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Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon is one of the great European capitals, packed with culture, fun and friendly people. Though they’re trying hard to make it more accessible, the geography of this “City of Seven Hills” can still make visiting difficult for people with mobility challenges.

One of the many hills the Lisbon is built on. Photo is taken from the street at the bottom of the hill looking up at the buildings.

Dating back to Roman times and later the centre of Portugal’s exploration and trading empire, Lisbon was built where the beautiful Tejo River meets the Atlantic Ocean. It has everything you look for in a European vacation though it sometimes flys a bit under the radar compared to more-touristed London, Paris and Rome.


Here you can find historic churches, castles and ruins, drink in the art in museums and on the street, and take some of the most beautiful urban vistas in the world. All this while eating exceptionally well at cheap (for Western Europe) prices.


It’s a special place for me, as the first place I ever visited in Europe. I came here for my high-school graduation trip. It was a great time, but not without its difficulties. Research and planning is always important for travelling with a disability, and it’s doubly important in this city, with all its hills and cobblestones.


Getting Around


Let’s get this out of the way: Lisbon is hilly. A lot of European cities, from Rome to Edinburgh are built on or around seven hills but Lisbon has much more pronounced inclines, many of them paved with slippery tiles, and that can make it tough for people using walkers and wheelchairs.



The good news is that the touristy hotspots are crammed close together in the Baixa, Lisbon’s downtown centre. This also happens to be the flattest parts of the city, spreading inland from the riverside, so getting around on wheels in these areas is relatively easy.


The other piece of good news is that cabs are cheap, and pretty much everywhere. Even if you opt to stay outside the downtown, getting a ride to the attractions there, or in one of the hillier areas, will usually only cost a few Euros. Even the ride in from the airport is only about 15 Euros, so short hops around the city are pretty cheap.


The city does have a certain number of fully accessible taxis for people who have trouble transferring out of their medical equipment. I’m able to get into a car pretty well and my trusty wheelchair/walker combo (Megatron) can fold into most trunks, so we just used regular cabs.


Lisbon does have a pretty extensive metro system, and while most of the newer stations are fully accessible, many in the older downtown sections are not. We also noticed some of the lifts at the accessible stops were out of order without warning, so we stuck to taxis.


If you want to use the metro, it’s best to study up on the accessible stops. Downtown the Rossio and Restaurants stations are good accessible access points as is the Cais do Sodré stop on the waterfront and Terreiro do Paço, Lisbon’s main square.


Kiera in front of a fountain in Rossio Square. The cobblestones have a wavey patterns.
Rossio Square

Historic Attractions


Lisbon is absolutely packed with history, and a great place to start is the Lisbon Story Centre Museum in Terreiro do Paço, the city’s massive riverside main square.


This was actually the first attraction we visited after leaving the airport, even before we checked in to our accommodation. It gives you a great historical base before visiting for all those castles, churches and museums you can see in Lisbon.


You’ll get a broad overview of the city’s history, from Roman times, centuries of Muslim influence, the age of sail and the massive earthquake of 1755.


The quake is one of the strongest to ever hit Europe and devastated the city in a way you can still see today. It was felt as far away as Finland with effects from the following tsunami felt in England.


Terreiro do Paço, also known as the Praça do Comércio, is also a great attraction by itself. This is where the royal palace once stood, before the earthquake destroyed it.


Kiera and mom in Praça do Comércio. A statue of a general on a horse is behind them, and a grand archway is in the distance. Lots of people are in the square.
Praça do Comércio

It was rebuilt as a public square and ringed by government offices with a statue of King Jose I (the guy on the horse) at the centre.


When we were there, this massive square was set up to show World Cup soccer games and you better believe the people came out. Just about everybody in town was decked out in Portugal jerseys, or their cousins across the Atlantic, Brazil.


The stretch of streets between Terreiro do Paço and Rossio square are heavily touristed, but worth a stroll. It’s mostly flat, and offers up great restaurants, bars and souvenir shopping (this was my mom's favourite spot).


Mom and I in Carmo Convent

There’s probably no better place to see the results of the earthquake than the Carmo Convent. It’s an amazing building, left open to the elements since the earthquake caved in the roof 250 years ago.


This is up in the hilly and chic Baixa-Chiado area, so transportation could be an issue. The pavement here can be slippery on the steep slopes so I wouldn’t recommend the walk for folks with mobility challenges. The good news is it’s only a short cab ride from the city centre and definitely worth the trip.


The Convent has a chair lift that can easily take you down to the floor of the church, but there is a step down from the city street to the doors, which could be difficult to navigate for anyone using a wheelchair. Once you are inside the church it becomes easier to get around the site.

The Castelo de São Jorge Lisbon’s hilltop castle is one of the oldest and most interesting sights in the city, but one of tougher to see with a mobility challenge. There’s only so much you can do with a place that’s been fortified in one way or another for 2,000 years.


The cobble stones can be uneven in places, and of course getting onto the ramparts isn’t really an option. You can get around most of the place on wheels though, with areas like the interpretive centre and most washrooms accessible.


It’s worth it for the views of the city alone.



With views like that, the castle is obviously at the top of the hill. It’s actually at the top of the oldest part of Lisbon, the Alfama, a twisty tangle of steep streets, stairs and old cobblestones. We didn’t even try to navigate this place with the chair, instead hopping in the nearest cab for a quick, and steep, climb up to the front gate.


If history is not for you you can visit the Lisbon Oceanarium. Anybody who knows our family knows we love to see the “world’s largest” anything, and this is the largest salt-water oceanarium in the world.


It’s a little outside the city centre, but completely worth it. It’s completely accessible, so bring whatever chair or walker you have and just enjoy it.

Kiera in the penguin exhibit at the Lisbon Aquarium

You’ll see lots of aquatic animals such as otters, penguins, fish and more underwater creatures. There are lots of animals that I can roll right up to the tank to get a good view .


If you are a boat person you may want to check out the boat tours on the Tejo River. It’s a great way to get a different look at the city. Our Yellow Boat tour took us to Belém, a great (and flat!) suburb that’s home to some of the city’s most iconic sights. It deserves a blogpost all it’s own.


Kiera oon the Yellow Boat in front of Belém Tower

I was there in the summer and can walk short distances with help, so didn’t have much trouble getting aboard, but depending on your ability you may want to check which tours suit your needs.


Accommodation


From hostels to five-star hotels, Lisbon has you covered. We stayed at an airBNB that wasn’t that great, with three or four steps between the main entrance and the elevator. We were also in the older Graça part of the city, which is close to all the main sights, but we underestimated how much of a challenge it would be navigating the hilly terrain.


If we were to do it again we would definitely try to get somewhere nearer the Baixa.

A lot of the main sites are all within easy walking distance in this area and it’s by far the flattest part of the city making it for people like me to get around.


Another option would be staying in the newer areas, like the flat Parque das Nações neighbourhood near the oceanarium, and cab or take the metro into the centre.


Always Eat The Seafood


The seafood is really fresh and tasty, and available almost everywhere. They have lots of different types from octopus salad and squid to fish soup. Cod is available all over the country and the Portuguese can cook it about a million different ways. If you’re not a seafood fan there are always plenty of other options on restaurant menus.


Portugal is seafood heaven.

For breakfast, we really recommend the great savory pastries you’ll see in bakery windows everywhere. They’re kind of like little meat pies and stuffed with whatever you can think of from chicken, to pork and of course, codfish.


For a great frozen treat you may want to try gelato. It’s like ice cream, but made with a lot more milk and buttery smooth. They have it in many different flavours. It’s a delicious frozen treat for you and your family and friends to enjoy.


A traditional non-alcoholic drink you should definitely try is Sumol. It’s a refreshing, slightly carbonated fruit drink, available in pineapple or orange flavour and sold at restaurants all over the country, including Lisbon.


Overall Lisbon is a lively, welcoming and friendly city. People often went out of their way to help me get around, and even if it’s not the most accessible city in the world, the people, the beauty and the history are really worth it. With a little help, and a lot of research, it can definitely be done.

Me and my parents overlooking Lisbon from the castle.

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Hazel Lucas
Hazel Lucas
24 de ago. de 2020

Wow, this was so wonderful to read. When the world is well again Kiera, I am definitely going to visit Lisbon, Portugal. I know you, your Mom and Devin had a great time and I thank you all for sharing this valuable information. Devin the pics are great!

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