Every year, aviation lovers put out their annual roundup of the best, cleanest and most efficient airports in the world. While we definitely appreciate a quick customs queue and not having to deal with lost baggage, it’s the wild architecture, trendy lounges and beautiful art installations between airport terminals that really tickle our fancy.
Cities around the world know that every traveler is immediately going to form an opinion about the place they’re visiting from the moment they step off the plane into an airport. As such, many are investing billions – and sometimes trillions – of dollars into renovating or rebuilding their hubs from scratch.
The competition between the world’s most cosmopolitan of destinations is fierce, with each city trying to one-up the next by installing rooftop pools, massive movie theatres and botanical gardens in their sprawling, gleaming airports. What was once viewed as a mind-numbing layover is now hours of fun or a relaxing nap in your terminal’s tricked-out sleep room.
We’ve rounded up some of the most awe-inspiring airports designs in the world for you to lust after below. Who knows, you might even find yourself traveling through one of them someday in the near future.
10 New Zealand's Wellington Airport
We’re starting off our list of the world’s coolest airports with perhaps one of the strangest on the list. Up until a few years ago, the Wellington airport was a drab pile of grey metal with nothing to do and nothing to see. Then, in 2003, they got a giant sculpture of The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. Eight years later, a departure lounge called “The Rock” was built and it looks like something out of an ethereal sci-fi daydream. Worth a mention here, because which other airports are building weird structures like that?
9 Madrid's Barajas Airport
Aiming to serve over 70 million passengers annually, Barajas also boasts the largest airport terminal on the planet at 760,000 square meters. The design by Antonia Lamela and Richard Rogers is beautiful, featuring sculptured metal and accents of yellow color. The terminal 4 design was implemented to relieve passenger stress through careful use of illumination, with glass panes instead of walls and numerous domes in the roof which allow natural light to pass through. If you’re bored on a layover, consider checking out the spa, numerous art exhibits or authentic Spanish boutiques lining the airport’s terminals.
8 Singapore's Changi Airport
Ah, Singapore. The land of impeccable architecture and carefully thought out design. Consistently ranked best airport in the world, Changi boasts a butterfly garden, a five metre high “green wall,” rooftop pool, napping facility and numerous botanical gardens. Walking through its immaculate hallways makes travelers automatically feel at ease thanks to the zen vibe prescribed by Changi’s designers. Airports don’t have to always be a miserable place to spend a few hours in and Singapore has really outdone itself here.
7 Seoul's Incheon Airport
Seoul has received numerous global awards in the past for its attention to design and innovation in engineering. Incheon is constantly ranked at the top of the world’s list of airports due to its service quality and amenities. Shaped in an arc to convey the structure of traditional Korean homes, Incheon features a casino, ice rink, spa and sauna. Its numerous restaurants cater to a wide range of culinary tastes, including Chinese, Japanese and Western cuisine. The airport is home to the stunning Panorama lounge, which allows diners and drinkers to look out over the runway and get a bird’s eye view of planes taking off.
6 Jeddah's King Abdulaziz Airport
While customs, baggage handling and similar facilities are located in an air conditioned building, the majority of the King Abdulaziz airport is located under a stunning, tent-shaped roof designed by Horst Berger. Due to Jeddah being the closest city in proximity to Islam’s holy city of Mecca, the most recent terminals of the airport were designed to accommodate pilgrims arriving annually. The brilliant tent roof and open air airport concept has won Jeddah numerous design awards, and travelers can breathe easy knowing that the roof shields well from the desert sun and promotes natural air circulation.
5 Hong Kong's Hong Kong International Airport
Located on the edge of the ocean amongst a group of small tropical islands, Hong Kong Airport is not only gorgeous but features awe-inspiring aerial views when passengers are landing. The airport is one of the busiest on the planet and has some of the aviation industry’s best amenities. Its food court is comprehensive and only serves incredibly high quality food. As well, you can use its airport flight cabin simulator to get the full experience of being a pilot and can watch a movie in the largest IMAX cinema on Chinese territory. From downtown Hong Kong, the airport express train connects you to the airport in a matter of minutes. Better yet, there is an entire terminal of gates at the downtown station where travelers can check their bags and print their boarding passes before jumping on the train.
4 Marrakech's Menara Airport
Blending Modernism and traditional Islamic architecture, Marrakech’s new Menara airport is a sight to be seen. Designed by Morocco-based E2A firm, the airport looks like a gigantic white honeycomb from the exterior. The innovative design casts gorgeous shadows on the interior floor of the space, where passengers feel like they’ve been transported to another world. On the roof, 72 photovoltaic pyramids generate power – making this airport not only attractive but also efficient.
3 Helsinki's Finavia Airport
Finland’s Helsinki airport is the busiest in the country, serving 15 million passengers annually. While it has only gained international attention in recent years, the airport has become known around the world for its incredible art exhibitions, clever use of social media and amazing lounge by Finnair. The lounge is straight out of an episode of The Jetsons, featuring pristine monochromatic design and retro egg-shaped chairs. The airport is also home to an art-house cinema showing short Finnish films, a scenic terrace during the summer months and free relaxation area. Beyond that, you can take a walk around the terminals to check out some of the best modern sculptures in the country.
2 Chicago's O’Hare Airport
If you’ve travelled across the United States at all, chances are you’ve had a layover in the excellent Chicago O’Hare Airport. It’s one of the world’s busiest and is a design lover’s paradise, with an incredible multi-colored light installation above its moving runways between terminals. Every few seconds, the visually arresting fixture changes colors and shoots light off in different directions. The airport is so big that there is a high tech light rail connecting its various areas to each other, allowing you to get a little bit of a glimpse outdoors while riding it. If you’re in need of a stretch, consider checking out its newly opened yoga room. You can also snag a day pass to the attached Hilton hotel, which lets visitors use its elaborate saunas, gym and steam rooms.
1 Beijing's Beijing International Airport
When you disembark from your plane and enter Beijing's International Airport, you'll be walking into one of the largest buildings on the planet. Terminal 3 is the airport's shining star, stretching over two miles long with the goal of representing China's most recognized symbol - a dragon. Designed by the Fosters + Partners architecture firm, the terminal's stunning roof looks like mesh and allows sunlight to radiate through, casting red and yellow lights on the floor in a traditional Chinese color scheme. The terminal is covered by a lush rooftop garden, taking up over 28,000 square meters and visible to the planes landing above.