Travel

The 10 Most Surprisingly Great Airports in America

Published On 08/03/2016 Published On 08/03/2016
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Aiport
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Aiport | Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

It's no secret that American airports suck. Most of them were designed and built decades ago, and haven't been updated to handle the demands of today's higher passenger volumes, or the security morass we've been stuck in ever since 9/11. We recently named the 10 worst-designed airports in America, but the fact is, if you're flying around the States, you can pretty much assume you'll be dealing with awful airports. But they're not ALL bad. In fact, a handful of our airports can be downright delightful to land in. Here are the 10 American airports that are surprisingly, refreshingly great, offering opportunities for fitness, rest, relaxation, cultural enrichment, even outdoor activities while spending your precious hours in the one place that many people hate more than the dentist's office. Maybe you should consider rerouting your next flight.

10. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Opened: 1980
Annual passengers: 101 million*
Pro tip: The airport hosts a live-music series during select months throughout the year (including the holidays), because this is basically a cultural center with flights.

Atlanta and Chicago O'Hare might be in a perpetual standoff for the title of "busiest airport in America/North America/The World [depending on how you define it]," but where a trip to O'Hare feels like punishment for the sins of a former life, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson feels like a day spent in an airport-themed amusement park full of top-notch concessions and an extensive collection of public art. Yes yes yes, Atlanta also tends to top many people's lists of "most loathed" airports because of how big and busy it is, but reality check: it is BIG and it is BUSY. While we could side-by-side this with O'Hare we'll just make it simple: everything O'Hare got wrong, Hartsfield-Jackson got right. The layout actually, oh, i dunno, makes sense, the way-finding signage is arguably the best in the US, and the terminals range from bright and clean to outright impeccable. The airport boasts a public art collection of more than 250 pieces, including various sculptures, installations, and a grand chandelier covered in thousands of Swarovski crystals, as well as rotating exhibits from local artists and private collectors, you know, like a museum. The restaurant options can legitimately be called "dining" options, too: One Flew South is considered among the best airport restaurants in the country, with "Southernational" cuisine and a truly excellent craft cocktail list. This is an airport you actually WANT to be stuck in.

9. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

Opened: 1920 (established), 1962 (first terminal opened)
Annual passengers: 37 million
Pro tip: You can rent DVDs in the Lindbergh Terminal if you've got some time to kill. There are also showers, and helpful staff will often offer cots and pillows if you get REAL stranded.

If you ask any frequent United States traveler what his or her favorite airport is, four out of five of them will probably name MSP among the top. The fifth probably just hasn't been there. Maybe it has to do with the Midwestern niceness (which seems not to afflict either of Chicago's major airports), or the general overall cleanliness and convenience of the place, or the fact that it certainly trades on the Twin Cities' status as home to the Mall of America by functioning as America's Airport Mall, or the fact that this is a Delta hub and, to the airline's credit, Delta doesn't f*ck around. Despite its brutal Midwestern weather handicap, it doesn't suffer the same delay plague as Chicago's airports. And this being one of the finest dining cities in the Midwest dontchaknow, the food is killer: check out Shoyu for noodles made fresh daily and local export Andrew Zimmern's Minnibar for globally inspired sandwiches, craft beer, and cocktails, and try a Minnesota twist on casual French fare at Mimosa.

Courtesy of DFW International Airport

8. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

Date opened: 1973
Annual passengers: 64 million
Pro tip: DFW has not one, but two free yoga studios with mats, exercise balls, and stretch bands, with its own house-produced 20-minute yoga instruction video on loop in the newer of the two located at Gate E31.

Some people really hate this airport and I really don't understand why. The open, circular design is airy and refreshing with lots of natural light and none of the closed-in, low-ceiling claustrophobia many airports induce, and if there is a more aesthetically pleasing airport food court in America, I know not of it. The intra-airport transportation is also among the best in the States, and considering this is the fourth-busiest airport in North America and ninth-busiest in the world, that's no small compliment. DFW aims for calm and comfort at every turn -- you can rent a Minute Suite to take a nap on a long layover or delay (sidebar: things like this should exist everywhere), lounge in leather armchairs while using the free Wi-Fi, or head up to the Founder's Plaza Observation Area where you can listen to air-traffic controllers announce when a flight is coming in, use the telescopes to stargaze, enjoy ample green spaces and picnic areas, and take selfies with the sculptures of children playing "airplane." The dining options are also exceptional: get your Texas BBQ fix at Cousin's, upscale Mediterranean and Pacific Rim cuisine as well as craft cocktails and microbrews at the Grand Hyatt DFW's Grand Met and Met Lounge, and cheesy (!) Tex-Mex/Southwestern fare at Blue Mesa Taco & Tequila Bar.

7. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Date opened: 1944 (established), 1959 (first concourse built), 2004 (new Concourse A opened)
Annual passengers: 42 million
Pro tip: Download the STQRY app for a self-guided walking tour of SeaTac's impressive public art collection, including 16 large-scale contemporary installations.

The "Seattle Sound" is alive and well in the SeaTac Airport, yet another Delta hub. Anyone who was a grunge-loving teen or tween during the magical musical era of the early '90s should recognize the name "Sub Pop," i.e., the label that launched Nirvana. Well, SEA has an actual Sub Pop record store. Plus, there is live music seven days a week in various locations throughout the airport as part of the Port of Seattle's "Experience the City of Music" program. The music playing over the speakers? Exclusively artists -- more than 240 of them -- from the Pacific Northwest. The monitors in terminals and baggage claim areas? Screening clips about Seattle's music scene and history (note to the folks in charge: play music videos too!). The art exhibits? Curated by Seattle's EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum, including "Push Me, Pull Me: Pearl Jam and the Art of the Screen-Printed Poster." Seattle wants to make sure you never forget this is the home of Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain. Also SEA is an objectively beautiful and clean airport, and the food and drink is also pure Seattle: a great selection of local and regional craft beers can be found at many restaurants, and you should also check out airport outposts of Seattle favorites like Ivar's Fish Bar (get the smoked salmon chowder) and Beecher's Handmade Cheese (get the mac & cheese).

Victoria Ditkovsky / Shutterstock.com

6. Portland International Airport

Date opened: 1940 (established), 1959 (terminal opened)
Annual passengers: 17 million
Pro tip: There is a bike assembly and repair station located on the lower terminal roadway, and really, why wouldn't there be?

The dream of the '90s seems to be more alive at SeaTac than in PDX… sorry, Portlandia fans. The good news is that PDX does still manage to be really and truly and thoroughly and authentically Portlandish. For example, the "iconic" carpet (!?) that was installed in 1987 was replaced with a new pattern in 2014, prompting locals to create products celebrating it -- the carpet pattern, that is -- as a local icon. (Portland, shrug.) In keeping with Portland's reputation as a "foodie" (ugh) town, the dining options in PDX are second to almost none, at least in terms of local fare. There are two Laurelwood Public House locations operated by Laurelwood Brewing -- perhaps you've also heard Portland is a beer town? -- and a Rogue Ales Public House. Local favorites also include Mo's Restaurant, Henry's Tavern, Burgerville, Country Cat, and Rose's Restaurant and Bakery. House Spirits Distillery, the world's first airport tasting room, will open later this year. Oh, and make sure you've got some spare room in your carry-on: Oregon is one of the few states in the country that doesn't charge sales tax, so stock up on pricey products from PDX's many Oregon-based stores like Made In Oregon, Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Powell's Books, and the Oregon Pendleton Shop.

Courtesy of SFO Museum

5. San Francisco International Airport

Date opened: 1927 (established), 2000 (new Terminal 2 opened)
Annual passengers: 50 million
Pro tip: SFO introduced the "Wag Brigade" in 2013, a program that brings in trained dogs with vests that read "Pet Me!" to make passenger travel more enjoyable. It's a veritable airport Puppy Bowl, and all the interactive gaming you need.

SFO excels at distraction, which probably makes sense since Silicon Valley has basically made distraction a billion-dollar industry. But it's not all Google Glass (RIP) and GPS-enabled augmented-reality games (how many Pokémon Go players have missed their flights wandering too far away from their gates??). SFO's brand of distraction is actually quite "cultural," for lack of a better word. There is a 24-hour branch of the Steinhart Aquarium (one of the most biologically diverse and interactive aquariums in the world); the SFO Museum, an airport-exclusive cultural institution (the first institution of its kind located in an international airport) with rotating exhibitions and a permanent collection focusing on commercial aviation and travel; and a SFMOMA Museum Store outpost for all of the great museum gift-store shopping with none of the hushed museum silence. Much like DFW, SFO has two 24-hour yoga studios, and was the first American airport to offer such amenities. This being San Fran, the restaurant selection is basically the airport version of the Ferry Building Marketplace. There is a ton of fresh seafood to be had; hit Iron Chef Cat Cora's joint for the raw bar, then head to SF Uncork'd to put the hurt on its selection of California craft beers on draft and wide variety of California wine flights.

Carolina K. Smith MD/Shutterstock

4. Detroit Metropolitan Airport

Date opened: 1929 (established), 2002 (new McNamara Terminal opened), 2008 (new North Terminal opened)
Annual passengers: 33 million
Pro tip: DTW has a Westin hotel on property that guests can access without even leaving McNamara Terminal.

DTW is basically a brand-new airport, with two brand-new terminals opening in the last 15 years. And while the new North Terminal is nice enough -- it's nice! -- it's the also-new McNamara Terminal (aka the Delta terminal) that really shines. Travelers can spend hours staring peacefully at the animated water fountain -- designed by the same folks who designed the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas -- while sipping espresso at the Illy Coffee Bar next to it. And while the fountain might be the centerpiece above ground, DTW has also made the walk between concourses exceptionally pleasant with a 700ft-long underground light tunnel, featuring glass panels with sand-blasted artwork and nearly 9,000ft of LED lights synchronized to an original score. There is also a spa and lounge for travelers to relax, dissolving the stress of any delays or long layovers. One thing DTW could work on is the food, but maybe that's because I'm a native Detroiter and don't consider National Coney Island or Andiamo or not one, but TWO hockey-themed bar-and-grills noteworthy "cuisine." Sora Japanese Cuisine & Sushi Bar is pretty good though, as it should be: DTW serves as one of Delta's main gateways to Asia. And local pizza favorite Bigalora just opened a new spot in DTW, serving wood-fired pizzas with the most perfectly delicate crust you'll ever find.

3. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

Date opened: 1928 (established), 1990 (Terminal 4 opened)
Annual passengers: 44 million
Pro tip: The Phoenix Rental Car Center is the nicest you'll ever see, showcasing 82 pieces of art from the airport's public art collection, including an architectural glass installation that interacts with natural life to form an ever-changing rainbow pattern throughout the day.

Fitness and beauty are the focal points of PHX: the airport owns a staggering collection of 900 artworks in all medias -- including site-specific installations, contemporary ceramics, murals, and limited-edition prints -- acquired through commission, purchase, or donation. In fact, the City of Phoenix dedicates 1% of all capital improvement funds to further enhancing public spaces (like the airport, for example) with public art. PHX also has a mile-long Sky Harbor Fitness Trail that complements the city's FitPHX initiative to make Phoenix residents more active. Along the "trail" you'll see the Downtown Phoenix skyline, Camelback Mountain, and the sandstone buttes at Papago Park. PHX also gets high scores for its concessions: the Cartel Coffee Lab is one of the few truly proper post-third-wave coffee shops in any airport in the country for the hardcore coffee nerds who prefer single-origin, house-roasted beans brewed via Chemex over anything Starbucks. Alas, this is lost on most flyers, but those of us who appreciate it REALLY appreciate it. Le Grande Orange is a great stop for healthy -- as in actually nutritional -- organic salads and sandwiches that are veg/vegan-friendly, plus gourmet thin-crust pizzas. The pastries and ice creams are also worth the splurge. Cowboy Ciao is a local favorite, as much for the food as for the drinks.

2. Boston Logan International Airport

Date opened: 1923 (established), 2005 (new Terminal A opened)
Annual passengers: 34 million
Pro tip: Stay at the on-property Hilton Boston Logan Airport, take the free hotel shuttle to the nearby water taxi, and explore the city by foot and mass (Mass!) transit, skipping the headache of Boston traffic and Boston parking fees entirely.

Comparatively speaking (at least to the above airports), Boston's Logan International feels like a teeny-tiny, postage stamp-sized airport, which is odd considering it is located in what is arguably one of the top economic and intellectual hubs of North America (aka "the hub of the universe," as locals humbly refer to it) where the traffic is a nightmare and so is the median single-family home price at just under a cool half mil. Anyhoo, it's a nice airport, all the more noteworthy for how low-stress it is compared to how high-stress everything else about Boston is. Massport has your Boston-sanctified dining options covered, from a bunch of different incarnations of Legal Sea Foods, to a Todd English joint, to the Harpoon Tap Room and Cisco Brew Pub, to a kind of rotating pop-up of sorts, Dine Boston, which brings in guest chefs from local restaurants to create new seasonal menus.

BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)

1. Baltimore-Washington International Airport

Date opened: 1950
Annual passengers: 24 million
Pro tip: The historic Benson-Hammond House is located on airport grounds (accessible by the bike trail) and is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Don't do Dulles when you can do BWI! Seriously though. It's close enough (35 minutes to DC via Amtrak, or 25 minutes to Baltimore) and flights out of BWI are often cheaper. It consistently ranks highly (in the positive sense) for check-in and security lines. And if you do have a long stretch of time to kill and want to go stretch your legs, BWI has 10 self-serve, reservable Zagster bikes outside the International Terminal, near the BWI Marshall Light Rail stop. Users pay $5 for 12 hours of use, and the BWI Hiker-Biker Trail offers 12.5 miles of paved surfaces and wooden boardwalks circling the airport through green spaces and forested areas. And that's probably one reason why Health named BWI the second-healthiest airport in the United States in 2008. For less-"active" activities, the Sky Azure cocktail lounge offers a fine selection of craft beers, cocktails, and wines, and Gachi House of Sushi gets high marks, for an "airport sushi bar" or otherwise.

*Annual passenger data according to 2015 Airports Council International statistics

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Nicole Rupersburg actually loves exploring airports and has spent whole days stuck in more than a few of them. She stands strong by her conviction that both of Chicago’s airports are the worst. See her going places and doing stuff on IG @eatsdrinksandleaves.

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