How to… Get Around Madrid in a Wheelchair

Whilst all other posts in this blog are generally only of interest to pals and creepers (stats tell all), I thought that I should take advantage of the opportunity that a visit by some friends has just afforded me: to talk about what it is like trying to get around in Madrid with a wheelchair user.

I suggest to you at this point two options:

  1. For high-jinks and anecdotes as well as facts on the topic in question, read on!
  2. If you have found this page are fed up already and just want the information you came looking for, skip to the end where I’ll do a list of salient points. But you’ll be missing out on fripperies!

Our inventory for the long weekend was as follows:

  • This helpful map of the Madrid Metro which shows which stops are accessible, marked with a little wheelchair symbol, and which are “nightmare stops”, marked, curiously, with a skull-and-crossbones (plundering marauders welcome, wheelchair users not);
  • A couple of casual googlings of “wheelchair madrid”; and
  • Cautious optimism.

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Day 1

Anybody who has clicked on the accessible Metro map by now has realised an important thing: if you want to go somewhere anywhere near the middle of Madrid, you’re gonna have a bad time. The more modern, larger stations surrounding the city centre are generally all fitted out with lifts, but the closer you get to the bright lights of the Schweppes Tower, the further you get from mobility.

As I was busy until late that evening, Ruairidh took charge of heading to the airport and accompanying Sam to his hotel, checking him in, and heading into town. I’ll pass the reins to him for a momento to do a guest post-within-a-post from here:

Ruairidh: “I left work and took the C1 from Nuevos Ministerios as the metro was shut for improvement works.  The C1 was delayed for some reason but it was a simple ride to T4 at the airport. From there, I headed upstairs and got the free transfer bus, checking it was accessible for the way back.

I met Sam at the arrivals gate – he was also running late as it seems Madrid airport staff had forgotten that they needed to help him disembark. Successfully on solid ground, we then went to catch the transfer.
The driver was helpful, asking a woman to move out of the wheelchair space and pulled down the ramp for him. It was reasonably steep but we got up without issues and quickly headed to T1. At the end the driver forgot to pull out the ramp so I just did it. Probably not great for solo travellers, particularly if you don’t speak Spanish.
We then got the lift to the train station and I checked with the staff about access. The train accommodated wheelchairs and so we headed to Pirámides where Sam’s hotel was (the Holiday Inn right beside the station). This had its own set of issues as, despite specifically requesting an accessible room, the staff didn’t seem to be aware of this and so had provided a normal one. We went and spoke with reception who changed it to a more suitable room. Despite this, none of the hotel rooms appeared to have an accessible shower and I think it’s quite disingenuous to say that you’re accessible for guests when they don’t have access to basic amenities. A bit more detail should be provided…
We then took the metro up to Ópera to meet Maeve. This was a reasonably easy journey but even accessible metros can be a little challenging for wheelchair users. For instance, the ticket barriers only had a gate for wheelchairs and it had to be accessed by pressing an intercom button. If you didn’t speak Spanish then you may struggle with this. Likewise with the train entrance, it is a little bit of work to get into the train and isn’t a seamless transition between platform and carriage.
Finally we arrived into Ópera station and met Maeve in restaurant close by called Bistro de Oriente. Maeve had tried several restaurants, none of which were accessible. She had asked the staff here and was assured it was wheelchair friendly, before settling down to order a cheeseboard and welcome us to Madrid.
Spoiler alert – the toilets were not accessible at all. The staff then directed us to a nearby hotel who informed me that all their toilets were down about three flights of stairs. We then went to Foster Hollywood, who also had their toilets downstairs.
Growing slightly desperate – literally as well as figuratively – we went to a nearby McDonald’s who also weren’t accessible but told us that their other branch about a kilometre away was. Before that we checked with a Burger King which actually had a series of stairs to navigate before you can even enter the restaurant.
Racing up towards Callao we hit Gran Via and finally made it to McDonald’s. The security guard produced a key for the toilet and I suspect we made it just in time.
We then returned to Maeve who had by then eaten all of the cheeseboard.”

Here’s the real kicker: when they returned to the square Ópera station is in (Plaza de Isabel II), it turns out that there is a big old allegedly accessible toilet cubicle right on the square. Gah.

On the way home, we went from Ópera to Pirámides on the metro, which was entirely accessible albeit the lifts were like something from The Walking Dead and smelt like public toilets (which, when you think about it after all that hassle trying to find public toilets, was kind of rubbing it in).

Day 2

After last night’s escapades, I decided that perhaps it was time to do a little more research, and came across this guide here. It looks to be a couple of years old but has some really useful information in it about toilets in particular, so I took down plenty of notes.

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The IT Crowd
After work I met Sam, accompanied by Tom and Kian (who Storm Doris had delayed and forced them to stay in Gatwick Airport’s illustrious “Airport Inn”), at Pirámides, right by Sam’s hotel. We then decided to head into the centre via the Circanías train from Pirámides to Atocha Renfe. I’ve got at the bottom a list of Circanías stations which have (i) both accessible trains (i.e. they have an accessible door roughly in the middle of the train with an extending ramp, and wheelchair space, and an accessible toilet, no less), and accessible stations, and (ii) those which are just accessible stations.

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Atocha Station
Disembarking at Atocha Renfe, we walked the five minutes to the Reina Sofía art gallery to spend a happy few hours with Dalí, Picasso, Miró and the rest of the gang. The museum is totally accessible (and has the best glass lifts), and we all got in for free (two students and a wheelchair user plus “carer”. She got very heavy handed and checked everybody’s ID a hundred times, so if you have lots of cards with the wheelchair symbol on it then I’d bring them to flash around convincingly). It’s best to enter through the back entrance (Sabatini) instead of the front, but the front is fine if you’re willing to do a bit of circling to find flat bits on the Plaza in front of the gallery.

We had a coffee and cake break at the gallery’s cafe/bar, Restaurante Arzábal, by the Sabatini Entrance; it had classically terrible Spanish service but is super cool inside and has what may have been the best toilets of the trip, big enough that you could do wheelies in there in your wheelchair if you really wanted to.

The next challenge came in debating how to get to the bar I’d reserved a table at in La Latina. After a lot of map pointing and devising strategies, Stannis from Game of Thrones-style, we decided to get a taxi so we’d have enough time to see Picasso’s Guernica. I tried to call a taxi number I’d found in that guide I looked at that morning (Eurotaxi), and seemingly booked a large taxi for five people to come and collect us from the entrance.

Of course, as happens when it all seems too good to be true, the taxi couldn’t seem to find us, despite calling me a bunch and me trying to explain. So we tried to hail a normal one. “They won’t be able to stop and pull in here, there’s just no space” we cried, “and will they be able to fit the wheelchair in the boot?” Our driver though, as it happened, was totally up for it. He just pulled right onto the pavement (oh Lord) and held up the entire street whilst we tried to disassemble Sam’s chair and load it into the boot. When we arrived he also was really keen to help us get it all back together again, and really did everything he could to make our lives easier, which was great.

I had chosen La China Mandarina in La Latina (try saying that five times faster), as it boasts accessible toilets, a great menu, and a top tea selection for the tea-totallers (I will not apologise for the pun).

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Overwhelmed
We spent the evening there, eating and drinking and making merry (joined by some friends I have managed to make here, just to show off that I still have the ability to make new friends…) and they even lent us candles plates for the birthday cake Ruairidh managed to find at 11pm to surprise Tom with. You can’t get better than that.

Day 3

I had my first VIPS experience on my maiden voyage to Madrid back in 2012, visiting my friend Sophia whose American adolescence spent eating pancakes moved her to take me for brunch at Spain’s take on what Brits might know as Waterstones crossed with a diner. The VIPS Group in Spain owns Starbucks and a bunch of other things, and their restaurants are kind of American diner-style, good value, and, most importantly, with big old toilets. (As it’s a chain it’s got a higher probability of being accessible, although by word of warning I did call up the VIPS on Callao prior to coming to Pirámides and they said that their branch was not accessible, so there you go.)

For that reason it came to mind to head there for brunch today, and so that’s where we headed after picking Sam up from his hotel at Pirámides. Ruairidh’s brother Teddy had arrived late last night and came to join us in enough time to order massive things of coffee and Eggs Benedict and pancakes and milkshakes and so on.

Here are us all about to eat our enormous breakfast, but this is an image of what VIPS restaurants look like in case you were interested from my mediocre description:

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The sun in the sky and a spring in our step/wheels, we decided to head to the Retiro Park by following the same steps as we had done yesterday: the Circanías train from Pirámides to Atocha Renfe. We decided to have a quick look at the famous hoard (not the scientific term) of terrapins who live in the station while we were there. I asked a security guard where I could find them, but realised too late that I didn’t know the Spanish word for terrapin, and so had to describe them as “little watery turtles”. He knew what I meant. I have no idea why Atocha train station is chock a block with a ton of plants and a thousand terrapins, but it is and it’s awesome:

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Just a few of the gagillion terrapins
We ended up at the Prado Museum before too long, but the queue was massive and we decided to come back with more time tomorrow, so set off to enjoy the rest of the sunshine with a drink in hand. (Not so relevant to accessibility, but if you’re on a relaxed schedule on your visit to Madrid then you can get into the Prado for free if you wait til the last two hours of every day. And that’s a good price.)

To whet our whistles, we headed to a holiday classic: Copas Rotas. It’s right beside the Reina Sofía, and every drink is 1 Euro. Yep, 1 Euro. Qué sí qué sí. We sat outside in the sun and watched the world go by, which on that afternoon happened to be a big Communist rally. The toilets there are massively inaccessible, but it’s right beside a Starbucks, which is, and a McDonald’s across the road on Calle de Atocha.

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I had planned ahead to book somewhere to eat tonight, so by 8pm after a relaxed walk from Atocha to Malasaña, we arrived at Slowmex. I can’t recommend them enough on the basis of the food and drinks, and how helpful they were in the arrangements, especially on a busy Saturday night. As you may have guessed, it’s a Mexican restaurant, and it’s run by an Irishman called Marc. We all got massive burritos, and Tom and Ruairidh and I spent a good long time gazing around to choose from their awesome craft beer selection too.

And the question you all wanted to know the answer to? Yes, they have wonderfully accessible toilets!

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Delicious success
It was lucky that I was feeling so proud of myself for how well the meal arrangements had gone, as I couldn’t quite take off my organisation hat yet. Sam had had to move to a different hotel for that night, and we decided to check him in before it got super super late so that I could have a scrap with them if the room wasn’t accessible. There followed a bit of a saga to get there, whereby Cabify wasn’t cooperating with me, and all of the taxi companies I called couldn’t find us a big enough taxi at that time (or maybe I had been blacklisted by everybody because of the incident yesterday, haha). We decided to chance it outside, and sure enough, within five minutes we had hailed a cab to take at least four of us to the hotel, with the other two in a separate taxi (suckers). Just like our pal from yesterday, this taxi driver was very happy to help Sam into the car and to get the wheelchair into the back.

Sam’s new digs were right by the river in a hotel called NH Ribera del Manzanares. The Río Manzanares is Madrid’s river, and so the hotel was right beside it and super close to the Vincente Calderón football stadium, (so a good shout for any Atlético fans, regardless of whether or not you’re a wheelchair user). I never got my scrap about the room, because although we definitely wouldn’t call it an “accessible room”, it was manageable. It had a big-ass bed and enough room to get around, but the bathroom was pretty much a regular bathroom with a little chair chucked in the shower. It did have a telephone right beside the toilet though, so you could either call for help/for a chat to pass the time.

The story until the end of today is not relevant at all to wheelchair accessibility, but what happened then was that we were told that the hotel bar was closed and room service had finished. I don’t stay in many hotels, I will admit, but I thought that the whole point of having hotel bars and room service is that when you are a businessperson and your flight arrives in at midnight and you head to a hotel with your sad Samsonite and yesterday’s copy of The Financial Times you can order a cheeseburger and cry into a gin & tonic. But apparently not in this hotel.

So Tom and I took it upon ourselves to go on another adventure. We headed out to see if we could find any kind of bar, or hell, a service station for something to take out, and googled the area at the same time. I paraphrase, but one enthusiast of the Vincente Calderón stadium lamented that the zone is “desolate“. Not a great start. We came across a dodge-looking bar, which lowered its grating as we walked past it. It still had people inside it so we had to assume it was a Local Bar for Local People… The only other place we could see was a Burger King. We went in and tried to rationalise that it wasn’t scummy to buy beer to take away from a Burger King, if we bought chips at the same time. The lady said that was sorry, but we couldn’t buy beer to take away. We were sorry too. Beerless, chipless, and hopeless, the only other place in the vicinity which according to Maps was open was somewhere called Bar Trivial. “I’ll look on the website to see if it looks nice,” I said. Bar Trivial is a sex club, and I won’t affront you here with which particular themed night of the week it was.

We returned empty-handed.

Day 4

Feeling like big ballerz who had conquered this city, we set off to meet Sam at Pirámides once more to all head together to Atocha (we had this down) – but not before another massive VIPS breakfast: same time, same place. It was the easiest option seeing as it was right there and we knew it was good value and had the all-important toilets.

It was sunny and warm, and unlike yesterday, the Prado had no queue! And out of six of us, only two people had to pay to get in due to our potent cocktail of students and “carers”. The step-free entrance is the San Jeronimo door to the left of the main entrance, and it takes you into the modern annex where the café and shop are. I am happy to report that every single part of the Prado was accessible for us – apart from maybe some of the heavier Goyas (haha). Adrián joined us as well to expound on the masterpieces and tell us who everybody was in the portraits, and if I wouldn’t irritate everybody for yet more irrelevancy, I would tell you  all about our favourite paintings and how long we spent there and how amazing it was.

But, as Hipporates said, “art is long and life is short“, so continue we must. Sam’s flight was approaching, and when choosing between the bus and our faithful friend, the train. We went for the bus, which departs from outside Atocha train station, takes you to either Terminals 1, 2 and 3, or Terminal 4, and it costs 5 Euros cash-money. (Well, it’s supposed to cost that, but the driver just let Sam and Teddy on the middle door with the access ramp and didn’t bother charging them, so what can you do!)

(At the time of writing, the Metro Line 8 is shut until April 2017 for works, but once it’s operating again you could take it from the beginning at Nuevos Ministerios all the way to Terminals 1, 2 and 3, or to Terminal 4, which are all accessible stations. The trains on Line 8 are the big modern ones so should all be wheelchair manageable. And after the works, they may be even better.)

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Sam’s verdict of the weekend:

“Thank you hosts for putting up with my wheeling ways and an excellent plethora of terrapins, toilets and triptychs!”

To conclude – what you need to know:

  • The main issue for eating and drinking out is not getting into places, but the lack of accessible toilets. So many in the centre of Madrid are just up or down a ton of stairs. Call ahead if you can to ask.
  • Don’t assume all chains and fast food places will have accessible toilets – many do, but not all. Sam’s top accessible toilet choices for the centre are:

(i) Starbucks beside the Reina Sofía (or if you’re closer to Calle de Atocha itself, the McDonald’s is acessible).

(ii) Restaurante Arzábal by the Edificio Sabatini entrance to the Reina Sofía, which you can get into even if you aren’t visiting the museum.

(iii) The beloved VIPS chain (although not all – call ahead if you can).

  • The ‘Golden Triangle’ of art galleries (i.e. the Prado, Reina Sofía and Thyssen-Bournemizza) are all accessible for a wheelchair user. Art-lovers rejoice.
  • Retiro Park is accessible, as long as you don’t mind hills (depending on your route).
  • Particularly at holiday periods, Madrid gets busy. Factor in time (and be patient) when trying to get places, in particular at busy thoroughfares (I’m talking Puerta del SolCalle del Arenal, Calle Fuencarral, Gran Vía, Calle de Preciados, that sort of thing).
  • Try to call hotels before booking or showing up to discuss your requirements.
  • I’ve never hired a car in Madrid, but in some ways it could alleviate your problems of public transport. That said, driving around or trying to park in the centre of Madrid looks like a great way to be stressed out of your face.
  • The bus is accessible from the middle doors. And speaking of travel…

Circanías key (I’ve stuck to central stations, but check out the map for the comprehensive list):

Accessible stations and accessible trains (i.e. with an accessible door in the middle of the train)

  • Atocha Renfe
  • Pirámides
  • Méndez Álvaro
  • Nuevos Ministerios
  • Chamartín
  • Príncipe Pío

Just accessible stations:

  • Sol
  • Airport T4

Accessible Metro stops:

  • Right in the centre: Ópera, Callao and Atocha Renfe (not Atocha).Sol can kiss my erse.
  • Also central:Goya, Lavapiés, Príncipe Pío, and Iglesia.
  • Despite all of this, the Metro really isn’t that easy to use if you are unaccompanied in a wheelchair. There are too many stupid gaps between trains and platforms and it can get super busy, especially during commuter times. I would say that the Circanías and the bus might be easier.

Accessible public toilets not in restaurants:

  • Plaza de Isabel II, right by Ópera metro.
  • In Retiro Park, there’s an accessible toilet in the little Reina Sofía gallery annexe opposite the Palacio de Cristal.
  • … if you know any more, please let me know! Hell, there are hardly any public toilets in Madrid for non-wheelchair users, so I don’t know why I’m surprised.

In my opinion, there is not as much in place for wheelchair users in Madrid as are is in say, the UK; but you shouldn’t be put off visiting Madrid at all as long as you’re happy to do a bit of planning beforehand to make your life easier. You might not be able to be mega spontaneous because of the lack of accessible toilets in many bars and restaurants, and the variation in Metro and train stations. You might want to avoid Puerta del Sol and similar spots in the middle of a Saturday afternoon (…or maybe at all). However, everybody we came across was accommodating and helpful, which makes a huge difference.

Enjoy your time wheeling around Madrid! ♿️

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