The average person isn’t going out of their way to hang out in the airport. You won’t catch folks knocking back beers in baggage claim or getting the party started in the TSA line. In general, these spaces were built some time ago with a focus on functionality. And though small changes have been made to accommodate the increase in passengers and provide some degree of refuge for the weary, many airports are still simply awful — which makes finding an innovative, fun, or downright fascinating airport truly a pleasant surprise.
We’ve gathered 10 airports from around the globe that are sure to complicate your hatred of these often-ominous structures. After all, how can you loathe a place with a four-story slide or a freaking rainforest inside? Better to save your animosity for public restrooms and the D.M.V. and consider re-routing your next flight through at least one of the airports on this list. A few are even worth scheduling a long layover just to explore.
Changi Airport — Changi, Singapore
For the past seven years, the London-based research firm Skytrax has named Changi Airport the world’s best airport, and it has snagged this title 10 times in the 20-year history of the World Airport Awards. Impressive, right? There’s more — Changi has been given roughly 600 total awards of excellence, and 30 of them were “best airport” honors in 2018 alone. There may not be another airport that is this freaking cool (or lauded), and it only takes one layover to turn a weary traveler into a believer.
There are four terminals and between them, passengers can access a butterfly garden with as many as 40 species represented, a bunch of other gardens like the sunflower and the cactus ones, a heritage zone that looks like a showcase of Peranakan shophouses, an entertainment area with arcade games and Xbox Kinects, a four-story-high slide (the largest in an airport), and a rooftop swimming pool. In April of 2019, a multi-use structure called the Jewel Changi Airport launched and it expanded the opportunities for adventure with a hedge maze, a rain vortex, a canopy bridge, sky nets for walking and bouncing, and a mirror maze.
No lie, this is the kind of airport where you want to be waylaid for hours.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport — Selangor, Malaysia
A lot of airports have taken to bringing the outside in by way of gardens, and that’s clearly a stellar way to break up the sterile environment of the average airport. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport, however, took a real “hold my beer” approach to this trend and opted to design an in-house jungle. The lush, indoor rainforest stretches through two of the airport’s buildings. And it’s not just some greenery to admire through a window; you can totally enter the glass enclosure that houses the botanical garden and walk a large wooden boardwalk through the plants and trees. It is humid as hell, but it’s also beautiful. Plus, there’s a waterfall.
Passengers who are total aviation stans will be happy to know that the KL airport recently opened the Anjung Spotter Observation Deck, which is located next to runway 32L. That means passengers can take advantage of the panoramic view of planes landing to take the perfect shots for the ‘Gram. It holds up to 40 people, so it’s also a great way to connect with other airplane spotters looking to capture the excitement of flight.
Dubai International Airport — Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The Dubai International Airport is the third busiest airport on Earth if you judge by passenger traffic and the absolute busiest if you measure by international passenger traffic, which is probably why the place feels like a small village. One of the priorities is clearly to make sure travelers get sufficient sleep, and that’s much appreciated because anyone who has had to curl up on the ground by a gate and use their coat as a pillow can tell you it is not good. A quick jaunt to terminal three gives passengers access to the Dubai International Hotel, a five-star lodging that can only be used by adventurers who have checked in for a flight. Alternately, check out the sleep ‘n fly flagship lounge where there are 20 state-of-the-art igloo style sleep pods complete with television and wifi. You can even use them as an office space.
DBX in Dubai is making a real effort to transform the traveler experience, and you wouldn’t guess one of their innovations without a few hints. This year, they launched the first-ever airport DJ residency with a roaming stage where free monthly concerts take place. It’s just not enough to have someone playing the piano by the information kiosk anymore. There are also a few gardens in the terminals. Check the Zen garden in terminal three then take a turn on the world’s tallest indoor slide.
More active travelers may prefer hitting the health club for a dip in the private pool or a steam. Seriously, this place is legit.
Helsinki Vantaa Airport — Vantaa, Finland
HEL in Vantaa, Finland doesn’t have a giant slide or a rainforest to recommend it, but that’s part of what makes it dope-as-hell in its own right. One might go so far as to call it cozy. The Almost@home Lounge is a good example of this. For an entrance fee, you can access this living room space that features a lot of secondhand furniture from the famed Finnish furniture company Artek. This design choice gives the impression that the space has been developing for years as a family home does. There is also a large bookcase full of things to read and a PlayStation for recreation.
For the bookworm passenger, the airport also offers free books at a Book Swap point. Take one for the road or leave one that you’ve finished for a fellow traveler to enjoy. They often have little messages in them from the people who left them. The Book Swap is located in the Kainuu Lounge, which is furnished with wooden chairs crafted from trees downed by storms. There are also ergonomic chairs and soft carpets to maximize comfort, which seems to be the primary motivation behind the lounges at this petite airport. There’s even a space called the Maja Living Room with a yoga room, balance beam, stall bars, and relaxing chairs.
Tallinn Airport — Tallinn, Estonia
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Люблю аэропорты… И не важно, улетаю ли сама или встречаю кого-то. Просто люблю энергетику, а наш Таллиннский аэропорт так вообще – самый уютный и удобный! Пока ждали, я неудержалась и купила себе полистать @lofficielbaltics Сразу скажу, что читать там нечего, от слова совсем. Зато в качестве вдохновения или тренировки насмотренности, этот журнал (выпуск) идеально подходит. Там собраны самые удачные образы не только с недель моды Парижа, Милана, Нью-Йорка и Лондона, но так же и с FW Рига и Таллинн. Опять-таки – это не реклама 😆 просто я глянцевый маньяк и нет, нет, да срываюсь раз в пол года на покупку очередного журнала с красивыми картинками🤦🏼♀️ Зато теперь будет легче придумывать модные, летние образы, в те дни, когда фантазия будет подводить😆 П.С. Вы там наверно все на шашлыках 🤤, а у нас в этом году не получилось даже до родителей моих доехать 😭 Так ещё и все закрыто вокруг… короче придётся чипсы есть на ужин 😂
The largest airport in Estonia, Tallinn joins Helsinki in the cozy category, which means spaces built for comfort and books galore. This airport runs an honesty library where you can nab a book to read while you’re traveling. Often, the books have a list of the places they have traveled inside of them. The airport asks that you bring books back when you return to the airport, but if you can’t, security won’t track you down and wrestle the books away from you. One of the cool things about the library is that the books are organized according to the language in which they were written. If you’ve ever tried to search through foreign language books to find something to read in your native tongue, you know what a help this is.
There are multiple places to grab a bite in Tallinn, but we recommend Kohver – the Sweetest Café and Kohver Kitchen. Both are noteworthy for featuring unique Estonian gifts and handicrafts. They’re almost like a tiny museum, but better because you can buy anything you like and take it with you. Try doing that at a museum. No. Don’t. If you want a larger meal, hit Kohver Kitchen and enjoy genuine Estonian food. For a smaller bite, try the cafe where you can enjoy quality coffee and fresh pastries right out of the oven. That’s a damn sight better than pulling up a chair to a plastic table next to the Burger King counter.
Chicago O’Hare International Airport — Chicago, Illinois
Chicago O’Hare boasts the first aeroponic garden at any airport on Earth. Installed in the summer of 2011, the garden forgoes soil. Instead, the roots of the plants are treated with a nutrient solution as part of their watering cycle. Ticketed airport visitors check it out from a comfy lounge area. Among the many things being grown are Swiss chard, red lettuce, habanero peppers, snap beans, and oregano. Many of the restaurants in the airport take advantage of the fresh produce by gathering it and using it in the meals they prepare for travelers. Talk about using local ingredients; these only have to travel a terminal or two.
The City of Chicago has a world-renowned public art program that has made an imprint on this huge airport. There are dozens of murals, exhibits, paintings, and sculptures that serve as an inspiring enhancement to the experience of air travel. If you look at Instagram posts that are geotagged to O’Hare, you’ll see tons of photos of The Sky’s the Limit, a 745-foot-long kinetic sculpture crafted from 466 neon tubes. It includes 23.600 square feet of mirror that reflect over one mile of colorful neon — a riot of color that’s hard to resist capturing in photos. For those who prefer the natural sciences over abstract lights, the four-story-high brachiosaurus skeleton in terminal one is absolutely epic.
Denver International Airport — Denver, Colorado
Air travel can be stressful. Some people are white-knuckling it through the whole process, and even if folks don’t suffer from flying anxiety, there’s still T.S.A., packing, and getting to the airport to suffer through. It is ulcer fodder for sure.
The Denver International Airport knows how to help travelers relieve that stress. The Canine Airport Therapy Squad (an acronym that oddly translates to CATS despite there only being a single cat on the team) is a group of mostly dogs and their owners who “surprise, delight, and comfort passengers” with their company. All the lovely animals are registered with a legit pet therapy association as well as being trained and insured.
Passengers who have beloved furry friends accompanying them on their adventures can expect this airport to give them first-rate service. There are pet relief rooms on each concourse that have little patches of artificial turf flooring with a system to facilitate drainage and an artificial rock. Of course, there are bags and disposal containers as well for cleanup. There’s also a pet resort on-site, and it features massage therapy, flat screen TVs, private suites, medical experts, and obedience training. It’s a 24-hour operation, as well as an utterly massive one. Try looking at the bone-shaped splashing pools without wanting to check your dog or cat in for a short stay.
Munich Airport — München, Germany
There are a few cities that are synonymous with brewing, and Munich is for sure one of them. So it makes sense that the Munich Airport had the first airport brewery. It remains the only one in Europe to this day. Airbräu is set up as a traditional Bavarian beer garden and can accommodate 600 people at a go. It’s big. The menu is heavy on Bavarian treats like pork knuckle, veal sausages, and oven-fresh pretzels. But if you look more closely at the offerings, you’ll spot the one that cracked us up. “The Last Meal…” is a single glass of water, a dry bread roll, and a cigarette that you have to smoke in front of the door. It may not reek of optimism, but it’s funny. The space also hosts live entertainment like traditional Bavarian bands and comedy acts. In short, it’s the kind of place that you would go to even if you weren’t trapped in an airport.
Travelers making their way through MUC during the winter holiday season will be charmed to find they don’t need to leave the airport to discover one of Germany’s famed Christmas markets. From traditional foods to crafts, everything one might expect from a holiday market is delivered. But that’s not all. During this time, there are also two airport ice rinks on which travelers can skate about. It’s totally free to hit the ice; skates, however, must be rented. The whole affair is perfect for taking photos, as there are nearly 500 live pine trees brought in to festively decorate the space and a centerpiece studded with 500 lights that rise up about 50 feet.
San Francisco International Airport — San Francisco, California
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Pigtastic and bullmazing classmate reunion and #wagbrigade volunteering fun with my buddy @tristan_frenchbulldog 🐽😍🐷🐶💕 – – #sfpig #lilouthepig #lilou #therapypig #citypig #citygirl #petstagram #petsofinstagram #pigstagram #pigsofinstagram #instapets #smileambassador #pigambassador #therapyanimal #frenchiesofinstagram #frenchkiss #frenchbulldog #reunion #dogsofinstagram #volunteering #community #frenchbulldoglove #modeling #highfashion #snort @flysfo @sanfranciscospca @summerhillmedia #collarofduty #frenchielover #jetlag #nationaldogsday
Yes, this post already rhapsodized about in-airport therapy animals. It’s understandable that returning to this topic could feel redundant. Counter-point: therapy pig. The San Francisco International Airport’s Wag Brigade is made up predominantly of trained dogs that the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) certified through their Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Program. The exception is Lilou, a Juliana-breed pig whose Instagram account is a dangerous trigger for lovers of cute. Seriously, she wears a lot of costumes and has painted hooves. We would fly to SFO just to watch her perform with her toy piano and push a ball with her wee snout.
A tiny pig mascot is one of the best airport innovations we’ve come across, and that original thinking is very typical of this airport. It was the first to open a 24-hour yoga studio. Now, there are two yoga rooms at the airport. They aren’t all that different than the meditation rooms or chapels you find at other airports. The 150-square-foot rooms are quiet and dimly lit and could certainly be used for prayer or reflection. Yet, the mirrored walls and yoga mats obviously indicate the area is for sun salutations and some serious downward dog. For people who don’t think they can get their daily rationing of zen from hanging with a dog or a pig, these rooms are a peaceful alternative. Too bad you can’t double down and do yoga with the pig.
Heydar Aliyev International Airport — Baku, Azerbaijan
Heydar Aliyev International is actually one of the smaller airports on this list, so it doesn’t have a lot of the special amenities that larger places can afford. What is does have is an original, progressive aesthetic that makes it super fun to explore. Designed by Turkish architect studio Autoban, this unconventional airport is viewed as one of the most high-design airport spaces on the planet. The roof is made up of semi-transparent tricorns and the walls are concave glass that leans from its foundation and curves around corners. Light streams into the space through hexagonal skylights, highlighting the minimalist palette.
But the real visual standouts are the wooden pods dubbed “cocoons” by the designers. Each of them is a different shape, but they are all enclosed in diamond-shaped wood shingles covered in an oak veneer. The diamond shapes are mirrored in the curved edges of the floor. The cocoons are home to bars, cafes, and shopping. Others are reserved for amenities like a children’s play place and a luggage storage space. They are beautiful and completely unlike anything found at any other airport. This is where travel, art, and architecture meet.