Europe on a Roll…or a Slow Stroll
Don’t Let Limited Mobility Keep You From the Old World’s Greatest Cities
by Rick Steves
If you’re a wheelchair user or slow walker, Europe’s cobblestoned charms may seem as unreachable as a rainbow’s end. But in recent years Europe has been making impressive strides toward opening its doors to everybody, including travelers with limited mobility. Its biggest cities offer the most accessible sightseeing opportunities for your time and money. In London, taxis will whisk you between more wheelchair-ready sights than you’ve got time to see. Just a few hours away by train, Paris and Amsterdam are doing their best to catch up to London. Plan ahead and take advantage of the growing number of resources available. If you’re traveling with an older person who could benefit from using a wheelchair in museums, call or email the museum (many have websites) to see if they loan out wheelchairs.
I know you’re thinking...what do I know about disabilities? I do know about Europe and how to do research. My co-author, Dr. Ken Plattner, and I teamed up to write Easy Access Europe, a guidebook for people with limited mobility (now in its second edition).
London, easily the best destination for any first-time visitor to Europe, is the enjoyable epicenter of all things British. With recent improvements and a barrier-free mentality, London is one of Europe’s most accessible cities. A staggering 20 million people visit London every year, and many have disabilities.
You’ll find that many of London’s venues—such as theaters—welcome people who use wheelchairs. You can roll along on the city’s walking tours to learn about anything from Jack the Ripper to the Beatles. The city’s taxis are convenient, inexpensive, and fully accessible. London has recently made its bus system accessible and is improving the Tube stations as well. The city’s airports are accessible from customs to baggage claim to queuing for a taxi.
Most of London’s big sights make it easy for wheelchair users to visit. You can get a feel for life during the Blitz in the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum. Get thee to a play at Shakespeare’s Globe, or channel Mary Poppins at St. Paul’s Cathedral. You can check out the Crown Jewels—the king’s bling–on display at the Tower of London, and take a spin on the 450-foot-high London Eye Ferris Wheel (where from the top, Big Ben looks little). A few of London’s top sights, such as Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, aren’t fully accessible but can work for wheelchair users with a companion.
The City of Light has been a beacon of culture for centuries. As a world capital of art, fashion, food, literature, and ideas, it stands as a symbol of all the fine things that human civilization can offer. Paris is more challenging than London for people with disabilities. But if you can make a little extra effort and have a healthy sense of humor, you’ll find plenty in Paris to savor.
Taxis charge reasonable rates and are the best way to get around, because the Metro—with its many stairs and escalators—is difficult for wheelchair users. Most cabbies are happy to assist; once you’re inside the taxi, the driver will fold up your chair and place it in the trunk.
Many of Paris’ top sights are fully accessible. Wheelchair users can visit Mona and Venus at the Louvre, be impressed by the Orsay Museum’s Impressionists, zip up the Eiffel Tower (to the second level), and sing “Louis, Louis” at the Palace of Versailles. Other notable sights will work for wheelchair users who have some assistance, such as Notre-Dame Cathedral’s echoey, incense-filled interior (though only hunchbacks can climb its tower).
Amsterdam is a city of good living, cozy cafés, great art, stately history, and a spirit of live-and-let-live. You can roll or stroll through any neighborhood and see a lively culture thrive amid 17th-century buildings, all of it reflected in quiet canals.
For travelers with limited mobility Amsterdam is both challenging and rewarding. While locals have a friendly attitude toward people with disabilities, they also have great respect for the historical nature of their beautiful (and largely non-accessible) canal-side buildings. The city has strict rules about making adaptations to monumental structures—useful for historical preservation, not so helpful for accessibility. The good news is that attitudes regarding accessibility are slowly improving.
The streets and sidewalks of Amsterdam have a certain freedom of movement: thousands of bikes mingling and merging with cars and pedestrians. Wheelchair users here are smart to adapt to the chaos—maneuvering their way through the streets, across trolley tracks, along the pink bike-only paths, and on the sidewalks. Stay alert and keep a steady line as you make your way through this bustling city.
At any Amsterdam tourist information office ask for the extremely helpful Amsterdam Accessibility Guide, which provides information about levels of accessibility at hotels, restaurants, and sights around the city. The steep stairs at the Anne Frank House mean that only the ground-floor museum is open to wheelchair users. Otherwise, however, you’ll find that most of Amsterdam’s best attractions are accessible, including the famous sunflowers at the Van Gogh Museum and Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum.
European countries, at various speeds, are doing what they can to make their cobbled streets and cities easier for everyone to visit. Still, it’s smart to do some advance groundwork.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s “New Horizons” guide provides information for air travelers with disabilities, including navigating security, getting on and off aircraft, and handling seating assignments (available online at http://aircon sumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/horizons.htm).
Air carriers abroad have significantly different policies regarding people with disabilities than U.S. airlines. Fortunately, the European Commission recently drafted legislation—that will go into effect in 2006—to force airlines to meet the needs of people with disabilities. It’s worth looking into the differences between airlines you’re considering. Some airlines may require a doctor’s certificate for all independent air travel; others may require that you travel with a personal assistant. Contact the airlines directly for specifics.
Whenever possible, plan and book flights well in advance. Inform the airline of your disability and let them know if you’ll be traveling with a companion and if you’ll need special equipment on the plane with you. It can be helpful to work with an airline special-services representative who can assist with facilitating arrangements.
If you’d rather not go it alone, you’ll find a selection of groups that run tours to Europe for the mobility impaired, including Accessible Journeys (wheelchair trips to Britain, France, and Holland).
On the Road
A growing number of hotels have elevators and rooms with accessible bathrooms.
The Sweden-based Independent Living Institute’s Accessible Vacation Home Exchange Web site can put you in touch with disabled Europeans looking to swap homes or help you find an assistant overseas.
You’ll find even more resources through organizations such as Mobility International USA (MIUSA), which encourages international exchang, and the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE), which provides information about work, study, volunteer, and research opportunities abroad for people with disabilities. The Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH), an educational nonprofit group, publishes a travel magazine and offers advice.
Other sites to check out include Emerging Horizons, Gimp on the Go, and Disabled Peoples’ International. Access Abroad is a good resource for students with disabilities planning to study abroad. AARP’s website features travel articles written for seniors and slow walkers worldwide.
I’m inspired by the fact that wherever I go in Europe I see locals who have disabilities. On the streets, in the museums, in the restaurants, and on the trains, you’ll see people using wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, and canes. If they can live rich and full lives in Europe, then you can certainly have an enjoyable and worthwhile vacation there. The Old World is becoming newly accessible for you.