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London's public transport zones - a guide for the visitor, and how to use the tube map

Updated on October 20, 2011


London is an amazing place, and visitors to the city have to try very hard indeed not to enjoy themselves.

London has pretty good public transport, but the options and inter-linking might well be a bit confusing if you are not used to them.

Here, therefore, is a guide to London's public transport, for the tourist! It includes 5 methods of transport, and handy tips of how to pay as little as possible for getting around the most wonderful city in the world.

If you want to plan a journey by any combination of buses, trains, Tubes, and trams, the Transport for London website has a very helpful journey planner. If you enter two places in London, it will give you different routes about how to get there, and tell you when and where to change buses, trains etc.

1915 poster advertising the London Underground by making fun of German invasions during the First World War.
1915 poster advertising the London Underground by making fun of German invasions during the First World War.
Modern tube train at Mornington Crescent station
Modern tube train at Mornington Crescent station

The Tube - London's underground railway

The London Underground is the railway system serving the large part of Greater London and some of the neighbouring Home Counties, including Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Usually referred to as the London Underground, or the Tube, the system sets a number of records.

The first line, now the Bakerloo Line, was the first underground system in the world, opening in 1863. In 1890, the Tube was the first to have electric trains.

With approximately 260 miles of track, and 270 stations, it is the biggest metro system in the world. In 2008, 1.1 billion passenger journeys were made on the system.

If you’re staying in London, you would be well advised to get to grips with the system as it’s one of the easiest ways of getting around in London.

The system is divided into different lines, each with its own name and colour system on Tube maps. Stations which have more than one line going through them are handy for changing from line to another.

The system has continued to develop, with most recently a major extension to the Jubilee Line which goes out to the Millennium Dome. The Jubilee Line itself was built to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

The system does not operate all around the clock. It does on New Year’s and Day and for particular special events such as the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002, but in general trains start running on most lines between 4.30 and 5.30am, and stops between 1 and 1.30am.

Because the system is so complicated, a stylised map of the Tube was first designed by an underrated engineer, Harry Beck, in the early 1930s. It became a design classic, and was adopted around the world.

The common red circle with a blue line across holding the name of the station has been used since the earliest days of the 20th century.

Fares on the system vary. London Transport as a whole is divided into 6 zones, which are concentric circles. The centre of London, for example, is Zone 1. Zone 6 is the far outer edges of Greater London.

Almost all the Tube stations have ticket barriers, and you must buy a ticket before you descend to the platforms to catch a Tube train.

London Routemaster double decker bus
London Routemaster double decker bus

London's Buses

London buses, like the Tube and trams, are managed by Transport for London.

They are extremely useful, and often much quicker and more convenient for short journeys in Central London than the Tubes.

Most, although not all, of London’s buses are painted bright red.

There are a mixture of different types of buses, from long articulated ones, known as “bendy buses” and not generally much liked by the public because they seem to be too long for London’s streets, to a few of the old Routemasters.

There are also double-decker buses open at the back so you can jump on and off at traffic lights as well as at bus stops, double deckers which are closed between stops, and open topped tourist buses that tour along streets likely to interest tourists.

See the links to the right of this text for a collection of bus maps for London, and also have a look at the Transport for London websites, the link to which is shown above.

A lot of buses run 24 hours, and night buses have the number of the route they are on with an ‘N’ in front of it.

London black cab and phone box in the snow, Bedford Row, WC1, taken by me in Feb. 2009
London black cab and phone box in the snow, Bedford Row, WC1, taken by me in Feb. 2009

Black Cabs

The well-known black taxis in London are known as hackney carriages or cabs.

Black taxis are licensed by the Public Carriage Office, to whom Transport for London has delegated its licensing powers.

The black cabs are of a very specific design, and are rounded in the front, with the doors to the passenger compartment often opening at the front rather than at the back.

Many of the newer taxis are suitable for disabled passengers.

They have an orange light at the front saying “TAXI”. When the light is on, the taxi is for hire. A taxi is obliged to take you anywhere within 12 miles whether the driver wants to go that way or not.

There are over 20,000 black cabs in London at the moment. The design is that of a diesel engine, with a very small turning circle of only 24 feet. This means they can do turns and u-turns extremely easily.

It takes quite a long time to become a London taxi driver. They have to pass a series of tests known as, “The Knowledge”.

It takes, on average, 3 years for would-be taxi drivers to learn The Knowledge. The Knowledge is a detailed study of pretty much all “points of interest” that people might want to go to, including streets, hospitals, theatres, concert halls, hotels, government buildings, stations, courts, churches and similar, and other historic buildings.

Taxi drivers also have to memorise a large number of streets, and routes from one place to another. As a result, there is a pretty good chance that the taxi driver will know exactly where you want to go when you give him a street name or a building that you wish to visit.

Fares are standardised. All journeys are undertaken on a meter. The tariff varies, with 3 separate tariffs for normal working hours, night times, and weekends and public holidays.

Cycling in London

Cycling in London is fun, and it’s something that we do a great deal of.

Cyclists do have to take care. A lot of London streets are narrow, and traffic can be quite heavy.

The popularity of cycling has increased hugely in the 21st century, with an estimated twice as many cycle journeys in 2008 as in 1999.

Cyclists are allowed to cycle in bus lanes, and there are a number of special cycle lanes, sometimes marked in green on the general roads, and, increasingly, separate from the road with their own cycle traffic lights and junctions.

There are also lots of cycle paths through the Central London parks, along canals and rivers, and along the Thames paths.

It’s a great and healthy way to get around London, and altogether great fun.

Transport for London has produced a number of cycling guides, which can be obtained for free from their website, and show places where you can find cycle routes, and where you can park your bike.

There are an increasing number of bicycle stands all over Central London where you can lock a bike if you want to wander off and do something else.

Walking in London - a how-not-to-do-it guide....
Walking in London - a how-not-to-do-it guide....

Walking in London

As Dr. Samuel Johnson put it:

Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.

Walking around London will show you lots of places and streets that you would never otherwise see.

Wandering especially, for example, in the original City of London or around Westminster is a fascinating experience.

There are a lot of pedestrianised walkways which are great fun, for example along both banks of the Thames, particularly the South Bank and through the Central London parks.

To the right of this text you will find a number of guides to walking routes in London.

There are also some fantastic walking guides, which you will also see to the right of this text, many of which have themes, such as historic London pubs are roads associated with Jack the Ripper.

Travel on the River Thames

The River Thames runs right through the centre of London. Taking a riverboat tour is a fantastic way to see the capital from a different angle.

Transport for London regulates several different leisure cruise and commuter services on the Thames.

Many scheduled services depart from Westminster Pier and go east along the Thames either to Greenwich, or to as far down river as the Thames Flood Barrier.

Many stop as well at St Catherine’s Pier, and Millennium Pier, which are near the Tower of London.

As well as the site-seeing cruises up and down the river, run by several different companies, it’s also possible to charter boats if there’s a large group of you wanting to go for a tour, and there are various cruise boats doing dinner cruises up and down the river, generally between Greenwich and Westminster.

Transport for London has a rather handy list of river route maps, accessibility, departure times and similar. See to the right of this text for more details.

The trip from Westminster to Greenwich is a particular good one. Greenwich is the ancient maritime home of London, and buildings such as the Royal Naval College and Queen’s House are absolutely magnificent anyway, and particularly from the water.

It's also something children really enjoy, my own 3 year old son absolutely loves going under the bridges, including Tower Bridge, on this trip.

London Tube map 1908
London Tube map 1908
London geographically-accurate Tube Map
London geographically-accurate Tube Map
London Tube Map 2009, showing Zone 1 (central London)
London Tube Map 2009, showing Zone 1 (central London)
Oyster card reader for paying as you go or using an electronic travelcard
Oyster card reader for paying as you go or using an electronic travelcard

Paying for trips on the integrated London transport system - get cheaper fares!

You can buy paper tickets for a single journey, or (and this is strongly advised as it will save you a lot of money) you can buy and blue and yellow plastic Oyster Card.

The Oyster Card can be used as a pay as you go system. Money is put on the Card at any station or many newsagents, and when you go into a Tube station (or bus, some trains, or tram) you touch your Oyster Card against the yellow system.

This registers where you have gone into the Tube network, and you touch out again on your way out. The cost of your journey is then deducted from the Card.

As an example, if you were to make a single trip within Zone 1 of the Tube, it would cost £1.50 on your Oyster Card, but it would cost you a fairly horrific £4 in cash if you bought a paper ticket instead.

When you get an Oyster Card, you have to a pay £3 deposit, but you get it back when you surrender the Card at the end of your trip in London, or you can hang onto it for your next journey.

If you make lots of journeys on trains, Tubes, buses, or trams in one day, then you are never charged more than the cost of a Zones Travel Card for one day.

A Travel Card is a paper ticket which allows you travel on various different forms of transport within London for a specific period.

You can get a day Travel Card if you want, or you can get a season ticket one for a week, month, or year if you’re a commuter in town.

A Travel Card gives you free access to buses, Tubes, trains, the Docklands Light Railway and trams in Greater London (apart from the Gatwick, Heathrow and Stanstead Expresses) and also gives you a third off some river services.

If you’re buying a train ticket in or out of London, you can get an add-on with a one day Travel Card within London.

It really pays to get an Oyster Card if you’re going to use a bus. If you have an Oyster Card, any journey by bus within London, no matter how long, costs £1. If you buy a paper ticket with cash, it will set you back double that.

Associated articles on London

As for what to do when you've worked out how to get there, I can help there too!

Have a look at this article, detailing five fantastic family London activities which are free, and for a more detailed off-the-beaten-path London experience, this article on places in London associated with the Knights Templar.

For a historical perspective, read about how English people coped with the Nazi bombs dropped during the Blitz.


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    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from London

      Buses really are worth the effort - sometimes it's much quicker and simpler to hop on a bus than faff about with the tube.

    • SilkThimble profile image


      6 years ago from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

      Excellent hub! The Tube really is a boon for visitors to London. I must admit I've never tried the bus system (other than one of the lines purely for tourists my first time there), but the city is great for walking, so between that and the Tube, I'm set. I've taken a couple of the river cruises, and they are fun.

      Now I want to plan another trip over - it's been over 2 years since my last time in London!

    • SmittenWithTravel profile image


      7 years ago

      I loved this hub! This is going to help lots of people who are going to London for the first time...or the fifth time!

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      James, there are still a lot of red double-decker buses all over London, I promise!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      You did an excellent job at presenting the London transportation options. I still don't know why they swtiched from the double decker system to the coloured buses?

      Why is that? Anyone know.

    • WindyWinters profile image


      9 years ago from Vancouver Island, BC

      Great Hub! Thanks for your travel tips! :)

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Glad you found it useful.

    • sukkran profile image

      Mohideen Basha 

      9 years ago from TRICHY, TAMIL NADU, INDIA.

      wonderful presentation. great work lg. thumbs up for this well informative hub.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Yes, and there are more options now with the DLR going over the river, too.

      Don't know about car parks in Greenwich, though, sorry.

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      9 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      That's good, I actually used to catch the boat from beside the Cutty Sark and there was an underground car park very close as well where you could leave your car fairly easily in those days. Nice to know you can still do this.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Yes, you can still do that. Take the tube from St. James to Tower Hill (District or Circle lines) then the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) from Tower Gateway to Island Gardens. The foot tunnel goes from very near Island Gardens DLR to Greenwich.

      You can also now get the extended DLR across the river, too, to the Cutty Sark or Greenwich DLR stations. The latter is a junction with Greenwich railway station, too.

      The foot tunnel was opened in about 1900 (from memory) and is about 1/4 of a mile long.

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      9 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      Its a few years since I have done it, but one of my favorite routes was to get a boat out of Greenwich up to the Embankment, walk to Trafalgar Square then down to Buckingham Palace, back through St James park to the underground and catch the tube to the Tower of London. From there you used to be able to get the Light Docklands Railway back to Greenwich and then take a foot tunnel under the Thames to where I started. Apologies if I have got any of this wrong, it's been a while but I would be interested to know if you can still do this, it was a great little tour.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Wendy, glad you found it useful, and I hope you enjoy your next visit to London!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I absolutely love London! This guide is terrific, and because of it, I will be better prepared the next time I am in this beautiful city. Thank you!

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Sorry, Elena, didn't mean to rain on your parade!

      Scott, glad you liked it! Thanks for reading.

    • scottaye73 profile image


      9 years ago from Michigan, USA

      This is a very good hub, I like it! Have a great day! ~ Scott

    • Elena. profile image


      9 years ago from Madrid

      I know, LG, that's why I "ahemed" in my previous comment :-) Didn't think for a minute that I'd sneak the Madrid metro size by you, but it was just my proud Madrilian ego speaking! Laugh!

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Hi Elena - thank you very much!

      I don't think Madrid's system is quite as big, though (-:

      With approximately 260 miles of track, and 270 stations, the tube is the biggest metro system in the world. In 2008, 1.1 billion passenger journeys were made on the system.

      Madrid's is about 175 miles long, with 230 stations.

      Madrid's tube is still pretty big, though!

    • Elena. profile image


      9 years ago from Madrid

      Your hubs are something else, LG! I'll say, my favorite transport in London is the tube, I just find it outrageously expensive (even with the 5 trip cards) compared to Madrid. And Madrid's subway system is just as large. Ahem.... :-)

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      The Oyster card does make life easier, and cheaper, certainly.

      I love London, and I'm glad that comes across!

      I'll try to sort the video, thanks for letting me know.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Isaac is not the only one who loves going under the bridges!  The undersides of some are quite pretty!

      The Oyster Card - yes!  I loved being able to use the same card for the Tube and buses.  Also, the Tube's color-coding is so logical, it's nearly impossible to take the wrong train.  (I did once, only because my mind was elsewhere.)  Bus routes are a bit more complicated, but then I didn't use them as much as the Tube.

      What comes across in your London hubs, LG, is your enthusiasm for your hometown.  I've come across Londoners here in the States who absolutely hate it, which tells me they're 'tired of life'!  ;D

      Looking forward to more great hubs about my favorite city!

      btw, the second video does not work now.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Naraya, hope you get to visit soon.

      Lissie - Isaac adores the place. The staff know his name. After the first 200-odd visits, the rest of us are slightly less keen....

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      9 years ago from New Zealand

      That Covent Garden transport museum is amazing -my big kid (partner) couldn't be gotten out of it! It really is quite an extraordinary story - I liked the bits about the ghost stations on the older lines (particularly the circle line I think)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      London is one of my dream place, like to see, have not got chance to see yet.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Lady and BG, you need to come and put your reading in action!

    • bgpappa profile image


      9 years ago from Sacramento, California

      Great Information. Now only I if I could get across the pond and use it.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks for sharing us info about your place. Never been but who knows someday I can visit london too.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Thank you! This was an easy one to write, after all, it's just what I do to get around my own town (-:

      Oyster cards are great, hassle-free and save a lot of money.

    • 2patricias profile image


      9 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      Another great hub! You really put in the research and write clearly - makes it all sound so easy.

      We second your recommendation for Oyster cards. These cut costs, and save time.

      The Underground is easy to use, but buses possibly take a bit more confidence.

      Both of us love walking in London - always something new to see. One tip - remember that you are in a big city, and be aware of your personal safety.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Glad to hear it. I'm in a glass house throwing stones here anyway, as I need to take my socks off to count past 10.

    • BristolBoy profile image


      9 years ago from Bristol

      I know you were don't worry - I took no offense at all.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Sorry, I was not meaning to be rude, just taking the piss a bit (-:

      The free family activities was in response to a request by Sarah Songing, rather than part of this series.

    • BristolBoy profile image


      9 years ago from Bristol

      Oops showed me up there. It's ok though, I don't need to be good with numbers - I'm only an engineer. I your hub on free family activities was part of this series, but it appears it's not!

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Tom, I hope your wife enjoys it! And you should come too, you really should.

      Packerpack - yes, that is Isaac (18 months ago, now)

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Bristol boy - the next four (can you count to five....?) are going to be amazing. Or, at any rate, will be published over the next few weeks in a just-about-adequate way.

      Teresa, I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've never been to Glasgow. Can we still be mates?

    • packerpack profile image

      Om Prakash Singh 

      9 years ago from India, Calcutta

      Well done LG. This could prove to be a very good travel guide. Good job buddy. And yes is that kid in the photo for "Walking in London" the same kid (your kid) as in your profile photo??

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      My wife has been to London twice, but I've never been. I would really like to go, now! I'm going to send this article to her to read, because I know she'll be very interested. This is a great introduction to getting around in London. Thanks for writing it!

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Great hub. Yer usual impeccable research and presentation -- and very readable. You bring out the best in a city that can be really intimidatingly large. (By the way, have you ever been on the underground in Glasgow? It's really very (very) funny after London, New York, and Madrid.)

    • BristolBoy profile image


      9 years ago from Bristol

      This is a really useful hub for any visitor. I am also intrigued as to what the next three reasons are going to be about. Also I agree that the underground map is an iconic piece of design, but a word of warning to any prospective visitors to London - describe the lines by their names not by the colour.


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