The capital of Poland is truly an amazing city, and better yet, much of it is wheelchair accessible. The buildings are beautiful, the food is delicious, and the history is unforgettable. I really had no interest in visiting Poland until I read in a travel article somewhere that the cities of Warsaw and Kraków were wheelchair friendly. At that point, I knew I must investigate! I worked with the fabulous Margaret at Accessible Poland Tours to make this unforgettable trip happen.
My arrival at the airport was okay, but not as smooth as I had hoped. I came in on a Lufthansa connection from Frankfurt, and while I was hoping to see my electric scooter at the door of the plane, Lufthansa had placed it in one of five unlabeled containers and said they had to deliver it to the oversized baggage area. So, I reluctantly transferred to a manual chair, and my scooter was actually waiting for me (and my suitcase) by the time the airport assistant wheeled me to baggage claim. I arrived at my hotel late enough to stay put until my tour the next morning, which is when my Warsaw adventure began! First, here are some general “getting around” tips based on my experience spending two full days in the city.
Rolling. Warsaw is a really big city—I’m told it’s five times the size of Paris. However, there is a lot you can see from your chair if (a) you have a battery or human power source, and (b) you are centrally located. I stayed in the very wheelchair-friendly Mercure Warsawa Centrum hotel, which is a block away from the train station, across the street from the new Zlote Tarasy mall, and down the street from the Palace of Culture and Science. Curb drops are common and not steep in the newer areas of the city, and actually not too hard to find even in the Old Town area. There are small cobblestones in many areas, but they are mostly the square flat ones that are pretty easy to cross. You will find patches of the larger rough stones in Old Town, but smooth sidewalks are usually nearby. Much of this is due to the fact that about 70 percent of Warsaw was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, so although things may look old, almost everything has been rebuilt within the last 70 years.
Metro/Subway. I’m a huge fan of the Warsaw metro. It’s quite new, having been built in the 1990s, but as a result it’s not very robust. There are only two lines (north/south and east/west) that may or may not get you close enough to where you need to go. However, it’s a very easy system to use. The stations are extremely clean, the entrances are easy to find, and the elevators/lifts work. You can buy tickets at the station by zone, time, or full days. To board the train, you can wait for either the first or last carriage. Press the blue wheelchair symbol button, and shortly after the door opens a metal ramp will extend to cover the five-inch gap between the train and the platform. Just before your train arrives at your stop, press the wheelchair symbol button on the door. When the train stops, the doors will open and the ramp will extend.
The Bus. I’ll be the first person to admit I’m scared of using public buses. Specifically, I’m scared I’m going to be unable to get off the bus because a mean bus driver forgot about me or doesn’t realize I need to get off. Those fears are really unfounded, especially in Warsaw. All the buses are accessible, and you can use the same ticket for the metro. You can find your line one of two ways: using the bus line map or having Google maps show you what route you need. To get on the bus, wait in a spot where the bus driver can see you as he approaches the stop and wave. You can also push the wheelchair symbol button on the middle bus door to signal to the driver that he needs to unfold the ramp for you. Once on board, park yourself in the wheelchair space (you may need to vocally kick people out of it) where you have access to the wheelchair symbol button. Push it just prior to your intended stop, and this will signal the bus driver that you need the ramp unfolded again.
Trains. Ahhh… European trains are always an adventure for wheelchair users, and Poland is no exception. I took the InterCity (IC) Premium train one way from Warsaw to Krákow, and although my tour operator arranged for my ticket and assistance at the station (you must call 24 hours ahead to do this), no one (including the PKP Rail employees) initially knew what to do with me. Thank goodness my tour operator’s Polish-speaking son was with me or I would have been stuck. The newer intercity trains have built-in electric lifts, but I had to miss my first scheduled train because the lift on that one was broken. The next train showed up an hour later, and although the lift was working, the conductors didn’t know how to operate it. They finally got me on the train the old-fashioned way with a metal ramp through the adjacent car’s door, and I easily maneuvered into the wheelchair space in the original car. I would highly suggest that you have someone with you at the station who speaks Polish or get someone at the station who speaks English to help you.
Second, I want to share some general accessibility issues you should be aware of. Almost every store, café, and restaurant has at least one step to get in. I’m not even kidding; access to any place where Polish businesses can take your money is almost impossible. That being said, if you visit Warsaw during warmer months (i.e. when it’s remotely comfortable to be outside), there is no shortage of cafés and restaurants and bars with easily accessible outdoor seating. For souvenirs, you can find an open-air market off Nowa Swiete on weekends where vendors sell handmade goods from wooden stalls. The Zlote Tarasy mall is also a good place (if not very authentically Polish) to shop and eat.
As for museums and other sights, you should check online or call ahead to verify the accessibility. Language can be a big barrier in Poland. Unlike many other European capitals, a lot of people (even at tourist attractions) don’t speak English, especially if they’re older. Due to the heavy Soviet influence in Poland, speaking English wasn’t exactly encouraged in older generations, and these will often be the people you need help from when searching for a ramp. Either ask a younger person or have the Google Translate app handy on your mobile phone. It definitely helped me more than once!
Polish people are very friendly and outgoing, but be prepared for a lot of staring—especially from older people. I think it was more out of curiosity than pity, but given that I haven’t gotten much attention elsewhere in Europe, it came as a surprise. I just stared back and smiled! I always think it’s good for wheelchair users to be active and visible all over the world, so it didn’t bother me.
I hope you can use these tips if you ever decide to visit Warsaw, and based on my experience, you should make that happen very soon!
Would you like to visit Warsaw? Please visit my accessible travel agency’s website, Spin the Globe / Travel, and I can help you get there!