Voted the ‘World’s Best Airport’ for the fourth year by Skytrax, Changi Airport is more like a vacation destination than a layover, offering so many free sightseeing tours and entertaining activities that even the most jet-lagged traveller will find something to smile about.
While most airports confine travellers in transit to secure areas, Singapore Tourism Board takes the opportunity to whisk visitors away on a sightseeing tour around this fascinating city. These free guided tours last over two hours and the only condition is that you must be in transit for over five and a half hours to qualify. Lucky travellers can register at the tour desk for their ticket, deposit their cabin luggage at the left baggage desk and then hop aboard a luxury air-conditioned coach for a whirlwind tour of the sights. You even get the chance to stretch your legs and take photographs!
Like all professional travel desks, there’s a choice of tour. The Heritage Tour runs throughout the day and the City Sights Tour run after dark. While the old adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” might be ringing in your ears, these tours are fabulous. Professional tour guides provide commentary and there are no unscheduled stops at sweatshops or any other hidden catch.
The Heritage Tour itinerary is ideal for the first-time visitor to Singapore. It takes in the Colonial District with its elegant City Hall architecture, the glittering high-rises of the waterfront Central Business District and it includes a 20-minute stopover at Merlion Park. The statue of the mythical lion-headed fish is a great photo op and you will hear how it represents the ‘Lion City’ of Old Singapura.
Back onboard, the tour continues into Chinatown, an intriguing area of shophouses, gaudy temples, antique shops and street cafés. It looks, sounds and smells exactly as it should! Little India is next on the tour, where traders sell everything from garlands of flowers to bolts of silk. The final stop is Kampong Glam, an area rich in Malaysian culture and multi-ethnic history. The gilded dome of the magnificent Sultan Mosque stands comfortably among carpet shops and art galleries. It’s fun to mill around among the locals and listen to the babble of Chinese, Malay, Indian and English tongues.
Of course, Changi Airport never sleeps and for those arriving during the hours of darkness, the airport hosts tours throughout the evening to see the sights beautifully lit up. From your plush coach seat you will view the beautiful Harbour District and the Singapore Flyer, the second tallest observation wheel in the world. It’s definitely an attraction to earmark for a longer stay in this vibrant island-state. More contemporary architecture shines on every street corner as the tour trundles along the Esplanade, showcasing the glittering 60,000 sqm Theatres on the Bay, which houses the impressive Arts Centre. Marina Bay continues to dazzle tourists on this complimentary tour, which includes a 20-minute break in Merlion Park – an enthralling sight after dark. The tour continues with more landmark sights before dropping travellers at Gardens by the Bay to enjoy a 30-minute stroll around 500,000 plants lit by surreal Avatar-like supertrees.
Back at the airport, you are guided back through fast-track security to be reunited with your luggage and grab a bite to eat. Hopefully you will still have time to take advantage of some of Changi’s on-site attractions too.
A new twist on travel
The dome-roofed Butterfly Garden is a space to relax and spot some of the 1,000 exotic butterflies that flit around the tropical foliage. Pause at the Information Corner to learn about the lifecycle of a butterfly from egg through caterpillar. You can even see new butterflies emerging from their papery chrysalis and drying their hand-painted wings before embarking on their maiden flight. It’s magical.
Strolling around Changi Airport allows you to appreciate the architecture and artworks decorating this vast public space. Terminal 1 is the place to admire the Lantern Feature Walls that create a sun-dappled effect by day and a soothing oasis of calm after dark – look up to see thousands of raindrops suspended in motion. This state-of-the-art Kinetic Rain Sculpture is a fascinating cloud of 1,216 beautiful bronze raindrops.
Elsewhere in the airport there are ancient ceramics and modern Singaporean artworks on display. Even the Outdoor Gardens combines contemporary sculptured trees with lily pads and lush green ferns.
If you fancy a refreshing swim without leaving the airport, head to the Aerotel Singapore. For a modest day fee of around US$12, you can enjoy all the facilities at this transit hotel. Take a dip in the outdoor pool with towel and sun lounger provided or wallow in the Jacuzzi and watch the planes taking off overhead. There’s even a poolside bar and a library lounge. At this point, you’ll probably want to consider abandoning your trip and just staying put.
If you’re looking for more high-tech fun, the Entertainment Deck in Terminal 2 offers the latest sports gaming experiences in the Xbox Kinect Room where you can challenge your fellow travellers to virtual beach volleyball, table tennis or track and field events. The area includes Xbox360, PlayStation consoles and a cafeteria. It’s hard to believe you’re still in the airport!
The movie theatre seems almost too tame to mention, but it’s there for passengers and of course it’s free. So sit back in comfortable lounge seats and watch the latest Blockbuster movie or head into the MTV booth and watch music videos on the 50-inch plasma screen.
Just in case you’re so busy enjoying yourself that you don’t have time to visit the duty-free shops, Changi provides a little incentive. Spend a minimum amount in a single receipt and get a ticket for a free ride down Singapore’s tallest slide! Slide@T3 is a 12 metre high slide that whizzes between the floors of Terminal 3. This spiralling tube drops four storeys in an exhilarating ride that really puts a new twist on travel.
There’s so much more to Changi then we even have space to mention, such as the Fish Spa, Koi Pond, Cactus Garden and excellent shopping and dining worthy of any Orchard Road address. Free WiFi allows you to catch up with emails and send a selfie to colleagues and friends. No-one will believe you’re actually in an airport having fun.
Changi’s taking off
In this island-country of just 5.75 million people, Changi Airport served 58.7 million passengers in 2016. Once the new fourth terminal is fully operational (opening later this year), the handling capacity will increase to 82 million passengers, but the airport is not resting on its laurels for a moment.
In 2019, it plans to open a mixed-use complex for travellers, which will be called ‘Jewel Changi Airport’. Designed by world-famous architect Moshe Safdie (of Montreal’s Habitat 67 fame), the steel and glass façade will house a five-story garden filled with thousands of tropical trees surrounding a 40 metre high indoor waterfall.
Quite wonderfully, Changi may have even lost sight of the fact that it’s an airport not a resort destination. It begs the question: “Isn’t this how all airports should be?”