Sometimes a train station isn't just a means to an end - it's a destination in itself. These artful stops are reason enough to take your sightseeing underground.
1. Baker Street, London, England
Baker Street is where Sherlock Holmes lived in Arthur Conan Doyle's popular novels – hence the station's tiles, decorated with the detective's pipe-puffing silhouette. The station is a busy hub of the London Underground, serving five lines and carrying carriage-loads of tourists to Madame Tussauds and Regent's Park. Back in 1863, when the Underground was starting out life as the Metropolitan, the world's first underground railway, Baker Street was one of the stops. It's a survivor, unlike some of the other Underground stations, which have fallen into disuse and are glimpsed only as 'ghost stations' from the windows of trains moving between platforms.
Baker Street is on the Circle, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan, Jubilee and Bakerloo lines. The Hammersmith & City platforms are the oldest.
2. T-Centralen, Stockholm, Sweden
There's so much to love about Stockholm's metro. First of all, it's called the tunnelbana. Second of all, it's often referred to as 'the world's longest art gallery' because almost every station in the system displays some kind of artwork. And thirdly, when it was dug out, the natural rock formation was left on Line B, giving cave-like arches to the concourses. T-Centralen, the system's hub, feels like you've entered into the Hall of the Mountain King, with rough arches painted up in traditional blue-and-white designs by Finnish artist Per Olaf Utvedt. There are also mosaic pillars and a mural depicting the tunnelbana workers on their scaffolding.
All local transport is run by Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (www.sl.se). There's an SL office in the basement of Centralstationen (not to be confused with T-Centralen).
3. Komsomolskaya, Moscow, Russia
Part baroque palace, part art gallery, part political exhortation, Komsomolskaya fights off some stiff competition from Moscow's marvellously elaborate subway stations to take the (highly decorated) cake. What makes it the greatest? The chandeliers, the hefty marble columns, the pale yellow arched ceilings picked out with snowy white decorative details… not to mention the mosaics. Inspired by Stalin's speech at the 1941 Moscow Parade, the mosaics depict Russian weaponry and glorious moments in the struggle for Russian freedom, and have been subject to some revisions over the years (including a retouch to remove Stalin himself).
Komsomolskaya is on the Koltsevaya line. It gets some major traffic, so visit outside peak hours to linger over the decor.
4. Hollywood/Vine, Los Angeles, USA
OK, so perhaps it's tacky, but would you want the Hollywood/Vine station to be anything else? The LA subway gives it up for celluloid in this film-inspired station design including Yellow Brick Road paving, movie-theatre elevators, displays of 1930s projectors and even the notes to the 'Hooray for Hollywood' song in the handrails. The fake palm trees and vaulted ceilings recall the city's classic movie theatres. (If you look very closely, you'll see the ceilings are covered with film reels.)
Duck up to street level to pose with the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just outside the station.
5. Westfriedhof, Munich, Germany
The architecture here is by Auer & Weber, but it's the work of Ingo Maurer that puts this place up with the big boys. In fact, the station is pretty bleak, all stark lines and concrete (the name means 'West Cemetery', so perhaps we should expect something a little sombre). But it's transformed by Maurer's light design. Huge lamps cast vivid colour over the walls and platforms, saturating the concrete with stained-glass blues, yellows and reds. And suddenly, wonderland! It's a place to ponder how easily the human desire for decoration can be satisfied. And maybe the place to shoot an '80s film clip.
Westfriedhof is a U-Bahn station on the U1 line. Rest up at the nearby neo-Renaissance mini-castle Hotel Laimer Hof (www.laimerhof.de).
6. Flora Station, Prague, Czech Republic
Prague may be a magic fairytale city above ground, but head down into its metro and it's pure 1970s – Soviet sci-fi style. The stations are decorated with geometric claddings that form long sleek perspectives and disappear into the tunnels. It's hard not to feel you should be donning your space gun and teleport bracelet and rushing down the platforms. Flora is one of the most stunning of the stations, with gold and burgundy spheres that whoosh past like light trails when you're coming in on a train. Ride Line A to get the effect.
Don't miss the ticket halls with their murals of greenery. Flora is just below the shopping mall Palác Flora, and close to the New Jewish Cemetery.
7. Namur, Montréal, Canada
Montréal's subway system dates from the 1960s, and has housed the work of Québec's artists ever since its opening. The stations have varying levels of cultural excitement – some are notable more for their architectural features, like stained-glass windows that let in natural light to the concourses – but some are enlivened by sculptures and coloured tiles. Namur would be a fairly bleak station if it weren't for Système, a vast aluminium sculpture by Pierre Granche that hangs from the roof. Its interlocking structures recall molecules or geometric bubbles and give the station a magical, ethereal feel.
The station is on the Orange line – slightly ironic given its grey-and-steel colour scheme (well, it was opened in 1984…).
8. Syntagma, Athens, Greece
While the Athens metro is relatively new, several of its stations sport ancient artefacts dug up during the excavations. The process of tunnelling out the metro began in the early 1990s and was unprecedented in its cooperation between the engineers making the new lines, and archaeologists from the Ministry of Culture who worked alongside them to salvage and categorise the spoils under the city's surface. At Syntagma
the fi nds included Roman baths, a sculpture foundry, an ancient road, an aqueduct and a river bed. Objects from the digs (or their replicas) are displayed at the station.
Want more ancient artefacts? Visit the National Archaeological Museum to see what was dug up in Athens in the 19th century.
9. Burjuman, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
As you'd expect, Dubai's metro is a flashy affair. The stations are all modernist curves and whimsical decorations, with the themes being earth, air, fire and water. Despite its sci-fi sleekness, there are some carefully incorporated elements of traditional architecture, such as oriels and arches. The metro also tips a nod to the past by modelling its buildings on seashells, a reference to the city's pearl-diving heritage. Burjuman (also called Khalid Bin Al Waleed) is one of the most impressive stations, an underwater extravaganza of blue light and drippy, trippy jellyfish chandeliers.
Swim your way through your commute by visiting Burjuman as you pass between the Red and the Green lines.
10. Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile
There are many stations that have elements of art in them, but few compare with Universidad de Chile for the feeling you've stepped inside a gallery – or a Renaissance church. The station walls are covered with a giant mural by Mario Toral that explores Chile's history in a grand heroic style that sometimes recalls Soviet art, sometimes an art deco cinema. But this is not bland public art. Toral pulls no punches, and all the pain of Chile's past – torture, fear, oppression – are there as well as its high points. It's a majestic achievement and well worth a detour.
There are other artistic highlights in them thar tunnels: try Santa Lucia station, with traditional Portuguese tiles donated by the Lisbon metro.