People & Places
Quick Trips: the 10 Best Layover Cities in the World
March 03, 2020
A layover is maybe the finest example of taking a storm cloud and putting a silver lining around it. Yes, layovers can be gruelling, exhausting and terribly boring – if you’re focused solely on your destination. If you treat your long layover as just another stop-off on your journey, another opportunity to maximize your travel fun, then you’re in for a much better time.
Understandably, any layover less than two hours is pretty tight for an excursion. If you landed at JFK airport in New York, for instance, with a two-hour layover, and it takes roughly an hour to get to central Manhattan, you’re unfortunately stuck at the airport, paying $5 for a coffee and settling for Sbarro’s instead of an authentic New York slice of pizza.
Most of the time, fortunately, layovers longer than two hours can be taken on the road. Not only that, but they can be a fantastic way to add value to your trip.
In choosing the best layover cities in the world, we’ve taken into consideration a few different criteria. One, the airport needs to have a relatively quick and efficient method of transport to the city centre or places of interest. Two, the city in question has to be exciting. And three, the airports need to be popular stopover spots, normally utilized on destination routes (sorry Australia, but you’re more of a destination than a stopover spot!)
Guided by these three criteria, here are our top picks for layover cities across the globe. Pack some merino wool clothing to stay comfortable and fresh on your long travel day, and check out these silver lining cities!
The train from the Schipol Airport to the city centre take about 30 minutes, meaning that if you want to see Amsterdam on a layover, you only have to budget an hour for travel time. Once at Amsterdam Centraal, you’ve got the city at your fingertips.
Within walking distance, you’ve got the Oude Kerk Church, the Red Light District, the NEMO Science Museum, the Anne Frank House, and about a hundred restaurants, bars and “coffee shops” serving decriminalized cannabis.
If you have time in your layover to board the tram network, there’s even more to see. The Rijksmuseum, a 15-minute tram ride, contains a wealth of important artwork, including an impressive collection of the Dutch Masters. From the Rijksmuseum, the van Gogh Museum is a four-minute walk, and contains many of the iconic painters finest works. And the Heineken Brewery, a 10-minute tram from Centraal, may be a little touristy, but the brewery tour is undeniably fun.
To central London from Gatwick, you’re looking at half an hour on either the Thameslink or Gatwick Express. Heathrow usually takes a little longer (though not by much) and Stansted takes around 45 minutes. That said, any layover of three hours or longer can comfortably get in and out of central London with time to poke around the city.
There is a literal lifetime of experiences to be had in London, but for a layover, it might be wise to focus on the greatest hits. Getting off at Leicester Square Station, you have Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Chinatown, and the National Gallery within walking distance. A longer walk – roughly 20 minutes heading west – will get you to Buckingham Palace. Or a 15-minute Tube ride heading east will get you to the historic St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Or, if you prefer, just get off at a random Tube stop – any stop, really – find the high street, and kick back at one of the city’s many pubs for a well-deserved pint. London’s as famous for its rain as it is for its pubs, so be sure to pack clothing to keep you warm and comfortable on your layover.
Not only is Frankfurt one of Europe’s most popular points of entry, receiving large volumes of international flights daily, but it’s also a city worth seeing. It isn’t just a pit stop on your way to better things.
Frankfurt is the textbook definition of a layover city done right – in just 14 minutes from the airport on the S-Bahn, you’ve reached the Hauptbahnhof, or central station. The area surrounding the central station used to have a – let’s call it – seedier reputation as the city’s Red Light District, and while some of the XXX video stores and sex shops remain, they’re by no means the main draw of the area. Germany’s sizeable Turkish population is on full display in the form of innumerable Döner Kebap shops, as are bars serving the city’s top-notch wheat beers and lagers.
A 20-minute walk east (or three more minutes on the S-Bahn) gets you to the Hauptwache Station, a main metropolitan area. Here you’ll find great shopping, numerous restaurants and a mix of skyscrapers (Frankfurt is Germany’s de facto financial capital), medieval and modern architecture.
Visitors to Iceland often talk about its other-worldliness. It’s true – the country’s glacial and green scenery can feel like it’s ripped from a sci-fi film. That’s all the more reason, then, to make it a stopover destination on your trip.
Reykjavik is a common pit stop for planes heading from North America to Europe, given its central position in the North Atlantic. Icelandair, the country’s main airline, also started promoting a free stopover (three days, in some cases) to the country a few years ago, a move that helped revitalize the tourism industry there.
The small city (a population of about 120,000 people) is as charming as they come. About a 45-minute ride from the airport to the city centre, Reykjavik is kinder to long layovers than short ones, but if you’re lucky enough to participate in the three-day stopover promotion, you can even strike off into the back country in addition. It’s a cold country much of the year, so be sure to pack your Unbound Merino wool socks for men for a stopover.
Flying Europe to Asia, or vice versa could land you in Dubai, the ultra-glamorous United Arab Emirates city set amid the Arabian Desert. Home to massive skyscrapers, like the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest structure), as well as ancient forts, mosques and heritage quarters, Dubai is poised between the past and future.
Luckily, it’s also an incredibly easy stopover city. A 12-minute taxi or Uber ride, or 25 minutes on transportation is all you need to get in the action. Check out the Burj Khalifa up-close (or from afar – the thing’s hard to miss), do some luxury shopping at the Dubai Mall, and get lost (metaphorically) through the winding alleys and waterways of the ancient Dubai Creek trade routes.
The city’s official website recommends that foreigners dress modestly, a proposition sometimes at odds with the region’s sweltering heat. To dress well and keep cool, pack our mens button down wool shirts or use our women's travel shirts as a breathable base layer.
Heading to or from Australia or Southeast Asia, you might be lucky enough to layover in Singapore. The city-state may well be the world’s most famous stopover – some modern scholars say the name even comes from “Singgha”, which means “stopover” and “pura”, which means “city”.
A culturally diverse, highly developed, affluent and exciting city, Singapore has a ton to offer even the shortest layover. With only a couple hours, we recommend you beeline it for one of the many Hawker centres – massive arena-like buildings devoted to food, packed with stall upon stall serving Malay, Chinese, Indian and Perenkian dishes. After a long flight of suffering through airline food, it’s the perfect pastime.
Full of delicious hawker food, you can spend your remaining layover strolling through the ornate streets of Chinatown, taking in the various markets, parks, temples and pagodas. Of course, if you simply wanted to stay put in the airport during your layover, it wouldn’t be the worst thing, either – Singapore’s Changi Airport was voted best in the world in the World Airport Survey last year.
The recent protests should not deter you from visiting Hong Kong. Not only is the city still safe, but it’s also still every bit as vibrant and exciting. Taking anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour from the airport – depending on your method of transportation – Hong Kong isn’t for short layovers, but if you can manage a trip in, you’ll be richly rewarded.
For our money, if you only have a short time in the city, Tsim Sha Tsui is the place to be. Located in Southern Kowloon, it’s home to amazing food; a massive, lush urban park; densely packed, neon-sign-strewn shopping districts; and arguably the best nightlife north of Bangkok.
Stroll down Nathan Road, wind through Kowloon Park, and grab a bite at one of the many stalls in the Haiphong Road Hawker Bazaar. The city’s tourism recently took a couple massive hits, so show them some love with a short – or long – layover!
LA is one of the natural stopping points between North America and Australasia, Asia and South America, Canada and Mexico, etc., etc. We don’t need to tell you that it’s also a pretty attractive draw in its own right.
If you have a few hours to spare on your way somewhere else, take the 30-minute FlyAway Bus from LAX and explore downtown. The bus drops you at Union Station, a central point between Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Grand Park and Grand Central Market.
To get in the spirit of SoCal cool, check out our simple, sophisticated and breezy mens wool shirts on the Unbound Merino site. If you’re heading through LAX on your way somewhere warm, they’ll keep you well ventilated on your trip; and if you’re headed somewhere cold, they make the perfect base layer.
Layovers at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport are common for travellers heading to and from Mexico and Central America. Houston is on this list because, while public transit into town may be a headache (over an hour on public transit or a $30 Uber ride), the city is pretty fascinating, and the airport is a popular one.
For layovers over four hours, head downtown to the area around Discovery Green, a massive, newly renovated public park offering a bevy of activities, games and shaded areas to relax. If you have over eight hours, consider heading to the nearby Minute Maid Park to catch a Houston Astros game. And if you have a full-day, overnight stopover, head out to East Nasa Parkway to visit the famous Houston Space Center.
However long you have in Houston, cap off your layover with one of the city’s fine Texas BBQ establishments, like Gatlin’s, Pinkerton’s or the Pit Room, for some a helping of both brisket and Southern hospitality.
For many, their first foray into Canada is through the Pearson International Airport in Toronto. And while many weary travellers choose to just lounge in the airport, among the moose statues and overpriced food court offerings, we recommend heading into town. The brisk UP train gets you from Pearson to Union Station (yes, another Union Station) in 25 minutes, which is the heart of downtown.
Walking distance from Union Station you’ll find the Hockey Hall of Fame, the massive CN Tower, the lit-up Nathan Phillips Square and the sprawling, foodie paradise of the St. Lawrence Market. Walk a little further northwest (about 25 minutes) and you’ll land in Kensington Market, a hip, artistic and defiantly independent market neighbourhood just outside Chinatown.
In the winter months, Toronto – like most of the Great White North – is sub-zero cold. Learn how to travel light with the right clothes even in frigid conditions on our blog.
It’s a tired old cliché, but in this case it rings true: sometimes it’s not about the destination, but the journey. Whether you’re stranded in a city for three hours or three days, it can be a fantastic opportunity to leave the confines of the airport (which, let’s face it, are more or less the same world round) and into a new city – a bonus experience on your way to your final destination.