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The 10 Cities with the Best Public Transportation

SmarterTravel

When exploring a new city, you can save money and get around like the locals by relying on public transit—but in some places that’s easier than others. Cities with the best public transportation have networks that cover all the neighborhoods you want to see, with reliable, frequent service at an affordable price. The ideal public transit system is also easy for visitors to use, with features like color-coded subway lines and signs in multiple languages.

The 10 cities below offer some of the best public transportation in the world.

Tokyo, Japan

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Tokyo’s subway map looks impossibly complex at first glance, especially because the trains are operated by multiple companies. Fortunately, the system is easier to use than it appears: When you buy a reloadable card (such as Suica or Pasmo), you can use it on any train or bus, regardless of which company operates it.

English-language signs are plentiful throughout Tokyo’s major stations, and the system is so extensive that you can get just about anywhere in this sprawling metropolis. A recent study by McKinsey & Company, Elements of Success: Urban Transportation Systems of 24 Global Cities, placed Tokyo in its top three cities for rail infrastructure, noting that 80 percent of the city’s jobs and population are within a kilometer of a rail station. Tokyo’s trains and buses operate frequently and are scrupulously clean.

Where to stay: Located near bustling Shibuya Station (with its famously busy pedestrian crossing), the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel is a great choice for travelers seeking city views: All rooms are on the 19th floor or higher.

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Paris, France

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The venerable subway system in Paris—with its distinctive art deco-style Metropolitain signs marking many of the stations—has been carrying visitors and locals across the city since 1900. Its color-coded lines are easy to navigate, and the organization that operates the Metro, RATP, offers an app (iOS | Android) that works offline to help visitors find their way around.

Paris was McKinsey & Company’s top-ranking European city for public transport, with particularly strong results in affordability and rail infrastructure.

Where to stay: The stylish Hotel Le Six is located near multiple Metro stations for easy access to the rest of the city.

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Hong Kong, China

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Pretty much every list of cities with the best public transportation includes Hong Kong, and for good reason. Clean, comprehensive, and efficient, Hong Kong’s public transit network includes buses, trams, subways, and overland trains.

McKinsey & Company praises the city’s rail infrastructure, which reaches just about every corner of the city, as well as its high-tech ticketing and affordability. Visitors can purchase a reloadable Octopus card that can be used not only on most forms of public transportation but also for shopping and dining around town.

Where to stay: The elegant Pottinger Hong Kong has a handy location within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and the city’s central train station.

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Montreal, Canada

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Between its color-coded subway lines and wide-ranging bus network, Montreal’s public transportation will get you just about anywhere you need to go—without being over-complicated. Its website has a handy list of major landmarks for visitors, such as Vieux-Montreal (Old Montreal), Saint-Joseph Oratory, and Jean-Talon Market, along with the nearest subway station and bus stop to each one.

Fare options are flexible: You can purchase tickets by the ride, buy a 10-trip package, or snag an unlimited pass for anywhere from one day to four months.

Where to stay: Hotel Bonaparte offers charming rooms—many with wood floors and exposed brick walls—in Old Montreal, within walking distance of Notre-Dame Basilica and the Place d’Armes station.

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Moscow, Russia

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From mosaics and stained glass to bronze chandeliers and metal sculptures, Moscow’s Metro stations are full of art—and many are so beautiful that there are tours dedicated to exploring them.

Fortunately, they’re also part of an affordable transit network that is currently undergoing a major expansion. According to McKinsey & Company, 61 new Metro stations were built between 2010 and 2017, and the city has also significantly added to its dedicated bus lanes. Foreign visitors benefit from a recent effort to increase the number of English-language signs throughout the Metro system.

Where to stay: The Mercure Arbat Moscow offers reasonably priced rooms in a central location within a five-minute walk of a Metro station.

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Sydney, Australia

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Encompassing trains, buses, light rail, and ferries, Sydney’s public transportation system offers a reliable and cost-effective way to get around the city. It’s gotten easier and cheaper to ride thanks to the Opal card, a reloadable smartcard that offers discounted fares and can be used on all modes of transit.

McKinsey & Company ranked Sydney in the top five cities for public transit affordability based on the local cost of living—and you can’t beat the ferry rides for fresh air and city views.

Where to stay: The colorful luxury suites at the ADGE Apartment Hotel are located in the Surry Hills district, within walking distance of Central Station.

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Zurich, Switzerland

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As you’d expect in a country with a reputation for cleanliness and efficiency, Zurich’s public transportation network—which includes trains, buses, and trams—is top-notch. Within the city, you’re rarely more than 300 meters from the nearest bus or tram stop, which may explain why 40 percent of all trips in Zurich are made using public transportation, according to a recent Greenpeace study. And the cost is quite affordable by Swiss standards.

A Zurich Card entitles visitors to unlimited travel on all public transportation in the region, as well as free or reduced admission to dozens of area museums, for either 24 or 72 hours. Day passes solely for public transit are also available.

Where to stay: Located in the heart of Zurich’s old town, Hotel Helmhaus is within walking distance of both a tram stop and a train station.

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Singapore

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McKinsey & Company describes Singapore’s public transportation system as “best in class” thanks to its affordability, efficiency, comfort, and convenience. Cheap, clean trains whisk travelers from one top attraction to another, including Chinatown, Gardens by the Bay, and the upmarket shops of Orchard Road.

Where Singapore’s trains don’t go, the buses do—and an EZ-Link card gets you access to both networks.

Where to stay: There’s a transit station directly under the Hotel Jen Orchardgateway, which offers a rooftop pool and a location right on Orchard Road.

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San Francisco, California

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The City by the Bay snagged the second-place spot in a recent list of transit-friendly U.S. cities from Walk Score, which measures the convenience and frequency of public transportation. The city’s transit system, Muni, operates subway and bus lines as well as San Francisco’s famous cable cars and street cars—which might not always be the fastest way to get around town, but are certainly the most fun. You can buy Muni tickets in various ways, including by using its mobile app (iOS | Android).

Muni connects to regional train services such as Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain, which can take you to other key spots in the region like Oakland, San Jose, Palo Alto, and San Francisco International Airport.

Where to stay: Treat yourself to a room with a fireplace at the White Swan Inn, located near Union Square and multiple Muni stops.

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Sao Paulo, Brazil

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Sao Paulo’s traffic is notoriously terrible, and its attractions are scattered across the city, so many visitors opt to get around via the comfortable and convenient subway system (called the Metro). At the time of publication, a single-ride ticket cost just 4.00 Brazilian real, or about $1.06 USD—which makes getting around incredibly cheap.

The system’s five color-coded Metro lines serve the city’s key tourist attractions, including the Museum of Art (Metro stop: Trianon-MASP), the Sao Paulo Cathedral (Metro stop: Se), and the Monastery of Sao Bento (Metro stop: Sao Bento). Most major stations have transportation offices with staff who can answer questions or help you buy a ticket.

Where to stay: The contemporary Royal Jardins Hotel is just two blocks from the Trianon-MASP station.

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