Rapid transit in Europe gives the inhabitants of the cities that have them a fantastic, inexpensive and fast means of getting about nearly every major European city. The London Underground and Paris Métropolitain are probably the two best known metro systems; in fact, Paris' Métropolitain is from where the name Metro is derived. These systems make getting around European cities very simple for tourists as well as locals, provided they're simple enough to understand. Many of them, like the London Underground or the Paris Métro, are also tourist attractions in their own right. One thing is for certain, very few North American Metro systems can hold a candle to some of Europe's transportation masterpieces.
The London Underground, also called the Tube, is the oldest underground railway on earth and the largest in Europe. Its first lines opened in 1865, and electric trains were introduced in 1890. The system is a safe and easy way to get around London, but it does suffer from overcrowding at peak periods and the lack of air conditioning in hot weather sometimes makes crowded cars quite uncomfortable. The Tube serves almost all London tourist attractions, including the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, but visitors who plan to visit nearby attractions such as Stonehenge, Brighton, Windsor or Oxford should strongly consider the use of car rentals.
The Paris Métro is one of the densest mass transit systems anywhere. Its first station dates from 1900, and it developed rapidly until the 1950s when it reached the saturation point. The very density of the system, with many stations very close together for the convenience of users, means that speeds are very low, and that, in turn, means that the Métro cannot serve suburbs at any great distance. Visitors to Paris can easily tour the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and Notre Dame de Paris by way of the Métro.
The state-owned Moscow Metro system, the busiest in Europe, was designed as much for political purposes as for transportation. Like the London Underground, it is an attraction in and of itself. Stations built before World War II show elements of Art Deco style heavily influenced by socialist themes, and those during the war have military themes. It was after the war that the style reached its culmination under Khrushchev's orders that the stations embody the brilliant future of the Soviet Union. Today the Metro is a series of spokes connected by a ring, still providing convenient transportation to residents and visitors alike. Almost all Moscow tourist attractions, like Red Square and the famous buildings around it--the Kremlin, St. Basil's Cathedral and the enormous GUM shopping center, can be accessed using the Metro, but branching out to see the cities of the famous Golden Ring is most conveniently managed using other means of transportation.
The Madrid Metro is the third largest in Europe, and one of the least expensive. Begun in the years after World War I, the Metro has been the subject of massive extensions in recent decades. Tunnels constructed since the turn of the twenty-first century use an innovative rigid catenary system that has proved quite effective in reducing the rate of failures. While most of Madrid's famous museums, palaces and plazas can be accessed from the Metro, outlying areas, including the famous royal palace of El Prado and Guernica, which was a favorite of Franco's, can't be missed, so don't rely on the metro for everything!
The Metro in Copenhagen has rainbows on its walls, at least in some of its stations. These stations, constructed beginning in the 1990s, are lit by rooftop pyramids of glass and a system of prisms to distribute the illumination. All are handicapped accessible, and all feature platform screen doors to prevent visitors from stepping off the platform into the track area. The trains, which have no drivers, run at intervals of two to four minutes at peak periods. The Metro serves almost all of inner Copenhagen's tourist attractions including the famous statue of the Little Mermaid, the museums and the Royal Palaces. Day trips to places like Elsinore or Rosalinde are great fun too so get out of the underground and make sure you see them as well.
On a per capita basis, the Metro in Prague in the Czech Republic is the most used in the world. The system is quite modern, with construction having begun in the 1990s. The lines radiate from the central city, but rather than originating in one central station, they form a triangle with each line crossing the other two at a separate point. Prague Metro stations tend to be very large with several exits, which can be confusing to those unfamiliar with the system. Tourists must do more than just get off at the right station; they must also leave the station via the correct exit. A number of parts of the system have features of interest: the MÅ¯stek station incorporates the remains of a medieval bridge discovered during the construction process, NámÄstí Míru station contains a 100 meter escalator and the C line crosses the Nusle bridge deep in its superstructure beneath six lanes of automotive traffic. Prague's medieval center and most of the cities attractions are convenient to the Metro, but you might have to walk a little bit from each stop to see what the city has to offer.
The Attiko Metro in Athens is based around an older rapid transit system, but dates in the main from the early years of this century. Teams of archaeologists worked alongside engineers and construction crews as the new lines were laid, preserving the antiquities discovered. Many of the system's stations contain exhibits of the items that were unearthed during the process. Visitors to Athens can access most tourist attractions in the city, including the Acropolis and the surrounding historic districts, from the Metro, but day trips to Delphi, Mycenae and Olympia are of course easiest for visitors who hire a car. These are roads and drives you absolutely must take if you haven't yet.