Water safety and drinkability is a common concern when traveling to destinations in Europe, South America, and other areas around the globe. Illness from waterborne pathogens can ruin a holiday or business trip in short order.
Can you drink tap water in Barcelona? Yes, both the EU and the World Health Organization (WHO), confirm that the tap water in Barcelona, Spain is perfectly safe to drink. However, most people drink bottled water, as it tastes better
If your upcoming travel plans include time spent in Spain’s beloved city of Barna (Barcelona), here’s everything you need to know about the drinking water:
The capital and largest city of Catalonia, Barcelona is the second most populous city in Spain, with a population of around 4.8 million people. It’s also one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Mediterranean Sea. In the US, Barcelona is probably most well known for hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics.
When traveling abroad, many people’s first concern is the safety of the local water for non-residents. This is a wise and valid concern, as the tap water in Barcelona doesn’t particularly taste very good.
However, based on the results of frequent testing by local water regulators and the Barcelona Public Health Authority, along with the reported findings of noted scientific bodies like the EU, and the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s perfectly safe for both locals and visitors to drink the tap water in Barcelona directly from the tap with no health or safety concerns.
It should probably be stated that what these reports are really saying is, “no health or safety concerns beyond those that are typically a risk factor in public drinking water.
Regardless of your location, or the amount of filtering it is subjected to, some rare strains of local E. coli can still show up in the water, which can cause diarrhea to new visitors, who’s gastrointestinal systems are not used to dealing with the strains.
This is true of tap water in all parts of the world, including the US and Great Britain.
Where Do the Concerns Over Barcelona’s Tap Water Come From Then?
Some of the concerns over Barcelona’s water safety may stem from the fact that nearly all restaurants, bars, and hotels in this region only serve bottled water. This observation, especially by tourists, can lead to the assumption that the tap water is unsafe.
Bottled water is preferred by these establishments purely for legal, and aesthetic reasons (again, it tastes better), and not due to any health concerns.
In fact, local government regulations in Barcelona have banned bars, restaurants, and hotels from serving tap water. These prohibitions are most likely due to pressures from the powerful bottled-water lobby, which represents a significant portion of the revenue from local tourism.
It’s also important to note that while taste may vary greatly when comparing the local tap and bottled water, what comes from the tap is still every bit as healthy as what’s in the bottle.
This is good news, as up to 25% of Barcelona’s bottled water actually comes from the tap! This water is then “rested” to allow the chlorine to evaporate.
The Aigües de Barcelona performs water quality tests on a daily basis, following the guidelines of the EU Drinking Water Directive (source).
Their official recommendation is the use of a Brita brand water filter to remove excess chlorine and provide a fresh, clean taste to the local drinking water. A water filter not only assures water safety and drinkability but is significantly more friendly to the environment than purchasing bottled water.
Where Does Barcelona’s Tap Water Come From?
The majority of Barcelona’s tap water comes from the Llobregat river.
With its headwaters high in the Serra del Cadí (Catalonia, mountains), and flowing down into the sea, south of Barcelona, the picturesque Llobregat has been the water source for this region for untold millennia.
Unfortunately, the Llobregat river is also known to contain extremely elevated levels of hard minerals like potassium and magnesium, as well as various carbonates. The river picks up these contaminates as it flows through extremely salty areas around Súria, some 50 miles north-west of Barcelona.
Above this area, the waters of Llobregat taste clean and sweet, but everything below is hard and salty. Barcelona uses desalinization plants, but they are prohibitively expensive to run, and can only filter around 20% of the city’s water needs.
To further deal with these hard minerals, high amounts of chlorine are added to the water to remove these and other contaminates.
Water Filtration in Barcelona
Once fresh water has been extracted from the Llobregat river, it’s piped to local silting facilities, and subjected to the standard filtration methods:
- Stones and sand are purged.
- Chlorine dioxide is added to the water to oxidize the iron and magnesium
- Through decantation, particles of mud are filtered to the bottom of the tanks, leaving only clarified water at the top.
- The clarifies water then passes through a micro-sand filter.
- Next, the water flows through ozone and activated carbon filters, where the ozone triggers the precipitation of organic compounds and microorganisms, making it easier to remove them through activated carbon filters.
- The water is passed through ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, and remineralization processes.
- Finally, a chlorination process is carried out (creating the majority of the off-putting smell and taste) to ensure that safe water arrives at every home and business.
Why Does Barcelona’s Water Taste Bad?
Even after all of these filtration processes, Barcelona’s water remains extremely ‘hard,’ with high concentrations of calcium and magnesium ions.
The main culprit, however, in the local water’s often off-putting taste is due to the fact that, like that most cities skirting the Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona must add large amounts of chlorine to disinfect their public water.
The resulting taste can be off-putting to Western (and even local) palates. If you’ve ever swallowed a mouthful of swimming-pool water…you get the idea.
How Can I Make the Tap Water in Barcelona Taste Better?
Yes, there are a few simple ways to greatly increase the palatability of hard tap-water, like that found in Barcelona. If fact, it’s remarkably easy to “de-chlorinate” tap water, anywhere in the world.
- The easiest (and free) method of purging the excess chlorine in any tap water is to fill a pitcher directly from the tap (unfiltered) and then leave it in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours. By the time it has sat that long, as much as 90% of the chlorine will have evaporated, taking the off-putting flavor with it. Plus, it’s nice and cold!
- Invest in a water filter. Filters save on the time and expense of buy, transporting, and storing water bottles and is much better for the environment.
Reasons to Choose Barcelona Tap Water, Despite the Smell
- It’s cheaper. Tap water (assuming that you’re playing the bill) costs less than 1/20 of bottled water. According to the E.P.A., for the same price as a fancy bottle of water (about $2), you can get roughly 1,000 gallons of tap water.
- It saves water. It takes seven liters of water to produce 1 finished liter of bottled water.
- Microplastics. The country of Spain dumps more plastic in landfills than most other European countries.
In landfills, these plastics break down into microplastics, tiny contaminants that seep into the groundwater, rivers, and eventually into seas and oceans. Microplastics both absorb emit chemicals and harmful pollutants and can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.
Global plastic production expected to triple by 2050
- BPA and BPS. plastics marked with recycling codes 3 or 7 can release a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA), while BPA-free plastics can release bisphenol S (BPS).
In humans, exposure to these chemicals has been linked to chronic diseases like type II diabetes, asthma, and various forms of cancer. Animal studies suggest that exposure can impair brain and immune system development in utero, the results of which can be passed on generationally.
- Recyclable, really? Studies by Science Advances performed between 1950 and 2015, show that less than 1 percent of used plastic is recycled more than once, and nearly all used plastics eventually ends up in landfills or in the ocean.
Different Does Not Equal Bad
It should be noted that, though some destinations, typically those in developing countries, may have higher risks of contaminates, disease, and/or other pollutants, generally speaking, it’s not something “bad” in the water that leads to the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge.
Most often, it’s merely that the pathogens in the water are different than those familiar to the visitor’s immune systems, while locals, who have grown up adapting to the local water supply (and accompanying pathogens), can drink it without problems.
In other words, water from the taps in our homes is every bit as likely to sicken the locals in the country we’re visiting, as theirs is to sicken us, as their immune systems are equally unprepared for it. Vomiting and diarrhea are simply the human body’s natural means of defense against any unknown bacteria and pathogens.
In fact, even in the United States, 1.1 million people get sick from tainted tap-water every year.
In a world already suffering from an excess of xenophobia, it’s important to remember that “different” and “bad” are not the same thing. Not in cultures, and not in water.
Like most things in life, it’s a matter of perspective.
Tips for Drinking Safely
There are a few simple preventative measures you can take to decrease your risk of developing a water-borne illness while traveling. Here are some of them:
Talk To The Locals
Ask locals about the quality of the tap water (customers at a local market are a great source). Also, your hotel concierge is likely to have the most experience with tourists-related questions and issues.
Typically, if the water is unsafe, there will be a sign posted near the faucet in your room and complimentary bottles to drink from.
Check online reviews from other tourists who have visited that area. If there have been problems with the local water, you likely find dozens, if not hundreds, or reviews on the subject.
One or two reviews can be subjective, but twenty-five reports of illness probably mean that there’s an issue.
It’s More Than Just What You Drink
If the tap water is suspected to be unsafe to drink, you don’t want to brush your teeth or take medications with it, either. Swimming in local water, or showering with it can be problematic if it gets in your mouth.
Surprisingly, one of the most frequent, and often overlooked culprits is ice. Bottled or filtered water poured over ice cubes made from tap water kinda defeats the purpose.
It’s probably safer to drink beverages directly from the can or bottle than to risk glasses or mugs hand-washed in tap water. And, if those packaged drinks have been chilled on ice, the exterior of the bottle or can be contaminated as well.
Finally, don’t forget that contaminated water can sneak onto your plate as well.
Salad greens, fruits, and other vegetables are often rinsed directly below the tap, as are raw seafood ingredients for dishes like sashimi or ceviche.
Be Certain That the Bottle You Bought is Sealed.
Sometimes enterprising (and unethical) business owners will refill their “safe” water bottles from the tap…which, of course, defeats the purpose. It’s rare, but it happens, so always check the seal.
Insurance is Important.
Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, disaster strikes anyway. Diarrhea, giardia, hepatitis A, typhoid, and cholera are debilitating conditions and can quickly become expensive as well, if a hospital stay, extended hotel accommodations, or re-booking of flights is required due to illness.
Whenever possible, acquire adequate travel insurance to cover potential health and medical expended while you’re out of the country.
As mentioned above, there are a number of reasons to avoid plastic water bottles. However, if it comes down to that, or the risk of dehydration and related sickness, buy the bottle!
Please just be sure to dispose of them responsibly.
Skip the Disposables.
A popular all-in-one approach to keeping safe drinking water at hand, is the use of self-contained filtration and purification bottles. These durable containers combine filter and water bottle (check for the “BPA Free” label) making them a convienent way to have clean, safe drinking water wherever you go.
Always read the product descriptions and instructions carefully before investing in a filter/bottle combo. The don’t all work the same, or kill the same pathogens.
The effects of water-borne illnesses most often result in flu-like symptoms, like:
- Aches and/or chills
- Dizziness or vertigo
- If traveling alone, contact a friend or relative back home and let them know what’s going on.
If You Do Get Sick
It may take several days, or even up to a week, for these symptoms to pass on their own, but pass they will. If they don’t, or if they worsen, seek medical attention immediately.
In the meantime:
- Stay hydrated with bottled sports drinks, and boiled, purified, or bottled water
- Avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages (both increase dehydration).
- Oral rehydration and anti-diarrheal meds may be helpful, as well.
- Get plenty of rest and avoid strenuous activities (sweating = dehydration).
These (and other) water-related issues are, of course, not limited to Barcelona.
Water Quality in Other Cities
Traveling to many of the major cities of Spain, requires some caution and research, as water quality varies in the extreme from region to region. In some areas, the water is safe and tastes fine.
Other’s like Barcelona have extremely hard water, requiring an excess of chlorine treatment, but are still safe (if unpleasant) to drink. In some cities, the water is not at all fit for drinking can present a serious danger of illness, especially for visitors.
Luckily, most cities fall into the first two categories, with less than 5% of the total drinking water in Spain deemed unsafe.
The Consumer and Users Organisation (OCU) releases regular testing reports on the water quality found in various areas of Spain, from best to worst.
Here are a few of their most current findings:
Best Drinking (Tap) Water in Spain
- San Sebastian
- Las Palmas
Worst Drinking (Tap) Water in Spain
- Ciudad Real
- Palma de Mallorca
According to the CDC: “Although municipal water in [European] cities and urban areas may be treated and safe to drink, water quality in rural areas can be less certain. CDC recommendations reflect an abundance of caution, and travelers are encouraged to drink bottled water if any doubt exists.”
Eat, Drink & Be Merry!
While it’s true that drinking local water can be risky for visitors to any new part of the world, the fact is that this is more typically the case in developing countries and rural locations, and not major metropolitan areas like Barcelona.
These former locations run a higher risk that water sources may be polluted by industrial and agricultural run-off, and that water-safety infrastructure, if any, may be decades out of date.
So yes, you can definitely drink the tap water in Barcelona without undue fear of illness…you just might want to hold your nose while you do.