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See why the world’s best subway lines are destinations unto themselves

These subterranean train rides are packed with striking architecture, historic sites, and surprising views.

By National Geographic Staff
Published 22 Jul 2019, 12:17 BST, Updated 23 Jul 2021, 10:31 BST
The exposed, unaltered bedrock of Rådhuset (Court House) Station is among the most spectacular stops on ...
The exposed, unaltered bedrock of Rådhuset (Court House) Station is among the most spectacular stops on Stockholm’s blue line.
Photograph by Alexander Spatari, Getty Images

There are few better ways to feel like a local than to navigate a new city alongside its bustling commuters, deciphering labyrinthine transit maps to reach your destination.

But sometimes the journey is its own reward. From captivating art exhibitions to sprawling shopping malls, there are endless reasons to enjoy the ride (and hop off) these subways around the world.

Chiyoda Line, Tokyo

Snaking across the middle of the Japanese capital, the “green” line of the Tokyo Metro calls on many of the city’s most celebrated places, from Yoyogi and Ueno parks to the Imperial Palace, the funky Harajuku neighborhood, and nightlife-crazy Roppongi. 

Plan your trip: The Tokyo Metro’s stop announcements and posted signs include English, Korean, and Chinese translations to assist international visitors. Grab a reloadable Pasmo card to zip around subways, trains, and buses, then return it to a kiosk at the end of your trip for a refund of the card’s price.

Koltsevaya Line, Moscow

Constructed in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War, stations of the Russian capital’s Circle Line are renowned for their iconic Stalinist architecture. Komsomolskaya Station features a lavishly decorated baroque vaulted ceiling while Taganskaya boasts ceramic panels with Red Army motifs.

Plan your trip: Get into a Moscow Metro mood by reading Metro 2033, a post-apocalyptic novel by Russian author Dmitry A. Glukhovsky. Then take a guided tour to explore each station of an opulent, elegant underground designed to bring palaces to the people. 

Line 1, Paris

This first Métro line includes stations for many Parisian landmarks, from La Défense and the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre and Bastille. Opened during the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris, the Métro stops at a number of stations that feature original art nouveau entrances designed by Hector Guimard. Louvre station features replica museum pieces and a direct connection to the museum entrance.

Plan your trip: Purchase Métro tickets online at the Paris Tourism website and download a map to help you navigate the 300-plus stations of Europe’s second busiest subway.

The Tamsui–Xinyi line (aka the Red line) is Taipei’s longest and includes some of its most striking architecture, such as Daan Park Station.
Photograph by Robert CHG, Getty Images

Tamsui Line, Taipei

Stretching both under- and overground, this MRT route across Taiwan’s capital is celebrated for its shopping malls, art galleries, and eye-catching architecture. Don’t miss Jiantan Station, shaped like a giant, futuristic dragon boat.

Plan your trip: Taipei’s MRT bundles its 24-, 48-, and 72-hour passes with discount coupons to local cultural and entertainment attractions.

IRT Lexington Avenue Line, New York City

This celebrated route beneath the Big Apple runs down Manhattan Island via the Upper East Side, Grand Central Station, Little Italy, Wall Street, and other landmarks. The line passes through several closed “ghost stations,” including City Hall with its Romanesque Revival architecture.

Plan your trip: The full journey between Harlem and Battery Park takes approximately 30 minutes; be sure to reload your MetroCard pass to transfer to other lines and continue your explorations. Aboveground, head to the High Line, a stretch of elevated rail tracks repurposed into a green and growing park.

Soviet-era and post-independence architecture are on display in the subway stations of Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Photograph by Alexandr Parfenov, Alamy Stock Photo

Line 1, Almaty

The Kazakhstan city’s KGP Metropolitan system features stations that blend dramatic Soviet-era and post-independence design and architecture. Stops are decorated with stained glass, mosaic floors, and elaborate chandeliers.

Plan your trip: Single rides on the Almaty Metro cost 80 tenge (approximately £0.17). Ride the rails to explore the Zelyony Bazar (Green Market) before visiting the excellent folk and art museums.

Blue Line, Stockholm

Larger-than-life sculptures, rock formations, mosaics, paintings, art installations and engravings adorn 90 of the 100 stations of Stockholm’s Tunnelbana (T-bana) subway system, leading to its nickname: “the world’s longest art gallery.” The Blue Line has some of the finest work; among the more dramatic stops are T-Centralen, Rådhuset, and Kungsträdgården stations.

Plan your trip: Travelers should look for T-bana SL Travelcards to cover the duration of their stay—from 24 hours to seven days. Hop off the metro and onto one of the city’s shared bikes to explore the historic Gamla stan district—don’t miss the baroque, 600-room Royal Palace—before finding a coffeehouse for an afternoon fika break.

Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London

This futuristic aboveground extension of the London Underground gives passengers an aerial view of the skyscrapers, yacht havens, and waterfront parklands that populate the revitalised Canary Wharf and Docklands area. Opened in 1987, the DLR includes 45 stations and serves several other London transport icons: the Cutty Sark clipper ship (get off at Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich) and the Emirates cable car (reach it from Royal Victoria station). Cutty Sark can also be reached by a Victorian foot tunnel under the Thames (get off at Island Gardens).

This aboveground extension of the Tube knits together the revitalised Docklands and Canary Wharf area of London, giving passengers views of skyscrapers and waterfront parklands.
Photograph by Andrea Pucci, Getty Images

Plan your trip: The DLR operates Monday through Saturday between 5:30 a.m. and 12:30 a.m., and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Use a contactless credit card or buy an Oyster card (fares good for buses, the DLR, and the Tube itself) to tour museums, restuarants, and shops before cooling off in one of the green spaces and parks that blanket nearly half the city’s area.

(Read about how London just became the world's first National Park City.)

The Toledo Art Station is one of many that give Naples’s metro the nickname “Il Metrò dell’Arte.”
Photograph by Michele Stanzione, Getty Images

Line 1, Naples

Nicknamed “Il Metrò dell’Arte” for its permanent and temporary displays, this underground line in the Italian coastal city feature vibrant art and stunning architecture in 11 of its stations. The mesmerising star-spangled ceiling of Toledo Station is the most renowned, but the flamboyant pop art of Università and the classical sculptures of Museo are just as brilliant.

Plan your trip: A three-day Tutta la regione Campania ArtCard includes admission to 80 tourist sites and all public transportation in the Naples region. For the best weather (and thinner crowds), visit in late spring or autumn. Enjoy access to monuments usually closed to the public during Maggio dei Monumenti in May or browse the sprawling, internationally renowned Christmas Nativity market, which opens in late November.

Find more trip ideas in the National Geographic book Journeys of a Lifetime.

Line 3, Athens

Built for the 2000 Summer Olympics, the “blue” line of the Athens Attiko Metro features several stations with permanent archaeological exhibits, stocked with some of the 50,000 artifacts found during the metro’s construction. Among the treasures are an ancient cemetery and baths at Syntagma, everyday objects from ancient Greece at Aigaleo, and the remains of a 5th-century B.C. bridge at Elaionas.

Plan your trip: Head to Athens in autumn or winter to avoid summer’s bustling crowds and blistering heat when discovering the city’s best attractions. The Athens Metro’s rechargeable plastic or paper fare cards vary in price and use, so consider your needs ahead of time.

This article was adapted from the National Geographic book Journeys of a Lifetime. It has been corrected to reflect that Almaty is a city in Kazakhstan.
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