Visiting Amsterdam and Brussels as a Wheelchair User

As a former Paralympic swimmer and now a world-ranked, international Para Dance Sport (wheelchair ballroom dancing) athlete, one of the perks is traveling around the globe to attend competitions.

Since my spinal cord injury, I have traveled to over 30 countries and six continents. Europe is always my favorite. I love the history, the stories, and the architecture. However, it can be very challenging for a wheelchair user, especially when you visit original parts of the historic city where the terrain, lack of curb cuts, and uneven cobblestones are really hard to navigate.


As a C6 quadriplegic, I definitely needed the assistance of my friend at times. Museums, parks, outdoor gardens, and modern parts of the city are typically a safe bet and quite wheelchair friendly, but some restaurants, hotels, and cafes are not. Finding accessible public restrooms can also be difficult as most are located downstairs and have no elevator access. But don’t let that deter you if you have your heart set on going, as with many things with being a wheelchair user, it just takes some research, pre-planning, assistance, and patience.

My latest Para Dance Sport competition brought me to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This was my third trip to Amsterdam, but what made it even more fun was my best friend, who came along for the trip. It was her first time traveling out of the country, so I got to play tour guide in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Taking the Plane

We took a seven-hour direct flight from Detroit to Amsterdam. Flying for such a long time can be overwhelming, especially for disabled people. Many are afraid to travel on long flights for fear of being unable to access a bathroom. I often get questioned by other wheelchair users about how I use a bathroom on long flights, and the truth is, most international flights have an accessible bathroom on board. This time, we flew on a Delta Airbus A330-300, and I requested to be seated near the accessible bathroom when I booked my ticket. The accessible bathroom is actually two regular bathrooms side by side divided by a soft wall. When I needed to use the bathroom, the flight crew removed the divider, making it a big bathroom that an onboard aisle chair could fit into.

Landing on the Netherlands

We arrived early in the morning on a Tuesday. I hired a large passenger van to pick us up from the airport since I was traveling with my Motion Composites Apex Carbon Wheelchair. Still, since I was also competing, I needed to bring my dance chair with me, plus loads of luggage to hold all my dance costumes and accessories. However, if you are traveling light, there is a tram station directly below the terminal building that takes you to multiple Amsterdam locations. The trams all have a foldout ramp, making them wheelchair accessible.

As for our hotel, I chose the Hilton DoubleTree Amsterdam Central Station. I had stayed there before, so I knew the wheelchair-accessible rooms were large and had roll-in showers. Plus, the location is perfect. It’s a short stroll to the Amsterdam Central Station, where you can catch a tram to take you all around the city or a train to take you to other parts of the Netherlands or Europe.

After checking into the hotel, we booked a 1-hour canal cruise. It is one of the best ways to see Amsterdam and its various neighborhoods along the water. However, I recommend doing your research ahead of time. Not all canal cruises are wheelchair accessible. I recommend the Blue Boat Company, and if you require a wheelchair ramp to get on board, you must book it in advance.

After our canal boat cruise, we took a tram to Dam Square, the historic Centre of Amsterdam.  Here, you can view the Royal Palace, the neo-Gothic New Church, and the National Monument. We ended our day with dinner at the top of our hotel, which has one of the best panoramic views of the city.

Visiting Brussels

The next day, we booked a Eurostar train from Amsterdam to Brussels, Belgium. Brussels is one of my favorite cities for its architecture and charm. It is less than two hours away by train from Amsterdam’s Central Station. Eurostar passengers who use a wheelchair are automatically upgraded to “Premier” class, but they only pay for a standard class ticket. Premier comes with complimentary food, snacks and beverage service. You can also bring a companion with you at a discounted rate.

This was my first time traveling with Eurostar, and I did not know you had to order a ramp 48 hours before your departure. I indicated I was a wheelchair user when I booked the ticket, so I assumed a ramp would be available…not the case. After some negotiation and multiple train managers' involvement, they made the portable ramp available to me, and it was very easy to get on and off. However, the wheelchair-accessible bathroom onboard gets an “F.” My Apex Carbon Wheelchair is a 15” x 15” frame, and even at that narrow width, I could not fit my wheelchair inside the bathroom.

Since it had been almost 15 years since I was in Brussels, we decided to hire a private guide to take us on a walking tour of the city. We started at Grand-Place, which is considered one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is the central square of the city, surrounded by opulent buildings. We also visited the Royal Palace of Brussels, saw the famous Manneken Pis sculpture, and toured St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral and the Royal Gallery of St. Hubert. And, of course, no visit to Belgium can be complete until you sample some Belgian chocolates, French fries, and authentic, delicious Belgian waffles.

On arrival back to Amsterdam we just had one more free day until my Para Dance Sport competition began, so we took the opportunity to go on a small shopping spree. We took some professional photos on some of the scenic bridges and canals around Amsterdam, which made for a stunning backdrop and some great vacation photos.

The moment of truth: The Para Dance Sport Competition

The weekend had finally arrived, and it was time to shift from vacation mode to competition mode. Upon arrival at the competition hotel near the Amsterdam airport, it was great to see so many of my Para Dance Sport friends. The competition in Amsterdam is always the first competition of the year so it was great to catch up with everyone and even meet some new friends. This year there were around 60 dancers from 14 countries in attendance.

My dance partner arrived from the States that morning, and our first dance was freestyle later that afternoon. After getting my hair and makeup professionally done, we had a chance to warm up on the competition floor. There are a few Para Dance categories; for example, in the “Combi” events, a dancer in a wheelchair dances with a standing partner; in “Duo” events, both dance partners use a wheelchair; and in “Single” events, the wheelchair dancer performs as a soloist. I only compete in Combi events.

For our freestyle dance, we were debuting a brand new routine to “I Will Always Love You” from the movie The Bodyguard. No matter what country you were from, as soon as our music started and Whitney Houston hit that first note, we got the attention of everyone in the venue since it’s such an internationally iconic song and movie. The judges must have liked it, too, because we were awarded a silver medal for our performance. Not a bad way to start the competition!

The next day, we competed in my favorite event, Combi Standard. In this event, we are on the dance floor with other Combi couples, which can be quite scary given the rate of speed we are traveling and trying not to collide with one another. In this competition, we perform the five Standard dances back-to-back: Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, and Quickstep. Each dance is about 90 seconds. I love this event because the dances are so elegant. In the end, we were lucky to make the podium again and were presented with a bronze medal.

On the last day of the competition, we danced Combi Latin. Again, we were on the floor with other Combi couples, and we performed the five Latin dances: Samba, Cha Cha, Rhumba, Paso Doble, and Jive. We only started competing in this event last year, so we were very happy to have won another silver medal in this event.

The competition flew by, and it is always sad to say goodbye to everyone, but we are always looking to improve and grow, so it’s back to work getting ready for our next competition which I am helping to organize. It is the first time a Para Dance Sport competition will be hosted in the U.S., and it will take place in my home state of Michigan this August 10th – 11th. We are very excited about this opportunity and hope it will help grow Para Dance Sport in North America.

As I said earlier, Europe is not always accessible, but don’t let that deter you if you have your heart set on going. As with many things with being a wheelchair user, it just takes some research, pre-planning, assistance, and patience. And if Amsterdam is on your list of places to see, be sure to visit before you go to discover wheelchair-friendly things to do and see in this beautiful city.


About Cheryl Angelelli

Paralympic medal winner, World Record holder, and Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame inductee, are just a few of Cheryl Angelelli’s many accomplishments. She is also a professional ballroom dancer and works in healthcare marketing.