I have to admit to feeling a bit apprehensive about the post-Bali piece of our itinerary. Due to some flight-scheduling factors beyond our control, the plan we made in our heads for what we’d do after the four-hour drive from west Bali back to Sanur (four more leisurely days at Tandjung Sari, three days to explore Singapore, then on to Barcelona and Europe at large) got condensed into something pretty intense (just one last night at Tandjung Sari, up early to fly to Singapore for not-quite two days, followed by a 14-hour overnight flight and two let-lagged days in Barcelona). Taking on two major metropolises on two different continents in the space of four days felt like A LOT, especially after the low-speed ease of the previous six weeks.
And, if I’m being honest, this patch of travel was about to take me out of my comfort zone. While Australia and Bali were both places I’d been in the last decade (Fiji was new, but a tropical resort doesn’t take much getting used to), Singapore was a total mystery, and I haven’t traveled in Spain much at all (the last time I passed through was during a college semester in London). Also, Barcelona would mark our first real foray into the non-English-speaking world (English is widely—and well—spoken by just about everyone who interacts with tourists in Fiji and Bali, despite obviously not being their native language). I have some Spanish and have certainly traveled where English is less-commonly spoken, but those skills are rusty.
Plus: city travel, y’all. While we absolutely love living in a city, being a tourist in a city is a different—and exhausting—ballgame. Lots of walking, lots of people, teeny hotel rooms, eating out every meal, not much downtime. All with a five-year-old! You may recall that our last two big-city stops came with some challenges for our wee girl, so it was daunting to embark on back-to-back cities with a few stressful travel days and wacky time changes thrown in for good measure. Look for a future post about our evolving philosophy on traveling with a little one in big cities, but suffice it to say, we didn’t see/do/explore/eat all of the amazing things available to us on this trip.
All of that said? We made it! Was it entirely low-stress and drama-free? No! But we saw some cool stuff and started to scratch the surface of two very different and fascinating cities.
Two Cities, Both… Well, Pretty Different
Here are my impressions of these two very different cities, admittedly based on a very short time spent in each.
Let’s start where we did, on the island of Singapore, which is technically a city, state and country all rolled into one, but definitely gave me straight-up big-city vibes. Singapore has a futuristic quality to it, full of modern-looking buildings that seem to defy the laws of engineering and/or exist simply to look freaking cool. All of these sharp, shiny edges—and the nearly unbearable heat—are tempered by its “City in a Garden” designation, which means nearly half its square footage is made up of green space. So there are parks and trees, naturally, but also shrubs growing up and out of high rises, flowerbeds along highways and bizarre but beautiful tech/greenery mashups like the Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay, which gives certain areas a surreal, Avatar-esque quality.
Despite all this outdoor verdure, life seems to take place largely indoors (likely due to the aforementioned heat), and appeared, to our eyes, to be mostly mall-based. Because boy does Singapore like it some malls. Huge, multi-story, full-block complexes, comprising hundreds of stores, salons, restaurants, food stalls and more. You can walk through them to access the subway or your hotel, and they run the gamut from shiny, new and full of high-end retailers to old and run-down and full of oddities. But when the streets outside are empty, step inside one and that’s where you’ll find people: running errands, catching up, eating lunch, living life.
Singapore is famously clean and crime-free, a result of the strict fines (and much more severe punishments) that come with breaking their many laws. As a tourist, the cleanliness and sense of safety were lovely, but chats with two different Singaporean cabbies (one in Sydney, one in Singapore) suggested that some locals feel put-upon by all the strict rules there are to follow—a strictness which, it should be noted, led to an extremely effective Covid response (we happened to arrive on the very first day they lifted rigorous travel testing and outdoor mask mandates).
There’s not a lot of visible poverty in Singapore, but there is a lot of visible wealth. Fancy cars, expensive clothes, high-end shopping, five-star hotels… needless to say, the people-watching is excellent. We found ourselves outside of the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel the night we were there, trying to find a cab back to our far less upscale (but still weirdly posh for the money) hotel and it was highly entertaining to watch business bros in expensive suits with People To See and Places To Go, while women in tiny dresses and sky-high heels lowered themselves precariously into ridiculous cars. Extremely far from my scene, but I dug the Crazy Rich Asians energy of it all. (Fun fact: A scene from that movie was shot at the roof deck pool 57 stories above where we were waiting in line for a cab.)
And speaking of cabs, here’s a last random observation: Getting a ride in Singapore is not easy. Admittedly, we could have downloaded the Uber-esque Grab app, but hey, we figured, how hard could it be to call a few cabs over the course of 36 hours? The answer: hella hard. It was a wakeup call after being practically chased down on the streets of Bali by people who wanted to give us rides places, I can tell you that. It all ended up being fine, but people definitely travel by car there, and they are a hot commodity.
Overall, I was charmed by Singapore, despite the shocking heat. I’d definitely go back to visit the many attractions we missed this time around, and explore more of the famously excellent culinary scene, probably when Fi’s old enough to appreciate it. And next time we’ll figure out the subway—and leave the cars to the fancy folk.
Renowned for its artistic and architectural beauty, Barcelona was… a lot grubbier than I expected. Maybe it was just the contrast to ultra-clean Singapore, but boy was there a lot of graffiti on the walls and trash in the gutters and poop on the sidewalks and addicts wandering by. It reminded me a bit of home, actually! (In fact, our hotel, just around the corner from iconic La Rambla, was also next door to what appeared to be a methadone clinic, bringing to mind visions of San Francisco tourists turning the wrong way out of their Union Square hotels and finding themselves in the Tenderloin.)
The contrasts continued: Where Singapore is shiny, Barcelona is dingy; where Singapore felt ridiculously safe, Barcelona has an undercurrent of urban sketchiness (but while we’d been forewarned about rampant pickpocketing, we ended up feeling perfectly comfortable touristing around); where Singapore is ultramodern, Barcelona is decidedly old-world, with its soaring Roman and gothic buildings, grand churches and crumbling castles.
And while the streets of Singapore were relatively quiet, Barcelona’s were buzzing with energy and people—street performers, restaurant touts, students and, mostly, lots and lots of tourists. Even in low season, even given Covid, it was easily the most crowded place we’d been in two years (though, by all accounts, not nearly as full as it often is). Our hotel was fully booked, and we jostled through the streets alongside tour groups, retirees and so, so many young people there to party. In our 48 hours in the city, we saw no fewer than four bachelor/stag/bachelorette/hen parties, including one accompanied by a professional photographer and another so drunk by dinner that at least one stag was asleep on his plate.
The one-two punch of Singapore and Barcelona actually made me think of Vegas—a city that’s both a showcase for lavish, over-the-top wealth and a magnet for lowbrow debauchery.
Please don’t get me wrong: Barcelona is an incredible, cosmopolitan place full of culture and history and offering much more than your average party destination. And yet… with two short days to spend, jet-lagged to the gills and dragging around a half-asleep five-year-old (so, no museums on the itinerary), it’s this teeming, grungy atmosphere that sticks with me.
We appreciated the gorgeous architecture, the energy, the efficient subway system, the near-perfect weather, but didn’t fall in love. Maybe next time—when there will certainly be more explorations off the tourist path, some Gaudi and, ideally, a lot less jet lag.
So what, specifically, did we get up to on our incredibly short visits to these insanely bountiful cities? Not nearly enough! But we did and saw what we could with the time and energy we had. Here’s a look:
4 thoughts on “The Big City x 2: Adventures in Singapore and Barcelona”
I don’t remember Barcelona being so crowded – but we were there in April. We did a bike tour of La Rambla and the old city, a bus tour that took us to the Sacre Familia and the Gaudi park at the top of the hill (which was the only place we had to wait to take our turn with a picture of us with a famous Gaudi icon. )
Is Fiona left-handed?!?!? Finally a leftie in the family that I live close to! AM
A lot of thanks for sharing wonderful Travel Ideas !!