The Over-the-Top Singapore Airport Is a Destination All on Its Own

Singapore’s Changi Airport has been offering travelers an exceptional experience for decades. It often wins “Best Airport in the World” awards from groups like SkyTrax and the World Travel Awards. The terminals house indoor gardens, beautiful works of art and shopping and dining options that go way beyond what you find in most airports. But this year, with the opening of the Jewel shopping and dining center attached to Terminal 1, the Singapore airport has become a destination in its own right—and an amazing place for a family day out, whether you’re waiting for a flight or not.

What It Is—and Why Families Love It

Courtesy of Singapore Changi Airport

The Jewel complex is a shopping and dining destination built in an enormous glass dome designed by Moshe Safdie. This exquisite mall has 10 floors of restaurants and stores as well as lots of fun activities and entertainment. Ever since it opened, Singaporean families have flocked to the Jewel on the weekends to shop, eat and let their kids run around and enjoy inventive slides, climbing structures, indoor gardens and games (more on those below).

Fun and Entertainment

Courtesy of Singapore Changi Airport

The signature feature and (literal) heart of the Singapore airport's Jewel is the Rain Vortex, a stunning tube-shaped waterfall that drops from the curved glass ceiling all the way into the basement levels, ten floors below. The waterfall (which circulates rainwater) is surrounded by an indoor garden filled with 2,000 trees and 100,000 tropical bushes. Bench seating on all levels gives visitors a calm space to relax and watch the water descend. At night, a light show of flowers, birds and other shapes choreographed to soaring music is projected onto the water every hour.

On the top floor of the building, just below the curved glass ceiling, you'll find another popular attraction: Canopy Park. Here, visitors (who purchase the appropriate tickets) can walk along the glass Canopy Bridge and see the waterfall from above; stroll through themed gardens; get lost in a hedge maze and a mirror maze; play on an assortment of twisting, turning slides with enough drops and curves to entertain even fun-loving adults; and climb, bounce and stroll on enormous woven nets that hang well above the ground—and in some places even stretch out over the building’s five-story atrium.

Courtesy of Singapore Changi Airport

Once you’ve admired the water and the gardens, you can head to the interactive Changi Experience Studio. This museum-style space tells stories about the airport in ways that make this potentially humdrum material surprising and extremely engaging. For some exercise, hop on a stationary bike and compete with friends in a simulated race that recreates the race between a Porche 911 GT3 Carrera Cup car and a Boeing 747 that was held here in 2009. Next, try your hand at video games that mimic the jobs the airport staff does. Kids will love trying their hand at directing the taxi line, spotting the dangerous items in a luggage X-ray or trying to scoop up luggage carts left around the terminal as fast as possible. Make melodies at the Garden of Harmony by manipulating wobbly lily pads and then stop to watch a short animation of the building of the Changi airport on your way out.

Dining

Courtesy of Singapore Changi Airport

The Jewel offers some of the fast food options you’d expect at a mall, but most of the eateries are much higher caliber. Even the Shake Shack ups its game by offering a pandan-flavored milk shake that is exclusive to its Singapore outlet. Lauded local restaurants have opened branches, including Violet Oon and Putien. Popular restaurants from across Asia also have outposts. Two not to miss are Din Tai Fung, where you can enjoy the Shanghai-style soup dumplings and hand-pulled noodles that have made this Taiwanese brand an international success, and Tim Ho Wan, where you can sample Michelin-starred dim sum specialties.

Courtesy of Din Tai Fung

Like the rest of Singapore, the Jewel offers an extremely wide variety of cuisines from across Asia and the world. Craving Chinese? Options include Yunnan food at Yun Nans, Sichuan-style noodle soups at Yu’s Kitchen and inventive takes on a variety of styles at Shang Social. For Japanese head to places like try Sushi Tei or Tonkatsu Ma Maison, and for the freshest seafood, pick a lobster from the tank at Jumbo Seafood and have it braised with glass vermicelli. There are Hawaiian specialties at Eggs’n Things, Spanish bites at Tapas Club and various types of Latin American foods at Tonito (which occasionally also offers a kids’ cooking class). There are also Indian options, Thai options and plenty of places for burgers, steak, pizza and other American dishes. And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

If you can’t all agree on what style of food to get, all you have to do is head down to the Jewel’s basement food court, which offers an astonishing array of lower-priced options, from roasted chicken hor fun to chile grab, beef rending, ma po tofu and chicken breaded in cornflakes. After your meal, don’t forget to browse the mochi ice cream (available in flavors like salted caramel, passion fruit and Korean banana milk); the bowls of grass jelly topped with various kinds of tapioca, fruit “jelly” and taro balls; coconut milkshakes; and ice creams from around the world (the cheese-flavored soft serve at Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory will blow you mind in the best way).

Shopping

Browsing through house wares in Muji may not be most kids’ idea of fun, but for families who need something to keep everyone entertained on their next flight or the next leg of their trip, the toy stores and shops in the Jewel have enough fun to put Toys "R" Us to shame. The Better Toy Store offers dozens of high-quality stuffies, a menagerie’s worth of plastic animal figurines, life-like dolls from Götz and games from around the world. Times Junior has Legos, sparkly Beanie Babies, activity books, something called Raonborcorns Sequin Surprise (which looks both messy and very glittery) and even a whole wall of kids books written by local authors. Trendy Hub is full of My Little Kitty wares and the Pokémon store has, well, everything Pokémon.

Older kids and pop art aficionados will go nuts for the collectible, limited edition Bearbrick statues and unicorn-mermaid figurines designed by Kaws and other artists at ActionCity. Even the GIFT by Changi Airport shop offers tiny, portable poker sets and dice games made by Gentlemen’s Hardware and themed quiz games by Ridley’s Games Room suitable for both kids and adults. Or kids can get hands-on playtime and spend an hour at Ducks & Crafts making their own souvenirs by decorating a passport cover or doing pixel bead art.

And if you do realize you’ve packed wrong or forgotten to bring a bathing suit, there is no shortage of stores for kids and parents to browse.

Snacks for the road are also on offer: you can grab some salted egg yolk-flavored chips at Irvin’s Salted Egg (they’re really delicious, promise); buy a box of traditional pineapple cakes, a slice of pandan-kaya cake or a container of colorful layered lapis sagu sweets at Bengawan Solo; or pick up a durain, kaya or matcha-flavored Swiss roll at Rich & Good Cake Shop, which is so popular that it runs out of supplies by lunchtime.

Other Family-Friendly Amenities (for Kids and Parents)

The Jewel has an early check-in area, where travelers on many airlines can get their boarding passes and check luggage hours before their flights. If you have to check out of your hotel hours before you actually depart, this lets you ditch your heavy bags so that you can spend the rest of the day enjoying Jewel’s attractions.

Courtesy of Singapore Changi Airport

For parents who need to do a little work (or just want to take turns on kid duty and squeeze in some relaxation), there’s the pay-per-use Changi Lounge, which offers quiet, comfortable seating, a small café/bar, a couple of rentable meeting rooms and even a “nap room” with private pods you can snooze in. If you just need to work out some kinks, Ning spa offers foot and back massages. Salons offer shaves and manicures, and both kids and parents can get haircuts.

In-Terminal Attractions

If you find yourself with time to waste after you’ve cleared security, or you just don’t have time to visit the Jewel before your flight, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Keep an eye out for enormous moving sculptures like Kinetic Rain by Art+Com in T1, which is built of 1,216 bronze droplets suspended from the ceiling by wires that allow them to rise and fall to create waves, airplanes and kites, among other shapes and images.

Courtesy of Singapore Changi Airport

T1 offers a rooftop swimming pool that overlooks the runway, as well as a rooftop cactus garden with a bar and shaded seating and a water lily garden. T2 is home to an orchid garden and a sunflower garden, with over 500 sunny blooms. T3 boasts the famous butterfly garden, where you can walk among the delicate creatures and see if you're lucky enough for one to land on you. T4 offers a small gallery of Peranakan crafts and cultural exhibits and the Heritage Zone, which is built to look like the front of colorful local shop houses and has a screen that plays scenes of domestic life in these traditional homes.

Courtesy of Singapore Changi Airport

Every terminal also has a wide variety of excellent eateries as well as kid play areas and art spaces where you can draw and make wood-block prints. As an added bonus, some even have movie theaters. For parents who need a little bit of pampering, the Duty-Free shops also boast bars that allow potential customers to sample the craft beers and whiskies for sale or even enjoy a cocktail. Sure to be a true hit with any kid, arriving passengers can even take enormous, twisting slides to some baggage claim and exit areas.

You can also see the Rain Vortex waterfall in Jewel after you’ve cleared security—just hop on one of the in-terminal trains that runs between T2 and T3; the tracks will take you right past the plunging water, and all you have to do to get back to your gate is ride the train back again a couple minutes later.

By Georgia Freedman