Subway Tile Bathroom: Classic & Timeless Beauty of Metro Tiles

Subway tiles have been a popular choice for bathrooms for over a century, and for good reason. Their classic, versatile look provides a clean, elegant backdrop that works with almost any style. Let’s explore the timeless beauty and appeal of subway tile and why it remains a go-to option for so many bathroom designs.

A Brief History of Subway Tiles

The subway tile dates back to early 20th century New York City and the first underground subway system in the United States. The white 3×6 inch glazed ceramic tiles were used to line the city’s first subway stations, providing a clean, bright look that also made the platforms easier to clean.

The classic “metro” tile shape and look started in New York but quickly spread to other cities. By the 1930s and 1940s, subway tiles were popular for walls and floors in bathrooms and kitchens across the country. Their classic geometrical shape and bright white color worked well with both traditional and emerging midcentury modern and art deco architecture and design.

Why Use Subway Tile in Bathrooms?

There are several reasons subway tile remains one of the most popular options for bathrooms:

Timeless and Classic Look

The simple, pared-down look of white subway tile provides a clean and classic backdrop that works with any style. Subway tiles are often associated with vintage or traditional spaces but work equally well in contemporary spaces. Their balanced shape and crisp white color give them an enduring, versatile appeal.

Easy to Clean and Maintain

The ceramic material and smooth or lightly textured surface of subway tiles make them very easy to keep clean. Their resistance to moisture and steam also make them ideal for high-humidity areas like bathrooms.

Great for Small Spaces

The rectangular shape and modest size of standard subway tiles allow them to make small bathrooms appear larger. The uniform lines draw the eye, helping spaces appear orderly rather than cramped.

Inexpensive Option

Subway tiles are an affordable tile choice compared to many other natural stone, glass, or mosaic tile types. Their smaller uniform size also reduces installation costs.

Classic White Color Brightens

The clean white color of subway tile reflects light well, helping to brighten up small dim bathrooms. Unlike some wall colors, the bright white won’t easily show dirt or wear either.

Endless Design Possibilities

While subway tiles traditionally come in basic white, today there are endless variations available. Subway tiles with color, stone or glass finishes, or custom patterns provide unlimited ways to personalize a space while still maintaining the classic metro tile shape.

Popular Subway Tile Bathroom Layouts and Patterns

Beyond just covering full bathroom walls or floors, subway tiles can be used to create stunning patterns, accents, and focal points. Here are some of the most popular subway tile bathroom layouts:

Stacked Subway Tile Layout

The most common and traditional subway tile layout is the simple stacked or brick pattern. Tiles are arranged in offset rows like stacked blocks, creating clean diagonal lines. This layout works on both floors and walls. Offsetting the tiles creates more grout line patterns compared to a linear layout.

White stacked subway tile bathroom wall

Stacked white subway tiles create an elegant, classic bathroom wall.

Linear Subway Tile Layout

Laying subway tile in straight, uniform lines creates a sleek, modern look. The thinner parallel grout lines elongated the space visually. Linear layouts work well on walls or floors and can be laid vertically, horizontally, or even diagonally.

White subway tiles in a linear brick pattern on a bathroom wall

Subway tiles arranged in uniform horizontal lines create visual length in this bath.

Herringbone Subway Tile Pattern

For a modern twist, try laying subway tile in a herringbone pattern. Rows of tile are positioned in opposite directions, creating a V pattern. Herringbone patterns add nice visual interest on floors or bathroom walls. Contrasting grout lines emphasize the dynamic pattern.

Bathroom floor with a blue and white herringbone subway tile pattern

A bold herringbone subway tile floor makes a stylish statement.

Subway Tile Accent Strips

Use subway tiles sparingly to create eye-catching stripes or bands of tile. Positioned horizontally or vertically, slender tile strips can be a budget-friendly pop of pattern and color. Try a tile accent behind sinks, around mirrors or windows, or on shower walls.

Subway Tile Niches

Frame out recessed niches in shower walls with subway tile borders. This gives you functional storage and adds interesting shapes and focal points to an otherwise plain subway tiled space.

Mixed Size Subway Tiles

To add more interest, combine differently sized subway tiles or alternate between directions. Try staggering rows of 1″ by 4″ and 2″ by 4″ tiles or lay some rows horizontally and others vertically.

Bathroom shower with horizontal and vertical subway tiles

Mixing up subway tile sizes and orientation adds modern appeal on this shower wall.

Subway Tile Color and Finish Options

While white remains the most widely used, subway tiles now come in nearly any color, finish, or material you can imagine. Here are some of the most popular options:

White Subway Tiles

Crisp, clean, bright white tiles are a timeless choice. Different white subway tile finishes range from matte to high-gloss. White tiles with subtle gray veining or crackle finishes provide a more weathered, vintage look.

Light Gray Subway Tiles

Light gray is a popular subway tile color for a softer, more contemporary look than stark white. Pair with white grout for a graphic vibe or use matching gray grout lines for a seamless monochromatic effect.

Bold Color Subway Tiles

Make a splash with aqua, teal, navy, emerald, yellow, or black subway tiles. Use all over or mix with white tiles in creative patterns. Pair with white grout for maximum contrast.

Natural Stone Subway Tiles

Subway-shaped tiles crafted from marble, travertine, or slate provide natural texture. Neutral, earthy stone shades work well in traditional as well as modern bathrooms. Stone tiles offer more color variation than uniform ceramic tiles.

Slate gray subway tile bathroom wall accents

Natural stone subway tiles add earthy texture on this bathroom wall.

Glass Subway Tiles

Glass subway tiles have colorful, shiny, or iridescent finishes. Their luminosity and reflective qualities brighten up small dark bathrooms. Glass tiles work best for wall accents rather than floors since they can scratch and chip more easily.

Metal Subway Tiles

Add an industrial edge with metal subway tiles in stainless steel, brass, copper, or chrome. The color stays bold rather than fading over time like some painted tiles. Use sparingly or mix with white tiles for a modern feel.

Best Practices for Installing Subway Tile

Follow these tips to help your subway tile installation look crisp, clean, and professional:

  • Use a level and calculate layout planning. Invest time plotting layout plans and making sure your tiles will lay horizontally and vertically straight.
  • Apply thinset evenly. Use a notched trowel to spread a thin, even layer of mortar on the surface before laying each tile.
  • Use plastic tile spacers. These small plastic crosses ensure uniform grout line thickness. Remove them once the thinset has cured before grouting.
  • Avoid having to cut small pieces. Plan the layout so tiles at edges and corners are cut in the center of a tile, not along an edge.
  • Grout lines evenly. When grouting, use a float to spread the grout carefully across the joints, removing excess as you go.
  • Apply sealant properly. Seal natural stone or grout lines periodically with the appropriate sealant product to prevent stains and damage.

Subway Tile Bathroom Inspiration

Here are some gorgeous examples of subway tile used in a variety of bathroom designs and layouts to inspire your next renovation.

Traditional Bathroom

The quintessential use for classic white subway tiles is in traditional or vintage-inspired bathrooms. Their clean lines provide the perfect backdrop for ornamental trim, mirrors, lighting and plumbing fixtures.

White traditional bathroom with subway tile

Subway tile works perfectly in this ornate traditional bathroom setting. Image via Bella Tucker.

Modern Bathroom

White subway tiles serve as a brilliant neutral backdrop that lets dramatic contemporary designs, shapes, and colors take center stage. Their simple form works with any modern decor.

Modern white and wood bathroom with subway tile accents

Smart subway tile placement enhances the modern style of this bathroom. Image via Metro Retro.

Small Bathroom

Laying subway tile vertically or in neutral colors helps expand tight spaces visually. Contrasting grout lines give the eye dimension to break up small areas.

Small beige and white subway tile bathroom

Strategic subway tile layout makes this small bath feel larger. Image via Project 1942.

Basement Bathroom

Subway tile’s water-resistance and easy-to-clean nature work extremely well in basement bathrooms. Reflective white tile also helps brighten darker underground spaces.

White subway tiled basement bathroom

Subway tiles lend brightness and moisture-resistance in this basement bath remodel. Image via Framed Bathroom.

Rental Bathroom

For rentals and vacation properties, subway tile provides a smart neutral design that appeals to a range of tenants or guests. The wipeable surface holds up well to heavy use.

White rental bathroom with subway tile shower

Subway tile is an ideal material for rental or vacation property bathrooms. Image via Bright Bathroom.

Frequently Asked Questions About Subway Tiles

Here are answers to some common questions about subway tiles:

What are the standard subway tile sizes?

The original size is 3×6 inches, but common sizes range from 1×4 inches up to 4×12 inches. Some tile manufacturers make shorter 2×8 inch versions as well.

How are subway tiles different from other ceramic wall tiles?

Subway tiles are generally glazed on only one side, whereas most ceramic wall tiles have a decorative glaze on the entire face. Subway tiles also have a distinctive elongated rectangular shape.

Should subway tile be installed horizontally or vertically?

This comes down to preference. Horizontal gives a more classic look, while vertical layouts feel more modern. Vertical helps very small bathrooms appear taller.

How are subway tiles different than stick-on tile?

Real subway tiles are made from glazed ceramic or porcelain and installed using mortar, cement board, and grout. Stick-on tiles use adhesive and aren’t as durable.

Can you use subway tiles on shower floors?

Yes, subway tiles work very well on shower floors. Use textured or mosaic tiles near the entryway area for grip. Make sure the tiles are properly sealed.

What’s the best way to clean subway tile?

For routine cleaning, use a mild soap and water. For tougher stains, wipe with diluted vinegar or tile cleaner rinsing thoroughly. Avoid abrasive cleaners that could scratch the glazed surface.

Embrace the Classic Beauty of Subway Tile

With their versatile shape, timeless color, and endless laying patterns, it’s easy to see why subway tiles have adorned bathrooms for over a century. Their clean, neutral look provides the perfect backdrop for any style from ornate and traditional to modern and minimal. While white subway tile remains the most iconic, new colors, patterns, shapes, and materials offer options for adding more uniqueness.

Laying subway tile is a DIY-friendly project for first-timers, yet allows for stunning designs in the hands of skilled installers. As a budget-friendly, easy to clean, and enduring material that brightens up small dark baths, subway tile check off all the boxes for a practical yet beautiful covering. For a classic backsplash, shower surround, or full bathroom backdrop, it’s hard to go wrong embracing the clean elegance of subway tile.