With the sunny weather and summer well and truly on its way, it’s time to start planning your holiday. So to help you prepare, we’ve asked Susie, who runs wheelchair travel reviews and resources website wheelchairworld.org, to give us a run down the top five accessible cities to visit if you use a wheelchair.
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We all know that even though, in many countries, accessibility is the law, the implementation of it can be inconsistent and weak. It means that accessibility is often only granted to a few government buildings.
While some countries have good overall levels of accessibility – the UK and US are examples – accessibility in one place does not guarantee that there will be the same standard of accessibility across the country. For example, if you visit the Catalonia region in Spain you will find great accessible cities, such as Barcelona and Valencia. But this is not a blanket guarantee for all cities throughout Spain.
In addition, an accessibility rating might not be the same in every place. For example, some of the Access City Award winners have been granted the accolade because they have made improvements to the lives of disabled residents, not necessarily visitors.
Added to it, there are various things that make accessibility good. Different disabilities come with different requirements, so somewhere might be accessible to someone with a hearing impairment, but not a wheelchair user.
As a wheelchair user myself, and having run wheelchair travel reviews and resources website wheelchairworld.org for the past few years, I know what are the important things to look out for in the destination.
What makes a place accessible for a wheelchair user?
- Widespread accessible pavements with dropped curbs/level access central areas.
- Wheelchair accessible public transport.
- An abundance of disabled toilets.
- Accessible cafes, bars and restaurants.
- Accessible museums and other places of interest.
- A variety of accommodations offering accessible and adapted rooms.
- Good resources available from tourism offices, such as access maps.
- The option to borrow/rent accessible equipment.
- Regular availability of accessible taxis.
Top 5 accessible cities
So, taking all of these elements into account, I set to delving into reviews on wheelchairworld.org, scouring other travel blogs and collating my own experiences, to find the top 5 accessible cities for wheelchair users.
1. Berlin, Germany
Berlin is a modern city, which means that its accessibility is pretty much automatically good. It has a smorgasbord of cultural attractions ranging from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Museum Island to the historical relics of Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall. Many of the attractions of wheelchair accessible, as are the majority of the museums.
But it doesn’t end there. Throughout the city the pavements are easy for wheelchair users to get around, the public transport is accessible and there is a good variety of accessible accommodation options.
There are tonnes of great reviews on wheelchair travel.org. I particularly love its city guides because they are so comprehensive.
Wheelmap.org is also worth taking a look at. It is a growing user-based review site, which details places in and around Berlin. When you first view it the map will be in German, but fear not, you can easily change the language using the drop-down menu on the top right.
There are a number of accessible accommodation options on Accomable and Blue Badge Style.
2. Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona is a very popular tourist destination and has made great efforts to make accessibility commonplace throughout the city. There are a significant number of wheelchair users who live in the city – I’ve even heard of two wheelchair users who have relocated to Barcelona because it is such an accessible city!
Whilst the pavements and public transport are wheelchair accessible (buses completely and the vast majority of Metro stations are), it is the additional facilities for wheelchair users that really take Barcelona to the next level. In particular, there is a city beach that’s ideal for wheelchair users. It has wheelchair accessible walkways to the water, a lifting crane, adapted changing facilities and even an assistance programme where lifeguards support wheelchair users to get into the water.
There are also lots of things to see throughout Barcelona, such as the impressive Gaudi Sagrada Familia Church and the Park Güell of which not all elements are wheelchair accessible, but you can definitely enjoy a good eyeful of these impressive works of art and architecture. There are also various Gaudi structures around the city, which can be enjoyed from the street.
On wheelchairworld.org you will find lots of wheelchair user reviews, including information on the hotels reviewers recommend to stay (and also not to stay). If you’re looking for self-catering options, head to Accomable.
I also found a great site called lameblacklamb.com, one of the many review sites with useful information about the accessibility of pubs clubs and bars in Barcelona from wheelchair users that live in the city.
3. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Whilst Ljubljana does not have an abundance of disabled toilets (or even a good number – I only found one when I was there, located somewhere near the tourist office that’s not immediately obvious!), the old town is notable for being exceptionally accessible – the entire area is pedestrianised and has level access. Thanks to the good climate, the majority of restaurants have outside seating areas, making nearly all of them accessible for wheelchair users.
When I visited the city, I stayed at the City Hotel, which was pretty central. It had a massive wheelchair-adapted room with two bathrooms. There is also an adapted toilet in the main area of the hotel, which is really handy if you want to just nip in to use the loo.
Ljubljana Castle is very wheelchair accessible, except for some of the viewpoints at the top of the small towers, which can only be reached by stairs. However, you can still get great views over the city from various places around the castle and grounds.
To get to the castle there is a follicular railway that is wheelchair accessible. At the top, there is a disabled toilet, although when I was there I did have to ask somebody to open the door to the area where the disabled toilet is located as it’s not available to the general public.
Other than the castle, everything else is located on the level access main area. I visited a market and also took a boat tour up and down the river. However, it was not a wheelchair accessible boat tour and I couldn’t see any that would allow wheelchair users onboard. To be honest, it was very hard work getting onto the boat and off again and I can honestly say that I really don’t think it was worth it!
4. Sydney, Australia
Sydney is another fairly modern city with a strong level of tourism and good accessibility facilities throughout. I have seen countless wheelchair user reviews of the city that talk about how accessible the city can be.
Bondi Beach is great for wheelchair users as it has a beach wheelchair that you can borrow, according to the blog Have Wheelchair Will Travel. To request one, just ask one of the lifeguards who will bring it to an accessible ramp down to the beach so you can transfer.
The famous Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge area have good accessibility. Check out the images on the WheelchairExplorer Instagram to help reassure you of the accessibility! It’s also worth taking a look at Clickability, a new Australian directory of disability services that features ratings and reviews from the people who actually use the services. Have Wheelchair Will Travel is also a good one to take a look at as it has many great Sydney destination reviews.
5. San Diego, USA
The Americans with Disabilities Act means that most cities throughout the US have reasonably good accessibility. Most of the cities are very modern, so accessibility was a consideration right from the start.
For wheelchair users, California and San Diego seem to be the more popular resorts among the reviews I have read. Even though San Francisco is very hilly, it gets some good reviews from visiting wheelchair users.
For example, Wheelchairtravel.org says:
“San Francisco receives an excellent rating in our accessibility score metric. This recognition is due in large part to the overall accessibility of the Bay Area’s public transportation networks and the excellent accommodations available at tourist attractions.
Wheelchair users can ride trains, city buses and most street cars without having to leave the comfort of their chair. These same persons can easily access the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and sightseeing ferries in their wheelchairs.
San Francisco boasts a cultural sense of inclusion for all persons, regardless of physical ability, and this is carried throughout with the accommodations available at hotels, museums, restaurants and other public places.”
In San Diego, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach (where they even have motorised wheelchairs with caterpillar tracks), Pacific Beach and La Jolla Shores, all offer accessible beaches with wheelchairs available for visitors. These schemes can also be found at various beaches across the US and in Mexico’s Playa del Carmen.
More accessible places to visit
During my search, I came across a lot of other gems I felt were worth mentioning.
- Curb Free with Cory Lee lists the top 10 most accessible beaches in the world.
- Spin the has a list of the top 10 wheelchair accessible cities you should visit in 2017.
- Check out the Independent’s guide to Barcelona, Singapore and Berlin: World’s best cities to travel if you’re disabled.
There are even awards for accessible travel such as:
- Responsible Travel, which has a yearly award for Best Accommodation for Disability Access
- The European Commission’s Access City Award (ironically, the website for the Access City Award is hugely inaccessible!)
A lot depends on the needs of the individual, but these cities are the most frequently mentioned locations for good wheelchair accessibility. As one friend recently said to me: “Accessibility is having a moment and things are improving all the time.” So, whilst as a wheelchair user you will be well aware of the difficulties and challenges that regularly plague our lives, more and more cities are becoming more accessible as the world is taking note.