Ten airports that give a false impression of their cities

It's the old cliché: don't judge a book by its cover. Only, as a traveller, the "cover" of a new destination, the first impression you get, is usually its airport. This is the image a country or a city presents to the world, the idea it gives you at first glance.

As with book covers, it's sometimes accurate. Sometimes a city and its airport are in perfect alignment. Singapore, for example, is a safe, clean, well-ordered city where the food is sensational – and that's roughly what you get at Changi.

Tokyo, too, is a big city but user friendly, with incredible attention to detail – and that's what you find at Haneda. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is sprawling and dull in places and it's difficult to get anywhere in a hurry – which perfectly describes LAX.

However, if you're flying into the following cities, pay no attention to the state of the airport at all. What awaits beyond its boundaries is entirely different.

Lima, Peru

Passengers arrive at the Jorge Chavez International Airport in Callao, Peru, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. After international flights were halted for more than six months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Peru's largest airport resumes flights to Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Chile. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

Photo: AP

Jorge Chavez International Airport is rough. It's shabby. There never seems to be enough staff, the infrastructure is in a fairly poor state, and the facilities are nothing to get excited about. And that's before you even exit the airport and find yourself in Callao, a pretty rough neighbourhood that makes you think, oh boy, I'm in some trouble here. And yet, Lima itself is amazing. Areas such as Miraflores, Barranco, San Isidro and Surquillo are world class, with great bar and restaurant scenes, museums, galleries, parks and more. A whole different planet to Jorge Chavez.

Beijing, China

Here's something of a flipside. Beijing has a spanking new airport (not that any of us are allowed to access it at the moment), Daxing (see photo gallery at the top of this page), which opened just before the beginning of the pandemic at a cost of almost $15 billion. It's fancy, ordered, sparkling, pristine. Which leads you to believe that the Chinese capital will be like that, too. Fortunately, however, it's not. Beijing still retains some of its old character and chaos, its historic hutongs, its traditional, organic layout. Unlike its airport, Beijing is not perfect – and that's something to love.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon is the best. Up there with my favourite places on the planet. A city with everything, filled with artsy, interesting neighbourhoods, amazing architecture, centuries-old attractions, seriously good food, and one of the world's great nightlife scenes. Your first impression of Lisbon, however, won't be any of that. It will be Humberto Delgado Airport, which has the shabby but not the chic, a notoriously clogged and disorganised airport with long queues and substandard facilities.

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok International Suvarnabhumi Airport, where the incident took place.

Photo: Jon Reid


Hang on, you think. Isn't Bangkok one of the great metropolises of the world? Isn't it slick and modern, a business hub that's one of the major capitals of south-east Asia, packed with shops, and some of the best food on the planet? Yes? So what's up with Suvarnabhumi Airport, a sprawling hub that just doesn't seem to have anything inside it. You find yourself pacing the halls here, taking forever to get from one place to another, and not finding anything – shops, restaurants, something of interest – along the way. Weird.

New York City, USA

The area for TSA screening of travelers at JFK airport's Terminal 1 is relatively empty, Friday, March 13, 2020, in New York. The coronavirus outbreak is hitting the airline industry hard. President Trump banned most Europeans from entering the United States for 30 days to try to slow down the spread of the spread of the virus. The new travel ban is likely to further roil the airline industry as bookings decline and people cancel reservations out of fear they might contract the virus. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Photo: AP

Yes, improvements are being made to New York's airports, to LaGuardia and JKF (above) and even Newark, but still, come on. New York is without doubt one of the greatest cities on Earth. It's the centre of the universe – or at least, it feels that way when you're there. This is the place where everything is happening, where everyone wants to be. And yet the airports are dire. If you judged New York City on the strength of its airports alone, you wouldn't even bother with it.

Melbourne, Australia

First flights for International tourists arrive at Melbourne Airport this morning.
Picture by Wayne Taylor 21st February 2022

Photo: Wayne Taylor

Melbourne: one of the world's most liveable cities (not sure if you've heard). A city offering incredible quality of life. A relaxed, cosmopolitan city with a sophisticated transport network to make it run. You know this about Melbourne, so you probably arrive at its main airport in Tullamarine and think, yes, I'll make use of that transport network and take the train into the city. Except, no such train exists – you're stuck on the bus, at the mercy of peak-hour traffic. You'll also find yourself in an airport with average food options and dodgy coffee, which is not at all what Melbourne the city is about.

London, UK

Busy departure hall at Gatwick Airport, London, UK Gatwick Airport
iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Gatwick Airport, London. Photo: iStock

As with NYC, London is notorious for the parlous state of its major air hubs. Though the biggest of them, Heathrow, is actually reasonably good, if you flew into Gatwick, or Stanstead, or Luton, you could be forgiven for thinking you had arrived in some provincial backwater rather than one of the most important cities on the planet. There's so much to love about London – you just have to pretend its airports don't exist.

Dubai, UAE


Dubai Airport


DXB is a curious one. Here's a city that famously loves to boast the best of everything, that has the world's biggest, the world's tallest, the world's most expensive, the world's first of whatever you can think of. And yet that pursuit of global leadership is not at all evident in its airport. DXB is fine, I guess. It has facilities. It has size. But its modesty of ambition gives no indication at all of the city it represents.

Paris, France

Paris: city of light. The city of love. The fashion capital. La Dame de Fer. All of these affectionate nicknames for what is without doubt one of the world's great cities. And yet… Charles de Gaulle airport? Paris Orly? Both are horrendous, islands of agony in a city of joy. Queues are long. Luggage takes forever. Staff care not for your petty problems. Trust me: if you can, arrive in Paris by train.

Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver International Airport is fine, really. In fact it's quite a good airport, where flights seem to run mostly on time and facilities are modern and reliable. The issue here is the "welcome" you tend to get from Canadian customs agents, who are stern to the point of intimidation, and make you wonder if all those stories about laidback, friendly Canadians are actually true. They are. But you won't know it until your passport's been stamped.

Which airports do you think are most out of sync with their destination? And which ones match perfectly?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter.com: twitter.com/bengroundwater

LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast

To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here. To listen on Spotify, click here.

Join the Flight of Fancy community on Facebook