The Best Places for Plane Spotting
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Whether you’re somebody who has flown just a few times or you’re a serious road warrior or AvGeek, there’s still a certain magic in watching planes take off and land. Even though flying has become commonplace in the century since the Wright Brothers went to Kitty Hawk, we still marvel at observing 50+ tons of aluminum roaring above us. It still seems so improbable, even if our brains can wrap themselves around the laws of physics that make flight possible.
Fortunately, many airports around the world are making it easy and enjoyable to watch planes come and go. In other places, top plane-watching spots result not from elaborate planning but from the happenstance of geography. Almost every airport nowadays has a location or two favored by plane-spotters, and many websites and online discussion groups help fans discover the best places.
Here’s our list of the top places around the world to observe these modern marvels as they depart and land:
1. The “Secret” Observation Deck at MSP
In addition to being one of the best shopping airports in the world, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) is also one of the best-plane spotting locations in the US. The airport has a dedicated outdoor viewing area with picnic tables alongside a couple of the runways, accessible by car by going though a series of tunnels. But many passengers transiting through the airport don’t realize they can also snag an interesting vantage point via the “secret” enclosed observation deck, located off Concourse D on the departures level. It’s a little tricky to find, and it requires going up some stairs (no elevator), but this area offers windows on all four sides, chairs, some tranquillity — and of course spectacular views of all the runways.
2. The Visitors Park at Munich Airport (MUC)
Although Frankfurt Airport (FRA) is Lufthansa’s main hub, and has an excellent rooftop open air deck from which to watch planes, Munich Airport (MUC) is also a strong contender because of its Visitors Park (Besucherpark). The park, which has its own stop on the S-Bahn rail line, has interactive aircraft displays, a mini-golf course and even a playground. Nearby Visitors Hill gives an even better view.
3. Bayfront Park in San Francisco
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is a great place to spy on all the different aircraft, especially because of its scenic location on the San Francisco Bay. At the southernmost corner of the airport sits Bayfront Park, a public space maintained by the City of Millbrae. Its location is especially convenient — just a short walk along the bay from several popular airport hotels. If you’re just passing through SFO, you should know that in 2019, the airport opened an outdoor observation deck on Terminal 2 (after security) that includes tables, chairs, chaise lounges and bronze sculptures.
4. The In-N-Out Burger by LAX
What’s better than watching planes at the second-busiest airport in the U. S.? How about watching them while demolishing a Double-Double from In-N-Out Burger? The In-N-Out near Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at West 92nd Street and Sepulveda Boulevard allows its guests to watch aircraft take off and land from its patio. There’s also a small park across the street. Parking is tight.
5. Maho Beach in St. Maarten
This is the granddaddy of all plane-watching places because it has it all: up-close views of landings, a nice beach and laid-back bars. Although Hurricane Irma slammed St. Maarten in 2017 and destroyed nearby businesses and washed away some of the beach, the Maho Beach area has rebuilt and is again open to tourists hoping to sip a drink on the beach as huge planes pass just a few hundred feet above them. Often referred to as “Airplane Beach,” Maho lies directly under the Western approach to St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) and steps away from the furthest edge of the runway. Bars on each side of the beach list scheduled landings. Some adventurous tourists even get close to the airport’s fence as planes depart in hopes of being blown backward (somewhat dangerous, and signs warn of the dangers).
6. Phuket International Beaches
Most points and miles travelers consider Phuket, Thailand, to be an ideal vacation destination throughout the year, where beachfront resorts line crystal blue waters with white sands — and aviation lovers can watch the planes come in and out of Phuket International Airport (HKT). Both Nai Yang Beach and Mai Khao Beach sit on the western side of the airport directly in line with its only runway, so you’ll be able to easily spot a variety of liveries from airlines all across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The best views might not be around for much longer, though, as aviation authorities in Thailand told CNN in June 2019 that they are “thinking about cordoning off the area or keeping tourists further away from the airport” because of security concerns.
7. Founders’ Plaza at DFW
Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) is one of the country’s busiest airports, and locals and travelers have a chance to catch some of the action at an observation area known as Founders’ Plaza. It offers a few tables telescopes, historic information and even a radio that broadcasts air traffic control communications from the tower. The biggest planes tend to take off in the early afternoon, and aircraft headed to Europe leave in the late afternoon. It’s also a family-friendly place to have a picnic.
8. Gravelly Point at DCA
Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is surrounded by the Potomac River on one side and development on its other sides, but its location so close to many of Washington’s famous monuments makes it a scenic place to watch planes. The best spot is from Gravelly Point, which is part of the National Park Service’s George Washington Memorial Parkway, a pleasant spot popular with walkers and bike-riders. If you’re in town, you can see planes passing low overhead and combine the experience with a walk or bike ride along the scenic Potomac with views of the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other sites.
9. The Panorama Terrace in Amsterdam
There are lots of great spots to watch planes by Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (AMS), as the airport has made it easy for people to watch takeoffs and landings. But the best spot might be the Panorama Terrace, a large observation deck outside security with views of the gates, the runways and the Dutch countryside. It’s a huge space with tables, benches, binocular rentals and even a restaurant open seasonally that serves Heineken. As of mid-2019, the terrace is closed for renovations but due to reopen by the end of the year, so you might have to consider one of the airport’s other plane-spotting sites.
10. TWA Hotel’s Rooftop Pool at JFK International Airport
Some of the sites on this list boast beaches, but no other allows you to watch the comings and goings of planes while sipping a cocktail in a brand-new infinity pool. The TWA Hotel opened in May 2019 at JFK International Airport, and it includes a pool and 10,000-square-foot observation deck that affords views of JFK’s Bay Runway, the second-longest in North America. There’s a pool bar, and also a full bar in the observation deck, plus a full-service kitchen. If you plan to go in the winter, the pool will be heated to 100 degrees — in what the hotel’s owners call a “pool-Cuzzi.” The area is free for hotel guests, and non-guests can make reservations for the pool bar online.
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Featured photo by Roland Bedernik / EyeEm / Getty Images.
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