We loved San Francisco, but, purely because of it’s natural hilly nature, it is not the easiest city with a manual wheelchair however, it is an ‘aware’ city and they have an “Access San Francisco Guide”. You can order a free copy online. It is very extensive but for our 5 night stay we didn’t find it necessary. Great to see a city putting together such a great guide though!
We stayed at the wonderful Argonaut Hotel but I concede this was a very expensive hotel. What you can take away from our experience in San Francisco, particularly with a manual wheelchair, is to stay somewhere level! We could walk out the door and had the Fisherman’s Wharf restaurants, shops and Pier 39 within a short, level walk. This location suited us and it was lovely not to have to get in and out of the car with the wheelchair every time we went out to dinner or to look at the shops.
Our San Francisco Highlights
This is a fun way to see some of San Francisco. It is not a huge facts and figures tour. It is really unique and does include commentary plus singing! You tour in a big red shiny Mack fire engine, complete with original firemen’s jackets. Riding across the Golden Gate Bridge in an open top is really something. Add in some daggy but catchy tunes about the Golden Gate Bridge and you are really embracing your inner dag! If you are with kids this is a great compromise between a serious tour and something fun for the whole family. You won’t see the whole of San Francisco but you will go over the Golden Gate Bridge and on to Sausalito. There are lots of great opportunities for photos along the way and without windows the views are particularly spectacular. I do warn that on a windy day you need to rug up and you will be grateful for those cumbersome fire fighter jackets.
We had to lift the wheelchair into the fire engine and they tied it down with occy straps. It is a big step up. View the website, pictures of the engine should tell you whether you can manage the hike up into it.
Our kids listed this as the highlight of San Francisco and it was up there for the adults as well.
Take a look at the website and decide for yourself. Book ahead to avoid disappointment.
We did a day trip to Muir Woods and Sausalito which made for a great day out. Muir Woods is a national park filled with beautiful redwoods. We loved Muir Woods and found it a refreshing change of scenery. Very peaceful and accessible to wheelchairs. Check the website because they give more detail about the paths and the fact there are raised parts on the path due to tree roots etc. In our opinion it was very accessible and the main loop we did was easy walking.
Parking at Muir Woods – the parking lot was very full at Muir Woods but when you first turn into Muir Woods there is disabled (handicapped as it is known in US) to the right. This is definitely the place to park as long as you have a parking permit and the US agreement on your windscreen.
Sausalito can be reached by ferry or by driving over the Golden Gate Bridge and is very popular with energetic bike riders. Sausalito is a lovely seaside village. There are lots of boutique shops and restaurants. A lot of the shops are tricky with the wheelchair but I love the atmosphere and don’t mind window shopping. There is a great kids/games shop here and it has wide aisles which made it accessible. It’s called Games People Play
They have a fabulous range of books, boardgames and other things very attractive to kids.
We also have a favourite food stop here. It is simply called Hamburgers! It is a narrow store but easily identified by the queue that goes out the door and along the street. I first visited this place on a trip where I was accompanying a Garden Tour before children, so many, many years ago. We visited again this year and nothing has changed, still delicious! You can watch the Hamburgers being grilled over an open flame in the window on a rotating grill. It is quite something. It is so narrow I couldn’t take the wheelchair in here but if you are travelling with someone who can get the food and is patient enough to wait it’s worth it (in my opinion!)
If you buy their Hamburgers and chips take them down by the water and enjoy the view of the bay while eating these delicious burgers. I did feel a little guilty eating hamburgers and chips while watching all the enthusiastic bike riders who were obviously working off the fat thatI was eating! I managed to get over this guilt and enjoyed every mouthful!
Parking at Sausalito – there is a parking lot near the ferry terminal and opposite the shops. It has parking police patrolling regularly so make sure you have your parking permit displayed and US agreement otherwise pay and display! We asked the parking police on the day we were there and they assured us we were fine with the permit displayed but remember it.
The old Cable Cars that climb the steep hills of San Francisco are probably the second most identifiable thing about San Francisco and we were keen to ride them. We had a turn table (where the Cable Cars turn around) not far from our hotel and headed there to see if we could get on board with the wheelchair. These Cable Cars are old and are not made for wheelchairs. As I’ve previously mentioned our wheelchair does not fold and that often poses issues. We had to lift the wheelchair up onto the cable car and we could only fit on with my husband and my son riding on the outside with the brake operator. I don’t know whether every operator would be okay with this but we made sure we weren’t in the way and it was quite a ride. The wheelchair could not physically fit through the door into the cabin. If you have a folding wheelchair and can transfer this wouldn’t be as much of a problem. I think it is worth putting in some effort to have this experience. I definitely recommend getting on at one of the turn tables though because the cable cars become very full and it’s difficult to get on mid trip. Hyde and Powell was our favourite. There are great views of Alcatraz on the way up the hill on the way into Union Square.
It was cheaper to purchase an all day pass if you intend doing more than one trip. There are many transport passes available to purchase at the ticket booth or from the conductor. Their feasibility depends on how much public transport you intend to use. For our family with our wheelchair it was more a fun than functional way for us to get around San Francisco.
Vintage Street Cars – F-Line Trams
San Francisco has an amazing collection of historic streetcars, trolleys and trams from around the world (including Melbourne, Australia!). These old trams are accessible but not every stop is accessible so you need to check with the driver. There are 2 loading zones at each stop that are accessible one for peoplestand and wait for the tram (this is where the tram stops first) then there is a ramp where you stand if you have a wheelchair. The tram driver stops at the wheelchair ramp and flips out a ramp and you are on! It is so easy and a great example of a simple solution making public transport accessible. We were lucky to have a stop around the corner from our hotel and we used this to take us all the way into Union Square. It is a less exciting ride because it doesn’t tackle San Francisco’s steep hills but the kids still liked it. It was quite busy but we did get a seat.
CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
We spent nearly a whole day here. It has a great range of displays and we were keen to have a child friendly day after a full day of driving the previous day.
My favourite thing here was the rainforest walk. This gave us the opportunity to go from the base of the rainforest to the very top, seeing animals, butterflies and birds you would see in the different regions it covered. There is a lot to see at this museum with an aquarium, swamp and more.
There is a great food outlet there. We had taken our own lunch but the smells had me wishing I hadn’t been a cheap skate that day! We did save time on queuing for lunch I guess. There is a lovely outdoor garden area to have lunch in if it is a fine day.
We bought our tickets online because they offered a significant discount for pre-purchased tickets. I emailed them to find out if they would accept the Companion Card and they emailed back. I fortunately took the email with me as well as the Companion Card because the girl on the door checking tickets didn’t know this was accepted. I would suggest emailing ahead if you are planning to use your Companion Card.
JAPANESE TEA GARDENS
These gardens were a short walk from the California Academy of Sciences so we easily combined this into our day. The lady at the ticket booth was alarmed at us planning to go in with a wheelchair and didn’t charge us full admission because we would have access to it all. It was gorgeous inside with flowering azaleas all shaped beautifully and being cherry blossom season we had the pleasure of seeing those at their best too. It certainly wasn’t wheelchair accessible but my husband bumped our son over stepping stones in ponds and we got around (much to our son’s delight I might add!).
The nature of a Japanese garden means that it is designed with stepping stones and uneven rocks as paths etc. The garden would lose it’s authentic feel and its charm if it had ramps everywhere so it really can’t be helped that it is not entirely accessible. It is quite limiting as to what you can access so I would recommend anyone take this into consideration and make their own enquiries as to whether it is right for you.
There is much written about Lombard Street being the most crooked street in San Francisco or the world even but others say there are more crooked streets in San Francisco. What I will tell you is that we loved the experience of driving an extremely crooked street and it is definitely one of the most popular with tourists. It is fun to drive down, but be warned, due to it’s popularity we queued in our car for about 15 minutes to drive down the street.
It is quite a spectacle with people at the top and bottom taking photos, cars driving down, people walking up the footpath. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in the pretty houses either side of the street. They have spectacular views out to the bay but it is a bit of a circus with all the people walking up and down! The kids loved it!
The Painted Ladies
The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square are a row of beautiful Victorian houses that are meticulously restored and painted. They have featured in many movies, most recently The Five Year Engagement and were in the opening sequence of the 80’s show Full House. We were in the area and as fans of Full House we were keen to drive by.
Alcatraz is constantly on the lists of ‘must see’ attractions in San Francisco turning it into an incredibly popular attraction and making it necessary to book ahead. We booked before we left Australia and the day of our trip they were booked out for 4 days in advance. It would be very disappointing if it was something you really wanted to do and turned up on the day or a few days in advance to go on the trip to find it not possible. I had been to San Francisco twice before and hadn’t done this trip. My husband was keen to do it otherwise I probably wouldn’t have done it. We booked the first trip of the day because I figured it would be less crowded. It was worth the early start to see it without the crowds. There are cattle type grids for queuing at the ferry wharf but if you are travelling with a wheelchair you wait in a different area and you are boarded first. It is a quick trip across the bay and was the only time I was on the bay so I appreciated the trip for this reason alone.
When you get to the island there is a quick orientation talk and then the majority of people walk the steep walk to the top. If you have a wheelchair or any mobility issues there is a vehicle that takes you to the top. You do not have to transfer out of the wheelchair for this trip.
There is a self guided audio tour which you can do at your own pace. We didn’t have any problems with the wheelchair at Alcatraz. This wasn’t my favourite attraction but the audio tour is excellent and is done by ex inmates of the gaol so is very heartfelt. I can’t imagine how spooky the night tour would be. Definitely not for the faint hearted I’d say.
No food or drink is allowed on Alcatraz so have a cuppa on the ferry on the way over if you’ve missed your morning kick start! There are toilet facilities at the base of Alcatraz where you have your orientation talk.
Coit Tower sits up high on Telegraph Hill and was built with money left to the city of San Francisco by Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Lillie wanted the city to build something “for the purpose of adding beauty to the city I have always loved”. I found the story of Lillie Hitchcock Coit quite fascinating. She was certainly a lady ahead of her time. Coit Tower is accessible with a specific wheelchair entrance. The shop where they sell the entrance tickets is really tiny and a bit difficult to navigate with a wheelchair. My husband got the tickets (advise them that you have a wheelchair when you purchase the tickets) while we waited outside the shop admiring the murals on the walls of this lower level.
The lift to the top is very small but fine with the wheelchair. Someone from the shop needs to accompany you to the top in the lift to open the door to the wheelchair accessible level. My daughter and husband climbed the stairs to the next level up from where the lift stopped and apparently had a view through glass. My son and I were let out a door to a open air level. We were then locked out there and needed to knock on the window to be let back in.
Don’t let any of that information stop you though as it is a great view of San Francisco and the bay. If you want to stay together as a family I would say so! I stupidly thought we’d all meet up somehow, a little naive seeing they went upstairs but I was just going with the lady who was directing me.
I really enjoyed reading the story of Lillie Hitchcock Coit on the boards there, seeing the murals on the lower level and the view. I would have liked to enjoy it as a family but I am sure that is possible if you know what to expect, thus this long winded explanation!