As the summer storm season approaches and we brace ourselves for the flight delays and cancellations due to occur, we have a choice: We can either grumble about the time we waste stuck in airports, or we can turn them into new destinations to explore. You’d be surprised how many boring U.S. hubs have spas, museums, pools, legendary local restaurants, even golf. So the next time you’re connecting in an airport you hate to connect in, make the most of it with these suggestions:
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL)
See: A 31-foot-long Yangchuanosaurus stands in the central atrium, a few steps from the security station. It’s on loan from the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.
Eat: One Flew South serves much-buzzed-about “Southernational” cuisine, from shrimp and grits to pulled duck sandwiches to kamikaze rolls (Concourse E). If you’re craving fast comfort food, though, try The Varsity, an outpost of the famed local institution dating from 1928 and serving chili cheese dogs and Frosted Oranges (Terminal F).
Shower: The Club at ATL provides showers, TVs, Wi-Fi, work stations, food, and drinks for $35 for a day pass (Terminal F).
Sleep: Minute Suites offer five private, noise-neutralized rooms where you can nap for $34/hour (Concourse B, near Gate B16).
Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Exercise: The O’Hare Hilton sells day passes to its health club (with an indoor pool reopening August 15) for $20 (Terminal 1).
Relax: Three Terminal Getaway Spa locations offer a menu of massages, from 10 to 90 minutes long (Terminal 3, near Gate H1; Terminal 1, near Gate B12; H/K Corridor, near the American Airlines Admirals Club).
Eat: There are three outposts of local celebrity chef Rick Bayless’s Tortas Frontera, where you can order up hand-crafted tortas and fresh guacamole made from top-quality ingredients from nearby farms (Terminal 1, near Gate B11; Terminal 3, near Gate K4; Terminal 5, near Gate M12).
Play: Kids on the Fly is a huge children’s-museum-slash-playground where parents can accomplish their pre-flight mission: exhausting their offspring (Terminal 2).
Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW)
Drink: Grab a Fig Fizz or an Isaac’s Apple in Grand Hyatt DFW’s Grand Met Lounge cocktail bar, home also to the airport’s only sushi bar.
See: Founders’ Plaza has telescopes and an Observation Area where you can watch aircraft take off and land.
Play: Run your toddlers in one of three Junior Flyers Club playgrounds (the largest is in Terminal B at Gate 12).
Relax: The Centurion Lounge offers showers, food, drinks, Wi-Fi, and a family room to American Express cardholders for $50/day and to AmEx Platinum cardholders for free (Concourse D opposite Gate D17).
Golf (yes, golf): The Bear Creek Golf Club is adjacent to the airport, just a five-minute cab ride away. Tee times are open to the public; you can even book online.
Denver International (DEN)
Eat: Denver chef Justin Cucci’s popular field-to-fork restaurant Root Down has an outpost at Denver International (C Gates). Don’t have that kind of time? Grab handmade potato chips at Randy Petersen’s favorite DEN hangout, Lefty’s (B Gates, Near Gate B48).
Marvel: The pedestrian bridge that connects the terminal with the concourse passes right over the tops of planes as they taxi. Look down and be awed by the giant flying machines.
Detoxify: Choose from a range of massages and treatments, starting at just 15 minutes long, at XpresSpa (Concourse C, Center Core).
Las Vegas McCarran (LAS)
See: The Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum depicts a slice of aviation history (Level 2, above baggage claim).
Relax: The Centurion Lounge offers showers, food, drink, Wi-Fi, and a family room to American Express cardholders for $50/day and to AmEx Platinum cardholders for free (Concourse D, opposite Gate D1). No AmEx card? Buy a day pass to The Club at LAS for $35 (Terminal 1, D Gates; Terminal 3, across from Gate E2).
Relax some more: There are two XpresSpas here, offering manicures, pedicures, waxing, foot, neck, and back massages—the works (Terminal 1, near Gate D32, and Terminal 3).
Los Angeles International (LAX)
Gorge: Tom Bradley International Terminal now includes outposts of Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio’s ink.sack; James Beard Award-winning chef Suzanne Goin’s Larder at Tavern; a Petrossian in case you’re craving caviar, blinis, or any of 20 types of vodka; and an Umami Burger that’s even open for breakfast.
Learn: Traveling with kids or model-aircraft nuts? The Flight Path Learning Center is a museum devoted to the history of aviation in SoCal (LAX Imperial Terminal; open Tues-Sat from 10-3; admission free).
Chill: There’s an XpresSpa in Terminal 5 as well as in the Tom Bradley International Terminal (between gates 154-156).
Miami International (MIA)
Drink: Grab a mojito with a panoramic view at Top of the Port, the rooftop bar and restaurant at the Miami International Airport Hotel (Terminal E).
Eat: Versailles, the Little Havana landmark that calls itself “The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant,” has outposts in Terminal D.
Shop: It’s worth a stroll to the colorful Romero Britto concept store in Terminal D.
Snuggle: Casey, the therapy dog, is a trained golden retriever who wanders the airport delivering stress relief and smiles.
Golf: A 10-minute cab ride away, the Trump National Doral Miami’s golf course has tee times open to the public.
Newark Liberty (EWR)
Ride: When my kids were smaller I could entertain them for hours simply riding the AirTrain from terminal to terminal. At sunset on clear nights the ride yields colorful views of the tarmac and the Manhattan skyline; keep your camera ready.
Dine: The outposts of two legendary Manhattan eateries, Gallagher’s steak house and the Grand Central Oyster Bar, may lack the ambience of their flagships but serve great grub nonetheless (Terminal C).
Shop: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Store is the go-to boutique for elegant yet affordable gifts (Terminal C).
San Francisco International (SFO)
See: There are serious art exhibitions throughout, as well as an Aviation Museum in the International Terminal dedicated to preserving the history of commercial flight.
Meditate: Make the world’s first Yoga Room in an airport your zen zone (Terminal 2).
Play: There’s a scavenger-hunt-style self-guided tour for children of all ages. It takes only half an hour, and you even get a prize at the end (Terminal 2). For younger ones, there are three Kids’ Spots for unleashing pent-up energy (Terminal 3, Boarding Area E near Gates 60 and 62; Terminal 3, Boarding Area F near Gate 87A).
Eat: My own kids can’t pass through SFO without steering me toward their favorite airport eatery, Fung Lum, for noodles, dim sum, and won ton soup (Terminals 1 and 3 food courts and International Terminal food court).
Washington Dulles (IAD)
Shop: The Smithsonian Store is like a mini-trip to the various collections that comprise the Smithsonian, including the National Zoo (Terminal B, Gate B37).
Eat: Max & Erma’s serves up an outrageous selection of gourmet burgers, including the “garbage burger that started it all.” There’s even an All-You-Can-Eat Sundae Bar (B Concourse).
Marvel: Just south of the airport sits a massive and thrilling branch of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, where you can easily spend a day ogling everything from vintage aircraft to the Enola Gay to the space shuttle. You can reach the museum in about ten minutes either by cab or by the new direct bus service from the airport which starts July 26 (bus fare $1.75 each way). Forget that ice cream sundae and just go!
What’s your favorite U.S. airport find? Share it with us!
Find more from Wendy Perrin at WendyPerrin.com