Water constitutes the intracellular matrix in which biological molecules interact. Understanding its dynamic state is a main scientific challenge, which continues to provoke controversy after more than 50 years of study. We measured water dynamics in vivo in the cytoplasm of Escherichia coli by using neutron scattering and isotope labelling. Experimental timescales covered motions from pure water to interfacial water, on an atomic length scale. In contrast to the widespread opinion that water is ‘tamed’ by macromolecular confinement, the measurements established that water diffusion within the bacteria is similar to that of pure water at physiological temperature.