5 Things to do in Singapore on Your Next Trip to Southeast Asia

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While it boasts one of the highest-rated airports in the world, Singapore has plenty else to offer, from unique cuisine to diverse culture. Whether you have an upcoming layover or are currently planning a trip to Southeast Asia, check out TPG Contributor Katherine Fan‘s five reasons why this destination deserves a spot on your itinerary.

Singapore is a major international gateway in and out of Southeast Asia, yet many seasoned travelers opt to skip the city-state when passing through to nearby destinations. Below, I’ll highlight five things that make a visit to this tiny country worth a stop.

IF YOU HAVE 6-12 HOURS IN SINGAPORE

1. Get the Changi Airport Experience

Singapore’s amazing Changi Airport (SIN) offers pretty much anything you could need or want for a couple of days — you can even check in to your flight up to a full 48 hours before departure. Besides being a good spot to get some shut-eye, you’ll find cuisine in any price range, a shopping experience to rival the best malls and a nearly four-story indoor slide — SkyTrax’s World Airport Awards’ Best Airport in the World three years running certainly lives up to its well-earned hype. If you don’t want to drag your carry-on through the airport, store your stuff at the EasyBagy outposts located at each of the three terminals.

A garden display at “The best airport in the world.” Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Our TPG Layover Lowdown post goes into more detail, but here are some quick tips for arrival:

  • Wi-Fi in the airport is free, but you’ll need data roaming in order to complete the sign-up process directly through your device. If you run into issues, hunt down one of the many kiosks scattered throughout the terminals or visit one of the information counters to receive an access code. You’ll need your passport number for access.
  • Once you’re connected, save a little memento of yourself: The Social Tree is a 28-foot memory capsule that can store your photos and videos for the next time you pass through the airport.
  • Go shopping! Duty-free beauty products are generally cheaper at Changi than in the States.
  • Cool off in the Balinese-themed rooftop pool in T1 for $13 SGD (~$9), complete with a poolside bar.
  • If you shop in the airport, save your receipt: Every $10 you spend on a single receipt earns you one ride on the 39-foot slide in T3.
  • If you plan to take the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), it may be worth withdrawing cash from an ATM beforehand in order to avoid long lines as not all of the self-service ticket kiosks accept credit cards. (We shared our favorite no-fee debit cards in this post.)

2. Go Sightseeing on Singapore’s Dime

The easiest way to see Singapore’s highlights at a glance is by signing up for one of Changi’s two free tours. The Heritage Tour runs six times daily (9am, 10am, 11:30am, 12:30pm, 2:30pm and 3:30pm), while the City Sights Tour makes three runs (5pm, 6pm and 7:30pm). Air-conditioned coach buses provide first-come, first-serve seating and onboard guides point out interesting sights and provide historical context.

Merlion Park offers a waterfront view of the city
Merlion Park offers a beautiful waterfront view of the city. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The Heritage Tour pays homage to Singapore’s diverse history, with stops in the colonial and business districts, as well as Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam, the cultural home for Singapore’s Malay community. The City Sights Tour takes visitors past the brightest attractions along the waterfront at sunset, including the Gardens by the Bay, the durian-shaped Esplanade and the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Both tours pass Merlion Park, the famous water lion that symbolizes Singapore’s brand and is now open to the public again after being partially closed for renovations.

Save yourself a little time by filling out your Singapore entrance card before you deplane. Be warned: you will not be allowed to join a tour if your departing flight leaves within six hours of your arrival time. If you have carry-on luggage that you’d prefer to leave behind, don’t forget to store it with EasyBagy beforehand. If you prefer sightseeing on your own, swing by the stands offering free maps and tour brochures immediately preceding the immigration counters in the airport.

The Singapore River Cruise offers a leisurely way to view sights with minimal effort. Formerly used as transportation for goods and cargo as far back as the 1600s, the bumboats, or local river boats, give you waterfront views with the option of hopping on and off at stops along the way to explore on your own time.

If you want access to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel rooftop and a drink, head to the rooftop bar instead of buying a $23 SGD (~$16) ticket for the public observation deck on the same level. While each drink will set you back around $20, it’s ultimately a better value than paying less than the same amount to stand around on a different part of the roof — not to mention, those precious dollars count toward 2x dining points if you pay with your Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

IF YOU HAVE 12-48 HOURS IN SINGAPORE

3. Explore Tropical Nature  

Nature lovers will appreciate a glimpse of Southeast Asia’s rainforest wildlife. Children may especially enjoy the Singapore Zoo’s Night Safari, the world’s first zoo exhibit designed around nocturnal animals. The zoo’s unique cageless layout is only lit as brightly as the full moon — adequate for animal viewing, but suboptimal for photography as no flash photography is allowed around the animals. Guests can opt for the guided tram tour or walk through the seven geographical zones, all set in a tropical forest setting.

Animals like the Malayan fruit bat can be seen at the Singapore Zoo. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Animals like the Malayan fruit bat can be seen at the Singapore Zoo. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

If you prefer flora to fauna, the Orchid Garden at Singapore Botanic Gardens features more than 1,000 species and more than 2,000 hybrids of Singapore’s national flower. While the Botanic Gardens are more than 150 years old, the Gardens by the Bay have only been around since 2012. Free walking tours are also popular where you can Birdwatch along the Southern Ridges or visit the wild macaque monkeys of MacRitchie. Although the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is currently undergoing renovations, the Summit Walking Trail is open to the public on weekends.

4. Experience History and Culture

If urban adventures are more to your taste, head into the city. Although English is the official language of Singapore, you’ll also hear Malay, Tamil and Mandarin spoken everywhere, a reflection of the Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and British communities who settled here. The Asian Civilisations Museum showcases the diverse history of these cultures, while the Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel, a favorite dining hotspot of Rudyard Kipling, offers a throwback to British colonial days. Contemporary art enthusiasts will appreciate the MoCA@Loewen and the SooBin Art International Gallery, which showcases exhibits from various artists located across Southeast Asia.

Local designs from Singaporean fashion label Ong Shunmugam. Photo courtesy of Ong Shunmugam.
2016 designs from Singaporean fashion label Ong Shunmugam fuse traditional garb with international style. Image courtesy of Ong Shunmugam.

Shopping in Singapore is a favorite sport of locals and visitors alike. Massive malls sprawl across the city while whimsical stalls for hair and beauty accessories, electronic gadgets and cheap clothing dot the walkways between them. Mornings tend to be less crowded and the shops help to provide some much-needed air-conditioned relief from humidity in the afternoon. You’ll find all the usual designer brands on Orchard Road, but it’s also worth exploring the many local designers who showcase diverse cultural influences in their collections. Satisfy your sartorial fix at Ong Shunmugam on Raffles Quay, explore the diversity of Know It Nothing’s various labels or go dark with Depression on Orchard Road.

Singaporean chili crab is gently simmered in a spicy, sweet-savory sauce for optimal flavor. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Singaporean chili crab is gently simmered in a spicy, sweet-savory sauce. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

5. Wine and Dine on Local Cuisine

Chili crab, Hainan chicken rice and satay are just a few of Singapore’s signature street foods. Most hawker stands — frequent visitors recommend the stalls at the Hong Lim Food Centre — and many of the smaller restaurants are cash-only, so a no-fee debit card comes in handy for ATM withdrawals. The original chili crab inventor’s restaurant, Dragon Phoenix, can be found next to Clarke Quay.

On the opposite end of the cuisine spectrum, Singapore’s fine dining holds its own against Asian food capitals like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai. Restaurant André, which holds two Michelin stars, offers French-inspired cuisine and requires reservations up to six months in advance. Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck takes traditional Chinese recipes and polishes them up for an exquisite dining experience. Definitely sample the signature peking duck, where the bird’s skin is crisped to perfection.

Singapore offers a wealth of unique experiences, even for the short-term traveler just passing through. We’ve reviewed a number of hotel options in our Destination of the Week post, so finding a place to rest will not be an issue. The next time you plan a trip to this region of the world, don’t just write off Singapore as an overrated stopping point — take a day or two to explore a unique facet of Southeast Asia.

What are some of your favorite Singapore experiences? Let us know in the comments below!

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