At a resort, the only road many travellers care about is the one leading from the beach to the cocktail shack. However, urban travelling is by its nature more nomadic and diverse; the goal of most city visits is to see certain key landmarks while also gaining a more holistic understanding of the city’s unique character; you can’t really claim to know Paris if all you’ve seen is the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. That’s where transit comes in.
For most, public transit is a budget decision; if charters, taxis and rented cars are too expensive, public transportation becomes a fallback. Busses, trams, monorails, and subways can not only get you around a city quickly, they can open up whole municipalities you would never have seen without it. The window of a bus offers a scrolling view of shops, venues, restaurants and parks. And if something looks interesting? Just pull the cord – no parking required. No matter what the city, every local knows about little treasures tucked safely off the beaten path, and it’s in these places that a city’s personality can come to the fore.
If you are planning to travel by transit, certain major cities will offer the least resistance. With more than 27,000 kilometers of track for its various trains, Tokyo has the most extensive self-contained system in the world. However, travellers interested in seeing the sights will want to avoid underground tunnels or secluded railways; seeing the city is half the point.
In that spirit, cities with elevated rapid transit are often well suited to bus-bound gawking. Systems like Chicago’s L Train or Vancouver’s SkyTrain give travellers a bird’s-eye view of a city’s features and layout. Conventional street busses are also useful, letting passengers peer into windows and investigate interesting locations. Destinations like Paris, Copenhagen and Hong Kong are known for their extensive transit coverage. Cities like London and New York also have world-renowned rapid transit lines, but the lines are unfortunately buried underground.
From a cost perspective, there’s no beating the train; most major cities will sell an unlimited day pass for the price of a fifteen-minute cab ride. Transit almost always heavily services major landmarks and tourist attractions, so most will find their itineraries unaffected. Not to mention that public transportation has one thing no rented sedan ever could: locals. Those wanting to expand their understanding of a city are well served by meeting the people who comprise it. Compare even a short tram ride through Portland with a bus through Houston, and the cultural differences between the two places will become apparent. Many of these differences won’t necessarily be visible to more sheltered tourists.
If you’re travelling to a metropolitan center, consider taking the time to ride the rail, the bus, whatever mode of transport will get you to your destination while passing as many intervening sights as possible. It might lengthen your trip times a bit, but the experiences you gain might just last a lifetime.