Singapore is, as of this writing, the 7th most visited city in the world. It does not have the history Rome has. Its architecture is not as iconic as London. But many people are discovering Singapore, especially after the movie “Crazy Rich Asians”, and there is much to love about Singapore.
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When to Come to Singapore
The most important thing to think about when it comes to Singapore is the climate. Singapore is located almost right on the equator, on an island at the end of the Malay Peninsula. It is at sea level in the tropics. It is hot and it is humid. It gets a bit more rain in December and a bit less rain in February but the average high temperature year-round is between 87-90°F (30-32°C) and the low is between 76-79°F (24-26°C). So it doesn’t matter a lot when you come as far as the weather is concerned.
Pack accordingly. Pack light clothes and try and reorder your day. Adjust your schedule to stay indoors during the midday sun and then enjoy the nice shorts and tee-shirt weather that evening.
Singapore is a small island. It’s about the size of London. Singapore’s public transport system is excellent. It’s very well covered by a subway system, which is called the MRT. It’s very well priced (usually less than a dollar per trip) and it’s a very easy air-conditioned way to get around the town. There are also buses that cover every corner of the island and if you have data on your cell phone you can use your smartphone’s apps to easily navigate the city. The buses are really convenient way, especially if you’re an assertive traveler. Taxis are relatively well priced too. The Grab app is the local ride-hailing app. There are very high taxes on owning cars so that encourages most locals to get around by public transportation.
Depending on where you’re staying in town, you’re probably going to be in front of some water and water taxis are another enjoyable way to get around.
If you are arriving from the U.S., most flights arrive in the morning. Some European direct flights arrive in the morning as well. The Changi airport is on the eastern tip of the island of Singapore and it takes about 50 minutes to get to town. The airport is connected to the city by taxi, shuttle, or the MRT.
Settle in, get your bearings, and start adjusting to the heat. Try and walk around a little bit to walk off the jet lag.
Gardens by the Bay
A great place to explore your first day is the Gardens by the Bay which are two indoor gardens located in the Marina Bay district behind the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Singapore is a small country with limited space so it has been reclaiming land from the Sea to expand. The Marina Bay district sits on land reclaimed around 2010.
The gardens are in large domes and when I say large I mean 270 acres on many levels. Before you get to the gardens you will walk through a forest of what looks like large artificial trees. These are actually the cooling towers for the Gardens by the Bay because these gardens are air-conditioned… which is another great reason to make this one of your first stops.
There are two domes with two domains. One is called the flower dome and it’s quite dry when you go inside. It’s warm, but it’s dry and it’s exhibiting flowers from all over the world including local flowers from Southeast Asia. They also have a nice subtropical garden as well. But the other dome is even better, it is the cloud forest dome. They’ve simulated a cloud forest as you would see in places like Costa Rica. It is quite humid but relatively cool. It includes flowering plants, carnivorous plants, vines, and an indoor waterfall. You climb up ramps in this multi-level garden.
They do a combined ticket for the two gardens. You can also get tickets as part of a tour of Singapore.
Adult (13 years old & above): $28
Child (3-12 years old): $15
Adult (13 years old & above): $20
Child (3-12 years old): $12
Lau Pa Sat Hawker Center / Telok Ayer Market – CBD
The Marina Bay district is in southeast Singapore. Just north of Marina Bay is the Central Business District. So now that you’ve finished doing the tree walk, stay in the southeast of the city, head to the CBD (Central Business District) to grab some dinner.
There’s a saying that if you throw chopsticks in the air, it’ll probably land in something edible in Singapore. Singapore has got amazing Chinese food, but also due to the history and the different communities that live there, you can have world-class Indian food, you can have world-class Malaysian food.
About 50 years ago the government said, let’s bring all the people who serve food outside into sanitized buildings called “hawker centers”. A hawker center is a local food court where you can each cheaply but also eat well. That’s how Singaporeans eat. Singapore’s hawker culture has been recognized added to the Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In the CBD you can find one of Singapore’s oldest and most iconic hawker centers at Lau Pa Sat which means old market. Lau Pa Sat(aka Telok Ayer Market) is located by the Telok Ayer Market MRT station. Lau Pa Sat was originally built as a Victorian market on the coast of the Telok Ayer Bay in 1879 but is now a few blocks inland. Next door to the market there is a seating area called Satay Street. You can pick up some food like satay from any number of vendors. It’s really atmospheric and it’s literally right next to some of the top hotels in the town.
Marina Bay Sands Hotel Lightshow
Next head back towards the Marina Bay Sands Hotel because every night, usually twice a night, there’s a light show around the downtown area. They light up the buildings, they fire lasers from Marina Bay Sands. It’s really cool to watch. It’s a really nice conclusion to your first day. You can stand on the waterfront in front of Marina Bay Sands and watched it for free or you could head up to a rooftop bar, which is an increasingly popular thing to do. If you’re staying at the hotel, you can also go to the infinity pool which is one of the most Instagrammed spots in the world.
Singapore is an interesting mix of cultures and on day 2 we are going to make a small tour of Asia without leaving Singapore.
First thing in the morning is a great time for a water taxi tour of the city. Board a boat at Clarke Quay for a 40-minute tour of Singapore by water.
Take the MRT to the Chinatown Station. Walk through the colorful shops on Pagoda Street to South Bridge Street where you will find the Sri Mariamman Temple.
Sri Mariamman Temple
Weirdly, there’s a Hindu temple that’s in Chinatown, the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is the country’s oldest Hindu temple. It was founded in 1827 by an Indian official of the East India Company, Naraina Pillai. The most notable thing about the temple is the intricately carved entrance tower (or gopuram).
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
If you keep walking down South Bridge Street then you will come to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which is, no surprise, a Buddhist Temple. The temple is supposed to house a tooth from Buddha but the tooth, which was found in an old stupa, appears to be too large to be a human tooth. No matter who the tooth may belong to, the temple is a beautiful building in mostly golds and reds.
Chan Hon Meng
By now it is late morning and in Chinatown, you can find the first hawker stall to receive a Michelin Star. Chan Hon Meng has moved into his own space now but when he got his star it was the cheapest restaurant in the world that was awarded a Michelin Star with his $1.50 plate of braised chicken and rice, although the prices have risen a bit since then.
The hawker centers are not air-conditioned but they do have fans. Try and stay out of the midday heat. It’s worth saying. Another way to combat that issue is to make sure you’re carrying around a water bottle. Take sunscreen. Even though half the time in Singapore it’s cloudy, you should be careful with the sun. Make sure you’ve dressed appropriately.
In the afternoon head over to Little India. It’s an area to walk around and enjoy. There are some murals on the side of houses but again, the main attraction here would be to head to the hawker center in India and where they have amazing authentic everyday Indian food. They don’t get too many tourists there, so it’ll be a nice experience. Take an opportunity to get a masala chai.
There’s a ton of jewelry and gold shops. There is a store there called the Mustafa Center but the locals call it Amazon.com Offline. It looks like Amazon emptied its warehouses into a local shop in no order. It is a great place to pick up cheap gifts.
To learn more about the Indians in Singapore you can visit the Indian Heritage Centre.
You could stay around Little India for a dinner or you can head over to the middle eastern neighborhood that is known as Haji Lane. Haji Lane has small traditional Singapore houses and lots of shops and restaurants. The most notable building in the area is the gold-domed Sultan Mosque which was built in 1826.
This area is where middle eastern and Persian traders settled. You can get good Turkish food. You can get great Lebanese food. There is great Peranakan food there as well. Peranakan being the people who were born in Singapore and raised in Singapore during the colonial period, so “straights born” Chinese or “straights born” Malaysian community. It is a mixing of the local cultures. Peranakan food is a fusion of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indonesian food.
To learn more about the Peranakan culture, I recommend the Peranakan Museum that is located south and west of Haji Lane by Fort Canning Park and the National Museum.
If the term “straights born” does not make sense to you then look at a map of the location of Singapore. Singapore is at the end of this long peninsula on the most convenient trade route between India and China. It is right by the Muslim nation of Indonesia as well with this narrow straight between Singapore and the island of Sumatra. The straights off of Singapore have been filled with ships and traders historically and still today.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Singapore is tropical and green and one of the great places to experience that is the Botanic Gardens. It is great to visit them early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It’s beautiful in the late afternoon if you’ve just had one of the traditional mid-afternoon downpours. It will be fresh, a little cooler and it feels like you’re walking through a rain forest. In the morning the weather is more predictable. The gardens are a very large part of town towards the center of the island.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens are a public space with free admission. They date back to 1859 and are one of only a handful of gardens in the world to be honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. People treat it like a public park. On Saturday and Sunday, it’s pretty full and lively with people just sitting out, enjoying, enjoying themselves. They have a concert venue where they put on free concerts quite often.
You grab a picnic from one of the interesting cafes that are around the gardens and you can just sit and enjoy it. What’s quite special is the orchid garden. You have to pay a couple of dollars to go in there, but it’s interesting. They breed a new hybrid of their national plant, which is an orchid for each dignitary that comes. There’s a Thatcher orchid. There’s an Obama orchid.
Singapore is trying to position itself as a stopover destination, so you might be interested in going to the resort island which is called Sentosa. There are a couple of different things to do on the island. There is a great aquarium. There’s a theme park. There is a compact Universal Studios that is good if you’re traveling with kids. If you are interested in relaxing there are a couple of beach clubs there so you can sit on the sand and have a drink. You are on that major shipping route so you will see oil tankers going by in front of you so the beaches aren’t perfect.
Night Safari – Zoo
Alternatively, if you end up spending a long time in the botanic gardens and you had lunch there, you might want to consider going even more north to one of the premier attractions of Singapore, which is the night safari. It is an interesting remarketing of the zoo. You can visit the zoo during the day as well but because of the heat and the humidity and because animals behave differently at night the night safari will be a very different experience. They set up this really great tour where you hop on a tour bus with a guide and they drive you around and it’s not really like being on a safari, but it’s a really nice way of seeing the animals behave differently and seeing the zoo with no walking involved.
If You Have More Time
If you are interested in Singapore history the Peranakan Museum mentioned above is a great stop.
Asian Civilizations Museum
There’s also the Asian Civilizations Museum that tells history from an Asian perspective.
There’s also the Singapore Flyer which is a large Ferris wheel like the London Eye. You get a great view from the top. Lee Kuan Yew, who is the founding father of Singapore and the prime minister for a very long time, supposedly had the direction of the Singapore flyer reversed because he was told by a consultant that would bring better luck to Singapore. They spent a couple of million dollars just making it spin the other way.
Geylang is actually the red light district of Singapore. Despite all the rules and restrictions that keep Singapore looking beautiful and super safe, there is a red-light district. Geylang is the community as a shared community between Malaysian and Arab traders. There’s some great Malaysian food there. If you are not planning to go to Malaysia and you want to eat beef rendang or nasi lemak, which is a really good fried rice, you can get it that.
There’s also a nice restaurant called no name, no signboard seafood. Singapore is really good for seafood. This place obviously is known as that because it doesn’t have a signboard, but it’s on google maps. Singapore’s other national dish, apart from satay, is salted crab, soft shell crab, and you can have that there.
The other reason you had over to Geylang in the daytime is that they’ve got these beautiful shophouses. The traditional preserved combined shops and houses where people used to live in Singapore. These beautiful multicolored houses make for great photography. You can experience what Singapore looked like maybe 50 years ago.
If you are a hipster traveler, if you feel like you haven’t had your smashed avocado and your flat white, then you want to be heading over to a part of town called Tiong Bahru. Tiong Bahru was founded in the sixties. The architecture is a style called Streamline Moderne which is part of the Art Deco style. So there are a lot of low white modern buildings. This area is a popular part of town to live in now.
There’s a couple of really nice cafes you can go to there. There’s also a really popular local hawker center called Tiong Bahru Market. Upstairs is the food court. Downstairs is a wet market and a wet market is where you go for your groceries in Singapore. It’s good for photography.
Haw Par Villa
There is an interesting place called Haw Par Villa near Sentosa in the southwest of the island. It has lots of painted figurines and it’s supposed to be a Chinese representation of what hell looks like. Singaporean people know it well because parents take their kids to scare them. It has fallen into disrepair so it’s not that scary anymore, but it’s just charming. It was built and paid for by the guy who made Tiger Balm. Tyger balm is this rural medicine paste thing that you can buy. It’s great for insect bites and you can pick it up in the pharmacy here in Singapore. You can get ghost tours in the evening there. It’s a really interesting Singapore experience.
To get more into the countryside it is a popular local choice to go to somewhere like MacRitchie Reservoir, which is this big water catchment where Singapore stores some of its freshwater. There’s a boardwalk that goes around it. You’d want to go there early in the morning or late at night. There’s a treetop walk you can do there as well. It’s a very chilled-out thing to do. If you’re overwhelmed with the city. There are monkeys there.
A more accessible walk for someone who wants a green area is the Henderson Waves. This is the highest footbridge in Singapore. It connects Mount Faber Park to Telok Blangah Hill Park.
Where to Stay
If you want a resort-based stay you can stay in Sentosa, but otherwise, you will probably want to be closer to downtown. For an iconic memorable stay, consider spending at least one night in the Marina Bay Sands.
This article relies heavily on the podcast we did on Singapore with Ashley Hall who lines in Singapore. Most of the above recommendations are Ashley’s. To hear more about Singapore listen to Travel to Singapore – Amateur Traveler Episode 628.