It’s almost the end of the year, which means it’s time for me to update my list of wheelchair accessible cities you need to visit after New Year’s! You’re going to have some Christmas money burning a hole in your pocket, you’ve read up on my tips for overcoming your fear of traveling with your wheelchair, and you’re ready to hit the road (or take to the skies) in 2019. Then check out my list below of some of the world’s most wheelchair-friendly destinations, and let the new year travel planning begin!
1. Belfast, Northern Ireland (UK). For many reasons, Belfast has rarely on many travelers’ bucket lists until recently. Political strife has kept visitors away for decades, but now all is calm, and Northern Ireland offers wheelchair users some of the world’s most amazing natural sights. There are tons of wheelchair accessible things to do in Belfast, and city is very easy to roll around with sidewalks in good condition and dropped curbs at intersections. The public buses are all low-floor and accessible, and Belfast has many accessible Black Taxis like London. You can visit the amazing Titanic museum and see where the ill-fated ship was launched from the shipyard. You can also take a tour of the beautiful City Hall and immerse yourself in the vibrant and intense murals painted on the sides of almost every building. You must venture out of the city to the northern coast, especially if you’re a Game of Thrones fan. The black cab companies offer accessible day trips up to the Antrim Coast and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of The Giants Causeway, and will stop at several GoT filming locations. You also can’t ask for kinder or more helpful locals.
2. Prague, Czech Republic. Until recently, it was easy for me to say that my favorite city in Europe was Vienna (a must-visit pick for 2018), hands down. That was until I visited the incredible city of Prague in the Czech Republic. I went with the help of Accessible Prague to help me tour the city and explore some historic sights about an hour away in the countryside. Considering that this was a former Eastern Bloc country with a few centuries of history, I expected poor accessibility. However, I was incredibly surprised at every turn. Yes, there are cobblestones, with some better and worse than others. However, the trams and buses are accessible, the curb drops and sidewalks are in great shape, and there are sufficient places to eat and shop with ramps. The Old City is so beautiful and perfect that it looks straight out of Disney World. You can visit Prague Castle and even enter the jaw-dropping cathedral. All major museums are accessible (when open if not being renovated), and there’s even an elevator to take you from one of the bridges down to the river island.
3. Singapore, Singapore. There’s a reason this tiny city-state is called The Red Dot. While compact in size, Singapore is a financial and ocean shipping powerhouse. It’s also easily the most wheelchair accessible city in Asia. Singapore is extremely modern, clean, and primary tourist areas are kept in great shape for visitors. It’s extremely easy to roll around major sights like the Gardens by the Bay, the Helix Bridge, and Marina Bay Sands, and the efficient metro system will take you where you need to go without the need for ramps to board the trains. There are some older areas that are a bit more challenging, like Chinatown and Little India, but Singaporeans are some of the nicest and most helpful people around. Singapore is one of the few cities I’ve been to outside of the US where I can reasonably expect accessibility rather than just hope for it, and that’s saying something.
4. Seoul, South Korea. I’m normally not a huge fan of visiting Asia, largely because many locals tend to have a negative view of people with disabilities. However, my experience in Seoul couldn’t have been farther from that. It’s a very modern city with well-maintained sidewalks and a very efficient metro system spanning a huge metropolitan area on both sides of the river. I visited with the help of Korea Wheelchair Tour, and while you can get around using the metro and buses, it was great to have access through them to a wheelchair van for tours and airport transfers. I was able to visit the historic Gyeongbukgong Palace, a Buddhist monastery, the Seoul Tower, and even visit the DMZ area. My favorite thing to do after dark was spend hours rolling through the famous Myeongdong shopping district. The bright signs and lights, K-Pop blasting from every store, tempting smells of street food carts, and busy crowds are everything you imagine Korea to be in a fantastic way. Navigating in a chair through Seoul’s packed crowds takes some skill, but the Koreans are polite and deferent to a fault. No stares or dirty looks for wheelchair users here; only courtesy, beauty, and amazing experiences.
5. Budapest, Hungary. I had been wanting to visit Budapest for so many years, but really thought it was out of reach due to it’s history and general city conditions relative to accessibility. However, with the combined help of Disabled Accessible Travel and Hungary4All, I was able to see so many wheelchair accessible sights in Budapest, including a tour of the stunning and iconic Parliament Building, the Castle District, and St Stephen’s Basilica. I was also able to take a day trip out of the city to visit the beautiful Lake Balaton, a museum dedicated to lavender in Tihany, and the legendary Herend porcelain factory. One of my favorite things to do in any European city at night is to wander around pedestrian-only areas, and Budapest did not disappoint. I spent many hours rolling past shops and restaurants on the Vaci Utca and the streets around the Basilica. Seeing the Parliament Building lit up at night just after sunset is also a must.
6. Hong Kong, China. I visited Hong Kong immediately after an incredible experience in Singapore, and to say I was apprehensive is an understatement. However, I was pleasantly surprised at both the accessibility in and how many interesting things there were to see and do in Hong Kong. While technically a part of China, Hong Kong was kept as a separate legal department after returning to China after British rule. Perhaps because of this, and the millions of visitors it receives every year, accessibility in Hong Kong is much better than what you’ll find in mainland China. You can take an accessible taxi through Diamond Cab up to Victoria Peak for breathtaking views of the famous skyline (if the air quality is behaving), take the accessible cable car with NgongPing360 up to the mountains to see the Big Buddha, or hop on the accessible metro to Disneyland Hong Kong. You can also go on an accessible walking/rolling tour of the more notorious parts of Kowloon at Night with Walk Hong Kong. Please be aware that you will get stared at constantly, and some of those looks may not be so pleasant. Just respond with a smile and continue to enjoy the cool things Hong Kong has to offer.
7. Charleston, South Carolina (USA). I first visited Charleston in 1999 as a healthy and athletic walker, and completely fell in love with this historic colonial American city. I was determined to see how it had worked around these historic areas to help wheelchair users enjoy it as well, and I was pleasantly surprised at every turn. The sidewalks can be challenging in the Historic District because tree roots have lifted many of the large pavers. However, the curb drops are fantastic and southern help and kindness await at every corner. You can enjoy the lovely South Carolina Aquarium, then roll just a few blocks to take an accessible narrated cruise of Charleston Harbor. You can also visit the hangar and flight deck of a retired US Navy aircraft carrier at the Patriots Point Naval Museum. The Historic District is packed with fantastic restaurants, and there’s no shortage of shopping opportunities, especially at the City Market. While many of the plantations and historic homes are not accessible, the art and city museum are, and you can even visit the colonial Nathan Russell House using their elevator.
8. Auckland, New Zealand. I spent nine days visiting many parts of New Zealand, both the North and South Island, so it was tough for me to pick just one city to visit. I would highly recommend both Christchurch and the capital of Wellington as well, but I spent the most time seeing accessible sights in Auckland, which is the largest city. My Kiwi adventure was spent with Accessible New Zealand, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with this picturesque and insanely friendly country. In Auckland you can take a scenic accessible ferry tour of the Harbour and have a delicious meal in a rotating restaurant at the top of the Sky Tower. At the Auckland military museum, you can learn all about the country’s history and rich Maori heritage. You can even watch a very cool Maori cultural presentation that includes the famous Haka dance and chant. Auckland is quite hilly, and while there are no wheelchair taxis, most buses have low floors and are accessible. Auckland electric trains are designed with automatic ramps located on the central carriage doors providing a seamless transition between the platform and the train. Wheelchairs can be taken aboard most ferries, but please check with the ferry operator before traveling.
9. Gibraltar, United Kingdom. Holy hills, Batman! They’re one of the first things you’ll notice as a wheelchair user upon arrival in this tiny British territory on the southern tip of Spain. However, there are many ways to manage the often steep terrain in order to explore this little European jewel. Gibraltar has a fleet of accessible taxis (some with two separate metal ramps for four/six wheels only, and some newer ones with electric lifts), and you can hire one to take you on a tour of the territory or up to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar. There you can visit with the mischievous Barbary Macaque apes, and even explore the old siege tunnels inside the Rock. It sounds cheesy at first, but it’s really cool to roll down the street across the only airport runway in the world to be bisected by a highway. The Gibraltar city buses are all low-floor and accessible, and will quickly get you to pretty much any part of Gibraltar. Do roll through flat Casement Square and Main Street for some great (and accessible) food, shopping, and people watching.
10. Madrid, Spain. I first visited Madrid in 2007 (post-MS diagnosis but still walking), and it quickly became one of my favorite world cities. When my best friend and I decided to visit Madrid this year, I was curious about what the accessibility would be like. With the help of Accessible Madrid, we rolled through much of the main city with little difficulty, and even ventured to the stunning medieval city of Segovia to see La Granja palace and the breathtaking Alcázar. There’s a lot of construction along the Gran Via right now, and sidewalks elsewhere are narrow. However, there are smooth curb drops everywhere, and most of the cobblestones we encountered (with the exception of the ones in front of the Museo del Prado) were very manageable. Madrid is a large city, but most of the sights were rollable. We avoided the metro since not all stations are accessible, but we didn’t need it. Wheelchair accessible Eurotaxis are everywhere, are very reasonably priced, and show up generally within 10-15 minutes or less. All of the major museums are accessible, as is the Royal Palace and Botanical Gardens. Many restaurants and shops still have a step to enter, but plenty don’t and have flat entry (if not an accessible toilet). Navigating the beautiful city is easy and we never had to turn around to find a more accessible route. Make sure you bring an empty stomach and healthy liver for all the chorizo, churros, and sangria!
I have visited all of these places myself, so I can tell you from experience that they’re amazing! Do you have any highly wheelchair-friendly cities you’d like to add to this list? I hope my suggestions give you some great ideas for wheelchair accessible travel in 2019! And if you need help making travel arrangements, please visit my accessible travel agency site at Spin the Globe/travel.