Travel Hacks

Passing Through Singapore? How to Make the Most of a Changi Airport Layover

by Daniel Schwartz
Gardens Gardens by the Bay. Photo by chuttersnap / Unsplash.

If you're traveling to or from Asia and the South Pacific, there's a good chance you'll experience a layover at Singapore's Changi Airport. Rejoice: There are of plenty of ways to pass the time. Just don't stay in the terminal.

SINGAPORE – You’re on layover at Changi Airport and want to make the most of it. The country is small and crazy accessible and the city center is only a 20-minute cab ride away. Singapore is a land of cultural riches, not just high-end malls and high-rise buildings. 

So, what’s the game plan? The locals will lead the way. We asked in-the-know Singaporeans (photographers, designers, creative sorts) what they recommend for travelers with a few hours to kill. Here’s what they had to say.

Ah Chiang's Porridge House. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

If You Have Half a Day

Head to Hip Tiong Bahru
The neighborhood is a great place to get a taste of old and new Singapore. First stop: Tiong Bahru Market (30 Seng Poh Rd.). Start at the big wet market on the first floor and browse the fresh vegetables, meats, flowers, and daily essentials on sale. Greet the older men and women behind the stalls (who we call uncles and aunties) with a smile — they might just give you a discount! At the second-floor hawker center, get chwee kueh (steamed rice cake), wantan mee (Malaysian wonton noodles), or prawn noodles and a soya bean drink or sugar cane juice for a truly local experience.

Then head to Yong Siak Street. Here you’ll find book stores (Woods in the Books sells illustrated books; Books Actually stocks local literature), excellent cafes (Plain Vanilla, 40 Hands), ice cream shops (get the pistachio flavor at Creamier), and trendy yoga studios (squeeze into a class at Yoga Movement). If you have more time, walk around the area’s many back alleys and take a seat at P.S. Cafe Petit or Open Door Policy for Western food and drinks or Ah Chiang's Porridge for more delicious local fare. – Juliana Tan, Singaporean photographer

Parkview Museum and Atlas Bar. Photos by Ben Lau.

Discover Singaporean Art and Design
Here are two half-day itineraries for those interested in the local creative scene. Option 1: Head to National Design Centre in Bugis for a showcase on 50 years of Singaporean design. Inside, you’ll find Kapok, which sells quirky local goods, and Tanuki Raw, which does a mean donburi. For local fare, Loof nearby serves treats like chili crab fries and bak chor mee  (pork, meatballs, stewed mushrooms, and noodles) served as a toastie in an upbeat rooftop setting. Option 2: If art and swanky cocktails are more your beat, Parkview Museum on the third floor of Parkview Square (locals call it Gotham City) exhibits unique contemporary works and is free to the public. Conveniently, Atlas Bar on the ground floor makes a great gin cocktail. If that leaves you thirsty for more, grab a drink at Mr. Stork on the rooftop of the Andaz for sunset skyline views before heading back to the airport.— Ben Lau, video producer and community manager at @instasg

Hit the Hawker Stalls
If you only have time for one meal, go to Old Airport Road Food Centre (51 Old Airport Rd.; +65-6225-5632). It’s close to Changi, has lots of seats, and serves the best hawker food in Singapore. You can’t go wrong at any of the stalls, but the star of the show is definitely the lor mee (braised noodles with fish, pork belly, egg, and lots of vinegar) at Xin Mei Xiang Zheng Zong Lor Mee. It’s like nothing you’ve ever had. If I’m sentenced to death tomorrow, without a doubt it’s my last meal. Go early as the queue can get long. I'm there at 5:30 a.m. so I can be first!

Room for more? Get pork rib bee hoon noodles at Beach Road Prawn Noodle (370 East Coast Road #01-02; +65-6345-7196). There’s a soup version, but I like it dry. It’s more robust. You can also try this at the restaurant’s offshoot in Bugis, called Blanco Court Prawn Noodle (243 Beach Road #01-01; +65 962-64410), which may be more convenient if you want to check out Haji Lane, popular with tourists for its indie shops, shisha bars, and Instagrammable graffiti. Either way, try to make it to Ce La Vi for the world-class view, especially around sunset. — Ryan Tan, founder at Night Owl Cinematics, goes by Food King on Youtube

Learn more about the wondrous world of hawker food, how a fashion blogger spent her Singapore layover, and the souvenirs even locals can't get get enough of

Gallery & Co. Photos courtesy of Gallery & Co.

If You Have a Full Day

Experience Singapore's Quirks
Start with a breakfast of kaya toast at Chin Mee Chin (204 East Coast Road; +65-6345-0419), an old-school coffeeshop that feels like it's stuck in the ‘80s. (Sugee cakes, Eurasian semolina cakes eaten during celebrations, are also worth a try.) Then head over to Haw Par Villa, brought to you by the guy behind the famed Singapore export Tiger Balm, who created this cultural park to teach the masses about death, afterlife, and Chinese mythology. The “Oriental Disneyland” is bizarre, rich in culture, and nightmarish all at once. Go through all eighteen levels of hell and contemplate karmic payback.

Afterwards, get shopping done at Gallery & Co., the official museum shop and cafe of the National Gallery of Singapore. It carries a well-curated range of local and regional brands that reflect the burgeoning creativity of Singapore and Southeast Asia. End your day with dinner at Kok Sen Restaurant (30 Keong Saik Rd.; +65-6223-2005), an old-school, no frills zhi-char (homestyle cooking) spot, and drinks at Junior, a ten-seat rotating concept bar in a back alley that changes every six months.— Auriel Lee, art director at Foreign Policy Design Group

Photo courtesy of Cheek by Jowl.

Eat Your Way Through the City Center
Spend the day in Tanjong Pagar, a historic district within the CBD that has become a buzzing hive over the years thanks to a slew of good restaurants. Taxi to Maxwell Food Center (1 Kadayanallur Street; +65-6225-5632), a hawker known for its many local delights, and brave the lines at Michelin-starred Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (stall #01-10/11) for Singapore’s national dish. Other popular treats like nasi lemak (a typical breakfast dish of fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf) and chendol (an iced dessert drink of coconut milk and rice flour jelly) should not be missed, and can be tried in a hip restaurant setting at The Coconut Club

To work off all the food, head toward Marina Bay Sands to check out the amazing Gardens by the Bay, visit the National Gallery of Singapore, or just walk around to appreciate historic buildings like Victoria Theater Hall and Asian Civilization Museum overlooking Singapore River.

Dinner is back in Tanjong Pagar at Nouri, a seasonal fine dining restaurant helmed by Per Se, Mugaritz, and Fat Duck alum Ivan Brehm, who brings flavors from around the world together in a five and seven course tasting menus. Make sure you have time for the meal, as it’s a sensory experience. If you can’t snag a reservation, try your luck at Cheek by Jowl, where Sri Lankan-Australian chef Rishi Naleendra whips up innovative dishes infused with Sri Lankan spices. Cap off the night with drinks at 28 Hong Kong Street Bar, a New York-style cocktail bar with a constantly evolving menu run by the same people behind Junior. – Hui Lim, founder of Hui Designs

Photo courtesy of 126 Dim Sum Wen Dao Shi.

If You're on Layover Overnight

Head to Little India and check out Mustafa Centre, basically Singapore’s version of Walmart. It’s open 24 hours a day and sells everything at the best prices. Afterwards, try curry rice at the famous Beach Road Scissors Cut Curry Rice (229 Jln Besar; +65-9826-1464), which is open until 3:30 a.m. If that's closed, 126 Dim Sum Wen Dao Shi in Geylang, the city's red light district, is always open.  – Ryan Tan and Auriel Lee

Keep Exploring Singapore

Homesick for Singapore's Hawker Fare
Locals Love These 6 Singaporean Souvenirs
Layover in Singapore? There's Always Time for One More Meal

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