This Is Now One of Europe’s Best Airports—but It Definitely Wasn’t Always

After an 800 million–euro upgrade, Italy’s main international hub recently received a coveted Skytrax five-star airport rating.

Interior of Rome Fiumicino Airport Terminal 1

Rome Fiumicino? Is that you? The recently overhauled Terminal 1 is a serious upgrade to the Rome airport experience.

Photo by Erica Firpo

Ancient sculptures, contemporary art, and Eataly. Sounds like the blockbuster lineup for any of Italy’s major cities, but these are actually some of the alluring attractions of the country’s busiest hub: Rome Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport, aka Rome Fiumicino, aka FCO. Until recently, FCO was a step back in time to an era of air travel fraught with lost luggage, dingy cafés, old tech, and lack of service. But following a nearly 800 million-euro (US$858 million) overhaul and new builds of Terminals 1 (which serves domestic and Schengen flights) and Terminal 3 (where non-Schengen international flights operate), FCO has cemented its position as one of Europe’s premier airports, having garnered a prestigious 2023 Skytrax five-star airport rating.

(If you’re asking, “What about Terminal 2?”: FCO’s renovations meant that Terminal 1 absorbed Terminal 2 to allow Terminal 1 to expand. That has created more space and less confusion as T1, which now exclusively caters to domestic and Schengen travelers who essentially have the same travel requirements (i.e., no passport control).

From logistics and architecture to hospitality, sustainability, and innovation, FCO now has an entirely new vibe that feels worlds away from its former reputation as an airport to avoid if possible. The transformation has been several years in the making, having initially kicked off in 2016, when FCO first unveiled the Gate E area at Terminal 3 (T3), a 970,000-square-foot boarding area that upgraded international travel to an art form. Its futuristic architecture (including a cracked ceiling reminiscent of an egg shell), a forum of luxury boutiques (Hermes, Gucci, Ferragamo, Fendi, MaxMara, and Omega among them), restaurants, lounges, and expert design helped FCO garner awards such as the “best airport in Europe” from Airports Council International for six years running.

But the opening of the new Gate A in Terminal 1 (T1) last year upped the ante even further with another brand-new structure—a luminous 400,000-square-foot, three-story gate area with a wishbone-styled ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows. Domestic and Schengen travelers heading to and through T1 now have access to more natural lighting, beautiful art pieces, some of Italy’s top boutiques, such as heritage brands Borsalino (hats), Fabriano (paper), and Gallo (socks), handbag haven Furla, swimwear shop Villebrequin, and an Espadrilles pop-up; they can even get their Eataly fix at the airport’s new outpost of the cult Italian food emporium located on the upper level in T1’s main atrium Piazza A.

And a special shout out to the new bathrooms in T1 and T3, in arrivals as well as departures. Temples of hygiene and eco-friendly features, FCO bathrooms now showcase attractive minimalist interior design, vertical garden walls, and automated everything from toilets to soap. You don’t have to touch anything, and space is abundant.

Fresh pasta display at Eataly

Get your Italian food fix at Rome FCO’s Eataly outpost.

Courtesy of Eataly

Where to eat at Rome FCO

Eataly isn’t the only upgrade to the drinking and dining options at Rome FCO. There are notably improved options for coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks throughout both T1 and T3. The standouts in T1 include Antica Focacceria di San Francesco (a Palermo-based coffee shop and eatery known for arancine, or stuffed rice balls) and coffee, bread, and pastry shop Panella. For smoothies, head to Natoo and grab one last cappuccino at Torino’s iconic Caffè Verganano coffee shop.

And for travelers in T3, make sure to enjoy a glass of wine and a nice meal at Bottega Wine Bar. Check out the gluten-free pasta options at La Fucina, and load up on Italian snacks at Chef Market. For a quick bite, Ajisen Ramen is a local favorite, as is Caffè Kimbo, a charming throwback to Italy’s 1980s coffee bars.

Culture, art, and entertainment at Rome FCO

T1 and T3 feature more than appealing architecture, top shops, and fine foods. Impressive artworks and architectural objects are on display in both terminals. Ancient sculptures and frescoes from the nearby archaeological site Ostia Antica were handpicked by airport authorities to be on permanent display in T1’s transit bridge, while T3 has ancient sculptures and remnants of mosaic floors on display throughout the E gate.

Sculptures at Rome FCO airport

Travelers can browse a serious collection of artwork, old and new, at the Rome airport.

Courtesy of Luigi Mistrulli/Rome FCO

In addition to the permanent collections, the terminals also feature a rotating roster of temporary exhibits as well. In T1’s main lounge area, the nature-focused Grande Anima, an illuminated whale skeleton by artist Marc Antonio in partnership with the One Ocean Foundation, was suspended from the ceiling across from Eataly for most of the spring. Currently, GianLorenzo Bernini’s Salvatore Mundi (a sculpture of Christ) is on display on the ground floor through the summer. Accompanying each work of art is a QR code that links to a short podcast about the work, making the airport as much an interactive museum as a transport hub.

In both terminals, there are also grand pianos and foosball tables that anyone can play. And randomly throughout the year, flash mobs will pop in at the terminals to perform a dance routine along with organized concerts from Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

Improved passenger experience and public transit

Some of the biggest improvements at FCO have been those taking place behind the scenes, including at security—often one of the biggest pain points of getting through any airport. After the recent upgrades, T1 now has enhanced security processing areas that allow passengers to move faster and more efficiently through security lanes.

Travelers ordering food at Panella at Rome FCO airport

At Rome FCO, travelers can order food via QR code that will be delivered to them by an “Ottobot.”

Photo by Erica Firpo

Another big enhancement is the public transit connectivity. In April 2023, FCO and Trenitalia launched FCO Connect, a high-speed rail service that connects Florence, Naples, Bologna, and Venice to Rome’s FCO airport. Timetables correspond with intercontinental flight arrival and departure times, and those traveling on the aerodynamic, needle-nosed Frecciarossa trains that transit through Rome with a final destination of FCO airport won’t need to change trains. FCO previously had its own train station, originally a stop on local and regional train routes. But in 2022, Trenitalia coordinated with Frecciarossa times so that trains from Florence, Bologna, and Naples would stop in Rome and then head directly to the FCO station. And when they arrive at the airport train station, passengers can use in-station check-in services to avoid airport lines and can walk into the airport bag-free if they have checked their luggage.

Airport officials have emphasized investing in new technology and innovations. T1’s Gate A is home to a 6,450-square-foot Innovation Hub (created in partnership with FTE Innovation & Startup Hub, a mentor-based program that provides support and limited funding in exchange for equity), where projects are conceived and tested; they include Ottobot, a contactless automated delivery cart that roams around Gate A delivering food and retail items that passengers can order by scanning a QR code. In October 2022, FCO inaugurated its vertiport (a take-off and landing area, like a heliport, but for large drones) and began testing a Volocopter service, pilotless taxis set to launch in 2024 that would be able to transfer passengers between the Rome airport and the city center as well as other nearby vertiport destinations.

Sustainability enhancements

Rome FCO is one of the first large-scale airports in the world with LEED Gold certification for sustainability-minded elements such as vertical development (using the original square footage and not expanding outward), renewable energy in the form of photovoltaic panels (which convert thermal energy into electricity) that line the terminals, and reduced energy consumption through use of natural lighting.

Aeroporti di Roma (the umbrella company that owns FCO as well as satellite airport Ciampino CIA) is part of a Europe-wide decarbonization pact that aims for net zero emissions by 2050. Already in play are the use of alternative fuels both on ground and in the air. On-site transport vehicles are filled with HVO biofuel (a high-quality plant and waste biofuel made and produced in Italy by ENI oil company) while national carrier ITA Airways uses sustainable aviation fuel (a biofuel from renewable raw materials with a significantly smaller carbon footprint that traditional jet fuel). FCO has been awarded Airports Council International’s highest level of Airport Carbon Accreditation, which recognizes significant CO2 emissions reductions.

Coming soon

While much progress has been made, areas of the airport are still being upgraded. In a few months, the T3 baggage claim area (currently a worksite) is set to reopen with a whole new look and easier navigation, and T3 is slowly reopening its ever-expanding departures ticketing area.

Erica Firpo is a journalist with a passion for art, culture, travel, and lifestyle. She has written and edited more than 20 books, and her travel writing has appeared in Yahoo Travel, Discovery Magazine, BBC Travel, the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Fathom, Forbes Travel, and Huffington Post.
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