This summer, I went to Chicago to visit family and explore the city, and I wanted to share my experiences navigating Chicago in my chair!
I’ve included accessibility ratings on each attraction, scoring them out of 10 on how accessible overall it was to me. Most of the time I travel with others, so that is factored into my rating, but if I know a certain attraction would not be possible on my own, I’ll add that in the rating section. For example, if I went somewhere that has a set of small stairs, that would dock it’s overall rating. However, it wouldn’t make a 0. I will note in the ratings that if I was alone, I would not be able to access it. A perfect 10 means that I had no issues, and would be able to access this attraction completely independently.
We started off the trip by going on an architecture tour! There are many companies that offer these tours, but we went with Wendella because I found good accessibility information on their website (https://www.wendellaboats.com/ada-accessibility/). Specifically, I did the Lake & River Architecture Tour, which is 90 minutes long. It was great, but I do have some important tips about this excursion!!
Tips & Tricks:
- call ahead before booking to make sure you book at the accessible dock
- arrive early
- get an employee to escort you to the loading area
More accessibility information is available on their website, but the information I found most helpful was that:
- The West Dock, west of the Wrigley Building, is accessible by elevator from Michigan Avenue.
- Wendella operates three tour boats with wheelchair lifts between decks, the only tour boats in Chicago with this accommodation.
I called the company before I booked my tour to figure out which tours were leaving from the accessible dock, which was reassuring. They were very helpful!
I recommend showing up early- maybe 45 minutes before the time your boat leaves the dock (I’m not exactly sure what time to recommend, because I did not show up early, and if you know me in real life, you know showing up early to things is not something I’m very good at!). There is a Wendella umbrella booth at the top of the stairs down to the river by the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue. I would go up to them and tell them which tour you’re on, and if you ask, they should be able to escort you to the dock. To get down to the West Dock at the river level (where you need to be to board), you’ll need an employee to open a locked door for you.
When we showed up for our tour, we went down the elevator by the Trump Hotel. Heads up: this elevator was really confusing. I didn’t understand the labelling of the buttons, and it took me several trips up and down to figure out how to get down to the river level. Once we finally figured out how to get down to the river level, we discovered the locked door I talked about earlier. We also showed up with like 5-10 minutes to go before our tour was scheduled to leave, which was a mistake.
We didn’t have time to track down a Wendella employee, so I ended up getting my cousins to help me down the stairs. My two cousins were able to help me back down the stairs while I held onto the handrail, down about 25 stairs on a curved staircase. They were not able to help me get back up, so their brother met up with us to help carry me up the stairs, while my cousins carried my chair up.
However, there are accessible ways to get on certain Wendella boats– if you plan your experience better than I did!!! I promise my experience does not have to be your experience!!
Once we got down the stairs, I got to wait in a special line with one person in order to board the boat first via a ramp. This ramp is the way everyone will board the boat. If you have more than 2 people in your party, you can save spots for the rest of your party because you will be the first one on the boat.
The seating on the boat was foldable chairs, so I was able to move one of those chairs so that I could stay in my wheelchair. They did not have a way to strap my chair down, like some buses and boats do, which was more than fine with me. The boat moves slowly, so as long as you have brakes on your chair that’ll be fine!
I really enjoyed my tour, once we were able to figure out the boarding situation! I definitely recommend it and hope if you take this tour, you can learn from my mistakes in order for the process to be a lot smoother!
My accessibility rating: 6.5/10 – Definitely doable if you’re alone, plan well ahead of time and find an employee to guide you. Once on the boat, I give it a 10/10, but need to dock points for my personal negative experience dealing with the elevator and locked door to the accessible entrance.
The Bean is an iconic attraction in Chicago, I definitely recommend it! I love going there when I visit. The area is accessible, but I always forget that the concrete squares are uneven, so keep an eye out so your casters don’t get stuck/you don’t trip! It’s not a huge deal, but it’s something I thought I should note.
My accessibility rating: 9.5/10 – docking a half point only for the uneven squares, which could be a hazard if you’re not aware.
CTA (Public Transportation)
I took the train only once on this trip, so I don’t have extensive experience with this to write about. I took an elevator up to the platform, and there was an attendant who laid down a ramp to help me close the gap between the platform and the train. It was a pretty small gap, so I think I would’ve been able to navigate the gap without the ramp. Some stops are accessible and have elevators, while others do not. Here is the website for the Transit System in Chicago, which has more information about it: https://www.transitchicago.com/accessibility/.
My accessibility rating: 8/10 – doable for me independently, on certain stops. Please note I had very limited experience with this system, and personally did not encounter any problems. However, I know that there are inaccessible stops, so I can not give it a perfect rating.
Lincoln Park Conservatory
This was one of my favorite places I went on this trip! I had never heard of it before, but found it online when researching things to do for this trip. The conservatory offers free admission, but you need to reserve tickets online in advance (I was able to get tickets in the morning, and we went that afternoon). Our only expense was parking! We parked in the parking lot of the conservatory. The conservatory had so many types of pretty plants and flowers, which were all so cool to see! The main area of the conservatory, called the Palm room, is the first place you enter. Unfortunately, this is the only part of the conservatory that is truly accessible. The other smaller rooms in the conservatory had steps to access them. I was able to go down the stairs backwards with the help of my cousins, who slowly pulled me down the steps while I held onto the handrail. The steps did curve, which added to the challenge, but we were still able to do it. I’d say one room had around 9 stairs, while a few of the others had a few less than that. To get back up the stairs, one lifted my chair and I from the front while another of my cousins lifted from the back. I still recommend visiting the Lincoln Park Conservatory even if the Palm room is the only room you can visit, since it is free. The Lincoln Park Zoo is right next to the conservatory, which is also free to visit.
My accessibility rating: 7/10 – While I was able to visit all of the conservatory with help, a sizable portion of it is only accessible by stairs.
Lincoln Park Zoo
We went to the zoo right after the conservatory. I did not run into any access issues here, and I enjoyed seeing the animals, especially the polar bear!
My accessibility rating: 10/10 – no problems for me!
Art Institute of Chicago
My favorite part of visiting the Art Institute was seeing the Obama Portraits, which are currently on national tour! Unfortunately, the Portraits are no longer at the Art Institute as of this posting (they left on August 15), but there are still many cool things to check out at the Art Institute! I loved the exhibit with real medieval armor and swords, including horse and child-sized pieces. The Art Institute was completely accessible to me. For parking, we parked in handicap parking at the Millenium Park Garage, across the street from the Art Institute.
My accessibility rating: 10/10 – no complaints! All parts of the museum that I tried to visit were accessible to me, there were accessible bathrooms, parking, and functioning elevators!
My cousins and I went down to the riverwalk for Art on the Mart, which is a nightly event on the riverwalk. To get down to the riverwalk, we went on the ramps, which zigzag across the stairs. Here is an article with photos and a good description.
I found this ramp ok overall. I love the aesthetics, but it is more complicated to use than a typical ramp. I worried about people coming up/down the steps, and not looking both ways before unknowingly crossing paths with me, since I’m lower to the ground, it was dark, and people don’t expect a wheelchair user to be coming across a set of stairs. I didn’t run into any problems, but it was on my mind. There also wasn’t any kind of barrier on the lower part of the ramp, so if someone had hit me, I could’ve gone tumbling down the stairs. The ramp was fairly narrow, so that was a slight concern I had as well, even though I never truly felt unsafe.
Once I navigated the ramp, I had no problems while on the Riverwalk! I had a great time watching Art on the Mart. Every night, projectors display photos and videos onto the Merchandise Mart, and it is truly incredible!
My accessibility rating: 8/10- I think the ramp design is kinda iffy, but the actual Riverwalk is great! I could’ve gone here independently but I’m glad I had someone there to navigate the ramp.
Food & Drink!
Chicago has many famous foods, as I’m sure you’re aware of. My favorite, and probably the most popular, is the deep dish pizza. Giordano’s is my favorite place for deep dish pizza! If you’re tight for time, I recommend ordering personal sized pizzas for your party, because they are quicker than ordering one larger pizza. There are many locations across the city and all the ones I’ve been to have been excellent! (https://giordanos.com)
My accessibility rating: 10/10 – The bathroom and entrances were accessible to me!
A new restaurant I tried on this trip that I will definitely be going back to is Farm Bar (https://www.farm-bar.com). I loved the cheese curds, and the Michigan “Harvest” Burger, which has sour cherry cider jam, caramelized onions, herbed goat cheese, and arugula. This restaurant does have a few stairs, and the entry is pretty narrow. I was able to get in with the help of my cousins, who picked me up in my chair from the front and back and lifted me up the stairs. There are a few tables out front, so that is an option depending on the weather. If I was going alone, I would likely call ahead to see if they could reserve a table outside for me.
My accessibility rating: 7/10- docking a few points for the stairs, as well as the bathroom. I personally didn’t have any problems, but the biggest stall is not very big. I had to transfer pretty much 180 degrees to the toilet, rather than approaching from the side/a narrower angle. I have a pretty small chair, and did not have much extra room at all. Obviously if I was eating outside, the bathroom would not have been accessible for me if I was not able to enter the restaurant, and eating outside is weather dependent, which in Chicago, would be pretty limiting depending on the time of year.
Starbucks Roastery Reserve
My cousins and I also went to the Starbucks Roastery Reserve downtown, which is the largest Starbucks in the world, with 5 stories! This was my second trip to this location, I went last time I was in Chicago in December 2019. We got breakfast at the cafe on the 2nd floor and it was really good!! (https://www.starbucksreserve.com/en-us/locations/chicago)
My accessibility rating: 10/10- no problems!
I love Chicago so much, and even with a few hiccups and design flaws, I had a great time!! I would definitely recommend visiting Chicago, if you’re in a wheelchair or not!