If you love tropical luxury, modern decadence and streets you can eat your dinner off, Singapore is the destination for you. Whether you’re feeling frivolous or you’re on a fixed budget, this small island city-state is packed with things to see and do. Come with me, back in time to 2010, when I spent seven days exploring this super-modern metropolis and then roll forward to the present day where I present the best things to see and do in Singapore.
Where to stay
I was lucky enough to have a good friend living in Singapore; I stayed with my Aussie pal Katrina for the whole week and got to experience this city with her as my guide. Having already travelled across Sweden with her in 2005, I knew I was in for a wonderful time!
Looking at accommodation options in 2018, I found rooms on AirBnb for as little as GBP18.00 per night for two adults. If you’re on an even tighter budget, or simply want to experience Singapore (like I did) with a someone who lives in and knows the city, www.couchsurfing.com has over 55,000 hosts there who are willing to put you up for free!
For those wanting a bit of luxury, privacy and comfort, there are countless hotels in Singapore, ranging from GBP80.00 per night at an average-quality hotel to a swoon-inducing GBP550 per night at somewhere as fabulous as the Fullerton Bay or Marina Bay Sands.
The latter has some of the best views in the city and also boasts a 150metre-long rooftop infinity pool. When I was in Singapore, this gargantuan, 55-storey casino and hotel had only been open for five months; I recall visiting with Katrina and seeing eye-wateringly expensive supercars parked outside the entrance before we headed up for a night-time view of the city.
Where to eat
Thanks to its blend of Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian residents, not to mention Indian, European and Australasian influences, praise for Singaporean cuisine is sung loud and high. I tried Hokkien Hae Mee (Singapore-style noodles), Malaysian Laksa (a kind of coconut curry) and Roti Prata (a light pancake that can be served sweet or savoury). The list of dishes in this city is virtually endless, as are the places to try them. A good place to start if you’re a foodie is this page at sethlui.com, where there’s an excellent list of Singaporean delights.
Venue-wise, you’ll be spoilt for choice for places to dine in Singapore. Katrina and I ate in Chinatown, just west of Marina Bay, where there were restaurants and street food stalls galore. Another memorable place for me was Clarke Quay, where I joined Katrina and her expat friends at a sports bar to watch an Aussie football match. With its lively waterside restaurants and western-style themed bars, the Quay is renowned as somewhere to go for lunchtime or after-work drinks and dining.
Where to drink (and where to party)
As well as all those restaurants to fill your face in, there are a huge selection of bars and nightclubs at Clarke Quay. There’s a superclub called Zouk, set in a converted warehouse up the river from the main esplanade, and laid-back Latino bar “Chupitos” which is famous for its innovative servings of shots. For some class and sophistication, you can head to Bar Opiume at Indochine Empress Place (think Soho-chic and a chill-out cocktail lounge). If you’re into less pretentious places, the Crazy Elephant will be right up your alley. It ditches elegance for graffiti-walled, rock-infused, cheap beer-filled environs. Somewhere I (only just) remember for its novelty was The Clinic: a hospital-themed bar designed by a Dutch company called Concrete Architects, where drinks were served in IV bags and the furniture consisted of hospital beds and wheelchairs. Random. This venue has now closed, but there are plenty more unique places to booze at and boogie in Singapore.
Somewhere a tad classier that I’ll always remember was the Long Bar of the famous Raffles Hotel. At the time of writing (Sep 2018) the hotel is closed for renovation, but be sure to check this place out when it reopens. I recall colonial-era interiors made of teakwood and bamboo, with an old-fashioned mechanical row of fans gently circulating the air around the bar. There are monkey nut shells strewn everywhere and patrons are encouraged to throw them on the floor, just as they’ve always been done since the hotel first opened in 1887. Sip on a Singapore Sling and munch on monkey nuts in Victorian opulence.
Religion and culture
As you’d imagine in such a cosmopolitan city, Singapore has an array of beautiful religious centres you can explore. When I visited I was mesmerised by the number of different cultures existing side by side in such a small area.
Katrina and I walked through Chinatown and visited the Hindu shrine of Mariamman Temple; a place of worship first erected in 1827 for Tamil Hindus who had fled to safety in Singapore. We also saw other Hindu temples: the Sri Veeramakaliamman in Little India and the Sri Thendayuthapani nearby, each with its own style of brightly decorated architecture. I loved the vividly painted, eye-catching statues clustered around the rooftops and entrances of these temples.
We strolled on, into the four-storey Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. This structure has been stylised on Tang-Dynasty Buddhism and houses a museum of Buddhist culture, with a centrepiece of a solid gold two-metre high stupa on the fourth floor. This place, like so many of its counterparts around the world, has a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and calm.
Another must-see for culture-vultures in Singapore is the ancient Hokkien Temple of Heavenly Happiness (Thian Hock Keng), one of the oldest Taoist-Buddhist temples in the city. Built in 1820 in the centre of Chinatown, it was once frequented by sailors as a place to pray for safety before long voyages.
A dazzling sight in the city is St Andrew’s Cathedral, located near the City Hall MRT Interchange. This Anglican cathedral was first built in 1835 using funds from Scottish merchants (hence the name from the patron saint). I loved how the bright white stone shone against the tropical blue sky and the lofty, spacious interior was some welcome peace and shade in the busy CBD.
Where to find nature
I turned up in Singapore after seven days in the baking heat and sterile, soulless environment of Dubai, so you can imagine how enamoured I was with this island’s lush tropical parks and gardens. If you’re a nature-lover like me, you need to pay a visit to the Botanical Gardens in Singapore. With 74-hectares of parkland, ornamental gardens and preserved tropical forest, this is the only one of its kind to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highlights for me were the National Orchid Garden (there’s a small entry fee of approximately USD4.00), Swan Lake and the tiny collection of giant trees that are pretty much all that remains of the island’s once-dense rainforest.
These days, I’m not a fan of zoos. Although I used to visit them lots in my twenties, I now prefer not to be presented with caged creatures; they just make me too sad. Back in 2010, when I was slowly becoming less tolerant of animal prisons, I paid a visit to Singapore Zoo and night safari. And admittedly, I was entertained. As zoos go, Singapore Zoo has a very good record of conservation efforts and collaborates with many NGOs to help protect wildlife. And aside from a few sad exhibits, the majority of inmates I saw had quite decent enclosures and naturalised environments to roam around in. Seeing lions running around and roaring to each other at night, rather than spying them bored and dozing in the daytime, was a definite highlight of the night safari, as was the bat aviary, which somewhat freaked Katrina out with its collection of fluttering fruit- and nectar-eaters! I also got to see rescued baby orang utans and a pair of rare clouded leopards that were part of an international breeding programme. Singapore Zoo will appeal to fans of wildlife parks who want to support this kind of conservation effort.
If you’d rather experience nature minus the incarceration, you can visit the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, 12km outside the city centre. This preserved region is the last stand for most of Singapore’s endangered species, thanks to being one of the only reserves that wasn’t continuously logged. You can hire bikes or simply hike around its forested, hilly landscape, looking out for unique racket-tailed drongos or furry gliding colugos.
Another place to enjoy fresh air and nature is the East Coast Parkway, where Katrina and I hired bikes and cycled alongside the long, golden beach. With views out to the Indonesian island of Batam across the Singapore Strait and relaxed-vibe beachside restaurants along the way, this is a great place to escape the city and unwind.
Finally, the Gardens by the Bay is an attraction worth heading to just for its science-fiction spectacle: In its early stages of construction when I was in Singapore, these pleasure grounds feature giant, illuminated tree-like structures, with a canopy walk through landscaped gardens of tropical greenery, and a man-made mountain with the world’s highest indoor waterfall. Visit at night to see enchanting light displays.
Where to find art and entertainment
Millions of tourists flock to Singapore just for the arts and entertainment and the city has become a leading venue for artists and entertainers of every kind. Whether you’re into fine art or fast thrills, you’ll be enthralled here.
Although I didn’t visit Universal Studios at the Resorts World Sentosa (its grand opening wasn’t until March 2011, seven months after my visit!), I’ve heard enough from friends and students I teach to know it’s a top attraction for any theme-park lover.
For art lovers and aspiring designers, I can recommend two places for contemporary art and design: the Singapore Art Museum and the Singapore Design Centre. Both venues have impressive collections.
If you’re into more traditional art, the National Gallery of Singapore will suit your tastes. I specifically went here to see some paintings by Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng (he was born in China but lived and painted for 20 years in this city), but discovered lots more luminous works by other Asian artists.
Because Singapore is such a modern, multicultural Asian hub, there are always exhibitions, open studios and avant-garde events happening around the city. I recall Orchard Road (the main shopping high street in Singapore) being lined with incredible sculptures in 2010, and I’ve no doubt there’ll be scores of jaw-dropping visual art pieces whenever you visit. For up to date information about arts and entertainment in Singapore, head to the official Time Out: Singapore website.
As destinations go, Singapore ranks among my top ten for stuff to see and do. Often labelled as sterile and expensive, what it lacks in edgy, grimy culture-shock, it makes up for in decadence, style and entertainment. If you’re seeking a relaxing break in a tropical metropolis, you need to stick Singapore in your itinerary.
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