A guide to the fifty most beautiful subway systems in the world. With star rating.
Subways need not be boring or dreary! Fortunately, many operators of metros, subways or underground railways want to attract passengers with good station design. This often means extra effort and cost for them but seems to pay off, when a metro is more than just a means of transport. It has to be something the residents can be proud of.
See below which subway system is a Unesco World Heritage site, which one doubles as the world's longest art gallery, and in which stations you can find stunning baroque-style underground palaces, museums, aquariums, comical statues, grand art-deco, modernist or futuristic architecture... or just passenger-friendly and beautiful design.
Do you like to spend your waiting time standing in a smelly narrow box with tons of advertising posters on grimy tiled walls? Most subway systems tend to be filthy and rather dull from an aesthetic point of view. But there are cities that explicitly foster arts and/or good architecture in subways. The photos in the list below are examples from those cities. The list includes:
Metro systems consistently designed to have user-friendly and good looking architecture, consequently with most stations looking similar (examples: Bilbao, Washington).
Stations of standardized architecture but with distinct interior designs of good quality (examples: Munich, Prague).
Lines with unique and interesting stations by different architects (examples: London Jubilee Line extension, Tokyo Oedo Line).
The most spectacular metros in former socialist countries, originally designed as 'palaces for the people', using valuable materials (examples: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Tashkent).
Metros with noteworthy collections of public art in the stations (examples: Brussels, Montreal, Stockholm).
Works of art or sophisticated architecture can be delightful, inspiring and thought-provoking for daily commuters as well as an attraction for visitors. Distinctive colour schemes and works of art help passengers for orientation, especially, but not only, in countries with a high level of illiteracy. Furthermore, there is evidence that vandalism diminishes in appealing stations because works of art and good designs are widely respected.
The star rating in this list takes into account the appearance of the best stations of the metro system, the overall quality, and the effort of its operator to provide beautiful and passenger-friendly stations. The asterisks can also be interpreted in a way some travel guide books use them:
Interesting Worth a detour Worth a journey
A word about the photos: Each city is represented by one to three images. They are showing examples of good station design, possibly the best stations in that city. If there's more than one photo, they are ordered chronologically and meant as a humble attempt to show the diversity of styles found. The photos have been picked to show excellence, so they do not necessarily indicate the average appearance of a metro system.
So here's a selection of about fifty remarkable metro and light rail systems, which is less than a third of all existing systems. More information can be obtained by following the external links provided in each city section below.
After 23 years of construction, the metro in the largest city of Kazakhstan opened and turned out to be of good aesthetic quality. Apparently in the tradition of the gorgeous Soviet metro systems, many stations have walls and floors of polished natural stone.
Photo [almatymetro.kz]: Concourse of Zhibek Zholy station (opened in 2011), marble floor ornamented like an Oriental rug.
The Swedish architect Alfred Grenander has designed more than seventy underground and elevated station buildings in Berlin. His style evolved from Decorative to Modernist between 1902 and 1930 [untergrundbahn.de], [berliner-untergrundbahn.de].
Photo: Refurbished entrance building of Wittenbergplatz station, built in 1913 by Alfred Grenander.
The co-financing of the U-Bahn line to Dahlem (called U3 today) by the posh district of Wilmersdorf facilitated a prestigious architecture in some stations.
Photo [Daniel Erler, absence-of-fear.de]: Heidelberger Platz station from 1913 by Wilhelm Leitgebel.
Most of the newer stations in Berlin are by Rainer G. Rümmler. Designs range from 1960s Minimalist style and colourful 1970s Pop Art design to Postmodernism.
Photo [u-bahnbilder.de]: Postmodernist-style Rathaus Spandau station from 1984 by Rainer G. Rümmler.
Most new stations have been designed by
Sir Norman Foster in 1995. The underground stations have striking roofed
glass entrances. They are nicknamed 'fosteritos' after the architect
and shelter escalators or stairways [arcspace.com], [metrobilbao.net], [urbanrail.fotopic.net]. The corporate logo as well as the Rotis typeface, which is
used for all signs and paperwork, are by Otl Aicher, 1989 [metrobilbao.net].
Photo: A fosterito at Abando station.
Foster about his spacious concrete vaults: "A tunnel dug by man through earth and rock is a very special place. Its shape is a reaction to the forces of nature and the texture of its construction bears the seal of man. This must be respected, not covered up to make the place look like any other building. One must be able to feel being underground, and make it a good, special experience" (quoted from Metro Bilbao's Touristic Guide Map).
Hungary's capital boasts the first subway on the European continent. Line 1 (also known as 'Földalatti' or the Millennium Underground) was built in 1896 and added to Budapest's UNESCO World Heritage entry in 2002 [unesco.org]. Old stations have been beautifully restored and some of the modern stations on the other lines are also worth a look.
The elevated and at-grade Dubai Metro stations combine both heritage and modern designs. They have been modelled on the shape of seashell, inspired from the diving and pearl-fishing heritage of the UAE, while the interior design depicts the four elements of nature – water, air, earth and fire. [FlashyDubai.com]
Photo [momentaryawe.com, flickr.com]: Mall of the Emirates station.
Conceptual design of some stations includes traditional architectural ingredients used in antique Arab buildings such as wind towers, oriels, alleyways or internal arches.
The 3.4 km underground Wehrhahn Line (U71, U72, U73, U83), crossing the city centre since 2016, was conceptualized to be an "art parcours" after an international architectural competition. All six stations are designed by six different artists who all have graduated from the Duesseldorf Arts Academy. [wz.de].
Photo [wdr.de]: Schadowstrasse station of 2016 by Ursula Damm: Street-level cameras and sensors, detecting movements of the passers-by above, are being computed into psychedelic animations on large LED screens on the platform walls.
The subway tunnel between the stations of the Wehrhahn Line, itself snaking through the city centre, is, consequently, tiled in a snake-skin pattern, a concept being called "continuum". The municipality has invested three million euros for the art projects in the ad-free stations on the Wehrhahn Line. To counteract vandalism, a dedicated cleaning concept has been developed.
Photo [Thomas Stricker, theguardian.com]: Benrather Strasse station of 2016 by Thomas Stricker: Video screens, like panoramic windows of a space ship, show 90 minutes of galactic scenes in 3D animations. With the stainless steel interior, video screens and inclined pillars, the artist intended the station to open a "window to infinity".
A weird subway entrance, looking like a train bursting through the sidewalk from below, is located in Frankfurt. Architect Zbiginiew Peter Pininski reported he felt inspired by surrealist artist René Magritte when creating it [neuer-weg.com]. Some other stations have interesting designs as well [vgf-ffm.de (PDF)].
Photo: Bockenheimer Warte station entrance from 1986.
After decades of ignoring design aspects and thoughtlessly polluting station interiors with giant advertising billboards, there's evidence that metro operator HHA is gradually rediscovering the value of its architectural heritage and developing fresh ideas.
Photo: Klosterstern station from 1929 on line U1, accurately restored in 1986 back to its original style.
Some historic stations have been preserved, and a few featureless stations have recently been transformed into spaces with interesting design and less advertising [100-jahre-hochbahn.de].
Photo: St. Pauli station from 1912. Since 1999, a deconstructivist glass roof contrasts with the historic sandstone entrance and shelters it from weather influences. The historic design at platform level has not been preserved, however.
Metro tram operator Uestra has invited world-famous designers and architects to enhance the looks of the system: the 'Busstops' art project of 1992 resulted in nine remarkable bus and tram stops at street level [uestra.de (PDF)]. Jasper Morrison has designed new trains in 1997, and Uestra's headquarters is a twisted cuboid by Frank O. Gehry.
Photo: Kröpcke station from 1975, once dreary, was completely refurbished in 2000 with designs by Massimo Iosa Ghini.
Metro art is not too obvious in Hong Kong, but MTR's Art in Stations initiative brings works of art into the stations since 1998. There's an Open Gallery project on the Island Line and in many of Hong Kong's metro stations, live performances and art exhibitions take place [mtr.com.hk].
Photo: Upper platform level of Tsing Yi station with the huge yet inconspicious 'Birds of a Feather' installation by Neil Dawson.
The metro in Kazan was the first one newly built in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So far, it has a handful of stations only, but all of them are spectacular. Extensions are on the way.
The metro in Ukraine's second largest city was inaugurated in 1975 and consists of about 30 stations, many of them with interesting architecture and lighting and built with materials like marble and granite.
Since 1983 this city in Northern France has its VAL metro which is the world's most extensive driverless metro system. Many of the elevated stations are remarkable buildings.
Photo: Porte de Valenciennes station.
All metro stations in Lille are designed distinctly and come in a wide variety of architectural shapes. Most of the stations are underground. Many works of art can be found in Lille's VAL system, including sculptures and murals.
Photo: Platform level of Gare Lille Europe station with huge murals and a reflecting pool.
Building materials include different kinds of natural stone, stainless steel, wood, bricks or tiles. In one station (Montebello), live fish in aquariums at platform level provide an interesting distraction for waiting passengers.
Photo: Platform level of Montebello station with aquariums on the walls and wooden parquet flooring.
London's Underground ('tube') was not only the world's first metro but also the first to have a corporate design, including the Johnston typeface (Edward Johnston 1916), the roundel logo (Frank Pick 1918), and the diagrammatic map (Henry C. Beck 1933). This groundbreaking concept is still in use today almost unmodified [ltmuseum.co.uk] and has influenced many other metros.
Photo: Notting Hill Gate station on the Circle Line, dating back to 1868.
There are some examples of interesting station
architecture in London outside the city centre. Charles Holden is
responsible for the design of fifty underground stations as well as London
Transport's headquarters at 55 Broadway [tube.tfl.gov.uk].
For the Piccadilly Line stretch to Cockfosters, Holden
developed a modernist approach in the 1930's. The original art deco furnishing of that time is surviving in some of the stations.
Photo: Cylindrical entrance building of Southgate station, built in 1933.
There are works of art in some of London's tube stations [tube.tfl.gov.uk].
The Jubilee Line Extension's spacious stations built in 1999
have been distinctly designed by a couple of famous architects,
including Foster & Partners, Ian Ritchie and Michael Hopkins [tube.tfl.gov.uk], [lrb.co.uk], [trainweb.org], [wilson].
Photo: The daylit intermediate concourse of Southwark station (1999) by McCormac Jamieson Prichard architects.
The city allocated 0.5% of subway construction costs to the creation of original art works. More than 250 artists have contributed. There are works of art in all stations of the Red and Purple Lines as well as many other stations [metro.net], [mta.net], [usc.edu].
Photo [Eric Haas, nycsubway.org]: Hollywood/Highland station by Dworsky Associates architects and artist Sheila Klein.
Hollywood/Vine station on the Red Line features Hollywood's golden history with original theater projectors from the 1930s presented like sculptures. Film reels cover the vaulted ceiling all over.
Photo: Hollywood/Vine station from 1999 by artist Gilbert Lujan and architect Adolfo Miralles.
The metro of France's second largest conurbation has some interesting stations. Older ones (the metro opened in 1978) are more uniform but on the extension of line B and on the new line D, attention was given to more interesting design and stations have been planned by different architects.
Photo [wikimedia.org]: Valmy station from 1997 on the fully automated line D with a platform illuminated from below.
Of approximately 300 km of metro lines in Spain's capital, more than 100 km have been built in just a few years around the turn of the millennium. Many of the newer stations and some of the older ones have interesting designs or architecture.
Photo [wikimedia.org]: Entrance building of Lago station of 1961.
Photo [unknown origin, skyscrapercity.com]: Nuevos Ministerios station in Madrid, inaugurated in 2002.
More than fifty stations are decorated with over hundred works of public art,
such as sculptures, stained glass, and murals by noted artists from
Québec. The city encourages this since 1967, one year after the opening of the system [stm.info], [metrodemontreal.com].
Photo: Huge sculptures by Germain Bergeron on the concourse level of Monk station on the Green Line. Monk station was opened in 1978.
Some of Montreal's stations seem to be works of modern art themselves, and many reflect the zeitgeist of the decades they were built in.
Photo: Platform level of La Salle station (1978) on the Green Line.
Entrance buildings are often as well designed as the underground parts of the stations [metrodemontreal.com].
Photo: Concourse of Namur from 1984 station on the Orange Line.
The metro opened in 1935. Many entrance buildings are just as architecturally spectacular as the stations below. Some stations are very deep and have been planned to serve as bomb shelters.
Photo [metro.ru]: Entrance building of Arbatskaya station on the first metro stretch from 1935.
Moscow's metro stations are a heritage of the socialist regime, originally intended to be 'palaces for the people'. With their marble-clad walls, chandelier lighting, and other precious interior, many indeed resemble palaces or cathedrals [metro.ru], [metrowalks.ru], [beeflowers].
Photo [cla.purdue.edu]: Central part of the platform of Komsomolskaya station built in 1952 on the circle line.
Many sculptures, reliefs and murals are found in the stations [metrosoyuza.net]. Besides Moscow, some other cities of the former Soviet Union have metro stations of similar grandeur. However, the ones in Moscow are the most numerous and the most spectacular. Fortunately, even the new stations opened in the 21st century are of good architectural quality.
Photo: The platform of Kropotkinskaya station built in 1935.
This metro system has been opened in 1972 and has spacious and clean stations. The earlier ones are rather minimalistic in design while the later ones got more interesting architectural features and some works of art [muenchnerubahn.de], [oliverbarchewitz.de].
Photo: Dülferstraße station from 1993 by Peter Lanz and Jürgen Rauch.
Photo: Westfriedhof station from 1998 with its simple concrete walls and its exceptional lighting concept by Ingo Maurer.
Line M1 has been turned into "Il Metro dell'Arte" as six stations have been upgraded with a lot of artworks [danpiz.net]. Museo station accommodates an archaeological exhibit of many objects found during metro construction [umuc.edu].
Since the subway system was inaugurated in 1904 by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT) it has some interesting station design, above ground as well as below.
Photo: Reproduction of a historic stairway entrance kiosk at Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station. It now houses an elevator to the station concourse.
NYC's subway became a little neglected in the following decades and earned a reputation of crime and grime. But besides significantly improving all stations, trains, and the safety since the 1980's, MTA started to thoroughly refurbish 15 historic stations to their original appearance, e.g. 33rd Street. Ceramic wall decors and mosaic signs are present in most underground stations and come in a wide variety [Stookey, see Reference].
Photo: Ceramic station name mosaic at the refurbished 33rd Street station.
This city in northern Portugal got a light rail system in 2002. At street level, tracks are often embedded in grass. 15 of the 78 stations are underground [mporto.no.sapo.pt].
Photo [Nuno Fonseca, fotopic.net]: Entrance of Pólo Universitário station (2004).
Underground station architecture, surface-station furniture, signage and typography are quite consistent in their cool minimalistic elegance. Predominant materials are concrete, glass, and steel. Architect of all stations is Eduardo Souto de Moura, a former student of Alvaro Siza.
The distinctive, ornate, Art Nouveau metro
entrances designed by Hector Guimard are a famous synonym for Paris's metro. Some are lost but 88 of them still exist [parisinconnu.com]. RATP has given reproductions to the subways in Chicago, Lisbon, Mexico City and the MoMA in New York, and an original entrance to Montreal [metrodemontreal.com].
Photo [Daniel Alhadeff]: The entrance at Porte Dauphine station, opened in 1900, is one of the larger ones.
The elegant metro stations in Paris are mostly column-free vaults with white bevelled tiles that look similar throughout. The system was inaugurated in 1900. Everything has been refurbished for its 100th anniversary.
MAX light rail in Portland, Oregon, USA, consists of three lines running on streets or on their own right of way. The operators have integrated one or more works of art in almost every station to promote transit usage and community pride [trimet.org].
Photo [trimet.org]: Illuminated metal trees designed by Portland artist Brian Borrello generate their own electricity from solar panels at Interstate/Rose Quarter station (opened 2004) on the Yellow Line.
Some of the stations seem to be a
homage to Victor Vasarely or kinetic artists of the 1970s. There are
thousandfold repetitions of glass or aluminium
elements with all stations looking different.
Photo: Jinonice station, built in 1988 on line B. Walls are covered with tube-shaped glass tiles.
On line A, which was
opened in 1978, station walls are covered with aluminium tiles which
come in three versions (convex, concave or flat) and in different
shades of colour. The designers thus managed to create a stunning,
The capital of North Korea has a socialist-style metro with murals and a grand architecture in a few stations [pyongyang-metro.com], [biglobe.ne.jp]. However, only two or three stations are open to tourists.
Photo [Wooolf, flickr.com]: Platform level of Puhung station.
The unique suspended monorail in the city of Wuppertal runs above the Wupper river and was opened in 1901. Some historic stations have been carefully restored and contrast in a nice way with rebuilt, architecturally interesting stations from the 1990's.
Photo: Landgericht station from 1903.
Rhine-Ruhr area is an agglomeration of about 30 cities in western Germany with some 20 metro-tram lines and 9 S-Bahn lines [jochen-schoenfisch.de].
Photo: The combined metro-tram and bus station Neue Mitte, built in 1996 in the city of Oberhausen, was obviously influenced by deconstructivist architecture.
This metro was opened in 1968 and has some stations which are as futuristic as the city itself. Some stations contain works of art.
Photo [Denis Kabanov, urbanrail.net]: Entrance building of Blaak station (lines A, B, C).
Other examples of interesting stations are Stadhuis (water flowing along vertical glass panels), Oostplein (glass windows in the floor) and some stations on line D between Marconiplein and Tussenwater [xs4all.nl/~kazil].
A diversity of geometrical forms were chosen for the underground stations [metro.sp.gov.br]. There's a collection of contemporary sculptures, installations and large murals in 30 of the 52 stations.
Photo [metro.sp.gov.br]: The mezzanine level of Brás station boasts 25 curved steel and polyurethane plates (2.2 m x 1 m each) which form the art installation 'Kaleidoscope' from 1999 by Amélia Toledo.
The MRT has very clean stations, mostly with simple, modern designs. Newer stations have interesting architecture and works of art.
Photo [Calvin Teo, wikipedia.org]: Exterior of Expo station, opened in 2002, on the East-West Line. The station has been designed by Foster and Partners in collaboration with Arup.
Many stations are intricately landscaped to reflect Singapore's reputation as a Garden City. Some underground stations are decorated with flowering orchids, tropical palms, or shrubs. City Hall and Raffles Place stations are good examples. On the North-East Line, which was inaugurated in 2003, all stations have individual architecture, and works of art have been integrated in every station [app-stg.lta.gov.sg].
Photo [deliarts.net]: Ceramic murals and floor mosaics in the concourse level of Dhoby Ghaut station.
Stockholm's tunnelbana is referred to as the world's longest art gallery because works of art have been integrated in almost every station since the 1950s. SL spends 10 million SEK per year in safeguarding and developing artwork.
Photo: Entrance of Odenplan station from 1952.
Works of art can be found in 90 of the 100 stations. 140 artists have contributed so far.
Photo [from SL's free metro art booklet, see Reference]: Platform of T-Centralen station on the Blue Line, designed by Per Olof Ultvedt in 1975.
Many stations in Stockholm, especially on the Blue Line, have been left as rock caverns, which gives them an outstanding, unique atmosphere.
Photo: Rinkeby station, built in 1975 on the Blue Line with gold mosaics, paintings, and sculptures.
Tashkent's metro, built in 1977, allegedly as one of the most beautiful in the former Soviet Union, consists of three lines. Leading architects and artists from Uzbekistan took part in creating unique stations, some of them decorated in Islamic designs.
All stations on Tokyo's Oedo line (opened in 2000) have been created by different well reputed architects, selected through a design competition [g-mark.org], [makoto-architect.com], [jrtr.net (PDF)]. The organic designs on platform and street levels of Iidabashi station are the world's first examples of computer-generated "evolutionary architecture", as architect Makoto Watanabe describes it in his book (see Reference).
Most stations are looking more or less alike, except for the colour schemes of the wall tiles. But TTC's Art in Architecture Program has integrated a considerable collection of public art into the stations [transit.toronto.on.ca].
Photo [Craig James White, flickr.com]: Dupont station from 1978 on the Yonge-University-Spadina Line.
Especially the new Sheppard Line has some interesting stations [city.toronto.on.ca]. Furthermore, the Arts on Track Project aims to revitalize a couple of older stations through donations [tcf.ca].
Photo [Craig James White, flickr.com]: One of the many optical illusions by Toronto artist Panya Clark Espinal at Bayview station from 2002 on the Sheppard Line [haha.nu].
Vancouver's LRT is called Skytrain as it runs elevated except for four underground stations in downtown. The Millennium Line extension built in 2002 includes a couple of interesting stations which incorporate organic designs, west-coast wood architecture and modern metal-and-glass designs.
Photo [archiseek.com]: Brentwood station, designed by Peter Busby and Associates architects.
The Art Nouveau Stadtbahn stations have
been consistently planned by the renowned architect Otto Wagner and date back
as far as 1898 when the city rail system was inaugurated [wiennet.at]. Most stations have been beautifully renovated and integrated into the metro system.
Photo [bigfoto.com]: Karlsplatz station pavilion built in 1898.
Some of Vienna's elegant modern metro stations are decorated with works of art.
Photo [hs-st-paul.ksn.at]: Volkstheater station with mosaic friezes by Anton Lehmden.
The Metrorail system of the US
capital has been designed by Harry Weese & Associates to be America's grandest subway and was inaugurated in 1976. The Commission of Fine Arts, which had to approve the station design, favoured the coffered vaults [chnm.gmu.edu], [railwayage.com].
Photo: Capitol South station, built in 1977.
Works of art can be found in many stations
All stations above ground in Washington, as well as the underground ones, have been constructed using the same selection of materials consistently throughout the system. A useful feature are the rows of lamps on all platform edges which start flashing when a train approaches.
Photos by M. Rohde except where indicated otherwise.
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Hackelsberger, Christoph: U-Bahn-Architektur in München. Prestel 1997.
Junction '96. Lisbon Worldwide Conference on Art and Public Transport (Proceedings). Metropolitano de Lisboa, E.P., 1996.
Powell, Kenneth: The Jubilee Line Extension. Laurence King 2000.
Railway Technical Web Pages: Station Design.
Rauch, Jürgen: The Architecture of Underground Railway Stations. Krämer 1996.
Stockholm SL: Art in the Stockholm Metro (PDF). 2010 (free booklet).
Stookey, Lee: Subway Ceramics. A History and Iconography. 1992.
Ström, Marianne: Metro-Art in the Metro-Polis. ACR Edition 1996.
USA Today 9/2/2004: 10 Great Places to Stop for Subway Art. Watanabe, Makoto Sei: Induction Design. A Method for Evolutionary Design. Birkhäuser 2002.
This page: http://www.mic-ro.com/metro/metroart.html