Why You Need to Stop & See Singapore: A 1-, 2- or 3-Day Guide

Mar 23, 2018

Occupying prime real estate at a legendary crossroads, Singapore has lured voyagers for the better part of a millennium -- a pull that's only strengthening in the 21st century. For starters, this city-state is now home to one of the world's best-connected and most awarded airports, and is therefore stop number one on many an Asian itinerary.

But as I experienced on my own recent Singaporean sojourn, what lies beyond the runways is the exponentially greater draw. So don't make the mistake of merely passing through. Even if you can carve out 24 hours to explore, you'll immediately see my point. Of course, two days would be better and three days is ideal. Whether your passion is food, architecture, nature, culture, futurism, fashion -- or just discovering cool new places -- here's how to make the most of a Singapore stay in 24, 48 or 72 hours.

If you have 24 hours...

1. Get your bearings at Merlion Park

As his name would suggest, the Merlion is part sea creature, part lion -- the former a nod to Singapore's fishing roots, the latter to the island's Malay name (Lion City). Today, this Singaporean symbol presides over his own waterside park, where a morning stroll will help orient you: From this vantage point near the Central Business District, you'll see the Gardens by the Bay, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands (more on these soon). Arrive early enough, and you'll catch the sunrise as it turns the bay pink.

2. Journey through vibrant ethnic neighborhoods

Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Gelam -- all walkable, and easily reachable from one another -- offer glimpses into three of the main cultures that have cross-pollinated Singaporean life. And though there's a lot to see, you can manage the greatest hits on a tight schedule.

In Chinatown, visit the historic shophouses, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (the namesake relic is one of an entire collection here) and the 100+ stalls of Maxwell Food Centre (the largest of the city's fabled local street food bazaars known as hawker centers).

In Little India, study the intricately carved characters on the gate pyramid of the historic Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, inhale your way past the neighborhood garland vendors and wander through Singapore's largest indoor wet market.

And in Kampong Gelam (the traditional Malay neighborhood), check out the golden domes of the Sultan Mosque, the street art of Haji Lane and the batik fabrics along Arab street.

Foodies, take note: You may want to focus on only one of these enclaves to allow for a deep dive into the local delicacies. Consider wending your way through Chinatown's alleys in search of recipes handed down through the generations—or through the streets of Kampong Glam to discover Malay and Muslim-Indian delicacies.

But if you're truly time-pressed, consider a neighborhood tour that's equal parts efficient and fun: a trishaw tour, which in my case meant a whirl through Little India, complete with audio guide.

3. Meet the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay

Soaring vertical gardens, Singapore's signature Supertrees collect rainwater, generate solar power and generally blow visitors' minds. See firsthand on the suspended walkway that snakes through this Avatar-evoking grove -- one of a few highlights at The Gardens by the Bay. The other big draws? A duo of domes, the first known as the Cloud Forest -- home to the world's highest indoor waterfall -- and the second as the Flower Dome, the world's largest glass greenhouse.

Though you'll want to get to enclosed portions before sunset for the best light, stick around long enough to see (and hear) the Supertrees after dark: There's a nightly light and sound show.

Insider tip: Where to find the best cocktails

Though best known in cocktail circles as the birthplace of the Singapore Sling, this island has contributed far more to mixology. I particularly appreciated the local affinity for gin, from the yuzu- and chai-infused varieties at Chinatown's two-story Native bar to the world’s largest collection of gin at Bugis's Atlas Bar. Beyond simply bar-hopping, though, I checked out and highly recommend the Singapore After Dark tours that takes you to some of the city's best speakeasy and rooftop bars, as well as night photography spots and a secret viewpoint.

If you have 48 hours, add...

1. A lesson in Peranakan culture

Unique to this corner of the world, the term Peranakan refers to someone of foreign and native ancestry who was born locally (Malay-Chinese being the most common mix in Singapore). Over the centuries, entire cultures have developed around these blends, as you'll discover during a visit to the renowned Peranakan Museum -- or during more immersive experiences: I spent a morning at a 20th-century Peranakan home before heading off to the Kim Choo, a famous rice dumpling outpost that also houses everything from a Peranakan antiques collection to traditional batik wear. And while I loved trying on a house sarong, those dumplings were next-level. Especially when combined with bright blue butterfly pea flower tea. In fact, Peranakan food is so amazing, you'll likely want to tack on a bonus Peranakan Supper Tour.

2. A sail back in time

A historic vessel that used to transport goods, the beloved Singaporean bumboat now whisks passengers along the Singapore River, where sites such as Clark and Boat Quays -- both remnants of the local fishing heritage -- have evolved into hot spots for food, drinks and clubs.

3. A trip up to the Marina Bay Sands rooftop

The rooftop at Marina Bay Sands is home to, among other things, the world's tallest infinity pool. And though only hotel guests can go for a dip, the views you'll get poolside (and from other spots along the rooftop, especially the SkyPark Observation Deck) are seriously hallucinatory. Cap the night off with a cocktail at Spago by Wolfgang Puck, where well-placed tables overlook the bay and gardens below.

Insider tip: Where to find Singaporean designer duds

Designer shopping is something of a sport in Singapore, with more than 170 luxury labels available at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands alone. But if you want to go home with something unique, make an appointment at SBTG Surplus & Co, where you can commission hand-painted sneakers by Mark Ong (whose fan base ranges from rock stars to NBA legends). Another good option is the Tangs department store on Orchard Road, where you'll find local designers Aijek (extremely feminine), In Good Company (minimalist chic) and Atelier Fang (bold, limited-edition shoes), among others.

If you have 72 hours, add...

1. A trip to the Singapore Botanic Gardens

The world's only UNESCO-designated tropical garden, this 182-acre slice of Eden right in the city’s center also houses the National Orchid Garden, with more than 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids on view. Visit in the morning before the walkways fill up with your fellow flora-philes.

2. A bit of architectural time-travel

A historic residential community, Tiong Bahru is now one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods. Behind the Art Deco facades, you’ll find indie bookstores, specialty coffee bars and hip boutiques. For another glimpse into pre-independence Singapore, head to Katong-Joo Chiat, where you’ll find early 20th century Peranakan shophouses, terrace houses and bungalows -- many of them gleefully candy-colored. The most fun you can have on a tour of this neighborhood? Hop in a vintage Vespa sidecar for a spin around.

3. A Night Safari

Where can you see more than 2,500 creatures after dark? At the widely beloved Night Safari -- the world’s first nocturnal animal park, which operates under the auspices of Wildlife Reserves of Singapore on almost 100 acres of secondary rain forest, where the enclosures and illumination mimic nature as closely as possible (picture the brightest super moon you’ve ever seen, then add a few watts). Be on the lookout for leopards, binturongs, tigers and glow-in-the-dark scorpions on the walking trails and 40-minute guided tram tour.

Insider tip: Where to walk among the treetops

Sitting high above the city, Mt. Faber is a completely unexpected refuge. Covered in rain forest, and popular among morning joggers and monkeys alike, this hill was one of my favorite finds—and my access point to the six-mile Southern Ridges trek. This series of canopy-level walkways and bridges links three parks and one nature reserve without ever seemingly touching the ground.

How to Get Here:

Singapore Airlines offers nonstop flights from San Francisco on the new Airbus A350s, which boast the widest business class seats in existence and a remarkably noise-buffering cabin. The airline also flies nonstop from Los Angeles and New York.

True to their Skytrax designation as one of the world’s best cabin staffs for 2017, the flight attendants left me wanting for nothing from the chef-curated wine list, the excellent menu offerings, or anything else. Not that I had much time for interaction, what with the 1,000+ choices for on-demand entertainment at every seat.

United Airlines also offers nonstop flights from San Francisco as well as one-stop flights from more major U.S. gateways.

Ready to go? Discover more trip ideas and itineraries at Visit Singapore.

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