Terminal 3 in Changi International Airport, Singapore.
Steel Wool

World's 10 Most Beautiful Airport Terminals

Uplifting Arrivals
By Sascha Segan

Airport terminals aren't generally viewed as architectural wonders. The concrete boxes of the 1960s and '70s generally gave way to glass boxes in the '90s and '00s, with the best terminals making a vague stab at incorporating ideas of "light" and "air" -- or at least offering decent food that isn't a mile's walk from the gates.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and one person's perfect terminal is another's endless walkway of sorrows. Luckily, these ten airport terminals combine personality, functionality, and uniqueness to offer a great travel experience that starts the moment you get off the plane.

Photo Caption: Terminal 3 in Changi International Airport, Singapore.
Jeddah Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
IFC Infrastructure
Jeddah Hajj Terminal, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
One of the world's most radical airport terminals is one most Americans are unlikely to ever travel through. The Jeddah Hajj Terminal is unique: it's only active during the "hajj," a religiously mandated pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims. During that six-week period, it's one of the busiest airport terminals in the world.

The Hajj Terminal received the American Institute of Architects' 25-year award as a design that's stood the test of time: it's made of 210 open-air, white fiberglass tents which create a "chimney effect" that can cool the hot desert air by 50 degrees without expensive, hard-to-maintain air conditioning, according to a profile in the Architectural Record. The tents can contain 80,000 people, with flexible spaces devoted to very unusual activities for an airport terminal, such as changing clothes and ritual foot-washing.

The terminal gets some knocks online for being, as one Skytrax reviewer says, "chaotic and basic." But no other airline terminal has its unique challenges: being literally the gateway to heaven for tens of thousands of people a day, many of whom are making this a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Photo Caption: Jeddah Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Keflavík International Airport, Iceland.
Leif Eriksson Air Terminal, Keflavik, Iceland
Iceland's cozy little international airport looks like it arrived in a flat pack from IKEA. It's all blond wood and volcanic-looking stone with big windows looking out on the dramatic Icelandic landscape. There's a lot more wood in this airport than you'll find in most terminals, and instead of being a design accent near the ceiling (as in Madrid), it's on the floor, making the terminal feel much more natural and less sterile than usual.

The best buildings capture a bit of the soul of a place, and the Keflavik terminal does that perfectly: it's cozy (maybe a little too cozy in some of the gate areas), made of local materials, relatively spare and utterly embedded in the landscape. As a greeting to Iceland, it's perfect.

Photo Caption: Keflavík International Airport, Iceland.
Seoul Incheon Airport, South Korea.
DG Jones
Seoul Incheon Airport, Incheon, South Korea
Never mind how it looks from the outside: Seoul's airport regularly gets awards for how well-organized, efficient and relaxing it is on the inside. I've been there several times, and Seoul's secret is to make sure that you're never more than a few steps away from an entertaining, enlightening, or amusing bit of Korean culture.

Scattered throughout the terminal like Easter eggs, you'll find hands-on Korean craft workshops, a dress-up area where you can take photos in traditional clothing, the best free Internet cafes you've ever seen (and yes, that's absolutely a bit of Korean culture), a museum, and plenty of places to take a comfortable nap. Want to try a traditional Korean bathhouse? Head to the basement. Plants and flowers keep up the impression that you're in a showplace for Korea's melding of history, art and technology, and not just a mere airport terminal.

Photo Caption: Seoul Incheon Airport, South Korea.
Wellington Airport "Rock" Terminal, New Zealand.
Wellington Airport "Rock" Terminal, Wellington, New Zealand
Many people have called this the world's ugliest airport terminal. But there's a reason the new international terminal in Wellington has won enough awards to fill a jumbo jet. Like the Keflavik terminal above, it's an intelligent response to New Zealand's identity and landscape and not just another swooping glass box evoking "flight."

Opened last year, the Rock is a pair of egg-shaped buildings covered in copper plating that's designed to turn blue-green in the sea air. Inside, curving corners and geometric panels play peekaboo: the terminal packs double the passenger capacity of the previous terminal into the same space without feeling crowded. A plain box wouldn't have been able to do that.

The Rock looks rugged, unique, and as its architect said, "theatrical" -- all parts of the Kiwi identity. It wouldn't be built anywhere else.

Photo Caption: Wellington Airport "Rock" Terminal, New Zealand.
Terminal 5 at JFK International Airport, New York.
Laughing Squid
JFK Terminal 5, New York, NY
Airport terminals don't usually age well. JFK's Terminal 5 is the exception. One of the greatest icons of the mid-20th Century Jet Age, Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal has been intelligently swallowed by the grasping tendrils of JetBlue's modern new terminal, which has by far the best airport food court in New York. So you get the best of both worlds: an AirTrain ride up to the home of "Catch Me If You Can" glamour followed by a smooth walk through a spacious, modern terminal.

There's still one missing piece, of course: you can't actually walk into the Saarinen terminal's main hall, as the epically incompetent New York Port Authority has dragged its feet for years on finding a tenant for the space. According to Curbed.com, the authority has been trying to interest boutique hoteliers (the lack of a good airport hotel is another one of JFK's many flaws), but the idea isn't even at the planning stage yet.

Photo Caption: Terminal 5 at JFK International Airport, New York.
Terminal 3 in Changi International Airport, famous for its uniquely-designed roof.
Singapore Changi International Airport Terminal 3
This is the airport as amusement park. Singapore's three terminals are widely considered to be the most fun you can have in an airport, and each one has its attractions. Terminal 3 gets the nod, though, as it's the newest, with "an automatic light modulation system" to give the whole place a soothing, even, slightly unearthly glow.

Terminal 3 is home to Changi's butterfly garden, an 18-foot waterfall, a huge indoor playground, a movie theater, TV lounges and the "Slide@T3," a four-story spiral slide that's a lot more fun than taking the elevator. The other terminals join in the theme of combining indoor and outdoor spaces, with more gardens and even an outdoor swimming pool available to the public.

Photo Caption: Terminal 3 in Changi International Airport, famous for its uniquely-designed roof.
Menara Airport, Marrakech.
Exile on James Street
Marrakech Menara Airport Terminal 1, Marrakech, Morocco
This one is another great example of culturally aware terminal design. The new Terminal 1 at Marrakech's airport looks like a Moroccan palace twenty-first-century style, with classic Islamic geometric and nature motifs inscribed into a giant network of concrete diamonds. You could make a strong argument that the whole thing is one giant artwork.

At night, colored lights dance along the front face of the building, illuminating the desert plantings along the arrivals roadway. A lounge inside evokes 19th-century Moroccan luxury, with rugs, chandeliers, and a wrought-metal dome.

Photo Caption: Menara Airport, Marrakech.
Terminal 4 of Madrid Barajas Airport.
Angela Radulescu
Madrid Barajas Terminal 4
Designed by "starchitect" Richard Rogers, Madrid's huge Terminal 4 tries to break free of typical box-style construction by using a roof line of undulating ribs, which helped it win the 2006 Stirling Prize for architecture.

Terminal 4 comes with a strike against it: it's so long (especially when you include the integrated, but next-door Terminal 4S) that it can feel like it takes forever to get from gate to gate. But this is an unusually intelligently designed terminal: clear, color-coded signs group together directions for gates, and multi-level walkways reduce traffic on each individual level. Even when the terminal is full (and I've changed planes at peak times here), it never feels oppressively crowded, and you never get frustratingly lost or stuck waiting for buses the way you can in the design-before-function Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris.

Photo Caption: Terminal 4 of Madrid Barajas Airport.
Carrasco International Airport, Montevideo.
Flodigrip's world
Carrasco International Airport, Montevideo, Uruguay
Yes, someone's still building airports that evoke sweeping 1960s-era glamour. That someone is Rafael Viñoly, and his airport is in the quiet, pleasant and well-off South American country of Uruguay. Montevideo's airport terminal is a smooth dome, looking from the front a bit like a whale's mouth; inside, lines are smooth, clean and calm, with grand terraces overlooking the runways and arrival areas.

This isn't a busy airport, but it's designed as if it was one: the terminal is designed to handle 4.5 million passengers a year, according to one of the companies which built it but its traffic has been stable for years at a bit over a million. That means fewer crowds, and more appreciation of the elegant lines here as you glide through the terminal.

Photo Caption: Carrasco International Airport, Montevideo.
Bilbao Airport, Spain.
Bilbao Airport Main Terminal
I could have picked several terminals designed by big-name architects for this final slot, including Beijing's new Terminal 3, Kansai and Lyon. So why Bilbao? I have a soft spot for architect Santiago Calatrava and his obsession with cable bridges, ships' sails and birds' wings; his designs often look like they're the skeletons of some ancient whale or the prow of a spaceship about to head to Alpha Centauri. Those references, it turns out, are as perfect for an airport terminal.

Bilbao's terminal is known as "the dove," and it has Calatrava's signatures: sharply-canted curves and lots of light streaming through, and bisected by, ribs which resemble cables. A grand viewing gallery lets the families of arriving passengers see their loved ones as they pick up their bags.

Photo Caption: Bilbao Airport, Spain.