A giant shopping-centre stopover; the gateway to somewhere else, right? Actually, the futuristic city has new cultural and culinary vigour, as Kendall Hill learns after just 24 hours.
Singapore is the little city-state that could, morphing from backwater to powerhouse in a generation. Despite that feat, it has struggled to shake its reputation as a dull but worthy destination. In the past decade, not only has it transformed physically – its emblematic bird is jokingly said to be the (construction) crane – but also culturally. The “little red dot” now has a definable character that relishes the arts, design, “hidden” venues, rooftop bars and, always and above everything, great eating. Food is the all-consuming passion, whether haute cuisine or on the street. Little more than 50 years on from independence, Singapore’s citizens enjoy greater prosperity per capita than their former overlords, the British – and that shows in the emerging confidence and character to be found here on the edge of the equator.
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Greet the day in the gardens
05:30: Start off on the right foot with a walk or jog to the Singapore Botanic Gardens (1 Cluny Road), the city’s singular backyard. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed attraction has played a key role in the country’s economy, establishing rubber plantations and the commercial orchid industry and cultivating its reputation as a “garden city”. The gates open daily at 5am; go early to exercise in the cooler dawn air, get lost in the urban jungle, pay tribute to the grand old tembusu tree immortalised on the $5 note, swoon over a thousand orchid species and discover why this place is so loved by locals.
Hawker food for breakfast
07:00: Catch a (cheap, clean) cab to (cheap, clean) Tiong Bahru Market (30 Seng Poh Road). The stalls lining this airy hawker hall offer dozens of breakfast options, from peanut porridge and chicken rice to some of the best chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with salted turnip) available in this street-food-obsessed city. Look for the queue outside stall No. 5, Jian Bo Shui Kueh. They serve local coffee here but if you’re craving an espresso, walk to the fashionable 40 Hands café (78 Yong Siak Street) run by Australian barista Harry Grover, a pioneer of Singapore’s mod-coffee scene.
Be dazzled at the museum
09:30: Stroll to Tiong Bahru’s MRT train station and buy a one-way ticket to Bayfront (change to the blue line at Bugis). On arrival, cross the Marina Bay Sands complex to the ArtScience Museum (6 Bayfront Avenue), that huge, lotus-shaped building by the bay. As well as a changing roster of world-class international exhibitions, programmed activities and events include movie screenings, tours, Family Fridays and interactive displays.
Glimpse the future
12:00: Take a taxi to One-North, the futuristic Queenstown enclave designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid. Its cluster of space-age buildings, with names such as Galaxis, Symbiosis and Connexis, make a bold bid to position Singapore on the cutting edge of the 21st century. Look out for a driverless car called SCOT (Shared Computer-Operated Transport); it started a one-year trial on the local roads here last October. For lunch, trot over to the Timbre+ “gastropark” (73a Ayer Rajah Crescent; timbreplus.sg), an assembly of painted shipping containers and caravans serving everything from fish-ball noodles to French cuisine. Bon appétit.
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Take tea under the dome
15:00: It’s a quick cab ride to Gardens by the Bay (18 Marina Gardens Drive), the botanical wonderland that’s home to the world’s largest glass greenhouse, the Flower Dome (which holds the 2015 Guinness World Record to prove it). Book ahead for afternoon tea at Pollen restaurant inside the dome; a buggy shuttles diners from the garden’s entrance to the posh eatery. The 10-piece afternoon tea menu (3pm-5pm daily, except Tuesdays) meanders from open sandwiches and 24-hour short ribs to banana teacake and macarons. Cava optional. Explore the glorious displays of the 1.2-hectare Flower Dome afterwards – entry’s free with the tea.
Test your shopping stamina
16:30: Fortified by tea and cake, it’s time to tackle Singapore’s national sport: shopping. Take the shuttle back to the garden’s entrance, grab a cab and set a course for ION Orchard (2 Orchard Turn). There are hundreds of glossy stores over eight floors, including the chic local women’s and children’s label In Good Company (shop B1-06). Or you could head to the emerging retail hub of Beach Road in Kampong Glam. Supermama’s flagship store (265 Beach Road) stocks exclusively Singaporean-designed goods and giftware, from socks to ceramics, so it’s the perfect place to find one-of-a-kind gifts and souvenirs.
Raise a glass to rooftop glamour
18:30: Take a taxi to the new National Gallery Singapore (1 St Andrew’s Road). Admire the impressive architectural profile of this marriage between the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings before entering via St Andrew’s Road and taking the lift to the roof. Smoke & Mirrors is Singapore’s glamorous new terrace bar with knockout views over the Padang playing fields to Marina Bay. Seating is indoor or outdoor, depending on your mood, and the cocktail list by head bartender Yugnes Susela ranges from classics to theatrics, including four drinks inspired by artworks in the gallery’s collection.
Don't pass up a free concert
19:15: Head off on foot past the playing fields of Padang to the riverfront arts centre Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay (1 Esplanade Drive), known by locals as “the big durians” because of its spiky exterior. There are free concerts here most nights, often featuring local artists. Culture-seekers might stumble across anything from a silent anime screening with piano accompaniment to a string quartet or solo hip-hop artist.
SEE ALSO: Five Thing to Do in Singapore After Dark
Home in on hip dining
20:45: It’s back to Tiong Bahru for dinner (a taxi will be quickest). This residential zone has become a hotbed of hip cafés lately and Bincho (78 Moh Guan Terrace) is the hippest of all. By day, it’s a 70-year-old neighbourhood kopitiam (coffee shop) called Hua Bee that’s renowned for its fish-ball noodles and butter-laced coffee. By night, the space becomes Bincho and the humble dining room converts to candlelit marble-topped tables and designer chairs. Sit at the bar for upfront encounters with Japanese chef Asai Masashi as he prepares fresh wasabi with a shark-skin grater and grills chicken wings stuffed with cod roe (#musthave).
Catch an indie film
22:00: Call an Uber or cab to the ’70s-era Golden Mile Tower on Beach Road. Take the lift to level five, where The Projector – the city’s only independent cinema – screens cult and arthouse films that might not otherwise be seen in Singapore. There’s a café, a seven-metre-long bar and two screening rooms. But only one, the Redrum, has beanbags.
Cocktails with the cool crowd
00:00: Make a last taxi dash to Hong Kong Street, former home of spice traders (the air’s still fragrant with star anise) and now tenanted by one of Asia’s coolest bars, 28 Hongkong Street. There’s a party vibe here any night of the week, thanks to the big personalities of the bar staff, the custom cocktails and a particularly good-looking crowd. Hel-lo, beautiful. ￼