Futuristic, cutting edge, hip and innovative mixed with traditional and multiculturally-infused: Singapore is an expansive, complex melting-pot of a city. Expect to see packed-out temples sitting alongside reflective sky-reaching, sci-fi-esque hotels and office blocks resembling gardens in the clouds. And then there’s chic and boho shophouses serving all the latest edible and drinkable treats you can imagine, next to vast, maze-like “food malls” with tiny booths serving restaurant-worthy, shockingly inexpensive and lovingly-made dishes.
Singapore is a wealthy island-city state, originally founded by Raffles in 1819 as a trading post of the British East India Company. The islands were given up to the British Raj in 1858. Gaining independence from the UK in 1963 to become a part of the new ‘Malaysia’, Singapore separated to become a sovereign nation two years later. Due to its status as a global financial hub, the country is widely regarded as one of the most forward-thinking in the world. And as such, its education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing all rank as some of the very best in the world. Changi, Singapore’s primary airport, has consistently been voted the world’s best.
When to visit
Wettest months are November to January when showers can seem relentless. May and June can be swelteringly hot, so February to April is generally considered the best time to visit. Temperatures linger at a consistently warm 32°C throughout the year.
I visited at the end of March and it felt very humid. It rained for up to about 30 minutes max each afternoon, but the shorter the rain shower, the hotter is seemed to feel afterwards. Most days, we stepped out of the hotel and felt instantly sweaty.
I’d previously heard that ‘Singers’ was a “love it or hate it” city but the “love-its” definitely edged it. Each time I book a long-haul trip I like to try and fit in some big changes of scenery. So I tagged Singapore onto the end of an extended stay in Malaysia. It had all the elements I was looking for: culturally unique, compact enough to see lots of the city, and forward-thinking – in stark contrast to the chilled Langkawi Island beach vibe I was coming from.
Where did I stay?
My go-to accommodation when I’m travelling is always Airbnb, but unusually in Singapore I couldn’t find one that was in the location and at the price that I wanted. So I ended up booking The Orchid Hotel in Chinatown which was in the area I wanted and within budget. It was walkable to many of Singapore’s places of interest and the area seemed the most culturally-interesting because of its rows of shophouses and huge hawker centres (food courts). Large sections of Singapore’s Chinatown have been declared national heritage sites.
The hotel was perfectly adequate – clean, comfortable and air-conditioned; a relief to step back into after a sweltering day exploring the city.
Did Singapore meet my expectations?
I thought it was going to be fairly sterile, rule-enforcing, ultra-modern and lacking much authenticity, but still impressive because of its futuristic outlook and penchant for building enormous modern skyscrapers. In reality, it does feel forward-thinking, tech-savvy and wealthy – but there’s a grittiness and genuine edginess about it that I loved. The food culture is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, with places to eat almost every few steps. The business areas of Singapore do give off a sterile feel because of the awesome scale and reflectiveness of the buildings. I can imagine if a tourist only sticks to this area, they’ll come away slightly disappointed. But there’s plenty of the city that I found to be quite the opposite. Chinatown and Little India each possess a unique charm, with fascinating feast-for-the-senses bustling temples, shops and food vendors. Then there’s Haji Lane, a Brick Lane-type of boho chic area, full of interesting selfie-worthy wall art and tasty eateries. Oh, and Arab Street, with its beautiful mosques and trendy boutiques. It’s safe to say that the vibrancy and authentic culture of Singapore far exceeded my expectations.
How costly is it?
Singapore is a wealthy city with gargantuan shopping malls around practically every corner in the heart of the city. And the prices do reflect that, although it’s not difficult to find a bargain. Bar alcohol prices tend to be excessive, but some of the best food I had was ridiculously cheap – a meal at a hawker centre is around $6 (less than £3.50). Food prices do rise steeply, depending on where you choose to eat in the city. And there is usually a 10% service charge added to bills in restaurants and bars, although tipping for most other things isn’t customary or expected.
- An Uber or Grab was the cheapest taxi option, and I found them extremely reliable. Fares change according to the time of day, so plan accordingly if on a budget.
- A meal and drink for two people in the Hard Rock Cafe was, understandably, quite expensive at around $90 (£50).
- 2 x Singapore slings in the Marina Bay Sands Cé La Vi Skybar is around $54 (£30), but your $20 per ticket entrance fee will be deducted from the total of your first drink/food/merchandise. Note: ticket prices for the observation deck are more expensive but you can get closer to the edge for better photos. Observation deck tickets will not allow access to the bar, and vice versa. On Sundays, the bar dress code is relaxed, although ‘smart casual’ will normally be fine in the daytimes on all other days. Top tip: when you get to the top where the bars are, go to the left bar – the views are less obstructed and you’ll get to witness the hotel infinity pool. Most people seem to go to the right bar which is much busier and harder to find a seat.
- Gardens by the Bay conservatories: $28 per adult/$15 per child. I didn’t go in because I felt that there was plenty to do and see in the outdoor gardens. The OCBC Skyway (aerial walkway among Supertree Grove) is $8 adult/$5 child. Be prepared to queue at busy times. I queued for only half an hour around 6.30pm, and it was during an animé celebration concert.
- Singapore Zoo: $35 adult/$23 child.
- Sentosa Island: depends on how you get there
- and what you choose to do on the island. Singapore Cable car (round trip): $29.50 adult/$21 child.
- Hawker centres are a must-experience – a huge variety of tasty, freshly made food for all tastes, at really affordable prices. What’s more, the passionate vendors seem to enjoy conversations about how their dishes are sourced, made and what’s in them. Some hawkers have a better atmosphere than others. Just choose what you want, pay for it, add your condiments, pick up some chopsticks, and grab a seat next to a few locals. My favourite was Telok Ayer Market, a historic hawker centre in downtown Singapore. The lemon iced tea was the best I’ve had anywhere.
- Drury Lane Cafe in Chinatown is a laid-back place with a hipster vibe, great for a coffee and slice of cake or breakfast. Their warmed banana bread is yummy!
- Strangely, my favourite meal in the city was a Mexican, at Piedra Negra in Haji Lane. Whiling away a couple of hours people-watching at one of the vibrantly-coloured restaurant’s street tables, lots of delicious food in before me, was a highlight. The guacamole is freshly prepared in front of you and will be among the best you’ve tried, without a doubt.
- From the cheap, quick and affordable hawker centres, to the opposite end of the scale; I’d heard a lot of good things about the National Kitchen by Violet Oon, at Singapore’s National Gallery, and I wasn’t disappointed. The setting seems formal and refined, but I needn’t have worried about going in wearing shorts and t-shirt – there wasn’t so much as a raised eyebrow and the service couldn’t have been friendlier. I tried the infamous pineapple upside-down cake – it was undoubtedly the best I’ve had. And it was nowhere near as costly as I’d expected; worth paying a little extra for the experience alone.
Three things I’d recommend
1. OCBC Garden Rhapsody light show: starts at 7.45pm and 8.45pm, lasts 15 minutes, and is FREE. This was a fab experience; a balmy evening, laying back on the grass and watching the Supertrees lit up to the sound of classic movie themes. Top tip: get to Gardens by the Bay before dusk to see it in daylight, and then in darkness. Most of the area (except Observatories and Skyway) is free, so you can roam around the Outdoor Garden area until the light show begins. If you watch the free Spectra light and sound show in front of Marina Bay Sands at 8pm (also on at 9pm), you can run through to Gardens by the Bay afterwards to catch the Garden Rhapsody show in the same evening.
2. Singapore Zoo (see prices above): easily the best zoo I’ve ever been to. Every type of living creature you can think of, some wonderful hands-on experiences and, most astonishingly of all, many of the enclosures are immersive with lots of animals wandering (or swinging) amongst visitors. Plus, there’s a great route to follow ensuring you get to see everything. I left exhilarated.
3. Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum: located in Chinatown and built in 2007, the temple has richly designed interiors and exhibits on Buddhist art and history. The temple gets its name from what the Buddhists regard as the left canine tooth of Buddha, which has been recovered from his funeral pyre in Kushinagar, India and displayed in the grounds here. It’s free to go in, and fine to take photos, although it’s a working temple so some consideration is needed. Heads should be uncovered and shoulders and knees must be covered – wraps are provided at the entrance for this. A beautifully impressive building, I found the temple a fascinating and powerfully spiritual place.
Anything I wouldn’t recommend?
Raffles Hotel is currently under renovation and fully closed to the public. It’s due to reopen in the second half of 2018. Sadly, visitors can’t even get much of a glimpse of the hotel through the hoarding. The pop-up bar which has opened to serve the famous Singapore sling, is a bit of a let-down and definitely not worth the visit. However, the gift shop is great for a few Raffles-related items for those friends who expect the finer gifts in life.
Sentosa Island is a resort off Singapore’s southern coast. I didn’t like it at all – it felt like a complete rip-off: confusingly priced at the Singapore Cable Car entrance, I even felt like I was being tricked into paying for more than I needed. Most attractions, including Universal Studios, Adventure Cove Waterpark, Madame Tussaud’s, Dolphin Island…etc, have separate entrance prices. Or alternatively you can pay for what felt like extortionately priced combo tickets. The beaches are free and, admittedly, are stunning – although many sections do belong to the restaurants and bars they back onto, so you will have to pay to rent a sun-bed there. Oh, and the sea they look out at is always full of countless oil tankers and ships. Even Tanjong Beach Club, voted by Condé Nast Traveller as “one of the best beach bars in the world”, was utterly disappointing: pretentious-feeling and exceptionally poor service – I waited nearly half an hour for my drink order to arrive!
My Sentosa advice would be: don’t go at all and do something culturally fulfilling in Singapore instead. However, if you do go don’t expect to see and do it all in a day – choose one or two attractions and just aim to go to those. Oh, and you don’t need to pay for the Singapore Cable Car to get there – it is possible to walk to the island for free, or get a taxi or monorail across.
Sentosa aside, Singapore is well worth a visit – plenty to see and do (and eat) for a few days. And, once you’ve attempted to understand its multiculturally heady concoction of charms, you’ll undoubtedly fall into the “love it” category!