It’s only a matter of time before frequent fliers find themselves passing through Singapore’s Changi Airport, a major stopover point for many destinations in Asia. The city-country’s incredible airport, fast + easy public transit situation and small size make it ideal for a quick dose of the cosmopolitan life before launching into adventures throughout Southeast Asia.
But many people think Singapore is too luxe (read: wildly expensive) for money-conscious travelers. While I wouldn’t necessarily put it on the list for budget backpackers, a layover or weekend in Singapore is totally doable for the average Jane – even if you’re not dating Nicholas Young (a Crazy Rich Asians reference, if you haven’t seen the film or read the books!).
I spent a weekend in Singapore following a vacation to the island of Langkawi in Malaysia over the week of Thanksgiving. Thanks to the holiday in the US, I only had to take three PTO days for the entire trip (although, I also ended up taking a sick day upon my return due to soul-crushing jet lag. Welcome to travel in your 30s).
I purposefully planned a layover in Singapore because when I traveled to Hong Kong in March, I was on a tour with a group of Singaporean expats who told me the city was a must-visit for foodies (that’s me!). I’m also not ashamed to admit that the glitz and glamour of Crazy Rich Asians had me intrigued. I even finished the trilogy of books during the trip — a 17-hour flight from San Francisco left me with plenty of book time.
While Singapore is usually considered expensive, in reality, it can be whatever you want it to be. If you want to eat out at its Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants and relax in the famous Marina Bay Sands infinity pool, it’ll cost you. If you prefer eating street food and sightseeing, you can totally pull off a weekend in Singapore on a budget. We opted for a mixture of splurge-worthy indulgences and cheap/free activities and found it to be the perfect balance!
So without further ado, I’m sharing my tips for planning an amazing layover or weekend in Singapore for those of us who aren’t in line to inherit Tyersall Park (I promise, it’s the last movie/book reference. Maybe.).
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Instead of staying at the crazy-expensive Marina Bay Sands… go for a swim in the infinity pool at Hotel Jen.
If you’ve ever been on Instagram, chances are you’ve seen a photo of someone in the infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands overlooking the skyline of Singapore. It’s one of the most iconic hotels in the city, and the pool is only available to guests. But that Instagram shot will cost you a pretty penny – rates are typically $350+ per night and during our trip, were a whopping $800 per night. No thank you!
As an alternative to Marina Bay Sands, we spent our weekend in Singapore at the Hotel Jen Orchardgateway (Hotel Jen is the millennial-focused brand from Shangri-La). Located right off the famous shopping street Orchard Road, Hotel Jen has its own Insta-worthy infinity pool with city views at the more digestible price of ~$170 per night. It also has plenty of areas to lounge and enjoy a beer, cocktail or even a pizza.
In addition to its amazing pool, Hotel Jen is also very conveniently located in a mall that has several great restaurants and activities, and is directly connected to the subway (the MRT). You might be thinking, “Hmm, not spending my foreign vacation in a mall, Anna!” But trust me, Singapore is SO humid and rain is basically a given, so you’ll appreciate being able to traverse the city in the luxury of dry air conditioning. And malls there are actually really cool… American malls could learn a thing or two!
My favorite thing about Hotel Jen was their post-checkout policy. Our flight out of Changi wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. but the thought of getting on a long haul flight after a day of sweating it out in Singapore was less than appealing. In addition to luggage storage, Hotel Jen gives you a card when you check out that gives you free access to the pool and locker rooms with showers for the rest of the day. So we were able to have one last pool beer and take a luxurious shower before heading to the airport. Clutch!
Choose to splurge on one incredible dinner experience… and then eat on the cheap the rest of your weekend in Singapore.
I traveled to Singapore primarily for the eating opportunities, and this city has plenty!
Splurge-worthy: the tasting menu at Michelin-starred Labryinth
On our first night, we had reservations at Labryinth which serves some very unique “New Singaporean Cuisine” created by chef Han Li Guang. The Michelin-star restaurant only offers a fixed dinner menu at the hefty price of $188 SGD (roughly $138 USD) per person — this is one of those splurges I was talking about!
But eating at Labryinth is more than just a meal, it’s a full experience complete with education on Singaporean food and dishes that are literal works of art. Our meal included 15 items — all sourced locally — and took over three hours to finish.
I’ll admit, some of the food here was slightly out of my comfort zone (for example, one of the ingredients was ‘snow fungus’ and it was not delicious). But much of it was really tasty and I loved the in-depth explanations that came with each dish.
Chef Han’s menu is inspired by nostalgia for his childhood, and throughout the meal you’re given postcards that explain the history behind each item and his personal experiences with the food. The servers are also so kind as to explain how to eat each dish so you don’t have to feel like an idiot who doesn’t know which fork to pick up. My favorite items were the street-food inspired appetizers that kicked off the meal and the upscale take on popular Singaporean dish “chili crab” with chili ice cream, egg whites and strawberries. The “Nats About Coco” pre-dessert was also definitely something to write home about!
(I’m not sure what qualifies something to be pre-dessert but anything that makes it socially acceptable to eat multiple desserts is fine by me.)
If the menu at Labryinth doesn’t seem up your alley, Singapore has tons of incredible fine dining experiences, like Australian BBQ-inspired spot Burnt Ends and the incredibly famous modern French restaurant Odette — both of which have been named to the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world. Just be sure to book 30 days in advance as those reservations go quickly!
Pro tip: Use Chope.com or the Chope app to book restaurant reservations — it’s Singapore’s version of OpenTable.
Feast at hawker stalls for practically pennies
After splurging on Friday night, we spent Saturday enjoying more budget-friendly eats at Singapore’s famous hawker stalls. It was fun to eat the “authentic” (and cheap) versions of the street-food inspired dishes we’d had the night before.
The hawker stalls in Singapore will transport you to foodie heaven – tons of delicious food all in one place and for practically nothing in terms of price. We spent an hour sampling items at the Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown until we were uncomfortably full — and only spent roughly $12 SGD.
There are even hawker stalls in Singapore that have Michelin stars! But you’ll need to be prepared to wait in a long line. Tian Tian received a Michelin star for its Haianese chicken rice (a must-have dish while in Singapore). But we were too hot and starving to wait in the line so we stopped a few stalls down at Ah Tai Haianese Chicken Rice. I can’t offer an apples-to-apples comparison to Tian Tian since I didn’t have it, but I can say that the people we shared a table with who braved the line had plates that looked suspiciously just like ours.
Hawker stalls are a longstanding tradition in Singapore and if you visit the Maxwell Food Centre, you’ll also want to check out China Street Fritters. It’s been owned by one family for 70 years and their food is incredibly delicious. I’m not sure exactly what I ate because the owners put together our plate but it was all very tasty!
Skip the hotel buffet and enjoy traditional kaya toast for breakfast.
Hotel breakfast in Singapore will certainly send you into bankruptcy if you eat it every day. Instead, we opted to enjoy a more traditional (and affordable) Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast.
What the heck is kaya? It’s a sweet coconut-flavored spread that’s considered a breakfast staple in many countries of southeast Asia. Don’t be alarmed by its greenish color – that comes from an ingredient, pandan leaves. Singaporeans slather kaya on toast with butter and then dip it in runny eggs. Delicious!
You can easily find kaya toast throughout Singapore in a chain called Ya Kun Kaya Toast (there’s actually one located next door to Hotel Jen). At Ya Kun, you can get set value meals that include toast, sunny side up eggs and coffee for around $5 SGD. It’s fast, easy and offers a peek into a longstanding Singaporean tradition that’s endured through the city’s rapid modernization.
Explore the Gardens by the Bay
The Gardens by the Bay are home to some of the most famous Singapore attractions including the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest and Supertree Grove — and if you only have a one-day layover in Singapore I recommend prioritizing them!
The best way to describe the Gardens by the Bay is “garden art.” A group of botanical gardens featuring flowers and plants from all over the world (including two gardens inside lovely climate-controlled domes that offer relief from Singapore’s heat), they have received numerous design awards. It’s not surprise the Gardens are a source of national pride for Singaporeans.
The outdoor gardens and Supertree Grove are free to explore. The OCBC Skyway (which allows you to walk between the Supertrees) is $8 and entrance to both cooled conservatories is $28 SGD.
Pro tip: Buy tickets online in advance so you can skip the long lines at this popular attraction and save money – who wants to spend their weekend in Singapore waiting in line?! GetYourGuide offers a $23 SGD bundle for all three attractions ($13 savings) but you have to pick the tickets up at Marina Bay Sands vs. heading straight the Gardens.
Take the MRT or use Grab instead of hailing taxis.
Taxis in Singapore can be really expensive and traffic can be downright horrendous. Fortunately, the MRT is cheap, fast and easy to use. A tourist pass — available at the Changi Airport MRT Station among others — is $10-$20 for a 1-3 day unlimited pass.
If you must take a taxi because you’re out late after the subway closes or you’re wearing heels to your fancy dinner at Labryinth, then download Grab (the Uber of southeast Asia), which is more affordable than a traditional taxi.
Unfortunately you can’t use a foreign credit card to pay for Grab, but you can set up PayPal as a payment option. I recommend doing this before your trip as PayPal might require two-factor authentication via a text.
Take self-guided walking tours through Chinatown and Little India.
Two of the most vibrant sections of Singapore are Chinatown and Little India — both accessible by MRT and easily explored on foot, for free!
Both parts of the city offer strong doses of history, architecture and food (and some pretty amazing shopping on Serangoon Road in Little India). For budget-friendly eats, the Maxwell hawker center is located in Chinatown and Little India has the Tekka hawker center located right about the MRT station.
I won’t write out complete guides to each area since there are several incredibly comprehensive guides already out there. But I’ll share the blog posts I used to plan my adventures during a weekend in Singapore, with stops such as the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown and Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India.
More Things to Do During a Layover in Singapore or Weekend in Singapore
Still have time left? Here are a few more of my favorite things to do during a weekend in Singapore:
Have fancy cocktails at Lantern, a rooftop bar on the Fullerton Bay Hotel with an exceptional view of Marina Bay Sands. Make a reservation (use Chope!) and time your visit with the nightly MBS light show, if you can. (The bar has a roof covering, in case it rains!)
Visit the Singapore Zoo. I’m always slightly wary of attractions that feature wildlife, but the Singapore Zoo and other parks that are run by Wildlife Reserves Singapore have a strong emphasis on rescue, research and conservation.
The parks’ are committed to conservation and the preservation of endangered species, and the exhibits are educational about how climate change and habitat loss are threatening wildlife. The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the zoo was that it appeared most of the animals weren’t in any real enclosures – monkeys were free to swing around as they pleased in habitats that basically replicated the real jungle.
Of course some of the more dangerous animals were behind glass, but it was cool to see how natural and spacious the habitats are here compared to other zoos. The variety of animals housed at the zoo is truly impressive as well, ranging from orangutans to white tigers, elephants and rhinos.
At the attached River Safari, you can see pandas, monkeys, manatees and more as well. We didn’t make it to the wildly popular Night Safari, but a popular choice is to buy tickets to all three.
Get to the airport early to experience Jewel at Changi. Singapore is known for having the best airport in the world, and it’s so popular that people actually go there to hang out when they’re not flying. I’m serious! Changi has one of the tallest indoor waterfalls, complete with hiking trails and a space surrounded by bars, restaurants and shops. You can even get a haircut there! It was a bit too crowded for enjoyment on a Sunday night, but impressive nonetheless.