Singapore is a relatively small country (and city, and state) – occasionally referred to as ‘the little red dot’, floating at just over 700 square kilometers and populated with ~5.4 million people. Pervasive photos of especially its brightly illuminated night skyline and luxury shopping malls perpetuate the image of a glitzy, superficial metropolis (hmm, sounds a bit like stereotypes of Hong Kong). An urban playground. Just the other day, 2 expat colleagues of mine referred to it as ‘sterile’.
Swelteringly hot, on-another-level-humid, it’s enough to make even the most robust and energetic individual absolutely languid. Within minutes of venturing outdoors, you may question whether there was any point at all to that morning shower, now a fond but distant memory of refreshment. You may even wonder momentarily if air conditioning remains the most important innovation of our time.
So what is it about Singapore that makes it such a hot (I mean figuratively) locale – not just for tourists, but also for an almost dominant, vibrant expat community?
As I posted about separately, Singapore is considered by many to be a model country. Successful by most measuring sticks, it is incredibly wealthy (albeit not uniformly), safe, virtually drug-free, peaceful, business-friendly, with the overwhelming majority of its population educated, employed, and housed. The late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is largely credited with its astonishingly quick rise from 3rd-world country status only about 50 years ago. Whether his chosen methodology and path to success were the most appropriate is subject to quite a bit of healthy debate. But it’s difficult not to be slightly awestruck at the results, even if you just focus on the fun stuff.
Singapore is chock full of amusements and diversions for adults (and their owners – also known as ‘the kids’). There is at least enough entertainment to keep you well occupied for a long weekend, if perhaps not to sustain your interests for years to come.
Even after a brief taxi ride around the city, I was quickly impressed by a clear focus on innovative design and the striking architecture of its more modern buildings. Marina Bay Sands, about to celebrate its 5th birthday, remains a worthy icon of Singapore. Its distinctive 3 towers, topped by the lofty, cantilevered (and aptly named) Skypark, is still a standout and offers rooftop dining, imbibing, and swimming with stunning near-panoramic vistas.
This is the kind of place that makes sipping a sunset Singapore Sling by the pool somehow not a cliché. Good thing MBS finally decided to restrict the pool to hotel guests, otherwise this area would be swarmed even more than it is.
- Time your visit to the pool at sunrise or well before sunset, for a more peaceful experience and a more solitary requisite selfie before the revelry begins (note: the pool is only open to hotel guests, otherwise visitors may purchase a slice of the view from the Observation Deck or the rooftop lounge, KU DÉ TA).
- Luxuriate in a late-night treatment at the lovely MBS Banyan Tree Spa while you’re nearby. Open daily until 11 pm, it has the makings of a perfect end to a long, sweltering day of sightseeing (or work).
- If MBS is just not your thing, and business hotels are too bland for you, then it’s worth investigating Singapore’s blossoming boutique hotel scene including Wanderlust and Naumi.
Just east of MBS lies the sprawling Gardens by the Bay, an engineering marvel and an inventive, urban take on traditional gardens. Allow yourself a few hours to explore, especially the incredible Cloud Forest dome. Upon entry, you will first encounter an indoor waterfall, the splashing mist at its base a welcome respite from the scalding Singaporean sun. In the blissfully chilled environs, spiral around the dome on elevated, vertigo-inducing walkways while soaking in the lush greenery and enjoying periodic peeks of the city-at-large through the mostly-glass enclosure.
While I have managed to achieve an approximate 70% success rate with domestic plant-growing (believe me, my baseline was a lot worse years ago), I was struck with green-thumb envy at the diverse, manicured indoor gardens inside the massive Flower Dome. It seems impossible to take care of so many different lifeforms so well. There is clearly a team of experts behind-the-scenes to achieve this level of immaculate maintenance, but still – it’s impressive. What is it about brightly colored blooms, uniquely textured succulents, and imposing baobab trees that can make someone so happy? I’m not sure, but somehow it works.
- Rest your weary gams while enjoying afternoon tea, a cocktail, or lunch/dinner featuring wares from the gardens themselves, at British chef Jason Atherton’s garden-setting restaurant inside the Flower Dome called Pollen. Chef Atherton is a favorite of mine, after repeatedly experiencing his restaurants in Hong Kong.
- Don’t get so distracted by the flowers, trees, and architecture that you miss the cool artwork on display, including the unattributed lychee tree root carving of a giant eagle, the nearby dragon, and the slightly eery but thought-provoking bronze series, La Famille de Voyageurs, crafted by French sculptor Bruno Catalano – illustrative of the power of travel (and negative space in artwork).
Leave your acrophobia at home, and before you head out to refresh for a night out on the town, venture out along the 22-meter high Skyway, floating among the imposing Supertrees. Lovely for its city views by day, it takes on another personality once the sun sets, during its bi-nightly Garden Rhapsody light-and-sound shows (this is Singapore, after all – lights are de rigueur).
A stroll along the Marina Bay waterfront is a must-do, and as with many such walks, it is quite magical at dusk. Before that, though, the bayside ArtScience Museum is worth a stop.
Tour its lotus flower-inspired architecture and take a spin through its permanent ArtScience exhibit. Or enjoy one of its rotating exhibits, such as the ongoing ‘da Vinci: Shaping the Future’ – which while at first glance seems appealing only to gadget geeks and mathematicians, it provides fascinating insights into the multifaceted and envy-inducing mind of da Vinci, whose intellectual pursuits spanned science and medicine, mathematics, architecture, early forms of technology, and music. As you step into the final darkened room of the exhibit, you will have an opportunity to squint at original sketches of creative genius from da Vinci’s famed notebook, the Codex Atlanticus (note: no photos are allowed of these pages). Warning: this exhibit may make even the smartest and most accomplished feel just a little bit stupid and unambitious!
- If you visit before the da Vinci exhibit closes, allow a little extra time to check out the accompanying exhibits by contemporary artists, such as Luke Jerram’s Glass Microbiology. The scientist in me enjoyed this thought-provoking contemplation of the fascinating, uncomfortably beautiful structures of potentially dangerous viruses.
- Take a moment to step out into the circular core of the museum on the lower floor. Gaze up to admire the infrastructure and catch a last glimpse of natural late afternoon light before exiting the museum to enjoy the sunset from the waterfront promenade.
- As an alternative, check the museum’s schedule to time your visit with its once-monthly ArtScience Late evenings, when the venue takes on a lounge-y atmosphere with performances, drinks, and special deals on rotating exhibits.
After sunset, wander past the MBS Shoppes and the ‘floating’, angular Louis Vuitton store, absorb the sparkling lights emanating from the skyscrapers and the Wonder Full light-and-sound show. Amble through the light and airy Helix Bridge, gaze over at the Singapore Flyer, and be sure to do a few spins while you walk to more fully appreciate how DNA inspired both the bridge’s visual design and infrastructure. Cross the Bay, and take your postcard snap of the fountain statue of Singapore’s beloved mascot, the merlion (half-fish, half-lion). Literally a trademarked icon, the merlion reflects Singapore’s original name meaning ‘lion city’.
Little India is essentially what it sounds like – a snapshot of Indian culture, a less chaotic and cleaner version of India itself. Serangoon Road and its smaller offshoots showcase colorful storefronts and street purveyors offering an endless variety of goods ranging from spices to traditional fabrics and gold jewels to massage oils – even roadside sewing services – all pulsating to the soundtrack of Bollywood hits booming from record stores.
Grab lunch at the unassuming, vegetarian-friendly Komala Vilas (while I did not time my visit to allow for a stop here, my friend Jen vouched heartily for its bold and interesting flavors – and yes, I trust her!). Bargain hunters will experience serious FOMO (that’s ‘fear of missing out’, for those of you who don’t keep up with acronyms) without a stop at the imposing Mustafa Centre on Syed Alwi Road. Glamorous, it is not. But it is ridiculously comprehensive in its inventory and open 24 hours a day. It’s the discount department store answer to your infuriating jet lag.
Get your ‘temple fix’ at the small but visually over-the-top Sri Veeramakaliamman on the main strip, one of several temples in the area. Its characters are as colorful as the carvings on the relief of the Hindu temple and the sculptures and shrines inside! This is the kind of place that feels like the heartbeat of the area, where neighbors gather to catch up on weekly gossip – and oh yes, worship the goddess of power, Kali. As in much of India itself, the locals are almost universally friendly and not photo-shy – and I am very grateful for this.
Kampong Glam (commonly referred to as the Arab Street area) is Singapore’s Malay-Muslim quarter, an eclectic mix of historical architecture, markets and shops hawking traditional textiles and rugs, a large mosque, and trendy gallery-and-boutique lined lanes. Have your (almost certainly) chatty taxi driver drop you at one end of Arab Street, and once you experience ‘fabric fatigue’, orient yourself to the area and its history at the Malay Heritage Centre. The bedazzled jewels and old B&W photographs are tame highlights (along with the air conditioning – trust me, by this point, you’ll be more than appreciative), but you don’t need to dedicate too much time here.
The Masjid Sultan mosque is not particularly noteworthy for casual visitors, who are not permitted to walk through the main prayer hall. Its golden dome top is also currently under construction, ensconced in scaffolding. Although I will say that the lightboxes inside that attempt to explain Islamic perspectives on women are – I’ll just say, slightly fascinating if not also a bit off-putting for those not of the faith (along with the prayer area for women, curtained off from the main prayer hall).
Branching out from the mosque, pedestrian-only Bussorah Street is quite touristy. I suggest skipping or making only a brief stop before heading to hip Haji Lane, a graffiti-laden row of vibrantly hued, historic shophouses now populated by cafés and local designers’ boutiques. Surprising and out of context, this little nabe is less jarring, more refreshing.
Chinatown offers several cultural gems. History buffs can brush up on what it was like for ‘early’ settlers’ to the area at the Chinatown Heritage Centre (but not until later this year, as it’s currently closed for renovations). The small but dramatic, nail-less, Hokkien Thian Hock Keng temple, dating back to the mid-1800s, makes for a surprisingly peaceful little stop (note: photos of the main area are not permitted, but you’ll have plenty of other subject matter). A riot of color and texture greets you at the entrance, and as you step into the main courtyard, typical urban distractions fade away – although a quick glance skyward will remind you that you are indeed still in a metropolis. Chinatown is also home to a few other temples and even a mosque.
- Part of the charm of this neighborhood can be found simply while ambling through its streets. Colorfully restored shophouses, unexpected sidewalk shrines with joss paper-burning, street markets aglow with traditional-style (if artificially lit) lanterns, and more contemporary boutique and wine bar options prove to be great finds and may steal more than an hour or 2 from your day.
A real highlight in Chinatown? Maxwell Food Centre…
Which brings me to Singapore’s renowned local cuisine, supplied largely by hawker food stalls (and yes, they’re safe – this is Singapore, which is interchangeable with ‘clean’). Made famous by travel-and-food explorer/chef/author/TV personality Anthony Bourdain (also known as the guy with the best job on the planet), but already a not-well-kept-secret by locals, Tian Tian at Maxwell doles out simple dishes of classic Hainanese chicken-and-rice that will elevate your impression of what street food can achieve. How can such a benign-looking, white-to-beige platter of food taste so damn good??
In case you arrive and are discouraged by the queue likely at least 30 minutes long – suck it up! Trust me, it’s worth it. Delicately perfumed and supremely tender, the chicken, with just a tiny dab of chili/ginger/soy dipping sauce, will make your day alone. But its partner-in-culinary-crime, the rice, should not be underestimated – it will make you rethink how this humble starch should taste and performs its job well as the perfect savory accompaniment to the star of the show. Prepared with chicken stock, it ensure that little goes to waste in dish preparation and lots of flavor makes it way to you.
- Chase your meal with a refreshing, sweet-and-sour, freshly pressed sugar cane juice spiked with lime and a touch of ice. There’s a great stall just across from Tian Tian (just look for the colorful juice signs), or there are several similar options nearby.
This meal is one of those low-brow experiences that will reside in your memory for years. A must-try, for a song (about 5 USD per person – even less if you decide to share, as portions can be considered generous if you’re seeking just a snack).
And this wouldn’t be a post about Singapore if I didn’t at least mention one of its great sources of pride – that most polarizing of fruits, durian. Locals call it the ‘king’ of fruit. I call it skippable – I mean when pineapple, mango, berries, even bananas, or really any other fruit are options, I honestly don’t see the point of durian (but hey, I’m just an ignorant tourist!). It’s not for everyone, but those who love it wax poetic about it, seemingly with fond tears in their eyes. Not sure where to try it? Pretty much everywhere – and if you’re in doubt, follow your nose. Its odor (and I mean odor) is…distinct. Not sure what you’re smelling? It’s probably durian!
If brunch is in your plans, Singapore’s high-end hotels offer fine options, but I suggest checking out one of Singapore’s casual spots. While alfresco does seem an unbearable option most of the time, somehow your body does adjust (sort of). The ever-popular Artichoke Cafe + Bar offers irreverent, Middle Eastern-inspired casual fare at reasonable prices in a cool courtyard setting (although there is indoor seating, if you just can’t take the heat). Dishes are substantial – such as the rich and meaty, eggy, tomatoey lamb shakshouka. Or fried cauliflower sabbich with Israeli salad, hummus, labneh, and smoked egg. Or sweet-and-sour-tinged crispy fried chicken.
- As it’s a weekend pilgrimage for many, call ahead to reserve, or face long waits – and in the Singaporean heat, waiting outside in the relentless sun is no joke!
- If you sit outside, snag a shaded table no more than a stone’s throw from one of the fans – or at least stay hydrated with one of Artichoke’s icy libations.
Another local classic dish – this one for the seafood lovers among us – is chili crab. I elected to try a modernized version at slightly-out-of-the-way Wild Rocket, a friendly ‘Mod Sin’ (modern Singaporean) spot that has carefully crafted its cuisine (Chef Willin Low’s thoughtfully reinvented hawker food classics) and its eclectic space (designed and outfitted by local designers and artisans). A beacon of calm and refreshment after a long day, Wild Rocket offers playful touches, such as silverware retrieved from a mini-drawer under your table. Service is crisp, prompt, informed, and pleasant. Back to the chili crab – a delicious rendition featuring the spicy-sweet topping on a bed of rigatoni and topped with an ‘onsen’ (slow-poached) egg, this was a very satisfying dish among the 4-course tasting I selected, complemented nicely by the truffled Hokkaido scallop carpaccio with chai poh (preserved radish) that preceded it, the delicate soon hock (marble goby) whitefish with ginger and scallions that followed, and the creamy pandan panna cotta with salted gula melaka (palm sugar) that rounded out my meal at its sweet end.
- You may need to hail Uber to get you back home or to your hotel. But that’s okay – Uber in Singapore is predictably efficient (quite opposite to my experience thus far in Hong Kong).
For a young, upbeat, casual dining experience, check out Gastrosmith’s. Its setting is humble but cheery (sidewalk dining is also available for those who prefer an alfresco option, but there’s not much of a view). The kitchen turns out tasty and sophisticated Euro-Asian fare, and service is spirited and knowledgeable – with a sense of humor (my waiter asked if I preferred to select my dessert based on certain flavors or relative Instagram-ability – fortunately, I didn’t really have to choose one or the other). Hokkaido scallop ceviche (yes, I have a thing for this..) with citrusy yuzu and koji (it’s a fungus, but a friendly one) offered a bright start to my dinner. My Atlantic cod fried misua (a traditional long wheat noodle) main dish, made extra-savory with kimchi purée, mirin (sweet rice wine), and scallions, was umami-rich and thoroughly enjoyable. Traditionally consumed on birthdays (long noodles for long life), I figured it couldn’t hurt to make an edible pre-emptive strike, despite the fact that I had no such holiday to celebrate! The pastry chef’s version of strawberry shortcake, deconstructed into the namesake berries, blueberries, Japanese cheesecake, vanilla chantilly cream, and a dollop of Sicilian pistachio ice cream, proved a refreshing dessert.
- This diminutive spot is just a short jaunt to Marina Bay, should you care to stroll off some of those calories and take in the night-lit, waterfront skyline while you’re at it.
On the (much more) upscale side, Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands is a classy, serene fine-dining destination and a refined highlight of your stay in Singapore. Allow plenty of time to enjoy your 10-course dégustation, prepared in front of you by your own chef. Pristine seafood is the star of the show and appropriately dominates the menu. The signature dish, botan ebi with uni and Oscietra caviar, is an absolute standout and is sure to become archived in the food part of your brain for years. Gorgeously presented, you will try to make this 3-bite dish last for 10. You will fail but in delicious, melt-in-your-mouth fashion. This is a special occasion experience (read: it’s really expensive), but also a memorable one. Service is expectedly spot-on, in classic Japanese style – friendly and just-slightly-formal, smart, subtle, never in-your-face but always at-the-ready. Even the simple move from your semi-private dining room to the bayside ‘parlor’ for dessert and after-dinner drinks feels sophisticated. Relax in the darkened room over your sweet endings, including a bevy of petit fours.
- If you’re staying at MBS, go ahead and charge dinner to your room. Keeps things easy, and bonus – you can delay thinking about how much you just spent until check-out!
- As you exit, take a moment to absorb the sprawling casino below you. Even if you’re not a gambler, it makes for a pretty cool photo. Take your pano quickly, though – security will not waste time asking you to stop, likely because it looks like you’re grabbing video footage (casinos are not fans).
So I still prefer my adoptive hometown of Hong Kong, but I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed my brief visit to Singapore. Maybe like me, you’re not quite ready to make Singapore your home base but have contemplated visiting. Or maybe you are ready to make the move! Either way, there are a number of great options to keep you entertained and well-fed.
And if you second-guess yourself and feel tempted to listen to the nay-sayers, keep an open mind and see for yourself – and remember that, like with so many other things, you often get out of an experience what you put into it. Even as a tourist, you have a responsibility (to yourself!) to make the most of your travels – have a great time, but dig a little below the surface. Fortunately, Singapore makes your exploration there pretty darn easy.
Stick with me as I share more of my travel experiences – with diverse and beautiful Sri Lanka and Australia up next. And Rome, southern France, Japan and more coming soon!
All images © 2015 deb fong photography