You can expect a lot of things to change when you’re on vacation in a new country. The people, the culture and the food will often be noticeably different than what you’re used to. And then there are the things that you think would stay the same, but don’t. Water falls definitively in the latter category.
In many countries across Europe — and especially in Germany — ordering a water will likely get you a carbonated beverage. And if you ask for tap water, the waiter might look at you like you’ve insulted them. This can be very confusing for tourists, because it doesn’t really make sense that “water” could mean different things in different parts of the world.
Why are there two kinds of water? How did this divide happen? And more importantly, how do you get tap water when you need it? Let’s wade into this water.
How Carbonated Water Conquered Europe
The sparkling water divide can pretty much all be traced back to the history of bottling water. That’s because there’s no place in the world where carbonated water comes out of the taps — well, unless you count Paris’s plan to install fizzy water fountains around the city. But really, “tap water” is always going to be flat, no matter what country you’re in.
The very first bottled water was obtained from the United Kingdom’s Holy Well in the early 17th century, and the phenomenon spread across Europe. Much of the water that was sold was naturally occurring mineral water, which is somewhat different from the artificially carbonated options that are widespread today. These mineral waters became very successful because they were believed to have healthy properties (and today, you might still drink seltzer when you have an upset stomach).
As carbonated waters became popular all over Europe, it became the norm for bottled water. By the time tap water became healthy enough for Europeans to drink, they were already somewhat set in their preferences. Tap water was used for cleaning, washing and things of that nature, and carbonated water was for drinking. This isn’t to say no one in Europe was drinking flat water, but the overall consensus was thus.
The bottled water industry in the United States, however, took a different route. The first bottled water was sold in the United States in the 18th century, and for a time it was a good option, because tap water wasn’t safe to drink. When tap water in the United States underwent chlorination in the early 20th century, bottled water became less and less popular. In the late 1970s, bottled water consumption started to pick up thanks to successful marketing campaigns. But by that time, Americans were settled on the flat-water taste. Today, bottled water is the most popular drink in the United States, outselling soda for the very first time in the United States in 2017, and flat water is the liquid of choice.
Is It Safe To Drink The Tap Water In Europe?
You might think that part of the reason European restaurants push water on customers is that the tap water isn’t safe to drink. This is not the case, however. Germany, which has some of the healthiest tap water in the world, still considers only bottled sparkling water to be “real” drinking water.
You should, of course, check whether the tap water is safe wherever you’re traveling. Condé Nast Traveler has a helpful guide that lets you know which countries have potable tap water in Europe. Just keep in mind that if a waiter gives you a weird look because you asked for tap water, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe. It just means they’d prefer that you pay for the bottled stuff.
Sparkling Water In The United States
If you’re a millennial, you may know that sparkling water is on the rise in the United States. It’s certainly not as popular as flat water, but it’s become far more ubiquitous. The flavored sparkling water brand La Croix has become a phenomenon throughout the United States, partially thanks to the Instagram-ready cans.
Even when sparkling water is in the United States, however, it tends to keep its European veneer. Almost all of the popular brands have European-sounding names — La Croix, Perrier, Schweppes and Pellegrino — whether they started in Europe or not. While sparkling water might become more normalized throughout the United States, it will probably never be seen as a fully American drink.
Ordering Water Abroad
If you’re the kind of person who just really hates sparkling water, you should learn how to order tap water in the language of the country you’re visiting. Here’s a guide to asking for tap water, and making sure that you’re not being charged extra for the water you’re drinking.
“Could I get tap water?”
German: Könnte ich bitte Leitungswasser bekommen?
French: Pourrais-je (formal) / Est-ce que je pourrais (informal) avoir de l’eau du robinet ?
Italian: Potrei avere dell’acqua di rubinetto?
Portuguese: Você poderia me dar um pouco de água da torneira?
Swedish: Skulle jag kunna få ett glas kranvatten, tack?
Russian: Не могли бы Вы принести мне стакан воды из под крана? (Ne mogli by Vy prinesti mne stakan vody iz pod krana?)
“Does the water cost extra?”
German: Kostet das Wasser extra?
French: Y’a-t’il (formal) / Est-ce qu’il y a (informal) un supplément pour l’eau ?
Italian: L’acqua è inclusa nel prezzo?
Portuguese: Eu tenho que pagar pela água?
Swedish: Kostar vattnet extra?
Russian: Нужно ли за нее доплачивать? (Nužno li za nee doplačivatʹ?)