It's not just the airport, though you could be forgiven for thinking so. Singapore Changi is a thing of rare beauty, an airport that visitors can actually enjoy, a space that seems that it was designed with its patrons in mind.
You could spend your entire stopover in the carpeted confines of Changi and consider it a holiday well spent. You could hang out in the butterfly garden, visit one of the movie theatres, relax at the rooftop swimming pool, check out the cactus garden, eat at the hawker centre, stroll through the sunflower garden, and even, if you had the time, jump on a free guided tour of Singapore itself, and then board your flight out of there completely satisfied.
Truly, Changi is the world's best airport, and it isn't even finished. Come 2019 it will also boast the Jewel, a spanking new glass-and-steel structure that will house shops, restaurants, a hotel, a garden with more than 3000 trees, and the world's largest indoor waterfall.
So yes, Singapore's appeal as a stopover destination is not just Changi, though that's certainly a part of it – and with Qantas now once again using the airport as a major hub, it's going to be more popular than ever.
Singapore's true glory, however, lies outside of Changi's bounds. It's out there in the sultry air of a city-state that's ultra-modern and yet deeply traditional, a metropolis that can sometimes feel like a small town, a destination that is always evolving, always improving, always offering something to slake a curious traveller's thirst.
While Singapore so often conjures images of skyscrapers and architectural wonders, of bold attractions and big-name sights, it's actually the city's most intangible attraction – culture – that makes it the perfect place to spend a couple of days breaking up a longer journey. There's a unique blend of influences that makes up modern-day Singapore, a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European cultures that have come together over centuries to form a cohesive and yet still very much segmented whole.
In just a short stopover – say, two days or less – visitors have ample time to navigate these disparate influences by visiting the Singaporean neighbourhoods that have traditionally played host to them. There's Little India, where the scent of spices wafts through the air, where street vendors sell garlands of flowers and jewellers pedal imported gold. There's Chinatown, where the pavements hum with life as locals and tourists float between temples and markets. There's Kampong Glam, the home of Malay traditions mixed with a touch of Arabia, where domed mosques abut former palaces. And there's Joo Chiat, the seat of the Peranakans, where a unique culture borne of Chinese and Malay integration continues to thrive.
If these places sound intimidating, as though short-term visitors would have difficulty penetrating their unfamiliar exteriors, fear not. There's a very simple pathway to cultural immersion in Singapore: food.
Singaporean cuisine isn't a reason to visit the country, it's the reason to visit. It's an essential window into the culture, as well as an all-consuming local passion that you will find people of all walks of life indulging in at any given time of the day or night.
Think of those cultures – Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, European – which, combined, make up such a huge portion of the world's great cuisines. And you can sample them all in Singapore. This amazing array of food is dished up for only a few dollars a plate in the city's hawker centres, these formalised street food havens filled with vendors who've honed their crafts over decades. It's also dished up for a few hundred dollars a plate in some of Singapore's three-star fine-dining establishments. Whichever takes your fancy, you'll eat well on a stopover here. Very well.
Food is, and probably always will be, Singapore's main attraction. However, the city has more to offer than mere sustenance, including plenty of the standard sights that travellers are used to and can take advantage of in a short break.
There are old favourites here: Raffles Hotel with its Singapore Slings; the triple-towered Marina Bay Sands with its rooftop pool; Gardens By the Bay, an amazing botanical project; and the theme parks of Sentosa Island. And there are plenty of new attractions to add to the mix: the Singapore River Safari, which features 5000 animals in a river-themed wildlife park; an AJ Hackett Bungy Tower on Sentosa; a new luxury boutique hotel called the Duxton Club in Tanjong Pagar; and Southbridge, a new rooftop bar in Boat Quay.
Of course, a city requires more than simply good food and world-class attractions to stake a claim as an ideal stopover destination. It requires cheap, reliable public transport – which Singapore has, in the form of a subway and bus system that is efficient, and rarely costs more than $1.50 a trip. It also requires a wide selection of accommodation options, from high-end luxury brands to affordable hotels and hostels – which Singapore has. It requires an air of safety and comfort, which Singapore, a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world, can certainly boast.
And, of course, it also requires a good airport. Singapore probably has that one covered, too.
From March 25, Qantas will operate daily services to Singapore from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, totalling 42 flights a week. The airline has also announced up-gauging from an A330 to A380 on its Sydney and Melbourne routes, and will be rerouting its Sydney to London service via Singapore, instead of Dubai, from March 25. See qantas.com for more.
The Oasia Downtown is Singapore's most striking new hotel, a tower covered in plant life that's made a real impression on the busy CBD skyline. Rooms at the hotel are modern and spacious, and start from $235 a night. See oasiahotels.com
Ben Groundwater has travelled to Singapore on both a self-funded basis, and as a guest of the Singapore Tourism Board.
FIVE MUST-DO EXPERIENCES
EAT AT A HAWKER CENTRE
Singapore's hawker centres are justifiably famous the world over for their affordable but incredibly good cuisine. You're looking at no more than $3 or $4 a plate at centres such as Maxwell, Old Airport Road, Newton and Tiong Bahru for food cooked fresh by absolute masters of the craft.
WANDER THE CLOUD FOREST
The Gardens By the Bay is a hugely ambitious $1.1 billion, 101-hectare wonderland of botanic attractions, highlighted by the Cloud Forest. This glass structure recreates a high-altitude tropical environment, with all of the plant life you'd expect to find in a mist-filled cloud forest. gardensbythebay.com.sg
DRINK AT CE LA VI
This cocktail bar sits atop the Marina Bay Sands, those iconic triple towers, 57 floors up in the sky, and commands one of the best views of the city around – certainly the best for a sundowner cocktail or two. The drinks aren't cheap, but you're paying for one amazing location. sg.celavi.com
If Singapore is all starting to feel a little too modern and clean, head directly to Chinatown for an experience of the city's past. Chinatown hums with life at almost any time of the day or night, and it's a great place to pick up some tasty food in between temple hopping.
VISIT A MUSEUM
Singapore is blessed with several excellent museums that are the perfect places to take shelter during a tropical deluge. Check out the National Museum, the National Gallery, the ArtScience Museum, the Asian Civilisation Museum, the Natural History Museum, and many more.
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