Regular travellers know that anything goes at the airport. A whiskey neat at 9am? No problem: it’s 5 o’clock somewhere. How about a plate of chicken wings for breakfast, with another Bloody Mary? Anything to dull the pain of having to hang out for hours in a dystopian terminal. But not all airports are created equal. In fact, some are becoming destinations in themselves.
From indoor gardens to art museums and the world’s largest indoor waterfall, a clutch of airports around the world have been given major upgrades in recent years. Some opt for passenger comfort with free sleeping lounges, showers and massage chairs. Several will even hook you up with a free tour of your stopover city.
For some, a long layover may be tantamount to torture – but at these airports, from Amsterdam to Dubai to San Francisco, you won’t mind having a few hours to wander around. In fact, you may find yourself wishing you had even more time to explore the terminals (and the world outside). Here are nine of the coolest airports in the world right now.
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Best airports in the world
Millions visit the Rijksmuseum every year, but did you know you can also check out paintings from the Dutch Golden Age inside Schiphol airport? The museum has an annexe here, with pictures on regular rotation from its collection. This being an airport, you can also look at old planes: head to the Panorama Terrace at Departures Hall 1 to get close to the runway and inside an old KLM Fokker 100.
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You’ll find one of the largest living walls in North America on the exterior of Vancouver International Airport’s Arrival Terminal. Standing 18 metres high and 12 metres wide, the wall features more than 25,000 plants with a built-in irrigation and feeding system. Not enough nature for you? A permanent Vancouver Aquarium exhibit is home to more than 20,000 marine animals and plants native to British Columbia. That means wolf-eels, sea cucumbers and anemones in every shade.
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Those with extra-long daytime stopovers at Incheon International Airport can book on to free tours of the Seoul city region – but if you’re not here for that long, Korean culture will come to you instead. There’s a cultural performance every day of the year on the stage of the Millennium Hall in Terminal 1, along with classical or K-pop concerts five times a day. Over on the third floor of Terminal 2, a masked dance performance takes place three times a day.
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Nothing makes the time go by like perusing some art, right? San Francisco International Airport (SFO), in collaboration with the SFO Museum and the San Francisco Arts Commission, displays a rotating collection of work and exhibits at the airport’s very own museum. Here travellers can catch a documentary or short animated film in the ’video arts’ section, and until 2021, an exhibition on the extraordinary life of politician and LGBTQ+ activist Harvey Milk. Head to the Departures Level of the International Terminal for free entry.
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Amazingly, the world’s third busiest airport rarely feels crowded – and with some of the fastest free, unlimited airport wifi in the world, Dubai International Airport is a great place to grab a burger and crinkle-cut fries (thanks, Shake Shack!) and watch a movie on Netflix. Afterwards, head to Terminal 3 to take a free shower and chill in the zen garden. Then mosey over to the Dubai International Airport Hotel, where you’ll find a gym, spa, jacuzzi and pool (though sadly these perks don’t come for free).
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Passing through Reykjavik’s Keflavík Airport? Here you’re only a 20-minute bus ride from the famous Blue Lagoon – so why not go for an early-morning soak? The airport itself is small, but you can’t beat its laidback vibe and incredible shopping. Sample Icelandic specialities at Nord, which serves fresh char fish and local beers, then hit the shops to get your hands on liquorice, a handmade wool sweater or products from the Lagoon.
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Hamad International Airport in Doha is like something straight out of the future, with its high-tech features including biometric check-in (which uses your face as your boarding pass). But perhaps most talked-about of all is the ‘Untitled Lamp Bear’, a giant sculpture by Swiss artist Urs Fischer in the airport’s grand foyer. There are ten other in-your-face works spread around the airport including ‘The Playground’ by Tom Otterness.
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Just outside John F. Kennedy Airport’s Terminal 5 in the old TWA Flight Center building, the recently opened TWA Hotel is a retro-chic masterpiece. Its ’60s architecture makes it worth a visit alone (it was inducted as an official city landmark in the ’90s), but now the building also holds 500 hotel rooms – plus a whole room dedicated to the game Twister. But the real must-do is grabbing an Old Fashioned at Connie, the hotel bar within a refurbished Lockheed L-1649 Starliner aircraft. Like all plane trips, make sure to book well in advance.
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Changi is the airport of your dreams. It has so much to do, so many good restaurants and shops, that locals actually come here to hang out on the weekend and travellers deliberately book an extra-long layover. Last year the airport opened the Jewel extension: its most impressive addition yet, including the world’s largest indoor waterfall and dozens of new restaurants. You’ll want to get up out of your free massage chair to visit the multi-level garden and food hub – though, word to the wise, it can get crowded. Store your luggage somewhere so you can wander free across the Canopy Bridge and through the Hedge Maze. Why can’t all airports be like this?
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After more sightseeing inspiration?
If you treat your tiny apartment like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it makes sense to get inspired by the great outdoors on your next getaway. And while you can get to grips with a region’s history through its museums and galleries, you’ll really see where it all started by getting up close to its native flora.