“The City of Lights” and its world-class attractions are more accessible than some might think.
My husband, Jim, is a romantic and I’m a realist. The first time we planned a trip abroad, he suggested we add Paris to the itinerary. I swiftly nixed his request. The thought of orchestrating wheelchair-accessible trips to two countries seemed daunting.
However, ignoring the detour to France was my one regret after visiting England. The next time we traveled abroad, I researched our options and discovered that combining London and Paris in one trip is easier than you might expect.
London to Paris
The biggest hurdle for many wheelchair users is the long trans-Atlantic flight.
It’s best to fly into London’s Heathrow Airport, especially if you don’t speak French. Let the airline know you need disability assistance; airport staff will help push your wheelchair and even carry your bags.
Spend your first few days abroad in London to recuperate from jet lag and adjust to the time difference (Paris is another hour ahead). Navigating with a wheelchair in England’s capital city is effortless, and there are tons of accessible attractions.
Getting to Paris from London is surprisingly affordable and accessible. Traveling at speeds up to 186 mph, the Eurostar train whisks passengers to the Gare du Nord train station in Paris via the Channel Tunnel in just two hours and 15 minutes. Ticket prices for a wheelchair user and one companion are reduced. Our roundtrip tickets for two adults cost $232 (eurostar.com/us-en).
Passengers need to arrive at London’s St. Pancras International railway station 45 minutes before departure time. Take an elevator down to the train platform, where a huge portable ramp is rolled to the train door. Doorways are narrow — my 25-inch-wide wheelchair was a tight fit. No transferring is required; passengers remain in their wheelchairs. The stewards serve meals and replenish drinks; a small accessible restroom is located at the back of the cabin.
Paris offers wheelchair-accessible taxis that charge the same price as a conventional taxi service. Unfortunately, a taxi can’t be reserved for your arrival at the train station or the airport.
The Musée d’Orsay Museum offers a restaurant and a café.
Upon our arrival, we used a cell phone we had previously bought in London to call the taxi company, and a vehicle arrived within 30 minutes. The 4-mile ride to our hotel cost $35 (the meter starts running when they receive the call).
Other than at the train station and airport, accessible taxis can be prearranged to pick you up. The accessible taxi service is Horizon, offered by the company Taxis G7.
The only difficulty with using taxis — besides the cost — is having to follow a rigid timetable, which is why we chose to walk as much as possible.
According to the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Paris Metro system (subway) is not very accessible, so we didn’t try to use it. Currently, 60 public bus lines are defined as “accessible.” Parisians consider a line to be accessible when “70% of the stops are accessible and no more than two consecutive stops are inappropriate.”
The buses have ramps, but they’re not always operational. Deciphering which bus to board can be confusing. If you can, plot your routes while you’re home and have the assistance of French-speaking friends.
Many Paris streets are cobblestone, making the ride bumpy for someone in a wheelchair. The curbs have cutouts, but the edge often has a drop ranging from an inch to half a foot.
Frequently, Jim had to turn my manual wheelchair around and walk backward out into the traffic. In addition, many of the major tourist attractions are too far apart to walk from one to another. But if you love architecture, just walking the streets is an attraction.
Napoleon, Shopping & Parks
The magnificent 164-foot-tall Arc de Triomphe is a symbol of the French nation commissioned by Napoleon, with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier buried below.
The most visited monument in the world, the Eiffel Tower, is partially accessible to wheelchair users. An elevator carries visitors to the first and second levels. People with disabilities are given a reduced-rate ticket and receive priority access.
Shoppers flock to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. More than a mile long, the upscale retailers include Cartier, Louis Vuitton and even dealerships with futuristic concept cars. The haute-couture Galeries Lafayette near the Paris Opera House is filled with designer wares. Small elevators are available for wheelchair users.
Then, there are the parks. In 1769, the Duke of Chartres created one of the most floral public parks in Paris, Parc Monceau. Strolling through the park, we enjoyed seeing a wedding ceremony, children riding ponies and a pond half encircled by broken Corinthian columns. The walkways are gravel, and hundreds of visitors picnic on the grassy slopes. Benches are scattered throughout the grounds.
The Musée du Louvre is a maze of galleries and elevators. The former palace is enormous, with art displayed in three wings, each with four floors.
Navigating the Louvre is difficult because many accessible entrances are unmarked. Ask for an accessible map at the information desk. Elevators are quite small and the wait for an empty one can be long.
Admission to the Louvre is free for people with disabilities and their guest or helper. However, the museum staff asks for a “disability card,” and the website states proof of entitlement is required.
American tourists might want to bring a letter from their physician documenting they have a disability. Wheelchair users can bypass the long entrance line by entering the Louvre near the glass pyramid and signaling to an employee that they wish to enter.
Walking beside the River Seine and watching the boats bob along the water, we made our way to the Musée d’Orsay. Located in a former railway station built in 1898 for the World’s Fair, it was converted into a museum in the mid-1980s.
Inside is the largest collection of impressionist and postimpressionist paintings in the world. The museum’s collection and building are enchanting. We sipped hot chocolate in the restaurant, a stunning space with painted ceilings framed with gold molding and illuminated with crystal chandeliers. The museum is accessible and quite manageable in a wheelchair.
One of our favorite ways to experience Paris was dining at an outdoor brasserie. Often, it was the only accessible seating available. Be aware that most restaurants don’t serve meals between 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Small, but Comfortable
Finding an accessible hotel in Paris can be difficult. The city’s official tourism website (en.parisinfo.com) includes a short list of accessible hotels. If you need something specific, such as a roll-in shower, it’s best to call the hotel directly.
Holiday Inn Paris Opéra Grands Boulevards is a 10-minute ride from the railway station. Our wheelchair-accessible room included a roll-in shower. Although small by American standards, the room was nicely decorated, clean and comfortable.
The Renaissance Paris Arc de Triomphe Hotel is a modern property. The sleek room with a king-sized bed had an enormous bathroom with a roll-in shower. One advantage to selecting a high-end hotel is the concierge can help arrange accessible transportation and more.
For many people, traveling abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Carefully research your destination options or hire an accessible travel expert.
You might be surprised at how easy it is to double your fun by visiting more than one landmark city.
Jim and Barbara Twardowski cover the travel industry writing about a broad range of topics. They specialize in accessible and boomer travel, luxury accommodations, culinary/cultural offerings and destinations.
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