Singapore – The Lion City

During December 2023, en route to Thailand, I had a 32-hour layover in Singapore. I planned it this way. I specifically flew Singapore Airlines, and took the longest layover that I could find, in order to do a whirlwind exploration of the island city state. It was a decision I do not regret in the slightest.

Having spent a day and a half there, I do not consider myself to be a Singapore expert at all. However, I do want to share the little that I have learnt about the place, in order that others might be able to benefit from the knowledge in some way.

Changi Airport

Let me start at the airport. Even if you don’t manage to do a full-on trip to Singapore, the airport itself is an experience. It’s the most amazing airport I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to many modern airports. In fact, the airport is such a cool place that local families often take trips to it as an outing in itself.

If you have kids…they will never be bored at Changi, and neither will the adults. There are tons of free activities to do and keep you occupied for hours. Some of these include a full Movie Theatre, Butterfly Garden, Cactus Garden, Sunflower Garden, amazingly comfortable free-to-use Rest Areas, Kids Playground (with 12m slides), Enchanted Garden (with real and digital nature immersion spaces), a life-sized Dinosaur Park, and the list goes on. Transiting passengers could also get a free 2-hr bike rental to explore the Dinosaur Park on wheels. In addition to these free things, there are also countless paid activities you can book.

Depending on what time you arrive and how long your transit is, you can enjoy one (or more) of four choices of a Complimentary Singapore City Tour, including photo stops.

In addition, there are also seasonal installations like the Super Mario “Pipe Around the World”, and the Festive Village which had a winter-wonderland snow theme, ice sculptures, ice slides, etc. Electric trains transport passengers between the 3 airport terminals.

The rain vortex is an absolute must-see, and to me marked the separation between the airport terminals and The Jewel @ Changi, an immaculate shopping mall which you need literal days to explore fully. I struggled to figure out where the airport ends and the mall starts, until I realised it must be that area.

This blog post would be pages long if I were to cover everything related to the airport, so download the Changi app instead if you are heading there. Yep, the airport has an app, and it is not a useless app!

Singapore general tips & information

  • Singapore is expensive. If you are going for a substantial time, take lots of money or a large credit card limit. However, there are options available for every budget in terms of accommodation and food, so don’t let that scare you off.
  • Singapore is safe. Even as a solo female traveler, I could walk around in the street and any alleyway in the middle of the night without fear of attacks or harassment.
  • It is visa-free for South Africans. The Visitors Pass form that you fill in before or on arrival is also free. Don’t be like me and get online-scammed into paying for the Visitors Pass.
  • South Africans qualify for automated electronic passport control on entry and exit, so it takes less than a minute and involves zero humans.
  • One thing that is not expensive is public transport. It is cheap, reliable, safe, and clean. I took a bus from the airport to my destination in the city, and it costs approximately $2 each way. I didn’t even need to buy a ticket. I just tapped my NFC-enabled phone onto the card reader on entry and exit, and the system did the rest. Gosh I love technology, and public transport that works!
  • Their currency is the S$ or SGD, which is currently approx. 15 ZAR per 1 SGD.
  • The weather is hot all year round. Summer is hotter. Monsoon season rains are brutal, so check the season in which you are traveling.
  • The tap water quality is excellent, and you can drink water straight from the tap, anywhere in the state. However, the airport does also have drinking water fountains everywhere where you can fill up a bottle.
  • Singapore is one of the cleanest places in the world. Bearing this in mind, even the budget accommodation places will be comfortable to stay in. I stayed in a 3sqm capsule room, which was super nice, comfortable, and spotless. They don’t allow you to consume anything in the rooms, not even a snack. All eating and drinking is done in the dining room.
  • Don’t even try to litter in the street, even by accident. In fact, just to be safe, don’t eat unless you are in a designated eating area. You want to spend your time sightseeing, not in a Singapore jail.

Hoods of Singapore

The city is divided into 8 major neighbourhoods, each with a distinct character. They are:

  • Kampong Glam (where I stayed) – this is the historical Muslim area around the Sultan mosque. Here you will find an abundance of halaal restaurants.
  • Little India – You will wonder if you are in Delhi or Singapore. The most vibrant and colourful part of Singapore. It has lots of spectacular Hindu temples and bustling shops selling everything from gold jewellery, to Hindi music, to clothing and souvenirs.
  • Chinatown – Contains beautifully preserved heritage shops, tiny boutiques, Buddhist temples, and of course…Chinese food.
  • Orchard Road – Singapore’s main high-end shopping area, where you will anything brand-named. It is a 2.5km stretch of road that contains the highest concentration of shopping malls in the world. Many high-end hotels can also be found here.
  • Sentosa – A resort and theme-park island, often referred to as Singapore’s playground. Here you will find many beachfront resorts and fantastic theme parks, including South-East Asia’s only Universal Studios theme park.
  • Robertson Quay – Situated along the river, it is a bustling nightlife district.
  • Colonial District – Also situated along the river, this area pays homage to Singapore’s colonial past, while celebrating its modern present. It is a melting pot of old and new, with the towering skyscrapers of the CBD overlooking the preserved historical district.
  • Marina Bay – Very much the face of Singapore, this is the area displayed when you see pictures of the city. Housing the magnificent Marina Bay Sands (a hotel in the shape of a giant ship) and other marvels of modern architecture, the vicinity is home to many attractions that you might be interested to see (such as the ArtScience Museum, Singapore Flyer, Gardens by the Bay, etc)

FUN fact: The name Singapore comes from the original name Singapura, stemming from the Malay words Singa meaning Lion, and Pura meaning City. Hence being referred to as the Lion City.

Getting around

Metered taxis are expensive, so try and stay away from it you can. A taxi from the airport would have cost me over R500, and a private transfer would be over R3000 (not a typo). On the public bus, it had cost less than R40.

I booked a Big Bus hop-on, hop-off tour weeks before I got there, in order to get to all the sights and have my sightseeing transport included. However, I wouldn’t recommend it. The tour was nice, but I wouldn’t say it was worth the price I paid for it versus what I got to see. I would recommend buying a transport card and using the public transport network instead. The Big Bus night tour is amazing though, and can be bought as a standalone ticket. Singapore at night is magnificent and looks completely different to in the day. Seeing it from an open-top bus, with a guide explaining what is what, is fantastic.

The transport system links to Google Maps, so you can track trips and find directions in real-time. There are buses and metro trains, and the transport card works on both. There are underground metro stations literally everywhere, about every couple of hundred metres, and buses are similarly distributed. The advantage of using PT instead of the Big Bus Tour is that you don’t have to stick to the route and schedule of the bus, and you can go anywhere you want. I ended up going to places that were mostly in the same area, so didn’t get the full benefit of the tour. The transport cards give you unlimited transport for the duration that you buy it for (eg. 3-day, 5-day, etc). If you’re just there for a day, or if you are not going to use it often, just tap a bank card to pay per trip. Fares are based on distance, and no single trip will cost more than S$3.

There are many cool bicycle tours that you can book if you have the time, and bicycle is an awesome way to explore the place. Or if you are feeling super adventurous, you can rent a bike and explore on your own.

Recommended places to see

Full disclaimer…I did not have time to explore all the places I mentioned above in the day and a half that I was there, because the monsoon rains put a damper on my schedule. Also, even if the heavens weren’t bursting, it would be literally impossible to explore everything in such a short time. I have tried to give you as much info as possible though, so that you’re not limited to only where I’ve been. The following places I can highly recommend though.

  • Gardens by the Bay – This area is a totally different experience during the day and at night, so go both times. It is a man-made forest, but it is magnificent. There is also a SkyWalk that you can do (if it’s not raining) where you can walk on a bridge that goes over the treetop canopy, and it has amazing views of the canopy, Marina Bay Sands, and the nearby vicinity. They usually have themed setups inside the gardens based on season, and when I was there it was a festive setup. Every evening, throughout the year, there is a supertree light show, with the lights of the supertrees synchonised to the music. You don’t need a ticket to see the lightshow, but if you already bought a ticket that same day, you can go into the main area again as well.
  • Flower Garden and Cloud Forest – This is in the same area as Gardens by the Bay and you can buy a combined ticket to go into all 3. The flower garden has flowers and plants from all the 5 Mediterranean climates of the world. They also have the cutest themed placements, and when I was there, it was a Nordic Christmas theme. The Cloud Forest took my breath away. It was an Avatar-themed setup, complete with abandoned tanks, carnivorous plants, Na’vi, banshees, hanging gardens from the movie and many, many other cool things. I spent hours there, which is one of the reasons I had time for little else on the tour. LOL. If you have a few hours extra to kill at the airport and it’s daytime, go and spend it in the Gardens by the Bay precint.
  • Hawker Markets – These are the best places to get food if you enjoy street food rather than restaurants. Don’t worry, it is safe to eat. The prices at hawker markets are much lower than the touristy places, and they are of the same high quality. You can get a decent meal at these places for S$10-15, whereas in a restaurant it would typically start from S$30 upwards. The vibe is also really nice…bustling but not overwhelming. There are usually a decent selection of strictly halaal stands as well, even Michelen starred ones.
  • Singapore Flyer – This is a giant ferris wheel, where on a clear day you can see all the way into Malaysia from the top of it. I didn’t ride the wheel, but I did go past there a few times. Even if you don’t ride the wheel, it’s worth taking a ride there as there is lots to see in the area. Go at night also, because as I mentioned earlier, this area literally lights up at night. Marina Bay Sands lighting changes colour constantly, and there is a Helix bridge (based on human DNA) that only has its full effect at night when the helix is lit. This area is also near the pit garages of the Formula 1 street circuit, and you can even take a walk or run to the garages as it is an open and accessible area near the water’s edge.
  • Merlion – The merlion is the mascot of Singapore. It has the head of a lion and body of a fish, and is situated on the waters edge in Marina Bay, spewing water out of its mouth. This attraction is free to visit as it is situated in a public park. No visit to Singapore is complete without a visit to the merlion, which makes my visit incomplete as well. I will need to go back there some day, because the merlion was closed for maintenance when I was there. She was enclosed inside a giant box to be painted, without me having an opportunity to even catch a glimpse.
  • In addition to these, there are many many other sites that I would have loved to go to, but don’t feel I can give a personal recommendation without having been there myself. Feel free to drop me a line if you would like to chat about it though. Or even better, drop your own personal recommendations down in the comments below.

Final words: Go to Singapore if you have an opportunity, even if it’s just on a layover. It is a beautiful place with beautiful people.

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