With about 15 million people visiting Singapore every year, it’s hard to imagine the island city-state has any surprises left. But this culturally diverse country offers a dizzying array of unique travel experiences – 30 of which we reveal here…
In partnership with Your Singapore
EAT & DRINK
Food in a Box
Have a drink and enjoy diverse, reasonably priced food while watching top local cover bands at gastropark Timbre+. The restaurant-grade food stalls serve Western and Asian cuisine out of converted shipping containers. An on-site bottle shop offers 120 beers and ciders sourced from around the world.
Singapore is famous for its chilli crab and there are scores of places to eat it. If you have to pick just one, go to No Signboard Seafood at 414 Geylang Road (there are also branches at VivoCity, Clarke Quay Central and the Esplanade). The most authentic outlet, and the oldest of the restaurants that are now open, is in Geylang in the red-light district.
For another classic dish, try black- pepper crab at Long Beach Seafood at East Coast Park, overlooking the water. The restaurant lays claim to “the original and the best” black-pepper crab on the island. Set menus often include seafood such as irresistible razor clams and a honeydew sago dessert in a green bowl smoking with dry ice. Be warned: crab is hellishly messy but they’ll help crack the shell for you.
You’ll want to go to Little India for good food and a whole lot of atmosphere. Locals love the South Indian tiffin dishes at Murugan Idli Shop, an outpost of the renowned Chennai-based group. Entirely vegetarian, it specialises in idli and dosas, has a range of great chutneys and makes a signature drink, Jigarthanda (literally “cool heart”), with milk, sarsaparilla syrup, almond gum, sugar and ice-cream.
Don’t miss the Malay-Arab Quarter, where you can explore eclectic, atmospheric Arab Street and its surrounding alleys. The food scene ranges from Malay to Peranakan and Middle Eastern eateries such as Beirut Grill (72 Bussorah Street; +65 6341 7728), which serves excellent beef meshwi. The best time to go is on Friday night, when the neighbourhood is particularly lively.
Singapore’s mainly outdoor hawker centres are among the cleanest in the world, with their hygiene rating displayed (if it’s lower than a B, don’t bother). These centres offer all-day meals but make sure you have breakfast here, just like a local. In July last year, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle (466 Crawford Lane) and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Chinatown (335 Smith Street) became the first Asian street stalls to be awarded a Michelin star.
Bubbly Sunday Brunch
The free-flowing Champagne brunch is a favourite weekend pastime for Singaporeans and one of the best examples can be found at The Fullerton Bay Hotel, which is also a great place to see the extravagant, architecturally bold redevelopment of Marina Bay. Brunch at the hotel is a riot of oysters and roasts, foie gras and unlimited Veuve Clicquot or Ruinart. It’s served in La Brasserie bistro, a chic harbourfront space with 10-metre- high windows, smart herringbone flooring and an outdoor dining terrace. The view extends across the water to the Marina Bay Sands towers.
Late-night dining is the heartbeat of Singapore and there are great options beyond a $S12 beer at Boat Quay. Go to one of the 24-hour Muslim-Indian restaurants, such as Al-Azhar in the Bukit Timah district (11 Cheong Chin Nam Road). The prata, a South Indian flatbread, and mee goreng (a spicy noodle dish) are signature offerings; match them with a crisp Heineken beer or, better still, a Milo Dinosaur – a cup of iced Milo mixed with condensed milk, topped with more Milo.
Chef Violet Oon, considered a doyenne of Singapore dining, owns two restaurants. For fine dining set within an iconic heritage building, try National Kitchen by Violet Oon on the second floor of the revamped Colonial-style National Gallery Singapore. Known chiefly for Peranakan food – including daging chabek, a braised beef-cheek dish in spicy tamarind gravy – it’s also a great place for high tea, with sweet and savoury delights such as otak crostini, a spiced coconut-cream fish delicacy. Ask for a table in the grand hall among the rich dark woods and ornate ceilings or make your way to the well-sited verandah overlooking the Padang (playing field).
Visit the historic Chinatown district and, in particular, once-grim Keong Saik Road for cutting-edge new eateries. Consider trying Neon Pigeon, an izakaya with share plates, a Japanese whisky bar and hip graffiti murals. The rice comes with house-smoked bacon pieces, pork scratchings and an egg yolk. So cool, it hurts.
Eating food served on robust green banana leaves is a customary Indian experience in Singapore. Outside of Little India, you can do this affordably at Samy’s Curry house in the otherwise upscale and fashionable enclave of Dempsey Hill. Fish-head curry is a staple.
At some stage you’ll want to have a drink at a place with a fabulous city view. Head to 1-Altitude at the top of One Raffles Place. There’s a bar, café and alfresco viewing gallery split over three floors. Weather permitting, enjoy a beverage on the rooftop but time your visit for sunset; the bar typically doesn’t open until 6pm, as it’s too hot before then.
While Zouk nightclub is legendary, the city’s cool set insists there are two other places to check out: Kilo Lounge, which opened just three years ago and became an instant hotspot for its alternative-house music and industrial setting, and Bang Bang, a bouncier, more mainstream option set in a vast space filled with banquette seating and neon lighting. Cocktails at Kilo Lounge come with a twist: saké sangria, anyone?
If you want to do some shopping but have seen enough of Orchard Road, The Shoppes is the other go-to for luxury goods. Occupying the lower levels of Marina Bay Sands around the casino and theatres, it is the place to go for high-end stores such as Armani and Ferrari. However, nothing compares to the freestanding Louis Vuitton building, an angular glass structure in the bay that can be reached by an overwater walkway.
One of Singapore’s best malls, VivoCity is the jumping-off point for Sentosa Island, though many who visit this shopping destination never make it to Sentosa – or indeed leave the building all day. It is vast, with two separate food courts, a rooftop area with water activities for the kids, a 15-screen cinema and an interesting mix of tenants, from Tangs department store to bargain-basement Daiso Japan (average price of products: $S2).
Haji Lane, in the Kampong Glam neighbourhood, is a quirky street of shophouses beloved by Singapore’s hipsters and fashionistas. The narrow, brightly painted terraces have been converted into distinctive clothing and accessory stores, bars and restaurants. You can get all sorts of things you never knew you needed here, from cushion covers to jewellery and carpets. But the real drawcard is the independent clothing boutiques, including vintage outlet Dulcetfig.
Singapore prides itself on its museums – and there are many of them. Few visitors, however, find their way to the Peranakan Museum, housed in a beautiful Classical edifice that was once home to the Old Tao Nan School. The Peranakan people are descendants of Chinese immigrants who married locally in the Malay world and their influence is felt today through food, furniture, textiles and ornate architecture. The museum conveys the contribution of this ethnic group, whose presence undoubtedly enriches Singaporean culture.
The darker side of Singapore’s history is recorded in its wartime relics. Changi Prison is better known but the less-frequented Fort Siloso, a restored gun battery at the tip of Sentosa Island, is also worth a look. Take the 90-minute guided tour or wander among the interpretive displays that shed light on the devastation experienced during the Japanese occupation in World War II.
Place of Worship
Visit Kampong Glam’s Masjid Sultan, or Sultan Mosque, in the Malay-Arab Quarter – the heart of Singapore’s Muslim community. Its elegant prayer hall and domes, largely unchanged since the mosque was completed in 1928, are part of the appeal. You’ll really feel at the centre of their way of life here. Non-Muslims are welcome (dress modestly); check the website for visiting times. Alternatively, walk past on busy Friday afternoons when the Zuhr (noon prayer) is taking place.
To create Gardens by the Bay, the government took a tract of valuable waterfront land and, instead of erecting apartments on it, made it green and accessible to all. The centrepieces are a series of man-made Supertrees planted with greenery – a kind of vertical garden – and two domes that house exhibits in different climate zones (the Cloud Forest, informative and cleverly designed around a waterfall, is the standout). Go early to see locals doing tai chi near artist Marc Quinn’s Planet “floating” baby. Though the sculpture is 10 metres long and almost four metres high, it appears to be suspended above the ground. It’s a clever illusion. While surreal in places, the gardens are cool and quiet and the light is perfect for photos.
Gillman Barracks was launched in 2012 as a “visual arts cluster”. The former military barracks hosts a number of international, South-East Asian and local galleries, and has a dedicated creative space for kids called Playeum, the Children’s Centre for Creativity. At last count, 12 galleries were set up, including Arndt – which has shifted its focus from the former East Berlin to South-East Asia and the Pacific – and ShanghART Singapore, the first overseas gallery of a group that develops contemporary art in China. Until June, the Lock Route exhibition in the barracks’ grounds features 16 artworks by 15 artists.
Tropical Singapore is too hot and flat for hiking as we know it. One bracing exception is the Southern Ridges trail, which connects 10 kilometres of greenery from Mount Faber Park to the Labrador Nature Reserve. A highlight is Henderson Waves, an undulating pedestrian bridge 36 metres above Henderson Road.
The abundance of free water parks in Singapore is a relief for parents and a joy for kids on a steamy day. Bring your swimsuit and cool off at the water playground at the Marina Barrage, near Gardens by the Bay. The city reservoir, located at the mouth of the Marina Channel, is perfect for kayaking or dragon-boat racing.
MacRitchie Reservoir Park is popular among walkers and nature enthusiasts. Brave the TreeTop Walk, which takes you high into the forest canopy for a unique perspective. Or stroll the trails around the reservoir, crossing paths with macaque monkeys – bold little creatures that can be either a novelty or an annoyance. If you’re picnicking, hold on to your sandwich.
The UNESCO World Heritage- listed Singapore Botanic Gardens should not be missed. Families, in particular, will love the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden near the Bukit Timah Road gate. Interactive fun is the name of the game here. As well as the Waterplay Area, there’s the Suspension Bridge, Sensory Garden (touching encouraged), Cave and a plethora of educational spaces designed to stimulate kids’ curiosity about the natural world. Grown-ups come for the orchids. The gardens are also a scenic spot for a picnic.
The Singapore Philatelic Museum has a new Harry Potter-themed exhibition, Collecting Magic: From Stamps to Wands, which runs until June and is a good rainy-day option for young fans. It features Potter stamps from all over the world, along with movie memorabilia such as a Lego version of Gringotts Wizarding Bank. The museum is housed in a well-preserved two-storey Colonial building, once part of the Anglo-Chinese School.
East Coast Park – built on reclaimed land between the airport-to-city East Coast Parkway expressway and the body of water known as the Singapore Strait – is always filled with locals exercising, having a barbecue or just relaxing. Skate, cycle or walk your way to Bedok Jetty; you can hire rollerblades and bikes at kiosks around the park. West Coast Park is good, too.
As far as water theme-parks go, Wild Wild Wet at the Downtown East entertainment hub is just as much fun but less crowded than Sentosa Island’s Adventure Cove Waterpark. From adrenaline-pumping rides, such as the Torpedo, to shallow toddler pools and a lazy river, Wild Wild Wet covers all the bases. And if it rains, Downtown East has an indoor children’s playground complete with climbing wall.
BEYOND THE CITY
Feeling adventurous? Head to Changi Village and take a bumboat to Pulau Ubin, an island in the strait between Singapore and Malaysia, that’s sometimes referred to as Singapore’s last traditional kampong (village). When you arrive, rent a bike and cycle around the old rubber plantations and coconut groves.
A somber place, the Singapore Memorial (also known as the Kranji War Memorial) in Kranji War Cemetery is an immaculate but haunting reminder of those who died defending Singapore and Malaya against Japanese invasion during World War II. More than 24,000 names are inscribed on the memorial’s white walls – the war-dead’s bodies never identified. Almost 4500 others are buried in marked graves.