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London: Going In Blind

London, capital of the UK, is one of the great world cities. But is it accessible for disabled people and, in particular, blind and visually impaired visitors? Tony Giles tells us all.

I use a long white cane and have visited London many times. It’s a fascinating place, with history, lively cafes and bars, plenty of shopping areas and diverse entertainment. Some, but not all, of it is accessible for visitors with disabilities. The green spaces of Hyde Park, Regents Park, Green Park and Richmond Park are free to visit and have easy access, with gravel trails and paths to follow for any cane or guide dog user.

But if you’re looking to truly immerse yourself in the history and culture of this world city, you need to head to the museums.

Must-visit London museums

Many of London’s fascinating museums are free and several offer tactile audio guides, like the British Museum near Russell Square and the Imperial War Museum near Elephant & Castle underground station. For history buffs, The Tower of London and Tower Bridge are a must. The Tower of London has guided tours, an efficient audio guide and offers a basic tactile map of the complex.

Whilst these attractions are best explored with a companion, they can be visited independently, as I did. If given notice, staff are willing to help.

Tony Giles holding his long white cane in front of an archway on a cobblestone path at the Tower of London
The Tower of London is a must-visit for history buffs, and can be visited independently by travellers who are blind or who have low vision.

Last November, I visited the Museum of London, a 5-8 minute walk from Barbican or St Paul’s Underground stations. The museum’s entrance is located on a pedestrian high walk which is reachable by stairs, escalators or lifts. The museum is free and a personal guide for visitors with disabilities can be arranged in advance (contact them via email). They will help you explore and explain some of the museum’s many objects and galleries. Some objects can be touched, to expand the sensory experience.

More to discover in London

St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey both have outstanding audio guides and helpful staff. Both these historic, religious monuments are steeped in history and personal favourites of mine as a blind tourist. St Paul’s Cathedral tactile audio guide even gives directional instructions to each attraction within the church. 

Other accessible London highlights are pedestrianised Trafalgar Square, with its huge fountains and Nelson’s Column to a famous British sea Admiral. The four lion statues guarding it can just be touched!

Tony Giles in profile reaching up to touch the base of one of the Lion statues in Trafalgar Square
If you can reach, you can touch one of the famous Lion statue guards at Trafalgar Square.

Obviously, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace are also must-visits. Buckingham Palace is only open between July-October and on selected dates, so try to make sure your visit coincides if you want to go inside. I also recommend visiting the Royal MEWS at Buckingham Palace. It’s a working stable, and it houses historic Royal carriages. Audio guides are available.

Guided tours of the Houses of Parliament, located inside the Palace of Westminster, are offered in summer. The free option takes 75 minutes, whilst the paid tour lasts 90 minutes. Tickets must be booked in advance. Tours are given in other languages on set dates.

Riding the tube

Although London is a vast city, the central area is mostly walkable, and many pavements are navigable with a cane or guide dog. I usually use the ‘Tube’ to travel around as it stops at or near most major landmarks. Nearly all Tube trains announce stops and usually offer added information like nearby attractions.

However, visitors need to pay close attention: not all Tube stations are equally accessible. Many have lots of steps and the Tube itself is complex. You can ask underground staff for assistance down to the platform, onto the train and arrange to be met at your destination or get help changing trains. The assistance is free and efficient, especially during non-rush hours. Some of the newer stations now have step-free access and the Tube announcements usually mention this. The London Underground website also indicates which stations are designated as accessible.

Some Tube stations have Braille on their ticket machines and staff can help travellers using them. It’s best to buy an Oyster card if using London public transport for an extended period. You buy a card and load money onto it and simply tap it at the tube station barrier or near one of the doors on a bus.

A selfie of Tony Giles and his friend Tram smiling, seated in a carriage on the London Underground 'Tube'
The accessibility of the Tube varies, but friends like Tram (pictured) and staff are happy to help.

London hot tips

In general, people in London are very helpful in offering directions to destinations and help lost tourists, disabled or not.

The majority of London’s pedestrian (Pelican) crossings have audio beeping signals and/or a tactile rotating knob under the push button unit that spins when the light becomes green to tell people to cross. Most Pelican crossings also have tactile bumps on the pavement by the audio crossing, notifying blind-visually impaired people they are at a pedestrian crossing.

I’d recommend taking a relaxing boat ride along the River Thames. Several offer commentary and can be found at various piers along the river including Millbank Pier, Westminster Pier, London Eye Pier, and Bankside Pier.

Also, try a ‘Duck’ Tour! Hop on a bus dressed as a duck for a land and river tour of London’s main sights on a fun and hilarious guided 70-minute adventure. It’s great fun and the commentary is excellent. The buses have few steps, so contact organisers via their website before booking if you want to ensure the vehicle and experience will suit your needs.

Tony Giles standing beside the River Thames with a view finder and landmarks behind him, holding a copy of his book called Seeing The World My Way
Tony has written a book about his adventures as a blind traveller called Seeing The World My Way.

Follow more of Tony’s adventures via his website.

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

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