One day is absolutely not enough time to explore the small island city-state of Singapore. There are too many foods to eat, too many temples to visit, too many gardens to explore. Nonetheless, I had one day, during a long layover on my Southeast Asia tour, to see all I could of this modern global financial center with a tropical climate and a rich religious, cultural, and culinary history. Whew – that’s a lot to cover. But I was up for the challenge, and after one day following the layover travel guide below, I had already fallen in love with Singapore and was dreaming about my next visit.
I opted out of the free Singapore city tour provided by the airport for travelers on long layovers for several reasons: one, I didn’t want to be stuck on a bus watching Singapore happen from behind a pane of dirty Plexiglas, and two, I actually thought I could be more efficient on my own. However, DIY layover tours come with responsibility, namely that I needed to not get lost, have a focused itinerary, and find my way back to the airport in time for my next flight.
Thankfully, there was no line at customs, and the officers seemed well-acquainted with the many “layover tourists” passing through, directing me toward maps and reminding me to get back to the airport with enough time to check in. Although I was highly unconvinced I could pull that off, or that I would even have enough time to see anything once I got into the city center, it turned out that the downtown area is fairly easy to navigate and many of the tourism hotspots are located within only a few minutes of each other by foot or taxi. I also was luckily visiting on Sunday, so the traffic was minimal (it only took about 15 minutes by taxi to drive from the airport to downtown and vice versa), although I imagine on a weekday you should plan some buffer time for road backups. Ultimately, with just a one day layover, I ended up having a jam-packed adventure getting a glimpse of the huge selection of sights and activities and foods Singapore has to offer.
Below is a guide detailing my one day layover itinerary for Singapore:
Learn about Singapore’s religious culture at the Chinatown temples. Start your morning with a peaceful visit to two of the most famous temples in Singapore’s Chinatown – Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, and Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, a new but popular Hindu place of worship and education. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to watch a ceremony or hear some of the musicians play their traditional instruments inside. Take some time to learn about Buddhism and Hinduism in Singapore, including the significance of the many different colorful statues adorning the roofs and walls of the temples. And please, for the love of all that is still decent in tourism, remove your shoes before you enter and keep your voice down to preserve the serenity of temples.
Wander markets and streets in Chinatown. Since you’re already in the area, you’ll be able spend some time strolling through the streets in Chinatown and admiring all the colorful paper lanterns strung overhead. Head over to the pedestrian market on Smith street to pick up some souvenirs, taste local snacks, and enjoy the chaos because it wouldn’t be a proper city tour if you didn’t swap sweat with a stranger in a crowded place. If you’re there during Chinese New Year, you’ll be able to attend a handful of festivals in Chinatown including a lantern lighting ceremony, although there are lots of other events year round – check the Chinatown programming website for more information.
Stop for lunch at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken for Michelin-starred hawker food. You can’t leave Singapore without trying some local food from one of its hawker stalls – a term originally used to describe a food vendor who moved around on mobile carts, i.e. the original food truck, and now used more loosely for local street-style cuisine. Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken in Chinatown is the cheapest restaurant in the world to earn itself a Michelin star, so it’s 100% worth a visit for lunch. Not only was the food delicious, but the high-energy, fast-paced vibe was a nice “authentic city chaos” contrast to some of the other more serene spots on the itinerary. My recommendation: get the chicken and noodles dish, and try every sauce available while taking a break from the heat outside at what will likely be the only flimsy aluminum table to serve you a Michelin-starred meal. (Be warned, the cooks work quickly and are chopping away like mad-men in the back kitchen, so there may be some tiny shards of chicken bone that have splintered off into your food and want to maim you. But don’t let this stop you – just take a little caution while eating and you’ll be just fine.)
Stroll through the famous Gardens by the Bay. Exploring this vast nature park spanning 250 acres along the Marina Bay in downtown Singapore could occupy an entire week of your life, but give yourself at least a couple of hours to see what it’s all about. It’s part of the government’s attempt to transform Singapore from a “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden,” and personally, I think they nailed it. Here you’ll find three waterfront gardens, as well several indoor gardens and sky walks with incredible city and bay views. As you wander the outdoor gardens, you’ll not only see impressively diverse flora and beautifully designed water features throughout, but also the iconic “Supertrees” looking like something straight out of the movie Avatar. I highly recommend also visiting the indoor Cloud Forest (maybe the highlight of my entire time in Singapore!), a futuristic botanic garden curling around a central vegetation-covered hill and waterfall (the tallest indoor waterfall in the world), with windy floating walkways jetting into and out of the lush green mound, and a curved glass ceiling soaring overhead. You’ll even be able to see your next destination – the Marina Bay Sands hotel – looming in the distance.
Sip a cocktail and enjoy the view from the Marina Bay Sands hotel roof. Gardens by the Bay has a walking path that will lead you straight to the adjacent Marina Bay Sands hotel (there’s also a shuttle service, but I’d suggest taking the short and scenic walk instead). Head up to the CÉ LA VI rooftop bar, which is one of the most impressive hotel roofs I’ve ever seen. Half of it consists of a bar and lounge area, while the other half is covered by the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool (for hotel guests only). There’s also a SkyPark Observation Deck on the floor below, but I’d recommend skipping that and spending just a few dollars extra for a more relaxed experience at the bar which includes a) shelter in case of rain or excessive heat, b) cozy sitting areas, and c) booze. You’ll have to purchase a voucher to access the roof, but you can use the value of that toward a drink and spend as long as you want soaking in the views without hordes of tourists breathing down your neck. Try to snag a seat in one of the lounge seats overlooking the entire breathtaking Singapore skyline. In my opinion, I don’t think there’s a better way for your whirlwind tour to come to an end – soak in the beautiful city before you, and start planning your next Singapore visit as you’re reminded of how much more there is to explore.
This list is certainly not a comprehensive guide to exploring Singapore. For me, it was just a taste of the city and its rich culture, history, architecture, nature, and, of course, food that left me itching to return and see more. Other places I would have loved to visit include Little India, the iconic Merlion Park, one of the architecturally impressive shopping malls or buzzing night markets, and some of the other nearby temples and museums. Singapore also is home to several pricey Michelin-starred restaurants (probably with sturdier tables than at Hong Kong Soya Sauce) which would have been on my list had I more time, but for what it’s worth, I’m glad I instead chose to try the street food, shards of chicken bone and all.
Bottom line: if you ever find yourself flying through Singapore, plan your flights so that you have at least six hours to explore the city. Skip the free airport tour and go make your own adventure, or, to make things easier, follow this itinerary for a layover city tour and be sure to let me know all about your experience!
What are you recommendations for must-see stops in Singapore? Leave your tips in the comments below to add to the list!