilettes” all around the city that look a bit more like a spacecraft than a bathroom. I was terrified of these for the longest time. But then one day I was desperate, and I realized it was something on my checklist of “must do Paris,” and I bit the bullet, sent a text to a friend if I got trapped, and went inside the capsule. Much to my surprise, it was quite a pleasant experience, clean, it talked to me, I could was my hands, and when I left the door closed again for its “self-cleaning” function. Now I must admit, that not all WC [water closet] “capsules” are equal. If you’re going for the experience, go to some obscure neighborhood and try it (less popular there). Don’t go to the one near Parc Buttes-Chaumont – that one is definitely gross always a small flood. But, desperate times come for desperate measures. Then of course, men have the option of just peeing on the side of any wall or object [see video], and you can expect that quite regularly.

My final word of warning, is that despite being a developed country, squat toilets do exist in this city. In fact, one of my favorite haunts, Au Petit Fer à Cheval, is an upstanding and reputable restaurant/bar, so it may come as quite the surprise to some that their toilet is essentially a hole in the ground. But it’s all part of the experience…

Les toilettes in Paris are such an experience in Paris, I’m surprised they don’t bottle the fragrance. Madeleine and Republique metros most commonly emit the odor – it wouldn’t be real Paris without a tinge of urine in the metro air.

When asking where the bathroom is:
– Où sont les toilettes?
– Où est le W.C.?

{Un}Glamorous Paris is a regular column exploring the less-than-perfect sides of Paris with a sense of humor, and helpful information. More in the series:
Chest X-Rays
Finding an Apartment
Working in France
Swimming Pools


  • I’ve also always been terrified of those ever since I went on an exchange trip in junior year and we spent a day in Puy-en-Velay. It’s honestly the self-cleaning thing that scares me – what if the door kind of closes twice and I’m stuck in there while it is cleaning itself? Would I disintegrate into whatever they put in there? But now I guess I’ll have to try one – great post!


  • HA HA HA :D

    This is a great post, Anne.

    On trips to Paris, I budget for things like pit-stops (i.e., tea or hot chocolate or some small thing at a cafe or bistro, just to gain access to their facilities). But I mostly try to cheap it and hit all the types of places you suggest – department stores, American fast food or coffee chains, etc.

    The most fun though is just breezing into an establishment like I own the place – or am a regular – and make a beeline for the WC. It works surprisingly well. You have to assume the same attitude that the French and other Europeans have for cutting lines. Just do it. But you have to own it or it’s a fail from the start.

    We have those self-cleaning situations here in San Francisco, too. I only ever see the homeless frequenting them, and they never smell very clean when you pass one. So I’ve never ventured inside. They seem so super skeezy here that I just assume they’re the same anywhere else. But *maybe* I’ll try one in Paris.

    And the holes in the ground. The first and only such toilet I ever encountered in France was in Antibes. What a lesson that was. Learn to squat or watch out for the back-spash!!

    And finally (then I’ll shut up, I promise) the peeing on walls. Oh. My. God. My first trip to Europe, I was horrified at the men of Marseilles. I lost count of how many men I encountered watering the walls, and I wasn’t even in Marseilles all that long. It seemed … epidemic! That said, I’d rather that than a man pleasuring himself. A friend who lived in Paris for a year witnessed *plenty* of that. Yikes.

  • Those self-cleaning toilets totally freak me out. During my trip to Paris my husband and I were wandering around the left bank and the urge suddenly hit me. The ‘space-age’ toilet was the closest thing available. The whole automatic door thing is probably what freaked me out the most. I was in total fear that the door was just going to re-open at any moment while I was ‘mid-stream’. The toilet was talking to me in French and I had no idea what the lady was saying. For all I know she could have been saying in her calm, soothing voice – “In just a few seconds I am going to open the door and tons of people on the street are gonna see you with your pants pulled down”. I was a nervous wreck! Haha. :-)

    And I love your comment “it wouldn’t be real Paris without a tinge of urine in the metro air.” Hilarious and true!

  • I’ve had to break down and use these toilets once in a while but I tend to know where the free ones are now. Like at the Louvre once you go through security you can use the toliet no problem. I have the biggest issue with the squat toilet at the prefecture for Seine-Saint-Denis. you have to get there by 5-6 am just to be seen that day and you don’t get in until 9-9:30 most of the time so I’m dying for the bathroom. It’s SO dirty there it makes me want to throw up every time.

  • When I lived in Paris a few years ago, I started counting all the men I saw peeing on streets, on cars, in the metro (oh yes! several times!). I don’t remember how many I ended up with, but since I went to India this summer I sure got a new look at the issue… Paris is nothing! :)

  • My first odd Parisian bathroom experience was when my brother picked me up in Paris and we drove to his home in the Loire. We stopped on the highway and I was expecting the “usual” restrooms offered at a rest stop (in the states), but was shocked to find…a hole. And barely a door. I had to get over it–you gotta go, you gotta go, like you said! :)

  • Alas, I have not experienced these public toilets…I could never figure out how one was supposed to get in, and the lack of a door handle to enter (and thus potential inability to exit) scared me away from investigating further. ;-) I love that you sent a text to a friend in case you got trapped!

  • I cannot tell you how much I have been enjoying your blog, Anne!

    I am planning on moving up to Paris from the south in a few months, and in all my googling, you are the first person to mention anything about what it is like to have a shared toilet situation! (There’s been a good bit of googling on the subject, yes…) I am very curious though- do all the tenants on that floor share a cleaning rotation of sorts, or is there someone who works for the landlords who cleans it now and again? 😂

    • I never had to clean it myself and luckily my neighbors were respectful too. Thankfully mine stayed pretty clean. I think the building guardienne would pass from time to time.

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