San Francisco was a lot easier in a wheelchair than I thought it would be. Enough so that I would recommend it to wheelchair travelers with a little upper-body strength, and even those with more severe mobility impairment, as long as the traveler was careful as regards what parts of the city to explore.
San Francisco is notoriously hilly– with some of the hills being dangerously steep, even with an assistant– but there are plenty of flat arras, and the public transportation system is so easy and accessible that it makes the city a doable excursion for someone in a wheelchair.
Positive Features of San Francisco for Wheelchair Travelers and their Companions:
- The Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART). The Bart runs fully accessible trains from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to the downtown area, including Union Square and the Embarcadero Station on Market Street.
- The Municipal Transport System (MUNI) is efficient, accessible, and covers most areas of the city, block by block.
- The transport is easy to figure out as well, with free Muni Maps available at the kiosks where the all-day Muni passes are sold. With a pass and a map in hand and a little planning, a person in a wheelchair (and their companion) can spend the day traversing the city by bus and trolley, alighting at points of interest and seeing the sights without a lot of physical effort.
- Taxis were plentiful, and although we didn’t need one (see above) it was nice to know that they were there and available. Most models were standard sedans, which means that they would be no harder to get into or out of than a regular car.
- All but a few of the establishments we frequented had step-free access and accessible toilets. Other than the physical geography of the hillier portions of the city, San Francisco feels very wheelchair friendly, with helpful courteous staff on the transport and in the bars and restaurants.
Negative Features of San Francisco for Wheelchair Travelers and Their Companions:
- The hills. Other than that, i didn’t have any negative experiences specific to my mobility impairment.
- To get to the BART from any terminal in SFO, take the free AirTrain, (both Red and Blue Lines will get you to the BART Station) and get off at “Garage G”, where you will find the Bart Station. Tickets must be purchased from the machine before boarding the BART.
- On the Mezzanine above the BART station, one floor below the street at the Embarcadero Station, there are Muni kiosks selling “Clipper Cards” and all-day “MUNI” passes that entitle the bearer the right to ride on all of the buses and trams in the city (with the exception of the famous cable cars, which aren’t wheelchair accessible anyway). Unless you are planning to be in San Francisco for longer than a week, it’s best to get your Muni pass on paper instead of opting for the plastic Clipper Card, as the card itself costs $3.00 on top of your fare. For a three-day pass, I paid $22.00, which turned out to be good value for money considering how much travel we got out of it. There is an elevator/lift going down to the Mezzanine on the north side of Market St, at Embarcadero Station.
- The F-Line is made up of old trolley cars, fully accessible, that run in a big loop, terminating at Fisherman’s Wharf (your MUNI pass will work). We caught it from the Ferry Building stop (at the east end of Market Street), and it was a great way to get to Fisheerman’s Wharf. The trolleys between the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf run along the piers, with good views of the Bay and Alcatraz.
- The Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful structure, set in an idyllic park with a pond full of wild birds, with flat, paved, wheelchair accessible paths that encompass the entire park. It was much bigger and more beautiful than I thought it would be from the pictures I had seen. If the weather is nice at all, I wouldn’t miss this. Take the 30 Bus to The Palace of Fine Arts (tell the driver when you get on). Your stop will be the corner of Broderick and Jefferson. Go left down Jefferson one black and you’ll see it right there in front of you. When you walk down Jefferson, it won’t look like you’re in the right place. Don’t worry. You are.
- Fisherman’s Wharf is easy and flat, and there are numerous bars and restaurants where one can eat or drink outside if the weather is nice. We ate at a place called Pompei’s Grotto, and then ate there again because, A. It was wonderfully accessible with a big ramp leading up to the patio and an accessible restroom, and B. Because the food was so good, affordable, and the service was excellent.
- The Mission District is flat, and there are several alleys between 17th St and 18th St, ( just west off of Mission Street) where one can leisurely admire some top-notch street art/murals. There is a little bar at the corner of Mission and Sycamore (Sycamore was the last street we found that had much art) that is accessible (unfortunately their beer garden is not) where one can quench the thirst with a nice glass of wine.
- There is a lovely, fully accessible Italian restaurant at the south end of Little Italy on Columbus Avenue just north of the corner of Columbus and Broadway, called “The Mona Lisa” . We had a very pleasant dinner here with great food and terrific service.
- Be careful. It’s fairly easy to find oneself on a steep street in certain parts of the city, and it can be almost as dangerous to turn around and go back as it is to keep going. We had a little tension going down Jackson Street in Chinatown. South of Market Street is fairly flat, but the terrain changes drastically north of Market, and I would advise anyone in a chair to do some research (“How hilly is it going to be?”) before setting out to any area you’re not familiar with. I wish I could tell you which areas to avoid for this reason, but we avoided those areas. There are enough flat/ish places to visit in San Francisco that I didn’t see the need for going up a 30% grade.
In closing, I personally think that a wheelchair traveler and their companion could easily spend five days or even a week in San Francisco without running out of things to see where the incline is reasonable and safe. I am glad we went, and we will be going back.