French toilets aren’t as bad as people think they will be, but there are definitely a few quirks.
- Toilet paper is just like at home, either in rolls or individual pieces like tissues. But sometime there’s none at all, so keep a tissue packet handy.
- Public toilets (in some Métro stations, near tourist sights, in parks) are now free, including the snazzy Belle Epoch ones at the Place de la Madeleine. But many brasserie restrooms need a coin to unlock the door (if you don’t have one as the server for a jeton).
- There are some truly noteworthy restrooms in Paris (usually found in trendy bars and expensive hotels). But there are also — in some scruffy older cafés — Turkish Toilets, which consist of a ceramic base with a hole in the center (squat if you’re a female or have bad aim; keep your feet clear when you flush, there tends to be splashing).
- The toilets in bars, cafés and restaurants are almost always downstairs, and often unisex (when there’s a door to close, not just a stall). You may even have to walk past a urinal to get to the toilet.
- The lights are often on timers, or only work once the door is closed. If the light goes out just push or turn the button again.
- There’s more than one way to flush a French toilet: push a button, yank a chain, pull a lever, stand up (automatic sensor), etc.
A happy customer gives a thumbs up for the free public toilets (note the rolled-up pant legs).
Where to Find Them
What to do when nature calls and you’re nowhere near your hotel? There are a few options. If there’s a very large café or brasserie nearby, they may not notice if you head straight for the toilets (usually downstairs) and then leave. But since a lot of people try this, some bathrooms require a coin to get in.
Public toilets (free since February 2006) can be found at some Métro entrances (like Bastille at exit Rue St-Antoine, Pont Neuf, Palais Royal, and Cluny-La Sorbonne) and outside major monuments with an actual human being there to keep the place clean: look for the light blue sign and steps going down at the northeast pillar of the Eiffel Tower and the southwest corner of Notre Dame, and the restrooms at the Place E. Michelet to the southwest of the Pompidou Centre. All of the major department stores have free restrooms, but smaller shops never have public facilities.
As a last resort, there are always the automated public toilet cabins (shown in the photo) scattered around the city. They’re free and actually quite clean, since the entire interior is rinsed and disinfected after each use. “Occupé”means it’s occupied, “libre” means it’s avaiable, and “hors service” means it’s broken.
Vocab: When asking for the restroom, always say, “Les toilettes, s’il vous plaît?” The word we all learned in school, “salle de bain” is only used to refer to bathrooms in someone’s home. You’ll also see signs pointing to the “WC”.