Tag Archives: tips for wheelchair travel

Wheelchair Travel: San Francisco CA, USA

San Francisco

San Francisco

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.
Coit Tower from an F-Line Trolley.

Coit Tower from an F-Line Trolley.

  • 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.
The Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts

  • 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.

Bring Your Own Shower Seat

As regards to bathing facilities when traveling, I stated in an earlier post: There are four things that I need in order to be able to shower:

  • A roll-in shower, or a bathtub that is low enough to facilitate a transfer.
  • Something solid to sit on.
  • A detachable shower head (on a hose).
  • Grab bars, properly placed in order for me to steady myself during the transfer and as I shower.

I covered the grab-bar solution in that post, and I would consider it the responsibility of the wheelchair traveler to ascertain (by phone!)that the hotel/lodge/resort/etc has a roll in shower or tub, and hopefully their shower head will be on a hose, but I have found through experience that counting on any lodging to provide the wheelchair traveler with proper seating is an iffy proposition at best. Experience has taught me to bring my own seating. Even if I don’t need it, it’s well worth the little bit of space that it takes up in our luggage to have a guaranteed seat for the shower, and I would advise anyone else who cannot stand unassisted to do the same.

Almost every hotel in the US that we have stayed in has provided proper seating, but “proper” can be a little sketchy, even with the ADA . A wheelchair traveler in Europe can be a little less certain that there will be proper seating provided, although the majority of the hotels we have stayed in have fulfilled this need adequately. It’s the minority that I am talking about here, both in the US and abroad that have caused me to adopt a policy of always bringing my own seat, just in case. And there have been several cases where I was very glad that I had.

On more than one instance the seat has been nothing more than a 10-inch square of plastic that folds down in the shower. Even though they’ve been sturdy and capable of supporting my weight, the small surface area of the seat made getting cleaned up a nerve-wracking, back-firmly-pressed-to-the-wall endeavor.

In other instances, the “seat” will be a sunken bench that hooks over the sides of the bathtub, with a good ten-inch drop from the height of my wheelchair seat to the level of the bench. I can’t do a ten-inch hoist back into my chair unassisted, and having to be assisted out of the tub is not the sort of accessible experience that I am hoping for when we travel.

There can be numerous other obstacles that won’t be apparent until the wheelchair traveler actually sees the seat , such as armrests that block a safe transfer or missing rubber feet which cause the seat to slide around dangerously, so even with reassurances from the hotel staff (“Oh yes, we have a shower bench”), it’s a good idea to have your own, just for back up.

The first personal shower seat I got was a folding shower bench. I have never used it because:

A. It’s too wide to fit in our tub, so it’s probably too wide to fit in many hotel tubs.
B. It didn’t fold down flat enough. Even folded as flat as it goes, it takes up a quarter of the depth of our luggage.

So I looked around and found a nice little shower stool with extendable legs that easily detach and re-attach to the stool so that the whole thing lies flat in the bottom of our bag. It’s a little wobbly fully extended, but it’s sturdy and with grab bars close by it’s safe enough for me to relax and enjoy my shower. Plus, it will fit into any tub or shower, and I can count on it being there since I bring it with me wherever we go.

Suitable shower seat

This is the model that I got. I would give it a good recommendation. Use at your own risk. I have no affiliation nor connection with this company in any way.

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