First time in Singapore? 9 things to do, see and eat on your trip
"So where are you going after you're finished in Singapore?"
This was the question I was asked by friends-of-friends, taxi drivers, hotel staff and curious waiters during my stay in this tiny city state. I understood why. As a global transport hub and gateway into South East Asia, Singapore is used to transit travellers. They come and marvel at the world-class airport, maybe take some selfies in front of the Super Trees, and head off to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond. Before I visited, I was told that I could see all the highlights in three days. Maybe four, if I took it slow. So why was I coming for so long, and only visiting Singapore before heading home?
After more than a week in the country, I have a question for those who questioned me: how could I see it all in three or four days? Are we talking about the same country? I was out all day every day, moving between different neighbourhoods and corners of the main island, and I still ran out of time. I wanted to go back and see Clarke Quay at night time, or try some of the restaurants in Katong, or have a proper beach day in Sentosa. I didn't even make it to Universal Studios. I only had one Milo dinosaur!
Okay, I'm calming down. But really, for such a small place, there was a lot to see and do. And with all the delicious food, easily walkable streets, abundance of greenery and interesting history, it's somewhere you can definitely linger longer.
What to expect in Singapore
A city at the intersection of it all. Its Chinese, Indian and Malaysian roots blend together with ambitious modern architecture and high-tech everything. From multi-lingual signs in the metro station to ornate heritage houses, exotic street food, incredible art galleries and intriguing neighbourhoods, it's a mix of everything colourful, flavourful and bright.
Even if you don't speak one of the multiple languages you'll hear around the city state, it is still very easy to get around. English signage and speakers are everywhere and the metro and bus network is safe, reliable and efficient. The metro is an experience in itself, as the passengers queue politely on either side of the train doors and wait for everyone to get off before boarding. If you're used to the mad rush and shoving that is typical of metro stations in London, Paris, Rome, and Dubai, this alone will make your head spin.
Because of its proximity to the equator, Singapore has relatively consistent year-round temperatures. While it's not always technically that hot (for perspective, I live in the desert), the humidity makes it seem warmer and means that it is likely to rain for at least part of your trip. When I visited (mid February), it rained most days. The downpour is usually light and short, so it doesn't get in the way of your activities for long. Sometimes you'll enter a shop in the sunshine and by the time you leave, and the ground outside is wet from a passing shower.
So, if you're considering a trip, what exactly can you get up to on this small island in the Pacific?
Take the cable car to Sentosa Island
Closest metro stop: Harbourfront, then follow signs to the cable car.
Billed as the 'Island of Fun', Sentosa is a man-made resort island off the coast of mainland Singapore, which is home to beaches, a world class aquarium, and Universal Studios Singapore. Take the cable car over and you'll be treated to stunning views of Singapore's harbour front area, before travelling through the tropical forest that fills the space between stations.
In addition to the popular theme park, Sentosa is an interesting place to wander around. Spend some time at the S.E.A. Aquarium, stop off for a selfie with the Sentosa merlion (the half-lion-half-fish statue), take a zipline through the trees, park off on the beach or eat at the many of restaurants littering the island.
Walk around Gardens by the Bay
Closest metro stop: Bayfront.
While photos of the Super Trees and Cloud Forest dominate lists of Singapore's tourist attractions, it was the eco-friendly intention behind this mega botanical park that really resonated with me. From a climate change exhibit and messages on conservation posted throughout the gardens, to the solar-powered Super Tree light show, one of the city's most stunning attractions proved that it also cares deeply about the natural world.
Many sections of Gardens by the Bay are free and open to the public, with the two conservatories and a few other activities requiring an entrance fee. The first conservatory, the Flower Dome, is a massive indoor garden housing a range of rare and endangered plants from around the world, divided into different sections based on their origin. The otherworldly Cloud Forest features an indoor mountain, complete with a waterfall and space-age walkways atop its plant-covered frame. While it is slightly cheaper to visit just one of the conservatories, each has their own awe-inducing moments, so consider upgrading your ticket to experiencing both.
The Super Tree Grove is one of the most popular sections of the gardens, and is free (unless you would like to walk across the bridge suspended between the mega trees).
In the evenings, the trees come to life twice a night for a spectacular lights show, so consider visiting the gardens in the late afternoon so you can explore the area and arrive at the Grove in time for the show closest to sunset (7:45 pm).
Visit a cat café
Closest metro stop: Clarke Quay.
If you're a feline fan and want to do something different, why not stop off at one of the city's cat cafes? I visited Café Neko no Niwa, which is home to friendly rescue cats now living in a sunny cafe with a view in the riverside haven of Clarke Quay.
Step inside, take off your shoes, wash your hands, order some coffee, and head in to meet the fluffy residents. When your feet are sore and your brain is overloaded by all the sights and sounds of the city, this cute and quite space is the perfect place to take a break from your missions and give some love to the kitties.
Devour cheap local food at a hawker center
Want to try a range of Singaporean street food under one roof? Visit one of the city's many hawker centers. These foodie heavens are a popular and affordable way to sample interesting dishes, from soy bean curd to dragon fruit juice. The sheer range of food can be overwhelming, but it's an experience in itself just to order and sample a meal.
The food providers are rated according to their levels of hygiene: A is the highest, while C is the lowest. Check the little signs hanging in every stall if you're concerned about food poisoning - I only ate from stalls with an A or B rating, and had no issues.
Finding vegetarian options can be tricky, as some stalls only list the names of dishes and not the ingredients, but with the prevalence of tofu and soy beans in the cuisine, it isn't impossible.
If you're brave, you can even sample Singapore's stinkiest fruit, the durian, which has such an offensive smell that you can be fined for eating it in public places, trains and hotels. In the hawker centers, you can try it out without buying an entire fruit by ordering durian chendol, which is pureed durian and mixed fruit served over shaved ice. Just make sure you have some breath mints handy.
Explore artsy Tiong Bahru
Closest metro stop: Tiong Bahru.
Despite its strange name (Tiong Bahru means "new cemetery"), this quiet, historic neighbourhood has become a favourite spot for those looking for all things creative, quirky and artisanal. Take a lazy morning stroll around its streets, which are lined with art deco buildings, beautiful wall murals and cafes that spill over on to the sidewalk. If you have time, follow the heritage trail, which includes signs explaining the significance and history of major landmarks in the area.
You can stop off at Tiong Bahru Bakery or Forty Hands for an expertly hand-crafted breakfast, then wander over to boutique bookshop Books Actually to support local Singaporean authors and meet one of the resident shop cats. Shop at the small clothing, home decor, art and food stores, or grab a cupcake at Plain Vanilla Bakery.
For lunch, stop at Whisk for a healthy quinoa salad, or pop across the street to the Tiong Bahru Market and order some quick and yummy local food from the hawkers upstairs. Oh, and don't forget to try freshly baked tarts and traditional sweets like onde onde at Tiong Bahru Glacier Pastry!
Visit Little India and Kampong Glam
Closest metro stop: Little India.
Another interesting neighbourhood to explore in Singapore (are you seeing a trend?) is Little India. This vibrant district is a great spot to drift around and shop for interesting clothing and souvenirs. See the rainbow-coloured House of Tan Teng Nia, or the incredibly intricate Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, or just wander through the gritty side streets lined with stalls selling flower garlands and eye-catching clothing.
Stop off for lunch at Jaggi's for some delicious North Indian cuisine, or take your pick from a number of local restaurants. Thanks to the number of meat-free Indian dishes on offer, this is an easy area for vegetarians to find sustenance.
If you're up for a bit of a walk (no? Back to the metro then, until the Bugis stop), you can venture across to the nearby neighbourhood of Kampong Glam, Singapore's Malay quarter. From the Sultan Mosque to the Malay Heritage Center, Kampong Glam is yet another piece of Singapore's eclectic make up. This area is also home to Haji Lane, an amazing street lined with shops selling handmade jewelery, gifts and clothes.
Take a walk in a nature reserve
Closest metro stop: Beauty World.
If you're experiencing some urban fatigue, consider a trip to Singapore's highest natural point. The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve offers a variety of easy, moderate and difficult paths to visitors, in addition to a mountain bike trail. It's a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest metro station, with no real signage until you get to the reserve itself, so don't worry if you feel a bit lost.
In addition to the well-maintained walking paths, there is a visitor center with details about local conservation efforts and the history of the nature reserve. Not a pro hiker? Don't worry - the 1.3 km walk to the 163 metre high summit is paved and doesn't even require hiking shoes.
Marvel at the National Gallery
Closest metro stop: City Hall.
Singapore's recently renovated National Gallery is a stunning experience, inside and out. A masterpiece of architectural design, the gallery incorporates the former Supreme Court and City Hall into one magnificent space. It's huge, so make sure you block off a few hours to explore it properly.
In addition to work from local artists, collections of important artifacts from Singapore's history and notable visiting exhibitions from art galleries around the world, the National Gallery has a roof top garden and restaurant with great views of the Singapore skyline. On the ground floor, there is a beautiful gift shop selling curated artworks inspired by the gallery's own collections, and a gorgeous restaurant.
Learn more about Singapore's history at the National Museum
Closest metro stop: Bras Basah.
As it's smaller than the Gallery, the National Museum of Singapore is a bit more of a manageable afternoon trip, and offers a good introduction into the history of the country. There are guided English language tours of the Singapore History Gallery twice a day, so if you time your visit carefully, you can get a comprehensive overview of the history of the state and ask any questions that pop up on the way. Even without a tour, the interactive exhibits and interesting collections offer an immersive experience.
Top photo spots:
- Gardens by the Bay: One of Singapore's biggest tourist hot spots is an incredibly photogenic mix of nature and architecture, from the Cloud Forest to Super Tree Grove.
- Koon Seng Road: This street in Katong, with its pastel houses in the Perenakan style, is too gorgeous not too capture.
- Marina Bay Sands: This boat-shaped hotel on stilts offers amazing views of the harbour area and its surrounds. While the famous infinity pool is reserved for guests, you can pop up for a drink at one of the roof top restaurants and still be in awe.
Where to eat:
- Tiong Bahru Market: So much hawker food, not enough stomachs.
- The Blue Ginger: A good spot to try local Peranakan food - but make sure you call in advance to reserve a spot in this tiny restaurant.
- Tiong Bahru Bakery: The green tea almond croissants of my dreams are made here. Go early on weekends to avoid the crowds.
- Common Man Coffee Roasters: All day breakfast? Check. Amazing vegetarian options? Check. Oh, and of course, incredible coffee. This is the coffee roaster that supplies other cafés, so go straight to the source.
- Chinatown: Wander around its streets and nibble as you go.
- Forty Hands: A cool brunch spot, this small cafe has lots of character and great food.
What to eat:
- Milo dinosaur: Yes, iced Milo with heaps of extra Milo powder on top is delicious.
- Kaya toast: This coconut spread is wedged between slices of toast, along with blocks of butter. Yum! Popular chain Toast Box is the easiest way to get your hands on some.
- Kopi: While you will find the standard lattes and cappuccinos, the intriguing local option, kopi, is strong coffee made with sugar and condensed milk. Sometimes, if you ask for a takeaway version, it will come in a plastic bag with a straw.
- Onde onde: These little sweets are made with rice flour, pandan juice and coconut, and hide a delicious filling inside.
- Carrot cake: Despite the name, this hawker food staple is not actually a cake. The main ingredients are white radish and rice flour, which is fried in garlic and egg. You can order it black (with sweet soy sauce) or white (plain).
My favourite finds:
- Cat Socrates: I practically squealed as I entered the Katong branch of this quirky store, which sells a range of amazing gifts and handmade goods crafted by local designers. If you're looking for quirky postcards, non-cheesy souvenirs and a little artistic slice of Singapore to take home with you, this is a great place to go. Plus, there is a resident cat!
- Gallery & Co: Located on the ground floor of the National Gallery, alongside the equally awesome (yes, really) gift shop, it felt like this stunning restaurant popped out of my dreams. I drank cold brew coffee with dairy-free milk, chowed a slice of onde onde cake, and took mental notes on the decor so I could revamp my apartment.
- Haji Lane: A narrow street packed with interesting shops, bars and cafes, this short but vibrant lane is a feast for the eyes and a shopper's delight.
- Brownice vegan ice cream: This little vegan ice cream parlour in Katong provides the perfect antidote to humid Singapore days.
Tips for your trip:
- Pack a small, collapsible umbrella. I also took a lightweight rain coat, which I barely used because it was too hot to wear any kind of jacket, even in the rain. Umbrellas are the best bet.
- If you'll be staying for more than a few days and using the metro a lot, consider purchasing an EZ-Link card at a station. While you can buy and reuse single tickets a few times, it is a pain having to top them up at a machine constantly. Rather pay the small fee for a card, fill it with money, and ask for the remainder to be refunded at the end of your trip.
- Carry a mini pocket tissue pack with you if you plan to eat out at hawker centers, shared food courts, or other places with first-come-first-served open seating arrangements. You can 'claim' a table by placing your packet of tissues on top, then go get your food without worrying about losing a spot. Similarly, if you spot a table adorned with a pack of tissues, it's been reserved.
- Pack the comfiest walking shoes you own. I walked an average of 13 kms (8 miles) a day, and I can tell you, the cute sandals lasted until about day three before my boring-but-practical running shoes booted them out of play.
- While most places accept international debit and credit cards, there are some smaller shops and cafes which only allow payment by cash or the local NETS system, so it's best to keep at least some cash on hand.
- If you're vegan or lactose intolerant, ask if cafés and restaurants have non-dairy milk. I found soya milk was frequently available, even if it wasn't listed on the menu. Singapore was one of the only places I've visited (in multiple countries) where I wasn't charged extra for it either.