What is it with Italians and bottled water?

Have you ever had trouble ordering tap water in Italy or been dismayed by the plastic bottles everywhere? Here's a look at what that's all about.

What is it with Italians and bottled water?
Bottled water in an Italian supermarket. Photo: DepositPhotos

One thing that really bothered me when I first moved to Italy was all the plastic water bottles I saw on tables up and down the country.

I couldn’t stop noticing them in every home and restaurant – or worse, discarded in the street and on beaches.

READ ALSO: What is Italy doing about the shocking level of plastic pollution on its coastline?

Since then I’ve seen that, thankfully, Italy does seem to be weaning itself off its plastic bottle addiction. But filtered water is here to stay, and now, I think it’s for a pretty good reason.

While both water and wine are essentials on any Italian table, many visitors to Italy complain about not being able to order tap water in restaurants. In fact, you’ll usually be asked if you want frizzante or naturale (sparkling or still) as soon as you sit down, which will of course usually be branded, bottled mineral water.

Just know that the insistence on bottled water isn’t one of Italy’s infamous restaurant scams – unless you’re later overcharged for it, of course.

A water bottling plant in central Italy. Photo: AFP

The water is perfectly safe to drink all over Italy, and you can ask for tap water if you want – it’s just that no one usually does, and your waiter might not want to bring it to you.

Their reluctance probably has more to do with the unpleasant taste of the local tap water than them wanting to upsell you an expensive bottle of mineral water (especially as upselling in restaurants doesn’t really happen in Italy – at least, not outside of the most touristy areas.)

Of course the water quality isn’t the same everywhere. As in most countries, the further you get from big cities (and particularly when you get into the mountains) the better the tap water is. It might even be brought directly from mountain springs into homes without processing, and restaurants in these regions are rightly proud of their delicious local spring water.

But visitors arriving in cities or coastal regions will no doubt find the taste of the water a lot less pleasant.

Hence waiters’ concerned expressions, warnings, and insistance on bringing bottled water in many areas of the country. Even at the simplest cafe or motorway service station, if you ask for a glass of water (which is common, and should be free) with your coffee, they’ll pour it from a bottle and not the tap. Usually into a plastic cup.

Ripped off: Italy’s worst tourist scams and how to avoid them

And in a country so obsessed with hygiene, drinking tap water is seen as potentially dirty or even dangerous by some. This view is especially prevalent among older Italians, many of whom have little faith in the country’s water purification and sanitation services – or perhaps the safety of the water pipes in older buildings.

And these concerns are not totally unfounded. Just last year, the city of Matera warned that its drinking water had become contaminated, while an outbreak of legionella in northern Italy was blamed on contaminated water in industrial cooling towers. Such incidents are rare, but they do nothing to reassure extra-cautious Italian nonni.

You might notice that as well as advertising the various supposed health-giving properties of the bafflingly wide range of bottled mineral waters on sale, advertisements here also boast of the water’s cleanliness. In fact, if you’ve watched many Italian TV ads, you’ll know that all kinds of foodstuffs are promoted as being “clean”.

Small plastic bottles of water are ubiquitous in Italy in summer. Photo: AFP

As well as the potential taste and purity issues, another problem is that water in Italy tends to be very hard, or full of calcium.

This is something every British person learns immediately after moving here: making a cup of tea requires using filtered water, otherwise your tea tastes chalky and your precious kettle quickly gets all furred up with calcium deposits.

When you see the state of the inside of that kettle after a few weeks in Italy, you might also wonder how good it is for you to be processing that stuff through your body.

Meanwhile, American friends lament the lack of water-softening systems apparently found in many homes in the US (I’m told the technology is available here in Italy should you want to install it).

Many people – myself included – complain that the hard water doesn’t do your hair or skin any favours, and can leave it dry and dull. After moving here, the idea of washing your face with mineral water no longer sounds that eccentric, although I haven’t resorted to doing this myself – yet.

There’s also the fact that, with environmental concerns not exactly top of the agenda here in Italy, drinking bottled water is still seen as fashionable and “modern” by many.

READ ALSO: ‘The end of the world’: fashion blogger’s €8 a pop bottled water sparks controversy

But the good news is that Italian restaurants and households are now increasingly ditching the plastic bottles I was once so disturbed by.

My Italian husband’s family used to stock up on six-packs of 1.5 litre plastic bottles of water from the supermarket several times a week, much to my dismay.

But after a filtered water station was set up on a nearby street, costing five euro cents per litre of filtered water, my mother-in-law now takes her six refillable glass bottles down there instead. She’s still pretty excited about doing it every time as, she likes to inform me, “it’s very clean and modern”.

(In case you haven’t noticed, “clean and modern” is the ultimate seal of approval from any Italian mother-in-law.)

And the even better news is that more and more restaurants across Italy are now installing water filtration systems and using refillable glass bottles to serve both naturale and frizzante.

It’s been a few months now since I’ve seen a plastic bottle lurking on a restaurant table. Let’s hope the trend continues.

Refilling bottles at a filtration station in Italy. Photo: AFP


Member comments

  1. A water softener is an “addolcitore”. They are common here in Umbria where the water is very hard indeed.

  2. We have wonderful mountain water in Turin, but plastic bottles dominate. And one might also think about the fact that your water is in plastic which may not be good for you. But you don’t put water softeners on your drinking and cooking line ever. The rest, yes. Water filter on drinking line, yes. But all those minerals are good for you. We have at least as much calcium in Madison, Wisconsin. Ever see this great Roz Chast cartoon? We have the mugs here in Torino.

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OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

A growing number of Italian destinations are bringing in rules aimed at controlling the summer crowds. Such measures often prove controversial - but they should go further, says Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

Each summer, as tourists flock to Italy, the question of limiting crowds and ensuring sustainable travel comes up. Especially so with Covid.

Placing a threshold on the number of visitors to some of Italy’s top spots has a two-fold goal: that of preserving the artistic and cultural value of the site, and of preventing out-of-control mass tourism from leading to accidents.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which parts of Italy will get the most tourism this summer?

Proposed crowd-control measures usually raise eyebrows, but they shouldn’t. They’re a good way to balance sustainability, and existing rules should be extended to more hotspots.

The Cinque Terre park, known for its stunning hiking trails connecting the area’s cliffhanging fishing villages, has introduced summer tourist limits to preserve its delicate ecosystem. A few parts of the trails, like the Lovers Path connecting Manarola to Riomaggiore, are closed due to soil erosion and landslides.

Groups of no more than 15 hikers are allowed inside the Cinque Terre park in rotation, and there’s a cap of 200 available boat tickets for those preferring to admire the views comfortably from sea while bathing.

Liguria remains a popular destination for visitors coming to Italy this summer.

The Cinque Terre remain a popular destination for visitors coming to Italy, attracting huge crowds. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

Many locations across Italy are reverting to, or are considering, some kind of restricted access to offset high demand with ‘green’, safe travel. 

The Amalfi coast has a summertime limit on driving along the route connecting Positano to Vietri sul Mare to ease congestion, while a few years ago the mayor even banned tourist selfies to stop massive crowds of people invading the whitewashed alleys and sitting on brick walls.

There are currently strict limits on the number of people allowed to visit the Tuscan archipelago national park each summer, mainly the protected islands of Montecristo (uninhabited other than a caretaker), and the two prison islands of Gorgona and Pianosa (boasting a hotel run by inmates on probation). A maximum of 150-200 tourists are admitted annually to each of these isles.

You also need to move fast if you want to spend a weekend in Sardinia, touring its tropical-like baby powder beaches and paradise isles. The number of restrictions in place is on the rise.

On Budelli island, the pearl of the La Maddalena archipelago, other than the pink coral beach, the Cavalieri beach is also now totally off limits, meaning landing on the entire island is forbidden.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

The beaches of Lu Impostu and Brandinchi along San Teodoro’s coast will allow just 1500 and 3300 sunbathers each, while Stintino’s popular La Pelosa beach allows 1500, making tourists pay €3.50 per day and wear a yellow bracelet for identification.

The paradise archipelago of La Maddalena is seeing more tourist restrictions imposed. Photo by Leon Rohrwild on Unsplash

The abandoned former prison island of Santo Stefano, off Rome’s coast, which is part of a protected marine park brimming with barracudas and groupers, is currently undergoing a transformation into an open-air museum with a tiny hostel. Project managers have already pledged daily tourism will be “contained”’ to preserve the unique habitat.

In the mountains too, authorities are eyeing tougher limits. At Lago di Braies in the Dolomites, 14 tourists recently fell into the freezing water trying to take awesome, but silly, selfies of their acrobatic skills despite warning signs.

READ ALSO: TRAVEL: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

In my view, all of Italy’s tourist hotspots should have some kind of regulation and police patrols, including top city highlights like the Trevi Fountain, Florence’s Duomo, and Venice, which in fact is expected to become Italy’s first city with a tourist limit from January 2023. People will have to book and buy a special pass to see the canals, bridges and piazzas.

If Venice succeeds in doing this, then it will show other cities that they too can control access to at least their biggest hotspots.

In Rome, the Pantheon has done a great job in introducing mandatory (but free) reservations on weekends, putting a stop to visitors just stepping inside to take a peek.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

The Fontana di Trevi, Piazza Navona and especially Piazza di Spagna should be more heavily patrolled, and Rome authorities should really consider a set tourist limit.

But just the idea is controversial, seen as a no-no depriving tourists of the thrill of throwing coins inside Rome’s iconic fountain to make a wish.

The Trevi fountain in Rome attracts a constant stream of tourists. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

There is a constant, sterile discussion within the city council and the national arts department on tougher regulations and limited entrances to Rome’s main sites.

Culture minister Dario Franceschini is pushing for a more sustainable ‘fountain experience’ that limits crowds and prevents heat-struck visitors from diving inside. He recently argued that allowing “1,000 or 100,000 visitors in front of the Trevi fountain” puts both them and the masterpiece at risk.

Ugly red tape, orange nets and rusty fences are occasionally placed around the Trevi Fountain without much of an outcome.

There are architectural barriers to stop people from sitting on the edges and dangling their feet inside the water at Fontana delle Tartarughe and Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, but it’s not enough. 

Setting a daily cap on visitors is the best solution; even better than introducing a ticketing system, because any tourist, once in the Eternal City, would pay to get in, and it would not be fair to discriminate based on money.

After all, if Italian universities can restrict enrollment for medical students, when new doctors are vital during Covid, I see no reason why tourist attractions can’t set limits when their own survival is at stake.