Nine reasons why Singapore isn't the sterile business city you thought it was

·6-min read
singapore - Getty
singapore - Getty

It's Asia's financial powerhouse, home to colonial-era edifices and sci-fi architecture, glow-in-the-dark gardens, awesome art collections, top shopping, sophisticated nightlife and vibrant heritage communities. It's got year-round sunshine, some of the best food on the planet and a fabulous array of hotels, from grande dames to designer high-rises, to boutique properties set in chalk-coloured shophouses, to large family-friendly resorts.

After 20 months of border closures, Singapore is the first country in Asia to reopen its doors to international travellers, welcoming fully vaccinated visitors from 10 countries, including South Korea, Brunei, the United States, Canada, Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands and – wait for it – the United Kingdom, as of October 19. Since the UK Government eased the travel rules for fully vaccinated travellers, double-jabbed Britons can now visit without the need to quarantine on either side (although there are still some minor administrative hoops to jump through, including a PCR test; for more details, see our guide to travel in Southeast Asia).

If planning a trip to the Lion City, make sure these highlights make it onto your itinerary:

Stroll through history

Get a feel for the city's history on a walking tour along the Singapore River with approved operator Indie Singapore (indiesingapore.com). The two-and-a-half-hour stroll takes in a number of major sites, from Raffles Place to the National Gallery Singapore (repurposed from the former Supreme Court and City Hall) to Battle of Singapore sites from the Second World War. The tour costs £22 per person. Alternatively, you could download the free Locomole Self-guided Walking Tour App.

Eat like royalty for next to nothing

Singaporeans are positively obsessed with food so it's no surprise that this is where you'll find the world's cheapest Michelin-starred meal, a deceptively simple dish of Hainan chicken rice served at Hawker Chan in Chinatown costing less than £2 – but it's not the only street food worth sampling. Singapore's Hawker Centres serve up an amazing array of authentic local dishes. Hit the Amoy Street Food Centre for buttery, flaky curry puffs, the Chinatown Centre for barbecue pork and the Old Airport Road Food Centre for shrimp rice rolls, seafood barbecue and fiery laksa.

hawker centre, singapore - Getty
hawker centre, singapore - Getty

Gardens by the Bay

You can spend a whole day – and night – at Gardens by the Bay (gardensbythebay.com.sg). This award-winning, billion-dollar horticultural attraction is split into three parts: the misty Cloud Forest biodome, the kaleidoscopic Flower Dome and the free Supertree Grove. All are fascinating, but if you’re pushed for time go for the latter. Each evening, at 7.45pm and 8.45pm, its forest of sixteen-storey solar-powered robo-trees pulse, flicker, twinkle and glow during the wondrous Garden Rhapsody show.

Bar crawl

Singapore has bagged no less than 12 spots on 2021's prestigious 50 Best Bars in Asia list, more than enough for an upscale bar crawl. Start your tour drinking Smoked Bananas (smoked malt whisky, banana puree and chocolate liqueur) next to a faux fireplace at Jigger and Pony (jiggerandpony.com), before strolling 10 minutes to The Old Man (theoldmansg.com) for Old Fashioneds, which are served clear, having been passed through a centrifuge. Later, take yourself to Manhattan (regentsingapore.com.sg), two-time winner of The Best Bar in Asia, which channels The Great Gatsby through its drinks and décor.

Island adventures

If you’re looking for some family fun, Sentosa Island (sentosa.com.sg), on the southern tip of Singapore, is where you’ll find it. Ride rollercoasters at Universal Studios, zig-zag down hillsides on go-carts, fly through the jungle canopy on zip wires, stand-up paddle-board, Segway, simulate a skydive, go birdwatching… the little ones will certainly be exhausted by the time you get them home.

gardens by the bay, singapore - Getty
gardens by the bay, singapore - Getty

Explore Chinatown

Marvel at garish gold temples, haggle over pretty paper lanterns, get a foot reflexology massage and chow down on crispy noodles and milk tea in a cool courtyard cafe in Singapore's ever-lively Chinatown neighbourhood. To delve deeper into the area's history make a stop at the fascinating Chinatown Heritage Centre (chinatown.sg), set inside a row of gorgeous old shophouses and containing interactive exhibitions that will have you gasping at the grit and indefatigability of Singapore’s early Chinese immigrants.

Marvel at Little India

A four-block cacophony of colour, where spice traders, gold merchants, sari shops and hardware stores, selling aftershave with names like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Love Machine’, spill out onto the pavement from rainbow-bright shophouses – Little India is a must-visit. Go for the eye-candy, making a stop at the wondrous Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, adorned with sculptures of hundreds of Hindu gods, and stay for the banana leaf curries.

Shop up a storm

While Orchard Road has no shortage of glitzy malls, there's more interesting shopping to be found elsewhere. Head to Bugis (bugisjunction-mall.com.sg), a busy indoor market and a one-stop shop for kitschy souvenirs, bargain fashion buys and glitzy gadgets. Or Tiong Bahru, a 1930s public housing estate with curvaceous Art Deco architecture, geek-chic pavement cafés and hip independent boutiques – visit Books Actually for some coffee table swag. Haji Lane is where the fashionable folk come to shop for cute dresses from top Korean designers, hand-crafted Himalayan hammocks, all-white Japanese bicycles and vintage Chinese spectacles.

haji lane, singapore - Getty
haji lane, singapore - Getty

Enter the jungle

Outdoorsy types should make tracks for the rainforested MacRichie Reservoir Park, and the seven-mile nature trail that loops through jungle, over lakes and around stilted pavilions. The park is peppered with rare migratory birds, macaque monkeys, monitor lizards and plantain squirrels. If you're especially lucky you might even spot a pangolin – a kind of half-puppy, half-pine cone mammal and one of the rarest creatures on earth. The park's showpiece is its Treetop Walk, a 250-metre aerial suspension bridge with spectacular views across the rainforest jungle canopy.

Need to know

While the city state is opening up its borders, some Covid-19 restrictions do remain. This month Singapore tightened social distancing measures to thwart the spread of the virus, including limiting social gatherings to two and requiring a vaccination certificate for entry to restaurants. Masks are mandatory at all times when in public (unless aged six or under) and alcohol is not available in restaurants after 10.30pm. Attractions, shows and museums are also operating at 50 per cent capacity.

Singapore assesses its measures every two weeks, with October 25 being the earliest date that these rules could be lifted. For more on Singapore's entry requirements, head to visitsingapore.com.

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