The World's Best Subways
Updated October 14, 2022
There are lots of good reasons to try out a city's subway system when you visit. It can give you an idea of what navigating the place is like for the people who actually live there. Plus, stations are often worthwhile attractions in their own right, owing to features such as historical architecture, public art, warrens of shops, and top-of-the-line people-watching. Not to mention that public transit is often the most efficient way to get where you're going.
But where can you take the most rewarding underground journeys? Here are the subway systems least likely to give travelers the subterranean homesick blues.
Pictured above: turnstiles at an MTR station in Hong Kong
Though noteworthy for its efficiency, cleanliness, and expansive reach, Seoul’s nine-line subway system really wows with its high-tech features and creature comforts. These include free Wi-Fi on every train, cars with TV screens for announcements and news clips, stations with extensive, full-color digital signage in several languages (Korean, English, Japanese, and Mandarin), and even heated train seats in winter. If you’re tired of waiting around for the future of public transit, head to Seoul, where the future has already arrived. And it doesn’t want you to freeze your tuchus off.
As the world’s oldest underground railway, the Tube, which dates back to 1863, rewards riders who have interests in history, design, and architecture. The red roundel logo, the colorful tilework, and even the subway map have all become icons. But this is no creaking relic. Though prone to delays and other inefficiencies, the system, with its 272 stations and 250 miles of track, gets about 4 million people from point A to point B every single day. Improvements are always in the works, from modernized stations and expanded service to seamless integration with other systems like the sparkly Elizabeth line. (And we know, we know—the latter isn’t technically a Tube line; don’t @ us.)
Of the 100 stations that make up the Swedish capital’s Tunnelbana network, more than 90 are extravagantly adorned with murals, sculptures, light installations, engravings, and other fantastical creations that make this the longest art gallery in the world. Many of the more than 150 artists who have decorated stations put exposed stone walls and ceilings to imaginative use, transforming utilitarian spaces into magical caves full of bright colors and mysterious visions. More than just a looker, the Stockholm metro gets high marks for punctuality, accessibility, and convenience, too (though fares are on the pricey side).
Pictured above: Stadion metro station
With more than 100 stations covering an expanse of nearly 200 miles, the Tokyo Metro can feel bewilderingly vast. And with well over 7 million daily riders in an average year, trains can get uncomfortably crowded, especially during the morning rush hour—hence the white-gloved platform attendants ready to nudge passengers into cars. Still, the system’s reach makes it indispensable for getting everywhere from Chiyoda City’s historic monuments to Harajuku’s trendy boutiques. What’s more, officials have gone out of their way to make the subway easier to navigate for people who don’t speak Japanese, with lots of multilingual signage and big arrows. Trains are spotlessly clean and almost pathologically punctual, too. And if you do get lost, there’s a world of shops and restaurants to explore without ever surfacing.
The subway system in Paris is best known for the remaining stations that still feature the elegant Art Nouveau signage and ornate entrances designed by Hector Guimard for the first line, which debuted during the world’s fair (aka Exposition Universelle) of 1900. A handy feature for sightseers and commuters alike is the mostly underground network’s remarkable density. With nearly 250 stations crammed inside city limits, it’s never a long walk to one of Paris’s renowned landmarks (one drawback: stations’ widespread lack of accessibility). This being Paris, many of the stations’ interiors are beautifully decorated, too, with tile mosaics and installations paying tribute to surrounding icons, such as the museum exhibits at the Louvre stop.
Another old-timer that continues to impress is the Buenos Aires subway, which became the first underground railway in Latin America when it debuted in Argentina's capital in 1913. For a hundred years after that, you could still ride in the A line's original carriages, with their shiny wood interiors and lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling (since retired, the old cars are occasionally rolled out for special occasions). Even before the fleet was modernized, the Subte was often the quickest way to get around Buenos Aires—and it remains the speediest option today, particularly to and from downtown areas. Best of all, riders don’t have to attempt any of the city’s famously perilous pedestrian crossings.
Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway, better known as the MTR, is the wonder of the transit world. The system excels in every conceivable category, starting with cleanliness, idiot-proof signage, and extensiveness of network, encompassing a mercifully convenient and frequent airport express train. Cars have wheelchair space and tactile platform flooring guides passengers with impaired vision. Fares are low, and the refillable Octopus card comes with discounts on the normal rate and can be used on all other forms of public transit as well as in shops and restaurants. On top of all that, the trains are punctual. Despite accommodating, in a normal year, more than 4 million passengers each day, the MTR manages most years to maintain a semi-miraculous on-time rate of 99.9%. Welcome to transit geek heaven.