Air travel is less than glamorous. Excruciating, you could argue. The layovers, the food, the jet-lag...just, so much gross. But where there are two-hour delays and crying infants, there are silver linings all around. Below, you'll find the 17 most beautiful airports around the world to help you see these linings more clearly, each three-letter destination offering a respite from the stress that is flying. If you're stuck in one of these 17 airports, hey, you may even want to be delayed a while. It's 21st century architecture at its finest.
1. Wellington International Airport
Wellington, New Zealand
Designed by: Studio Pacific Architecture and Warren and Mahoney
As if you needed any more reasons to visit New Zealand, its airport has one of the wildest looking on Earth. The Rock, as it's known, is a unique lounge encased in a mesmerizing three-dimensional mosaic of wooden panels.
2. Dubai International Airport
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Designed by: Paul Andreu
Designed by the same French guy who dreamed up a whole slew of other airports in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Brunei, Manila, Shanghai, and Jakarta, plus Paris's Charles de Gaulle and Orly. The man knows exactly what he was put on this Earth to do.
3. Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport
Opened: 2006 (Terminal 4)
Designed by: Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers
Considering it's been in biz for 80 years, the place has naturally undergone a series of expansions and renovations, but what really stands out is the newest part, T4 (pictured), with its psychedelically-rippling corrugated bamboo and metal skylit roof.
4. Bilbao Airport
Opened: 2000 (new main terminal)
Designed by: Santiago Calatrava
Designed by Spain's very own hotshot neofuturistic architect, the new main terminal is a stunner from all angles. It's been given the nickname "The Dove," thanks to its luminous white space inside, created by the combination of white concrete and glass.
5. Beijing Capital International Airport
Opened: 2008 (Terminal 3)
Designed by: NACO, Foster + Partners, and ARUP
Built in anticipation of the masses that would pass through en route to the 2008 Olympic games, Terminal 3 is two miles long and one of the largest buildings in the world. It also gets an incredible amount of natural light through a mesh of skylights that tint white, yellow, and red as you pass through the concourse.
6. Marrakesh Menara Airport
Designed by: E2A Architecture
The real stunner here is its new terminal (above), which features an overhang and facade that cast arabesque shadows at all times.
7. King Abdulaziz International Airport
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Designed by: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Considering the airport's proximity to Mecca, it's designed with a special Hajj terminal to accommodate (and keep cool) all the people who make the pilgrimage every year.
8. Kansai International Airport
Designed by: Renzo Piano
Piano's considered one of the most influential and important modern architects (and has been deemed as such in the Time 100 in 2006). Much like his other work, which includes London's Shard and Paris's Centre Pompidou, this lofty and futuristic layout is one-of-a-kind. It's built to last, too, having survived the '95 Kobe earthquake and a typhoon in 1998.
9. Hong Kong International Airport
Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong
Designed by: Foster + Partners
The sprawling openness here is actually a soothing greeting for anyone deplaning after a Transpacific flight. Bright light, big spaces are no match for your tired eyes.
10. Incheon International Airport
Seoul, South Korea
Opened: March 2001
Designed by: Fentress Architects
South Korea's largest and busiest airport is one of the sleekest and most modern major airports in the world, and it's also able to incorporate plenty of elements that connect it with ancient Korean culture—the roof emulates a traditional Korean temple's, the hallways are filled with ancient Korean artifacts, and it even has indoor gardens.
(Editor's Note: the main image of this story is another exterior shot of Incheon International.)
11. Kuala Lumpur International Airport
Designed by: Kisho Kurokawa
There's something indescribably spiritual about cruising through the chaos beneath a light-speckled wooden-slat ceiling, held up by a series of tapered beams.
12. Denver International Airport
Designed by: Perez Architects, Fentress Bradburn Architects, Pouw & Associates, and Bertram A. Bruton & Associates
A bit like the Hajj terminal in Saudi Arabia, DIA's tent-like roof is fashioned from white Teflon-coated fiberglass, mimicking the white-capped Rockies in the distance. Though honestly, it looks just as much like the biggest circus ever staged, and that's cool too. (It must be said that this thing stands about a mile to the south, greeting visitors.)
13. London Heathrow Airport
Opened: 2008 (Terminal 5)
Designed by: Richard Rogers
As the third busiest airport in the world, it's not surprising Heathrow's undergone an enormous amount of renovation and expansion; however, its more modern terminals—specifically Terminal 5—are what really stand out. Its loftiness and floor-to-ceiling views can give the sense that you're lounging in a giant airship.
14. Malvinas Argentinas International Airport
Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Designed by: Unclear
Apart from being the southernmost international airport on the planet, this place makes the list because of how well its rustic A-frame design jives with the surreal mountain backdrop.
15. Munich Airport
Designed by: Koch+Partners and PLP Architecture
The above photo is of the Airport Center, a sprawling indoor-outdoor area that connects Terminals 1 and 2 and is chock-full of restaurants, a shopping mall, businesses, and a luxury hotel. All in all, a pretty comfortable place to spend a long layover.
16. O'Hare International Airport
Designed by: C. F. Murphy and Associates (main terminals)
If you're a regular American traveler, odds are you've passed through O'Hare more than once. And while its sprawling footprint can be a pain to navigate, there are a few touches that make it worth it, including this mind-bending, skating rink-like neon illuminated tunnel beneath the tarmac connecting Concourse B with Concourse C.
17. TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy Airport
New York City, USA
Opened: 1962-2005 (now closed)
Designed by: Eero Saarinen
While it's no longer open to the public and its future is up in the air, this list would be incomplete without the storied Trans World Airlines Flight Center in NYC. Its design harkens back to an era when air travel was seen as a glamorous affair, before the militant security lines and knee-bruising lack of legroom. Can't you just imagine how soothing it'd be to board and deplane here?
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor. He kindly requests you not recline your seat onto his long legs.