Could your next layover be the highlight of your trip? At more and more airports, a long layover can open a window into local culture–whether you choose to venture into the city or simply roam the terminals. When time is of the essence, we suggest a surgical-strike approach.
While some airports pack enough punch to entertain even the most jaded of travelers, others offer up a convenient jumping off point for a whirlwind adventure between primary destinations.
Here are seven airports that provide pop-in, pop-out access to their home cities, along with tips on what to see while you’re making the most of your extended layover (these itineraries have been designed for layovers of six or more hours):
> San Francisco
Leave your bags at SFO‘s airport terminal agency (international terminal). Then hop on the BART (near boarding area G) for a 32-minute train ride to Embarcadero Station. From here it’s a five-minute walk to the historic Ferry Building Marketplace–a paean to the Bay Area’s artisanal foods (Acme Bread Company, Blue Bottle Coffee). Free tours are given at noon on Tuesdays and Saturdays during the farmers market. Any day, try El Porteño‘s empanadas, or linger at Charles Phan‘s lauded Vietnamese restaurant, the Slanted Door.
Walk it off along the Embarcadero, taking in the Bay Bridge view and maybe a harbor seal sighting. Then jump on a cable car at California and Drumm Streets to Stockton Street, the gateway to Chinatown. Meander the side streets off Grant Avenue, peeking in at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (bonus: free samples) on Ross Alley. Back on the main drag, pick up barbecue pork buns and egg tarts at Golden Gate Bakery for the next leg of your trip. Catch the BART at Montgomery Street for an easy half-hour ride back.
At Heathrow, stash bags in storage available in each terminal. The Heathrow Express zooms you in 20 minutes to Paddington Station, where you can catch the Tube’s Circle line to Blackfriars. Stretch your legs past the iconic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, across the Millennium Bridge, and over to Borough Market, the city’s oldest produce vendor cum fancy food purveyor. Get lost among Londoners shopping for their farmhouse cheddar and pork pies; Fish! Restaurant delivers a classic fish-and-chips fix in an atmospheric setting.
Back toward the Thames, the free Tate Modern is home to Mark Rothko’s somber Seagram murals and a slate of special exhibitions, including a Paul Klee retrospective (through March 2014). Time permitting, the London Eye is worth a spin (reduce your wait by booking tickets online). From Embankment station, the Bakerloo line goes to Paddington.
After touching down at Sydney Airport, stash your carry-on at Smarte Carte (terminal 1, arrivals level, south end), then catch the Airport Link (terminal 1, north end) for the 20-minute ride to Circular Quay. Here’s where to snap those classic photos of the Harbor Bridge and Opera House as you wait to board the Manly Fast Ferry for the boho burb of Manly Beach, the birthplace of Australian surfing culture. Buzzing cafes line the wharf; for some Aussie sustenance, try the beef pie and house-brewed stout at 4 Pines Brewing Company.
Soak up the sea air on a beach walk, or duck into the nearby Mr & Mrs Smith to peruse cool housewares, some by Oz designers. Hop on the ferry for the return trip, stopping for a look at the Aboriginal art collection, including hunting bags and fish traps, at the newly expanded Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, a two-minute walk from Circular Quay.
Africa’s first high-speed urban rail system serves O. R. Tambo International Airport. Leave your belongings at the Lock-Up Luggage shop (terminal A), and board the Gautrain for the 30-minute trip–with a quick transfer to the red line at Sandton Station–to Park Station in the cultural hub of Braamfontein. Near the Nelson Mandela Bridge, is the free Wits Art Museum. Opened in a sleek new building in 2012, the museum showcases African art traditional and contemporary, including Willem Boshoff‘s “The Purple Shall Govern” with anti-apartheid song lyrics in indigenous languages. Retrace your steps or catch a cab to the airport.
Lose the luggage at Schiphol‘s lockers (arrivals hall 3 and between halls 1 and 2; lower level). In 15 minutes or less, trains whisk you to Amsterdam Centraal. At the station, rent two wheels at MacBike–it’s the Amsterdam way to explore. Pedal along the Keizersgracht (“emperor’s canal”) to the Van Gogh Museum. Beeline to the Dutch Postimpressionist’s best-known works, such as “The Bedroom.”
Next follow the Prinsengract (“prince’s canal”) to Cafe t’Smalle, on the site of a onetime distillery, in the hip Jordaan district. Grab a table on the canalside terrace to sample some Gouda or apple pie. Then wander the nearby streets packed with alluring shops and galleries, such as minimalist-cool designer boutique Like This. Cycle back to Amsterdam Centraal for the return ride to Schiphol.
> Hong Kong
At Hong Kong International Airport, head to terminal 2, level 3, to ditch your bags, then zip 24 minutes to Hong Kong Station on the Airport Express and follow one of the tunnels to Central Station. There grab a taxi to Victoria Peak and take the tram to the top, where one of the world’s most dizzying skylines (and photo backdrops) awaits. Five blocks east on Wellington Street, Lin Heung Tea House has been serving dim sum for at least 80 years; don’t miss the steamed sausage rolls and shumai (pork dumplings).
Now you’re fortified for some serious antiquing, or at least window-shopping, along Hollywood Road. Work your way from Man Mo Temple, where the alleyways are teeming with vendors peddling trinkets (think Mao alarm clocks), to the galleries of fine furniture closer to Wyndham Street. From here it’s a ten-minute walk to the pier to catch the Star Ferry for the under-ten-minute ride across Victoria Harbour–a Hong Kong must. Grab a cab from the other side of the harbor to Kowloon Station for the Airport Express.
Leaving Jorge Chavez International Airport requires taking a taxi. If you’re up for the adventure, stash your bags at the left luggage counter (domestic arrivals; cash only). Join the taxi line outside the international arrivals area; ask to be dropped at Larcomar, a shopping complex built into the cliffs of the Miraflores district (35 minutes without delays).
Walk west along the Malecón, a string of parks overlooking the Pacific that’s dotted with surfers as well as statues by famous Peruvian artists. Not far past Victor Delfín‘s Gaudí-esque lovers (they’re hard to miss), watch paragliders catch air from the cliffs–or spring for a 10-minute tandem spin (find a kiosk in block 2 of the Malecón). Nearby, Avenida La Mar deals in seviche, Peru’s national dish; order the sea bass and octopus with chili at famed La Mar.
This article, written by National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Margaret Loftus, appeared in the November 2013 issue of the magazine.