Singapore is like nowhere else that I’ve visited. As one of the traditional meeting points between East and West, the former British colony is a melting pot of cultures. Here Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western customs collide to create a vibe that is completely unique, while still managing to be reminiscent of a different time and a place.
The idea of visiting Singapore came about for us as a way of breaking up our journey to Australia. And the more research we did, the more appealing a long layover in the Lion City became. So we decided to dive in head first.
The journey from the UK to Singapore takes around 13.5 hours. But the long-haul flight doesn’t have to cost a fortune. We flew with Norwegian on what’s been dubbed the longest low budget flight in the world, from Gatwick to Singapore Changi Airport. The journey cost us around £300 one-way and was no less comfortable than any other flight on a Dreamliner 787.
We had four full days to explore Singapore so, for us, it made complete sense to invest in the Singapore Tourist Pass. It costs $30 including a $10 deposit and is available from the airport MRT. For that price, you get unlimited use of the city’s bus and subway system.
I’ve heard of some people walking their way around the city, but to me Singapore felt vast. Not only that, but the hot and sticky climate doesn’t exactly provide the most comfortable climate for walking.
So trust me, you’ll see a lot more and feel a lot better if you use public transport to get around. Just download Citymapper to your phone and you can’t go wrong.
Another handy app to have is Grab – it works just like Uber and is popular in many South East Asian countries. Public transport doesn’t run after around midnight. So if you’re up for a party, Grab will be a lifesaver.
What to See :
Gardens By The Bay
Many of Singapore’s sights stand as a testament to the country’s vibrant past. However, there’s nothing backward-looking about Gardens By The Bay. The futuristic nature park opened in 2012 and has quickly become one of the most visited spots in the so-called “Garden City.”
It’s completely free to walk around the impressive Supertree Grove, although you need to pay to walk the OCBC Skyway. The Cloud Forest with its spectacular waterfall is also ticketed, as is the Flower Dome – but they’re well worth the dough. Don’t forget to return at night for the famous Garden Rhapsody light show. It happens twice daily and is completely free.
A stroll down Blair Road with its pretty shophouses is bound to give you address envy. Built in the 1920s, the street was once home to a string of wealthy Chinese merchants. Architecturally, the bright buildings are influenced by Chinese, Malay and European styles, and the result is truly stunning.
Like Blair Road, the MICA Building provides the perfect setting for an Instagram snap. Known more commonly as the Old Hill Street Police Station, the Neo-Classical building is one of Singapore’s finest and has been a National Monument since 1998. Today the famous landmark is easily recognisable thanks to its 927 windows and their rainbow-coloured window shutters.
Koon Seng Road
Koon Seng Road is a little off the beaten track, but it’s well worth the journey to admire its colourful, cute shophouses. Like Blair Road, the street was originally inhabited by the Perankan Chinese community, who came to Singapore in the 1920s. Today, some of the houses are still occupied by the same families, and it’s not hard to see why they haven’t wanted to move for generations.
The Masjid Sultan mosque and the Kampong Glam area surrounding it is again testament to Singapore’s rich and varied history. Traditionally home to the city’s Arab and Malay communities, the district has a strong Muslim influence, and Masjid Sultan is its spiritual centre.
The mosque as we see it today was built in 1932, and if you look carefully you can see that the dark band beneath the building’s iconic onion dome is actually made from bottles. These were donated by poor worshippers so that they could contribute something to the building of the mosque.
Marina Bay Sands
With its three skyscrapers and distinct surfboard shaped top, Singapore’s famous mega-hotel is pretty hard to miss. But if you’re wanting a closer look, be sure to check out the Sands SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands for a 360-degree view of Singapore. Tickets for the observation deck cost $23 (£13), but if you’d prefer to soak up the scene with a drink in hand, head straight for the luxury hotel’s SkyBar.
It’s free to enter after 10 pm on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Alternatively, you can pay $22 (£11) to enter before 10 pm on any night, and use the admission charge towards food and drink.
What to do:
Free Walking Tour
Indie Singapore runs a range of tip-based tours throughout the city, but we turned up for their Bugis and Kampong Glam walk. Our local guide was informal yet informative and taught us a lot about Singapore’s history and mix of cultures while exploring some of the city’s less touristy streets. Check out the Indie Singapore website for more details of their tours, and be sure to book ahead.
Get lost in Little India
Another of Singapore’s unique neighbourhoods, Little India – as the name does suggest – is the city’s South Asian hub. It’s a bustling place, bursting with colour (especially around Diwali), and is home to a number of temples and sights. And if food’s your thing, you really can’t go wrong in Little India.
Wander around hipster Tiong Bahru
The neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru is arguably Singapore’s hipster heart. As is usually the case Tiong Bahru was once traditionally a working-class area, and home to Singapore’s oldest housing estate. Built in the 1920s, the neighbourhood has a distinctly Art Deco flavour. And subsequent gentrification has seen an influx of cosy cafes, indie stores, and exclusive boutiques, which add to the area’s charm. The area is home to a series of murals by Singapore street artist Yip Yew Chong (Instagram here) – whose nostalgic artwork can be seen all over the city.
Sip on a Singapore Sling
When you imagine enjoying sipping on a Singapore Sling in Singapore, one place probably springs to mind – Raffles! The gin-based cocktail was apparently invented by a bartender at the hotel at the start of the 20th century. So it’s not hard to see why the two things are synonymous. Unfortunately for us though, Raffles was closed for refurbs during our visit (it’s due to open later in 2019). So I settled for a ‘sling on hipster Haji Lane instead.
Eat at a hawker center
Hawker centers are the lifeblood of Singapore’s famous food scene, and they’re like nowhere else on Earth. Think stall after stall specialising in one of two perfected dishes, all crammed under one – usually not conditioned – roof. Visiting at least one hawker centre is a must, which one depends on your dietary preferences. (If you’re vegan check out my food round-up here.)
Check out Chinatown
Traditionally home to Singapore’s ethnically Chinese population, the area is now a melting pot of cultures. Expect to see rows of shop houses, breathtaking temples, and gleaming skyscrapers as you traverse the neighbourhood’s vibrant streets. Chinatown is also one of the best places to build up an appetite in all of Singapore. Cheap and tasty food is in abundance. And the neighborhood’s hawker centres (the Maxwell Food Centre and Chinatown Complex) even boast some Michelin-Starred stalls. In fact, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!