Travel guide to world's best public transport systems for tourists

As you cross the Pont d'Iena over the Seine on board a Paris metro train, Line 6, the Eiffel Tower comes into perfect view for a few magical seconds. Elsewhere, you can still trundle through the oldest streets of Lisbon in Portugal's classic yellow Remodelado trams. A world away, Sri Lanka's street vendors serve food to you while you're sitting on a bus. And some of the best music you'll ever hear is performed live in the tunnels and carriages of the New York subway.

As travellers we can choose to use public transport simply to get around a new place or, better, we can embrace each mini-journey as an experience in its own right.

The world's modern public transport systems were all designed with the same goal: to efficiently move large numbers of commuters along a fixed route for a reasonable fee. Yet the infrastructure, vehicles and schedules of each city or country's specific system can't help but reflect the culture and pace and rhythm and artistic nature of the place it services.

Using public transport as opposed to hiring a car can mean less comfort, less control and problem-solving without privacy. But it's usually cheaper, more interesting, a more environmentally-friendly option and can be less stressful than to drive and park.

And, perhaps most importantly, it's more socially imersive with locals than with other tourists so you'll undoubtedly go home with stories about depending on the kindness of strangers.

Your bus, train, tram, ferry, aerial cable car or taxi might be beautifully decorated, deliciously rickety, impossibly loud, almost silent, super-fast, sluggish, open-air, fully enclosed, spacious, cramped, toasty, overheated, underheated, new, retro, techy, ancient.

Little else can make you feel more acutely aware of being on holidays than travelling alongside people commuting to work when you are not so avoiding peak hour is better for everyone.

Here are some of our favourites for you to try next time you're on the road. We've included taxis, which although not technically public transit, have become too much a part of the transport fabric of most places, and at time too much fun, to exclude. Oh, and hurry. Some of these featured transports of delight are threatened with extinction.

THE MOSCOW METRO

MOSCOW - AUGUST 22, 2016: Arbatskaya subway station in Moscow, Russia. The station is on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line of the Moscow Metro and opened in 1953 - Image SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

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WHERE Moscow, Russia

WHAT IS IT An architecturally extravagant 13-station metro called Palace for the People opened under Stalin in 1935 designed to highlight the unrivalled magnificence of the Soviet system. It now has 224 stations.

THE TRIP One of the world's longest, most efficient and most beautiful metros has relatively ordinary trains but vaulted ceilings, stained glass, porcelain tiling, mosaics, columns, arches, frescos, revolutionist art and chandeliers at stations like Kiyevskaya, Komsomolskaya and Mayakovskaya. Teatralnaya is near Red Square, the Kremlin and the Bolshoi Theatre.

NEED TO KNOW Even some babushkas will push to get on board a crowded train – more a practical than an aggressive move – but those same people will stand back to let others off before they board. Drinking alcohol on the Moscow metro is now illegal.

ESSENTIALS Open from 6am to 1am with less than two minutes between trains. On a Troika card one trip costs about 75 cents. See russiau.com/using-moscow-metro

See also: Inside the world's most beautiful city subway

AMBASSADOR TAXIS

KOLKATA, INDIA - OCTOBER 27, 2016: View of yellow Hindustan Ambassador taxi in the center of Kolkata, India - Image
 SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

WHERE Kolkata, west Bengal, India

WHAT IS IT The iconic marigold-yellow Ambassador taxis have been a common sight in the City of Joy's traffic jams for decades. In 1957 Hindustan Motors first produced this Morris Oxford-inspired car. Being hard-wearing, easy to fix and comfortable makes them the perfect taxi.

THE TRIP Ride an Amby in its birthplace of Kolkata for three blocks to your favourite Kathi roll stand or into the city to the Birla Planetarium. The spacious vinyl back seat gives respite from the crowds and sensory overload of Kolkata. Prepare to fall into fascinating conversation with your driver. Naturally airconditioned.

NEED TO KNOW A "no refusal" sign doesn't tend to mean much but it's usually easy enough to flag down an Ambassador taxi from the curb. Production of Hindustan Ambassadors ended in May 2014 so they are now officially an endangered species.

ESSENTIALS The cost for an Ambassador taxi ride about 30-60 cents a kilometre calculated on a digital meter.

See also: India for beginners: what you need to know

TRAGHETTO

R5H0NH Traghetto and passengers crossing the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy on 27 November 2018 SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

WHERE Venice, Italy

WHAT IS IT In the City of Water a traghetto is a large gondola, powered and steered by two gondoliers, that shuttle passengers across the Grand Canal between two set points.

THE TRIP From a small wooden traghetto pier it's a short, easy and authentically Venetian journey to the other side. Locals typically stand but you may be asked to sit. Take a traghetto from Santa Sofia across to the pescaria (fish market) as an alternative to the 850-metre-long pedestrian trek over the Ponte di Rialto.

NEED TO KNOW Yellow signs on buildings indicate the direction towards the nearest traghetto landing. Pay an oarsperson with exact change or close. Luggage and prams aren't welcome.

ESSENTIALS One trip costs about $7. Most traghetti run from 7.30am-8pm and depart every few minutes but times change depending on the day of the week or time of year. See venice-tourism.com

CAMIONETA

SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

WHERE Central America

WHAT IS IT Throughout this vibrant subcontinent, old American school buses have been given flamboyant paint jobs and repurposed as public transport vehicles tourists call chicken buses.

THE TRIP Expect overtaking on blind corners, sitting with four people on what you thought was a two-person seat, street vendors coming on board to feed you and no toilet stops. All your senses will be fully engaged when travelling by camioneta from somewhere like Belize's San Ignacio, situated near ancient Mayan cities, to the culturally fascinating coastal village of Hopkins.

NEED TO KNOW There's no set schedule and buses simply leave when full – so get on a half-full bus. Keep your luggage with you and only give the conductor your fare once the bus is moving so you know you're paying the right person.

ESSENTIALS Camioneta terminals are usually beside marketplaces with the origin and destination tend to be displayed on bus windscreens. Expect to pay about $1.50 an hour of travel.

THE JEEPNEY

CN4YBG Philippines, Luzon island, Manila, Ermita district, a jeepney (jeep extended to carry passengers) SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

WHERE Manila, Philippines

WHAT IS IT After the Philippines gained independence from America in 1945 surplus US military jeeps became public transport vehicles, though only after getting a roof and a flashy Filipino makeover. The original jeeps have worn out but the transport concept hasn't.

THE TRIP These creatively decorated buses have bench seating and rear door access for passengers. Jeepneys are the cheapest and most available form of public transport in Manila. This potentially cramped experience of questionable safety allows you the privilege of sitting hip to hip with locals. Take a jeepney from Araneta Center Cubao and escape the city for a day out at Masungi Georeserve (near Tanay).

NEED TO KNOW If you're polite and respectful then people will be more than happy to help you get to your destination. You'll be judged for manspreading but not for using a hand fan. Jeepneys are now under threat of being phased out.

ESSENTIALS Jeepneys costs the equivalent of about 25 cents for five city-traffic kilometres. See experiencephilippines.org

MI TELEFERICO

Cable car in La Paz city, Bolivia
 SunNov4cover - Ugly but beautiful - Ben Groundwater
Credit: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

WHERE La Paz, Bolivia

WHAT IS IT Since 2014 the world's highest cable car network has revolutionised life for commuters in the world's highest capital of La Paz, at 3650 metres, and adjacent El Alto. The ever-expanding system will have 11 lines by 2020.

THE TRIP This significantly faster and cheaper alternative to buses also happens to offer incredible views over these cities and their snow-capped Andes backdrop, especially from the red and orange lines and particularly at sunset. Take the yellow to Sopocachi, in La Paz, for small bars and for restaurants serving good local food. And the red to 16 de Julio for the El Alto Sunday market.

NEED TO KNOW Expect long Sunday afternoon lines after the market.

ESSENTIALS Mi Teleferico costs about 60 cents a line. The system runs early morning until late at night and cars leave stations every 12 seconds. See miteleferico.bo

SHINKANSEN

TOKYO, JAPAN - JANUARY 3: A Shinkansen train pulls into Tokyo Station on January 3, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. - Image
 SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

WHERE Japan

WHAT IS IT In 1964 Japan's first high-speed line linked Tokyo with Osaka and now shinkansen (meaning "new trunk line"), or bullet trains, move almost half a million people around the country daily.

THE TRIP Shinkansen are smooth, efficient and cleaning crews perform supersonic seven-minute sessions at terminus stations. Sit at the window closest to the other track to get a sense of the speed you're going when another train passes from the opposite direction. Shinkansen now link major cities on Hokkaido, Honshu and Kyushu with Tokyo. A test train for a Tokyo to Nagoya underground track, currently in the pipeline, has already reached 603km/h.

NEED TO KNOW Line up on the platform according to seat class before the train arrives. On board it's extremely rude to talk on the phone anywhere but deck areas between cars.

ESSENTIALS There are up to three classes of seating and trains have reserved and non-reserved seats. Your Japanese Rail Pass covers most but not all lines. Newer trains are fully wheelchair accessible. See jnto.org.au

See also: Japan's newest bullet train goes through the world's deepest tunnel

SHOSHOLOZA MEYL

D4Y8WF The Shosholoza Meyl train arrives at Matjiesfontein Station in the Karoo region South Africa Cape Town to J'burg service. Image shot 2013. Exact date unknown. SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

WHERE South Africa

WHAT IS IT Shosholoza Meyl is a rail service for long-distance intercity train travel in South Africa. Trains are bright purple, blue and yellow inside and out.

THE TRIP The 600 kilometres from Johannesburg to Durban, for example, take 15 hours. Outside the window are towns, landscape and sometimes wildlife while, inside, the dining car has wait staff. Economy has "sitter accommodation" and the so-called tourist class has cabins that sleep two or four on bunk beds. Shared bathrooms have showers. Shosholoza Meyl assures passengers they'll have "a pleasant experience" – honest advertising in this world of false promises.

NEED TO KNOW Tickets for bedding, provided at extra cost, are sold on the train. Get on at least 30 minutes before the departure time. Trains may leave late but never early.

ESSENTIALS Johannesburg to Durban runs three times a week and tourist class costs about $36. See southafricanrailways.co.za

STOCKHOLM FERRIES

KFE8H3 Ferry and Djurgarden island viewed from the water, Stockholm, Sweden SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

WHERE Stockholm, Sweden

WHAT IS IT Because Sweden's capital and most populous city, on the Baltic Sea, is built across 14 islands many locals commute by ferry.

THE TRIP Stockholm's ferries strike the balance between being sturdy and being quaint. In central Stockholm the ferry from Djurgarden – where you can visit the Vasa Museum of maritime history, the Abba Museum and open-air museum Skansen – goes directly to Slussen pier at the Old City of Gamla Stan.

NEED TO KNOW SL cards cover the Djurgarden ferry but not all Stockholm ferries. Swedish commuters prefer to have their own double seat so give people space.

ESSENTIALS Buy a single use travelcard if it's a quick visit. The SL website shows ferry terminals and has a trip planner. See sl.se/en

TORONTO TRAMS

Street Cars during in Toronto city, Canada - Image
 SunFeb3cover - Public Transport - Elspeth Callender
Credit: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

WHERE Toronto, Ontario, Canada

WHAT IS IT The largest operating tram system in the Americas has been in continuous use since 1861 when streetcars were horse-drawn. Now 11 lines cover 80 kilometres.

THE TRIP Toronto's historic streetcars have almost all been replaced by new generation airconditioned, fully wheelchair accessible, zero-emissions trams. Streetcars take you into inner city neighbourhoods like West Queen West for China Town and Kensington Market or to Roncesvalles Village which, despite going all trendy, still has Polish bakeries, cafes and delis.

NEED TO KNOW Cram polite, reserved, rule-driven people into a city of 8 million people and you get passive-aggression. Rule of thumb: keep out of people's way or prepare for a glare.

ESSENTIALS Travel Toronto's public transport system on a PRESTO card (see prestocard.ca). Most streetcars operate for 18 hours every day. See www.ttc.ca

TEN MORE GREAT PUBLIC TRANSPORT EXPERIENCES

WUPPERTAL SUSPENSION RAILWAY, WUPPERTAL, GERMANY

This suspension monorail was beyond cutting edge in 1901 and now looks like futuristic transport imagined in the distant past. The low-speed 13.3-kilometre journey follows the course of the Wupper River. Stop at the art nouveau station of Werther Brucke or glassy Kluse and ride or even get married in their heritage Kaiserwagen. See schwebebahn.de

ATHENS METRO, GREECE

This reliable rapid-transport system with its sleek stations is also an underground museum of sorts. From 1993 metro excavations turned into one of Athens' most successful archaeological digs that uncovered around 50,000 artefacts. You'll find some of these or replicas integrated into stations like Evangelismos, Panepistimiou and Syntagma. Don't miss the vaulted bed of the river Eridanos at Monastiraki or the pickpockets. See athenstransport.com

BASI, FIJI

Island music plays, a Pacific breeze floats through the bus and sometimes freshly made food is sold on board. These windowless basi in Fiji are gradually being replaced by generic airconditioned buses and coaches, especially on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu, and they're just not the same. On the islands of Taveuni and Vanua Levu, plan Sundays around not needing a bus. See fiji.travel

BC FERRIES, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA

There are 200 Gulf Islands in the Strait of Georgia between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Join commuters, Vancouver locals travelling to or from their weekender and the happy hippies who live in the islands year-round for a trip as scenic as any coastal cruise. Give yourself a one-day buffer to get back to Vancouver for an international flight in case weather delays ferries. See bcferries.com

CITADIS TRAMS, MOROCCO

In 2012 Casablanca launched its first tram service and the network already reaches 48 stations over 31 kilometres of track. Trams are orange on the outside with interior graphics and colours on seats and ceilings inspired by zellige – the mosaic tile art typical to Morocco. Don't fail Travel 101 miserably by putting your big note in the ticket machine expecting change. See casatramway.ma

NYC FERRY, NEW YORK, US

East River commuter ferries are as cheap as the NYC subway but the view is so much better. There are six routes, 21 piers, new vessels and grand plans for expansion. Wall Street to East 34th Street shows off some favourites like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Pop ginger tabs on sloppy days. See ferry.nyc

SYDNEY FERRIES

These old harbour beauties can't be left out lest we become complacent about what we have in our own country (yes, Melbourne trams, we see you too). From Manly to Circular Quay and back again find a seat outside on the wharf side for a view of rolling swell and Sydney Heads. Ferries operate every day of the week to 38 wharves. Use an Opal Card. See beyondthewharf.com.au

TAXI BROUSSE, MADAGASGAR

Travel between this African island's cities and towns the way locals do. Although not fast or particularly comfortable these minibuses – the name means bush taxi – are sociable and inexpensive and one of the few alternatives to hiring your own 4WD. Drivers will put your bicycle or pack on the roof and you're likely to end up with a sleeping child on your lap. See madagascar-tourisme.com

TUK-TUK, PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

Riding in a colourful roofed trailer that's attached to a motorbike is a fun way to be part of the outrageous Phnom Penh traffic without having to be responsible for crossing roads. Usually just a couple of dollars a trip within the city centre, negotiate a price before you get moving, help the driver with directions if you know the way and keep in mind the Khmer word for stop is "chop". See tourismcambodia.com

THE LONDON UNDERGROUND, BRITAIN

The world's first underground railway, better known as The Tube, is a magical environment of warm winds, aesthetic tile work and the music of talented (licenced) performers wafting up escalators and down tunnels. London Underground has long been a huge supporter of the arts and design so there are many site-specific artworks and an ongoing program of events. See tfl.gov.uk

FIVE OUTSTANDING PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEMS

CHEAPEST

Luxembourg's new government has vowed, along with creating two new public holidays and legalising cannabis, to make the country's public transport free by June 2019 in an effort to reduce the ridiculous state of traffic congestion in Luxembourg City. See visitluxembourg.com

GREENEST

Germany and France have together developed the world's first CO2-emission-free hydrogen passenger train. In 2018 two bright blue Coradia iLint trains hit the rails in German's Lower Saxony. The new trains are also low-noise and reach a respectable 140km/h. See niedersachsen-tourism.com

FASTEST

Feel the need for speed? The Shanghai Maglev Train hits 431km/h as it shuttles between the city's airport and the outer reaches of its metro. The comfortable 30-kilometre journey takes only eight minutes. See smtdc.com/en

EASIEST

It's always impressive when old cities commit to accessible public transport so shout-outs to Israel's Tel Aviv, Poland's Gdynia, Denver Colorado and, most notably, Berlin. Bonus points for Moscow metro where announcements are delivered by female or male-sounding voices depending on train direction so that visually impaired travellers can orientate themselves. See berlin.travelable.info

SLEEKEST

Trust the Scandinavians. Copenhagen metro's 20-kilometre city circle line, Cityringen, will be a driver-less rail system that runs 24 hours a day seven days a week transporting about 250,000 passengers every day. It's scheduled to open July 2019. See intl.m.dk

FIVE PUBLIC TRANSPORT EXPERIENCES YOU SHOULD ONLY HAVE IF YOU REALLY MUST

BUSSING DEATH ROAD, BOLIVIA

Every year many vehicles drop off the 61-kilometre cliffside dirt track of North Yungas Road, better known as "Death Road", linking La Paz to Coroico. There's now an alternative highway route, you may be relieved to learn.

CATCHING A TRAIN AT SINJUKU STATION DURING RUSH HOUR, JAPAN

If you're joining Tokyo commuters at a major train station like Sinjuku, which handles more than 3 million passengers a day, then prepare to be professionally shoved by an oshiya. The word literally means pusher and the whole thing is a claustrophobe's nightmare.

BEING ONE OF THREE ADULTS ON A MOTORBIKE TAXI, HANOI, VIETNAM

So you're really proud of the price you and your friend haggled for with the driver but the car you just assumed you were bargaining over turns out to be a motorbike. It's tempting to get on and share foot pegs with your travelling companion but it's probably better to find a second bike.

RIDING A DONKEY, GREECE

Does that donkey really seem to be enjoying hauling you around that Greek isle in midday sun too hot for you walk in? These beasts of burden undeniably provide essential income for local families and it's your call but maybe you could just pay the owner to have a photo shoot with it.

USING A WOMEN-ONLY TRAIN CARRIAGE

Women passengers get off a

A "women only" carriage in Tokyo. Photo: AP

In Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico and United Arab Emirates, an implemented "solution" to sexual harassment and assault on public transport is segregation. Though in all cases it's the potential victims, as opposed to perpetrators, who are in isolation.

See also: The world's greatest train journeys

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