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.
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 center and a jacuzzi overlooking the Singapore River.
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.
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.
Backpackers are not so spoiled 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 center, and YMCA International House—an all-time favorite for its central location between Orchard Road and the Colonial District.
It all began in the third century CE when this pristine island, at the end of the Malay Peninsula, was used as a trading post by merchants sailing to China. The first settlers were the Malays, who came around the 7th Century and called their newfound fishing settlement "Temasek" or "Sea Town".
It was known as Temasek for many centuries, until a Sumatran prince named Sri Tri Buana (popularly known as Sang Nila Utama) set foot on the island around 1299. After sighting a lion, he made the island his new kingdom and called it "Singapura" or "Lion City" in Sanskrit. The fifth king of Singapura, Parameswara, who was later overthrown by the Majapahit Empire of East Java, fled north and founded the Malacca Sultanate. Some Malays believe that it is his tomb that lies in Fort Canning Park today.
Centuries passed, then Singapore's modern history started when Sir Stamford Raffles stepped ashore in 1819—an event so significant the Raffles Statue was erected at the landing site on the banks of the Singapore River. An astute visionary, Raffles quickly struck a treaty with the local chieftains to set up a British trading post.
The Union Jack was raised and soon Singapore established itself as a free trading port. Exponential population growth followed with Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs and Europeans pouring onto the island, bringing with them an eclectic mix of cuisines, languages and cultures. A town plan was formulated and over the years took the form of the ethnic enclaves we see today—Chinatown, Arab Street and Little India. In 1823, the Johor-Riau Sultanate sold Singapore outright to the British for 60,000 Spanish dollars.
A proliferation of buildings then ensued—the Singapore Cricket Club opened in the 1850s as the whites-only recreational centre, the Singapore Town Hall (now Victoria Theatre) became the administrative building in 1862, and the Raffles Hotel opened for business in 1887. With the increasing occurrence of fires, the Central Fire Station at Hill Street was established in 1909, equipped with modern fire-fighting facilities.
Singapore's phenomenal progress took a downturn with the outbreak of World War II. The island fell into the hands of the Japanese during what Winston Churchill called "the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history." Hundreds were massacred at the Alexandra Hospital, thousands were gunned down at Changi Beach, prisoners of war were subjected to harsh military training at the Padang, and many other horrifying events marked the 3½ years of Japanese rule.
After the war the British returned to regain control, but by then the locals wanted a voice of their own and started fighting for independence. In 1959, Lee Kuan Yew, the first elected Prime Minister, announced the state's self-government on the steps of the City Hall. Under Lee's administration, Singapore was transformed from a third world trading port to a highly developed nation in a short span of 35 years.
After years of persistent urban development, however, much of the city's charming past has given way to stolid skyscrapers and shopping malls. It was only in the 1980s that conservation and restoration plans were launched by the government, saving architecturally important structures such as the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) houses on Emerald Hill, godowns along Boat Quay and shophouses at Tanjong Pagar from the demolition ball.
Singapore today is the economic miracle of South-east Asia, with the world's best airport (Changi Airport), the world's busiest port, the world's third largest petroleum refinery and a first-class infrastructure. Beneath the modern veneer, however, lie timeless treasures of finely restored colonial buildings, charming Peranakan houses, quaint shop houses and enduring landmarks that will take you back into the city's past. It may be a concrete jungle to some extent, but with numerous national parks, nature reserves and abundant greenery all year round, Singapore is indeed a model city, striking an enviable balance between urbanization and conservation. Welcome to the Garden City of Asia!
Local singer Dick Lee has a song about Singapore titled "Fried Rice Paradise," a parody on one of the Singaporeans' habitual tendencies—eating! And how true it is in this garden city! It offers a veritable melting pot of food choices for even the most discerning diner on almost any budget and around the clock. The wide variety of food stems from the multi-racial society that makes up the very fabric of Singapore.
When you come to Singapore, do what the locals do and eat what the locals eat—if you have the stomach for it, that is. The cheapest of meals available come from neighborhood coffee shops (an open-air floor space with tables and chairs where customers order from the stalls and wait to be served or take it with them) and hawker centers (large open spaces with built-in tables and chairs where customers give the stall operator their table numbers and their order is served).
The city's best coffee shops and hawker centers include Maxwell Road Food Centre (a popular hawker center known for cheap, tasty food), S-11 (a popular 24-hour coffee shop chain that serves adequately prepared food and is a hangout for art school types), Chin Chin (serves up excellent chicken rice as well as fresh Chinese dishes), and Newton Circus Food Centre. Look for the hawker centers and coffee shops near the bus interchanges and train stations located near satellite towns as well. Tampines and Bedok are good places to start your gastronomic adventure.
There are also air-conditioned food courts located in the basement of just about every shopping mall. These are usually pricier than coffee shops and hawker centers, but make up in comfort for what they lack in character. Scotts Picnic is a generic, standard-issue food court offering a mix of cuisines from all ethnic groups, while many of the eating options in Raffles City cater to the more sophisticated.
With a burgeoning expatriate community and a booming tourist industry, Singapore boasts a wide selection of European fare, cuisines from the rest of Asia, fusion food, and more. There's Sushi Tei, for instance, (where you pick the sushi off a revolving track in front of you), and almost all major hotels and shopping centers in Singapore will have at least one restaurant. The number of eating options is staggering, but a great place to start is at Chijmes, featuring a wide range of restaurants and cafes.
Better still, try something absolutely indigenous—let your menu be recommended by an herbalist, who will assess the balance of your yin and yang, at the Imperial Herbal.
Singapore's delectable home-grown specialty, chilli crab, should not be missed. Jumbo Seafood and Gold Coast Live Seafood are just two places amongst the many restaurants along the East Coast Parkway where you can savor a bowl. Alternatively, add some novelty to your evening and fish for your own dinner at the New Pasir Ris Fishing Pond.
Cafes & Teahouses
If you hanker for good coffee, Starbucks Coffee is a good bet, with outlets in many shopping malls. Another popular chain is Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (try their world-famous, sweet ice-blends).
Time permitting, a visit to a Chinese teahouse is highly recommended. Watch the connoisseurs brew a pot right before your eyes—mind you, it is not as easy as dunking a tea bag in hot water—and relish the scents and flavor of Chinese tea, which is said to do wonders for one's health. The Tea Chapter stands out from the rest in terms of ambiance and service, bringing about an overall relaxing and gratifying experience.