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Accessibility In The Eternal City

Travelling to Rome as a wheelchair user cemented this belief for me: although travelling as a wheelchair user isn't always easy, it's always worth the effort.

I’m sitting in an open-air rooftop bar, holding a glass of chilled prosecco, overlooking the ‘glory’ of Rome – the magnificent Colosseum. During moments like this, my guess is that most people would feel relaxed, content, and at peace. What I feel is relieved, empowered, and excited.

Relieved that I arrived here safely, and with relative ease. Empowered because, despite all the barriers in my way, I did it – I got here! And excited because, if I can get here, where else can I go?

I’m a disabled woman who has a passion for travel. Despite all my years of experience working in the travel industry, I’d assumed that this trip would be impossible. That the city was too old, not accessible enough, that cobblestone streets and paths and ancient ruins, small hotel rooms and monuments packed with tourists would make it all too difficult.

The final decision to go for it came when my husband reminded me that, if things did get hard, we’d do what we always have: adapt, and find our own way.

Finding a wheelchair accessible hotel in Rome

On the recommendation of another wheelchair user, I stayed at the Mercure Roma Centro Colosseo hotel, just a few hundred yards from the Colosseum. The hotel has a ramped entrance for wheelchair users and people with limited mobility, a lift to all floors, wheelchair accessible rooms with double beds and wheel-in showers, and that lovely rooftop bar (as well as a rooftop pool).

Wheelchair accessible places to visit in Rome

As the city of Rome grew over the centuries, the major tourist attractions are quite spread out. Wheelchair accessible taxis and tour buses are available, but if you’re using a powerchair or a manual chair and a strong pusher, it is possible to get around on your own steam.

I’d recommend a map, a guide book, and a sense of adventure – Rome is a beautiful place to get lost in!

A woman in a wheelchair on a viewing platform at the Colosseum
Even though it can feel daunting, there are many accessible things to see and do in Rome.

Is the Colosseum wheelchair accessible?

The Colosseum is one of the greatest remnants of Ancient Rome. The size and detail of the monument, combined with a little imagination, will leave you in awe.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Colosseum’s disabled access would be difficult for wheelchair users. Thankfully, it has been completely modernised, and has a smooth, flat surface throughout, as well as a lift and wheelchair accessible toilets.

Accessibility at the Roman Forum

The Roman Forum was once the centre of Roman life, and it’s amazing to see these buildings still standing (in one form or another) after so many years. It almost feels like you’ve gone back in time.

For me, the Forum was the most difficult part of Rome to access in a wheelchair. There is a lift to take you down from street level, but the ground is so uneven that wheelchair users may struggle.

Accessibility at the Pantheon in Rome

The Pantheon is said to be the best-preserved of Rome’s ancient monuments, with its spectacular concrete dome and extraordinary architecture. It’s an amazing feeling to be inside a temple (now used as a church), built over two thousand years ago.

What happens when it rains? Look out for the drain holes in the marble floor.

The Pantheon is wheelchair accessible, and entry is free.

Outside view of the Panthenon with bright sunbeams from the right
The Pantheon is one of Rome’s many wheelchair accessible ancient buildings.

Accessibility at Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is the showcase of central Rome. A beautiful square with street artists, ornate fountains, and pavement cafes – the perfect place to sit, enjoy a gelato, and watch the world go by.

Piazza Navona has a kerb to get into the middle of the square, with a slight step up.

Accessibility at Campo de’ Fiori

The colourful, loud, daily market at Campo de’ Fiori is part of Roman life. The tantalising aroma of spices, herbs, and cheese fill the air. Vendors encourage visitors to sample their produce. In the evening, the square is transformed into a place to socialise, with lovely music, restaurants, and a mix of locals and tourists in the crowd.

The square is level, with no kerbs. The ground is a cobbled surface, which is relatively smooth and pleasant for wheelchair users (compared to some areas of the old parts of Rome).

A woman sitting at a table with a cocktail, looking into the camera and smiling
Take every opportunity you can to dine al fresco when in Rome.

Accessibility at the oldest church in Rome

Santa Maria in Trastevere is a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, said to be the oldest in Rome. It ‘feels’ much more like a church than St Peter’s Basilica. Many tourists stumble upon it by mistake. A respectful silence is observed, candles are lit, and you can take a few subtle photographs of the beautiful golden mosaics and ornate walls and ceilings.

Santa Maria in Trastevere is wheelchair accessible, and entry is free.

Accessibility at Vatican Museums

Visiting the Vatican Museums is an unforgettable experience. It’s home to one of the world’s greatest art collections, and a beautiful setting to take in. Don’t try to cover it all in one visit – legend has it that viewing every exhibit could take 12 years!

Be prepared for crowds which can make the experience stressful, but definitely worth it. Disabled access at the Vatican Museums allows wheelchair users and disabled tourists in Rome to go backwards along parts of the tour route and through roped off areas to avoid stairs.

The painted roof of the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel, even with its accessibility challenges, is a must-see for everyone who visits Rome.

Is the Sistine Chapel wheelchair accessible?

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most famous works of art on the planet. It’s beautiful, awe-inspiring, and everything you would expect.

However, though they’ve made some accessibility adaptations at the Sistine Chapel, the wheelchair accessible route goes against the flow of people. The sheer number of people packed into the space can make it an uncomfortable experience. Vatican Museum staff will escort disabled visitors, and one companion, to the Sistine Chapel, as the wheelchair accessible route is roped off.

Despite the difficulties, the Sistine Chapel is a must-see for everyone visiting Rome, so it’s worth facing up to the challenge.

Accessibility at St Peter’s Basilica

St Peter’s Basilica is Italy’s largest church and a symbol of Rome. It’s incredible, in both size and beauty, and it’s filled with history.

As you’d expect, the crowds are large, but a respectful quiet is (mostly) observed and it’s possible to find peaceful corners to take in the opulence of the interior.

Admission to the church is free for all, and disabled visitors are entitled to skip the queues. The wheelchair accessible entrance is in St Peter’s Square, to the right of the Basilica’s facade. This entrance has a lift that takes you from Square level to Portico level. Plus, there are accessible toilet facilities available.

The ceiling of St Peter's Basilica
St Peter’s Basilica is one of the iconic sights to see in Rome.

Traveling to Rome, now one of my favourite cities, was a pivotal moment for me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an anxious person, a worrier – overthinking every situation, always jumping to the worst-case scenario. The Rome trip wasn’t the first time I’d pushed my way out of my travel comfort zone, but for whatever reason, sitting on that hotel rooftop with ancient civilisation lit up beneath me, a belief cemented. The belief that, although travelling as a wheelchair user isn’t always easy, it’s always worth the effort.

Follow Carrie-Ann on Twitter.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. You can subscribe here.

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