Dining options abound. Sushi, coffee, sandwiches and ice cream are all within walking distance.

You can soak in culture, either by striking up a conversation with a stranger, perusing crafts from local artisans or touring an art gallery.

What is this, downtown? Hardly. It's the Tucson International Airport.

The Old Pueblo's sky-bound link to the global metroplex is far more than just a place to sit slumped in the corner, zoning out to an iPad/iPhone/iPod until your flight leaves or the passenger you've come to greet arrives.

Close your I's and open your eyes and opportunities for entertainment and enrichment abound at the indoor playground.

Here are eight airport surprises to smooth the bumps of flying - especially during the holidays:

1. Booze at a coffee shop. If you like caffeine, you've probably visited Ike's Coffee & Tea before. But you've probably never had as good a time there as Rebecca Schmidt.

The Houston woman, who flies to Tucson six or seven times a year on business, knows that only the airport Ike's offer alcohol. She sat down at the bar and kicked off her shoes as she waited for her flight. No drink on this day, though.

"I thought we were boarding, but I would have" ordered a drink, she said.

2. A ride on a rocket ship. To 3-year-old Ryan Hough, a trip to the airport gave him enough stories to regale sandbox buddies for hours.

His day started with sandwiches at Boar's Head Deli with his parents, Elizabeth and Matthew. Then he got to hop up on a bench to supervise his Dad's $10 boot shine.

Sure, there would be less exciting times ahead - a wedding in Dallas - but before that, he and his parents would stare out the window, watching airplanes land and take off.

"They're jets," Mom said with a smile, nodding in Ryan's direction.

"They're rocket ships," Ryan corrected her sternly.

3. A cactus in a box. If the standard array of Arizona Wildcats sweat shirts and "Tucson" T-shirts isn't your thing, you can take home a potted cactus family from Brighton.

The cashier keeps a stash of cardboard boxes behind the counter to corral the spiny vegetation for you, preventing any in-flight poking.

4. An art gallery that does the walking for you. The moving walkway that connects baggage claim to the rental car building is lined with displays from local artistic establishments, including DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun and Etherton Gallery, as well as water conservation and mineral displays. You take in the hallway while keeping legwork to a minimum.

Elsewhere in the airport you can hoof it to view rotating displays from local sculptors, painters and photographers. And you can see it all without braving a security standpoint.

5. A garden of solitude. Next to the rental car facility is the Legacy Garden, an open-air patio with a central gazebo and an array of covered benches built by airport workers who volunteered their time after work. Since few passengers happen upon the out-of-the-way oasis, you can usually have the place to yourself if you know where to look.

6. A chuckling donkey. Walk up the escalator between the Southwest and Delta ticket kiosks and you'll find Paradies/Desert House News & Gifts and its mascot, a toy donkey that spins around on the ground as it laughs.

"He's my watch-donkey," said Janet Remsing, who's minding the store, which sells craft items with American Indian and Southwest influences.

Things can get lonely in the shop, which overlooks the tickets-to-security bustle below. "They forget to look up," Remsing said.

7. Alternate modes of flight. If airplanes don't do it for you, you can consider hopping on one of the artful takes on flying by one of the permanent sculpture installations - if only in your mind.

Barbara Jo McLaughlin's "Pegasus," a majestic winged horse made of fiberglass, and Tom Philabaum's "Another Way to Fly" - a tapestry of dangling glass magic carpets - offer flights of fancy.

8. Cushy armchair people-watching. The "call me when you get your bags and I'll meet you at the curb" method of passenger pickup may be efficient, but it lacks intimacy. For those who would rather park and wait inside to greet their loved ones, Welcome Lounges, complete with plush leather couches, are the best places to sit and wait.

High-definition monitors broadcast bleary-eyed travelers as they get off their planes. Just remember, as you leave the plane, to be on your best behavior.

Art at the airport

The Tucson Airport Authority Board started decorating the airport with local art in 1987, with a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits.

Here are some current exhibits:

• "Landscape" (Lower Link Gallery) - Paintings from Cima Bozorgmehr, Betina Fink, Katya Micklewright, Barbara Strelke, and Dee Transue.

• David Andres (Upper Link Gallery) - Andres' large paintings of underwater images from the Gulf of California and Baja California.

• "Stronger Than Steel" (Center Gallery, on ticketing level) - Roni Ziemba's photography exhibit of Tucson's first responders.

dining options

(Note: Most are in security areas)

• Arizona Sports Grill - American and pub favorites, beer, wine and cocktails.

• Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors - Ice cream.

• Boar's Head Deli - Sandwiches, soups and sides.

• Carmella's Kitchen - Brick oven calzones, paninis and pizzas.

• Cheeburger Cheeburger - Burgers, grilled chicken and portobello sandwiches and shakes.

• CiboCibo Express Gourmet Market - Pre-packaged sandwiches, salads and snacks.

• Ike's Coffee & Tea - Coffee, pastries and snacks, with a full-service bar.

• Jet Rock Bar & Grill - American classics and beer.

• Sky Asian Bistro - Sushi and Cantonese cuisine.

• Taco Bron - Mexican food.

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or pvillarreal@azstarnet.com