I didn’t expect to like Singapore. My mind had filed it somewhere alongside Dubai as nothing more than a business metropolis with strict laws and uncomfortable segregation. When I won a flight there, if I’m honest, my mind was more focused on where else to visit in the region rather than exploring the city itself. But I wanted to give it a chance and arranged to stay for four days en route back from Thailand.
Those four days became the favourites of my trip. I fell for Singapore and its surprising mix of old-world charm and glitzy, futuristic cityscape. In between the skyscrapers lie colourful buildings and cultural enclaves, and the high-rises themselves are punctuated by gorgeous gardens and waterways. It all comes together into a remarkably well-crafted city with an exciting and invigorating buzz. Here are some of the highlights that had me charmed…
Haji Lane is the hipster central of Singapore with colourful store fronts and a string of independent boutiques, cafes and design shops. I loved its juxtaposition with the skyscrapers beyond.
Haji Lane is part of the Kampong Glam area of Singapore, which has been the Malay-Muslim area of the city since the early 1800s. It’s home to the Sultan Mosque and alleyways filled with traditional shops selling everything from Persian carpets to original oil perfumes. There’s also a lot of excellent food. I can recommend Derwish Restaurant for some excellent Turkish food.
Kampong Glam is also home to some of the most colourful of Singapore’s shophouse colonial architecture, much of which has been restored. You can also see a lot of these charming buildings in Little India and Chinatown.
Hindu Temple, Chinatown
Another great juxtaposition with Singapore’s skyscrapers is the gorgeous Hindu Temple in Chinatown. It looks especially wonderful at night when the temple tower is illuminated in the sky.
Although Singapore is first and foremost a city, there is also plenty to remind you of its jungle surroundings.
There are gorgeous trees everywhere…
…and many buildings have started to integrate gardens into their design. I particularly liked the architecture of the Park Royal Hotel, which looks like it’s made of cardboard.
Marina Bay Sands
Marina Bay Sands, or MBS as the locals call it, is the iconic resort that was built in 2010 on Singapore’s bayfront. It’s made up of a hotel, exhibition centre, theaters, shops and restuarants, and its unusual design dominates the skyline.
There is a viewing platform (The Skypark) on top which you can pay $20 to go up to. I and some friends (the lovely Simon and Erin at Never Ending Voyage) instead chose to go to the rooftop bar for a cocktail at sunset. It’s free entry so we used the money we’d have spent on the Skypark to get cocktails instead. The only disappointment was not being able to see the famous infinity pool. I believe the only way to see it is to either be a guest at the hotel, or to go to the resort’s cheese and chocolate buffet, which costs $56 and has a view of the pool.
Singapore is surrounded by water and it’s possible to get around much of the city by taxi boat – a particularly peaceful way to explore.
Signs in London tend to mostly look like warnings or orders, while in Singapore they have taken on a much more twee, cutesy vibe. “Be Sweet”, “Be Good”, “Be Cool” they say. Or, like the one above, they’ve become affirmations – “I am an encouraging driver”. Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world but I suspect that is more due to their strict law enforcement rather than the polite little signs.
I stayed in China Town during my stay in Singapore and enjoyed wandering its streets at night. Around 75 per cent of Singapore’s population is Chinese, which makes for a very authentic Chinatown with some excellent food.
Speaking of food, one of the best places to find a cheap meal is at one of the many hawker centres around the city. This can be quite challenging for vegetarians as the signs are mostly in Chinese. However, English is the official language of Singapore so just ask and you should be able to find something. If in doubt, stick to the Indian stalls, which always have a veggie option.
Another cultural enclave in Singapore is Little India, home to some of the city’s best and cheapest restaurants (especially for vegetarians).
Like Kampong Glam, it has many beautifully restored, colourful buildings. I couldn’t stop taking photos (photo essay coming soon!).
Little India also has a lot of fresh food stalls, which would be particularly useful for longer stays in the city.
And there’s a great market for gifts. I even did some Christmas shopping!
Singapore is home to a few different pod-style hostels. They’re not as a extreme as traditional coffin-like pods but simply offer an entrance from the foot of the bed rather than the side. I really liked this as it creates a sort of room and provides more privacy than a usual dorm bed. I stayed at the impeccably clean and modern Wink Hostel, which I highly recommend. My only tip would be to make sure your bed is not in front of the air conditioning unit. Mine was originally and it felt unbearably cold. I moved beds and it was much better.
Gardens by the Bay and Supertree Grove
Gardens by the Bay is part of the Singaporean Government’s mission to transform the city from a “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden”. The 101 hectares of reclaimed land has been transformed into a maze of beautiful gardens. Central to it all are two Eden-Project-style domes – the Flower Dome and The Cloud Forest. Both have a spectacular array of plant life from around the world including baobabs and an impressive manmade cloud forest.
My favourite part of the gardens were the supertrees, which not only look incredible (especially when they light up at night) but also harvest solar energy and provide cooling systems for the domes. Try to see them at 7:45pm and 8:45pm for the nightly Garden Rhapsody light show. Note that this is different to Wonder Full, the Marina Bay Sands light show which happens 15 minutes later at 8pm and 9pm. Wonder Full is a pretty cheesy affair but also pretty impressive. Both are free and certainly worth a look, but if you can only do one, I’d choose the trees.
Butterfly Garden at Changi
The final surprise of Singapore was the airport itself, which is widely considered one of the best in the world. It even has a butterfly garden!
Have you been to Singapore? Do you have any tips to share?