The tiny island of Singapore is pint-sized geographically but it has plenty to do and see.
Places Of Interest
The Singapore story began with its harbour at the base of the Singapore river — and this is still the place to head to view colonial heritage, as well as the newer, stunning downtown centre. Dominating all is the Moshe Safdie-designed three-tower Marina Bay Sands hotel and shopping centre, complete with a top-floor viewing deck in the form of a curving ocean liner. Opposite Marina Bay is the Padang, surrounded by the National Gallery housed in a stunning Supreme Court/City Hall conversion and other colonial buildings such as the Old Parliament now housing The Arts House and the Asian Civilisations Museum, an award-winning showcase of Asian culture and history. Adjacent to Marina Bay is the futuristic, lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum where exhibitions are often interactive and cutting-edge.
The river is another winner, with three quays – Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay – offering tourists and residents alike a smorgasbord of dining, drinking and clubbing options. Old godowns and merchants’ houses have found new life along the buzzy riverfront, while river taxis have replaced the bumboats of old.
Close to the downtown core is Fort Canning, a great spot to watch al fresco films, plays and dance performances at certain times of the year (the National Parks Board website gives event listings). In fact, Singapore’s parks, nature reserves, green areas and roadside plantings are among the city-state’s major attractions. Don’t miss Gardens by the Bay, with its two glass-domed hothouses, a grove of fantastical ‘supertrees’ and expansive themed gardens, or the National Orchid Garden at the older Botanic Gardens. This houses over 60,000 plants and a cool house that showcases pitcher plants and orchids, among other species. The Singapore Zoo is as much a garden as an animal sanctuary, while the Night Safari allows visitors to view animals in naturalistic, ‘open’ exhibits in the evenings.
Tiong Bahru is one of Singapore’s more atmospheric neighbourhoods and a firm favourite with those who prefer the individual to the mass. Originally the site for the Singapore Improvement Trust’s experiment in improved housing, the area’s art deco flats and shophouses are now both residential and retail. Heritage meets happening here: at Tiong Bahru’s centre is the sprawling Wet Market and Food Centre, while the periphery contains upmarket coffee shops such as the Tiong Bahru Bakery, as well as some interesting galleries, and the not-to-be-missed Qi Tian Gong temple, dedicated to the monkey god.
WALK AND TALK
Another area well worth exploring is Joo Chiat on the other side of town. A former Peranakan enclave now gazetted for conservation, it is named after landowner and philanthropist Chew Joo Chiat (1857 –1926) and is famed for its many bakeries specialising in Nyonya cakes and its rows of particularly colourful shophouses. Bemyguest.com runs guided walking tours in the form of a heritage-and-food exploration. Another tour guide worth seeking out is Geraldene Lowe-Ismail for her all-encompassing knowledge of Singapore. Explore Black-and-White Houses, fast-disappearing trades and traders, World War II trails, shophouses and more with this witty and wise woman as she shares her stories of growing up in Singapore after the war.
Places To Eat
No visit to Singapore is complete without at least three meals a day. Every type of cuisine is available, from inexpensive hawker fare to fine-dining options. For authentic Singaporean fare, Candlenut at COMO Dempsey is a Peranakan gem, serving up a contemporary take on traditional Straits Chinese dishes, while homegrown PS.Café has a number of outlets – a gorgeous one overlooking Marina Bay at One Fullerton, a greenhouse option at Raffles City, and perennial favourite Chopsuey Café in the colonial-chic Dempsey Hills enclave. Ding Dong on Amoy Street serves up Asian-inspired dishes, while Restaurant Labyrinth at the Esplanade is the brainchild of banker turned self-taught chef, Han Li Guang. He serves up what he calls ‘Neo-Sin’ food — old favourites such as chilli crab reimagined as ice cream.
A visit to Singapore’s hawker centres is a must. There are too many to choose from, but the row of al fresco stalls adjacent to the Esplanade at Glutton’s Bay is a good start. The stingray, carrot cake and satay are classic choices.
Places To Pick Up A Thing Or Two
SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP
Shopping is another national obsession, and visitors from all over regularly converge on Orchard Road for the annual Great Singapore Sale which runs for two months between June and August. This is where all the major brands are to be found in upmarket air-conditioned malls such as ION, Ngee Ann City and Paragon. But if something a bit more intimate is more to your liking, independent boutiques along Haji Lane in the Kampong Glam or the Arab Quarter may appeal. Other independent shops that stock Singapore-centric souvenirs are Naiise, with its quirky homewares, stationery items and designer-chic ethos, and Supermama, a cute gallery that has teamed up with a Japanese ceramics company to produce eye-catching tableware. Higher priced, but still design savvy, is Christina Ong’s new Dover Street Market, the local outpost of the London outlet in Haymarket. Even if you can’t afford to buy anything here, it’s worth a peek for the audacity of the design alone!
Books are well stocked at Kinokuniya, the regional bookseller of renown, but rather more eclectic are Basheer Graphic Books and BooksActually. The former is a specialised bookstore for design books and magazines with some truly beautiful tomes on art, architecture, product design, fashion and more, while BooksActually is a great spot to browse for Singaporean authors, in both fiction and non-fiction categories. There are also some interesting ‘finds’ such as vintage photos, signage, Chinese tin trays and crockery, for example.
Worth The Trek
If time permits, a day-trip out can be worth the effort. Some head to Johor Bahru across the border in Malaysia for cheap shopping, but there are two nearer to home. The islands of Sentosa and Pulau Ubin are as different from each other as chalk and cheese. Sentosa is brash and brassy, chock-a-block with Universal Studios, a fantastic underwater aquarium, zip line, beaches, bars, restaurants and other outdoor activities. Pulau Ubin, on the other hand, is light years away from urban Singapore, even though it is only a 10-minute boat ride from Changi Point. Visitors are encouraged to come for the day and hire a bike. Many head to Chek Jawa, a conserved wetland area on the east coast of the island, while others are content to walk or cycle in the idyllic interior. Expect to come across wild hog or mousedeer, and plenty of local and migratory birds. Sights of old kampung (village) houses, quarries-turned-lakes, abandoned farms and plantations evoke an earlier era that is utterly charming.