What It’s Like to Visit Singapore Right Now
(Bloomberg) -- Derek Wallbank is a senior editor based in Bloomberg’s Singapore bureau.
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.
Singapore also makes no apologies for its stance on vaccinations: If you’re not vaccinated, don’t bother coming. You probably couldn’t get in anyway, and if you did, you couldn’t really do anything once you landed. Your proof of vaccination, displayed on the city-state’s mandatory TraceTogether phone app, is required to enter almost any type of business: restaurants and retail, hotels and museums.
The strictness of those rules may come as a shock to visitors from the U.S. and Europe. But it’s part of the plan to—slowly—welcome the world back.
Although Singapore has maintained some of the tightest border restrictions in the world for much of 2021, vaccinated travelers from the U.S., Canada, most of Western Europe, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and Australia can now fly in on certain routes without having to quarantine. All you have to do is apply for a vaccinated travel pass before you book—approval takes about five minutes—and get a Covid test 48 hours predeparture. Once you test negative again on arrival, you’re free to move about the country.
More travel easings are on the way, as the government eyes reopening with Thailand, Cambodia, Fiji, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Turkey in December. More will follow.
The crowds will 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. United Airlines will restart nonstop service from San Francisco in January.
Until then, travelers have a rare opportunity to see the city-state without the usual crowds. So long as you can follow the rules, it’s well worth the trip.
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 in America is about a 3 here—and they won’t serve above 6 on a first visit for your own safety. 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. Dress to impress at Atlas, an art deco showstopper of a grand lobby bar with a multistory tower housing a collection of more than 1,300 gins. Head bartender Jesse Vida’s first love is a good martini, and a Vesper with the locally distilled Tanglin Orchid gin is a good place to start.
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 meters (164 feet) 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 ($11) 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 just 1 mile away from the Port of Singapore, where the Southern Ridges 10-kilometer hiking trail 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.
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 has a reputation for being clean, and compared to mass transit in New York or London, its subway is pristine. It also 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.
Bumboats on the Singapore River are less a mode of transit than an open-air pleasure cruise, while ferries connect travelers between the mainland and day-trip destinations such as the beaches of the Southern Islands. The same Covid rules on the Singapore mainland also apply to its islands.
The Covid Etiquette
Singapore’s mask rule is simple: Wear it. That goes for the office, and it goes for outside. If you’re a guest in someone’s house, wait for their invitation to remove it before making assumptions. Fair warning: If you see someone flouting a rule here or there, don’t join them.
Tourists are fairly obvious at the best of times, and—this is Singapore—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. Singapore may be reopening once again, but it’s not quite back to normal—yet.
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