The Transportation Mistake Tourists Make In London That Can Be A Huge Time Waster

While there is little doubt that London is one of the world's great cities, it can be quite a divisive place. Some people love it for its boundless energy, exciting opportunities, and endless options for dining, nightlife, sightseeing, and culture. Others see it as a hectic and congested hellhole where everyone is too busy and nobody smiles; in 2017, Timeout voted it the unfriendliest city in the U.K. As with all things that split opinion, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and the same goes for the Big Smoke's world-famous subway system.

The London Underground, also known colloquially as the Tube, is one of the world's oldest and largest metro networks. The facts, figures, and unusual trivia are enough to fill an entire book, and it is a marvel of engineering and planning. It's been around since 1863 when the first underground railway served six stations between Paddington and Farringdon. Now the network has expanded to over 270 stops transporting up to 5 million people per day. Its sign, with a bold blue line bisecting a red circle, has become as iconic as the classic red telephone box and the ingenious design of the Tube map, created by Harry Beck in the 1930s, has been emulated by other subway systems around the world.

Yet while some people love the London Underground, just as many find it a frustrating and miserable experience. Worse still, if you're only in London for a short visit, it can also be a total waste of time, especially when walking to your destination would actually be a faster way to get around.

Taking the London Underground isn't always the best option

London is a sprawling city of almost 10 million residents, joined daily by thousands of tourists and people commuting to work from further afield. The capital is also very old, and driving can be a total nightmare. Some of the streets date back to medieval times or even earlier, and much of the street plan was laid down before car ownership was a common thing. As a result, the traffic in London is regularly ranked as the worst in the world.

Faced with the crowds, many tourists instinctively duck into the subway when visiting London. But this isn't always the quickest and most pleasant way to travel, especially during rush hour. This is when you will often see the Tube at its worst, as the narrow and claustrophobic tunnels are swarming with hurried commuters cramming themselves into bulging subway cars. People can get pretty bad-tempered, and things are made even worse if there is a delay on the line.

It's best to consider how much time you will save by taking the London Underground. It's not always easy to judge, especially since the genius of Harry Beck's map design was making all distances between stations equal. But if you take the tube, also factor in how long it will take to descend to the platform, wait for the train, take the ride, and journey back to the surface at the other end.

Walking in central London is a better way to see the city

If you want a great example of how much time can be wasted on the London Underground, consider the short trip between Leicester Square and Covent Garden. The stations are only around 900 feet apart and the journey takes around 45 seconds. Yet hundreds of people take this pointless journey every week when it's almost quicker to walk.

The Tube is justifiably famous and you will see merch in souvenir shops alongside the Paddington Bear cuddlies and Royal Family crockery, but there's nothing really memorable about it apart from the experience of riding the world's oldest subway. It doesn't have "palaces of the people" like undergrounds of the former Soviet Union or absorbing artwork like Stockholm's metro system. While there are some lovely stations, most of the time you will spend trudging through dreary tunnels and riding escalators. This is time spent away from actually drinking in the sights and atmosphere of the city itself.

While London may be hectic, it is never boring. Even the most mundane-looking street offers terrific people-watching opportunities or reveals interesting cafes, restaurants, or shops. That's before you seek out the top London attractions. If you visit St. Paul's Cathedral by Tube, you could just pop up at the namesake station next to it. That's convenient, but nothing compared to seeing the vast dome of Christopher Wren's masterpiece rising in the distance as you stroll along Fleet Street.