One of the first things you’ll notice on arrival in Singapore is how modern and well-run everything is. The metro system is a dream to use, the streets feel safe at any time of day or night, and the buildings are excessively elaborate and futuristic. Everything is enormous, imposing and exciting, and there’s something photo worthy around every corner.
Despite Singapore being a relatively small country, you could easily fill a week or more with non-stop activities. Some of the top attractions are specially built tourist traps, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy yourself. Walking through the cosmopolitan districts and exploring the temples, mosques, sculptures and street art is just as rewarding.
So, if you’re heading to the Lion City, top up your metro card, strap on some comfy shoes, pack a good supply of water, and see if you can fit each of the following into your trip.
GARDENS BY THE BAY
Let’s face it, botanical gardens usually fail to leave much of an impression, and you’d be forgiven for dismissing Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay on first mention. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover that these are no ordinary gardens. Two incredible collections of exotic plants and flowers are housed within enormous conservatories (Locals: S$12 per entry, or S$20 for both; Tourists: $28 for both). The cloud forest, with its elevated walkways and 35-m waterfall (the tallest indoor waterfall in the world), has to be the most awe-inspiring greenhouse on the planet. Take warm clothes for the conservatories and don’t miss the Garden Rhapsody light show at the Supertree Canopy (free; 7:45 pm and 8:45 pm). You can also pay S$5 to check out a skywalk that connects two of the trees, or S$18 (includes one free drink) for access to the elevated IndoChine al fresco bar and restaurant. The latter has a really chilled atmosphere and incredible views of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and city.
MARINA BAY SANDS OBSERVATION DECK
You can’t miss the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Its three towers loom over the CBD and can be seen from virtually anywhere in the city. While the impressive rooftop infinity pool is only accessible to guests, you also have the option of visiting its Observation Deck or one of the SkyPark’s restaurants or bars. The resort also contains a casino, theatres, an ice rink and hundreds of designer shops. If you haven’t already had your fill of light shows at the Gardens by the Bay, the ‘Wonder Full’ evening laser and water display takes place daily at 8:00 pm and 9:30 pm, with an additional show at 11 pm on weekends.
Sentosa Island is just off the south coast of Singapore, not far from the city centre, and it’s been taken over by tourist attractions. Home to a 2 km beach, two golf courses, multiple hotels, a zip line adventure park, Madame Tussauds, a luge, a flying trapeze, a vertical wind tunnel, and ‘Resorts World Sentosa‘, it attracts over 20 million visitors a year. Resorts World comprises Universal Studios, the Adventure Cove Water Park, a huge aquarium, Dolphin Island, the Trick Eye Museum, and a K-pop hologram theatre. While you can reach the island by express monorail, it’s more fun to take a cable car from Mt Faber. There’s also a boardwalk connecting Sentosa to the mainland, and it’s free to use on weekends. The word Sentosa means ‘peace and tranquility’. These aren’t words usually associated with theme parks and adventure rides, but the island actually does a lot to promote sustainable tourism, including restricting development and providing plenty of open, natural space.
Singapore doesn’t just have one zoo. It has a collection of four incredible parks, collectively known as the Wildlife Reserves Singapore. There’s a bird park with some of the largest free-flying aviaries in the world, close encounters during daily feeding sessions, and penguin encounters. Singapore Zoo has a free-ranging orang-utan enclosure, an elephant show, and an area dedicated to kids’ entertainment, with pony rides, goat feeding and a splash park. The highlights at the River Safari include an Amazon River Quest cruise and two adorable resident pandas. Last, but definitely not least, is the Night Safari – a unique take on the zoo experience, which enables visitors to learn more about the ‘creatures of the night’. After witnessing a fire show at the entrance, there’s a very entertaining presentation in their auditorium involving audience interaction and appearances from some of your favourite nocturnal animals, including an otter who teaches you to recycle! There’s also a narrated tram tour around the park, and a few walkways that take you past the more reserved species, like the slow loris. You can try to fit all of the parks into one day, but it’s best to take your time or choose your favourites. The more parks you visit with a combination ticket, the more you save.
SOUTHERN RIDGES WALK
If you like to get some exercise, but you’re not a fan of the metropolis, there’s a great little trail that runs along the South of Singapore. Starting at Mt Faber, where the cable cars cross to Sentosa Island, the 10-km Southern Ridges Walk takes in canopy trails, horticultural parks, boardwalks and bridges, which weave through lush vegetation home to biodiverse flora and fauna. You may even spot monkeys! The National Parks website has a detailed map and information document that you can download/print and use to find your way. While there are two trail options that branch off at Alexandra Arch, from this point in the walk, your best option is actually to catch a bus to the fantastically kitsch Haw Par Villa Park. Make sure you have spare change or the driver may refuse to take you.
HAW PAR VILLA PARK
Haw Par Villa Park was built in 1937 by Aw Boon Haw for his brother Aw Boon Par. The first structures were depictions of Chinese religion, folklore and history. The park used to contain a zoo, but eventually the animals were also replaced by figurines. After Aw Boon Haw died, his son continued to add to the gardens with more international elements influenced by his travels. The result is a mismatch of physical expressions. Until the 1980s, the park attracted a large number of visitors and, in 1984, it was voted one of the top three attractions in the country. For some time in the 90s it was a theme park with boat rides and theatres. However, today, it feels more like an eerie ghost town full of unusual, and sometimes creepy, imagery. If you like the unique, or just want to sample a part of Singaporean history, Haw Par Villa Park is a must.
The concept of the capsule hotel originated in Japan, and Singapore was quick on the uptake. They’re a great way of saving space – thereby keeping costs low – while also providing travellers with privacy and comfort. The Chic Capsule Otel near Chinatown metro station has amazingly swish pods with flatscreen TVs showing the latest movies. The reception staff are very helpful and welcoming, and you receive tea, coffee, breakfast and mint chocolates in a chilled out reception area with sofas and the morning’s paper. For a more budget alternative, @The Little Red Dot on Lavender Street is a backpacker haven with more basic capsule beds. Both offer good discounts on many of the attractions listed in this article. It’s well worth enquiring about this on arrival, or even when you book.
For its size, Singapore has a lot of cat cafes. The Company of Cats on Mosque Street in Chinatown is a great choice, but be aware that they charge by the hour. Take note of when you arrive and don’t let yourself get sidetracked. Your first hour comes with a free coke and they have a limited menu as well. Best of all, it’s just down the road from the Chic Capsule Otel.
While there are malls literally everywhere in Singapore City, the main shopping district is a place called Orchard Road to the east of the CBD. If you intend to buy anything, take your passport with you and you’ll get a tax free tourist discount. Between 3:00 and 5:30 pm, you should make time to head to the hotel lobby on the fourth floor of the Ion Orchard shopping mall at Orchard metro station. From here, you can take a lift to the 56th floor for panoramic city views. It’s free, but check first in case there’s a private function.
FOUNTAIN OF WEALTH
After a few hours in Singapore, you’ll start to realise that they don’t do things by halves. In addition to having the tallest indoor waterfall and the highest rooftop infinity pool, the country is also home to the biggest fountain in the world. At intervals throughout the day, the main fountain is turned off so that visitors can explore its base and collect coins for luck. At night, as with many of the city’s iconic landmarks, there’s a laser show.
There’s plenty to see and do in the small district of Chinatown. In addition to the capsule hotel and cat cafe mentioned above, there are numerous places of worship, including Sri Mariamman Temple, Masjid Jamae Mosque, and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. You may need to be wearing conservative clothing to enter some of these places, although often there are robes that you can borrow at the entrance. The Chinatown Heritage Centre is a great place to learn about the lives of the area’s earliest residents. You also can’t miss the market stalls with traditional cuisine and souvenirs from China.
Little India is a good place to visit to get a taste of authentic Singapore. It’s especially colourful and vibrant on weekends, when market stalls are bustling. If you head along Serangoon Road from Lavender Street, you’ll pass loads of temples filled with colourful figurines and pungent burning incense. There’s usually no dress code, but you do need to remember to take off your shoes.
The Singapore Flyer is located in a lifeless part of town on a patch of land used mainly for Formula One racing. However, it’s the world’s largest observation wheel outside of the United States, and it does offer great views of the Marina and CBD. A regular flight costs S$33 but, for significantly more money, you have the option of taking cocktails, champagne or dinner in one of the pods.
Built around 1985 on Neil Road in the district of Tanjong Pagar, this three-storey townhouse was once the ancestral home of a Straits Chinese family and is now owned by the National University of Singapore. Its focus is to encourage research into Straits Chinese history and culture, traditional architecture, building conservation, and urban and social histories. Domestic spaces have been restored to reflect the style and tastes of the previous owners and artefacts are displayed in their original context. Owing to conservation considerations, visits are by appointment only (email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call +65 6227 5731) and may need to be arranged up to one month in advance. Free guided tours take place on Mondays (2:00 pm), Tuesdays (6:30 pm), Thursdays (10:00 am) and Saturdays (11:00 am) and last for approximately one hour.
The prime attraction in Marina Bay is the Merlion – an 8 m tall statue of a mythical creature with the head of a lion and tail of a mermaid. From here, you can walk along the Esplanade for live music and performing arts. The Float is a huge platform capable of carrying 9000 people. It’s used as a sports field, a music venue, and one of the most coveted locations from which to watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The Helix is a beautifully designed bridge overlooking the city and Marina Bay Sands, and if you walk across it towards the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, you’ll be greeted by an evening display called ‘Wonder Full’ – a free show incorporating lights, lasers, bubbles, water movement and graphics. Marina Bay is also home to a large selection of educational centres, including the Asian Civilisations Museum, National Gallery, Fullerton Heritage Gallery and Maritime Gallery.
Art and culture lovers shouldn’t miss the colourful hipster district of Kampong Glam – in particular Haji Lane. Its streets are adorned in bright graffiti and lined with quirky shops, shisha bars and local eateries. It retains its original charm where many Singaporean neighbourhoods have succumbed to modernisation, and you won’t be able to resist a photo opportunity outside the trendy Piedra Negra bar. Also, don’t miss Sultan Mosque while you’re in the area.