Sara Savage is a freelance writer, editor, broadcaster and jack-of-a-small-handful-of-trades…
Singapore is a country plagued by preconceptions – perhaps the most untrue of all, that it’s a travel destination good for nothing more than a short stopover. And while there’s truth in some of the stereotypes (yes, there’s a profusion of shopping malls; yes, the airport is like a city in itself; and yes, there are numerous harsh laws), to judge the ‘Lion City’ by, these factors alone discredit the island nation’s rich history and unique cultural landscape.
Singapore’s status as one of the most multicultural countries in the world manifests in none of its attractions more so than in its food. Hawker centres are all over the island (and are where you’ll find some of the best and cheapest meals around), though it’s not unusual to find $2 chicken rice and teh tarik in the same vicinity as a hip, new American-style diner or an upmarket Japanese restaurant. Elsewhere, signage can be found in the Singapore’s four official languages (English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil), official public holidays span all of the country’s major religions, and the common slang you’ll hear spoken by many – ‘Singlish’ – comprises a mixture of English, Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Tamil words. That’s the nature of Singapore: what it lacks in land mass it makes up for with its rich kaleidoscope of intertwining cultures and, subsequently, an enormous range of things to do, see and eat across the board. As a visitor, this makes for a holiday more lively than any tired stereotype will have you believe – so disregard your preconceptions and read on for our guide to the real Singapore.
#1 Where To Stay
#2 How To Get Around
#3 What To Pack
#4 The City
#5 The Suburbs
#6 Take A Day Trip Here
#7 Go Here For A Breathtaking View
#8 Take A Hike
#9 Parks And Rec
#10 Where To Eat At 2AM
#11 Where To Shop
#12 Locals Go Here For Breakfast
#13 Where To Have An Indulgent Night Out
#14 Worth The Hype
#15 Avoid It
#16 Don’t Leave Here Without…
Where To Stay
There’s no shortage of hotels in Singapore, particularly of the luxury variety. Some hotels are tourist attractions in themselves, like the iconic Raffles Hotel (known for its history of over 100 years and for being the birthplace of the much-hyped Singapore Sling cocktail) or the more recently established Marina Bay Sands (known for its sky-high rooftop infinity pool). But there’s plenty of options for visitors on all kinds of budgets.
CHEAP AS CHIPS
Adler Hostel, 265 South Bridge Road (Chinatown)
Even the backpackers’ hostels are fancy in Singapore. The three-year-old Adler Hostel in Chinatown is a ‘luxury hostel’, providing the comforts of a more upmarket hotel with the economic benefits of a more simple hostel. All rooms are shared (female-only rooms are available), but beds are set up as individual, custom-made ‘cabins’, complete with power-points, in-cabin lighting and a ‘blackout curtain’ for privacy. Perfect for those on a budget who want more than just a regular hostel.
Prices from: $50AUD/night
WON’T BREAK THE BANK
BIG Hotel, 200 Middle Road (Bugis)
The standard rooms at BIG Hotel, contrary to the hotel’s name, are not the biggest on offer in the Lion City. But they are incredibly well designed, with a focus on effective utilisation of space as well as the finer details (like extremely high thread-count linen!). Complete with designer furniture and a Google Nexus 7 to control various aspects of the rooms, BIG Hotel is a great mid-priced option in the vibrant Bugis/Bras Basah area.
Prices from: $160AUD/night
Naumi Hotel, 41 Seah Street (CBD)
Sure, if you’re desperate to take a selfie in the sky-high rooftop infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands, by all means, go ahead. But consider first the infinitely more personalised and equally luxurious experience of staying at the recently opened Naumi, a 73-room boutique hotel just down the road from Raffles that boasts a rooftop infinity pool of its own. It may be smaller than MBS, but Naumi has its own perks – like Malin + Goetz toiletries and signature suites inspired by the likes of Andy Warhol and Chanel. If that hasn’t intrigued you enough, perhaps these two words will: complimentary minibar.
Prices from: $285AUD/night
How To Get Around
Singapore is an incredibly easy place to get around and, in the grand scheme of things, cheap too. More than half of the population use Singapore’s sophisticated public transport system – and it’s not hard to see why.
Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system – the main railway system – is incredibly easy, fast and reliable to use. With five train lines travelling to all corners of the island, there’s hardly anywhere you can’t get to via train. The same can be said for buses, which are perhaps a more underrated but equally as effective form of transport in the Lion City. Get around with an EZ-Link card (purchasable at most convenience stores and MRT stations), which can be used to pay for both bus and train fares. Visitors can enjoy the Singapore Tourist Pass for $8AUD a day, which is a good deal if you plan to use public transport more than twice a day. Otherwise, just buy a regular EZ-Link card and top up as you go.
Pro tip: Download the Gothere app and type in your destination to find out how to get there via MRT, bus or taxi, and how much it will cost you.
Taxis in Singapore are relatively cheap – depending on which kind of cab you hop in. The general rule is that blue, yellow, red and maroon taxis are cheapest, while luxury cabs like the black Chrysler and white Mercedes taxis often charge more. Watch out for peak-hour surcharges, and always check with the driver if they accept card payments, as some don’t. (On that note: Visa cards have not been accepted in Singapore taxis since 2014 as the result of a dispute over surcharges.)
Singapore isn’t the best place for cycling, unless you’re a lycra-clad enthusiast with plenty of street-smarts – the roads rarely have bike lanes and safety can be an issue. It’s best to leave the cycling for regional park visits (such as East Coast Park, West Coast Park or Pasir Ris Park) or other trails like the mountain-bike trail at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
Singapore is one of the safest cities in the world, not least for walking around at night. Of course any discerning traveller should have their wits about them no matter where they are, but there is definitely an increased sense of safety in most parts of the island. And if you can withstand the tropical temperatures and humidity during the day, it’s very easy to get around Singapore on foot – perhaps one of the main benefits of the city’s small size.
What To Pack
You won’t need any winter clothing in Singapore, but you may need an umbrella – especially if you’re travelling during the rainy seasons ( November – March and June – September each year). And while you can leave your woolly jackets at home, make sure you pack a cardigan or light jacket, because air-conditioning is everywhere.
If you plan to indulge in Singapore’s nightlife, make sure you have appropriate footwear too (and for the men, full-length pants – some more upmarket clubs refuse entry to men wearing shorts).
Singapore’s CBD is home to the skyscrapers you see on postcards and Marina Bay off the Singapore River. There’s plenty to do and see in Singapore’s CBD and a number of places to stay: visit Singapore icons like Raffles Hotel, Marina Bay Sands or CHIJMES (a historic Catholic convent converted into a series of restaurants and bars), or take a river cruise around the bay to get your bearings.
Many of the areas surrounding the CBD are worth a day spent exploring. Try Orchard Road for shopping malls galore; Tiong Bahru for an eclectic mix of old and new (and the Anthony Bourdain-approved Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre); Chinatown for historical temples and hip bars; Little India for the best Indian food on the island, the Tekka Centre and the wondrous 24-hour mall, Mustafa Centre; Kampong Glam for great boutique shopping (i.e. Haji Lane), native-Malay and Muslim history, and the stunning Sultan Mosque (particularly special during prayer time at dusk); and Geylang for some of the best food in Singapore (No Signboard Seafood is a favourite for chilli crab).
#1 Raffles Hotel (1 Beach Road, Singapore)
#2 Marina Bay Sands (10 Bayfront Avenue, Singapore)
#3 CHIJMES (30 Victoria Street, Singapore)
#4 Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre (3 Seng Poh Road, Singapore)
#5 Tekka Centre (Bukit Timah Road, Singapore)
#6 Mustafa Centre (145 Syed Alwi Road, Singapore)
#7 Sultan Mosque (3 Muscat Street, Singapore)
Further out are Singapore’s beloved ‘heartlands’, which are often ignored by travel guides but, as the name suggests, are truly the heart of Singapore. The outer areas of Singapore are largely filled with HDB flats (HDB stands for Housing & Development Board, the statutory board responsible for public housing in Singapore), many of which have their own hawker centres and markets underneath. For this reason alone – authentic, cheap and tasty Singaporean food – a trip to the heartlands in any direction is well worth a visit. In Singapore’s west, try the Clementi Market & Food Centre for fried carrot cake (N.B. not actually carrot cake – the main ingredient is radish. Just try it!) or the Jurong West Food Centre for fish ball noodles or curry rice. In the east, try the crab bee hoon (crab with vermicelli) or lor mee (seafood noodles with dumplings and a boiled egg) at the Old Airport Road Food Centre, or the chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with sweet preserved radish) at Bedok Interchange Food Centre. Alternatively, pick an MRT station like Clementi or Ang Mo Kio and travel there, hop off and explore. So much of the country’s soul lies in its heartlands, outside of the CBD, and in a small place like Singapore you’re never really at risk of going too far off the beaten track.
#1 Clementi Market & Food Centre (448 Clementi Avenue, Block 3, Singapore)
#2 Jurong West Food Centre (505 Jurong West Street, Block 505, Singapore)
#3 Old Airport Food Centre (19 Old Airport Road, Singapore)
#4 Bedok Interchange Food Centre (208 New Upper Changi Road, Singapore)
Take A Day Trip Here
Everybody knows about Sentosa, the tourist-heavy island resort in Singapore that’s home to a number of man-made beaches and attractions like Universal Studios. It’s the obvious place for a day trip. But what about other options?
Before Singapore was the bustling metropolis it is today, and long before its current public housing system existed, much of Singapore’s population lived in kampongs (traditional villages). These days, they’ve been bulldozed and replaced with the high-rises we know to be synonymous with modern-day Singapore, but there is one last remaining kampong: Kampong Lorong Buangkok, in Singapore’s north-east, established in the late ’50s. Take a day trip here to get a feel for what Singapore was like before its economic boom.
Alternatively, hop on a ‘bumboat’ to Pulau Ubin, the largest offshore island of Singapore, home to the other remaining kampong outside of the mainland. Visiting Pulau Ubin is like stepping into a time machine and catching a glimpse of the ‘old’ Singapore. Rent a bike and spend the day exploring the greenery and wetlands, beaches, and cheap local food.
Pro tip: Pulau Ubin can get busy on the weekends, so try to go on a weekday if you can.
Go Here For A Breathtaking View
If you’re not into dress codes and overpriced cocktails, one of the best views of the city can be found on the 50th-storey ‘skybridge’ at Pinnacle@Duxton – Singapore’s tallest public housing development. Entry is just $5 for non-residents.
#1 1-Altitude (1 Raffles Place, Singapore)
#2 New Asia Bar & City Space (Level 70, 2 Stamford Road, Swissotel The Stamford, Singapore)
#3 CE LA VI (Level 57, 10 Bayfront Avenue, Tower 3, Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore)
#4 Pinnacle@Duxton (1 Cantonment Road, Singapore)
Take A Hike
For such an urbanised city, Singapore manages to maintain its reputation as the ‘Garden City’ thanks to an array of carefully laid-out greenery throughout its more built-up parts. There also exist a number of walking tracks that are well worth a visit, namely:
– MacRitchie Reservoir Park, a 12-hectare nature park surrounding MacRitchie Reservoir, one of the four reservoirs bounding the country’s nature reserves. Hike the 3.2 kilometre or 4.8 kilometre trails, or rent a canoe or kayak to literally soak up the environment. (Watch out for monkeys!)
– The Green Corridor, a defunct railway track spanning a whopping 173.7 hectares over Tanjong Pagar, Kranji, Woodlands and Bukit Timah. To hike the whole trail takes the better part of a day, though there are entry points throughout the track. A great way to keep fit while experiencing this physical record of Singapore’s history with Malaysia, where the train tracks originally led.
– Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a small nature reserve (400 acres) housing over 800 species of flowering plants and over 500 kinds of fauna, not to mention the highest hill in Singapore (Bukit Timah Hill, at 163.63 metres).
– The Southern Ridges, a 9 kilometre trail linking Kent Ridge park, Telok Blangah Hill and Mount Faber park, and including Henderson Waves – the highest pedestrian bridge in Singapore and attraction in itself with its interesting design.
Parks And Rec
Singapore is all about its gardens, and the Singapore Botanic Gardens are some of the best in the world (no, really – on July 4 this year, they were listed as an official UNESCO World Heritage Site). Founded in 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens have long been prided by the country, and are free to enjoy (except the National Orchid Garden, which incurs a small fee). Come here for a leisurely walk, a picnic (pick up supplies from Cluny Court, right by the Botanic Gardens MRT stop), or to check out the boundless plant life throughout the gardens.
Elsewhere, explore the much-hyped Gardens by the Bay, home to the sci-fi ‘Supertree’ structures that come alive at night, the incredibly diverse Flower Dome, and the Cloud Forest – an indoor park housing tropical plant life and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. The entry fee is steep but it’s well worth visiting at least once.
Where To Eat At 2AM
There’s no shortage of places for partygoers to eat after midnight in Singapore. Try Kko Kko Na Ra (open until 4am) in Tanjong Pagar for juicy Korean fried chicken; Swee Choon on Jalan Besar (open until 6am), near Little India, for late-night dim sum and prawn and banana fritters; Crystal Jade at Holland Village (open until 3am, or 4am Friday to Sunday) for an upmarket banquet and some of the best xiao long bao on the island; or, if you’re feeling really trashy, hit up Singapore’s notorious late-night supper spot Spize for a greasy roti prata or murtabak (filled roti) to soak up your sins.
Honourable mention: 126 Wen Dao Shi Dim Sum in Geylang – Singapore’s red light district – that’s home to some of the best food in the country. Open 24 hours a day, 126 is great for Hong Kong-style dim sum, pork belly buns and prawn rice rolls.
#1 Kho Kho Na Ra (68 Tg Pagar Road, Singapore)
#2 Swee Choon (191 Jalan Besar, Singapore)
#3 Crystal Jade (Holland Avenue, Singapore)
#4 Spize (409 River Valley Road, Singapore)
#5 126 Wen Dao Shi Dim Sum (126 Sims Avenue, Singapore)
Where To Shop
Singapore isn’t really known for its bargains, but it sure is known for its shopping. Everyone knows that Orchard Road is the country’s primary shopping destination, filled with international brands from Topshop and Uniqlo to Prada and Louis Vuitton. But if you’re looking for something different, and if you’re interested in finding high-quality clothes by local designers, try these lesser-known retail gems:
– Keepers, a Singapore Design Collective at the top end of Orchard Road with over 50 designers from the region on offer.
– Superspace, a hybrid concept shop and salon serving up some of the freshest and often colourful fashion from the region as well as international names like Sibling, Agi & Sam and JC/DC.
– Hansel, the brainchild of Singaporean designer Jo Soh and a fun, light-hearted fashion label with a uniquely Singaporean edge.
Elsewhere, find fun and affordable fashion at Far East Plaza, the best selection of literature from the region at Books Actually in Tiong Bahru, while vinyl enthusiasts will love spending a day at the hard-to-find Red Point Record Warehouse. Tucked away in an industrial building in Singapore’s east, Red Point is arguably the country’s best-kept secret when it comes to crate-digging.
#1 Keepers (230 Orchard Road, Singapore)
#2 Superspace (277 Orchard Road, Singapore)
#3 Hansel (39 Stamford Road, Singpore)
#4 Far East Plaza (14 Scotts Road, Singapore)
#5 Books Actually (9 Yong Siak Street, Singapore)
#6 Red Point Record Warehouse (80 Playfair Road, Kapo Factory Building, Singapore)
Locals Go Here For Breakfast
Good luck visiting Singapore and not getting addicted to kaya toast. A traditional Hainanese breakfast popular in Singapore and Malaysia, kaya toast sees kaya (coconut jam) and butter between two slices of toast served with soft boiled egg topped with pepper and soy (pro tip: dip the toast in the egg!). All over the island you’ll find kaya toast chains like Ya Kun Kaya Toast and Toast Box, which are both fine, but for an authentic experience visit an original kopi tiam (coffee shop) and enjoy a kopi (coffee) or teh tarik (sweet pulled tea) with your breakfast. Try Chin Mee Chin Confectionery on the East Coast or Tong Ah Eating House on Keong Saik Road.
Pro tip: It pays to know how to order your kopi. ‘Kopi’ alone means black coffee with condensed milk, while kopi-O is black coffee with sugar and kopi-C is black coffee with evaporated milk. For a plain black coffee with no sugar or milk, order ‘kopi kosong’, or ‘kopi peng’ for an iced coffee.
#1 Ya Kun Kaya Toast (Various locations, Singapore)
#2 Toast Box (Various locations, Singapore)
#3 Chin Mee Chin Confectionery (204 East Coast Road, Singapore)
#4 Tong Ah Eating House (36 Keong Siak Road, Singapore)
If it’s a Western-style breakfast or brunch you’re after, look no further than Common Man Coffee Roasters at Robertson Quay or Forty Hands in Tiong Bahru (both owned by Australian entrepreneur Harry Grover), Wild Honey in Mandarin Gallery, Artichoke in Bugis, or CAD Cafe in Haji Lane (try the breakfast banh mi here).
#1 Common Man Coffee Roasters (22 Martin Road, Singapore)
#2 Forty Hands (78 Yong Siak Street, Singapore)
#3 Wild Honey (333A Orchard Road, Singapore)
#4 Artichoke (161 Middle Road, Sculpture Square, Singapore)
#5 CAD Cafe (23 Haji Lane, Singapore)
Where To Have An Indulgent Night Out
Indulgent is the key word here. Singapore is an expensive place to drink, so if you want to hit up bars and nightclubs during your stay, make sure you’re financially prepared.
If it’s heaving nightclubs with touring DJs that you’re after, try the likes of Canvas, Attica or Zouk. For trashy-but-fun dancing try Bang Bang (underneath the Pan Pacific Hotel) or China One at Clarke Quay. Budget-conscious partiers will enjoy the $10 house pours (trust us, that’s cheap in Singapore) and fun dancing at Tantric, a popular gay bar near Chinatown.
#1 Canvas (20 Upper Circular Road, The Riverwalk, Singapore)
#2 Attica (3A River Valley Road, Clarke Quay, Singapore)
#3 Zouk (17 Jiak Kim Street, Singapore)
#4 Bang Bang (7 Raffles Boulevard, Marina Square, Singapore)
#5 China One (Block 3E River Valley Road, Clarke Quay, Singapore)
#6 Tantric (78 Neil Road, Singapore)
Those keen for a quiet cocktail have plenty of smaller, speakeasy-style bars to choose from on the island. In a basement on Club Street – a known tourist trap and raging after-work destination on Fridays – lies the comparatively chilled-out and sophisticated Operation Dagger (pro tip: try the chocolate wine). Elsewhere, The Spiffy Dapper, Bar Stories and The Library all serve up creative cocktails in beautifully designed spaces. (Technically you need a password to get into super-secretive The Library, but it’s not as exclusive as it sounds – just ask someone at the restaurant next door for the magic word.)
Worth The Hype
Gillman Barracks. This contemporary arts cluster is home to 17 art galleries as well as Singapore’s Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), and is well worth a day spent ambling around the leafy grounds of the conserved black-and-white colonial barracks that house the galleries.
The Singapore Flyer – a giant ferris wheel similar in design to the London Eye, and just as pointless.
Don’t Leave Here Without…
Visiting Haw Par Villa, a ‘theme park’ (not really) containing thousands of statues and dioramas depicting (often graphic) scenes from Chinese mythology and folklore. Built in 1937 by the developers of Tiger Balm, the ‘Tiger Balm Gardens’ were built as a place to teach traditional Chinese values. By 1986 the gardens had been renovated and renamed ‘Haw Par Villa’ after its founders, and were a lively destination for acrobatic displays and puppet shows. These days, Haw Par Villa has more of an ‘abandoned theme park’ feel, and is an incredible remnant of days gone by. The park is known best for its Ten Courts of Hell – a gruesome series of depictions of Hell in Chinese mythology. Haw Par Villa is unlike anything else in Singapore, making it well worth a visit.
Sara Savage is a freelance writer, editor, broadcaster and jack-of-a-small-handful-of-trades currently based in Singapore after eight years spent living and working in Melbourne, Australia. She is originally from New Zealand and grew up in Singapore.