Between holiday trips, extra crowds and winter weather delays, chances are good travelers will spend more time at airports than they’d like over the next month. But some airports across the United States might not be so bad to get stuck in (we are not looking at you, LaGuardia).
Beyond the chain restaurants, cookie-cutter shops and monitors showing the latest delays, many airports are hiding unexpected delights. Think public art, gardens, yoga studios, movie theaters and – during winter – ice skating.
“You’re going to get to the airport two, three-and-a-half hours ahead of schedule, and you get through security using PreCheck, then you have some time to kill,” says Kevin Burke, president and chief executive of the North America region of Airports Council International. “Airports look at creative ways to keep their customers happy.”
International airports tend to get the most attention, rightly, for their innovations. We are all aware that Singapore Changi Airport has a butterfly garden and giant slide. But Burke says decades-old U.S. airports can’t quite deliver the same bells and whistles as flashy global counterparts.
“They’re newer and they’re able to build around customer needs,” he says. “What we’re doing is adapting older airports to the needs of customers now. ... You can’t put a rainforest inside of LaGuardia.”
Harriet Baskas, a writer and creator of the blog stuckattheairport.com, says airports know they’ll get blamed when something goes wrong, even if it’s the fault of an airline or Transportation Security Administration. So they are invested in trying to make things go right whenever possible.
“It’s the first place you see and the last place you experience when you visit a city,” she says. “They’re recognizing that they are an attraction for their cities.”
Here are some unexpected airport attractions to look for around the United States:
Ice skatingThrough Jan. 20, Denver International Airport has a free ice skating rink open at its outdoor plaza every day. Skate rentals are also free, and because the rink is outside the security checkpoint, it’s open to non-travelers, too.
The TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York has opened its “Runway Rink.” It will operate daily through the end of February, though times vary depending on the day. This option is not free: Admission is $15, or $10 for children younger than 12; and ice skates cost $10 to rent for adults, or $8 for children.
Art exhibitionsSeveral airports have robust art programs. Baskas says San Francisco International Airport is home to an accredited museum, while Miami International Airport has curators for its art. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Baskas’ hometown airport, has been amassing a collection for decades and even has pieces made out of recycled soda cans in a bathroom.
“I like that they’ve put art literally everywhere in the airport here,” Baskas says.
GardensIt’s not a rainforest, but Chicago O’Hare International Airport boasts some different greenery: an aeroponic garden, where plant roots are suspended in towers. Produce from the garden includes basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, lettuce, oregano and green beans – some of which is used in O’Hare’s restaurants.
The grounds of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu offers Chinese, Hawaiian and Japanese gardens. They’re connected by paths, bridges and steppingstones, and the design is meant to tell a larger story about the state of Hawaii. “Waterways flow among these garden ponds and lakes to symbolize the intermingling of the cultures in Hawaii,” HNL’s website says.
Yoga spacesMore airports have added yoga studios or rooms in recent years, including both Chicago O’Hare and Chicago Midway, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Miami International Airport and Burlington International Airport.
Most include equipment such as mats and, also important, a private space to breathe deeply away from the masses.
MoviesAn old-fashioned movie house – described as “a first-of-its-kind free microcinema” – at Portland International Airport shows short films by Oregon filmmakers. The Hollywood Theatre at PDX is for passengers only, since it’s after a security checkpoint.
Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport offers the See 18 movie-screening room, featuring short films and documentaries by creators from the region.
GolfVacation is ending, but you still want to practice your swing? Palm Beach International Airport has an eight-hole putting green on the second level of its main terminal. The $3.20 fee lets you “keep your ball for nostalgia.”
Used booksYou’ll always have Hudson Booksellers. And you may even get lucky to find an outpost of a local bookstore at the airport, like Powell’s Books, at PDX, or Books & Books at MIA. But Renaissance Books, a used-book store located pre-security at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport, strikes travelers as an actual treasure. “Good excuse to be early ... or glad to be delayed!” wrote one TripAdvisor user.
MusicWith a nickname like “Music City,” it should come as no surprise that Nashville packs its airport with live music. It’s been doing so since 1988, and hosts more than 1,500 performances a year. The terminal includes six performance areas.