One reader recently sent in this question:
What are the best wheelchair-friendly cities in Europe?
You’re in luck: many European cities are very wheelchair friendly! Although some of the “old town” districts (with narrow streets, few sidewalks, and cobblestones or uneven bricks) can be tricky to navigate (but they are gradually improving), don’t immediately rule out any location that piques your interest. If you plan well enough (this includes giving yourself plenty of time for doing research and making any special arrangements you need), you can take a wheelchair nearly anywhere. So don’t let the thought of cobblestones (or jungles!) dissuade you from exploring any possibilities that interest you. If you want to visit a particular destination, there is almost always a way to make that happen!
First, start by taking advantage of some of the research other people have done on this topic. Improving accessibility is a top priority in most of Europe—to the point that the European Commission holds an annual competition to determine the most disabled-friendly cities in Europe and announces each year’s Access City Award on the European Day for People with Disabilities. Here are the winners for the past few years:
- 2015: Borås (Sweden); other finalists included Helsinki (Finland) and Ljubljana (Slovenia)
- 2014: Gothenburg (Sweden); other finalists included Grenoble (France) and Poznań (Poland)
- 2013: Berlin (Germany); other finalists included Nantes (France) and Stockholm (Sweden)
- 2012: Salzburg (Austria); other finalists included Kraków (Poland), Marburg (Germany), and Santander (Spain)
- 2011: Ávila Spain); other finalists included Barcelona (Spain), Cologne (Germany), and Turku (Finland)
As you can see, highly accessible cities are located throughout Europe. And with accessibility improving steadily, you may be amazed to find out just how accessible many places not on this list are!
To find details about the accessibility features (or lack thereof) of particular European cities, turn to the Internet to find plenty of detailed and current reviews and ratings. Here are a few starting points:
- Do a search for the name a city followed by the phrase “wheelchair accessible” (in quotation marks). You’ll probably get a ton of hits—far too many to wade through them all—but the first few pages of results should lead you to articles by travel experts, local organizations in that city (such as tourist offices—for example, here’s the relevant page from the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau), and articles in established publications (such as newspapers and magazines).
- Check a city’s name on the Sage Traveling website, which focuses on disabled travel in Europe. (In addition to providing a tremendous amount of helpful information, this organization also offers planning for accessible land trips and cruises in Europe—a nice option to keep in mind if you don’t want to do the research and planning yourself.)
- Visit the discussion forums on the major travel-oriented websites. Most of them include topics or threads that specifically address accessible travel. (For example, see Rick Steves, Frommers, and Lonely Planet.) There you’re likely to find comments and suggestions from wheelchair users who’ve traveled to the place you’re considering. And if you don’t see the information you need, you can post your own questions and see what advice your fellow travelers can offer!
No matter where you go (whether you’re exploring Europe, the USA, or somewhere else entirely), if you’re a wheelchair user or traveling with someone who is, keeping these general tips in mind can help make your trip more enjoyable:
- Be sure to choose a hotel that has accessibility features (such as elevators and rooms that can accommodate wheelchairs).
- If you’re planning to use public transportation, book a hotel that has nearby bus, metro, or tram stops. If you’re planning to use cabs, check in advance that you’ll be able to hire rides that can accommodate a wheelchair.
- If you’re traveling to a place with cobblestone or brick streets, consider swapping out your usual chair wheels for beefier ones that can handle the bumps better.
- Think outside the box. (For example, if a restaurant or shop doesn’t have an accessible entrance but can otherwise accommodate a wheelchair, see if you can enter the building through the back door.)
- Take your time. When you’re navigating a new locale in a wheelchair, you might need a little extra patience when trying to get to where you want to go.
- Be okay with not seeing everything in a city. Some places may not be accessible enough for you now, so just enjoy everything else (and perhaps plan to return to that city one day when the accessibility has improved!).
Mom and I have traveled a lot, but there’s still so much more to see and so much more to learn. As always, we’d love to hear our reader’s travel stories. If you have any suggestions for wheelchair-friendly destinations in Europe, please share them!
P.S. Type “wheelchair” in the search box at the top of my blog to see my other posts on wheelchair-friendly destinations (such as Boston; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; U.S. national parks; and Las Vegas) as well general suggestions for traveling with a wheelchair.