The 12 Best U.S. Airports for Sightseeing During a Long Layover

Pass the time with a quick trip downtown.

Flight delays are as inevitable a part of air travel as crying babies and drinking before noon. And while you can certainly pass the time loitering in duty-free or camping out in a slick pod hotel, sometimes a long layover is the perfect excuse to see more of a city than the Terminal A Cinnabon.

But which downtowns are easiest to reach from the airport? And which are worth getting out and exploring? Not all of them, that's for sure. Here are 12 American airports that—thanks to their close proximity to city centers and prime transportation access—are tailor-made for taking in the sights between flights.

Distance to downtown: 9.5 miles
Transportation options: Cab (25 minutes); MARTA Gold or Red Line Train (25 minutes)
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport boasts a MARTA train station right next to baggage claim, making it super convenient to pop into the city. Hop on the Red or Gold Line and shoot over to a museum that’s uniquely Atlanta: The World of Coca Cola. If you’ve got the time, follow up your newfound knowledge with a stroll through Centennial Olympic Park. And no need to haul around that wheelie bag—luggage storage is available at Wrap-a-Bag outlets throughout the terminals.

Distance to downtown: 11 miles
Transportation options: Cab (25 minutes); CTA Orange Line Train (35 minutes)
Midway is much smaller and closer to the city than O’Hare, making it easier to escape if you’re staring down a few hours between takeoffs. Play it safe with a short drive or train ride over to the South Loop, where you can hit the Museum of Contemporary Photography before tracking down one of Chicago’s quintessential food items by way of a donut from Stan’s Donuts, a Chicago Dog at Kim & Carlo’s Hot Dog Cart, or some deep-dish at Giordano’s.

Distance to downtown: 7.5 miles
Transportation options: Cab (20 minutes); Metrorail Orange Line Train (40 minutes)
Your best transportation bet out of Miami International depends on how much time you have to kill. The Metrorail is the cheapest option, albeit a bit tricky—you’ll need to take the MIA Mover over to the platform, which could end up cutting into your precious layover. The train is definitely doable, but if time is of the essence, consider splurging on a 15-minute cab ride into Little Havana for an order of empanadas at Café La Trova, or head further north to people-watch among the galleries and breweries that put the Wynwood Arts District on the map.

Distance to downtown: 10 miles
Transportation options: Cab (20 minutes); MAX Red Line (40 minutes)
You can do lots of things at Portland International, like get a shoe shine or admire the Insta-famous carpet. But if you feel like venturing out, the airport provides direct access to the MAX Red Line, which takes you right to Pioneer Square. While there, do a little window shopping at Pioneer Place and browse the aisles at Powell’s City of Books, or get your botanical fix at the International Rose Test Garden, Portland Japanese Garden, or Lan Su Chinese Garden.

Distance to downtown: 11 miles
Transportation options: Cab (20 minutes); SEPTA Airport Line (35 minutes)
Philadelphia International has SEPTA stations at each terminal, allowing enterprising travelers to reach Center City in about half an hour no matter where they’ve landed. Ditch the terminal food court and take the Jefferson Line to Reading Terminal Market, where you can sample a soft pretzel at Miller’s Twist, some cannolis from Termini Brothers, or the best damn pork sandwich you’ll ever eat at DiNic’s. If you decide to cab it from the airport, a 20-minute ride will transport you to the less-touristy foodie paradise of East Passyunk Avenue, where you can grab a coveted table at Bing Bing Dim Sum or Gabriella’s Vietnam.

Distance to downtown: 13.5 miles
Transportation options: Cab (25 minutes); 1 Line Light Rail (45 minutes)
One of the best ways to end any trip is with an aerial view of the destination you’ve just visited. And if you haven’t yet had the chance to ascend Seattle’s soaring Space Needle, it takes just 25 minutes by cab to get there from SeaTac. Afterwards, check out the nearby Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum or grab lunch at Tilikum Place Cafe. An extra incentive? You can stash your baggage at the airport’s Smart Carte kiosk before you hit the town.

Distance to downtown: 4.5 miles
Transportation options: Cab (20 minutes); Metro Blue Line Train (25 minutes)
DC’s Reagan National conveniently houses a Capital Bikeshare station near the Terminal B/C parking garage, perfectly positioned for snagging a two-wheeler and hitting the Mount Vernon Trail, which goes all the way over to Georgetown and Downtown DC. But if you’re not down for some heavy cardio, take a cab or the Metro Blue Line Train to the Smithsonian stop, where you can explore famous landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument as well as a host of world-class (and free!!) museums.

Distance to downtown: 8 miles
Transportation options: Cab (15 minutes); VIA Bus (30 minutes)
From San Antonio International, catch the VIA Bus Route 5 (located on the far west end of Terminal B) and you’ll find yourself downtown in about 30 minutes. Once there, take a peaceful stroll down the famous River Walk, shop for a handmade souvenir at El Mercado Historic Market Square, or grab a signature puffy taco at Ray’s Drive Inn.

Distance to downtown: 5 miles
Transportation options: Cab (15 minutes); Silver Line Bus (25 minutes); MBTA Blue Line Train (20 minutes)
Boston’s Logan International offers a plethora of easy-access transportation, from subways to water taxis. You have the option to visit Boston’s Seaport District—which requires a necessary stop at the Barking Crab for a buttery lobster roll—or Downtown Boston, where you can enjoy some New England Clam Chowder at Quincy Market inside Faneuil Hall Marketplace, wave hello to the Paul Revere House, and take a walk down the Freedom Trail.

Distance to downtown: 2 miles
Transportation options: Cab (5 minutes); Bus (25 minutes)
One might be tempted to stay put at Palm Springs International Airport, with its open-air layout and artwork straight out of the Palm Springs Art Museum. But venture out just 10 minutes by car, and you’ll discover the Palm Springs Air Museum, where you can marvel at vintage wartime fliers. Or, head downtown to pay homage to the Palm Springs’ own Walk of Stars before checking out the always-engaging Robolights sculpture yard.

Distance to downtown: 24 miles
Transportation options: Cab (45 minutes); A Line Train (35 minutes)
At Denver International, you can pick up the A Line Train right by the new Westin Denver International Hotel and zip over to Union Station in approximately 35 minutes. The 1914 Beaux-Arts building is a wonder in its own right, and you can take in its beauty while grabbing a bite at the Cooper Lounge, which offers views of the station’s historic Great Hall alongside downtown Denver. If time permits, hop back on the A Line and take it to 38th & Blake to hang out at a brewery or two while roaming the city’s bustling River North Art District (a.k.a. RiNo to locals).

Distance to downtown: 7 miles
Transportation options: Cab (10 minutes); TARC Bus (35 minutes)
If you only have a few hours to spend in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby Museum is a must-see, offering 30-minute walking tours of iconic Churchill Downs Racetrack. Get there in six minutes by car, or take the TARC Bus and reach the grounds in under an hour. Downtown Louisville offers even more options, with cultural institutions like the Muhammed Ali Center, the Frazier History Museum, and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory all within walking distance from each other (not to mention a bevy of bourbon-centric distillery tasting rooms).

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Matt Meltzer contributed to the reporting of this story.