Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a phrase commonly used on a first date or a last date for that matter, but what about airport terminals? Beauty is a subjective term that’s defined by an individual’s perception of a combination of qualities such as shape, colour and patterns, to name a few. A perfect alignment of said qualities results in us producing high levels of dopamine, thus the attraction of inanimate objects and structures. Large, dense and brutalist airports may not be your idea of dopamine-drenched wet dreams, but we have a list that might sway you. From architectural demons dating back to the concrete cladding frenzied ’60s to the modern glass utopias of today, there’s a little something for everyone.
1. Tokyo Haneda International Airport, Japan
How fitting that we start this journey in Tokyo, the city that just blew the world away with its excellent Olympics closing ceremony. The Edo marketplace lights up one of Japan’s busiest airport terminals with glimpses of traditional Japanese architecture. You can find everything from fancy eateries to high-end fashion retailers here. Haneda airport houses an Ema, a type of wishing tablet where Shinto or Buddhist worshippers write prayers or wishes. Haneda was also voted the second-best airport in the world in the Skytrax top 100 airports 2021 awards.
2. Samui International Airport, Thailand
Budget Changi or a five-star tropical getaway? Whichever it is, you can guarantee a Brit is drinking their body weight in booze before boarding a flight. I mean would it even be a Thai airport without a dedicated Thai massage parlour within the terminal itself? Frills aside, this beautifully constructed airport terminal boasts incredible detail, mostly made of locally sourced wood and rattan. It incorporates traditional Polynesian architecture throughout, with large palm tree pillars and thatched roofs. The men’s bathroom has an aquarium in it and the airport’s open-air shopping centre has its very own tour guides as it’s so popular. Interestingly, the island was only accessible by boat until the airport was introduced.
3. Muscat International Airport, Oman
Vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred. Muscat’s new terminal gives me an overwhelming urge to throw on my best tux and sit at the first class lounge bar before engaging in a two way shoot out with Bond villains. Much like a Bond film, you can guarantee there’s a happy ending waiting for you in the Oman Air first-class lounge. Minds out of the gutter, that’s a cocktail! Inspired by Oman’s extravagant mountainous and arid desert terrain, the terminal boasts a 516 capacity business class lounge and a 100 capacity first-class lounge. The sleek, high-roller casino-style interior mirrors Oman Air’s stunning new Boeing 787 interiors, proving the Middle Eastern airliner has joined the first-class elite.
4. Baku Heydar Aliyev International Airport, Azerbaijan
Part of me wonders if Ed Sheeran wrote “Thinking Out Loud” at Baku’s second terminal because who wouldn’t want to be kissed under a thousand stars here. While Baku’s dome is not made up of a thousand stars, it is made up of thousands of lights. From afar, you could mistake it for a lavish palace from a faraway mystery land. Surprisingly, this beautiful terminal primarily only caters for domestic flights as its newer, larger neighbour terminal is stealing the limelight. And so it should with its stunning, sleek architectural design, hexagonal patterns and fun wooden cocoons. Baku is far from a small airport, and it could give some of the world’s best airport terminals a good run for their money.
5. Venice Marco Polo Airport, Italy
Marco… Polo… No blindfolds are required at Venice’s international airport as its exposed brick walls, and sun-drenched atriums are a sight to behold. Making the most of light symmetry and open spaces for a city with very little landmass, Venice airport is as unique as a political leader with morals. The fact that you can roll out of your hotel bed and catch a water taxi to the airport door gives this airport movie set vibes.
Paint the picture: your airport commute consists of a Venice gondola navigating the ancient canals of arguably Europe’s most stunning city. This is followed by local, fresh food for breakfast while waiting for a flight in an airy, light-filled terminal. It doesn’t get much more magical than that.
6. Ronald Reagan Washington Airport, United States
Night at the museum or night at the Ronald Reagan airport? One thing is sure, I wouldn’t wander down any dark corridor during an overnight connecting flight. While you can’t expect any dinosaurs to come alive overnight in this airport, you can marvel at Washington’s stunning 20th-century style Gothic architecture. Opened in 1997, Terminal B/C is truly the last of its kind in modern airport terminals. Designed by renowned architect Cesar Pelli, the main drag consists of 54 stainless steel clad domes with glass centres, allowing light to flood in during the day.
7. Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, India
It’s India’s second busiest airport in one of the world’s largest cities so it’s no surprise that a lot of effort has gone into making Terminal 2 a phenomenal piece of architecture. Inspired by India’s national bird, the peacock, the unique design looks like a patterned peacock tail. This alone isn’t the most beautiful part of the airport, as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj hosts India’s largest public art programme. The wall of art stretches for around three and a half kilometres, with over 7000 pieces of art on display from all over Mumbai and India.
8. Lleida-Alguaire airport, Spain
From above, you could be forgiven for thinking Lleida-Alguaire airport was a shipping container yard. With a control tower soaring to over 41 metres high and placed directly in the centre of the airport’s terminal, Lleida is a unique type of beauty. Leveraging a pastel colour design, Lleida in Catalonia handles around 40,000 passengers a year in normal circumstances, making it the smallest airport on our list by capacity.
9. Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur may remind you of another Southern Asian airport with waterfalls and luscious green surroundings. However, KLIA is the underrated brother. Offering a stunning window into the rainforest landscape of Malaysia, KLIA has a walking trail through the middle of the terminal that showcases waterfalls and native Malay flora. Even when you step out of the “jungle bubble”, you can find many green oases throughout the airport terminals.
10. Singapore Changi Airport, Singapore
Our list would not be complete without one of the world’s most significant airports of the 21st century. We all love an underdog, but there’s no excluding Singapore Changi when it comes to beautiful airport terminals. However, what was once the best airport in the world for eight consecutive years as rated by Skytrax has surprisingly dropped to 3rd this year, falling behind Tokyo Haneda in 2nd and Doha Hamad in 1st.
Changi’s crowning jewel, Jewel Changi Airport, is a glass complex that includes a living rainforest, indoor walking trails, and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the Rain Vortex. If you are so lucky to be travelling through Changi at night, you can catch a mesmerising 5-minute light show that illuminates the Rain Vortex and transforms the Jewel into a magical jungle paradise. If illuminated water falling in a vortex formation from above isn’t enough for you, Changi is home to 1400 trees, a large rooftop pool and a butterfly garden. It’s easy to have a sensory overload here, and that’s why Changi had to make the list. It’s one of the most beautiful airport terminals in the world.