Ditch that overpriced airport lounge lager and napping on pleather seating… make the most of your layover with a whirwind tour of the world’s finest cities.
If you’ve seen the movie “The Terminal” you know that the life of a frequent traveler can mean living inside of airports with no contact with the real outside world. Sure, many of the world’s top airports are modern architectural marvels with so many amenities and beautiful features that you probably could live there. But who would want to?
If you plan carefully and keep a close eye on the clock, you can get out and explore!
Be prepared, though, you don’t have much time… let’s go!
Special disclaimer: Don’t miss your flight! It is very easy to get swept up in the charms of a new city when you’re exploring. Set an alarm on your watch, keep a close eye on your time and make sure you’re back at the airport in time for check in. Remember, five minutes too late could cost hundreds of dollars!
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
2010 passengers to-date: 51,839,477
10-second primer (pretend you know about the city): The major connecting hub for Delta Air Lines, you’re likely to connect here more than anywhere else in North America. Atlanta is one of the most powerful metropolitan areas in the United States with a rich history. It’s the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., the home of CNN and Coca-Cola, and has a beautiful downtown that blends preserved architecture and modern skyscrapers.
660 Peachtree St NE
Tour: $10, check ahead for availability
Take a tour of the historic Fox Theatre; known as one of North America’s most beautiful historic theatres. As you learn about the intricate architecture with minarets, bright marble, carvings, and historic décor you will hear about the legends that have graced the stage and brought audiences to their feet over the decades.
After your tour, head out for a short walk along Peachtree Street, the heart of Atlanta to take in the downtown vibe.
- Directions: 30 minutes each way, $2 each way
- Walk to Airport Station
- Take the Gold Northeast Doraville Line toward Doraville Station
- 10 stops to North Avenue Station
- Walk North on Peachtree Street to the Fox Theatre
Beijing Capital International Airport
2010 passengers to-date: 41,920,556
10-second primer: The capital of China since the communists under Chairman Mao came to power in 1949. Although it is a modern capital in terms of China’s history, Beijing has enough drama and intrigue in the last generation to create an unforgettable visit – as well as historical sites from the majestic past. Beijing is the country’s second-largest city after Shanghai; but it is regarded as the cultural heart of the country… host to the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Immediately south of the Forbidden City
Walking across the largest plaza in the world – the vastness and modern history (site of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists) are haunting. Your eye contrasts between the emptiness of the space and the towering monuments of the Forbidden City. The Gate of Heavenly Peace and the Forbidden City are at the North, and the mausoleum of late chairman Mao Zedong are at the south (you can view his body free of charge if you have time).
- Directions: budget 40 minutes+ each way, 25 yen for airport express plus 2 yen for subway each way
- Take the Airport Express train to Dongzhimen
- Transfer to line 2 to Jiangouomen Station
- Transfer to line 1 to Tiananmen Xi (Tiananmen West Station)
- Walk to Tiananmen Square
O’Hare International Airport
2010 passengers to-date: 38,279,907
10-second primer: You know a city has style when it can say it coined the word “jazz.” Chicago is one of the largest, busiest, and most dynamic cities in the United States and the hub of the Midwest. O’Hare is the major transfer point for United and American Airlines. Downtown Chicago is home to some of the most impressive urban architecture in the world – in fact the skyscraper truly gained prominence as the city was re-built following the great fire. So, best to explore one of those famous skyscrapers in person … from one of the best observation towers in the world!
Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)
233 S Wacker Dr
Observation deck pass: $18.45
Chicago’s tallest building (and for many years the tallest building in the world) is 1454 feet high and 110 stories. A 70-second elevator ride takes you to the observation deck with unobstructed views of the city below and Lake Michigan. A new feature for the very brave is “The Ledge” – literally a glass box that hangs out from the side of the tower, allowing you to look straight down to the ground below.
- Directions: 1hour 15min each way, $2.25 each way
- From O’Hare take the Blue Line toward Forest Park (19 stops)
- Arrive at Jackson-Blue
- Walk to Willis Tower
London Heathrow Airport
2010 passengers to-date: 36,927,381
10-second primer: Europe’s largest city (7 million) is a fascinating example of the past and future co-existing perfectly. 2000 years of history from the Romans and colonialism give the city the world’s finest museums and historic buildings; as well as an old-style classy attitude. Yet London is also one of the world’s most multicultural and modern cities, soon to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. Head to the Millennium Bridge to literally walk between eras – from the Tate Modern art museum to the ancient St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Tate Modern museum, Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral
25 Sumner St., Bankside
Free (no really!)
Tate Modern is London’s most raved about museum and a fascinating example of the city’s emergence into a modern metropolis. The museum resides in an industrial revolution-era coal power plant that has been transformed into a beautiful – and free! – showcase of stunning modern art.
After poking around the museum, walk directly outside and across the Millennium Bridge: a suspension foot bridge across the River Thames. The bridge forms a direct line between the modern museum and the ancient St. Paul’s Cathedral.
You won’t have time to tour St. Paul’s; but walk around and gaze at the famous dome. If time allows, grab tea and crumpets at a café near the cathedral.
- Directions: 1hour 30min each way, 4pounds each way
- Take Heathrow Express towards London Paddington Rail Station
- Walk to Paddington Underground Station
- Take the Bakerloo Line towards Elephant & Castle Underground Station
- Exit at Waterloo Station, walk to Waterloo Rd, bus stop E
- Take the Route Bus RV1 towards Tower Gateway Station
- Get off at Southwark Bridge Road, bus stop BV
- Walk to Tate Modern