We seldom pay much attention to the transport systems that make up the travelling world, other than to gripe about the inconvenience. Airports and train stations aren't often places in which to linger. Bridges and tunnels are just humdrum necessities to get from A to B. And yet sometimes, as we hurry onwards, we feel compelled to pause as, for a brief moment, we're reminded of the romance of travel and the great achievements of transport we so much take for granted.
Jeppesen Terminal at Denver International Airport is one such place, with its series of pitched Teflon-coated, tent-like roofs that echo the Rocky Mountains on the horizon and recall the wagons of early settlers. Antwerp Centraal station in Belgium is another, built in 1905 in marble and stone, topped with an iron-and-glass ceiling and swathed in neo-baroque opulence – one of those great cathedrals of the industrial age.
Artists have always noticed the import and marvels of transportation. English Romantic painter William Turner was captivated by the newfangled power of train travel, highlighted by his blurred-looking masterpiece Rain, Steam and Speed. Vincent Van Gogh painted stage coaches at Arles, railway tunnels and bridges, and an arresting Landscape with Carriage and Train that bridged the old and new transport systems of the 1890s. Claude Monet particularly loved the artistic possibilities offered by billowing steam, and often painted Saint-Lazare station in Paris in the 1870s – you can see one in Musée d'Orsay, itself once a train station.
In short, you don't have to be on the move to appreciate transport. Historic infrastructure can be a sight in itself, as can the latest contemporary versions. On a smaller scale, a lipstick-pink Cadillac taxi in Havana can be as much a glamorous object as a prosaic mode of transport. Similarly, museums exhibits might remind us that means of transportation can be artworks as well as practical tools. The Tudor Mary Rose ship, a Viking-era sled carved with animal heads, an Ancient Egyptian boat or an early-model automobile are all as fascinating – and as beautiful – as more traditional museum sights. Here's where to delve into the wonders of transport through the ages.
BERLIN TEMPELHOF, GERMANY
TRANSPORT ME Architect Norman Foster (designer of numerous terminals) called the 1930s terminal here "the mother of all airports" for its features reproduced in airports since. The airport's Nazi incarnation was redeemed when Tempelhof became the centre of the 1948 Berlin airlift. The airport, decommissioned in 2008, is Europe's largest monument.
TELL ME MORE The airport has become a public park crisscrossed with cycling, jogging and skating tracks and an expansive picnic area. A two-hour walking tour takes you to various parts of the gigantic airport building and its World War II bunkers and tunnels, and provides insight into its architecture and ideological history.
ESSENTIALS Tempelhof-Schöneberg, Berlin. Open daily, tours daily Wednesday-Sunday. Entry free, adult tours 15 euros ($24). See thf-berlin.de
NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM, US
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, USA
TRANSPORT ME This part of the Smithsonian focuses entirely on aircraft, spacecraft, rockets and missiles – the largest such collection anywhere – enhanced by state-of-the-art digital displays. It's a hymn to the human aspiration to fly. A swooping planetarium whiz through space will give you a hankering to explore further frontiers.
TELL ME MORE Admire everything from the 1903 Wright Flyer plane flown by the flight pioneering Wright Brothers to the first American jet aircraft and latest Mars probes. (Exhibits are being rearranged this year, so some galleries may be closed). A separate location near the international airport showcases the most thrilling exhibit, the space shuttle Discovery.
ESSENTIALS 600 Independence Avenue, Washington DC. Open daily except Christmas Day. Entry free. See airandspace.si.edu
THE TRAIN STATION
CHHATRAPATI SHIVAJI TERMINUS, INDIA
TRANSPORT ME In the Victorian age, train stations were compared to cathedrals and seemed to embody the forward-surging spirit of the age. In 1853 India's first passenger train service started here. Now three million commuters pour through daily. Perfect, then, that this grand edifice in Mumbai, formerly known as Victoria Terminus, celebrates Britain (pioneer of train station design) and India, one of the world's great railway nations.
TELL ME MORE The spectacular, World Heritage-listed, Gothic Revival façade might remind you of London's Houses of Parliament but is far more ornate, with extravagant dollops of Hindu and Islamic influences and extraordinary gargoyles and stained glass. Come for the astonishing architecture, but be mesmerised by the ceaseless flow of humanity.
ESSENTIALS Fort, Mumbai. Open 24 hours. Entry free. See maharashtratourism.gov.in
THE TRAIN MUSEUM
KYOTO RAILWAY MUSEUM, JAPAN
TRANSPORT ME The world's best railway system wows every visitor with its punctuality, organisation and cleanliness, and train travel has become part of Japanese culture. No surprise, then, that this museum is one of the world's best, and gleams with numerous sleek-nosed shinkansen (bullet trains).
TELL ME MORE The revolutionary shinkansen was (and still is) a technological marvel. You can see one of the originals and several others here, as well as try your skills as a driver on a simulator. You can also take vintage steam-train rides, see a huge train turntable and admire train-related memorabilia.
ESSENTIALS Kankijicho, Kyoto. Open daily except Wednesdays and New Year period. Adult entry JPY 1200 ($16). See kyotorailwaymuseum.jp/en/
THE METRO SYSTEM
Metro station Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Revolution Square, Moscow. Photo: Alamy
TRANSPORT ME There's something horrid about most underground railways, with their combination of sweat, gloom and urgency, but not in Moscow. Its metro opened in 1935 and became a showcase of Soviet ideology and architecture and later modernist styles, making a commute a rare visual pleasure.
TELL ME MORE Many stations are elaborately decorated in different styles with frescoes, mosaics, statues, and ironwork. Mayakovskaya highlights Soviet aviation achievements, Komsomolskaya has marble columns and chandeliers, Ploshchad Revolyutsii features bronzes of Soviet worthies. Late evenings or Sundays provide a commuter-free look. The metro also runs tours to highlight stations, plus depot areas closed to the public.
ESSENTIALS Moscow-wide. Open daily 5:30am to 1am. Adult metro ticket RUB 55 ($1.20). See mosmetro.ru
… AND AUTOMOBILES
THE CAR FACTORY
VOLKSWAGEN FACTORY, GERMANY
TRANSPORT ME Many excellent German car factories and museums address glamorous brands such as BWM and Audi, but the more basic car transformed travel for all of us. A factory visit here, which focuses on the Volkswagen Golf, highlights the marvel of mass production and 21st century automation.
TELL ME MORE Autostadt (Car City) has an AutoMuseum covering the history of Volkswagen; pavilions dedicated to VW brands SEAT, Škoda and Lamborghini; and eye-catching high-rise Car Towers that stack 400 vehicles. The Factory Tour is a six-kilometre journey from power station to production halls.
ESSENTIALS Autostadt, Wolfsburg. Open daily except Mondays and Christmas period. Adult entry 15 euros ($24), factory tour free, museum 6 euros ($10). See automuseum-volkswagen.de and autostadt.de
THE OCEAN BRIDGE
HONG KONG–ZHUHAI–MACAU BRIDGE, CHINA
Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge in Zhuhai.
TRANSPORT ME Driving across the ocean seemed like a sci-fi fantasy until the late 20th century, and now 21st century China has taken the concept to a whole new level. Its latest completed project is this 55-kilometre system, the longest sea-crossing bridge anywhere, that connects three major cities across the Pearl River Delta.
TELL ME MORE Like most ocean bridges, this is a combination of bridge, tunnel and causeway. Crossing viaducts allow the switch from left to right-hand driving. You can travel in public shuttle buses or private coaches. Self-driving is difficult, requiring special permits and insurance.
ESSENTIALS Lantau Island, Hong Kong. Open 24 hours, shuttle service 24 hours. Adult shuttle fare HKD 65 ($12). See hzmb.gov.hk
THE CAR DESIGN MUSEUM
MULLIN AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM, US
TRANSPORT ME We don't often consider modes of transport as objects of artistic beauty, but this Californian museum might make you see cars in a whole new light. The private collection is a tribute to the great car-styling and industry-admiring age of the early 20th century and its relation to the Art Deco movement.
TELL ME MORE Some 140 exhibits highlight the craftsmanship of early car designers and engineers and particularly the beauty of the curve coachwork on Delages, Delahayes, Hispano-Suizas, Bugattis, Talbot-Lagos and Voisins. Several gorgeous bonnet mascots were designed by René Lalique. Furniture, decorative arts and paintings provide background to the Art Deco era.
ESSENTIALS Oxnard, California. Open 12 Saturdays annually, consult website for more details. Adult entry USD 16 ($23). See mullinautomotivemuseum.com
THE SUSPENSION BRIDGE
GLACIER 3000, SWITZERLAND
Glacier 3000 Peak Walk Bridge Photo: Glacier 3000
TRANSPORT ME Bridges are among the earliest expressions of our human desire to make it easier to get about, and through the centuries we've designed ever more ingenious and beautiful ways on which to overcome natural obstacles. This daring new suspension bridge is a world first, connecting two alpine peaks in a single bound.
TELL ME MORE The bridge is only 80 centimetres wide and 107 metres long but has a nearly 2000-metre drop below and couldn't have a more spectacular setting in the Swiss Alps. The Peak Walk into which it is incorporated has views to the Matterhorn, Jungfrau and Mont Blanc.
ESSENTIALS Les Diablerets, Switzerland. Open daily, weather dependent. Adult entry CHF 80 ($116) including chairlift and glacier walk. See glacier3000.ch
… AND A SHIP, TOO
THE OCEAN LINER
TITANIC BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND
TRANSPORT ME Transport disasters have the power to fascinate, even a century on. Titanic was the largest ship of its time and the world's biggest moving object. When it sank in 1912 the world's confidence in technological advance was shaken. This first-class centre at the former shipyard where Titanic was constructed covers the story of the ill-fated ship and its place in pop culture.
TELL ME MORE Inspect the original ship's plans and models, ride through the recreated shipyard, compare the three classes of cabins, and learn more about Titanic's first and final journey. An interesting gallery also addresses the ship's place in social culture and urban myth.
ESSENTIALS Queen's Road, Belfast. Open daily expect December 24-26. Adult entry GBP 19 ($23). See titanicbelfast.com
FIVE MORE BEAUTIFUL TRAIN STATIONS
1. GRAND CENTRAL, NEW YORK, US
Grand Central Terminal is inspired by monumental Roman architecture and has a concourse topped by blue ceilings with golden constellations. Halls are adorned with stone sculptures and marble, huge chandeliers and Tiffany clocks. It's a great upmarket dining destination, so enjoy smoked salmon and champagne as trains shunt. See grandcentralterminal.com
SÃO BENTO, PORTO, PORTUGAL
2. Paris provided architectural inspiration for this elegant, granite-built 1896 train station, but the interior is all Portuguese thanks to the 20,000 blue-and-white tiles on its walls, depicting romanticised scenes from Portuguese and transport history and the countryside. The tiles aren't just an architectural embellishment but keep the building cool. See visitporto.travel
3. KANAZAWA STATION, KANAZAWA, JAPAN
Kanazawa, Japan Photo: iStock
This sleek, contemporary Japanese station won several architectural awards when it opened in 2005. It blends modern architecture with Japanese tradition, most notably with its twisted take on its entrance torii gate, backed by a huge glass dome. The concourse features cypress beams and displays Kanazawa crafts such as ceramics and lacquerware. See kanazawastation.com
4. GARE DE LYON, PARIS, FRANCE
Gare de Lyon is one of Europe's busiest train stations, and displays gorgeous classical Beaux Arts architecture in stone, glass, iron and stained glass. Its giant clock resembles those on Big Ben. The ornate Train Bleu restaurant has amazing stucco and gold ceilings and is surely the most beautiful train-station restaurant anywhere. See parisinfo.com
5. HAYDARPASA, ISTANBUL, TURKEY
You'll have to wait to admire Haydarpasa train station, slated to reopen this year after renovations. The 1909 terminus on the Asian side of Istanbul looks like a castle, blends Ottoman and neoclassical influences and is embellished with Italian stonework. Byzantine artefacts have been unearthed during its current works. See howtoistanbul.com
FIVE MORE GREAT TRANSPORT MUSEUMS TO VISIT
1. RIVERSIDE MUSEUM, GLASGOW, SCOTLAND
This transport museum is one of Scotland's most popular attractions and housed in a jagged Zaha Hadid-designed building. It displays everything from prams and skateboards to steam locomotives and a tall ship, and has abundant, informative touch screens. Kids will enjoy the interactive fire engine and a clamber through old trams and buses. See glasgowlife.org.uk
2. HENRY FORD MUSEUM, DEARBORN, US
It isn't only Fords showcased in this Detroit suburb. One of America's largest museums covers everything from inventors to agriculture and domestic life. Exhibitions include the Wright Brothers' bicycle shop, the Lincoln in which JFK was assassinated, and the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat. See thehenryford.org
3. CITÉ DU TRAIN, MULHOUSE, FRANCE
Europe's largest railway museum at Mulhouse in eastern France showcases heritage trains including Europe's oldest locomotive, Charles de Gaulle's railway car, an Orient Express carriage, and the first 1976 high-speed TGV. It presents an excellent overview of the evolution of train travel, enlivened by video and sound recordings. See citedutrain.com
4. HERITAGE TRANSPORT MUSEUM, HARYANA, INDIA
The evolution of transport in India at this museum southwest of Delhi starts with decorative palanquins and howdahs, bullock carts and bicycles, but moves on to planes and automobiles. Especially interesting sections cover colonial-era trains and the role of cars in Bollywood movies. See heritagetransportmuseum.org
5. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF TRANSPORTATION, ST LOUIS, US
This outstanding Missouri museum has exhibits ranging from horse-drawn carriages to military aircraft, tugboats and every other transport mode imaginable. It displays 70 locomotives, some unique survivors, and one the largest built. A Creation Station is dedicated to children's learning. See transportmuseumassociation.org
HITCHING A RIDE ON HISTORY
Fancy experiencing the historic transport you see in museums? Here are five ways to do so.
1. THE PLANE
The Douglas DC-3 changed aviation history when it launched in 1935 as the first truly viable passenger airliner and, post-World War II, mainstay of many airlines. A surprising number still operate worldwide, including the first Netherlands government aircraft, later used by its royal family. It offers regular flights over Holland between April and November. See dutchdakota.nl
2. THE CAR
Forget convertibles and sports cars and take to a classic Fiat 500, the ultimate compact car produced between 1957 and 1975 and designed for city living. It's a tad under three metres long but fits four (short) people. Nowhere better than a drive around Rome like an extra in a movie about the dolce vita. See rome500exp.com
3. THE TRAM
They're colonial-era relics and have hot, open carriages and uncomfortable wooden seats, but Hong Kong's rickety trams are so endearing its normally forward-looking residents refuse to see them go. There was even an outcry in 2000 when their ding-ding bells were replaced by electronic buzzers in a decision hurriedly reversed. See hktramways.com
4. THE MILITARY AIRCRAFT
Take your pick at Arizona Commemorative Airforce Museum, where you can fly in an open-cockpit Stearman bi-plane, C-47 Skytrain troop carrier, or fully restored Flying Fortress heavy bomber. The most exciting is a ride in a SNJ-T6 Texan, a high-speed fighter trainer designed in the 1930s for aerial dog-fighting, among other operations. See azcaf.org
5. THE TRAIN
Elegance, old-world luxury and impeccable service combine in the gleaming green carriages of the Eastern & Oriental Express. Cabins are panelled in cherry wood, silverware winks in the dining room, and a pianist plays in the cocktail car. The signature journey runs between Singapore and Bangkok, with occasional detours to other destinations. See belmond.com