There is something magical about Istanbul. Nothing is impossible. The hills should mean that using a wheelchair is difficult. So should the narrow roads, crowded trams, bazaars packed with people … But it’s not. Well, it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.
Using a wheelchair in Istanbul is challenging, but can be fun.
The trams are accessible and are free for people in wheelchairs. But accessing a tram can be intimidating. The first time I went to board a tram I backed off because the carriage I was near seemed full – then I watched as at least a dozen people squeezed in past me. The next tram came by a few minutes later (Istanbul trams are very frequent and T1 will take you just about everywhere you want to go), I told my husband to stay close because, come what may, I was going to get on that tram! I gripped my rims, moved with the flow of people into a carriage already seemingly full, and magically, there was space for me, and everyone else too. I don’t know how it happens, but there’s always room for one more. My next problem, I thought, was going to be getting off because I’m stuck in the middle of a crowd of people. But no, a few “pardon, pardon” and again, magically space appears for me to wheel through.
The thing to do in Istanbul is to confidently take your space.
Footpaths disappear or are blocked by cars, so wheel on the road. Best is to wheel in the middle if the road. When a car approaches from behind you’ll hear a small toot- the driver is simply letting you know that he’s there (and most drivers are men) and at the next available opportunity he would like you to move to the side to let him through. No hurry. My husband was a bit wary of doing this at first, but it’s fine. Roads are very narrow and often one way, but one lane roads become two lanes and can go both ways. Two lames become three … No one seems to care.
Topkapi Palace has ramps that are well signposted and are usable. Not having to queue means that you don’t wait hours, literally for the main attraction, the treasury. The harem is a little difficult to access by wheelchair because there are one or two steps at every turn. I used my crutches to walk around, and a strong helper would be needed to help negotiate the few steps.
The Archaeological Museum has a stair climber and is completely accessible.
The Blue Mosque has it’s own wheelchair that a wheelchair user must transfer into because nothing that touches the ground can touch the carpeted area. I preferred to walk with my crutches because of the crowds in the tourist mosques, and to get close to the art. To do this I wheeled to the outside carpeted area, took my shoes off and placed my feet on the carpet. Usually I can stand up on my own but because of the confined space I needed my husband to lift me to standing. My crutches were ok in this mosque. I did not find another mosque that had a wheelchair to use inside, so it’s likely that the Blue Mosque is the only mosque that a wheelchair user may be able to visit. The Hagia Sofya is a museum so wheelchairs here are fine.
If you can walk with crutches you will be able to visit most mosques. All the usual customs must be observed, head scarves, long sleeves, long pants or skirt for women, covered shoulders and long pants for men.
If you need to wear shoes to walk, I suggest visiting the Dolmabalche Palace first, grabbing some spare plastic elasticised shoe bags, and put these over your shoes before stepping onto the carpeted area. Grab a few more to put over your crutch tips in case you are asked not to put your crutches on the carpet. I approached wearing appropriate clothing, wheeled up and immediately began unlacing my shoes and indicating that my wheelchair would be staying outside. I always asked for an ok from whoever seemed in charge before I went inside or as soon as i was inside) some mosques had security guards, some had men who were making sure that women were dressed appropriately, most had someone hanging around inside or outside).
At the Dolmabalche Palace only the bottom floor is accessible to wheelchairs and you will need to go in a separate entrance. You will need to approach a security guard. The palace can only be seen as part of a guided tour. The gardens are lovely, and there is a beautiful view over the sea. In a wheelchair you won’t get to see the best bits of the palace but remember its free! If you can walk with crutches go on a guided tour. I walk very slowly but the my guide was very patient and the staff did everything to cut corners.
I went on a cruise of the Bosphorus and the crew and leader were incredibly helpful. They were prepared to lift me in my wheelchair over the bow onto the wharf if I wanted … And because I wanted to use my crutches they just about lifted me on and off. They realised immediately that my left foot drags and one or other invariably held ropes down for me. They were very observant and cottoned on quickly to how they could help. The leader assigned a crew member to me when we went ashore near the fortress so that I could go as far as possible.
The streets are much steeper on the Taksim side. We tried to wheel/ walk up one street in attempt to get to the Galata Tower. I never give up, but I finally conceded that we needed a taxi to get there. The taxis are quite cheap, but be sure to ask the driver how much it will cost to get to your destination before you get in the taxi. Even though the taxis have meters, the drivers turn them off. We got some pretty good deals and got to see some really interesting back streets, because once you’ve agreed a price the driver will go the quickest way possible. There are near misses, sharp corners and squalid streets but just go with it! If the taxi doesn’t look big enough to fit your wheelchair, remember that everything fits everywhere in Istanbul!
And everyone wants to help. We were wheeling down the street that was too steep to wheel up, and I say we, because I was using my gloves to slow the wheels and Peter was holding the chair, when we encountered steps. Some nearby workmen gesticulated wildly that they wanted to carry me in my wheelchair down the steps, and when I chose to use my crutches, one burly guy insisted on carrying the chair down and waiting with it til I got down.
It seems that people in Istanbul love a trier!
Finding toilets can be a problem. There are accessible toilets at the New Mosque near the Spice Bazaar, at the Tokapi Palace, and at the Archaeological Museum. There are usually toilets near mosques but these are not usually accessible, have steps and may not be western style. Water is not clean so if you need to use catheters I suggest you use small disposable ones and lots of hand sanitiser.