In its own way, Singapore is an oasis in Southeast Asia. It’s got one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and its infrastructure — from roads and mass-transit systems to a state-of-the-art airport at Changi — is outstandingly sophisticated. The city itself is clean — so much so that the sale of chewing gum is forbidden, and eating or drinking on the subway can result in a heavy fine! Singapore’s modern, dynamic vibe can be a pro or con, depending on individual sensibilities: it’s more sterile than any city in the world.
The city-state of Singapore, connected with manmade bridges to Malaysia, is actually an island — and not just one. It includes a main island and dozens of surrounding islets. The mainland is 26 miles east to west and 14 miles north to south. In the north, it shares a border with Malaysia; in the south are the islands of Indonesia. Singapore is located just north of the Equator and is sultry, tropical and humid year-round.
Singapore is a global banking and transportation hub, and a popular stopover for folks traveling between Europe and Australia. With more than five million inhabitants, it’s one of the world’s most densely populated countries. There are a lot of people in the streets and shopping areas and on public transportation, but it normally does not feel as crowded as large city centers in the United States. As a matter of fact, the modern design of the city has helped to eliminate any feeling of congestion.
Like Hong Kong, Singapore is a city with great cultural diversity, well-developed infrastructure and a very cosmopolitan feeling. It’s easily navigable for visitors, with most tourist attractions concentrated in three areas: Orchard Road, the colonial district and Sentosa.
Take time to stroll on the Boat Quay, which is a mixed development of old wharf houses (converted to commercial use — mainly as restaurants) and modern skyscrapers of international corporations. During the night, Boat Quay is a bustling place of ethnic restaurants serving every type of Asian meals the locals — or tourists — may be craving.
Close to the Boat Quay is Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, nicknamed “Durian” by the locals for its resemblance to the round, spiky and notoriously pungent Southeast Asian fruit. This is the largest and most comprehensive performance arts venue in Singapore. Located under the complex’s distinctive dome-shaped floors are a concert hall, a theater, several recital rooms and an arts library, as well as an array of shops and food outlets.
As Singapore is flat, you can get a great view of the city from the City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Fairmont Singapore. Literally across the street is a more famous spot for libations; the Singapore Sling was invented at Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar. The Long Bar is, perhaps, the most touristy spot in town. Prepare to pay for the pleasure; on our trip, a pair of cocktails cost $61 SGD (about $46 USD).
Singapore’s colonial district, which lies roughly between the Boat Quay and the vast Raffles City shopping and hotel complex, is full of charm. Among the sites that hark back to the city’s English past are the Arts House at the Old Parliament, the gorgeous Fullerton Hotel (which used to be the General Post Office) and the Anglican St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Shoppers can also duck into the vast Raffles City mall for retail recreation.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens are a playground for nature lovers. There’s a rain forest, a lake and all manner of gardens, featuring everything from medicinal herbs to different types of ginger. The National Orchid Garden is there as well. (There’s no fee to visit the Botanic Gardens, but there is an admission charge for the orchid garden.)
One of Singapore’s newest attractions is Gardens by the Bay, a fantastical botanical world featuring two conservatories full of unique plant displays, an aerial walkway and a “Supertree Grove” made up of vertical gardens. The light shows after dark draw rave reviews, so it’s worth timing your visit for the afternoon so you can appreciate both the daytime and nighttime views.
The Singapore Zoo, one of several animal parks in Singapore, offers a chance to have breakfast with an orangutan. The zoo has nearly 3,000 mammals, birds, reptiles and fish in this rain forest park, including cheetahs, zebras, white tigers and many more.
Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system — in essence, a subway — is a tourist attraction in its own right. It’s the cleanest you’ll ever see — no trash and no graffiti. A good taster ride is the three-stop trip between Orchard Road and City Hall (for the colonial district).
A Singapore River cruise offers dramatic views for just a few bucks. It takes you, among other places, to the Merlion, which is a symbol of modern Singapore. The 70-ton statue towers more than 28 feet (8.6 meters) and has a lion’s head and a fish’s body, resting on a crest of waves. The Merlion was originally designed in 1972 to symbolize the city’s origins as a fishing village.
Go to the beach. The only spits of sand in Singapore are located on Sentosa Island (which also features a variety of tired and worn family-oriented attractions like Underwater World, Dolphin Lagoon, Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom). But we’ll warn you: Most locals don’t actually swim there. The popular beaches are Siloso, Palawan and Tanjong. (Siloso overlooks oil refineries on the opposite shore.) If you are looking for history, 1880-built Fort Siloso is the place to go. The ride over to the island on the cable car from the Harbourfront Centre is the best part of the outing! On the way, there are gorgeous views of the city.
Singapore has great variety when it comes to food, whether you’re craving local street food or gourmet dining. There are various “dining districts” filled with restaurant choices.
Near Boat Quay is Clarke Quay, a waterfront strip of pubs, wine bars and restaurants. Cuisines represented include Cantonese, Persian, Indian, Mexican, Spanish (tapas), Vietnamese and more.
In Little India, you’ll find all manner of Indian eateries.
On Orchard Road, there’s a huge variety of eating places; one of our favorites was the food hall in the basement of Takashimaya, a Japanese department store.
Looking for a splurge? Rhubarb, a French restaurant with just seven tables, is lauded by locals and visitors alike for its degustation menu (recent offerings included foie gras with king crab and beef with snails). Children under 8 are not permitted.
Try one of Singapore’s most unique dining experiences at NOX – Dine in the Dark, where visitors sit in a pitch-black dining room and are served by visually impaired waitstaff. Many diners find that their other senses are enhanced as they eat and drink this way. (Just to be safe, you may not want to wear your nicest outfit!)
The Curry Culture is one of the best Indian restaurants in town. There’s a broad menu with numerous options for vegetarians, but — as you’d expect from the name — curries are the specialty.
Shopping in Singapore
Every day is a shopping day in Singapore, as the city is a well-established retail mecca. Most malls and department stores are open daily from 10 a.m. well into the evening. (The Mustafa Centre in Little India operates round-the-clock!) If shopping is the primary purpose for your trip, consider timing your visit to coincide with the Great Singapore Sale, which runs for several weeks during the middle of the year and features hefty discounts in stores across the city.
Orchard Road, particularly at its junction with Scotts Road, is the place to start — and possibly finish. It offers a vast array of retailers, such as the Tangs department store and the fantastic Kinokuniya, a vast bookstore that’s the most comprehensive in Singapore. Popular shopping centers also include the Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City. The latter houses the Japanese department store Takashimaya (which even has a department of London’s famed Harrods); the food court on the basement level is a great place for lunch and people-watching.
For those seeking something a little different from the usual malls and Western imports, other fun places to shop include the bustling markets of Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street.
–written by Teijo Niemela