Getting stuck in an airport while waiting for a delayed flight to take off usually isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time—but that might change, depending on the airport where you’re stuck. Some of the most unusual airports in the world might make a delay or layover worth it; heck, sometimes, the airports are even attractions all in their own right.
Commercial air travel is a relatively recent invention; although it did take to the air in the early 20th century, the “golden age” of the industry didn’t hit until the 1960s. There have been many, many ups and downs both before and since—but in terms of numbers, air travel has only gone up, up, and away with each passing year. In 2017, over four billion passengers took to the skies—the most ever recorded.
As air travel has become more and more a part of everyday life, airports have ramped up their offerings, too—or adapted to their circumstances in some… unique ways. These 11 airports, for example, stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Gibraltar Airport: Gibraltar
Located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar is tiny—it has an area of just 6.7 square kilometers, or a little over two and a half square miles. As such, space is at a premium, which means that when it came to planning the airport that services the area, a few… concessions had to be made.
The most notable, of course, is the fact that the territory’s busiest road literally cuts straight through the Gibraltar Airport’s runway.
Winston Churchill Avenue is four lanes wide. It’s also the only road in or out of Gibraltar, connecting it with Spain to the north. And since it intersects with the airport’s single runway, it shuts down for about 10 minutes every time a plane takes off or lands. It’s quite a sight to behold, no matter where you’re in a car on the traffic-choked road or in the plane utilizing the runway.
To alleviate automotive congestion, plans were put into motion in 2009 to build a tunnel for traffic beneath the road; however, the tunnel does not appear to have been opened to traffic as of 2019/2020.
San Francisco International Airport: San Francisco, California
What makes the San Francisco International Airport so unique isn’t the airport itself. It’s one of the features you can find within the airport: The Wag Brigade, a team of trained therapy dogs—and one pig!—who show up from time to time to make traveling a little less stressful.
The Wag Brigade initially launched in 2013 as a pilot program, following on the heels of fellow California airport LAX’s success with their PUP (Pets Unstressing Passengers) program. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the response to the Wag Brigade was overwhelmingly positive: Said Jennifer Kazarian, Wag Brigade manager and trainer, to SFGate in February of 2020, “The engagement was just amazing. So from then on, we were like, okay — send more dogs!”
What separates the Wag Brigade from the PUP program at LAX is the addition of LiLou, the world’s first-ever therapy pig, in 2016. And even if you’re not planning on flying in or out of SFO anytime soon, LiLou and each of the 21 puppers that are now members of the Wag Brigade all have their own Instagram accounts, as well—which means you can keep up with them no matter where you are in the world!
Don Mueang International Airport: Bangkok, Thailand
Didn’t get enough gold in on your trip? Well, maybe you can take care of that on your way out: There’s a full golf course between the two runways of the Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok. What’s more, the course, which was established in 1952 by the Royal Thai Air Force, is the second oldest 18-hole course in Thailand.
According to the website Even More Thailand, the course, which is officially called the Kantarat Golf Course, is “pretty straightforward to play.” It has 18 holes, nine of which face the runway used for takeoffs, and nine of which face the runway used for landing. The holes are generally par three, four, and five, and even include a few water features and bunkers.
Just be careful if you end up playing there; a red light holds golfers back from playing when an aircraft is about to hit the runways, but there’s nothing actually separating you from the planes.
Wellington International Airport: Wellington, New Zealand
Perhaps it’s to be expected that Wellington International Airport would have some… unique characteristics; after all, it is the gateway to Middle Earth. Indeed, Weta Workshop—the special effects company founded by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger which became a household name worldwide after its work for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy—has worked hard over the years to make the airport a fitting place for Tolkien fans to land.
Periodically, Weta mounts installations within the airport. In 2012, for example, a humongous statue of Gollum designed by Weta and built by Japanese artist Masayuki Ohashi arrived at the airport; sized at about 13 meters, or 43 feet, the statue also featured three fish, each about four meters in size, for the giant creature to catch. Other, similar statues installed at later points included Gandalf riding a great eagle and the dragon Smaug.
Then, in March of 2020, an… unusual conveyor belt usually meant for luggage was installed at the airport: One featuring “crazy creatures and oddball items,” as Stuff.co.nz put it, like a character from Thunderbirds Are Go, some kind of creature skull, and a set of “golf clubs” belonging to a notable dwarf that are were… probably not actually golf clubs. You never know what will appear next when you travel through Wellington!
Barra Airport: Barra, Scotland
Servicing the Outer Hebrides in Scotland and connecting the islands to Glasgow, Barra Airport is incredibly small—so small that itty-bitty aircraft that transports travelers to and from the island takes off from and lands not on a runway, but the beach. According to CNN, it’s the only airport in the world where this is the case.
Initially opened in 1936, Barra Airport celebrated its 80th birthday in 2016. These days, it typically sees around 10,000 passengers pass through it each year—usually transported on the tiniest planes you’ll probably ever see: They seat just 19 people at a time.
The flight schedule is governed by the tide; at high tide, the beach vanishes beneath the waves, therefore making it impossible for flights to either take off or land. Even so, though, the approach into Barra is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world—and indeed a unique sight you won’t find anywhere else.
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport: Savannah, Georgia
In the mood for a little memento mori? Try a trip that takes you through the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. The remains of an actual cemetery still lie beside one of the runways—bones and all.
The land which is now occupied by the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, you see, was only folded into what was then Chatham Airfield during the Second World War—a period that required expanded airfield facilities. Among the acquisitions the federal government made for these purposes was land on which a private family cemetery belonging to a family called Dotson was located.
The cemetery initially held roughly 100 graves, but thanks to negotiations between the descendants of the Dotson family and the government, the vast majority of the remains were relocated to Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery. Four, however, stayed where they were—and these four family members are still interred at the site of the former Dotson family cemetery, right next to the airport’s most active runway. They are, according to the airport itself, the only gravesites in the world “embedded in an active 9,350-foot runway serving thousands of general and commercial aviation operations yearly.”
Kuala Lumpur International Airport: Selangor, Malaysia
The Kuala Lumpur International Airport is already pretty spectacular all on its own. Designed by famed Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa according to principals of Islamic geometry and full of cutting-edge technology, the structure is both stunning and quite new. (It originally opened in 1998.) But right at the center of the Satellite Building, there’s something even more stunning that you won’t find anywhere else: An actual rainforest.
Transplanted from the Sepang district in the southern part of the Malaysian state of Selangor, the rainforest within the airport features a variety of plants and greenery, including palms and flowering trees, spread out over 970 square meters. There’s even a waterfall—human-made, of course, but beautiful all the same.
The rainforest comprises an attraction at the airport called the KLIA Jungle Boardwalk. It’s open to the public from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.—so if you’re stuck on a layover during that time, why not talk a walk through a literal jungle paradise while you’re there? It’ll undoubtedly help you keep your stress levels down!
Kansai International Airport: Osaka, Japan
Land in Japan—which itself is made up of several islands—is scarce, so when the time came for the Kansai region to get a new airport near the city of Osaka, engineers looked not to the land, but the sea. The airport was constructed atop two artificial islands built up exclusively for that purpose.
The new airport’s goal was to help alleviate both overcrowding at Osaka’s Itami Airport, which originally opened in 1938, and cut down on the noise pollution caused by the older airport. Construction, therefore, began on the artificial islands intended to house the new airport in 1987, with the Kansai International Airport finally opening in 1994. These days, passengers can reach it via car, rail, or ferry—and they make good use of it: It’s considered one of the ten best airports in the world.
In recent years, though, some trouble has arisen: The airport is sinking. According to Air and Space, the engineers who built the islands did expect and plan for some sinking to occur. However, it’s happening more quickly and at a higher level than predicted. Bolstering and maintaining the seawalls and raising the runway are ongoing projects for the airport. It’s expensive but worth it.
Denver International Airport: Denver, Colorado
What started all the bizarre conspiracy theories that are the Denver International Airport’s most defining feature these days? No one really knows, but the fact that its most recognizable piece of art literally killed its creator probably has something to do with it. Officially titled “Blue Mustang” and known more casually as “Blucifer” (which, yes, is a portmanteau of “blue” and “Lucifer”), the 32-foot statue was commissioned in 1993; it was still under construction in 2006, however—which is when a huge chunk of the thing came loose and severed an artery in artist Luis Jiménez’s leg. It’s no wonder so many now believe the statue to be a representation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
From there, things just get weirder. Some think the airport was built by the shadow organization known to conspiracy buffs as the New World Order. Others believe it to house the Illuminati headquarters. Some think the murals scattered throughout the airport depict the end of the world, and some even believe there’s something… just a little bit off about the architecture of the place.
None of these conspiracy theories appear to be true—but the airport has opted to lean into its identity as a slightly wacky and ominous location all the same.
Helsinki Airport: Vantaa, Finland
Lots of airports have art displayed inside them—but Finland’s Helsinki Airport takes it to the next level. Not for nothing has it been referred to as the MoMa of airports.
The airport has its own art gallery near Gate 37, which hosts a rotating selection of temporary exhibitions focused on Finnish modern art and design. The arrivals floor of Terminal 2, meanwhile, holds a photo gallery showcasing aviation photography. Meanwhile, you’ll find the airport’s permanent collection in all sorts of unexpected places.
Near Gate 32, for example, you can find the Laila Pullinen relief titled Sun of the Fells, which was initially constructed in 1967 out of Finnish copper. Near Gate 37, meanwhile, is a white ceramic sculpture by Kim Simonsson titled White Rabbit. And by Gate 38, you’ll find Mauri Favén’s mural Change of Scenery.
The art is all modern; the oldest piece in the collection is Sun of the Fells. And the best part is, you don’t necessarily have to be traveling somewhere to take at least some of it in: The photo gallery at arrivals in Terminal 2 is open to the public and accessible even to those not about to hop on a flight.
Jewel Changi Airport: Changi, Singapore
If you had to be trapped in an airport for the rest of your life, Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport is the one to choose. Newly opened as of 2019, it has all the shopping, dining, and entertainment options you’d expect a luxury airport to have—but then it also has what amounts to a nature-themed amusement park waiting to entertain you.
The Shiseido Forest Valley, for example, is a multi-story garden spanning around 235,000 square feet—one of Asia’s most extensive indoor gardens—containing two walking trails that take you through lush paths of landscaping and vegetation. It’s recommended that you allow half an hour for each walking trail. At the center of the Forest Valley is the Rain Vortex—a human-made waterfall which, at 40 meters high, is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.
And then, all the way at the top, there’s Canopy Park—a full-on theme park that reflects the same nature-based theming as the Forest Valley and the Rain Vortex. Among Canopy Park’s many attractions area suspension bridge called the Canopy Bridge, which provides patrons with panoramic views of the Rain Vortex; the Topiary Walk, a garden full of animal-shaped topiaries; the Petal Garden, a second garden full of seasonal flower displays; a hedge maze; a mirror maze; bounce nets; four slides; and four “Foggy Bowls,” which simulate what it might be like to play among the clouds. All in all, Canopy Park provides 140,000 square meters of recreational fun—all within the Jewel Changi Airport.
Most of us probably don’t consider the features of an airport when deciding where to plan our vacations—but maybe it’s something we should think about doing. There are worse things to have on your travel bucket list than these 11 transportation hubs!