Airports can sometimes feel like a necessary evil, what with the serpentine security lines, hourslong flight delays and mediocre pretzels. But there are quite a few airports out there that you wouldn’t curse in the event of a delay. Some, in fact, that you may want to book a trip through just to see how great an airport can be. We’re talking movie theaters, rooftop swimming pools, golf, art, music, free city tours and friendly packs of pooches (plus one pig). Here are some airports to visit on your next layover.
CHICAGO O’HARE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
ORD has its fair share of naysayers, but O’Hare has its perks — you just need to know where to look. First, food. Publican Tavern has an outpost in Terminal 3, serving cocktails and gastropub fare as good as you’ll get anywhere. Lovers of tortas and margaritas know to make a beeline for Tortas Frontera, a fast-casual Rick Bayless outfit in multiple terminals. There’s also art throughout the airport, and that Instagram-worthy trippy light installation by Michael Hayden called “The Sky’s the Limit” in the tunnel connecting concourses B and C of Terminal 1 (pictured). There’s a yoga room, multiple spas, a health club and pool offering day passes at the attached Hilton, as well as a vertical garden where some airport restaurants grow herbs and vegetables. If you have an extra-long layover, hop on the Blue Line and be downtown in about 40 minutes. An enormous outlet mall, Fashion Outlets of Chicago, is a quick two-mile cab ride away.
PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Local distillery? Check. Seventeen-seat micro movie theater? Check. Tallest free-standing cuckoo clock in the country? Check. Add to that Powell’s Books’ new and used tomes, live musical performances, art exhibits and lots of options for local food (pictured), beverages and shopping, including Stumptown Coffee Roasters and a Made in Oregon shop.
HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
This is another contender for a residency. There’s an Imax 3-D/2-D theater in Terminal 2 — the largest in Hong Kong — with seats for 350 people. Golfers can work on their swing at GreenAir, a Terminal 2 outpost that offers simulated nine- and 18-hole games. At the Dream Come True Education Park, kids can learn about professionals such as doctors, pilots and police officers while dressing up in the respective career uniform. During your down time, you can wander through miniature gardens, get a manicure or haircut, take a shower or check out an interactive exhibition. (In the past, they’ve taught visitors about tea making and Chinese medicine.) Aviation buffs can peer through binoculars at an outdoor sky deck as planes take off and land. And then there are the spa and salon services, hundreds of shops (Chanel, Dior, Prada) and dining options galore, including ramen, dim sum, milk tea, Chinese-style barbecue and all kinds of familiar Western fast-food brands if you’re ready for a taste of home.
VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The jellyfish pulsate at a hypnotic pace, offering a quick remedy for travel stress at one of two on-site Vancouver Aquarium exhibits containing more than 5,000 sea creatures at this Canadian airport. Art is everywhere, and much of it is created by First Nations artists. In addition, there’s a quiet area for relaxing or napping and, for doughnut fans, five Tim Hortons. You can burn those doughnuts off working out and swimming at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Health Club, which is attached to the airport and offers day passes.
SINGAPORE CHANGI AIRPORT
If I had to pull a Tom Hanks and get stuck in a terminal, I’d like to request Changi. The Singapore airport scores top awards right and left, and for good reason. Let’s start with the rooftop pool and Jacuzzi: They’re on top of the attached Aerotel Airport Transit Hotel. Non-guests can use the facilities for about $12. After a dip, you can explore more themed gardens than you’d find at some conservatories, such as a rooftop cactus garden and bar, a water lily garden, an orchid garden and a butterfly garden (pictured). And the metroplex-style list continues: two 24-hour movie theaters; an entertainment area with Xbox 360 and Kinect; playgrounds for kids (including Singapore’s tallest slide at four stories high); napping lounges; and a spa where you can pay to have fish eat the dead skin off your feet (Airport Wellness Oasis, Terminal 1). Want to get more of a feel for the country? For people with at least 5 1⁄2 hours between flights, free tours of the city are available, and there’s a baggage storage area so you don’t have to schlep your stuff. Seriously, we’re moving in.
AMSTERDAM AIRPORT SCHIPHOL
Airport Library (pictured) — the first permanent such library in the world — recently reopened after renovations, giving visitors access to more than 1,200 books, iPads loaded with music, touch screens with music and videos, and continuing mini art and cultural exhibitions. Wander around the terminals and you’ll find an indoor park with piped-in bird chirps, green space, lounge chairs and stationary bikes that you can ride to power your devices. There’s also an internet lounge with desktop computers (for a fee), multiple spas, such fashionable shops as Dutch clothier Suitsupply, over-the-top restaurants (champagne and caviar pop at Bubbles Seafood & Wine), a meditation center and, of course, multiple florists selling tulips. The airport is just about 20 minutes from the city by train, so, for longer layovers, stroopwafels are within reach.
INCHEON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The airport in Seoul is home to a movie theater, an ice-skating rink, an array of gardens, napping areas, a driving range and golf course (Sky 72) and a dry cleaner. (Did you hear that, U.S. airports?) And for cultural entertainment, throughout the day there are performances, including song and dance, musical concerts and a historical procession honoring the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty, which once ruled Korea. Travelers can craft a souvenir to take with them at the Traditional Korean Cultural Experience Center. For longer layovers, the airport coordinates free area tours, with an English-speaking guide, to Seoul and surrounding areas. Medical tourists, listen up: There’s also a hospital and dental clinic at the airport.
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
If every airport had a “wag brigade,” there might be less air rage. That’s my professional opinion, at least, inspired by SFO’s crew of therapy dogs (and one adorable pig) walking around with inviting “pet me” vests at this California airport. There also are two yoga studios, self-guided tour options, a meditation room, play areas for kids, multiple spas, local restaurants, art exhibitions, an aviation library/museum and a wine bar — SF Uncork’d — with an excellent California selection and bottles you can take home.
An on-site brewery (pictured) goes well with wiling away the hours, and at this German airport you can toast Oktoberfest year-round. Airbräu is a restaurant and beer garden that brews its own beer and serves up Bavarian specialties — goulash, grilled pork knuckle and sausages. Brewery tours are available on request, and if you come at the right time there may be live entertainment. There are a number of great vantage points to watch planes take off, including a terrace and observation deck, and Visitor’s Park is an outdoor space with a playground, miniature golf, a flight simulator, interactive exhibits and — yes — another beer garden.