Gates of Heaven

Effective airport designs are often underappreciated, as it is easy to take them for granted when things go smoothly. You are comfortable, you find what you need, and you are not bored out of your skull. The best airports get the small things right in a big way.
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Best International: Changi Airport, Singapore

Gates of Heaven - Photo 1 of 3 -

Splashier airports attract aerial photographers in droves, but Changi makes no such grand architectural statement. Instead, it woos the common traveler who may be stuck here for a few hours. It is not a hermetically sealed purgatory, thanks to a straightforward design that incorporates open-air spaces, including rooftop terraces and an out-door swimming pool. Its atrium-like terminals are lush with indoor tropical gardens that exhibit botanical thought-fulness. Admittedly, the man-made waterfall does approach Las Vegas standards of excess—–if you can build Paris in the desert, why not put a jungle in an airport? Ultimately, however, the vines, tasteful wood trim, and warm tones help offset the coldness commonly found in international hubs. A 24-hour cinema, spa, showers, children’s play areas, and free Internet service provide the means to kill time or freshen up before the next leg of your trip.

Best in the United States: San Francisco International Terminal

SFO makes a big impression on those approaching by car or aboard the airport’s nifty AirTrains. The terminal elevates expectations with its sweeping, winglike roof and custom lettering oozing cosmopolitan style. The feeling doesn’t dissipate indoors, either. The concourse is a light and airy space—–if a bit oversized for current traffic levels—–that hums quietly and instills confidence and calm in the traveler. International food vendors afford nontravelers quality good-bye time; security checks operate smoothly; and there are no pretzel-like corridors to get lost in. Waylaid travelers can busy themselves with an aquarium, an aviation museum, thoughtful art and culture exhibits, spa treatments, quality restaurants, and wireless Internet. Convenient metro rail services connect the terminal to the city.

San Francisco International, exterior

San Francisco International, exterior

San Francisco International, interior

San Francisco International, interior

Tom Downs
Tom Jones is a Bay Area travel writer and author of guides for Lonely Planet and Wilderness Press. His research for "Airports 101" involved no travel–and thankfully no airport limbo time.


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