On a roll: Accessible Jerusalem

Today, many of Jerusalem’s amazing sites are accessible to those using wheelchair mobility.

THE BIBLE Lands Museum’s many stairs may be avoided by taking the elevator, which stops at each level. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE BIBLE Lands Museum’s many stairs may be avoided by taking the elevator, which stops at each level.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jerusalem is a city of hills and stone. At first thought, this combination might spook some wheelchair users, but it shouldn’t.
Today, many of Jerusalem’s amazing sites are accessible to those using wheelchair mobility.
Since the spring of 2019, several kilometers of streets in the Old City’s Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters have been made accessible to wheelchair users. Admittedly, some ramps had been built even earlier, but the good news is that the project appears to be continuing. One store owner in the Christian Quarter pointed out ramps that were built in early September. The addition of ramps and hand rails has made passage much easier than previously.
A free app called Accessible JLM-Old City (accessible-roads.com) has been developed that shows accessible routes to various sites in the four quarters (including the Jewish Quarter). The app is designed to give the user the fastest accessible way to get from point A to point B, or even to plot out visits to various tourist sites.
One established accessible route runs from the Jaffa Gate to the New Gate, leading to either the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or to the Western Wall Plaza or both. (Unfortunately, due to renovations, the impressive Western Wall tunnels are temporarily not wheelchair-accessible. It is not clear when wheelchair users will again be able to visit. Call [02] 627-1333 for updates.) Moreover, it outlines partial access to David and Sha’ar HaShalselet Streets. Another accessible route, the Cardo route, extends from Zion Gate to Damascus Gate.
Bear in mind that some quarters in the Old City have more human traffic than others. It seems, for example, that the Christian and Armenian Quarters are less crowded than the Muslim Quarter. Of course, some will say the hustle and bustle has its own charm.
Note: The passage from Zion Gate down to the entrance to the Western Wall Plaza entrance is fairly steep. One way to deal with this is to purchase tickets for the accessible “Old City Train” from Jaffa Gate to the Western Wall (oldcitytrain.co.il). Along the way, listen to the audio tour, which is available in nine languages.
Some Old City sites need special consideration, as they are housed in ancient structures. For example, the historic Temple Mount area has ramps installed in various places, although apparently there are still places where assistance will be required to mount or descend steps. Another, the Tower of David Museum (tod.org.il), is located in an ancient citadel. If one has limited vacation time, instead of spending it negotiating all the museum’s exhibition rooms, it might be more expedient (while remaining both enjoyable and educational) to view Jerusalem’s long history at the museum’s Night Spectacular show.
One family visiting the Old City from France said family members took turns pushing a relative in a manual wheelchair. They explained that wherever they encountered stairs, they just looked for another street without stairs. They visited the different quarters and likewise went up to the Temple Mount without problem. While acknowledging that parts of the Old City are hilly, they found local people to be helpful.
They noted that Jerusalem was easier to negotiate than parts of France. Another visitor, a young adult female who was studying in the Jewish Quarter, noted that she could not say if travel in other quarters was easier or harder, but that the Jewish Quarter was challenging, even in her motorized wheelchair.
THE LARGE, must-see museums of Jerusalem’s new city are relatively accessible. Most of the Israel Museum may be reached by sidewalk, indoor runways, stair lifts, elevators and courtesy vans. Unfortunately, because of its gravel cover, the outdoor Billy Rose Art Garden is not accessible.
The many stairs of the Bible Lands Museum may be avoided by using the elevator which stops at each level. The Museum for Islamic Art allows wheelchair users to park in the museum’s gated lot and to enter the museum via the parking lot. Don’t miss visiting the museum’s collection of rare watches.
Much of Yad Vashem is wheelchair-accessible (with the exception of the Valley of the Communities and the Garden of the Righteous being only partially accessible). According to Yad Vashem’s Ehud Amir, if you arrive at Yad Vashem on public transportation, the free shuttle into the museum complex is temporarily not wheelchair accessible. He suggests cautiously using the right side of the road to the museum grounds. (Do not use the path to the right, as you will be faced with having to descend a long staircase by the entrance guardpost.)
While on Mount Herzl, don’t neglect to go through the emotionally moving Ethiopian Jewry memorial at the bottom of the mountain. It commemorates the many members of Beta Yisrael who died trying to cross Ethiopia and the Sudan on their journey to Israel in 1979-1980.
Going back to the center of town? Then you might want to stop in to see the small, but exquisite synagogue and Museum of Italian Art. Most of the displayed artifacts once belonged to Jewish communities in Italy. The museum can be accessed by elevator.
Many tourists visit the colorful Mahaneh Yehuda market. As wonderful as it looks from the inside, it is tricky arriving in a wheelchair. Even accessible buses have difficulty getting close to the market. On the Agrippas Street side, assistants will have to help wheelchair users deal with uneven sidewalks. On the Jaffa Road side of the shuk, however, there is a Jerusalem Light Rail stop. This provides one viable way to visit the market. (Note: A possible further limitation is the apparent lack of accessible toilets available in the shuk area.)
WHILE ON the subject of markets, a handful of impressive small wineries has opened in the Judean Hills just west of Jerusalem. The Tzora Winery is one worthy example, less than an hour’s drive from the center of Jerusalem. The winery offers informative tastings (which include four types of wines, bread, olive oil and cheeses) to the public. The winery is located on one floor. Tastings are by appointment only. One shortcoming, however, is that the toilets are not accessible to wheelchair users.
If you have access to an adaptive car, one good choice when visiting the Old City is parking in the First Station parking lot. The lot is located south and west of the Old City. A free shuttle, equipped to carry people using wheelchairs, leaves the parking lot once an hour, on the hour 12 hours a day, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. (A van without adaptive devices for wheelchair-bound passengers runs every 20 minutes.) The shuttle brings travelers to the Old City’s Dung Gate. The shuttle stops running one hour before Shabbat and resumes operation on Sunday morning.
Jerusalem’s Light Rail (citypass.co.il/en) will get you relatively close to a number of interesting sites. Happily, wheelchair users will discover they will not have boarding and alighting issues, as the platforms and trains are built level to each other. Each train car has one designated spot in which wheelchair users can buckle themselves for safety. The two pieces of the belt are a bit hard to reach, as one piece is found to the rear of the seat back while the other half is below and to the side of the fold-up seat. It will probably require the help of another passenger or aide to secure the belt.
Moreover, Egged (egged.co.il), the main public transit bus line, has buses with a back ramp which the driver pulls down, allowing a wheelchair-user to enter the bus. More or less adjacent to the ramp is a designated spot for strapping in the chair. At this designated spot, there is also an easy-to-reach buzzer to get help from the driver. It is important to point out that these facilities – during rush hour and particularly during peak tourism months – may be very crowded.
Admittedly, wheelchair users will discover that some of the museum exhibits and/or their explanations are not at seated eye level. With proper planning, however, Jerusalem, Israel’s capital offers uncontested opportunities to visit awesome places. So welcome to Jerusalem and have an enjoyable visit.
Additional useful information
• The easiest way to pay for trips on the Jerusalem Light Rail or Egged buses is to acquire a reloadable Rav-Kav smart card. It can be used on both systems but you must pay each time you go bus-to-train or train-to-bus. On Egged buses, however, you have a 90-minute free transfer period going from one bus to another.
• A Rav-Kav card may initially be purchased for NIS 5. You can buy the card at kiosks, the Central Bus Station, all Cofix branches, and a number of Jerusalem shopping malls. You can reload the card at some 300 automatic machines and at Light Rail stations.
• While much effort and significant publicity went into launching Accessible JLM-Old City, some people have found the app insufficiently user-friendly.
• The Jerusalem Light Rail posts route maps above train doors and at stations. Upcoming stops are called out in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and also listed on a monitor. On Egged buses, a recorded Hebrew message announces the next stop while a monitor notes the upcoming station in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
• Chaim Vizgan from the Yad Sarah organization (en.yad-sarah.net/tourism-disabilities) explains that the organization offers wheelchair-accessible transportation. In Jerusalem, contact [email protected] or call *6444. Yad Sarah suggests making transportation requests two weeks ahead of time. In principle, if a detailed written schedule is provided to Yad Sarah, a tourist can arrange for transportation to a few different sites – all within one day. Payment may be made at the end of all the rides. Yad Sarah also has a list of tour guides who are experienced in working with people with mobility issues.
• Government-authorized private cabs equipped to carry wheelchair users in Jerusalem (in Hebrew) by going to gov.il and following the links to “People with disabilities.”
• Jerusalem-based car rental companies which have specially equipped vehicles for wheelchair-users can be found at freeway-rentacar.com.
• Eldan Rental Cars (eldan.co.il) also offers specially equipped vehicles (such as a Toyota Sienna, Mercedes Vito, Hyundai 10, Skoda Roomster and the Ford Focus).
• The Jerusalem Municipality (jerusalem.muni.il) has write-ups about places to see around the city. The descriptions will help you to decide which places you will want to visit.
• Clean, wheelchair-accessible toilets are available in the vicinity of the Western Wall.