While nobody enjoys hanging around an airport for hours thanks to delays or long layovers, it’s safe to say that once you’re past security, the experience has greatly improved in recent years. Airports have spent millions revamping their terminals, and while most of the changes are functional, some of that money has gone toward improving both design and amenities. Airport architects have transformed once-bland spaces into light-filled, inspiring areas filled with everything from indoor tropical gardens to massive art installations. The buildings themselves can also be works of art, often inspired by their surroundings, whether they be the Pacific Ocean, prairie lands, or a series of rocks. Here’s a look at 10 of the world’s most stylish airports.
By Christina Valhouli
SFO T2 by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid
San Francisco International, Terminal 2
WHERE: San Francisco, CA
Think of SFO’s Terminal 2 as the recycled airport—but in a good way. Architecture firm Gensler tackled a $383 million renovation of the terminal, with a focus on being green. The result is the first terminal in the US to achieve LEED gold status. Building material from the old terminal was reused, and passengers can refill water bottles at “hydration stations” around the terminal. SFO also doubles as an accredited art museum; look out for the hanging sculptures and rotating art exhibits. There’s also dedicated play areas for children and a yoga room. Even the shops and restaurants are cool. Take your pick from Kiehl’s, Pinkberry, or Vino Volo wine bar.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide
Wellington International Airport, The Rock Terminal
WHERE: Wellington, New Zealand
Welcome to The Rock, arguably New Zealand’s most dramatic airport. There’s nothing bland or business-like about the design, which takes its inspiration from a series of boulders along Wellington’s south coast. Both the interior and exterior of the terminal are clad in folding sheets of copper and mimic the design of the boulder. The design does it have its critics, though, who say it looks a lot like a bunch of pumpkins.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Wellington Guide
Madrid-Barajas Airport, Terminal 4
WHERE: Madrid, Spain
The design of terminal 4 in the Madrid-Barajas Airport has been described as joyful and exuberant. We’d like to throw in whimsical and inspiring too. The undulating wooden ceiling is supported by a canopy of rainbow colored trees that makes it seem like you’re walking through a magical forest. Other notable design elements include the massive, disk-shaped lights and air conditioning vents, which look like sculptures. The architects, the Richard Rogers Partnership (as it was then called), won the prestigious Stirling Design in 2006 for their work on Terminal 4.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Madrid Guide
Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport
WHERE: Winnipeg, Canada
Opened in 2011, Canada’s newest airport is also its first LEED-certified. The architecture firms Stantec Architecture and Pelli Clarke Pelli, which worked on Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, took a mid-century modern approach to the James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. The design uses plenty of glass and light and features floor-to-ceiling windows and more than 55 skylights. The architects have said the design is meant to mimic the expansiveness of the prairie.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Canada Guide
Changi Airport, Terminal 1
Changi Airport is consistently rated as one of the top airports in the world (not many airports can boast a pool, gardens, and cinema). While all the terminals are stylish, Terminal 1, which completed a S$500 million upgrade in July 2012 is a stand-out. The redesigned terminal has a tropical garden theme, with plenty of spacious open areas. One highlight is the Kinetic Rain sculpture, which hovers over the departures area. Consisting of 1,216 raindrops made of aluminum and polished copper, the airport says it’s the largest kinetic sculpture in the world. Other dramatic installations include a lantern feature wall and giant lily pads. There is also a mind-boggling variety of amenities, from spas and pools to playgrounds.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Singapore Guide
Carroll County Airport
WHERE: Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Located near the arts community of Eureka Springs, the Carroll County Airport may be tiny but its design makes a big impact. The architecture firm Modus Studio completely revamped the terminal in 2011, relying on simple materials such as metal and glass to design a space inspired by the World War II-era F4U Corsair airplane. The central gallery space of the terminal is maintained by the Eureka Springs Arts Council, and features rotating art exhibits. Added bonus: courtesy cars are also available for day or weekend trips.
LAX, Tom Bradley International Terminal
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
This terminal, which opened in September 2013, takes its design cue from the Pacific Ocean. Fentress Architects gave the exterior of the Tom Bradley International Terminal a curved roofline, which mimics the rolling motions of a wave. The Great Hall is flooded with light, and the interior has massive, 80-foot-tall digital art installations, showcasing everything from giant waves to people jumping in slow motion. Shopping and retail options are decidedly upscale—Bulgari, Umami Burger, and Kitson all have outposts here.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Los Angeles Guide
Jackson Hole Airport
WHERE: Jackson Hole, Wyoming
This pared-down airport is the only one located inside a US National Park, at the foot of the Grand Tetons. Architecture firm Gensler oversaw the Jackson Hole Airport renovation in 2010, using natural materials such as wood and stone to make the airport blend in with the natural surroundings. The result? A stylish, but elegantly sparse airport, that’s nestled in front of stunning mountains.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Jackson Hole Guide
Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport, Terminal 3
WHERE: Shenzhen, China
Built with a budget of $1 billion and designed by Rome-based architecture firm Studio Fuksas, this terminal, in the Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport, is one of the most futuristic-looking in the world. The long, skinny terminal, which opened in November 2013, has been described as resembling a manta ray, and appears to be coated in a honeycombed-pattern bubble wrap. All those exterior windows translate into a flood-lit, glossy, highly polished interior. Inside, the high concept design continues, with sculptural air conditioning “trees”, stainless steel security gates, and more honeycomb motifs.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Shenzhen Guide
WHERE: Copenhagen, Denmark
Scandinavian design is known for being stylish and restrained, and Copenhagen International Airport does not disappoint. After all, this is the airport that has hosted pop-up shops and restaurants from Michelin-starred chefs, and once gave travelers with bad seats free chocolates. Travelers will find hardwood floors and Danish design classics dotted around the airport, such as the iconic Artichoke lamp, Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs, and the three-legged Beck table by Anders Folke. Don’t miss the CPH Apartment, a lounge that is open to all passengers and designed like a luxury Copenhagen apartment.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Copenhagen Guide