Going to an airport is always exciting. After all, you are off to somewhere, maybe even somewhere new, somewhere you have long wanted to visit. Unless the place is truly hideous and full of stressed business travelers — and even then, there are still plenty of excited flyers amid them — airports are always full of exhilarating anticipatory energy.
But then there are airports that add to the enjoyment and thrill of happy anticipation in the air. Be they simply superbly organized, with you sliding through the various processes without a hitch (here’s looking at you, Oslo Gardermoen Airport); or be they great, big halls that make travel, and the waiting for your gate to be called, feel like an extension to your vacation.
I have been through countless airports in my time — through some that still make me shudder now, but others where a delayed flight would have been (nearly) welcomed. There is nothing I like better than grand architecture, streamlined processes getting you checked through, and facilities that allow you to either freshen up, eat something healthy, have a glass of champagne, or do some luxury shopping — because money isn’t real in an airport, is it? But there are other experiences that can provide the cherry on the cake, however small.
Here I have compiled my list of favorite airports. I chose these for a plethora of reasons. Some, admittedly, barely have anything to do with the airport, but rather their surroundings. Others, though, make it worthwhile to aim for these airports just to experience what they have to offer.
1. Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar
Going through Hamad International Airport (HIA) on the fringes of Doha is like stepping into an art gallery. A dozen or so larger-than-live sculptures are dotted throughout the airport, most notably the gigantic yellow Lamp/Bear by Urs Fischer that welcomes travelers in the main concourse. I remember seeing that bear in 2011, sitting on Park Lane in New York City, when he was waiting to be auctioned off by Christie’s. He was bought for $6.8 million by Qatar and now presides over the airport.
There is also Small Lie by KAWS; the fabulous Cosmos by Jean-Michel Othoniel; Flying Man by Dia al-Azzawi; and one of my favorites: a herd of adorable, lost-looking oryx by Tom Claassen wandering arrivals, plus many more. You can while hours away here by just searching out the various artworks. And they are not only inside but also outside of the airport, such as the enormous golden falcon, also by Tom Claassen, perching on the railings just outside the main entrance.
Even though HIA has some superb facilities, including great shops and a lounge with a full-sized swimming pool, it is the art that makes this airport so special.
Pro Tip: All art and no food is no good. For a preflight treat allowing you to ignore the airline food, head to the Emporio Armani Ristorante (turn right by the bear) for a healthy caprese salad and a glass of champagne.
2. Munich International Airport, Germany
I adore Munich Airport’s indoor/outdoor space. Between terminals, there is a huge, open plaza full of greenery. Its sides are open to the elements and allow you to breathe fresh air, but there is also a very high roof, sheltering you from the worst of the weather.
Under the canopy is an open beer garden. Obviously. This is Munich, after all. In Airbräu, you can, yes, drink beer, but also eat a variety of local delicacies, hearty as well as healthy, and pass the time until boarding in a congenial atmosphere.
And should you need a bit of diversion, or are traveling with the grandkids, why not play some mini golf? The course is part of the Visitors Park, where there are also playgrounds and exhibition planes.
3. Changi Airport, Singapore
For years, Changi Airport in Singapore was voted the best airport in the world, only to have been toppled off the top spot by Hamad International Airport in Qatar. This is another airport where you are seriously hoping that your flight will be delayed, there is so much to do and see. Of course, there are superb (and affordable) local food outlets, serious shopping, artworks dotted around, and luxurious lounges — so far, so good, but relatively normal. But head further in and you will find yourself in a jungle. A real jungle.
The 10 gardens within the airport include a cactus garden, a butterfly house, a sunflower garden, and many others waiting to be discovered. There are some 2,000 trees and palm trees, and 100,000 shrubs and bushes have been planted inside the airport, offering you a nature trail between gates.
Pro Tip: Did you know Changi Airport even has its own species of orchid? The Dendrobium Singapore Changi Airport can be seen in the Orchid Garden, among some 30 other species of orchid.
4. Heathrow Airport, London, UK
I love this airport, and especially Terminal 5, for a couple of reasons. I love window shopping at leisure when waiting for my boarding call, and LHR’s Terminal 5 certainly delivers on that front. There are luxury fashion labels, High Street shops, bookstores filled to the brim with the latest releases (and often even releases that are not available everywhere quite yet), plus countless international magazines. Dotted with cafes and restaurants between shops, you feel like you are in a mall — just, somehow, it’s more relaxing.
But the other reason why I simply love flying into Heathrow is the flight approach: Unless the wind is really against you, you tend to fly over London and can spot the Thames, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, and all the other great sights from your seat. And right before landing, you fly really low over Windsor Castle — so close you can see the flag flying if the Queen is at home. It’s just the best welcome to this great city.
Pro Tip: Even if a black cab is tempting, the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to get from Heathrow into central London is by Heathrow Express.
5. King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Because I studied marine biology, I am always delighted when I see a well-kept aquarium, and when one turns up unexpectedly in an airport, so much the better. Jeddah’s airport houses the world’s largest airport aquarium — and to be honest, the only one I have ever come across. Celebrating the proximity of the Red Sea to the airport, the aquarium’s 1,000 liters of seawater house some 2,000 species of marine life (though not all endemic to the Red Sea). Reaching across two floors, arrivals, as well as departures, the rounded tank is like a calming resting point for the eye as well as for travelers bustling to and fro, inviting them to stop and watch the fish swimming by.
The only complaint about this great idea for an airport is that the aquarium is located past baggage collection on arrival and before checking in for departures, so the time you are actually willing to spend standing still is somewhat limited, whereas if it were located in the main concourse after checking in, it would get much more appreciation.
Pro Tip: For a large, modern airport, Jeddah has a disappointing number of shops to spend a bit of money on those typical airport treats. If you are longing to window shop at Chanel or Gucci, better go to the El Khayyat Center before you head to the airport.
6. Melbourne-Tullamarine Airport, Victoria, Australia
On paper, and in person, the international airport serving Melbourne is a nice enough but run-of-the-mill airport. It has all the usual things: duty-free and luxury shopping, some very nice restaurants and cafes, and plenty of plush koalas and kangaroos to purchase as souvenirs.
And, there, I have already mentioned why I love this airport: the kangaroos. Not the plush ones, even though they are cute, too. On the way to and from the airport — even upon landing — you very often spot kangaroos on the nearby fields, especially during early morning or late afternoon approaches. There seems to be an entire mob living nearby that comes out solely to delight visitors. One day, when I was living in Melbourne (but sadly was not at the airport), I learned that a kangaroo even made it into the hair product aisle of the drugstore inside departures and had to be escorted back outside.
Pro Tip: Tullamarine Airport lies a fair way outside of Melbourne, and depending on the time of day, it can take up to an hour to get there from the city center. A train link is being discussed, but at the moment there are only shuttle buses or taxis available, which cost around 65 Australian dollars.
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