Singapore in 20 Hours

10 minutes read
Singapore in 20 Hours


By Ellen Kortesoja

Here is one way to conduct a 23-hour layover in Singapore, if you don’t mind walking a million miles in sticky humidity.

As an aside, before this particular travel stint, I played around with some different travel apps. Here are the best two planning apps I have come across:

  1. TripIt — You simply forward your flight details from your email and it automatically populates into the app. You can do this for hotels or activities, too. You can also add a co-traveler to a trip – (for easy access to their flight info!) (
  2. Excursion — I really nerded out with this one. You can start a travel plan that’s location-based and add hotels, restaurants and anything you can think of. The coolest feature I discovered is that you can download the “offline map” for walking around that roughly tracks where you are (without using wifi or data). (


There was no way I was springing for a hotel – only to sleep there for less than six hours. Luckily, the sleeping chairs at the airport are the most thankful thing in the whole world. ( It’s dark, there’s gentle music playing, the chairs are reclined. B-Y-O-Blanket or pillow.


After sleep and coffee are accomplished, I stowed my larger carry-on in an airport rent-a-locker. I’m feeling light and agile and ready to decipher the metro.

The MRT is clean and efficient and EASY TO UNDERSTAND. For chrissake, whoever allowed the New York subway system to look like a complex human nerve system should be slapped. (


8:00am — Little India

Exactly what may come to mind is what to expect: A bustling, gritty hub of a marketplace.

I wandered aimlessly – sounds, smells and sights too much to comprehend at the early hour in a foggy haze. This place is a tourist draw, for sure, but first and foremost it looked to be top tier for fish and produce purchasing.

A blog I read dared me to try bull penis stew. I couldn’t find it. Admittedly, I can’t say I looked that hard. If the opportunity arose, I like to think that I would have grabbed the bull by the… yeah.

All the market-goers were eating dosa (a crepe-type thing made from rice/lentils with different fillings). I opted for that and also a prata (a flat bread fried in butter).

Embarrassingly enough, I was nervous to dive into either. I had watched the chefs exchange money intermittently with cooking and filling up water with plastic buckets stowed on the floor.

I sent a prayer up to the street food gods – hoping they would spare me from any indigestion problems. I sat at the communal tables across from a nice couple also sheepishly eating with their hands – the sloppy, flavorful mess.

Above all, my favorite part was my new friend Ragini. She had a henna table right in front of the entrance to the marketplace. She looked about my age and calmly welcoming. After being accosted by many other henna artists (with cheaper prices), I still went to seek her out later on.

I sat. We chatted. She lives in Malaysia with her husband and two kids, but comes to Singapore to catch the tourists in high season. The design took about five minutes, but I sat for the remaining 25 minutes waiting for it to dry. She had the kind of sing-songy voice that left me mildly hypnotized and staring at her large eyes.

She said I should start doing henna and open up a shop in my city and she could come to live and work at my shop. New life plan set.


9:30am — Downtown Core

I ended up here basically by mistake. There is a bar/vista opportunity called Altitude where you can get a stunningly high view above the skyscrapers. But that was going to be a neat 30-ish Singapore dollars, pass. ( Instead I wandered around looking for a place to recharge.

With sharply clad business people swarming the entire area, I looked really out of place with a camera slung on one shoulder and active-wear on. When I finally sat down and found a menu I found that any coffee drink on the menu was seven or eight Singapore dollars ($10-11.00 U.S.)

Singapore is not cheap. I instantly felt not bougie enough for this hyper clean, hyper stylized city.

Singapore’s opulence didn’t make sense to me… I couldn’t place it. I think that’s mainly because it’s a place Americans so rarely hear about. Some streets felt like New York, some like San Francisco and some places I stumbled upon were so other-worldly and impressive that it felt like outer space.


11:00am — Chinatown

The great Singapore chicken rice battle has two heavy weights competing: Anthony Bourdain vs. a Michelin Star.

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is in the Maxwell Food Centre – the main Chinatown area of food stands. Apparently Anthony Bourdain has been there. I haven’t seen that episode, so I’m not sure what his gastro review was.

Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle has a Michelin star. It’s the cheapest meal available that’s been awarded one, so the Internet tells me. (

I put all my eggs in this self-imposed chicken rice competition, only to find out the Michelin star place is closed on Wednesdays. My 20 hours in Singapore? = Wednesday.

Tian Tian is a simplistic treasure. The chicken is steamed and very tender, rice is fluffy and buttery, the chili sauce is great. And that’s it! That’s chicken rice.

Singapore-goers, DON’T go on a Wednesday, and DO find out whose chicken rice is better, I implore you.



3:00 pm — Gardens by the Bay

I think if I would have gone at night it would have been like a scene from Avatar. It’s hard to comprehend what you’re seeing – it looks so surreal. (

A tourist trap, for sure. You have to buy a ticket for every area and it is absurdly expensive. Once I’d worked out what I paid just to go into two areas, I was pretty begrudging of the spectacles. But I can’t deny that it was like nothing I had ever seen before. If you’re on a budget and not looking to splurge, I would 1) go at night, and 2) pay the fee to go up and walk along the Supertree Grove. (


5:00pm — Marina Sands Mall

Adjacent to the Gardens, the mall is terribly large and frustrating to navigate. The best part was walking toward the mall and enjoying a sunset on the bay.


The architecture doesn’t disappoint. There’s the Helix Bridge (self-explanatory), cozied up next to the ArtScience Museum which looks like a blossomed artichoke.


Riding the immaculate metro back to the airport, I watched everyone play Pokemon Go on their phones. No one seems stressed. The metro announcements play in Mandarin, English, Malay and then Tamil. How incredibly hospitable.

Singapore seems to really have its shit together.


Ellen is a construction project manager in Washington D.C. Hailing from Ann Arbor, MI, she is getting slowly naturalized to the more temperate winters and blossoming food scene of D.C. She has traveled to parts of Europe, Central America, Peru, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Singapore and Bali. You can usually find her bumming around volleyball courts or ingesting NPR podcasts. Follow her on Twitter or IG: @ellenjaneen

Ellen Kortesoja

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