European travel specialist Rick Steves gives tips on how travelers who don't walk well can still enjoy Europe.
Let’s face it: Compared to the United States, Europe is not very accessible to those with limited mobility. In fact, many of my favorite sights — castles and hill towns — were actually designed to be inaccessible. But I’m inspired by the fact that wherever I go in Europe I see people with limited mobility having a wonderful time on the streets, in the museums, in the restaurants, and on the trains.
If you have mobility concerns, consider your own situation thoughtfully when choosing which attractions to visit, where to sleep and eat, and what to avoid. Here are some tips to make Europe more accessible:
Packing light is especially important. To lighten your load, take fewer clothing items and do laundry more often. Fit it all in a wheeled carry-on bag (9-by-22-by-14 inches). If you do bring a second bag, make it a small one that stacks neatly (or even attaches) on top of your wheeled bag.
Bring a friend. It’s good to have helping hands along if you need a quick lift up a curb or if you have trouble handling your luggage. In 30 years as a tour guide, I learned that if people who didn’t walk well brought along a supportive partner, their trip went remarkably well.
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Think about the pros and cons of where you sleep: Rather than stay near the station, you can take a taxi from the station directly to your hotel and be in the center of the action. Rather than opt for a characteristic bed-and-breakfast place, take the modern, business-class hotel with up-to-date rooms, larger bathrooms and elevators, and facilities designed with easy access in mind. Many quainter places will brag they have an elevator, but because of the nature of their building, you’ll still climb many steps to get from the street to your room.
Some cities have some fully accessible buses and subway routes. London’s system is the best in this regard, while Paris disappoints. While subway systems can be efficient, public buses can save you lots of hiking with fewer stairs. With a transit pass (most cities sell day passes and multiday passes), you can hop on a bus just to get down the street without worrying about the chore and expense of buying an individual ticket.
If you simply can’t walk long distances, taxis are essential. Any hotel or restaurant can call one to pick you up. With a cellphone and the local number, you can call one from anywhere. And in many cities, it’s easy to hail a taxi on the street.
Museums take care of people with limited mobility. People in wheelchairs can skip the line. If you find you need a wheelchair during your visit, larger museums often have them available. And if the museum lacks a public elevator, they may have a service elevator you can use. Many of the most popular sights come with exhaustingly long lines that are easy to avoid if you make a reservation (good guidebooks explain how) or if you hire a private guide (who generally gets to go to the front).
Take full advantage of tours. Every town with tourism has a variety of tours that show you the sights from a comfortable seat. Orientation bus tours give you a 90-minute once over lightly. Longer tours usually do the orientation route with a visit to a couple of major sights (which involves some minimal walking). Hop-on, hop-off bus tours vie for your business in nearly every city. They make a circuit lacing the city’s top sights together and give you a ticket good for a day’s worth of hopping on and off, with buses coming by several times an hour.
Nearly any company offering city tours will offer day trips out from a city, providing an easy way to see blockbuster sights on a joyride through the countryside. Every port city has a harbor cruise that gives visitors a relaxing and delightful angle on that town. Cruise ships offer an array of shore excursions that generally include an option for those who don’t walk well.
Know your limits. You can opt out of that monastery on the hilltop and simply enjoy it from a cafe on the bank of the river below. And, if you’re a good traveler, that cafe time can come with a memorable conversation with locals and an adventure in literally eating and drinking in the culture.
With the right approach and attitude, you’ll find that because you move more slowly, you’ll see a side of Europe that you may have missed on earlier trips. Consider yourself in the vanguard of the “slow travel” movement. It’s a new world out there, and anyone with a sense of adventure can take advantage of all that Europe has to offer.