One of the most disheartening aspects of air travel is stepping into an airport mall after a 12-hour flight only to find yourself confronted with the same big-name brands you left at home. Look beyond the gleaming Gucci outlets and stacked piles of cigarette cartons and Lindt chocolates, however, and you might find a surprising range of local and regional fashions, foods and handicrafts.
Japanese airports are best at this, since Japanese travellers feel obliged to brings gifts back to colleagues and family, and airport shops conveniently fulfil this need by selling regional products from across Japan. The international terminal at Tokyo Haneda (haneda-airport.jp) recreates an old Edo-era street hung with lanterns where you can find exquisite stationary, boxed sweets and traditional Japanese clothing.
Terminal 1 in Tokyo Narita (narita-airport.jp) features a branch of venerable tea store Fukujuen, which has the matcha tea used in tea ceremonies, plus the accompanying utensils and delicate confectionary. Posh store Ginza Akebono sells gobble-worthy sweet chestnuts and quality rice crackers. At the bargain end, just head to an airport newsagent for novelty Kit Kats, which in Japan have peculiar filling such as pumpkin, hot chilli and cheesecake.
Beyond the Toberlone and Hershey bars, there are often delectable local foods in airports. Zurich (zurich-airport.com) and Geneva (gva.ch) have outlets of Confiserie Sprungli, founded in 1836. Its truffles and pralines are pricey but perfection, and its macaron-like, almond-flavoured Luxemburgerli are a signature product. In Amsterdam (schiphol.nl), Belgian chocolatier Leonidas has chocolate-coated marshmallows and caramelised almond sticks.
The Belgian Chocolate House at Brussels Airport (brusselsairport.be) carries a dozen Belgian brands and sells 800 tons of chocolate annually. In Abu Dhabi (abudhabiairport.ae), look for Bateel-branded dates stuffed with roasted nuts, orange peel or marzipan, or Al Nassma camel-milk chocolates with cinnamon, pistachio or hazelnut nougat.
Amsterdam airport's supermarket Albert Heijn provides packaged Dutch treats such as spiced speculaas biscuits, stroopwaffels (treacle waffles) and pepper cakes. In Reykjavik airport (kefairport.is), the Pure Food Hall features Icelandic goodies such as liqueur made from birch bark, blueberry-marinated lamb and startling cheeses. You can also buy lava whisky stones, a sort of recyclable ice cube. In Heathrow Terminal 5 (heathrow.com) you'll find only one of three Fortnum & Mason stores worldwide. It has very British hampers, preserves and chutneys, plus exclusive Explorer's Blend tea.
While you'd expect airport delis to offer regional products, you can unearth local items even among big duty-free staples such as perfumes. At Dubai airport (dubaiairports.ae), Ajmal, the oldest perfumer in the Emirates, provides distinctive aromas of cedar-wood and musk, while Saudi company Al Haramain has perfumes in unusual, highly decorative bottles.
Heathrow's Terminal 5 is a showcase of British fashion brands, and you'll also find models of double-decker buses, guardsman bears, droll royal family knickknacks and Manchester United and Arsenal soccer jerseys. In Terminal 3 at Chicago O'Hare (flychicago.com), you'll also find sports merchandise such as jerseys and caps from the Chicago Bears (American football), Bulls (basketball) and White Sox (baseball).
Chicago's Terminal 1 has a gallery of artworks from famous American children's illustrators such as Dr Suess and Disney stylist Eyvind Earle, as well as a store selling native American silver and turquoise jewellery. Terminal 5 features upmarket boutique I Love Chicago, which carries pottery, paintings, ceramics and sculptures from local artists.
Some airports offer shopping tours for transit passengers that take you beyond the terminal buildings if you have time. Volunteer guides at Tokyo Narita (narita-transit-program.jp) will accompany you to AEON Mall or to ShiShi Premium Outlets, which has 180 brand-name fashion stores, including many from Japan, such as Showa Nishikawa and Tachikichi for homeware, Mitsumine for men's fashion, and Takeo Kikuchi, known for combining vintage and contemporary street looks to create funky clothing styles.
In Taipei (taiwan.net.tw), you can take a transit tour to Yingge, a village noted for reproducing Ming and Qing-style ceramics; you can also pick up statues and teapots. There's also a tour beyond Doha airport (dohahamadairport.com) that takes you to Souk Waqif, which has abundant Islamic handicrafts and perfumes, plus oddities such as falconry gear.