Asia is massive, which means lots of long layovers and exhausting itineraries for long-haul travelers. It can also kill you, as we discovered when Dan developed a life threatening issue from our marathon 32-hour journey to Indonesia.
Never again will we make a long-distance trip an endurance test! Because you know what? You can take a 12-hour nonstop flight from Point A to Point B and be confined to sitting in one position for the duration … or you can break up a journey into a series of hops. Maybe take a layover tour to stretch your legs, or plan a slightly longer stopover, as we did when we left Bali.
First thing on the itinerary: one day in Singapore.
First impressions of Singapore
As soon as we left the airport, the first thing we noticed was how pristine Singapore is. The tiny nation has a well deserved reputation for its strict laws against of littering of any kind. Littering carries a $1,000 fine. As a matter of fact, the reason chewing gum isn’t sold in the country is because they don’t want people spitting it out on the street!
Repeat offenders have to wear bright jackets and clean up a public place. When that doesn’t work, the authorities have been known to invite the media to cover the story. There’s nothing like public embarrassment to keep someone in line. Having just come from Bali, Indonesia—last week’s offering boxes everywhere—the contrast was startling.
Everywhere we looked, we saw people of all colors, cultures and dress. The country even has four official languages: English, Malay (Bahasa Melayu), Chinese (Mandarin), and Tamil!
Singapore may very well be the most cosmopolitan city we’d ever seen. It’s a blend of historic British colonial buildings, Indian, Malay and Chinese neighborhoods, glass-and-steel highrises and a state-of-the-art infrastructure.
Our one-day Singapore itinerary
So much packed into one little country, so little time. How can anyone fit it all into a day?
1. Little India
Our flight schedule meant we would arrive around sundown and have most of the next day to get a taste of what Singapore has to offer. We began our 24 hours in Singapore by taking a taxi to Mustafa Centre in Little India.
Everyone in Singapore knows Mustafa Centre: The landmark takes up an entire city block. I don’t know, is this a Singaporean version of Macy’s, perchance?
Mustafa’s clientele are mostly Indian, and it’s really fun and interesting to see what’s for sale, all appealing to their culture. This place offers bargains on everything: clothes, perfume, souvenirs, electronics, makeup, confectionery, groceries … even kiosks for travel and other services.
That’s where we met up with a couple of friends who split their time between Bali and Singapore. They took us to a sidewalk cafe where we sat for hours watching the passersby and chatting like old friends over bottles of Tiger Beer, Singapore’s local brew.
ⓘ TIP: If you want to see more of this area, take this walking tour of Little India.
2. Indian food in Singapore
Our friends took us to one of their favorite restaurants in Little India, Raj. Not being too well-versed in Indian food, we asked them to order their favorite dishes. It was all new to us, we told them, but we were willing to try it all.
None of us were vegetarian, but the restaurant certainly is … and to be honest, we didn’t miss the meat. Cheese lover that I am, I was especially thrilled by palak paneer. Do order it the next time you have a chance to try Indian food. It’s very tasty!
Palak paneer is also a good choice for those of us who want to avoid spicy dishes. 😉
ⓘ TIP: Hawker stands are a huge part of Singaporean culture. Here, food is so cheap that most Singaporeans never bother to cook at home. If you’d like to try a variety of Singaporean dishes, I highly recommend taking a food tour that includes a hawker centre or two.
3. Singapore open top bus tour
Singapore’s subway, bus and taxi systems are top-notch—clean, prompt and safe. However, we don’t think public transportation is the most efficient way to see the most popular Singapore attractions, especially when it’s your first time there.
So the following morning, we bought tickets for a hop-on-hop-off bus. We figured it would take us to more places than we could ever get in one day on our own.
Besides, we could head below for air conditioning and shade if the sun became too intense. The bus would shelter us if we had a tropical rainstorm and still let us continue our sightseeing.
Conclusion: The two hour-long routes offer a good overview of the city’s layout and its three ethnic neighborhoods, and the accompanying narration explains everything in context. Perfect for a first time in Singapore.
ⓘ TIP: This is the bus tour we took. Don’t forget a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.
4. Singapore River cruise
That bus tour turned out to be an even smarter choice when we learned that our bus tour also included a 40-minute cruise on the Singapore River.
There are no roads along the waterfront, so it was time very well spent.
Not only did we learn all about Singapore’s maritime history, our new vantage point resulted in some unique photos that most people don’t get.
ⓘ TIP: If you want a boat tour without the bus ride, e-tickets are available here.
5. Local shopping in Singapore’s Arab Quarter
Singapore is the top shopping destination for Asians, and it’s not just at discount emporium Mustafa’s. The Arab Quarter, known as Kampong Glam, is a striking contrast to the rest of the city’s glitz and glamour.
This neighborhood is a collection of colorful buildings and crumbling ambiance, all surrounding the gleaming golden dome of Sultan Mosque.
Arab Street in particular is a textile mecca. You can find cut-rate deals on quality rugs, clothes, jewelry, and more. It’s also full of shisha bars and Arab restaurants.
One of our favorite things to order in these places is a mezze platter—a large sampler plate of healthy Middle Eastern dishes. It’s big enough to share—and cheap. You can enjoy a filling meal for S$15-20.
6. Mall-style shopping on Orchard Street
Well, Dan had been wondering about the prices of camera gear in Asia. Considering most of it comes from Asian countries, we hopped off at Orchard Street first, just to find out.
Orchard Street is a shopper’s paradise; it seems there is a mall on almost every block. How like high-tech Singapore to even have malls just dedicated to electronics! We saw things that aren’t even available in the U.S. yet. As to prices of current products, the salesmen kept telling us the same thing: It’s cheaper in America.
Unfortunately, we spent so much time comparison shopping for electronics that we couldn’t explore Kampong Glam. 🙁
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Back on the bus, we hopped off again in Chinatown to visit the monolithic Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Inside its walls is a 27-foot statue of the Buddha, which I pictured as occupying a lot of space in the temple’s four stories. Even more remarkable: They have one of his teeth on display.
Unfortunately, the temple was closed for an event, so we could only view it from the outside and admire its architecture. If we ever get to enter its doors, we will make it a point to see the 10,000 Buddhas Pagoda on the roof, which has a large Tibetan-style prayer wheel.
Since that option was out, we walked down some of the side streets and main streets, hoping to discover what some of the Chinese markets had to offer. But I’ll admit that doing it on our own resulted in not knowing what we were looking at.
The city has plenty of al fresco dining options, and judging from what we saw it would be hard to choose where to eat. I understand why a Chinese food tour might be a good idea. Especially since Dan and I want to avoid certain foods, having a guide would make sense.
Too bad we didn’t have the time. We’ve done food tours before and they are always a lot of fun.
One Chinese herb shop looked especially intriguing, but we kept going … and discovered a Hindu temple smack-dab in the midst of Chinatown.
ⓘ TIP: It’s free to enter the Hindu temple, but they charge S$3.00 for cameras.
8. A bird’s-eye view from the Singapore Flyer
Thanks to Singapore’s location on the equator, the sun sets between 6:30-7:00 pm. year-round. The end of the day brought us to the Singapore Flyer, just in time to watch the sun set over the city. This sightseeing Ferris wheel is similar to the famous London Eye, but they claim it’s larger.
From atop the wheel I could see that I had been wrong about the city: Singapore is not just a single, small island with a bunch of high-rises. It’s a collection of forested, hilly islands with many attractive, older neighborhoods too.
9. Fish Spa
On our way down the Flyer’s ramp we passed a fish spa. Intrigued, we just had to try it. We rationalized it would be good to pamper ourselves before another long flight, sigh only a few hours from now.
These little “doctor fish” — about the size of big guppies — like to dine on dead skin. After the attendant sanitized our feet, we settled onto benches along one of their ponds and dangled our toes in the water. Soon, they were delicately nibbling away at our calluses.
What an incredible experience! Any thoughts about Amazonian piranhas immediately disappeared. It felt like we had dipped our feet into a vat of champagne and thousands of little tiny bubbles were popping on our skin. For about S$15, it was the most unique pedicure we have ever had … and definitely worth doing again!
With happy feet, we rushed back to the hotel to grab our suitcases and head to the airport. Our single day in Singapore left us wanting to see more.
Actually, Singapore has so many things to do that I could see myself living there. Even if it meant I’d have to do without chewing gum.
More things to do in Singapore in one day
Dan and I have visited Singapore a few times since this first trip. And we know that not everyone enjoys hop-on-hop-off buses or flitting from place to place.
If you have only a few hours in the city, here are more of the best attractions in Singapore.
10. Singapore Botanic Gardens
Begun in the Victorian era, Singapore Botanic Gardens are the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. The paths go through a number of gardens based on various themes. Our favorite is the Orchid Garden.
Perfect for some quiet contemplation, Instagram shots, or just fresh air. And it’s all free, apart from the Orchid Garden (S$5). Oh, and the restaurants, of course.
11. Gardens by the Bay
If you’re at all familiar with Singapore, you probably know about Gardens by the Bay. It’s where you’ll find Singapore’s space-age grove of supertrees. You can wander the grounds free of charge for as long as you like.
Other visitor favorites are the free nightly Sound and Light Show and the whimsical conservatories. Tickets are available here. There’s a lot to see and do at Gardens by the Bay, so be careful – you can easily spend hours here.
12. Marina Bay Sands
The boat-shaped silhouette of Marina Bay Sands has made it Singapore’s most iconic hotel, but only guests are permitted to swim in the world’s largest rooftop Infinity Pool.
But if you’re not staying in Singapore, there are other creative ways to enjoy that amazing view. You don’t have to be a guest to grab a drink at the SkyBar, and the rooftop restaurants are also open.
13. Singapore Night Safari
If you have a few evening hours in Singapore, we highly recommend the Singapore Night Safari. It’s the world’s first nocturnal zoo and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Singapore. We’ve been twice, and it’s definitely worth the price of the ticket.
You can watch nocturnal animals go about their regular business,. That’s different from a normal zoo, where you’d just see them sleeping. Lights are only as bright as they would be during a full moon. It’s bright enough to watch them and see where you’re going, but not bright enough to bother the animals.
Plan your trip to Singapore
Here are some resources to help you plan your trip.
- Singapore has many useful trip planning resources on their website.
- Visas: Click here to see if you need a visa.
- Want more sightseeing? You’ll enjoy our Singapore photo galleries.
- Google Maps offers an aerial view of Singapore’s downtown core. Zoom, scroll around and explore!
Best hotels in Singapore
We have stayed at a number of hotels, all in different parts of the city. That said, if you plan to spend more than one day in Singapore and it’s your first time, we’d suggest a hotel near the bay or Singapore River.
We’ve stayed at some of the best hotels in Singapore:
- Marina Bay Sands
- Scotts on Main
- Pan Pacific
- Rasa Sentosa Resort
- Four Points by Sheraton
- Crowne Plaza Changi Airport
Rasa Sentosa was the most relaxing and Scotts on Main has the best breakfast buffet we’ve ever seen.
Whether you prefer a hotel, hostel, or vacation rental, Trivago lets you compare prices from more than 300 booking sites at once. Highly recommended!
Getting around Singapore
When it comes to transportation, Singapore has good bus and MRT (subway) coverage. Also, their taxis are closely regulated so you don’t need to worry about being ripped off.
If you use Uber when you travel, you’ll need to use Grab in Southeast Asia. You can find the GrabApp on iTunes and Android.
Best Singapore guided tours
Get Your Guide offers dozens of affordable, custom activities and tours in Singapore. Here are some examples:
- Visit Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO Site
- Is Singapore Night Safari Worth the Expense?
- See our Singapore page for more.