Quit telling people that you’ve been to Indianapolis, if the airport counts. It doesn’t. For those with time to kill, we’ve got more than 50 things for you to do in half a dozen U.S. cities, and all are within an hour from the local airport.
MAYBE YOU’RE SITTING in an airport in a city that is not your final destination. Or perhaps you’ve landed early and your business meeting isn’t set to start for another few hours. Sure, you could sit in the terminal and stare at your BlackBerry, channel surf in your hotel room, or buy another paperback to pass the time. Or you could explore.
If you’re in Boston or Chicago, you probably know what to do; there’s unlimited entertainment close at hand in such major metropolises. But when you find yourself in Salt Lake City, do you know where to go? What about in Indianapolis? Or in San Antonio? We've found attractions to satisfy just about every interest -- and each is just a quick jaunt from the airport -- in six midsize cities that warrant more than just a flyover.
1. SALT LAKE CITY
IF YOU HAD the time and transportation, we’d send you to the prehistoric Great Salt Lake itself -- “America’s Dead Sea” -- to try and catch a glimpse of the North Shore Monster, which is said to have a crocodile’s body and a horse’s head. (Really.) Practicality, however, suggests the tamer wilderness that's only 10 minutes away by taxi: The tranquil walking paths of City Creek Canyon are set in the foothills to the city’s north and east. Nature lovers can also visit Tracy Aviary, the oldest and largest bird park in the country, which has 400 birds on eight acres and enough information about their migration patterns to humble John Audubon himself.
If you feel the urge to shop, head to the Gateway mall, which is outdoors, well designed, and conveniently located on a free-fare stop on the Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX light-rail. If you have the time and the right equipment, take TRAX up to Park City, where your airline boarding pass converts to a free same-day ski-lift ticket.
If the altitude has you feeling goofy, take a ride around Salt Lake City in the Music Taxi and sing karaoke. Or take TRAX to Temple Square to see the six-spired Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle, which inspired the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. From there, you can also walk over to the Beehive House, where Brigham Young lived when he was president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and governor of the Utah territory. There’s a fairy castle inside and a gorgeous garden out back.
When your tummy growls, try the killer Mexican food at the Red Iguana, which is an easy eight-minute drive from the airport. Reservations aren't accepted, and there’s usually a line out the door, but this mouthwatering, fairly priced joint attracts all types.
FROM THE ALBUQUERQUE International Sunport, it's a 10-minute cab ride to Old Town, the crossroads of the Southwest for three centuries. More than 150 shops, galleries, and studios surround the historic central plaza. Visitors can watch traditional Native American dances performed daily at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and eat native-fusion cuisine -- from Jemez enchiladas and Tewa tacos to authentic Pueblo Indian fry bread -- at the center’s newly opened Pueblo Harvest Cafe & Bakery. Find sanctuary in the unmarked Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel; located in a shaded courtyard, it's Albuquerque’s best-kept secret. Its adobe-brick walls were hand-formed by six nuns in the 1970s at the behest of the Vatican.
Natives might consider Old Town to be a bit touristy, but the village is authentic and rich with history and information. It’s home to the Turquoise Museum as well as to the American International Rattlesnake Museum, which contains everything from a kitsch Cobra Woman movie poster to serious conservation information.
If you’re looking for something more glamorous, see if you can slip into the background of a movie shoot. Thanks to tax incentives and inimitable scenery, “Albuquerque is rising quickly to the top of the list for best places to film,” says Lexi Petronis, editor in chief of Albuquerque: The Magazine. “Lionsgate is even opening a studio here, not to mention the new Albuquerque Studios [soundstages].” The New Mexico Film Office stays on top of who’s filming what, where, and when.
Albuquerque is also famous for its stellar New Mexican food, which is neither Tex-Mex, Mexican, or California Mexican. Petronis recommends Sadie’s, which is known for its exceptionally hot red- and green-chile sauces and its large portions. For people-watching, try Frontier Restaurant, a diner-style restaurant near the University of New Mexico. Want something faster? Pick up a drippy grilled chili-cheese dog from the always crowded Dog House.
3. SAN ANTONIO
TAKE A 12-MINUTE TAXI ride downtown, and then take your pick from a range of attractions. At the Menger Hotel, you may run into the ghosts of Sarah Bernhardt, Babe Ruth, Mae West, Ulysses S. Grant, or one of the many other guests who have stayed here since the hotel's founding in 1859. Have a Scotch in the bar where Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders for the Spanish- American War (and where his ghost is said to still linger today); then, grab a meal in the hotel’s gracious Colonial Room.
From there, walk to the nearby Paseo del Rio, better known as the Riverwalk, a 2.5-mile curving strip of San Antonio’s best hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, galleries, and shops. Have a prickly-pear margarita and guacamole -- prepared table side -- at locally owned Boudro’s Texas Bistro.
As for remembering the Alamo, it’s right here and is free for the touring. Or you can skip the fortress and stroll instead through San Antonio’s first neighborhood, La Villita Historic Arts Village. During the Battle of the Alamo, La Villita was the site of General Santa Ana’s cannon line; today, it’s a series of riverside galleries and shops selling everything from stained glass and weavings to pottery, copper, and textiles. If La Villita piques your art interests, check out an exhibition at the Southwest School of Art & Craft, housed in a restored nineteenth-century convent.
Want to get back to nature? Make the 26-minute drive to Friedrich Wilderness Park, San Antonio’s only nature preserve, to see golden-cheeked warblers, white-tailed deer, and cottontail rabbits in rare form. Or get the warblers’ perspective of the Texas Hill Country by taking to the skies with Alamo Helicopter Tours.