World's Greatest Public Bathrooms
Visitors to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, WI, are awed by The Social History of Architecture, by contemporary artist Matt Nolen. They carefully study the work’s iconography, admiring the bold colors and skilled brushstrokes.
But this isn’t a painting or sculpture. It’s one of six washrooms created by individual artists under the center’s Art/Industry program, and it’s a must-see—and must-use—for museumgoers. In fact, for some of those in need, the fact that this is actually a nice, clean, and inviting public toilet trumps its artistic merits.
A high-quality public bathroom ranks high on the list of travelers’ necessities. These go-to johns generate fervent blog posts and are the subject of contests around the world, including the annual America’s Best Restroom competition. They can be as sought after as any insider find: a secret beach, a flea-market bargain, the best little neighborhood restaurant.
So what constitutes a “nice” public toilet? A full stock of bathroom tissue, unclogged plumbing, and smear-free surfaces are the most basic criteria. But the best go beyond the call of duty and are paragons of creativity—destinations in their own right. Tourists consider the trek to Kawakawa, a small town in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, a worth-it detour to get a glimpse of Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s outrageous facilities, decorated with glass bottles and colorful mosaics.
Other great public loos incorporate cutting-edge technology. The ingenious Urilift, popping up (literally) in cities all over Europe, comes out only during the night, when the streets are filled with carousers, then discreetly retracts into the ground.
The bathrooms at Daimaru department store in Tokyo are equipped with programmable Washlets from Japan’s leading toilet company, Toto. The functions include a heated seat and a bidet wand that spritzes and dries your backside, all to the soothing sounds of running brooks or crashing ocean waves.
These facilities’ thoughtful and innovative approaches to one of life’s essential functions are highly appreciated. Keep this list of top toilets handy for your next trip; you never know when you’ll need a pit stop.
Hundertwasser Public Toilets, New Zealand
Kauri forests, turquoise waters, and a cove-studded coast top the list of attractions in New Zealand's Bay of Islands, but the colorful Hundertwasser Public Toilets are a surprising draw. Built in 1997, these loos are the architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser's wacky version of a temple (bathrooms are places of contemplation after all, he has noted), with curvy columns, shardlike mosaics, and "stained glass windows"—walls embedded with vividly hued glass bottles. The eco-smart building incorporates a living tree, a grass roof, and reclaimed bricks.
Where to Go: These johns are on State Highway 1, north of Paihia, in the rural township of Kawakawa.
Urilift Pop-Up Toilets, Europe
These stainless-steel cylinders are Europe’s solution to a pervasive (and odoriferous) problem. “Indiscriminate urination. You come across it in just about every city, town and village” is how Urilift’s promotional video describes it. Timed to rise from the ground during the wee hours, peak times for staggering revelers, they serve as convenient, easy-aim receptacles. And the floor contains a drainage unit in anticipation of the more poorly coordinated (or inebriated) visitors.
Where to Go: Urilift is in Cambridge Circus in London, Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam, Shaftesbury Square in Belfast, and other cities around Europe.
Charmin Restrooms, Times Square, New York City
Charmin installs this bi-level space annually between Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, and the design changes every time. Last year’s had a winter wonderland theme, with 20 log cabin stalls, cleaned individually by an attendant after each use and stocked, of course, with the sponsor’s products. Those who have completed their business can head upstairs to the Duracell Power Lounge to recharge a laptop or cell phone, while kids fiddle around in the Wii lounge, climb up the Charmin treehouse, or tap out the steps to the “Charmin Potty Dance,” playing in a loop on 17 flat-screen TVs.
Where to Go: 1540 Broadway at West 46th Street.
JCDecaux Public Toilets by Patrick Jouin, Paris
The city of Paris tapped the highbrow interior designer Patrick Jouin to devise a new generation of public sanisettes. The resultant self-cleaning stalls may not inspire oohs and ahs like another of Jouin’s recent projects—Alain Ducasse’s Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower—but they share the same minimalist lines and present a number of improvements over the city’s prior eyesores. The new design includes a spacious wheelchair-accessible interior; a pleasing palette of subdued grays and a leafy green; a “sky dome” for natural light; and an outside water fountain molded out of a sturdy shell designed to withstand the bumps and bruises of scooters and bikes. Access is free—just press a button and the door slides open. Wash up, read magazines, go about your business all you want. But be at the ready at the 20-minute mark, when the door automatically parts like a curtain.
Where to Go: There will be 400 installations by the end of the year; existing facilities can be found on boulevards St.-Germain and Montparnasse and on Place Monge in the Mouffetard neighborhood.
Daimaru Department Store, Tokyo
Each restroom at Tokyo’s new 13-story Daimaru department store is coordinated to match its particular floor’s ambience. But the real draw here is the bidet-style techno-toilets. Toto’s Washlets—ubiquitous in Japan, but refreshingly novel to those unfamiliar with them—feature a self-cleaning wand that extends to the middle of the basin, squirting temperature-controlled water at all the right angles. Press a button on the remote control to heat the ergonomically contoured seat. Or switch on the Otohime, or “sound princess,” to subtly disguise in-stall activities with recordings of running brooks or ocean waves.
Where to Go: 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, inside the Gran Tokyo North Tower at Tokyo Station.
Graben Toilets by Wilhelm Beetz, Vienna
The late 19th century marked a turning point in Vienna’s sanitation history, thanks to one Wilhelm Beetz. The city’s long history of crude and infection-prone facilities (wooden buckets, anyone?) drove Beetz to propose a number of modern conveniences, including these Jugendstil toilets in Graben, the shop-to-be-seen boulevard of fin de siècle Vienna. The entranceway—framed by twisting metalwork—is reminiscent of a subway gate, but descend and you’ll find elegant underground toilets with pretty patterned tiles, marble walls, and wood-paneled booths equipped with individual sinks and brass fixtures—still spic-and-span.
Where to Go: Graben street, near Kohlmarkt, in the heart of historic Vienna.
John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI
The John Michael Kohler Arts Center draws as many visitors to its famed washrooms as it does to its art exhibitions. These six gorgeous spaces—each commissioned to a different resident artist—are meant to symbolize the connection between art and industry. The Kohler Co. gave the artists full rein of its shops and foundries to explore new techniques in pottery, iron, enamel, and brass. The results are on permanent display (and use) in various wings of the center. Matt Nolen’s Social History of Architecture has a hand-glazed, floor-to-ceiling mural chronicling the history of architecture, while Ann Agee’s east men’s room is tiled in blue and white and centers on a theme of water. Security guards will let you peer into a lavatory of the opposite sex (when the coast is clear). And admission to the center is free.
Where to Go: 608 New York Ave., between Sixth and Seventh streets.
The city of Berlin didn’t flush money down the toilet in 2007 when it sunk about $1 million into renovating the belowground WCs of its most famous square. The previously dank den—built in the 1920s—was converted into a snazzy space of light and garnered awards for the new design. The black-and-white scheme melds with extensive use of glass, stainless steel, and stone, while oversize cityscapes photographed by Tobias Wille are part of an overall aesthetic that’s said to be “graffiti-deterrent.”
Where to Go: In front of the C&A store in Alexanderplatz in the Mitte district.
Sky Arena Observatory, Shanghai Financial Center, China
The 94th-floor toilets at Shanghai’s Kohn, Pedersen, and Fox-designed landmark, known as the “bottle opener,” take the title of the world’s highest-altitude restrooms, at a vertigo-inducing 1,388 feet. Gain access via the observatory entrance (admission from $14), where the elevator will shoot you skyward to the first of three viewing platforms. You can make use of the gleaming stainless-steel urinals or bidet-style toilets that have dramatic views over the bustling Bund below.
Where to Go: 100 Century Ave. at the intersection of Dong Tai Road, in Pudong.
Saunders and Wilhelmsen Lookout, Norway
You’ll have to wend your way deep into fjord country to get to this architectural gem in Stegastein, part of a project sponsored by the Norwegian Public Road Administration, which aims to seamlessly blend contemporary architecture into the natural landscape (and to lure tourists). Designed by locals Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen, the two public toilets sit in wood-and-concrete blocks, positioned slightly over the edge of a stone façade. A single window in each of the units perfectly frames views of the distant Aurlandsfjord.
Where to Go: Along the Aurlandsfjellet “snow road” at Stegastein, in Western Norway’s Sogn district.