This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
By the time you finally disembark from a long flight, stretch your legs, get your bags, and manage to hail a taxi, all you probably want to do is rest your head against the back of the seat, close your eyes, and hope for a speedy arrival. Yet I often find myself anticipating the drive from the airport to my destination. It offers a glimpse of your vacation spot with the veil of tourism pulled back, the side of the city not manicured to fit the perceptions of visitors.
On my way into Tokyo from Narita International Airport, the landscape looked overgrown with brambles, vines, and trees, with what seemed to be office buildings interspersed among the vegetation. The combination of modern buildings surrounded by wild foliage created an almost post-apocalyptic atmosphere. I felt a stillness in the air, almost as if all the people had swiftly abandoned the area in anticipation of some disaster and never returned. I couldn’t stop staring out of the window, mesmerized by the view. Once I arrived in downtown Tokyo — chaotic, bustling, vibrant, and mysterious — I had already seen two entirely different sides of the same city.
Sure, most drives from the airport are on drab, uninteresting highways. It probably won’t be as glamorous as the views where you’re staying. You won’t see historical monuments or impressive architecture from the window of your cab. All I see when I drive home from the Newark Airport is chain hotels, carparks, and a very haunted looking abandoned factory with four smoke stacks still standing — probably nothing a tourist is going to check off their bucket list, yet each sight is a familiar comfort.
That’s why the drive from the airport is so unexpectedly important: You get to see your temporary home from the perspective of the people who live there. Perhaps this is the route that residents see on their commute to work, or that they take to visit out-of-town family. This is the place you’re visiting stripped of pretense, unpolished but charming in its own humble way. Forty minutes outside of Paris won’t be as pretty as Paris itself, but it will show you a side of France not on postcards and television shows.
There are times when the view from the airport will stun you: Nature is nearly bursting through the pavement at Honolulu International Airport, where prehistoric emerald green mountains surround the cement structure, and the humid air suggests the presence of the ocean just out of view. But more often than not, the area around the airport will look less like paradise and more like the waiting room to something more exciting. That doesn’t mean you should dismiss what you see as dismal or dreary. These areas simply are not meant to delight or entice a tourist — but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of your attention.
Resist the urge to take a quick power nap or scroll social media on the drive from the airport. Chances are, you’ll be spending your trip seeking out adventure, whether you’re sipping wine in a chic restaurant, watching the sunset from a balcony overlooking the ocean, or exploring ancient ruins.
Paying attention to your surroundings during the drive from the airport won’t automatically make you an expert on the place you’re visiting. That takes much more effort. But having a complete picture of a new place — not just the spaces meant to impress visitors — brings you one step closer to understanding, appreciating, and respecting the places that graciously host travelers.