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Accessible Rome - Wheelchair Travel

Mary Murphy-Hanson

To answer the $64,000 question - Is Rome accessible? A qualified yes. Sometimes things are astonishingly accessible like the Colosseum (Colosseo). Other times, the barriers are impossible to overcome, such as the church of Santa Maria della Vittorio where Bernini's the Ecstasy of St. Theresa is located. The trick is to know where the entrance is, where the back door takes you. Hopefully these pages will help the novice and the experienced disabled traveler discover Rome.

The usual tourist in Rome walks four to six miles a day. The wheelchair tourist CAN do almost as much provided they do have assistance. A trip to Rome is as much about going down ancient streets as it is about going to the Vatican. The true joy of a Rome trip lies in the glimpses of rooftop gardens, the beautiful centuries old wall paintings tucked in nooks, the statues hidden in courtyards. Roman streets are dense with delights for the eyes, nose, and sometimes the ears when a concert rehearsal spills out of an open church door. To not travel down Roman streets is to have missed Rome.

The modern wheelchair traveler in Rome is viewed with literal amazement. You will get stares from Romans who would never otherwise deign to notice a tourist. My Italian friends are truly shocked by my willingness to travel in a wheelchair. They tell me "Rome is horrible for average pedestrians. We dodge motorini, buses and vespas, navigate narrow sidewalks, and rough stone roads. It will become a nightmare for someone in a wheelchair." I have heard many stories about disabled Italians who have never left their homes for years on end.

Mary in front of the Arch of Constantine, Roman Forum

Mary in front of the Arch of Constantine, Roman Forum

When in Rome, be a Tourist

Rome has been called the largest open air museum in the world. Its doors are open to the wheelchair traveler provided you don't mind sometimes using the kitchen door. If a willing heart can make a location accessible, in general the Italians will do so. As guardians of many of the world's artistic treasures making them available to the handicapped is something that is devoutly desired. Money and bureaucracy are the primary impediments.

Will the wheelchair tourist "see it all"? No, but like New Yorkers who have never been to the Statue of Liberty there are many Italians who live in Rome who never "see it all". We were discussing our touring adventures with our Roman friends Fabio and Nicolletta one day on a drive to the country. Fabio turned to Nicolletta and said "I want to be a tourist with Tom and Mary." It was one of the proudest moments of my life. You will see the "crown jewels" of Rome and you will also see a portion that very few others ever get to see.

It is my opinion that combining the caring goodwill of the Italian people and the courage of the wheelchair tourist can overcome all but the most daunting of obstacles. And have fun while you are doing it.

So with trepidation we approach Rome in a wheelchair. Shall we shove off? On this page I discuss general issues about wheelchair travel in Rome. On the other pages in this section, I describe accessibility to the major tourist sites.

Arriving in Rome

Like all modern airports Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino - FCO) is replete with ramps and assistance designed for the wheelchair traveler. Do not offer to tip the people who push your wheelchair. It could be interpreted as an insult. These are people serving "alternative service" instead of the required military term. A heartfelt grazie is always appreciated. I usually have some small token I give them, often a refrigerator magnet with a picture of the Grand Canyon because I am from Arizona.

Car Service Pickup

I recommend arranging for a car service to pick you up at the airport. See Resources below for a list of Rome car services. Some hotels provide limousine service for an additional fee. The wheelchair traveler must be very specific when booking a car service by stating a need for a wheelchair accessible vehicle. As the commercial says:

  • Cost of a cab scrunching in with your luggage and wheelchair? 50 euro.
  • Cost of a van with wheelchair accessibility? 90 euro.
  • The sense of relief when you wheel through customs and see someone holding a sign with your name on it and know you aren't going to have to hassle your luggage and a cab in a foreign language after a 12 hour flight? PRICELESS.

Train to Rome

There is a train from the airport to the central train station in Rome (Roma Termini). While it is accessible at the airport it is not at the central Rome termini end. Supposedly you can arrange to have a forklift with a platform meet you at Termini. You would then roll out onto the platform and be lowered to the sidewalk. The distance from where you leave the train to the front of Termini is about 1/2 mile. Pushing luggage and a wheelchair? Impossible. Porters at Termini are a figment of a very creative imagination.

Planning Your Days

The wheelchair traveler must stay in central Rome (Centro Storico). Anything else is a false economy. When you are dealing with Rome you need to take a hub and spoke approach to your day's itinerary. You can leave in the morning, tour for several hours, return via cab to your base to use the facilities, have lunch, rest and then return to your adventures.

Get a guidebook that divides Rome into its neighborhoods, decide what you want to see on a given day in a neighborhood, then taxi to the central point of interest and fan out to the other attractions. This will save on the wear and tear on your wheelchair, your body and on whoever is helping you.

Rome Information for Accessibility

The tourist information office in central train station has one (exactly one) book on traveling with a handicap. It's called "Roma Accessible" and is now five years out of date. Which in most countries would mean things are better now, but this is not necessarily true in Rome as we were about to find out. (The bathrooms in Termini are very accessible.)

The Commune of Rome funds an office that provides information on the accessibility of buildings and services of public interest in Rome. The phone number for the office of "Roma per Tutti - Rome for all" is +39-06-23267695. There are English speaking operators available. Hours of operation are 9 - 5 Monday to Friday. They have a database of information provided by the restaurants, hotels, and sites themselves.

I found Roma per Tutti to be little better than a directory assistance. They could give me the phone number of places that rent motorized wheelchairs, but not how to gain access to the metro or which stops are wheelchair accessible.

Using Your Wheelchair on the Roman Roads

Rome can be reasonably seen by the wheelchair traveler with assistance. The biggest obstacle a wheelchair traveler faces in Rome is the roads. While all roads may lead to Rome those roads are made of San Pietro stone. It is a brutal surface for both traveler and wheelchair.

Although I didn't change the wheels on my wheelchair to the wide tires, it is something I recommend. The majority of my difficulties traversing the roads were due to the rims of my wheels getting caught between the San Pietro stones. I ended up with a bent wheelchair frame.

You must be prepared to use the roads as well as the sidewalks. Many times there are no cutaway curbs or they are blocked by parked cars. Your best bet to get on and off the sidewalks are driveways. They usually aren't blocked by parked cars.

As can be seen in the following picture many streets in Rome have NO sidewalks. Roman drivers are used to sharing the road with pedestrians. Here's a picture of a typical street without sidewalks.

Typical road in Trastevere, a neighborhood of Rome

Typical road in Trastevere, a neighborhood of Rome

Transportation Options

Your only 100% dependable transit options in Rome are taxis, mobility scooters and pushing. Hence the recommendation that you stay in central Rome. Overall taxis are fairly reasonable in terms of cost with most fares running between five to eight euro from the Centro storico to the major sites. There are some options using public transportation, but be prepared to take taxis.

Note: The handicap bus service (dial a ride) is available only to citizens of Rome.

For more information on using buses, taxis and the metro, see the Slow Travel pages Rome Transportation.

Buses

Although public transit claims to have wheelchair accessible buses in 2005 we never found a single bus with a working ramp. Whether this was due to the driver's unwillingness to take the time to drop the ramp or whether the ramps truly didn't work is anybody's guess.

During Jubilee (2000) there was a special tourist line with handicap accessible buses that ran to the major attractions. Since Jubilee this special line has been subsumed into the Rome bus lines (ATAC). The ramps have not been maintained. So buses become a gamble. If you get lucky and find a bus that will use its ramp for you, go for it. But don't assume you can get back the same way. This is where your cell phone becomes critical. Because wherever you are you can call a taxi.

Electric Buses

The small yellow electric buses that go through Centro Storico do not have ramps. If you can take one step (about 20 inches high) into a bus and have your helper lift the chair into the bus these small buses do have room for a wheelchair.

Metro

The metro (or underground) is fast, cheap, safe and wonderful. The problem is that the stops are totally inaccessible with the following exceptions: Termini, Cipro (the stop at the far side of Saint Peters), Pyramide, and some of the suburban stops. Elevators simply do not exist at many of the metro stops. There are usually 2 flights of stairs to exit the subway and possibly more.

Trams

If you can get out of your chair and handle one or two stairs you can consider the trams. Most tram stops have ramps that allow you to enter the tram on a level with the floor. The ramps are part of the roads, not part of the trams. The problem is if the line breaks down you need to be able to exit the tram. This is a good solid 2 foot step if you have to get off a tram on the street instead of a raised stop.

Taxis

Taxis charge a one euro surcharge for wheelchairs. It's considered luggage. There are no wheelchair accessible cabs. You will need transfers from your chair to the cab and back. Most cabbies will lift your chair into the trunk if you show them how it collapses. They are not skilled at assisting with a transfer. Another reason to bring a friend when you travel.

I found Roman taxi drivers 99% willing to stop when we hailed them with a wheelchair. The rule in Rome is taxis only pick up passengers at recognized cab stands or in response to an actual call. "Hailing" a cab will not usually work. The cabby's willingness to pick you up at an "unofficial" site could be adversely influenced by the presence of police or other authorities. The official taxi stands are throughout Rome. Look for them as it is much cheaper to go to a stand than to call a cab. The minute you call the meter drops and you end up paying for the cab's trip to wherever you are located.

Driving Your Own Car

Along about now you are thinking "OK so public transit doesn't work, I'll just drive and use my handicap permit for parking." While all the attractions listed have reserved handicap spots, I never saw one that wasn't occupied by an Italian automobile. Parking space in central Rome on the street is more precious than hotel space (and costs nearly the same). Trust me on this one, a private car won't work. I haven't begun to mention traffic jams, high speed driving and traffic signs that are viewed as suggestions, not mandatory.

Restrooms - That Delicate Subject

The good news is that most museums and public spaces have accessible bathrooms. The bad news is that none of them have toilet seats. They are uniformly steel or porcelain urinal type toilets with no seats. Ladies bring tissue seat covers and in the winter prepare to freeze your buns. (Roman toilets can give a whole new meaning to the term "buns of steel".) There are no problems in having a person of the opposite sex provide assistance in handicap toilets. So your significant other can come into the women's or men's room and help you make a transfer if you need assistance.

Banks/ATMs/American Express

Many banks are inaccessible as can be seen by the "accessible door" in this bank on the Piazza della Rotonda. If you need to find an accessible bank the best advice is to find one with a guard outside who will help you through the security doors.

Wheelchair accessible door - not!! It has a step!

Wheelchair accessible door - not!! It has a step!

ATMs abound and are 99% accessible. US banks update their data at 3am EST. This translates to around 10-11 in the morning in Italy. During that time you usually will not be able to access an ATM for a cash withdrawal. Don't panic. Go back in an hour and you should be able to access it then.

The American Express office at the Piazza di Spagna is accessible should you need to cash traveler's checks or other AMEX services. Word of warning: few Italian establishments accept traveler's checks, not even the euro checks. The worst exchange rate is for traveler's checks in any of the cambios. Read more on the Slow Travel page Converting Money - Saving Money with Dollars & Euro.

Eating in Rome

With few exceptions the restaurants in Rome have stairs at least to the bathrooms. Space is at a premium so bathrooms are tucked into basements or up stairs. This is where my hub and spoke approach is necessary. We have our morning coffee in a local coffee shop, San Eustachio (one step into the shop but they have outside tables), which is the best in Rome - even Romans say so. (Peace to you Tazza d'Oro fans - there is no disputing taste.) After coffee we return to the apartment, use the facilities and then go tour for the morning.

Mary having breakfast at Cafe San Eustacio

Mary having breakfast at Caffe San Eustachio

Lunch either involves a return to the apartment to use the facilities or, if we are lucky, a local Burger King or McDonalds with accessible facilities. You don't have to eat there, you just use the facilities although politeness dictated that we did occasionally order a coke or a coffee. The Burger King and the McDonalds near Termini have someone who hands out the key to the restroom. There was no difficulty with someone in a wheelchair getting the key even though we had not purchased an item at the restaurant.

When you find a restaurant that someone has recommended or looks interesting but has stairs, don't worry. I have never been to an Italian restaurant where the owners won't send out a couple of burly waiters and help you over the stairs. If you have an aversion to being carried in your chair, either get over it or cross Rome off your list.

Most restaurants have one or two tables outside. Usually they are scrunched up against the wall on a sidewalk. On nice days or evenings you can sit outside and not have to navigate the stairs. However, inclement weather will force you inside. You'll never starve in Rome but your back teeth may be floating.

Day Trips from Rome

Day trips outside Rome can either be accomplished by using a rental car, a hired driver and car or you might be able to take the train.

Trains

Go to the TrenItalia website and click on the wheelchair icon for a list of towns that have wheelchair access in the train stations. It takes a 24 hours advance reservation to be able to use the wheelchair cars, ramps, lifts anywhere in the TrenItalia system. So far I have never been able to book a handicap trip online and have always had my Italian friends call and make reservations.

Rental Cars

Rental cars can be picked up at the main train station, Termini, or at the Borghese Gardens parking garage. While it is more difficult to exit Rome from Termini, at least you can get to the rental car office and to the vehicle. The Borghese Garage is tight, rough surface and the rental offices have at least a single stair. There are no wheelchair accessible rental vehicles, and vans run $200 for a single day - less per day if you book a week. Read more about booking a rental car on the Slow Travel page Car Rentals in Europe.

Resources

Slow Travel Italy - Car Services: Lists of car service companies in Italy for airport pickup/dropoff or transportation.

Slow Travel Italy - Rome Transportation: How to use buses, metro, taxis in Rome.

Slow Travel Italy - Rome Travel Notes: Things to do and see in Rome.

Slow Travel - Europe Trip Planning - Cell Phones: Details about having a cell phone in Europe.

Slow Travel - Europe Trip Planning - Car Rentals: Details about renting a car in Europe.

Slow Travel - Europe Trip Planning - Money: Getting cash, using ATMs, travelers checks, exchange rates.


Mary Hanson is a wheelchair traveler with four months experience navigating Rome in a wheelchair. When she isn't visiting her heart in Rome, she resides in Phoenix with her husband Tom and her mutt Beau-dog.

© Mary Murphy-Hanson, 2005

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