As I sat in my Bangkok hotel room frantically booking a flight out of the Philippines — I had just heard that immigration was strict in their dislike of one-way flights into the country — I stumbled upon an interesting loophole. There were no direct flights from Manila to Bali (weird, right?) and the cheapest options actually allowed for a twenty-four hour layover in Singapore.
And just like that, I added a new country to my itinerary.
I never had much of a calling to visit Singapore. Despite my mother’s pontificating on what a wonderful city it was, (or let’s be honest, perhaps because of it — I was a surly teenager at the time [and now I’m a surly young adult, thank you very much]) I always thought it to be a rather bland and sterile metropolis. Still, I’m not one to turn down a free visit to a new city and the chance to add a new stamp to my passport.
Speaking of, I’ve been vocally quite opinionated in the past about what does and does not belong on a personal Country Count. I’m sorry, but layovers where you don’t leave the airport do not count! Border runs where you get your passport stamped, buy some black market whisky and turn right around do not count! The jury is still out on four hour cruise ship stops and nights spent at airport hotels. And why yes, as a matter of fact, someone did die and make me Queen of Country Counting.
All of that ranting is only to explain that if I was only going to have twenty four hours in Singapore, and I wanted to scratch it off my world map, I was going to have to make the most of every minute. After arriving at Singapore’s immaculate airport and sailing through immigration and security — can we get an award for Asia’s most efficient airport up in here, please? — I took the $9SGD (about $7USD) shuttle that dropped me directly at the door of my accommodation for the night. The colorful and trendy Matchbox Hostel was the perfect base — great location, free breakfast, Nutella included, and an original bed layout that provided lots of privacy and noise and light blocking.
I basically threw my bags around, grabbed a map, and hit the pavement immediately — okay, fine, there may have been a Nutella snack break involved. Matchbox is located in the heart of Chinatown, and this photogenic and vibrant neighborhood showed me right away that I had been all wrong about Singapore.
As my daylight hours were ticking away I didn’t linger to explore the area’s temples or mosques, or browse through its tempting markets. Instead, I tucked those ideas away for a future visit and strolled up South Bridge Road towards the river.
When I reached the mighty Singapore River, I found a lively riverfront lined with bars, restaurants, cafes, and backed by beautiful colonial buildings. I was particularly enamored with the rainbow-inspired paint job on the MICA building (Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts).
At the airport I had spotted an ad for a special Buddhism exhibit at the Asia Civilizations Museum, and quickly factored in a stop there on my mental itinerary. After paying my $4SGD ($3USD) special student rate — okay, so technically I’m no longer a college student, but I don’t think using my old ID is really cheating, right? I’m still a student of the world! — I spent the next hour in air-conditioned, culture-absorbing bliss.
First I hit up the permanent exhibit on the history and significance of the Singapore River, which was a fascinating slap in the face of how little I actually knew about this diverse city nation.
Next I hit up the special exhibit Exploring the Cosmos, the Buddhist symbol-based show that had brought me to the museum. There were some beautiful works that were new and original to me, but even more that had me doing a double take. They just seemed so familiar. Then I saw a curration list posted by the exit, and saw where many of the works had come from: The National Museum of Thailand in Bangkok, The Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, and the Phra Narai Ratchaniwet Museum in Lopburi. I had now followed these paintings and sculptures across Southeast Asia!
Exiting the museum and back on the sweaty streets, I crossed back over the river and walked towards Marina Bay. With every step the skyscrapers shot higher and the buildings newer and shinier.
Pausing for photos at Merlion Park, it was difficult to line up a shot without other people in it — I had suddenly found the tourist crowds I had been wondering about before! Of course, I could see what all the fuss was about. The famous Marina Bay Sands building towered over the bay, with the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum squatting in its shadow.
At this point it became somewhat difficult to find a straight walking path — I felt at times like I was back in Vegas, where there is now way to get from Point A to Point B without taking seven escalators and a pedestrian bridge. But I forged forward, and finally made it around the bay to Marina Bay Sands.
While I would have loved to see the famous roof deck and have a drink there, my wallet was feeling slim after The Philippines and I decided to stick to sub-$10 activities on this visit. Just stepping foot on the observation deck would have set me back $20SGD.
I was only there to cut through, anyway. And after a few false turns, an elevator ride, and a walkway, I found it: My true destination, and my first priority for this trip to Singapore, was Gardens by the Bay.
Awkward selfies prove it: I was there!
Months before, I had seen a single, full page close up photo of a Gardens By the Bay sculpture in a travel magazine. I had ripped the page out and stuffed it in my backpack and forgotten about it until the day I booked that flight. While the photo had intrigued me, I had no idea the true visual treat that awaited me in person.
Standing in the shadow of these massive, interactive, living sculptures, I truly felt that I was in wanderland.
The conservatories that are part of the botanical gardens carry heavy entrance fees, but walking around the bases of the Supertree Grove is free — and the Skywalk is a mere $5SGD ($4USD). The trees are as tall as sixteen story buildings, and are embedded with futuristic solar energy-harvesting photovoltaic cells (full disclosure: I have no idea what that means). The Grove’s residents also covered in a “living skin” of more than 200 species and varieties of orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers so that they will continue to grow and change over time.
The sun would soon set, kicking off my one night in Singapore (stay tuned!) But my short visit could have been clipped to this moment and it would have been enough for me to declare it a success. Gardens by the Bay was the undeniable highlight to this funny destination — a city I not long ago had mentally dismissed, but now could not wait to return to.
Have you ever been to Singapore? What do I need to return to see?
Wow…love the exuberant architecture. Thank you for this wonderful post. I was there ten years ago for a 24 hour layover and I did not see most of this.
You especially would love this city! Not to mention the airport, which was the most efficient I’ve ever been through.
Welcome to Singapore! If you do drop by to Singapore next time, perhaps you can visit the Night Safari. That’s where they showcase all the nocturnal animals. Though it has been years since I last went there, it is one of the highly raved places, and you have to try the local food here! 🙂
I would LOVE to do the night safari! I read about it and was highly intrigued. Guess it’s another reason to come back!
Rainbow buildings! Supertree Grove! Cleanest Chinatown I’ve ever seen! Holy crap. Singapore looks AWESOME. I want to hear about the food 🙂
Singapore is so famous so it’s food but I really only ate one meal here that wasn’t Nutella on toast in my hostel! And there is a photo of it coming up in my next post 🙂
Alex, it kills me that you didn’t try the food! I lived in Singapore for a year and a half and it’s one of the things I miss most about the island. I even have a ‘5 best things I ate in Singapore’ series on my blog if you ever head back and need suggestions.
That said, don’t go to Raffles for a Singapore Sling — it’s $30 and comes from a mix! There’s plenty of other places in town to get a good Sling.
Next time you’re in Sing hit me up, I’ve got tons of tips!
Maybe I wasn’t clear, but I definitely did have a meal of Singaporean food picked out by a local at one of the markets! (See my post today.) But arriving midday and leaving the next morning I didn’t really have time for more than one proper meal. I’ll definitely be back for longer next time — and more meals!
Ah got it! I misunderstood and thought you only wanted Nutella 🙂
I mean, that isn’t TOO inaccurate — I want Nutella always! 🙂
I have long layover at singapore – arrive at 6 am on 10 Mar 2014 and leave at 9.15 am next day. Can you help me plan – would love to see Garden by bay and night safari atleast. Will appreciate if you can include the itenary starting from airport
Great photos! Singapore has added so many new sights since I wrote Singapore Handbook for Moon Publications some 20 years ago. First went there in 1979, stayed on Bencoolen St, and met Bill Dalton in another dorm. The rest is history.
Wow! Sounds like a fruitful trip. I really enjoy the Moon guidebook series, one of my friends is writing the Maui one right now.
WOOHOO! I’m so glad you posted this! I’m going to Singapore in a few weeks for 48 hours! Holy hell those gardens. That legitimately looks like Wonderland. I just showed them to the African and he doesn’t believe me that those photos are real ! (He is still half asleep) but still! So pretty x
You will LOVE Singapore! Where are you staying? There were so many amazing hotels and hostels it was hard to choose!
No idea! Currently looking on that now. Expect a facebook message shortly.
Wow! Absolutely beautiful, I had no idea this even existed. I spent a LOT of time in Singapore during my days as a flight attendant, so it will always have a special place in my heart. I love the outdoor food market Lau Pa Sat!
How did I not know you were a flight attendant?! Actually when I think about it perhaps I did know… it seems like it might be lodged in my brain somewhere. You must have loads of stories!
Great reportage, Alex! Love the colors on the buildings!
I am wondering how they change beds in Matchbox Hostel 🙂
I’m sure it’s not an easy task 🙂 But that aside, it’s really preferable to the traditional dorm bed layout!
I’ll be heading to Singapore in September so this post got me very excited about my visit! I’m especially looking forward to the food, but those gardens looks beautiful as well.
I think anyone who stops in Singapore and doesn’t see Gardens by the Bay is crazy, but everyone has given great other suggestions here in the comments… hopefully your visit is longer than mine! Enjoy, Ashley!
It’s impressive how much you managed to squeeze into 24 hours!
I love Singapore! I think its the perfect introduction to Asia for those who are nervous about the crowds and chaos of countries like Thailand and Vietnam.
I used to think of Singapore as a stopover destination. This changed when I found out how much there is to do in this small country.
Agreed…. next time I come to Singapore it will be an intentional visit, and a much longer one I hope!
Singapore is scarily clean! It’s too good to be true, but definitely a country where the major highlights can be done in just a day or two. P.S. – Airport layovers definitely don’t count. So frustrating when people factor those in!
Agreed! Hello…. you didn’t even get your passport stamped!
Next time you head to Singapore, you absolutely need to do some of the animal attractions—we were lucky enough to stay with a friend while we were there, so by keeping our lodging costs low, we had the money to splash out on tickets to the zoo, night safari, and the bird park. All of them were AMAZING and well worth the money. We also went to see the new “oceanarium” that opened up over at Sentosa, which is supposedly the largest in the world. That was also really incredible and had several things I had never seen in an aquarium before… given your love of all things aquatic, you definitely have to check that out next time!
Ahhhhh…. ALL of those things sound amazing! I would love to hit up all four. I definitely don’t mind spending money on activities when they are high quality, which it seems like almost everything in Singapore is.
Wow, you covered a lot of ground in such a short time! You MUST visit the zoo next time. It’s expensive, but one of the best I’ve ever seen. You can recoup the cost at the hawker centers which have so much delicious food for super cheap!
I think this is the third comment that mentions this amazing zoo… I’ve got to go! Thanks for the tip!
love the building with the rainbow balconies
So fun, right? Much more lively than I expected from what I assumed would be stuffy Singapore! How wrong I was.
Great layover! I’ve heard Singapore has one of the best Chinatowns in the world.
Not sure what you should return to see, but you should return to drink a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel. The hotel isn’t really in my price range but you can go to the bar to have one and it’s suppose to be where the drink was invented…
I’m actually bummed I didn’t do this! I saw the Raffles on my shuttle ride from the airport, but sadly didn’t return. Next time!
It’s actually possible to go up to the Marina Bay Sands rooftop for free, by heading to Ku De Ta. You don’t actually have to buy drinks because it’s so crowded the staff have no time to eye you while you snap away in peace, but the view is somewhat limited compared to the observation deck.
Ooo, thanks for the tip Natalia! I will keep that in mind for next time 🙂
Just thinking about the 24 hours in Singapore I did two weeks ago and stumbled onto your post. Your 24 hours were totally different than mine! 🙂
Love “meeting” new travel bloggers in cyberspace!
It seems like there are a million ways I could have spent that short window of time! Nice to meet you, too!
When I visited Singapore last year, I didn’t think I would like it, because of all the strict rules and its cleanliness. It just didn’t seem to be a typical Asian city. But I actually really enjoyed my three days there. Loved the gardens by the bay.
Totally agree. I’ve never been interested in the Asian mega cities, but Singapore really proved me wrong. I’m so glad!
I’ve recently added Singapore to my bucket list and your 24 hour stay reinforced my wishes to visit x 1000. Such awing architecture, and the Gardens simply magical (and quite trippy at night lol).
I’m here with you on not counting airport layovers, but hey, us novice travelers & former cruisers definitely need those 4 hour stopovers to count! Haha! Got tons of Carribean islands and a few Meditteranean stops to boast..there’s no way you can’t tell me my run through of Monte Carlo simply didn’t happen! :p
That is true, the cruising thing does present a dilemma! The only cruise I was on was through Greece and Turkey and we spent a couple nights on land in each on either end, plus numerous island stops. Do they stamp your passport for those one day stops?
Am glad by fate you didnt find the direct flight from Manila to Bali (via Cebu Pacific/Philippine Airlines) for you to experience Singapore!
I believe I saw it but this route was much cheaper, and included a bonus country. Win!
Wow, amazing post! I was in Singapore 2 weeks ago and did many of the same things that you did. How amazing was the FOOD there???
Cheers and happy travels 🙂
I only had one real meal there due to my weird schedule, but it was an amazing one! I’d definitely return for a few more 🙂
If you come to Singapore again, you should check out some of these non-touristy places!
1. Maxwell Market – a food court near chinatown
2. Tiong Bahru – it’s an area filled with little cafes and quaint shops. It’s one of my favorite places to have a coffee. A true blend of the young and old generations living in Singapore.
3. Serangoon Gardens – you should come here at night when Chomp Chomp (a food centre) opens!
So much more about this city that you can discover!
Considering how often I flit around Southeast Asia I’m sure I’ll end up there again 🙂 Thanks for the great suggestions!
I know I’m commenting on an old post, but I found your blog recently and have occasionally come through to read some of your stuff (and the blog is outstanding, by the way).
I just wrote about the whole ‘when does a visit to a country count?’, and the long layover thing… but then I read about your ‘scratch off map of the world’ and I started to laugh, because I have the same one, and I referenced it in my post, too! Ha! (I am by no means an experienced traveler- if anything I’m just starting- but I’m excited to start filling up my map).
Thanks for sharing your travels and life with us!
I love that map so much! Going home and scratching off new countries is always one of my favorite things — especially if the countries are large ones 🙂
I can’t tell you how much I love this post!!! I’m planning my own SE Asia getaway soon and will have two lengthy stops in Singapore. These photos and your tips are so helpful to my trip planning!!!
I’m so happy to hear that Daisy! I still want to return to Singapore someday — so much more to explore.
Awesome Blog! You should definitely visit Sri Lanka 😀
It’s on the list for someday 🙂
This was awesome! I am in Singapore for another 24 hours. Thanks for this, It was very helpful!
You’re so welcome Katy! Hope you had a great time!
Hi! I stumbled upon this post while actually checking out your post on Chatuchak. It’s so interesting to read what others have to say about my home!
Because you’re a diver (I assume because I saw a few diving jaunts/divemaster words thrown around), I just thought you might want to know that the dolphins at the oceanarium are wild caught, with at least 4 dolphin fatalities since they were caught till they were transported into the oceanarium.
You can read more about them here: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/spca-calls-for-release-of-resorts-world-sentosa-dolphins-after-fourth-death
There are more articles on the campaign efforts for their release online if you’re interested. And I hope you’ll share this with any of your friends who are planning a Singapore visit.
Oh! And don’t bother about that Singapore sling, or any dish that has ‘Singapore’ in it, those definitely aren’t what the locals eat! :p
Come back soon! 🙂
Hey Yvonne, that’s unfortunate to hear about the dolphinariums. I don’t visit them and much prefer wild dolphin encounters! I do admit to ordering a Singapore sling, though!
Hi Alex. Just chanced upon your blog when researching for my 2nd Vietnam trip.
So last time you came to Singapore (Spore) was in 2013? You should come again, maybe for 3-4 days next time. And after reading your blog, I assume that you love animals, dreamy sightseeing (ok you’ve seen the night view of Gardens by the Bay, but it looks more beautiful during xmas season – Christmas Wonderland) and arts & culture.
I can suggest these simple visits:
1) Singapore Zoo, River Safari, Night Safari (all around Mandai area)
2) The Mandai/Kranji area also has a few small farms with visitation, like a goat farm, hydroponics vegetables farm, etc.
3) Sentosa, which has a lot of attractions, from cheap Butterfly Park to the expensive Universal Studios
4) Tripping around the cultural neighbourhoods, eg: Geylang Serai for Malay Culture, Arab St for Arabs Culture, Chinatown (you’ve visited), etc…
5) Watch out for special festivals or celebrations happening in Spore that will leave nice memories, like, night F1 race in Sept, Chingay Parade, Hari Raya Lightup and bazaars during the fasting month, National Day Parade
6) If you’re into adventures, we have Forest Adventure in the East, the long Zipline at Sentosa, Clip N Climb in the East & West (wall climbing instead of rock climbing), a waterpark called Wild Wild Wet in the East, GMax Reverse Bungy at Clarke Quay…
Hope to see you in Singapore anytime soon.
Hey Siti! Oh my gosh, thank you so much for all these recommendations! Believe it or not, I’m heading to Singapore next week! Sadly I have very little time, but I’m going to try to make the most of it!
Omg.. What a coincidence. Enjoy yourself ya.
Thanks Siti! Keep your eyes on my Insta for what we get up to 🙂
Just remembered. The Botanic Gardens just finished some renovations. Maybe you wanna check it out.
Oh great! Thanks for the tip!