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Asia travel

The best things to do on a Singapore layover, from airport jacuzzis and street food to tropical exploration

Whether you have three hours or a good half-day in the Lion City, there are plenty of interesting things for you to do and still make it back in time for the next leg of your journey

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 August, 2017, 6:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 9:54am

There is a reason Changi Airport has been ranked the world’s best airport for five years in a row at the Skytrax World Airport Awards: it boasts one of the most efficient, green and pleasant transit experiences a traveller could hope to find.

If you have time to spare during a layover then there is plenty to do both in and out of the airport besides duty-free shopping and looking for somewhere to charge your phone. The city centre is just 30 minutes or so away by MRT train, so it is a breeze to zip in and out for a spot of exploration. Here are some suggestions for making the most of your time.

3 hours: Explore Changi Airport

Sky trains run between the three (soon to be four) terminals every couple of minutes and three hours gives you ample time to explore all of them.

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The airport is great for families, with many interactive play areas scattered across each terminal right up to the boarding gates.

If you are jet-lagged, take a dip in the rooftop jacuzzi pool in Terminal 1 and watch planes take off. Alternatively, take the sky train over to Terminal 2 to watch a film at the 24-hour cinema.

While you can’t currently head to the Raffles Hotel in town for a Singapore Sling at the original Long Bar – the hotel is closed for renovations ahead of a grand reopening in mid-2018 – you can still enjoy a tipple or two at the Long Bar by Raffles in Terminal 2.

If you have arrived at an unearthly hour after a long flight, check into the 24-hour paid lounges for a shower, foot reflexology, spa massages or a manicure to rejuvenate.

Terminal 4 will open before the end of 2017, offering more art and entertainment to the mix. Highlights will include a giant kinetic art sculpture called Petalclouds, and a Heritage zone featuring a digital theatre stage with a large LED screen.

6-9 hours: Explore the city and its cuisine

If you have a bit more time to spare you can sign up for one of Changi Airport’s free Heritage or City tours that include trips to Singapore’s major monuments, from the Esplanade to Gardens by the Bay.

If you prefer discovering Singapore at your own pace, the Tiong Bahru heritage trail is an easy way to start. The neighbourhood has an eclectic mix of cafes – both traditional and modern – and bakeries. Take in the Streamline Moderne architecture, enjoy a cold brew at Forty Hands and browse the shelves at BooksActually.

The Kampong Glam neighbourhood is home to the Malay Heritage Centre and the heritage trail that leads to it shows another colourful side of Singapore. Check out the concept lifestyle stores on Haji Lane or read books over tea at Look See Look See Café, with its pastel interior reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film set.

Stop at halal eatery Zam Zam, a local Kampong Glam institution that has been serving up its signature murtabak – a pancake stuffed with minced mutton, beef or deer, plus onions and egg – since 1908.

Alternatively, Singapore food expert KF Seetoh of the Makansutra food guide recommends dining at the Old Airport Road Hawker Centre, which only opens in the evening. “Go where the locals do – eat like them, for that’s the best culinary souvenir of this land you can bring back home,” he says. “The Old Airport Road Hawker Centre is one of the biggest and best local food centres [that] Singaporeans and their friends swear by.”

Some of Seetoh’s recommendations at the centre include Nam Sing Fried Hokkien Prawn Noodle (stall 01-32), Lim Hin Juice for fresh soursop lemon juice (stall 01-36) and Chong Pang BBQ Chicken Wings (stall 01-90).

Finally, wrap up your layover with cocktails at the beautiful art deco Atlas bar in Parkview Square. The bar boasts a number of vintage gins, while the champagne and wine list is equally diverse and offers tasting flights.

“We have 1,000 different [gin] bottles from around the world, with vintages that date back to the art deco era,” says head bartender Roman Foltán. “We introduce guests to old, often forgotten classic gin cocktails. We get to see how gins evolved over the last 100 years, and how the bottle ageing has affected them.”

12 hours: Tropical Exploration

Commuting from one end of Singapore to the other takes about an hour and public transport is reliable and clean. Locals travel by bus, MRT, LRT (light rail transit), taxis and Ubers.

Spend the day cycling and exploring Pulau Ubin, an island off the coast of Singapore, and experience the calm village life reflecting Singapore of the 1960s. The island is peppered with simple rustic wood houses, with birds and cicadas providing a natural soundtrack. In the evenings, fishermen arrive back on the island with their daily haul. Wander on your own or join guided walks by volunteers.

Meanwhile, the city’s National Parks organisation suggests 40 trails all over Singapore with walks that range from 30 minutes to five hours.

Alternatively, head downtown to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Founded in 1859, the gardens contain a collection of flora and fauna from across Southeast Asia. Acquaint yourself with the various “heritage trees” and extensive species of orchid, then stop for lunch at the one-Michelin-star Corner House – a colonial bungalow nestled among the gardens’ tropics that serves contemporary European food.

See Singapore past, present and future in 12 easy steps

Children will love Singapore’s award-winning zoo and its nearby night safari, where animals are housed in open enclosures modelled after their natural habitats. Or end your transit exploring 30 acres of river and aquariums on a boat during a river safari located between the two.