Air travel worldwide is likely to double over the next two decades, and airports need to keep up.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals surpassed 1.3 billion in 2017, and that number increases each year. Some cities prepare for takeoff by investing big in better transportation connections or new technology for slow security. Airports today shift from bland transportation terminals into destinations people actually might want to spend some time.
The world's busiest airports (by passenger volume) offer their crowds museums, gardens, cultural performances, and more. Whether time allows exploring the airport or venturing outside, here's how to make the most of your next layover in these 10 major hubs.
1. Atlanta’s Art Center
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, 104 million passengers annually
Stay: Collecting treasures for the past 40 years, the Atlanta airport transformed into the unlikely home of the city’s largest art exhibition, with diverse works such as the mixed media “Saints” mural by local Radcliffe Bailey (Terminal E) or the 450-foot-long installation (between concourses A and B) by Chicago artist Steve Waldeck, “Flight Paths,” the largest public art project in the city’s history.
Go: Take the metro twenty minutes to Peachtree Center station in the Midtown arts district to the High Museum, a rippled modern building designed by Richard Meier, showcasing blue chip artists like Claude Monet and Dorthea Lange alongside the top photographic collection of the southeastern United States, which features rare civil rights-era images. Kids will love the nearby Center for Puppetry Arts for the history of the artform plus regularly-scheduled performances. [Read our travel guide to Atlanta.]
- Nat Geo Expeditions
2. Beijing’s Epic Sights
Beijing Capital International Airport, 96 million passengers annually
Stay: Stroll through the miniature imperial garden (T3E waiting area) with pavilions and bridges imitating those of the Summer Palace. Feed the fish as you find much-needed zen between flights–free fish food is provided–plus the gardens host daily performances of singing, dancing, or magic tricks (T3E fountain).
Go: Turn a layover into an unforgettable visit to the Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beijing Layover Tours picks travelers up from the airport and guides them to the less-crowded Mutianyu section, just an hour away, with less-crowds and a strategic vantage point in the mountains to admire the 5,500-mile long wall. Visa requirements are waived for those visiting China for less than 72 hours. [Learn more about the Great Wall of China.]
3. Dubai’s Shopping Stop
Dubai International Airport, 88 million passengers annually
Stay: Bigger is always better in Dubai, home to one of the world’s largest airport retail spaces. Everything from tacky camel figurines to boxes of local dates or Rolex watches and other luxury indulgences are all tax-free. Pre-order bars in 18, 22, or 24 carats for the perfect souvenir from the “City of Gold.”
Go: Just a 15-minute drive from the airport, hop on an abra (wooden boat) to cross the creek to Deira, the old part of town. The gold and spice souks there give visitors a glimpse back to a time before Dubai boomed with skyscrapers. Hundreds of regional spice shops and jewelry stores hawk their wares like the largest gold ring in the world, according to Guinness World Records, weighing in at a hand-dragging 140 pounds. [Find more fun things to do in Dubai.]
4. Beach Bumming in L.A.
Los Angeles International Airport, 84.6 million passengers annually
Stay: Kids can burn off energy at the play area in the Great Hall dubbed “LAX Beach,” where foam waves, surfboards, and dolphins are ready to be climbed. Grab sandwiches by Michael Voltaggio from Ink Sack (Great Hall) like the pork shoulder banh mi or the “Spanish Godfather” for an impromptu family picnic.
Go: Taxi five miles to Manhattan Beach for a self-guided neighborhood walking tour to gawk at multimillion dollar homes then take a quick dip. Find here some of the best surfing waves in Southern California or for a pick-up game in what’s considered the birthplace of beach volleyball. [Check out the top experiences in Los Angeles.]
This composite image was created at London Heathrow Airport's runway 09L between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Mornings at Heathrow are typically some of the busiest times for arriving aircraft, as waves of widebody jets from Asia and North America complete their long haul flights to London.
5. Get a Taste of Tokyo
Tokyo Haneda International Airport, 85 million passengers annually
Stay: Super-fresh fish may break airport dining norms, but some travelers go out of the way to stopover for such a meal at low-key, old-Tokyo style Sushi Kyotatsu (Terminal 1, 3rd Floor). If raw is not your thing, the airport offers all of the best hits of Japanese cuisine from ramen to udon, plus sake to wash it down.
Go: The bad news is that Tokyo airport is over an hour from the actual city, so try a group tour for a few hours to avoid getting lost on the expansive public transport system while crunched for time. The good news is that the surrounding town of Narita, just ten minutes from the airport by train, offers a glimpse into daily life with sprawling Naritasan Park, Buddhist temple Naritasan Shinshoji, and steaming bowls at Ramen Bayashi. [Don't miss these essential tips for Tokyo.]
6. Stretch Out in Chicago
Chicago O'Hare International Airport, 80 million passengers annually
Stay: Downward dog to rejuvenate after a long flight in O’Hare’s naturally-lit yoga studio (Terminal 3 Rotunda) with sustainably-sourced bamboo floors and TVs for optional guidance through poses. Nearby, plants stretch through 26 towers in the world’s first aeroponic garden in an airport, supplying fresh produce like purple basil, Habanero peppers, and bibb lettuce to restaurants in the same terminal.
Go: Take the blue line downtown to the Washington Station to reach Millenium Park, the city’s 25-acre gathering spot. First pass by the 50-foot-tall Picasso sculpture anchoring Daley Plaza, then soak up the views from a bridge connecting to the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, home of the orchestra and the Grant Park Music Festival, the nation's only remaining free outdoor classical music series. Snap a reflective photo in “Cloud Gate” by Anish Kapoor, nicknamed “the bean” before relaxing in the park. [Find much more to do in Chicago.]
7. Tea time in London
London Heathrow Airport, 78 million passengers annually
Stay: Get cultured at the Terminal 5 Expo Fine Art Gallery, which aims to provide a "contemplative space" amidst the bustle of the busy transport hub. The gallery also collaborates with the Sofitel London Heathrow hotel on its ever-evolving sculpture exhibition program. Then stay for high tea at the Sofitel, complete with scones and clotted cream (Terminal 5).
Go: Take the Heathrow express to Paddington then transfer the Blackfriars station. Cross the Thames River, marvel at Shakespeare’s Globe theater, then head into the Tate Modern for world-renowned contemporary art in a former power house. Recharge over tea and incredible sweeping views of London in the museum cafe. [See much more on a trip to London.]
8. Surprises in Hong Kong
Hong Kong International Airport, 73 million passengers annually
Stay: Play nine holes of golf centered around an island lake in Terminal 2. Catch an IMAX movie with special 4D effects like fish swimming off the screen or falling snow (Terminal 2), go on a scavenger hunt for the optical illusion artworks hiding around Terminal 1, or head to the Aviation Discovery Centre to learn about the life of a commercial pilot in a cockpit and flight simulator. Hong Kong airport is an unexpected destination in and of itself.
Go: By subway then cable car, visit the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island–the largest island in Hong Kong–where the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world makes a home at an active Buddhist monastery. Added bonus, there are great views of the city plus hiking trails–one of the most densely populated places on Earth surprises with many green spaces. [Discover hiking in Hong Kong.]
9. Cruise through Shanghai
Shanghai Pudong International Airport, 70 million passengers annually
Stay: Shanghai's airport lacks noteworthy options to pass time–just normal food courts, duty-free shops, and costly lounges. Even without time for sightseeing, take the Maglev (magnetic-levitation train) simply to feel whiplash while reaching speeds of 267 miles per hour. The trip to the city periphery takes less than eight minutes each way.
Go: The train’s final stop is the Shanghai Maglev Museum on the ground floor of Longyang Road Station, with free, interactive exhibitions on the science and history behind the high-speed technology. Continue on the normal subway (Line 2) to East Nanjing Road where the historic architecture and modern skyscrapers mingle above the Huangpu River. Cruises range from 30 minutes to four hours. [Plan the best trip to Shanghai.]
10. Indulge in Paris
Aéroport de Paris-Charles de Gaulle, 69 million passengers annually
Stay: To experience the local joie de vivre without much time, head to Terminal 2 for the Instant Paris transit area. A multilingual reading salon offers coffee in cushy armchairs. Then take an immersive, 3-d walk through the French capital to peer through a virtual window to admire the Eiffel Tower in real time. [Discover the secrets of Paris.]
Go: Head for the TGV (high-speed) train and take the RER B Line 45 minutes to the central Chatelet-les-Hall station. Marvel at the inner-workings of contemporary art museum Centre Pompidou, with pipes on the exterior designed by Renzo Piano. Cross the Seine to Île de la Cité, a small island home to Notre-Dame Cathedral and Sainte Chapelle, and watch the river boats roll by.