The ability to probe the structure of a salt solution at the atomic scale is fundamentally important for our understanding of many chemical reactions and their mechanisms. The capability of neutron diffraction to “see” hydrogen (or deuterium) and other light isotopes is exceptional for resolving the structural complexity around the dissolved solutes in aqueous electrolytes. We have made measurements using oxygen isotopes on aqueous nitrate to reveal a small hydrogen-bonded water coordination number (3.9 ± 1.2) around a nitrate oxyanion. This is compared to estimates made using the existing method of nitrogen isotope substitution and those of computational simulations (>5–6 water molecules). The low water coordination number, combined with a comparison to classical molecular dynamics simulations, suggests that ion-pair formation is significant. This insight demonstrates the utility of experimental diffraction data for benchmarking atomistic computer simulations, enabling the development of more accurate intermolecular potentials.