Written by: Matt Newkirk
Visited: December 2018
Singapore has a lot to offer visitors, from modern skyscrapers to charming colonial neighborhoods, those who have the chance to explore Singapore will have no trouble filling their time, and their stomachs, with the rich cultures that can be found here.
Singapore is small enough that you can travel from one end of the country to the other in around two hours by the state-of-the-art subway system (MRT), the official language is English, and you can drink the water straight out of the tap. In addition, Singapore enjoys one of the lowest crime-rates on Earth, so you can relax knowing you can explore the city safely. It is sometimes referred to as “Asia Light” because you can get a taste of Asian culture, while enjoying easy travel and all the comforts and conveniences of one of the wealthiest cities on the continent.
I have been living and working in Singapore for three years now, and I have spent my time here exploring the tiny city-state and playing tour guide for visiting friends and family members. Here is my list of the best attractions for short-term visitors to check out while exploring this fascinating city.
Merlion Statue Marina Bay, Singapore
A scenic walk around Singapore’s Marina Bay is the perfect way to take in some of the best views of the city’s awe-inspiring skyline. Marina Bay is surrounded with some of Singapore’s most famous landmarks. To the south, there is the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel with its three skyward towers crowned by a world-famous infinity pool, the ArtScience Museum, with its high-tech salad bowl architecture, and Gardens by the Bay. To the north, the imposing skyline of Singapore’s Central Business District provides a backdrop for the Fullerton Hotel with its Merlion statue, the official mascot of Singapore, with the head of a lion and the body of a fish, and Theatres on the Bay performing arts center. The Theatres on the Bay building was intended to look like a microphone, but locals endearingly refer to it as “The Durian” because it also closely resembles the stinky fruit commonly eaten in Malaysia and Singapore.
Marina Bay is located at the southern end of the downtown core, where the Singapore River meets the South China Sea. You can reach the bay via the Bayfront MRT station which will drop you off underneath the upscale shopping mall that adjoins the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
Be sure to stay for Spectra, a laser light, music and water show at Marina Bay that happens Sunday-Thursday 8:00 pm and 9:00 pm, and Friday and Saturday 8:00 pm, 9:00 pm, and 10:00 pm.
Supertree Grove Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
Singapore Gardens by the Bay was originally conceived in 2005 as part of an effort to transform Singapore into a “City in a Garden”. Consisting of 250 acres of manicured gardens, and admission is free. The main attractions are two large glass conservatories, the Flower Dome, and the Cloud forest, and the Supertree Grove.
The Flower Dome is the largest glass greenhouse in the world without internal supporting columns, and is filled with hundreds of species of carefully manicured flowers and plants.
The Cloud Forrest is a towering structure designed to simulate high-elevation tropical habitat, and features a huge indoor waterfall. Visitors can take an elevator to the top and walk down through the various levels of the structure which contain exhibits along the way. The Cloud Forrest features an excellent exhibit on the effects of global warming in the region and the world.
The Supertree Grove consists of towering structures designed to act as artificial trees. Each tree is covered in species of ferns orchids and other plants representing different regions. Be sure to catch Garden Rhapsody, nightly at 7:45 and 8:45, a light show synchronized to music at the Supertree Grove. The electricity to power the lights and music is sustainably generated at the Gardens by the Bay.
Gardens by the Bay is carefully engineered for conservation. The conservatory domes collect rain water for the park, while electricity is generated by photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, and biomass in the form of plant trimmings from the garden are burned to generate steam and power turbine generators. For more on the conservation design of Gardens by the Bay, read Sustainability at Gardens by the Bay.
Admission to Gardens by the Bay is totally Free, but there is a fee to enter the conservatory domes. Visit Gardens by the Bay's Website for the latest events and details.
Satay at East Coast Park Lagoon Food Village
It has been said that you can tell a lot about a culture by its food. While Singapore has a huge array of fine dining options for visitors, the hawker centers are what feed the locals. Singaporean food has influences stemming from China, Malaysia, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia, and should be on any visitor’s list of things to check out.
Hawker centers are basically food courts which first sprang up in Singapore in the 1950’s in an attempt to manage the street vendors who were setting up shop all over Singapore. An overabundance of street food was causing congestion, and made it nearly impossible to oversee sanitation. The solution was to move vendors into permanent stalls in large food centers, where health officials could ensure sanitary conditions.
In my opinion the best food in Singapore can be found in the hawker centers, and for reasonable prices too. If you are planning to sample of Singapore’s culinary delights, you might consider skipping the indoor restaurants, and head straight to the local hawkers.
East Coast Park Lagoon Food Centre Hawker, Singapore
This is my personal favorite choice to experience Singaporean food. Located on East Coast Park, this hawker has some of the best food in Singapore, with an amazing view of the ocean. Get there early to ensure that you can get a good table, buy a bucket of beer, and sample the rich food culture of Singapore on the beach. This is a great place to try seafood, including the infamous chili crab, one of the unofficial national dishes of Singapore. Chili crab is a whole crab cooked in a rich spicy curry. Soft fried buns are usually eaten alongside chili crab so soak up the delicious sauce. The chicken, mutton, and beef satay are also a must-try. After your dinner you can work off some of your meal by walking along the ocean, watching the large ships mooring offshore while they wait to access the Singapore Harbor.
The best way to get to East Coast Park Lagoon is by taxi, as MRT does not go there. Be sure to tell the driver that you want to go to “East Coast Park Hawker”, not “East Coast Park Seafood”.
3rd Culture Brewing Co., Maxwell Food Centre
Located nearby Singapore’s vibrant Chinatown, the Maxwell Food Center offers visitors the chance to try a selection of Singapore’s most famous dishes, at a convenient downtown location. Probably Maxwell’s most famous stall is Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. Made famous by an endorsement from celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, long lines are usually present to sample the poached or roasted chicken and fragrant garlic rice. Personally I would skip the line, as the other chicken rice vendors at Maxwell are also excellent, but you certainly can’t go wrong with Tian Tian. Keep an eye out for roti prata at Maxwell. Roti prata is a Malaysian Muslim dish which is similar to a crepe, filled with egg, onion, and/or cheese, and served with a rich curry for dipping. Roti prata is my favorite breakfast in Singapore.
Lau Pa Sat is located in the center of Singapore’s financial district. Located in the historic Telok Ayer Market building, which was originally built on what was at the time Singapore’s waterfront in 1824, Lau Pa Sat is a great place to get your grub on. The best time to go is after 7:00 pm, when they close one of the adjacent streets for “Satay Street”, where vendors compete to see who grills the best satay, or delicious skewers of marinated meat that are served with a peanut dipping sauce.
Cable Car to Sentosa Island, Singapore
The small Island of Sentosa was built just off the southern coast of Singapore as a resort and entertainment destination. Sentosa is covered in theme parks, water parks, golf courses, and beach-front bars. Universal Studios is one of Sentosa’s main attractions, but visitors can race down a zip-line, take a bungee jump, navigate a street luge course, see one of the world’s largest aquariums, or try their luck at the casino.
You can get to Sentosa by taxi, on foot, or by monorail. My favorite way to reach the island is by the incredibly scenic Cable Car. The Cable Car consists of small gondolas on a sky-high cable that runs from Mt. Faber on the mainland, through the Harbourfront Center building, all the way across a long waterway to Sentosa. The Cable Car provides some of the best views of Singapore, and is definitely the way to get to Sentosa in style.
You can ride the cable car to Sentosa by taking a taxi to Mt. Faber, or hopping on MRT to the Harbourfront Station (Vivo City). Round trip tickets are USD$20, but even budget travelers might find the experience worth a splurge.
For more on Sentosa, read Sentosa, Singapore's Resort Island
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Chinatown, Singapore
Singapore is more than 75% ethnic Chinese, so it should come as no surprise that it is home to a lively and thriving Chinatown. Visiting Chinatown offers visitors to Singapore an opportunity to experience the sights, smells, and flavors of China right in the heart of Singapore. Chinatown is made up of several blocks of colorful colonial style shop-houses just outside of the Central Business District.
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is one of the main attractions in Singapore’s Chinatown. The temple offers visitors the chance to visit an active working Buddhist temple. The structure itself is not old, built in 2007 in the style of Chinese Tang architecture at a cost of $75 million dollars. The temple gets its name because it houses a tooth that is said to have belonged to the Buddha. The tooth was discovered in a collapsed golden stupa in Myanmar in 1998, and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple was built to offer a suitable place to house the holy relic. The temple is four stories high, with a large prayer wheel and serene garden on the roof. Admission is free of charge, including the excellent museum showcasing the history of Buddhism. The temple is located on South Bridge Road and Sago Lane, which was once referred to as the street of the dead as it was once lined with “death houses”. In Chinese superstition, it is unlucky if anyone dies in the family home, so early Chinese immigrants to Singapore sent their elderly to places like Sago Lane to await their end.
Chinatown food street is located on Smith Street, right in the heart of Chinatown. Closed to car traffic, the street is lined with hawker stalls and outdoor seating, offering a great place to try some of Singapore’s local favorites. The stalls tend to be a little more expensive on food street, than in Singapore’s plentiful hawker centers, but the lively atmosphere makes up for it. Smith Street is also home to Liao Fan Hawker Chan Restaurant (78 Smith Street). Hawker Chan has received the coveted Michelin Star award for its chicken rice in 2016, and is widely acclaimed as the cheapest place to try a Michelin Star meal in the world at well under five bucks a plate.
Singapore’s Chinatown is also one of the best places to pick up inexpensive souvenirs for your friends and family back home. Many of the streets of Chinatown are lined with shops featuring the best of Singapore’s touristy nick-knacks, and at some of the lowest prices on the island due to the amount of competition.
Read Chinatown Singapore for more information.
Colorful Buildings in Little India, Singapore
The bright colors and bustling streets of Little India, offer visitors a taste of the Indian sub-continent right in central Singapore. Little India holds a large share of Singapore’s hostels and budget accommodation options, so if you are traveling on the cheap, odds are you will get to know Little India pretty well. The main things to do in Little India, are shop and eat.
Little India Arcade is a small collection of shop-houses that were built in 1913. The narrow streets are closed off to traffic, and are lined with shops selling curiosities from India. This is a great place to do some souvenir shopping while exploring the fascinating wares that the vendors are offering.
The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is a colorful Hindu Temple in the heart of Little India, the temple was built in 1881 and is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. Inside, a statue of Kali can be seen adorned with a garland of human skulls.
Mustafa Centre is Singapore’s answer to a Walmart. This huge shopping complex is open 24 hours, and consists of sprawling labyrinth-like corridors spanning several floors of multiple buildings. If Mustafa Centre doesn’t have it somewhere, it probably doesn’t exist.
For great cheap food, stop by Sakunthalas Restaurant at 151 Dunlop Street. They serve up a variety of Indian dishes at bargain prices. Be sure to order a “teh tarik” or pulled tea to go with your meal.
For more on Little India read Singapore's Little India
Giraffes at Singapore Zoo
A visit to the Singapore is a great way to spend an afternoon or an evening while visiting Singapore. I am a little bit hesitant to recommend zoos to travelers, as they sometimes get a bad rap for their treatment of the animals. The Singapore Zoo is truly an exceptional zoo, and I am pleased to report that enclosures and care for the animals are first-rate. Most of the animals have plenty of space to roam. Some, like the monkeys don’t even really have cages, and can wander around in the primate area as they please. I have actually seen wild local monkeys interacting with the monkeys at the zoo on more than one occasion. The elephants have acres of land that they can walk, and all of the enclosures are clean and well cared for. Visiting the Singapore Zoo will offer you a chance to see wildlife from around the globe and you can learn about the threats to endangered animals in Southeast Asia. For a particular treat, you can even arrange to have breakfast with the orangutans.
Have you ever gone to a zoo, and half of the animals are just lying there asleep? That’s because many of the animals are nocturnal, and are mainly active at night. The Singapore Zoo Night Safari is the perfect way to see how all of the animals that are normally sleeping during the day behave once the sun goes down. On the night safari, guests are driven around the zoo on a tram, offering a glimpse into the alter ego of the wild kingdom.
The Singapore Zoo River Safari showcases the fish and animals that live in the world’s largest river systems. The River Safari is unique, as most aquariums highlight saltwater and ocean fish. It is really amazing to see just how diverse life in freshwater systems can be. The river safari also offers two optional boat tours at an additional cost.
The Night Safari, and River Safari, are available as an add-on to zoo admission, or as a separate ticket. Personally I prefer the River Safari to the zoo, as it is not that often that you have a chance to explore the Earth’s freshwater habitats in an aquarium.
Long tailed macaque, Sungei Buloh Wetlands
Most visitors to Singapore would never guess that the ultra-modern city was once nothing more than mangrove swamps and thick jungles. While most of the tiny island has been paved, and is now home to towering skyscrapers, there are still a few wilderness areas where you can get a taste of the dense forests that once dominated the landscape in Singapore.
Water Monitor Lizard, Singapore
The MacRitchie Reservoir is Singapore’s oldest reservoir, built in 1838. There is still more than 1 square kilometer of virgin jungle next to the reservoir, that hikers can explore via wooden boardwalks and trails. Water monitor lizards and monkeys are commonly seen along the trail, and the latter can even be a nuisance if you do not keep your food hidden from sight. Trails range in length from 3-11 km. It can be unbearably hot and humid in the jungle in Singapore, so be sure to bring plenty of water, and visit in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat. MacRitchie Reservoir can be easily accessed by the Marymount MRT station. Where else, can you take the subway to get to the jungle to hike with wild monkeys and giant lizards?
Crocodile at Sungei Buloh Wetlands, Singapore
Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve is located to the extreme north of Singapore, next to the causeway that separates Singapore from West Malaysia. The park is home to swampy mangrove forests and estuaries that attract all sorts of wildlife. On a typical walk at Sungei Buloh, you can expect to see water monitor lizards, monkeys, countless bird species, mudskippers, dragonflies, and even saltwater crocodiles. The trails are impeccably maintained, and flat. There are birdwatching blinds, and benches along the trail, making this more of a casual nature walk than a hike, but Sungei Buloh is still one of the best places to spot what is left of the wild animal species that once dominated the island of Singapore.
Read Singapore's Sungei Buloh Wetlands for more information.
Garuda Statue at Haw Par Villa
Haw Par Villa is without a doubt one of the strangest attractions in Singapore. Originally built in 1934 by the Haw brothers, who were the creators of Tiger Balm ointment, the sprawling complex was originally the grounds for one of the family’s lavish mansions, and an amusement park. The amusement park/grounds were intended to teach school children about Chinese culture by depicting scenes from Chinese folklore in the hundreds of statues that cover the grounds. Despite seemingly constant maintenance, the statues seem to be in a constant state of disrepair, giving the park the vibe of a long-abandoned, dilapidated amusement park, straight out of a horror movie. The main attraction at Haw Par Villa, is “The Ten Courts of Chinese Hell”, an indoor depiction describing the ten hells, and the sins that will land you in each one. Admission is totally free, and you can reach the park from the Haw Par Villa MRT Station.
For more information, read Haw Par Villa - To Hell and Back, Without Leaving Singapore
Trying the taps out at Tiger Brewery
The largest brewery in Singapore, Tiger Brewery offers regular tours of their extensive operation located on the west side of Singapore. Tiger brews beer for several different brands, including ABC and Guinness. The tour costs about USD $15, and includes a generous sampling of Tiger’s brews in the tasting room. Getting to the brewery is a bit of a trek, as MRT does not go directly to Tiger. The best way is by taxi, or tour can hop on one of Singapore’s excellent public busses to save some cash. Tickets should be purchased in advance. You can reserve a spot on a tour here.