Could your next layover be the highlight of your trip? At more and more airports, a long layover can open a window into local culture–whether you choose to venture into the city or simply roam the terminals. When time is of the essence, we suggest a surgical-strike approach. While some airports offer up a convenient jumping off point for a whirlwind urban adventure, others are destinations in their own right.
Here are five layover-worthy airports in cities around the world, along with tips on what to see while you’re making the most of extended down time between destinations:
Shake off jet lag at Changi‘s butterfly garden (terminal 3, departure transit lounge, level 2), where a thousand tropical lepidoptera–including 30 species native to Singapore and Malaysia–flit around 100 carnivorous and insectivorous pitcher plants. More local flora, including Dendrobium Changi Airport–a delicate yellow hybrid named for the airport–brighten the orchid garden (terminal 2, transit mall, level 2).
Once refreshed, head to the Xperience Zone (terminal 2, transit mall, level 2), an entertainment and gaming area, or take a dip in the Balinese-style swimming pool (departure transit lounge east, level 3). Kids can let loose down the four-story slide (terminal 3, arrivals hall), then try their hand at a wood-blocking station (terminals 1-3), where they can rub their own geometric patterns from Southeast Asian cultures, like the Peranakan. Prima Taste serves Singaporean signature dishes such as chili crab and laksa, a spicy noodle soup (terminal 2).
> New York City
Not unlike the Big Apple itself, John F. Kennedy Airport is a patchwork of the fabulous and the prosaic. Hungry fliers who land in JetBlue’s terminal 5 are in luck: Deep Blue Sushi and tapas winner Piquillo far outshine the food court options. Delta has kicked it up a notch in its new terminal 4, with restaurants from star Manhattan chefs like Marcus Samuelsson‘s Uptown Brasserie and Danny Meyer‘s Shake Shack–without the line snaking through Madison Square Park.
If you’re not a Delta Sky CLub member, $50 will buy you a respite at the lounge, fresh air on the rooftop observation deck included. Or hit 10 Minute Manicure (terminals 3 and 8) for a $15 nail treatment (add $5 for a foot massage). Shoppers who wade through the standard mall shops find such enticements as the Metropolitan Museum of Art Store and Japanese home cult favorite Muji To Go (both terminal 5). American Airlines treats lucky summer travelers to live Broadway teasers (terminal 8). Note that cruising between terminals may require passing through security.
DXB, the busiest airport of the United Arab Emirates, has become synonymous with glitzy shopping, matching the city it serves. Here’s an opportunity to puck up that Rolex watch or Bulgari handbag, or at least gawk at the jet-setters in the duty-free luxury emporium (terminal 2). Looking for something a little less pricey? Zidan carries kitschy souvenirs galore, including a T-shirt emblazoned with “Dubai, the city that never sleeps” in LED and a crystalline replica of the city’s superlative-topping skyscraper Burj Khalifa.
Once you’re tire of people-watching–or the airport’s free Wi-Fi–collect yourself at one of two palm-shaded Zen Gardens on either end of concourse B (terminal 3), where the spa and health club are open to nonguests.
Aviation buffs will want to hightail it to terminal 2 at the Munich Airport (level 3) to pilot a Boeing 737NG across the Alps on the iPilot flight simulator, the latest craze in Germany. Then head to Munich Airport Center, a glass-domed hub that connects the airport’s two terminals (note that you’ll have to pass through security again when reentering).
Kick the tires of the latest Audi models at the German car maker’s showroom; stock up on gummy bears at national grocer Edeka; and if you’re traveling the last several weeks of the year, visit the ice-skating rink surrounded by 40-plus Christmas trees and shop the Christmas market, with 50 stands hawking handicrafts as well as weisswurst, gingerbread, and mulled wine. Wind down with pilsner and schnitzel at the in-house brewery Airbräu.
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Bamboo, plum blossoms, orchids, and chrysanthemums are known as four gracious plants of Korea. Stroll Incheon‘s garden dedicated to these blooming beauties–one of seven themed oases in the center of the passenger terminal (east and west wings, B1). Then partake in some national pastimes: Take a spin around the skating rink (Transportation Center) à la Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu-Na, or refine your golf swing at the golf club (international business area).
Local foods range from abalone porridge–a Korean bowl of comfort–at Bonjuk (1F, near exit 12) to bibimbap, a savory hodgepodge of rice, vegetables, chili paste, and fried egg at Bon Bibimbap (1F, near exit 12). Next it’s on to the Traditional Korean Cultural Experience Zone (near gate 24, east wing, and gate 31, level 3), where faculty from the Cultural Heritage Foundation teach passengers how to craft pencil cases, fans, and “lucky bags.” Stroll “Cultural Street” for a look at classic architecture, including a tiled roof (giwa) and pavilion (jeongja), and live performances of Korean chamber music (passenger terminal, 4F).
This article, written by National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Margaret Loftus, appeared in the November 2013 issue of the magazine.