Layover: Minneapolis – Saint Paul

MSP International Airport
Ah, MSP. A layover in this sprawling north coast airport can be a great time, or abject Hell. Here are some ways to have fun if you find yourself flying into this flyover state.

(I can say that; I’m from there. And I love it. And it knows.)

Shorter (2 hour) layovers

I’ll be assuming you’re flying into the Lindbergh Terminal. If you’ve got under two hours and you’ve landed at the smaller, aggressively clean Humphrey Terminal (the HHH, after Hubert H. Humphrey), taking the light rail to Lindbergh is not worth it. You’ve got a coffee shop. Sit down and enjoy the quiet; that terminal is usually a ghost town. (That’s the reason there’s not much to do there — everything closes because there isn’t enough traffic.)
The Lindbergh Terminal is the opposite of a ghost town, which I guess would be a … town. With concourses A through G and “The Mall” in the middle, as well as a snappy little tram, it’s a bustling airport with lots of choices for restaurants and shopping. I highly recommend French Meadow Bakery and Cafe located in concourse F, which is a mini version of a favorite in Uptown Minneapolis in the Lyn-Lake area. I wish it were a sit-down restaurant and not counter service, but I can’t argue with the delicious breakfast, lunch, and dinner offerings made with organic and local ingredients. It’s an actual taste of Minnesota.

If you want to do some Minnesota-esque shopping, you can stop at Minnesota! for wooden birds and the like. Every home in Minnesota has a wooden bird. I don’t know why this is. Or, if you prefer to do as the locals would do (or you are a local, or you already have a wooden bird, or both), you can hit up Harley Davidson, Hugo Boss, or pick up some sporty stuff at the creatively named Sports Minnesota.

If you’re into drinking, nature’s cure for flight nerves, TGI Fridays has cheap drink upgrades (an extra shot for a buck or two), and Tequileria in concourse G will give you a plastic shaker if you drink enough margaritas. They serve 1800 Reposado there, which happens to be a really great tequila. Added perk of Tequileria: fun to say.

The best burger and the best beer in the joint are conveniently located together at Rock Bottom Brewery & Restaurant — and click that link if you’re going there. Free coupons.

You can also hit up Tumi in the Mall if you forgot a suitcase and feel like carrying an empty one (I’ve never understood suitcase shops in airports), or get your shoes shined a lot of places. Got kids with you? You can kill an hour or so playing with all the toys at Creative Kidstuff. Heck, I can kill an hour or so playing with all the toys at Creative Kidstuff.

Longer layovers (4+ hours)

Whether you’re at Lindbergh or Humphrey, if you’ve got more than four hours, you’re gonna want to leave the airport. Why? Because it’s easy and there’s lots to do! The fancy light rail, also known as The Hiawatha Line (after the street it’s built along), is your friend.

If you don’t care much about Minneapolis but want to occupy yourself, take the light rail over to the Mall of America. It’s like, right there. The Mall of America has four giant department stores, three floors of shops (mostly chains), a huge movie theater, an aquarium, and a freaking amusement park in the middle. With like, roller coasters and a log flume and stuff. It’s totally out of control. The Mall of America is perfect for some, but strikes horror into the hearts of others.

Light Rail View of MinneapolisIf you’re on the “others” team, then take the light rail the other way and head to Downtown Minneapolis. It’s great that you don’t need a car to get downtown and play.

What to do in Downtown Minneapolis? Well, there’s lots of shopping and eating, especially on Nicollet Mall, and St. Anthony Main has a number of bars and restaurants with a view of the Mississippi River. If you’re there, you should also check out Nye’s Polonaise, which was called “The Best Bar in America” by GQ, and rightly so: Polka music in one room, a piano bar, and an old-timey feel make it cozy and fun — and the food’s not bad either. If you’re looking for a great meal, though, my very favorite restaurant in Minneapolis is a hop, skip, and a jump from the light rail: Cafe Brenda. Cafe Brenda is a mostly-vegetarian restaurant with some poultry and fish options, and the food is to die for. Get the mushroom pate appetizer. Yum.

If it’s a cold month? No worries: Minneapolis is all indoorily connected with an elaborate, 8 mile skyway system — click here to download a map. If it’s warm enough to walk around outside, I recommend heading down to the outrageously large and blue new Guthrie Theater, which sits right on the Mississippi River. There are bars and restaurants inside, as well as a really cool “endless bridge” from which you can watch the water.

Other tips:

So, hopefully that helps you through the pain that is the layover — Minneapolis is a great town, and thanks to the light rail, it’s really easy to get right downtown in a jiffy. Just make sure to get back to the airport in time to catch your flight!

Layover: Detroit

Detroit’s long association with the automotive industry led to poor public transportation development during the 1900s. As a result, the airport, which is thirty minutes from either downtown Detroit to the east or Ann Arbor to the west, is poorly connected to the cities. While there are a couple of public buses that visit the airport, neither lines go to any worthwhile destinations at any reasonable speed, so unless you want to rent a vehicle or get a pricey cab, it’s usually best to stay in the airport. Fortunately, both the McNamara and North terminals are modern, airy structures with plenty of restaurants and activities to keep you busy, so even longer layovers won’t be spent poorly.

Shorter (2 hour) layovers

With only a couple of hours to kill at the airport, it’s best to not go outside of security unless you have a specific reason. There isn’t much out there anyway except for the Westin restaurant in the Mac and a bar in the baggage claim of the North terminal.

If you’re flying on any airline except for Northwest, Delta and Continental, you’ll find yourself in the newly opened North terminal, that despite it’s simple design is perfectly functional and clean. To keep yourself busy for a couple of hours, you can start by ducking into one of the many shops throughout the terminal, including a Brookstone, two Borders and an ASAP for electronics. Your best bet, however, is to sit down for a good relaxing meal, which you can do at Hockeytown Cafe, Ruby Tuesdays or Fridays.
In the McNamara terminal you have many more options. First, if you haven’t seen the tunnel between the A and BC terminals, it’s worth taking a visit to the seizure-inducing display. A combination of loud music, pounding lights and changing colors liken the 5 minute voyage to watching Requiem for a Dream inside of a kaleidoscope, and if you aren’t awed when you ride through the first time you will be when you get back. On the A terminal side of the tunnel you can also hang out and watch the fountain deposit laminar streams of water precisely across the giant, stone expanse, well worth a few minutes of gawking.

If you’d like a bite to eat, McNamara has three expansive food courts in the center and termini of hall A where you can grab both American and Japanese fast food (several flights from Tokyo connect here.) If you’ve got a little bit of extra time, try the Japanese restaurant or the National Coney Island for a plate of remarkably delicious airport food.

Northwest and Delta’s Sky Clubs are a great escape from the rigor of the everyday airport melee. If you haven’t got an annual pass, you can stop in any of the four lounges in the airport, buy a pass for about $50 and enjoy free wireless, snacks, comfy chairs and drinks. So if you think that you can consume more than $50 at the airport bar, use the Sky Club instead – the drinks are self serve. This is also a great place to deposit your luggage if you want to leave the premises for a while.

If you’re willing to risk sneaking out of security for a bit, the Westin at McNamara terminal has a wonderful ground floor that is a million miles away from the bustling airport terminal. Grab a drink at Dema, the hotel restaurant while you gawk at the monstrostic, relaxing surroundings.

Longer layovers (4+ hours)
Should you decide to leave the airport during your layover, there are a few local options that you can enjoy within a (long) stones throw. You’ll need to either rent a car or have someone pick you up though, or you can arrange some sort of deal with a local taxi. Just make sure that if you’re going somewhere with little cab access that you have a ride back.

Greenfield Village (pictured): The largest outdoor museum in the world is an 18 minute cab ride away from the airport, in Dearborn, MI. The village hosts a sprawling 240 acres of reconstructed and original buildings across US history, focusing on the way that Americans lived in colonial times. Character actors play the role of ancient colonists and there are enough activities to keep you busy all day — just make sure that the weather is good. Tickets are $22 for adults and $16 for children over 5.

Casinos: Three casinos in downtown Detroit are a fun way to kill a few hours. It’s 25 minutes by car to either Greektown, Motor City or the MGM Grand.

Downtown Detroit: Outside of the several casinos, downtown Detroit has experienced a bit of a revitalization in the last few years. The area around Comerica Park and Ford Field including Greektown is interesting and safe to mosey around, though you’ll see more interesting architecture than boutique shops. Our recommendation? The MGM Grand.

Ann Arbor: Recently covered in our “Budget Destinations” series, Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan and is a quiet, quaint town about a half hour west of DTW. You can read more details about tree city in that post, but our specific suggestions for a long layover are a stop at Dominick’s for a sangria and a homemade pizza and a stroll through the law quad and campus. You can easily make it to Ann Arbor and back in about 3.5 hours.

Other tips

— If you’ve got some range on your wireless card, the skyclubs upstairs at either end of terminal A have free wifi. On a good day you can sit below the clubs on the chairs and pick up a signal.

— Keep an eye out for the planters with giant trees in them. Several of them are host to autograph rocks where people stop by, sign their name and leave a mark.

Plan your next layover with Gadling’s Layover Guides.

Layover: San Francisco

Because of its location on a peninsula, San Francisco is confined within a space of about 7 miles wide by 7 miles long–which makes for an easy taxi-ride from San Francisco International Airport (13 miles south of San Francisco) to anywhere in town. But even if you have plenty of time to spare between flights, your best bet is the cheap and easy commuter train–BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit)–which you can pick up directly at SFO.

Longer layovers (4+ hours)

To make the most of your layover, take BART to either downtown or the Mission district. A ride to downtown (Embarcadero Station) takes 32 minutes, and costs $5.35 one-way, while a ride to the Mission district (24th Street Station) takes 23 minutes, and costs $5.20 one-way.


One option is to take BART to the Embarcadero Station, and spend some time in the Ferry Building Marketplace. If you’re there on a Tuesday or Thursday (10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.), or Saturday (8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.), you’ll find yourself at the best farmer’s market in town. The shop and restaurant list truly is a composite of the best of the best in premium local and organic food, from Frog Hollow Farm to Cowgirl Creamery. The Slanted Door offers up grand views and Zagat-awarded Vietnamese food if you want a sit-down meal. Or, if you need to stretch those airplane-confined legs, you can take a walk along the Embarcadero–north for a view of Alcatraz, south for a view of the Bay Bridge and the “Cupid’s Span” sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, or west up Market Street–the Financial District’s thoroughfare–for a little urban hustle-and-bustle.


Or try this itinerary for a good mix of shopping, views, meditation, food, and a good uphill climb to get your heart pumping. Get off BART at Powell Station, and follow the crowds north toward Union Square, the city’s central shopping area. Then keep following the cable car line (but don’t bother waiting in the long line for a ride) up Powell Street to Nob Hill, taking in the views of the Bay Bridge to your right. At the tip top, you’ll find Grace Cathedral. Take a look at the grand, bronze doors (a replica of those from the Duomo in Florence, Italy), then walk one of its two labyrinths (indoor and outdoor). If you’re up for a splurge, you could order a drink or bite while taking in a 360-degree views at the Top of the Mark. Otherwise, for a more ethnic experience, dim sum at Four Seas Restaurant in neighboring Chinatown is always good, too.

Mission district:

The Mission is another great area to meander if you’ve only got a few hours to sample San Francisco. Its Latino roots are on display along Mission Street, and its hipster side is a few blocks away along Valencia Street. Hop off BART at the 24th Street Station and stop at a taqueria that strikes your fancy. Or pick up a cone of Bi-Rite ice cream (it’s organic, so that negates the calories) and take it across the street to people-watch at Dolores Park. (As one of the sunniest neighborhoods in foggy San Francisco, odds are in your favor.) Swing by Balmy Alley to check out the plethora of colorful murals, or pick up an eye patch at the city’s only independent pirate supply store at 826 Valencia. If you’re in the neighborhood at night, drop in for a play at The Marsh, live music at the Elbo Room, or the latest oddball event at The Make-out Room.


Shorter layovers (2 hours)

If you confined to the airport grounds, you don’t have to rely solely on following changes on the arrival/departure board to pass the time. Try these out:

Roam the airport and find a piece of artwork from the SFO’s collection that inspires you. You’ll have plenty of opportunity throughout the terminals.

Need a massage or pedicure where you’re heading next? Stop at XpresSpa. Its hours are friendly to early and late departures, too. The one in the International Terminal (Boarding Area G, near Gate 100, post-security) is open 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; and the one in Terminal 3 (Boarding Area F near Gate 68, post-security) is open 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Restaurants are the usual lot, with the exception of a few standouts. Go to Boudin Bakery for San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread–maybe as a bowl with clam chowder inside? (Terminal 3, Boarding Area F, food court at entrance to Gates 80-90, post-security) Grab a cup of the local’s favorite brew, Peet’s Coffee, which first started percolating in the area in 1966. (Several locations in Terminals 1 and 3) And for a different type of coffee altogether, head to Buena Vista Cafe. The cafe’s original Fisherman’s Wharf location is proud to have made the first Irish Coffee outside of Ireland in 1952. (Terminal 3, Boarding Area F near Gate 82, post-security)

And for the best shopping in SFO–hands down–head to the SFMOMA Store. You’re the only one who has to know that the creative gifts from there were bought last-minute at the airport. (International Terminal, Main Hall, pre-security).