Photo: Madrid Barajas Terminal Three
Terminal 4 of Madrid's Barajas airport is an award-winning piece of architecture.

Photograph by Jorge Estévez García

Remember when going to the airport was something special? Mass travel, deregulation, and security clampdowns have turned the airport experience into a real slog. But every once in a while we're wowed by a cool local shop, world-class art, or a tranquil spot to escape the hubbub. Here’s to those standouts, which, combined, would make the perfect airport.

Architecture
Barajas, Madrid, Spain

Leave it to the Spanish, with their rich tradition of cutting-edge architecture, to build a terminal that conjures a cathedral-like vault drenched in natural light. Two-thirds of a mile long, terminal 4 at MAD won the Stirling Prize for architecture when it opened its doors in 2006. We like the way the color-coded beams that support the undulating bamboo ceiling help passengers get their bearings when they wander off to the newsstand or to grab a bocadillo (traditional baguette sandwich).

Kids Area
Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

DFW’s Junior Flyers Clubs in terminals B and C are a big hit with the little aviators. The play areas are mini airports complete with runways, bridges, cars, planes, and air traffic control towers. Over in terminal D, an interactive art installation including a labyrinth-like game with curved, colored glass walls engages all ages. But the biggest attraction is the elevated Skylink: for adults, a speedy way to traverse the five terminals; for kids, a thrilling, swoopy train ride with a panoramic view of the airfield below.

Souvenirs

  • Macarons in a signature box from Ladurée, Charles de Gaulle, Paris (CDG)
  • Chocolate-covered potato chips from Esther Price, Dayton, Ohio (DAY)
  • Hand-carved wooden animal figurines from Out of Africa, Tambo, Johannesburg (JNB)
  • Willamette Valley Pinot Noir from Made in Oregon, Portland (PDX)
  • Indigenous pottery from Mata Ortiz Gallery, Puerto Vallarta (PVR)

Place to Spend the Day
Changi, Singapore

Waiting around an airport gets pretty old once you’ve tired of your magazine, Angry Birds, and listening to other people’s conversations. Not so at SIN. A veritable leisure park, the airport boasts a rooftop swimming pool (about $12), spa, beauty salons, movie theater, multimedia center with PlayStations and an MTV booth, and butterfly, orchid, cactus, and fern gardens. Have more than five hours to fill? Sign up for a free two-hour sightseeing tour of the city at booths in terminals 2 and 3.

Wi-Fi
San Francisco, California, USA

More airports, including Boston’s Logan (BOS) and Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), deserve kudos for offering free Wi-Fi, but SFO takes it to a new level with workstations equipped with outlets throughout all terminals. In the newly remodeled terminal 2, fliers can set up their laptops at a multi-seat computer desk with comfy lounge chairs and a kids’ play area nearby for the rest of the family. “This is the first airport I’ve seen that has kept pace with the personal technology needs of travelers. At most airports, it’s obviously an afterthought,” says business jet-setter Mellanie True Hills. Added bonus: There are plug-in outlets everywhere, even in the dining areas.

Local Eats

  • Brisket at the Salt Lick, Austin-Bergstrom, Texas (AUS)
  • Foie gras and mango sandwich at Miyou, Charles de Gaulle, Paris (CDG)
  • Pastrami on rye at Shapiro’s Deli, Indianapolis, Indiana (IND)
  • Ronnybrook Dairy milk shake at Custom Burgers by Pat LaFrieda, LaGuardia, New York (LGA)
  • Alder-planked sockeye salmon at Anthony’s Restaurant, Seattle-Tacoma, Washington (SEA)

High Art
Schiphol, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

At AMS, culture goes beyond the requisite smattering of public art. An annex of the city’s Rijksmuseum curates free rotating exhibitions from the mother ship in addition to a small permanent collection of masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age (also free). If literature is more your thing, cozy up with a book by the fake fire at the airport’s new library, where you can choose from 1,200 titles translated into 29 languages, listen to music, and download films to watch on one of nine iPads.

Retail Therapy
Heathrow, London, England

With more retail space than most small shopping malls (671,000-plus square feet), LHR offers a million opportunities to burn through that extra quid in your pocket. There are of course the ubiquitous Sunglass Huts and duty-free standbys, but what sets it apart is a focus on Brit brands. Outposts of London icon Harrods are in four terminals, including a two-story superstore in terminal 5, where you’ll also find handbag purveyor Mulberry and Olympic merchandise flagship London 2012. Plus, browse boutiques—Jo Malone and Prada—not typically found in airports.

Independent Bookstores

  • Renaissance Book Shop, General Mitchell, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (MKE)
  • Powell’s Books, Portland, Oregon (PDX)
  • 2nd Edition Book Sellers, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina (RDU)

Designed With Travelers in Mind
Munich, Germany

A model of German efficiency, MUC boasts an average six-minute wait to claim your bags and impressive connecting time statistics, particularly in terminal 2. New InfoGates throughout the terminals provide fliers with customized directions at the touch of a screen, including the estimated walking time to their destinations and wait time at passport control. Real people are on hand at the information consoles (albeit via videoconference monitors) to answer your questions. You can use your layover to take a shower, snooze in a “napcab,” or sip a German beer at the airport’s own brewery.

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