What To Do in Singapore: A First-Timer's 3-Day Guide
I recently visited Singapore in the middle of a one-month long Southeast Asia trip. I knew very little about it outside of the unmistakable image of Marina Bay Sands, the 3-tower mega-hotel with a surfboard-shaped pool balanced at the very top. I expected skyscrapers and flashy nightlife and wealthy expats. And while there is definitely all of that (and yes, it really is as clean as they say!), there’s so much more, too.
I found Singapore to be a surprising, impressive cultural explosion. This city-state represents cultures and languages from all over the world, with deep-rooted heritage that spans back over centuries of migration. I’d bet money that almost anyone in the world can visit Singapore and find at least 1 little thing that reminds them of home, because here, ‘home’ encompasses influences from so many different identities coexisting together in one space.
Despite its incredibly tiny size (just 31 miles wide and 17 miles long), Singapore is a destination that will leave you dizzy with curiosity and appreciation. It is forward-thinking with a firm nod to its past. I only had 3 days in Singapore, but in that amount of time, so much can be done.
Here’s my guide to how to spend 3 days exploring Singapore, from its shopping and nightlife mainstays to its cultural neighborhoods and famous hawker fare.
What To Do in Singapore: A First-Timer's 3-Day Guide
DAY 1: Getting Familiar with Some of Singapore’s Most Recognizable Landmarks and Eating at a Hawker Center
Jewel Changi Airport
Singapore might very well be the only place in the world that’ll make you want to spend some extra time in the airport after arriving. Jewel Changi Airport (also just known as the Jewel) is home to the famous indoor waterfall – The Vortex – cascading down the center of a massive, impressive mega-dome filled with attractions, shops, and eateries. Here, you can find everything from high-end designer boutiques and french bakeries to sunflower gardens and a swimming pool. It’s made Singapore one of the best places to have a long layover, because you can easily just pop over to the Jewel and spend hours getting lost in the sheer list of things to do. But, if you’re staying in Singapore for more than a layover, my recommendation is to visit the Jewel as soon as you land before continuing on to your hotel to check in. That way, if you don’t have any downtime when you return to the airport in a couple days, you can just head straight to your gate.
Eat at a Hawker Centre
You might find eating options at the Jewel to be a little pricey. But fortunately, Singapore has a solution to expensive dining, and it’s been around for centuries – hawker centres. These Singaporean open-air food courts are where you can find local dishes showcasing all of Singapore’s many cultural identities, from satays and curries to samosas and chicken rice (a Singaporean staple). And the best part – despite being incredibly affordable compared to the rest of Singapore’s dining options, hawker centres are typically well-known for being high-quality. In fact, two hawker stands in Singapore have even earned Michelin stars (making them the first street food vendors to do so, and likely the cheapest, in the world).
Hawker Centres to Visit:
Gardens by the Bay & Marina Bay Sands
Besides the Jewel, Singapore’s two other recognizable landmarks include Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands. They are located right next to each other, so with enough time (I’d spend at least an hour at each) you can easily explore both.
Gardens By the Bay is without a doubt one of the quintessential things to do in Singapore. Through a series of exhibits, Gardens By the Bay combines plants from all over the world into a showcase that is uniquely Singaporean. You can visit the Supertree Grove (the massive column-like trees that light up at night) every day for free. If you want to also visit the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest exhibits, or check out the OCBC Skyway at Supertree Grove, tickets to the attractions can be purchased separately or bundled.
When I visited, the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest cost S$28 ($21 USD), and the Skyway cost S$8 ($6 USD).
Marina Bay Sands is an iconic part of Singapore’s skyline. It is a 3-tower hotel joined together at the top by a massive pool and observation deck that looks to be part-spaceship, part-surfboard. While you can only access the pool if you’re a guest at the hotel, you can visit Marina Bay Sands’ observation deck – Sands Skypark – for S$26 ($18 USD). I was told this wasn’t worth the money and that you can find similar views in tons of other buildings in Singapore. But, there is something about seeing all of Singapore from Marina Bay that is irreplaceable. If you go about an hour before sunset and get to witness the skyline by day and by night (when the city lights up and the Gardens by the Bay light shows begin), I’d say the $18 is money well spent. This is surely something worth doing once, especially on your first visit!
DAY 2: Strolling Through Singapore’s Quays, Shops, and Neighborhoods
Singapore River Quays
The Singapore River has an interesting history – less than 40 years ago, the river was lined with warehouses and trading boats, and it wasn’t really a desirable place to be. In the 1980s, the Singaporean government decided to clean this area up and make it into a commercial and entertainment hub. Now, the banks of the Singapore River are lined with bars and restaurants, hotels that proudly advertise ‘river views,’ and colorful bridges that make a stroll down the river a visual feast in its own right. You can take a scenic river cruise, or you can explore the quays on foot, which is what I recommend.
From Robertson Quay to the mouth of the Singapore River, it’s about a 30-minute to 1-hour stroll, depending on how often you stop. It gets hot during the day in Singapore, so do this early in the morning or in the evening if you can!
Robertson Quay: Robertson Quay is the most inland, so it gets less tourist foot traffic than the other two quays. You’ll find some great restaurants and bars here, along with locals and business crowds enjoying after-work cocktails.
Clarke Quay: Clarke Quay is the most popular and most lively quay. It’s home to some chic restaurants, beautiful bars, and gigantic clubs with an almost Hollywood-like flair. Definitely plan on dressing up if you spend an evening here!
Boat Quay: Closest to the former harbor (and the Merlion – see below!), Boat Quay is home to even more bars, restaurants, and shops. Many of these are super touristy compared to the other two quays, so just be discerning if you’re looking for a place to eat!
Visiting the Merlion
If you walk from Robertson Quay to the end of Boat Quay, all you need to do is walk a bit further to find Singapore’s national icon, the Merlion statue. The Merlion is part fish, part lion, and is a symbol of Singapore’s humble beginnings as a fishing village. Singapore’s original name, Singapura, means ‘lion city’ in Malay. Combine that together and you get the Merlion, a statue that was erected with the purpose of welcoming visitors from all over the world to Singapore. It is just as beautiful by day as it is by night – there’s no bad time to visit.
Eat in a Mall or Kopitiam
One of my friends who I met up with in Singapore informed me that the mall culture here is massive. I’m not talking about the shopping (Singaporeans do love shopping, as you probably will already know by now after a visit to the Jewel). I’m talking about the food courts. Singaporean food courts, like hawker centres, offer cheap fare and attract massive local crowds. During my time in Singapore, I saw more local people eating in air-conditioned malls than I did eating at outdoor cafes, and I loved it. The ambiance in a popular food court is lively yet unpretentious – people care about good food but don’t mind if it’s served on a paper plate or lunch tray.
You can also have coffee and a quick bite at a kopitiam, which is essentially a local neighborhood coffee shop. They’re simple but reliable, and you will find most people enjoying coffee, some variety of kaya toast (toasted bread with coconut jam), and soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce.
Explore Singapore’s Many Cultural Neighborhoods
Singapore is a melting pot of cultural influence, with dedicated neighborhoods celebrating some of the city-state’s largest populations. Some must-visit neighborhoods you should check out include:
DAY 3: Island-Hopping, Bar-Hopping, and Animal Sightings
Check Out One of Singapore’s Many Islands
Believe it or not, Singapore is actually home to 63 islands. One of the biggest, most famous, and easiest to visit (no boat needed) is Sentosa Island, which is also home to Universal Studios. You can come here to check out the island’s various theme park-like attractions, or spend time strolling the beaches. And, if you want to visit the southernmost tip of continental Asia, you can do that here!
Head to the Night Safari
As you might expect by the name, the Night Safari is a nocturnal zoo that allows you to see animals after dark, learn about them, and get to know about the conservation efforts the Night Safari is pioneering to help keep them safe. The Night Safari is home to all kinds of animals (over 100 species), 41% of which are threatened or endangered. This was a really unique experience and one you definitely should not miss while you’re here!
Experience Singapore’s Nightlife Scene
Singapore’s nightlife scene is unmissable. Everything from ritzy nightclubs and cocktail lounges to dive bars and hole-in-the-walls is yours for the taking after dark. That said, drinks and cover charges in Singapore can be insanely expensive. Look for happy hour specials, ladies nights, and places where drinks are included in your cover whenever possible! Keep reading for recommendations on where to drink and dance towards the bottom of this post.
Other Things to Do if You Have More Time
Universal Studios: Singapore’s own Universal Studios is located on Sentosa Island and would make for a great day trip! You can get to Sentosa Island by cable car or Grab.
Pulau Ubin: Pulau Ubin is home to beautiful coastlines, bike paths, and wetlands. It’s a complete 180º from what you’ll find in Singapore’s lively streets and skyscrapers.
Kusu Island: Kusu has blue lagoons, lots of wildlife and scenery, and religious landmarks to visit within the span of a day.
St. John’s Island and Lazarus Island: St John’s is a developed island with lagoons, hiking, and wide-open spaces for picnicking and outdoor sports. There are also places to stay (think bungalows and small private complexes) if you want to spend the night. Across a short walkway, Lazarus Island is even more remote and untouched, with fewer amenities but gorgeous white sand beaches.
Batam: Want to visit another country for the day? You can take a one-hour ferry to Batam, Indonesia! Apparently, this island is well-loved for cheap shopping, casinos, nightlife, and seafood.
Bintan: Another nearby Indonesian island, Bintan is known for its high-end resorts, beaches, and beach bars for people to relax and unwind.
Malacca: Malacca, in Malaysia, is a gorgeous town famous for colonial architecture and a melting pot of Malay, Peranakan, and Portuguese cuisine. The entire city even has UNESCO World Heritage status.
Where to Stay
Marina Bay Sands: The quintessential Singapore stay. Because it is pricy, I’d suggest staying just 1 or 2 nights to get a taste of the hotel and spend some time at the famous pool on the roof.
Where to Eat and Drink
Tips to Know Before You Go
Currency: Singapore uses the Singaporean Dollar (S$1 = $0.71 USD, roughly)
Language: Singapore’s official languages are Malay, Tamil, English, and Mandarin. You should be able to get by pretty well with English most everywhere!
Transportation: Singapore is a tiny island, but you will still need to take transportation to get around as not every place is walkable. Fortunately, you have several options!
Call a Taxi or order a Grab (you’ll need to download the Grab app – drivers accept payments on the app or via cash at the end of the drive)
Take Public Transportation
Weather: Singapore has two main seasons – wet and dry. Wet season lasts from September to February, and the dry season lasts from March to August. I went in November and only experienced occasional rain. Regardless of the season, the weather is pretty hot and humid year-round.
Attire: You’ll want to pack lots of lightweight, loose clothing to combat the warm and humid weather. However, make sure you also bring a rain jacket just in case of a downpour!
Singaporean Laws: Singapore is known for its strict laws and regulations. Make sure you do not litter, only smoke in designated areas, and avoid eating or drinking on public transportation. Also, the gum law is real – chewing gum is banned in Singapore. Best not to attempt!
Singapore is a remarkable, wildly diverse and fascinating place to get lost in. Spending 3 days in Singapore along with my mom and uncle (his first trip outside of the country!) was so special and so colorful. I hope this guide proved just how much you can see, do, and experience in Singapore even if you only have a couple of days here!
Ready to go to Singapore?
What are you most excited to see, do, or eat in Singapore? Tell me in the comments!