This fall, San Francisco International Airport began the phased opening of its new International Terminal. With 24 gates and expanded customs facilities, the new terminal is the largest international terminal in the United States. Beginning next year, the new light-rail AirTrain will transport passengers throughout the airport and a BART station will offer quick access (29 minutes) to downtown San Francisco.
If you're hankering to check out the IT (as it's called), you don't need to wait until you have a plane to catch. The IT is a destination in itself. Here's what you can do there:
Tantalize your taste buds
Forget shrink-wrapped sandwiches. Try the roasted halibut with tomato confit, eggplant, and ginger-mustard sauce at the terminal's fine-dining restaurant, Qi (pronounced chee). Overseen by George Chen (the man behind San Francisco's popular Betelnut), the dining room features a bar with two waterfalls. You can also fuel up at branches of 15 other locally owned restaurants—all charging street prices. Try a slice of toasted panettone at Emporio Rulli, the free-range chicken sandwich at Burger Joint, or the teriyaki salmon bento box at Ebisu.
Play art critic
In the Departures Lobby, be sure to look up—and down. New York sculptor James Carpenter's four boat-shaped sculptural elements are tucked into the trusses of the skylights and edged with panels that cast long arcs of colorful light onto the floor. It's one of the IT's 15 permanent, museum-quality pieces in a diverse mix of media, from mosaic to fresco. In Boarding Areas A and G, nine of the permanent works are focal points of the gate rooms. In Boarding Area A, a hand drops love letters into the sea in Enrique Chagoya's large wall painting Love Letters. A boy is absorbed in creating his own piece of art in Rigo Gouveia's mosaic Dreaming of Balmy Alley that hangs in Boarding Area G.
Feed your brain
SFO is the first airport in the world to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. Within the new terminal you can browse the changing multicultural art exhibits, such as a collection of Japa-nese parasols. You will also find the new San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Museum. With its marble floors, arched doorways, and iron grillwork, the design was inspired by the airport's 1930s-era waiting area. The library on the second floor is geared toward researchers, but you can peruse the first floor, where changing exhibits, such as a quirky collection of airsickness bags, focus on the human experience of flight.
Shop til you drop
With 37 new stores, airport shoppers are no longer limited to loaves of sourdough and Golden Gate Bridge key chains. Treat yourself to trendy clothing at Esprit, a new set of golf clubs from SF Links, and makeup and perfume at Sephora.
Marvel at the architecture
A symphony of glass and steel, the new terminal is the creation of some 200 architects. The five-story main terminal building—with its 380-foot, winglike roof—straddles the airport access road as if it were a plane and the road a runway. Anyone who appreciates architecture will enjoy wandering the airy interior of the main building.
Scan the skies for planes
Bring binoculars and head for Boarding Area A, where you can watch planes take off against the backdrop of the Bay. The best spot is the wine bar at Il Fornaio Cafe del Mondo. This glassed-in restaurant is the perfect place to watch planes flying into the sunset while enjoying a glass of chianti.
Take a hike
At 2.5 million square feet, the terminal is the size of 35 football fields. Speed walk up and down Boarding Area G's 1,200-foot hallway; cool off by strolling the 1,000-foot Boarding Area A.
Photography by Alain McLaughlin
This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.