The moment you walk off the plane and into Changi Airport, a masked attendant points a MERS gun at you, checking your body heat for signs of fever and giving you a sense that not only are you being watched in this country, but there is a certain order to things. This is Singapore after all, the city-state located off the coast of Malaysia that’s known for its transformation from a third-world shipping port to a first-world economic hub in a single generation.
On almost any Singaporean street you’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of trash, let alone witness a crime. Most citizens live in subsidized housing, and the government takes measures to recognize and celebrate racial and religious diversity. Skyscrapers are draped in greenery and designed by some of the world’s top architects. But this idyllic setting comes with a catch: The government also controls the media, and capital punishment is revered. Is this what a city of an idealized future looks like? Before there’s time to think of an answer, an MRT train arrives—there’s one every 90 seconds. Bostonians will be shocked: Fast and efficient transportation is normal here. And it’s necessary to travel smoothly around the city because there is so much to eat in so little time.
For a delightful foray into Singaporean cuisine, head to Ya Kun Kaya Toast’s Chinatown location, where you’ll be scooping up runny eggs next to a busy weekday crowd that’s headed to the office. Order the original kopi or robusta coffee brewed with a “sock” cloth and kaya toast, a jam made from eggs, sugar, coconut milk and pandan leaves, paired with a poached egg. Adventurous eaters should head straight to the Chinatown hawker stalls to indulge in char kway teow—the stir-fried noodle dish is both a national favorite and the go-to breakfast of TV personality Anthony Bourdain. And be sure to visit Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, a nearby stall that has yet to raise the cost of its menu items—none of which exceed $3—since receiving a Michelin star last year.
Next, head to Tiong Bahru, a neighborhood sprinkled with beautifully preserved art deco apartment buildings and specialty coffee shops that cater to an incoming hipster scene. Push your way past all of that and go to Tiong Bahru Market, where on the second floor you’ll find another staple Singaporean dish, Hainanese chicken rice, at food stall number 82, which more recently made the 2017 Michelin Guide.
There are a few ways to walk off your meal when you need a break from eating. You can hit up Orchard Road to jaunt through luxury fashion shops such as ION Orchard and Tangs. Or if escaping the city’s metropolis is your thing, visit the Singapore Botanic Gardens and revel in the only tropical garden to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When the late afternoon rolls around, it’s best to amble along the Marina Bay promenade.
Start with a selfie at the Merlion statue, the city’s national symbol, and walk to the Marina Bay Sands, the luxury five-star hotel sitting on the edge of Singapore’s reclaimed land. For those reaching for greater heights (or desperately seeking more Facebook likes), go to the top of the hotel’s observation deck for about $20 and get a peek at the famous infinity pool overlooking the city’s skyline. But dipping your toes in comes at a steeper price as swimming is only for registered hotel guests.
A more budget-friendly, and just as entertaining, option is nearby nature park Gardens by the Bay. Stop by before 9 pm for the free nightly show that fills the man-made Supertree Grove with lights and sounds. Head back to the plaza along the promenade for Spectra, the Marina Bay Sands’ public light and water performance. The 15-minute show is reminiscent of the Fountains of Bellagio and will have you oohing and aahing along with scores of onlookers.
After the show, make your way to East Coast Parkway’s Long Beach restaurant for a fine-dining
experience. Try the chili crab while admiring the ships coasting along one of the busiest ports in the world, but don’t forget to save room for a late-night snack at Newton Circus, a 24-hour food center that’s bustling at all hours. People-watching here is best while enjoying a tray of stingray and fresh watermelon juice to wash it down.
The journey home may be long, but departing from a world-renowned transportation hub is worth showing up a day early. Linked by Terminal 3, the Changi Crowne Plaza makes for a smoother transition to the skies as you can stretch and relax at the hotel’s 540-square-meter swimming pool lined with palm trees. Basking in this urban oasis somehow feels like the city-state itself, as it’s thoughtfully designed, clean, efficient and surrounded by green. Before returning home to the land of the free, it is hard not to consider the surprising sense of personal freedoms in a country with a long list of restrictions. But don’t take too long to ponder this thought while lounging by the pool. It’s almost time to check your bag and visit the airport’s free movie theater, art exhibits and sunflower garden before returning home. Logan Airport welcomes you—and apologizes in advance for the long customs lines.
Changi Crowne Plaza, changiairport.crowneplaza.com; Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, guide.michelin.sg; Long Beach Seafood, longbeachseafood.com; Marina Bay Sands, marinabaysands.com; Singapore Botanic Gardens sbg.org.sg; Tiong Bahru Hainanese Chicken Rice, guide.michelin.sg/en; Ya Kun Kaya Toast, yakun.com
- – With a white lotus flower designed by architect Moshe Safdie, the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands is hard to miss. It’s worth a visit to see how the museum explores the creative realm between art, science, technology and culture.
- – The call to prayer echoes throughout the streets at Kampong Glam’s pedestrian-filled Haji Lane and Arab Street. Stop by the souvenir shops or go for a late-night hangout in this eclectic neighborhood.