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 Singapore Cricket Club , once a sports center for the British colonists. Esplanade Park makes for a pleasant stroll, while learning about the martyrs and heroes, for whom the various memorials in the park have been built. The city's finest museums also lie nestled in and around the district including the Singapore Art Museum , Asian Civilisations Museum , Singapore Philatelic Museum and Singapore History Museum . Just at the eastern outskirts of the colonial core stands the renowned Raffles Hotel . A modest museum on the third floor retells its legend.
This is the very origin of Singapore's prosperity, with the Merlion (the city's tourism icon) steadfastly standing guard at the mouth of the river. Quaint bridges span the river, ranging from the elegant Anderson Bridge to the simple Ord Bridge. Boat Quay , an excellent reincarnation of Peranakan shophouses and godowns, is a pleasant place to dine alfresco, with its long slew of chic cafes, restaurants and pubs. Further upstream is Clarke Quay , yet another series of restored shophouses, where a carnival atmosphere prevails at the fall of dusk. Come Sunday, a flea market thrives here, displaying an appealing range of old treasures, curios and collectibles. Other dining and entertainment attractions along the river include the Riverside Point, Riverside Village and Robertson Quay at the uppermost end.
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, UOB Building and Republic Plaza, all standing at the maximum permissible height of 280 meters. At one end near the mouth of the Singapore River is The Fullerton Singapore , a hotel built in the classical architecture that once dominated the district. Further south is Clifford Pier , built in 1931 and is today the embarkation point for cruises to neighboring islands. Another piece of old Singapore is the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market , a complete reconstruction of the first municipal market of 1894 that has been transformed into a thriving food center—the perfect venue for relishing Asian cuisines at rock-bottom prices.
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 Robinsons and Tangs (which is a landmark in itself with the distinctive pagoda-roofed tower of the Singapore Marriott just above it), and mammoth shopping arcade Ngee Ann City for its posh boutiques and the anchor tenant, Takashimaya. Christmastime along Orchard Road is always a colorful spectacle of bright lights and exuberant decorations.
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 Tanjong Pagar Conservation Area . For an authentic taste of Chinese culture, try visiting a teahouse, then take a peek into a typical middle-class Chinese home in the 1920s at the Chinaman Scholar's Gallery . Crowded streets throb with people, especially just before Chinese New Year, when Chinese opera and lion dances add to the festivity. Do not forget to visit the eclectic mix of mosques and temples while you are here—the serene Nagore Durgha Shrine , the elaborate Sri Mariamman Temple and the grand Thian Hock Keng Temple are just a few.
With its top draw being the Sultan Mosque , this is the repository of culture for Singapore's Muslim community. Halal restaurants and coffee shops line the streets serving up traditional Indian and Malay fare. During the holy month of Ramadan , even more food stalls are set up in preparation for breaking the fast at dusk. Shopping here is a refreshing change from the glitzy malls of Orchard Road , with stores selling Malay, Indonesian and Middle Eastern merchandise—lots of textiles, carpets, antiques, jewelry, artifacts, basket wares and alcohol-free perfumes. Do not forget to drop by Istana Kampung Glam and take a stroll around Singapore's oldest Malay cemetery.
A riot of color, particularly on Sundays and during major Hindu festivals, like Thaipusam and Deepavali . Awash with scents and sights of the Indian subcontinent, this is where everything needed by an Indian household is found. Traces of Hinduism are seen everywhere, from the embellished Veeramukaliamman Temple to pictures of Hindu deities. Mustafa Centre sells just about anything you need under one roof and is a haven for bargain hunters.
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.