You might have walked through the Orchid Garden in Singapore’s Changi Airport or shopped in Heathrow’s duty free boutiques, but there’s more to these places than their airports. Rather than dashing on to your final destination, a layover en route can really enrich your experience.
In a couple of nights you can explore the eclectic cultural landscape of Hong Kong or visit fertile valleys north of Muscat. Our specialists have chosen their top picks for a layover that offers far more than an airport lounge.
Flying via Oman? Spend a few nights in the Jebel Akhdar Mountains
By Oman specialist Kate
Wadi Bani Habib, Jebel Akhdar
I struggle to decide between the fresh air and dramatic panoramas of the mountains, or the swash of waves breaking on a postcard-perfect beach. By stopping off in Oman en route to Zanzibar, I managed to incorporate both experiences into one trip.
Just a few hours’ drive inland from Muscat is Jebel Akhdar, the northern section of the Hajar Mountains. The jumble of sand and rocks that surround Muscat may look devoid of life, but as you drive up the mountain passes, the landscape begins to look more verdant. Jebel Akhdar translates from the Arabic ‘green mountains’, in reference to the thousands of agricultural terraces cut into the mountainside.
Driving through the region with a local guide, we paused regularly to admire the walnut groves, grape vines and pomegranate trees, their boughs heavy with fruit. The derelict villages of the Bani Riyan Tribe, an Arabic farming people, cling to the side of the valleys. It’s possible to visit some of the more accessible settlements where you can walk down the steep pathways to explore the empty houses and old irrigation channels.
Nizwa Fort, Oman
Most locals have re-located to nearby Nizwa, one of the oldest cities in the country. Visit on a Friday and you’ll catch the chaotic cattle market, otherwise you can trawl the souqs or visit the 17th-century fort. The men, including my guide, wore long white dishdasha (robes) while the women dress in the traditional abaya (a loose black dress) and headscarf.
A three-night stay in the area before flying onward gives you enough time to see the key highlights as well as to pause and appreciate the scenery. The Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort might look a bit like a military base from the outside, but inside it’s furnished with glittering chandeliers, carved sandalwood and Omani-inspired archways. The infinity pool is perched on the edge of an immense canyon.
Fly onward to Zanzibar
Once an overseas holding of Oman, Zanzibar was used by the Sultan as a trading port en route to the west coast of India. Sat in the Indian Ocean, it’s now part of Tanzania. The island still bears an Arab influence with Omani architecture, busy spice markets and fishing dhows lining the horizon. With uncrowded coral-white beaches, quiet fishing villages and some comfortable hotels, it’s ideal for a beach break.
Beach in Zanzibar
It’s a fifteen and a half hour flight from New York to Muscat with Oman Air. From Muscat, it’s a five and a half hour flight onward to Zanzibar.
Flying via Singapore? Get out into the city
By Product Executive Craig
Singapore’s Changi Airport has just been awarded the title of World’s Best Airport at the 2017 World Airport Awards. The free 24-hour cinema, rooftop swimming pool and butterfly garden make it an appealing stop between flights, but Singapore deserves to be a destination in its own right. The city boasts a concentrated wealth of sights and an easily navigable transport system, so you can pack a lot into a brief stay.
In the cool of the morning, I like to visit Little India, a vibrant district located east of the Singapore River. One of the oldest parts of the city, Indian migrants settled here to raise and trade cattle. The livestock are long gone, but Hindu temples, tandoori restaurants and incense-scented shops remain. Join a small group walking tour and, with your guide, sample Indian sweets, explore the markets and meet some of the local shopkeepers.
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Singapore is warm year round, so to escape the heat and humidity of the afternoon, I suggest exploring the Gardens by the Bay. Two futuristic, air-conditioned conservatories have been built behind the Marina on reclaimed land, and filled with plants from across the world. An aerial walkway cuts through the outdoor space, with views across the Marina Bay skyline.
In the evening, I like to eat at Newton’s Food Court, a quick metro ride to the north of the city. With a strong work ethic, Singaporeans usually work late and then meet friends in this huge food court. You can choose from Chinese, Indian, Malay or Peranakan dishes that have been influenced by the city’s multicultural history. The chicken satay is a particularly popular delicacy.
If you’re eager to continue, Chinatown comes to life in the evening with a lively night market. Shop houses are brightly lit, selling books, herbal teas and Chinese lanterns. You can sit out at a street-side table and enjoy a Singapore-brewed Tiger beer. As the night draws to a close you might want to have a night-cap at the Fullerton Hotel which sits proudly overlooking Marina Bay. This neoclassical building was once home to Singapore’s General Post Office and government offices, but is now a luxurious heritage hotel with an infinity pool overlooking Singapore River.
Fly onward to Borneo
Because you can’t catch a long-haul flight direct to Borneo you’ll need to stop en route and Singapore, only a two-hour flight away, works well. The futuristic, high-rise cityscape of Singapore is a stark contrast to the tangled jungles and rugged mountains of Borneo.
Baby orangutan at Sepilok, Sandakan
It’s a twenty-one hour flight from New York to Singapore with Singapore Airlines. From Singapore it’s then a two-hour flight onward to Kota Kinabalu with Silk Air, Singapore’s regional airline.
Flying via London? Take a two-day tour
By UK specialist Andea
If your flight has a layover in London and you want a whirlwind tour, just two days can give you a sampling of the best the city has to offer. If I’ve arrived at Heathrow, I like to take the express train from the airport to Paddington Station, which can get me into the heart of the city in just 15 minutes.
A 20-minute cab ride away from Paddington is Bloomsbury. The area offers a central location that’s quiet but close to the key sights, including the British Museum. This vast 19th-century building stores cultural treasures from around the world, including the Rosetta Stone, huge Assyrian lamassu (human-headed winged bulls) and the Mummy of Katebet (one of the most studied Egyptian mummies in the world). For a taste of more local history, I always like to visit the empty-eyed helmet and heavy golden cloak clasps that were found in the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, just a couple of hours from London.
Once you’ve had your fill of the spoils of empire, you can pause for lunch at one of the traditional cafes that are common in Bloomsbury. After you’ve eaten, make your way through Covent Garden — being sure to check out the street performers at the covered market — and on through Leicester Square and Chinatown to Trafalgar Square.
If you wander past 10 Downing Street, keep an eye out for Larry, the official Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, before you continue on to Westminster Abbey. The cathedral’s vast interior is sometimes overwhelming, so I suggest going with a private guide to help you focus your attention.
Houses of Parliament, London
In the evening, a well-timed stroll down the South Bank of the Thames provides photogenic views of Parliament and Big Ben lit by the setting sun. From here, you can take the Tube from Lambeth North to Oxford Circus and enjoy dinner in Soho or a show in the West End.
The next morning, I suggest climbing to the gleaming white dome of St Paul’s Cathedral to take in one of the best views in London. Ornately covered, Leadenhall Market makes a convenient and elegant spot for lunch before you walk to the fabled Tower of London for a tour. End the day by walking across London Bridge to the distinctive Shard skyscraper, where you can fortify yourself for your next flight with evening cocktails or afternoon tea.
Fly onward to almost anywhere
Just as it was once the hub of a world-spanning empire, London remains a crossroads of the world and you can fly to almost anywhere from here. It’s just a two and a half hour flight to Rome where you can visit masterworks of art and architecture spanning more than two millennia.
Arch of Septimius Severus, Rome
Flights from New York to London take a little less than seven hours, and it’s ten and a half hours from Los Angeles.
Flying via Hong Kong? Visit night markets and fishing villages
By China specialist Kara
With its mixture of Chinese culture and European influences, Hong Kong makes a good introduction to the Far East. It’s definitely one of the cities I most enjoy visiting, where cosmopolitan bars and Michelin-star restaurants are found alongside traditional markets selling everything from electronics to jade-stone good-luck charms.
The city is an excellent stopover destination en route to Australasia. It’s surprisingly compact and easy to get around, with the efficient, air-conditioned MTR (Mass Transit Railway) system able to zip you between different districts. The Airport Express line also means you can stay almost anywhere within Hong Kong and still be within a short distance of the airport.
Hong Kong skyline
I recently stayed for three nights, which gave me enough time to explore both the neon-splattered city streets and take a one-hour ferry ride over to Cheung Chau, one of the 260 outer islands, with a local guide.
On many of these islands, a more traditional way of life resumes. You can visit tiny fishing villages where people live in stilted houses raised over water. Forests provide hiking and wildlife-viewing opportunities, and you can dip your feet in the sea from quiet sandy beaches.
Back in the metropolis, you can browse the many shops and markets. Temple Street Night Market is one of the best, a vibrant snapshot of Chinese culture as you pass the stalls of traditional herbalists, fortune tellers and jewellers. Afterwards, enjoy some dim sum or cocktails in a rooftop bar overlooking the city skyline.
For an even better vista, take the Peak Tram up to the island’s highest point, Victoria Peak. Not only will you get to travel on the world’s steepest funicular, but once at the top you have panoramic views over the entire city and the surrounding forested hills.
Fly onward to Australia
Everyone heading to Australia gears themselves up for the long flight ahead of them. Stopping off at Hong Kong for a couple of nights makes the journey much more manageable, and adds a different flavour. Whether you’re flying to Sydney or Melbourne, you can easily travel on to anywhere else in the country, from the Great Barrier Reef to the remote national parks of Tasmania.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
It takes around fifteen and a half hours to fly from New York to Hong Kong. After spending two or three nights in the city, you can catch a nine-hour flight to Sydney or Melbourne with Cathay Pacific. Flights to other Australian cities are also available, with varying flight times.