Denver to Beijing: The Ultimate Airports List

Layovers go from bland to grand with bands, brews, and a therapy pig.  
Best Airports
Denver’s iconic terminal is undergoing a stylish renovation. Photo by: George Rose/Getty Images

With global passenger numbers projected to double over the next two decades, airports are expanding with new terminals and evolving to become destinations in their own right. Gardens, art installations, ice rinks, movie theatres, putting greens, spas, and swimming pools are among the amenities designed to make a dent in a layover.

Other touches reflect a sense of place. “As a gateway to a city or country, an airport is an opportunity for expression,” says Curtis Fentress, an architect who’s designed 25 of them.

Geography is often a muse: Denver’s airport mirrors its mountainous backdrop, the structure of Seoul’s Incheon riffs on Korean temple design, and Los Angeles’s coastal setting inspired the “cresting waves” of LAX. Designs are going green as well, by incorporating energy-efficient technologies.

But the art of the airport isn’t just about the building. Local cultures, creative arts, food, and music are a part of it, Fentress says. Here are a dozen layover-busting airports you’ll connect with.

—Amy Kolczak

 

Denver

Furriest

A therapy squad of more than 100 uniformed dogs (and one cat) roams in two-hour shifts, getting and giving TLC to relax anxious travellers. (San Francisco is another furry flyway, thanks to therapy pig LiLou.)

Tokyo

Umamiest

To experience tuna nigiri nirvana before you leave, head to Sushi Kyotatsu in Narita’s Terminal 1. The airport offers plenty of other Japanese specialties, from udon and soba noodles to donburi and tempura.

Munich

Sudsiest

Ring in Oktoberfest with a pretzel and a frothy mug at Airbräu, the airport’s on-site brewery and beer garden, which can accommodate 600 around its central maypole. Prost!

Madrid

Woodiest

The interior of Madrid-Barajas is clad entirely in bamboo, chosen for its sustainability and warm hues. The striking design features a ceiling that takes the form of undulating waves, with slats that let natural light flood in.

Seoul

Craftiest

Incheon features Korean culture on a “street” where travellers can observe artisans and then join in, creating boxes out of traditional paper (hanji) and colouring hand fans.

Amsterdam

Outdoorsiest

Schiphol brings the outside in with its Airport Park, where travellers lounge under trees or perch on log benches to a birdsong soundtrack. Hop on a stationary bike to work out and charge your phone.

Best Airports 1

At Singapore’s Changi Airport, insects take flight in the Butterfly Garden. Photo by: Yvette Cardozo/Alamy Stock

San Francisco

Zenest

Yogis can dip into downward dog at SFO, which pioneered the airport yoga studio (and now has two). Quiet types can zone out in a reflection room, used for meditation and, according to some, snoozing.

Vancouver

Artiest

With more than 200 works of art, some monumental, YVR puts British Columbia’s heritage on display. Native marine life is on view too: One aquarium holds 5,000 species, and another is devoted to jellyfish.

Doha

Sportiest

Built in anticipation of World Cup 2022, Hamad has emerged as a global hub. Kick into high gear at its wellness centre, which has a gym, squash courts, and an indoor pool with airport atrium views.

Singapore

Greenest

Changi sets the gold standard for indoor greenery. The airport incorporates some 5,00,000 plants in the form of a tapestry-like wall and multiple gardens, including a two- level butterfly habitat plus orchid and sunflower displays. Terminal 4 features a “boulevard” of trees, but that will soon be outdone: The Jewel addition, opening next year, will have five stories of greenery, complete with a canopy walk, hiking trails, a maze garden, and a 130-foot waterfall.

Seattle-Tacoma

Buzziest

Tapping the city’s fabled music scene, Sea-Tachosts concerts and an exhibit of Pearl Jam posters. More buzz: Caffeine delivered via nitro cold brews and an airfield buffer zone that’s home to honeybees.

Beijing

Stateliest

Designed for its 2008 Olympic debut, Terminal 3 greets passengers with touches of patriotic red and yellow, plus an imperial-style garden with pavilions like those in the Summer Palace.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?