While often avoided, a layover can yield a quick, fun adventure in a new city, or at least provide respite between long-haul flights, says Duncan Forgan
There’s no denying that ‘layover’ hasn’t traditionally been the most enticing phrase in the travel lexicon. An extended pause between origin and destination, it’s often treated as an inconvenience.
This attitude is, however, rapidly changing. Increasingly, travelers are viewing a layover not as something to be tolerated or endured, but as an opportunity to add another dimension to a long-haul vacation and to experience some of the world’s greatest cities in bite-sized form.
Despite rapid aviation expansion and development, many major airports remain within easy striking distance of city centers. Even when they’re located further afield, they frequently have sophisticated integrated transport links waiting to whisk travelers into the thick of the action.
Economically, too, booking a flight with a layover makes sense. For one, it means travelers get a ‘bonus’ short break in a city they may not have been to before. Also, indirect flights tend to be cheaper than direct ones. Travelers are also increasingly building stopovers into long-haul itineraries to earn bonus air miles, which can be accrued through flying a number of segments.
According to luxury tour operator Cox & Kings, more and more US travelers are intentionally seeking layovers. Iceland’s capital Reykjavik has become a favorite for passengers flying back to the US from Europe, while other European cities such as Geneva, Vienna and Amsterdam are likely stopovers for travelers transiting to/from Africa or the Middle East.
Passengers flying to and from destinations in Asia or Australia can enjoy similar advantages. Tokyo is a particular favorite transit point on Southeast Asia routes, but other fascinating cities such as Seoul, Taipei, Beijing and Bangkok are also convenient for those with a few hours to kill.
While many prefer to extend their layover to allow scope for real exploration, even a spare few hours leaves enough wriggle-room to escape the airport and add extra value to the long-haul experience.
Following on is a snapshot of some of the world’s top layover cities, with a rundown of what can feasibly be covered within a specific time frame.
We suggest: Amsterdam
Why: With a layover of just six hours, every minute counts. That’s why Amsterdam is a good option for those with very limited time. The city’s Schiphol airport is a mere 10 miles from the city center and a direct train takes around 15-20 minutes, costing around $10 return. There are various options for tourists around Amsterdam Centraal station. Amsterdam’s canals are rightly famed and a number of companies run one-hour tours of the waterways from the nearby train station. For culture vultures and history buffs, some of the city’s best museums and galleries are also within walking distance. The Anne Frank House and the Rembrandt House are close to the train station, while the Van Gogh Museum is slightly further out, but still eminently manageable in a few hours. For those who prefer just to meander, Amsterdam’s center is a great place to do so. Strike west to the Jordaan, a bohemian enclave with pretty canals and independent shops or head east of the Damrak (the broad avenue that extends south from Central Station) to Zeedijk (Chinatown) or the city’s famous red light district.
Where else: With one of the world’s most efficient airports and excellent train and taxi links to the city center, Singapore is ideal for a short stopover. Explore colorful areas such as Chinatown and Little India and sample the country’s famous hawker food. Another ideal short stop is Frankfurt — it only takes around 15 minutes between the city’s airport and its main train station, leaving plenty of scope to explore. Take a stroll along the River Main, visit the famed Cathedral of St. Bartholomew and enjoy a glass of apfelwein (apple wine), a local specialty.
We suggest: Muscat
Why: Although its golden beaches and opulent hotels make it an enticing vacation destination in its own right, Oman’s capital is ideal for a medium-length layover. More traditional and less ostentatious than nearby Dubai, a short stay here offers an easily digestible flavor of Arabian culture. Visa on arrival is available at Muscat Airport and costs around $12. And from the airport it’s a brisk 20 minutes in a taxi to downtown Muscat. Strict state building policies mean there are few high-rise structures, while even new construction is required to reflect tradition in some way. Enclaves such as Old Muscat, with its shady passageways and European and Arabic-influenced architectural heritage make pleasant places to stroll. Meanwhile, the lavish Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which can hold up to 20,000 people, is the city’s most grandiose religious structure. Less pious, but equally impressive is Muttra Souq. Located near the Muttrah Corniche — one of many pleasant oceanfront promenades in Muscat — the souk is a shopper’s paradise, and a great place to pick up Omani souvenirs such as the khanjar, a type of dagger, and the rich confection halwa.
Where else: Also in the Gulf, most of Dubai’s main attractions can be crammed into a short-time frame. Orientate yourself at the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, before indulging in retail therapy in enormous malls such as the Mall of the Emirates, lazing on a beach for a few hours, then dining in one of the city’s fabulous restaurants. Over in Europe, Paris has a relatively manageable city center and is in close proximity to Charles De Gaulle airport, meaning its greatest hits are perfectly doable in 12 hours. Highlights of a day in the French capital include The Louvre, a stroll down the Champs Elysees and a meal in one of the city’s famed bistros.
We suggest: Tokyo
Why: Haneda Airport, a mere nine miles from downtown Tokyo, is fast supplanting far-flung Narita airport as the city’s main international gateway, making short layovers much more feasible. A few extra hours don’t go amiss in the Japanese capital, however, so dizzying is its scope and otherworldly allure. A vast metropolis comprising multiple neighborhoods, contrasts are inevitable in a place of Tokyo’s size. Glitzy Ginza, with its deluxe department stores and exclusive ryotei (introduction-only restaurants), is a stone’s throw from the commercial center of Shinbashi where armies of salary men find post-work respite in sake and karaoke. Meanwhile, over in Shinjuku, the beauty of enclaves such as Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden offset the neon-lit frenzy of busy commercial areas. There are several must-visit attractions. An early morning pilgrimage to Tsukiji Fish Market — the world’s largest wet seafood market — is an essential stop for gourmet travelers, with some of the best and most inexpensive sushi on the planet served up for breakfast in its surrounding restaurants. Tokyo’s architecture is equally mind-blowing, with the 2,100ft Tokyo Skytree a standout among the city’s steel-and-glass monoliths.
Where else: With the Heathrow Express providing quick transfers from Heathrow Airport to London’s West End, the UK capital is perfect for an extended layover. The city is packed with famous sights, but for first time visitors, the hop-on, hop-off buses connecting major attractions such as Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London are a great means of easy orientation. Bangkok is also blessed with modern conveniences while remaining inexpensive, making Thailand’s buzzing capital another ideal stopover. Bangkok’s main tourist sights take a bit of work reaching, but if energy levels are low, a massage and street food meal are as quintessentially Thai as the capital’s golden-spired temples and palaces.
Best of the rest
Venice: The seven miles between Venice’s airport and the city is easily covered by road or by boat, giving travelers even more time to appreciate Venice’s waterways and attractions such as the Piazza San Marco and the Accademia Galleries’ Venetian paintings.
San Francisco: With its airport within easy reach of downtown, San Fran is arguably the best layover destination in the US. Although hilly, the city is compact and easy to explore, with big-hitting attractions such as Alcatraz deserving of their fame and the dining scene one of the most exciting in the country.
Buenos Aires: Argentina’s capital is connected to its airport by a fast motorway. A charismatic city with strong European influences, Buenos Aires is very visitor friendly and an overnight stay allows tourists to explore colorful areas such as La Boca and San Telmo and sample its steak and wine culture.
Hong Kong: While its airport is 25 miles from the city center, the super-efficient Airport Express covers the journey to Central in just 25 minutes. Hong Kong’s beautiful harbor and hilly topography make the city one of the world’s most striking, while its restaurant and bar scene is among Asia’s finest.
Sydney: With its airport just six miles from downtown, Sydney is a fine place to overnight in. Iconic attractions such as the Opera House are essential sights to visit while a cruise around Sydney Harbour showcases the city’s spectacular skyline to full effect.
PUBLISHED IN THE WINTER 2014/15 EDITION OF ASTAnetwork