What it’s like to visit Singapore right now

In the shadow of Covid the city-state is both reassuringly familiar yet oddly different, but the lack of crowds is a drawcard.

By David Flynn, December 6 2021
What it’s like to visit Singapore right now

Singapore has been one of the safest places in the world to ride out the pandemic. Some 96% of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated, and hospitals here have never been overrun.

But the trade hub and city-state of just under 5.5 million people is toeing a delicate line. Every time restrictions have eased in the past year, Covid cases have spiked, leaving Singapore with some of the strictest remaining public-health measures in the world.

There are no mask debates here. You’ll need one everywhere, indoors and out, unless you’re exercising or eating – two things that are still tightly regulated. No more than five people can dine together at a single table; up to five can be in a group walking around outdoors.

The crowds will almost certainly come back, but they’re not here yet.

As of October, Singapore’s Changi Airport had welcomed about 1.8 million passengers for 2021 – roughly 3% of 2019’s figures.

As ‘vaccinated travel lanes’ expand, so too are arrival numbers: Singapore Airlines, which has added routes as each new destination comes back online, carried about 22% more passengers in October than it did in September.

Getting there

Vaccinated travel lanes are host to dedicated VTL flights from local carriers Singapore Airlines and Scoot, along with the  ‘home carriers’ of each VTL country such as Qantas, British Airways, Lufthansa and Air France/KLM.

In addition to being fully vaccinated and carrying their internationally-recognised vaccination certificate, each passenger must run a gauntlet of checks which make it understandably tempting to out their trip into the ‘too hard’ basket.

A vaccinated travel pass must be obtained no less than seven days before the departure of your flight to Singapore.

After applying online the pass itself is typically approved within minutes, but you can apply for it only seven or more days before you travel. Leave this task until six days ahead of your flight for example, or turn up at the airport without the pass, and you simply won't be going anywhere.

Likewise, you’ll have to be holding a negative result for a Covid test taken within 48 hours of your flight's scheduled departure time – this can be a PCR test or an 'antigen rapid test' (ART), although self-administered rapid antigen tests are not permitted.

Also on the to-do list is travel insurance with at least SGD$30,000 of Covid cover. Thankfully this is available from as little as SGD$20, with several providers listed on the Singapore Government's Safe Travel website.

On arrival at Singapore's Changi Airport you'll need to under a second PCR test (SGD$125, and we suggest booking ahead through Changi Airport's Safe Travel service) and remain in your hotel room until receiving a negative result, which generally takes inside of six hours.

As of this week there's also a new wrinkle as Singapore steps up its measures against Omicron: all VTL travellers must take a daily Covid-19 test across the first week they're in the country.

This includes self-administered antigen rapid tests each morning on days 2, 4, 5 and 6, with the results of those submitted online; and "supervised antigen rapid tests" on day 3 and day 7 of their visit.

Visiting Singapore in the shadow of Covid

With so few people actually coming to Singapore, travellers have a rare opportunity to see the city-state without the usual throng of crowds. The only caveat – one which this has always applied to Singapore, but now more than ever – is  to follow the rules.

And Singapore’s mask rule is simple: wear it indoors and out, unless you're eating or exercising. This being Singapore, the penalties for infractions can be severe.

Mask violations are criminal offenses; repeated or flagrant offenses can result in weeks or months of jail time, and fines up to S$10,000.

Foreigners who flout the law have had work passes revoked and been deported or ordered to leave the country. Innocent mistakes are understood. They might draw an official’s friendly but firm reminder before everyone moves on. Do your best and you’ll be just fine.

Whatever you do, don’t hug anyone. A fist bump works for friends, but handshakes are still not back into regular use. Personal contact remains unexpected, if not repellent.

The dining scene

In 2021, Singapore earned more Michelin stars than it had before the pandemic began, a sign that the dining scene here has thrived against all odds. And now, with travel still down, you might actually get a table.

One notoriously impossible reservation is Burnt Ends, an Australian barbecue joint with one Michelin star that probably deserves another – and may get it at its new (larger) location at Dempsey Hill, where a handful of colonial-era buildings have been repurposed to new life as restaurants and art galleries.

Its chef, Dave Pynt, is best known for legendary renditions of Blackmore wagyu beef and his pulled-pork “sanger” sandwiches.

But real insiders order an off-the-menu riff on steak frites – a one-bite wonder of tartare and caviar perched atop a gently-fried potato – and, for dessert, skewered marshmallows scorched with citrus. They taste as if a campfire s’more made an indecent proposal to a chocolate orange.

Over in Little India, a one-way road leads to Lagnaa Barefoot Dining, a hidden gem beloved by those for whom spice is life. Curries come in 10 levels of chili – 'hot' for most Westerners is about a 3 here – and for your own safety, they won’t serve above level 6 on a first visit.

The graffiti on the walls is a contribution of the many Air France, Swiss, and British Airways crews who once found their way to chef Kaesavan Krishnan’s hideout in the Before Times. It won’t be long before they’re packing his shophouse diner once again.

Bars are technically still closed in Singapore, but there’s a loophole: if you serve food, you can also serve drinks. So most everything is open in practice, although there's little if any music to go with your meal (another temporary casualty of Singapore's strict Covid laws).

Yet for all its high-class acclaim, Singapore’s true food soul is found in its hawker centers, the stars of a constellation that together form the best $5-and-under food scene in the world.

They remain mostly just as you remember, though the half-hour queues snaking out from the best stalls are more socially distanced these days.

Head to the food centers at Tiong Bahru, Maxwell, or Adam Road and let the wisdom of the crowds guide you.

Culture makes a comeback

Singapore as a whole is open, but rather cautiously – making for few opportunities to truly go wild.

If you’re still Covid-wary: Gardens by the Bay used to be packed with tourists who’d sometimes collide with each other as they gawked skyward at its Supertrees, fusions of metal and vine that rise up to 50 metres into the air. The Gardens are open, but crowds haven’t returned.

To be sure of minimal contact, the National Orchid Garden operates on strictly limited capacity. Inside is a living museum of orchids – more than 3,000 varieties worth.

Admission is S$15 for adult tourists, and the rest of the Singapore Botanic Gardens surrounding it is free.

If you want to stay solo, avoid the sprawling playgrounds in the north and west of the gardens; instead, you can go south and walk among the heliconias or treat your nose to the perfumed frangipani collection.

If you need a gentle reentry: Singapore got big into golf over the pandemic.

The greens were a rare place you could walk around for four hours without a mask on.

If you can get a tee time, the Marina Bay Golf Course offers socially distanced rounds starting at S$130 for visitors that come with sweeping views of the downtown skyline. If you can’t, there’s a four-tiered driving range and a bar that’s deliberately set atop a flight of stairs to take advantage of the vista.

Despite its abundance of hiking trails, Singapore’s forested paths can get jammed, especially on weekends. Many find it’s worth the risk to spot long-tailed macaques and giant Malayan water monitors at MacRitchie Reservoir.

But solitude abounds at the Southern Ridges 10-kilometer hiking trail, which includes canopy boardwalks flanked by soaring tualang and jelutong trees. Look for migratory birds such as white-throated kingfishers (spotted by their brilliant teal backs), bright yellow common ioras, and brahminy kites soaring overhead.

Along that route is the Henderson Waves, Singapore’s highest pedestrian bridge. There are rest stops nearby, like the Instagram-worthy Wildseed Cafe or Good Beer Company, which serves more than 100 beers and a mean diavola pizza.

If you’re up for getting back out there: Singapore’s museums are fully open, and at least for now, there’s hardly anyone to avoid in most galleries.

The National Museum, which charts Singapore’s history, was one of the first to open an exhibit marking the Covid-19 pandemic. Its contents – recent relics like distancing signs and photos of pandemic resilience – contextualized the pandemic as one of Singapore’s two struggles for survival (the other being the Japanese occupation during World War II.)

At the more interactive ArtScience Museum on Marina Bay, you can draw and color a fish on paper and then watch it swim across a digitized ocean at Tokyo-based TeamLab’s Future World exhibition.

Live events are back, too – and limitations on foreign touring acts mean you can see locals shine at lower ticket prices. At the Esplanade, a bay-front theater with a rounded oval spiked roof resembling a durian fruit, there are often multiple performances a day ranging from a capella troupes to jazz bands and concerts from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

As ever, though, the place to see and be seen is by the water.

At the Marina Bay Sands hotel, access to its rooftop infinity pool 57 stories in the sky is for hotel guests only and requires a reservation made in advance.

Two cheats for getting in: swap a covetable sunset slot for a sunrise viewing instead, when there are fewer people and less chance of rain, or book brunch at the pool-adjacent Spago Bar and Lounge, which has the same views but with Wolfgang Puck’s food.

How to get around

Singapore's clean and efficient MRT mass transit system offers easy access to any and all major points of interest. Masks are required. Everyone complies, and it will cause a scene if you don’t. 

Buses go everywhere the trains don’t, but if you must, cabs are widely available. Uber doesn’t operate in Singapore, but the local app equivalent is Grab.

Also read: Flying with Singapore Airlines in the Australia-Singapore VTL bubble

Additional reporting by Bloomberg