A city as small as Singapore can be toured in just three days, many would say, but to see all the highlights and get beneath the skin of this charming place definitely warrants a longer stay. A tour planned around the major districts allows one to appreciate its history, people and rich cultural diversity in an optimal period of time. Here is the best of Singapore not to be missed.
Singapore's architectural goldmine. Let yourself be whisked back in time to 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles first stepped ashore and the Union Jack was raised. Still exuding a strong air of colonialism, are well restored government buildings, cathedrals and churches, notably
This is the very origin of Singapore's prosperity, with the
Home to the towering skyscrapers that lend Singapore its distinctive skyline. Over the years, building after building has battled to be the tallest; today, three have tied for the honors—OUB Building,
Shop till you drop! Join the jostling crowds and do what young and hip Singaporeans do best—shop, catwalk and flaunt their latest buys. Swanky malls and charming boutiques dot Singapore's prime shopping belt from end to end, while chic alfresco eateries make great spots for watching the fashion parade go by. Top stops include local department stores
Once a victim of redevelopment, this ethnic enclave still holds pockets of old, dilapidated buildings where Singaporeans continue to practice age-old trades. Others have been restored to their former state, like the series of shophouses at the
With its top draw being the
A riot of color, particularly on Sundays and during major Hindu festivals, like
With a population of more than three million living in an area of 600 square kilometers (373 square miles), Singapore is one of the world's most densely populated cities. Housing is expensive due to the scarcity of land, and most Singaporeans today stay in high-rise apartments that cost as much as a bungalow in nearby Malaysia. This translates into expensive lodging.
Interestingly, however, the number of hotels has been snowballing and occupancy rates average more than 80 per cent. Visitors to the island can choose from a good range of accommodations. Hotels are concentrated into two main areas—the Colonial District and the Orchard Road shopping belt.
Colonial District—One would do well to find lodging in and around the colonial core, for from here it is convenient to get to the historical sights, ethnic enclaves, and restaurants and pubs along Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. Major convention centers are also within walking distance, while the Orchard Road shopping belt and the Central Business District (CBD) are just a short ride away.
If your budget allows, the more comfortable choices include the Ritz-Carlton in the Marina area (this six-star hotel boasts top-notch facilities in a central location and a view of the sea) and Conrad International (more of a business hotel but service here is excellent!). Of course, the legendary Raffles Hotel deserves a separate mention. In addition to wonderful service, shopping boutiques (Prada, Louis Vuitton, etc.) and good restaurants, Raffles Hotel provides visitors with an excellent tropical getaway in the city center. Other hotels worth considering include the Marina Mandarin, Hotel InterContinental, Pan Pacific and Swissôtel The Stamford (one of the world's tallest hotels). These are brand-name hotels that provide quality service and have all the amenities associated with five-star hotels—swimming pool, gym, room service, restaurants, business center and the like.
Those wanting something less extravagant can opt for the Allson or the Peninsula Excelsior, both of which have decent rooms, a small pool and limited business facilities. Though belonging to the same mid-range bracket, the Swissotel Merchant Court is refreshingly contemporary, with a free-form pool, an excellent fitness centre and a jacuzzi overlooking the Singapore River.
Orchard Road—Choice district to stay in if shopping is your thing. The largest concentration of hotels is found here—not surprising since the multitudes of shopping malls make Orchard Road the main tourist belt. Few sightseeing opportunities are near, but with 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) of shopping at your doorstep, why complain?
If money is no object, the top choices here are the Grand Hyatt (superbly landscaped, with excellent fitness facilities, popular with business professionals), Four Seasons (renowned for its unparalleled personal service) and Goodwood Park—an elegant, refurbished 1856 German recreation club built in the style of a Rhineland castle. Other luxury hotels worthy of mention include the Shangri-La, Meritus Mandarin Singapore and Sheraton Towers.
For those with a moderate budget, try the less expensive (three- and four-star) hotels such as Traders, Royal Plaza and Singapore Marriott (which is itself a landmark for its distinctive pagoda-style roof). These provide a pleasant stay and reasonably good service, with in-house restaurants and business centers. At the lower end, there are no-frills hotels like Lloyd's Inn and RELC International Hotel. However, facilities match the low price—they are basic and only sometimes comfortable.
City Fringe—Hotels around the city fringe provide good alternatives for the more budget conscious. Connection to the central areas is quick and easy—hop on a bus or train and you will be there within minutes. For those who want the comfort of an attached bath and regular no-frills lodging, get a room at Hotel Bencoolen. The chain of Hotel 81 outlets—mostly located in the slightly seedy, red-light district of Geylang—may be a little further out from the city, but they do provide comfortable, adequate lodging at a much lower price.
Budget Lodging—Backpackers are not so spoilt for choice. There are not any YHA-affiliated hostels, but there are a limited number of guesthouses, which offer dorm beds for below SGD25 a night. These include Why Not Homestay and Waffles Homestay just off the city centre, and YMCA International House—an all-time favourite for its central location between Orchard Road and the Colonial District.
Talk about nightlife! Singapore bubbles with party frenzy almost every night of the week. With one new establishment sprouting in the market (at least) every month, this little island boasts close to 700 clubs, bars, pubs and discos. The vibrant nightlife here pampers pub-crawlers and party-goers with a cornucopia of choices, differing in music, range of drinks, the kind of crowd or simply the ambiance they create as they seek an individual identity.
Live Music and Pubs
Along the Singapore River lies Harry's Bar at Boat Quay. Each week live bands lure a handsome crowd, mostly expatriates with their soulful jazz. Perfect for a hip night out!
A household name for soul and blues is Crazy Elephant. Blues fans pack this pub every weekend to soak in the roaring music of popular bands. The elegant Bellini Grande regularly hosts international names yet maintains its small venue charm.
For those who love to dine, wine and party all night long at one location, there are restaurants that are swiftly transformed into dance grounds right after dinner. Big international names are popular with Hard Rock Cafe still holding its appeal. Another big player is China Jump Bar and Grill, where customers are not only slapped with huge portions of food but also made to swing right off on their feet with a terrific mix of retro music. If you want to avoid the city's hustle and bustle, and yet have some fun, the Sunset Bay Beach Bar offers great ambiance. Located on Sentosa's Siloso Beach, this was the first beach pub to throw foam parties. In the evenings, it is ideal for chilling out and sipping margaritas while watching the sunset—as the name implies.
Leading in terms of size is the highly-acclaimed Zouk, with its huge dance floors and different themed sections such as Phuture, Velvet Underground and Wine Bar, all serving different crowds with their varying brands of music. In addition, the success of Zouk has been endorsed by special appearances of famous DJs including Fatboy Slim and Stacy Pullen who spin for the club occasionally.Other big names in town include the Ministry of Sound, Singapore, maintaining the reputation of the original London club, plus the 3050 square meter (10,000 square foot) Arena. The waterfront Attica has developed a loyal following and excellent reputation over the years.
Of course, entertainment in Singapore is not all about parties and booze. This vibrant city, with its multi-cultural outlook, promises a colorful calendar of festivities, performances and events throughout the year. Dates vary from year to year, however, so check with the Singapore Tourism Board and SISTIC outlets for precise dates and ticket prices. Local favorite Substation hosts a variety of art related events in town from openings to performance pieces.
Singapore is a melting pot of cultures, with Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnic groups that cultivate a unique blend of traditional performance art, music and dance. On top of this, there are always numerous performances from touring international troupes, in particular during the Singapore International Comedy Festival in March/April, the Singapore Arts Festival in June, WOMAD Singapore around August and the Singapore River Buskers Festival in November. With consistent support from the government, the Singapore arts scene has leapt onto the international platform, uplifting its cultural image.
Religious festivals abound and often provide a riot of color. Many of these offer visitors much to see, such as the processions during Thaipusam and the Birthday of the Monkey God. Singapore celebrates the Chinese New Year in grandeur, with a lively Chingay procession that produces the nation's largest street parade.
Concert Halls & Theatres
The best venue for contemporary or classical music has to be the Victoria Concert and Memorial Hall, home to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. For an orchestra with a difference, experience an evening with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra with its splendid repertoire of traditional and symphonic Chinese music.
For those interested in dance and renowned troupes with accolades, check out the Singapore Dance Theatre with their enchanting dance movements and exuberant costumes. For more cultural dances, try the Kala Mandhir Temple of Fine Arts and Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society, both known to stage impressive performances.
Theater lovers will appreciate some of Singapore's highly acclaimed drama groups. The Necessary Stage tries out experimental works, the Theatre Practice boasts productions like King Lear, and the Singapore Repertory Theatre has a string of accomplishments, including the Golden Child by David Hwang.
An ambitious project is Esplanade Theatre on the Bay, which has gained acclaim, if not international landmark status. This tremendous center offers just about everything: theater, music, performance space of all kinds, and it's all close to the waterfront. Included is the 2000-seat theater and 1800-seat Concert Hall with a 39-foot high pipe organ and the necessary acoustics to match. This is indeed welcomed by arts fans, who have been going to smaller venues such as The Substation, Jubilee Hall and the Kallang Theatre.
Many Singaporeans are film buffs, so it is no wonder there are more than 50 cinemas island-wide. Hollywood blockbusters are shown here soon after their release in the U.S. and long before they hit European screens. Modern cinemas take the form of multiplexes, some of which, like Golden Village Yishun, feature up to ten movies at one go. Around town there is a modern cineplex at Jurong Cinema and CineMania the high tech experiential cinema in Sentosa.
With so many important cultural and historical sights to see, we recommend wearing comfortable shoes and avoiding the afternoon heat, maybe by slipping into one of Singapore’s many cafes.
Start at the beginning of Singapore’s modern history, the Raffles Statue that marks the place Stamford Raffles is thought to have landed on January 29, 1819. Opposite, on the south bank of the Singapore River, are the towering office blocks of the Financial District and bustling Boat Quay—a row of converted shophouses and godowns that now house a slew of restaurants and bars. Turn left and cross the iron-link Cavenagh Bridge, built in 1868. Across the river on your right is the Fullerton Singapore, formerly the General Post Office. The Asian Civilisations Museum at Empress Place is on your left. This huge neoclassical building was designed as a Court House and was renamed the Empress Place Building to commemorate the reign of Queen Victoria, Empress of India. Walk on towards the Dalhousie Obelisk and then to two fine, colonial buildings— Victoria Theatre, completed in 1862 as the Town Hall, and Victoria Concert Hall, added in 1905 and now home to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. In front of the buildings stands the original statue of Raffles. Stop in for Hainanese chicken rice at Yet Con Restaurant.
Memorials and the Raffles Hotel
Merlion Park is at the center of Singapore’s colonial district. It is also walking distance to Esplanade Park, full of memorials worth noting, including the pagoda-like Lim Bo Seng Memorial, the Indian National Army monument and the Cenotaph, dedicated to the soldiers who died in the two World Wars. The final memorial in the Park is the Tan Kim Seng Fountain, a beautiful Victorian fountain unveiled in 1882 in recognition of Mr. Tan's donation towards free piped water for the town. Cross Connaught Drive to the Padang and then to Stamford Road for a closer look at the Civilian War Memorial, whose four pillars have earned it the nickname "chopsticks." It symbolizes citizens from Singapore's four main races who died during the Japanese Occupation. Time for some lunch and relaxation now, so cross Beach Road and then Bras Basah Road to that venerable outpost of colonialism— Raffles Hotel. Cool off in the third floor museum for a dose of Raffles memorabilia before tucking into lunch at one of its several restaurants and cafes. How about trying Doc Cheng's with its East-West cuisine and a Singapore Sling at The Long Bar afterwards? Then spend an hour or so at the hotel's shopping arcade where you will find exclusive brands like Tiffany & Co.
Fort Canning Park
Fort Canning Park was once the quarters for the Malayan rulers of Singapore. The tomb of Sultan Iskandar Shah is believed to be in the park. Wander around and admire the many oddities seen here, including the sundial, Singapore’s first Christian cemetery, and the modern music and performance venues before crossing Coleman Street to tour the Substation. The old power station has been converted into an art space with rotating exhibitions, performance pieces and a fun outdoor cafe. Next door is the Armenian Church, built in 1835. Walking up Victoria Street you will pass the Stamford House, a former hotel that is now an upmarket shopping arcade with a reputation for excellent antiques. Finally you arrive at Chijmes, a breathtaking Gothic structure adjacent to the historic Caldwell House. Stop in to admire the stained glass, murals and more that was preserved when Chijmes was renovated from a convent into a shopping mall.
Sentosa and Siloso Beach
This island is easy to get to from the historic center of Singapore is dedicated to the historic and natural heritage of the area. With so much to do, it can be hard to decide what to see first. A great place to start out is the Merlion Walk along Imbiah Lookout. This whimsical path takes you past fountains, gardens and more, ending at a statue of the Merlion. Next head up to the Sky Tower to get a panoramic view of the area. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Malaysia! Next stop is Asia’s biggest aquarium, Underwater World. From an underwater tunnel you can walk through a living coral reef, view native sea species and more. Finally, make a stop at Siloso Beach to enjoy a sandy respite. This completely manmade beach is a favorite for volley ball enthusiasts, and the boardwalk has plenty of interesting shops. Around sunset, Café del Mar is one of the most romantic spots in town.
Encompassing the area between South Bridge Road and the Singapore River, Chinatown is a lively mix of old and new that is easily explored on foot. Not all the newcomers who settled in the area were from China, however. First, start out at the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. Next door is the equally important Jamae Mosque. The minarets of the mosque show Chinese influence, but the temple was originally built by South Indian Muslims, also known as Chulias. From here make your way down Cross Street through the heart of Chinatown to Telok Ayer, turn left, and head towards the longest operating Chinese temple in Singapore, Thian Hock Keng. Retrace your steps back to Cross Street and then continue down Telok Ayer to the Fuk Tak Chi Museum. This is the first Chinese temple in the area, and it now serves as a street museum dedicated to Chinatown’s culture and heritage. It is also adjacent to the Far Eat Square, a commercial interpretation of “Old Chinatown” shophouses where you can find excellent dining and shopping.
Asia Paranormal Investigators Spooky Tour +65 9878 8669 http://api.sg/main/
City Experience +65 6734 9923 http://www.asiatours.com.sg/
Singapore Explorer Pte Ltd +65 6339 6833
DUCKtours +65 6338 6877 http://www.ducktours.com.sg/
Imperial Cheng Ho Cruises +65 6533 9811 http://www.watertours.com.sg/
Singapore River Cruises +65 6336 6111 http://www.rivercruise.com.sg/rivercruise.htm
Beyond SingaporeTour East Singapore +65 6735 1221 http://www.toureast.net/
Urbane Nomads +65 6728 8614 http://www.urbanenomads.com/