Singapore, in Malay, means “Lion City,” but it could also be called “Asia light.” There’s nowhere else where you can experience Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures in such clean surroundings with an excellent public transportation system and hotels that meet Western standards. In addition, English is on the tongues of the locals and in the text of public notices and signs. It’s a convenient consequence of having once been part of the British Empire. For those reasons and many others, Singapore was declared the top travel destination of 2015.
As a major Southeast Asian hub, Singapore offers easy travel by air, land, or sea from many cities around the world.
After you deplane, you’ll understand why Changi International Airport often receives accolades as the best airport in the world.
- Need to relax after your long airline trip? Lie down at one of the many of the full-body massage loungers available in the airport, or watch satellite programming from a video stations.
- Get started on your shopping or catch a bite at over 300 retailers and restaurants.
- Commune with nature by visiting gardens showcasing orchids, cacti, sunflowers, and more.
- Watch films at a movie theatre, play video games on the entertainment deck, or let the kids loose on one of several playgrounds on-site.
These amenities are yours to enjoy even before you pass through immigration and customs. More fun awaits in the public areas, including the city’s tallest indoor slide and an aviation gallery with interactive displays.
The quickest way into town from Changi is on the Singapore MRT (Mass Rapid Transit). If you’re part of a group or toting lots of luggage, a taxi can be more convenient. Yet a third, and inexpensive, alternative is public bus 36. Also, if you have no luggage, you can take a free shuttle to the Changi Business Park.
Because Singapore rises from an island on the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, most land travellers arrive through the Woodlands checkpoint at the Causeway in the north. Another entry point is through Tuas in the west.
- Long-distance buses are readily available, although no central bus terminal exists. In general, more money means a faster and more luxurious ride.
- If a train is your preferred transport, you can disembark at the Woodlands for immigration checks.
The city’s island location makes it a popular cruise stop for major international cruise lines. Star Cruises offers several itineraries to points across Southeast Asia.
- Ferries to and from Malaysia and Indonesia dock at five ferry terminals, all of which have MRT or bus access to the city.
The following lists some essential information you can use on your visit. If you have additional questions, find answers either on-line or in-person at the Singapore Tourism Board. Its visitors centres at Changi and several locations in town can help with Singapore hotel room reservations, attraction tickets, and tour bookings. They also offer free Wi-Fi.
Although the island was familiar to sailors as early as the third century A.D., legend has it that a local prince on a hunting trip founded the city in the 14th century after he encountered a lion-like animal. The less-romantic tale has the city being established as a trading port by Sir Stamford Raffles, then Lieutenant-Governor of what is now Bengkulu in western Sumatra.
The city prospered until 1942 when it fell to the Japanese, who remained in power until 1945. In 1946, Singapore became a Crown Colony that then merged with Malaysia in 1962. In 1965, the city separated from Malaysia to become an independent nation.
Located near the equator, Singapore basks in a tropical climate. Temperatures do not change much throughout the year, averaging 31 degrees Centigrade with a dip to 23 degrees at night. Expect rainfall nearly every afternoon and evening. November is the wettest month of the year, and February, the driest.
The monsoon seasons run from December to March and June to September, bringing with it thunderstorms that usually last under half-an-hour. However, the humidity can get so high that it can steam up your sunglasses when you walk from an air-conditioned bus to the sidewalk.
You’ll get around easily using the city’s public transportation system.
The extensive MRT puts most popular destinations within easy reach. You can buy a ticket for each trip, a top-up EZ-Link card that you swipe at entry gates, or a Tourist Pass that grants unlimited travel for one to three days. The trains are accessible to those in wheelchairs, dragging rolling luggage, or pushing strollers.
Taxis, which are scrupulously regulated, can take you where the subway doesn’t. Drivers must be Singaporeans who are at least 30 years old, speak basic English, and hold a vocational license. The meters tally a standard fare, but drivers can add surcharges, such as for travel during peak hours or after midnight, coming from the airport or travelling within the Central Business District, or using a credit card. You can ask the driver for an estimate of the cost before starting your trip. Then, get a receipt when you reach your destination.
The extensive bus system also accepts the EZ-Link card and, in many cases, the Tourist Pass. Otherwise, provide exact change to obtain a ticket when you board. You need a separate ticket for any of the private Hop-On/Hop-Off double-decker buses that ply the main tourist attractions, providing driving tours.
Two companies handle commuting down the Singapore River. Their open-air bumboats run at 15-minute intervals during rush hour and 30-minute intervals at other times. Singapore River Cruise accepts EZ-Link and also has 40-minute cruises. With River Explorer, you can pay by the trip or spring for a day pass.
What to See
Each of Singapore’s neighbourhoods provides accommodations, eateries, shops, and sights of interest to any tourist. Pick any community to use as a home base, knowing that the rest of the city is within easy reach.
If shopping for global brands is high on your To-Do list, then stay along the 2.2 kilometres of Orchard Road, the city’s most famous shopping thoroughfare. The temples, markets, and shop houses of the past have long-disappeared from to be replaced by glitzy hotels, cavernous eating complexes, and modern shopping centres. Choose the right accommodations and you’ll never have to venture into the heat of the sun. Just take underground passages to go from your room to different malls.
ION Orchard is one of the area’s prime commercial meccas. The undulating glass facade and dedicated MRT stop easily distinguish it from competitors. Inside, you can browse through eight levels of luxury brands, including the largest Sephora store outside of France.
Take a break with Ion Sky, a viewing deck that’s 218 metres above street level. Its BEHOLD telescopes augment what you’re seeing with day and night views, historical pictures, and explanatory text. You can also descend to the basement level for a place at the 700-seat Food Opera, featuring a cast of 22 food stalls and four mini restaurants.
For more formal dining, Les Amis satisfies with classical French cuisine and over 2,000 wines, mostly from the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions. The restaurant has received numerous awards from the Forbes Travel Guide, San Pellegrino, and The Miele Guide. At Crystal Jade Golden Palace, you’ll most likely encounter a queue for its Hong Kong-inspired dim sum, while the Basilico Restaurant emphasises seasonal Italian fare either a la carte or in a buffet.
Most tourists remain within the confines of the Colonial District because it contains many of the city’s primary attractions.
The National Museum of Singapore, which is the city’s oldest museum, is a must-see introduction to local history and culture. About six minutes on foot to the northeast lies the Singapore Art Museum, which collects modern and contemporary works from around the region. Nearby, stop for a drink at the Long Bar at Raffles, where the Singapore Sling was invented. Continue about a kilometre south to the Asian Civilisations Museum, a repository for materials from China, Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia.
Shadowing the riverbank is Clarke Quay, where historical warehouses have transformed into trendy restaurants and dance spots. Coriander Leaf Bistro, for example, delights patrons with dishes from India, Japan, Thailand, and the Middle East. Among nightclubs, Zouk tops the list by showcasing international DJs, as well as themed rooms. Other riverside haunts include the more laid back Robertson Quay to the west and Boat Quay across the river, known for its traditional Chinese shop houses, which have become pubs and eateries.
Another waterside locale is Marina Bay, which takes pride in the futuristic architecture of its buildings. The Sands Skypark towers over other skyscrapers and features an infinity pool and unmatched views of the city. Blossoming below are the 101 hectares of Gardens by the Bay. This centre for plant life hosts Mediterranean and subtropical flowers, as well as a cloud forest under gigantic glass atrium domes. If you’re not afraid of heights, walk among the 50-metre high steel treetops of the Supertree Grove. For even higher views of the city and the bay, Level 33 calls itself the world’s highest urban craft brewery from its perch atop the Marina Bay Financial Centre.
If you look beyond the hipster bars and fashion boutiques of Chinatown, you can still find tea houses and apothecaries in the historic shop houses remaining there.
The Maxwell Road Hawker Centre is considered by many to be the best food court in the city. Locals know that of its 100 stalls, the ones with the longest lines serve the best dishes. You can wait up to 45 minutes for some Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice or the thick and satisfying Zhen Zhen Porridge, made from rice and your choice of meat.
If you’d rather feed your spirit, visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, where ornate and colourful statues guard its revered treasure. The website features live streaming of services for those who’d like a look before making the trip.
To soothe your body, try some traditional balms, ointments, and oils produced at Chop Wah On, which was established in 1916.
Tea Chapter, which was once visited by Queen Elizabeth II, can educate you on the finer points of Chinese tea appreciation and sell you teas online or at its store.
Little India started in the 1840s as a horse race course. The pastime eventually gave way to the cattle and dairy trade, which was managed by Indian workers. When the animal trade declined, the workers remained to build commercial establishments, residences, and temples.
The ornate Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, the most famous place of worship, is dedicated to the Destroyer of Evil. Although built in 1881, it’s surprisingly not the oldest Hindu place of worship in the city. That distinction belongs to the Sri Mariamman Temple, which came up in 1827 and is located in Chinatown.
If jet lag is keeping you awake at midnight, search for bargains at the Mustafa Centre, which is open 24 hours a day and sells jewellery, household appliances, clothing, electronics, and supermarket goods.
The Banana Leaf Apollo is only open for 12 hours a day. It serves favourites like Fish Head Curry, Chicken Masala, and Garlic Naan (a flat bread) and serves meals on banana leaves instead of plates.
The Malay word for village is kampong, which clues you in that Kampong Glam was the old Malay district. The Gelam(Paperbark) tree, which was important to shipping, once grew here in abundance. The neighbourhood attracts the followers of Islam from such national origins as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Middle East as well as tourists of every religion.
For an overview of the area’s history and culture, visit the Malay Heritage Centre, which displays interactive exhibits in the former residence of a sultan.
The golden domes of the Sultan Mosque beckon the Muslim faithful to prayer five times a day. You’re welcome to take a tour with multilingual docents, but you must remove your shoes and, if you’re not properly attired, borrow a robe at the counter.
One of the local specialities is murtabak, a doughy flat bread filled with mutton or chicken, egg, and onion, and served with a side of curry sauce. Watch it being made on the ground floor of Singapore Zam Zam, or eat an order on the air-conditioned second floor. The long waits match the eatery’s longevity. It’s been around since 1908.
The green nature preserves of Northern Singapore offer respite from the centre’s steamy concrete sidewalks and crowded shiny skyscrapers. The Central Catchment Nature Reserve is the largest in the country, ranging over 2,000 hectares of forest. Forest trails, boardwalks, and a Treetop Walk let you experience the flora and fauna with minimal impact.
Most travellers to the area end up at one or more of these three animal parks.
- The Singapore Zoo allows rain-forest creatures to wander their natural habitats but remain safely separated from visitors by ravines and moats.
- The River Safari focuses on animals from six world rivers, including the Ganges, Congo, and Mississippi. Two giant pandas, gifted by China, make their home here.
- The Night Safari is open only in the evenings so you can marvel at nocturnal creatures from Asia and
Public transportation in Northern Singapore is spotty and time-consuming. The most efficient way to travel is by taxi. If you’re only heading for the zoos, Safari Gate offers dedicated bus service from several city hotels.
Deserving a weekend on its own, Sentosa Island is a resort island featuring attractions, hotels, restaurants, and a casino. Although you can reach it on foot, by bus, or by light rail, the most unique method is to take the Singapore Cable Car, which balances on a cable held up by high towers. Getting around the island means taking a bus that plies circular routes, or the beach tram that travels on the sandy shores.
Three attractions will please admirers of the life aquatic. The S.E.A. Aquarium displays over 100,000 marine animals in 49 different habitats. Adventure Cove is a water park that immerses you in a coral reef or tropical grotto. To personally interact with Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, participate in one of the programs at Dolphin Island.
The island’s largest attraction is Universal Studios Singapore, the Southeast Asian version of theme parks located in Hollywood and Orlando in the USA and Osaka, Japan. One ticket gets you into all the rides and shows in seven zones, including Hollywood, Ancient Egypt, and Sci-Fi City.
Other sights on the island include a 24-hour casino, beaches, historical forts, a trapeze school, and an evening water and light show. To avoid having to take out your purse at each point, buy a day pass to save time and money.
Singapore’s many cultures promise a year full of varied festivals and activities. If you plan on visiting during these events, you’ll score the best accommodations only if you book far in advance.
Traditional festivals crowd January through March, but because their timing depends on lunar or non-Western calendars, their dates are never fixed.
- Chinese New Year brings out parades, fire crackers, and family feasting. Homes and offices burst with lanterns, ribbons, and symbols based on the Chinese zodiac animal that’s being honoured for the year.
- Thaipusam is marked by a large and colourful procession to honour Lord Subramaniam, the ever-merciful god. Celebrants spend the month before consuming a strict vegetarian diet to help free the mind of material need and release the body from physical pleasures.
- Art Week celebrates the visual arts with nine days of fairs, exhibitions, and gallery openings, which are attended by artists from 29 countries. The festival commissions special projects designed to explore local art.
April to June sees the number of visitors soar as they attend international events set in Singapore.
- During the Dragon Boat Festival, teams of 22 rowers from around the world paddle furiously in long, narrow boats that are beautifully decorated with dragon heads. Mesmerising drumbeats spur their path to ultimate victory.
- The Great Singapore Sale offers two months of deals on every imaginable consumer product. Check out the website for a list of participating merchants and their offerings.
- The World Street Food Congress brings up to 40 street food masters, and thousands of aficionados, to a gathering of treats from hawker stalls, street carts, and food trucks. A panel of speakers present on topics, such as the importance of street food and the challenges of operating a hawker stall.
The secular and the sacred get their due from July to September.
- National Day celebrates the country’s independence with a major parade, flags, performances, and a fireworks display.
- The Singapore Grand Prix thrills crowds with nightly races of Formula 1 cars on the streets of the city. Spectator packages can include grandstand seats, pit passes, and hotel suites.
- Feasting and new fashions highlight Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the end of Ramadan and its dawn-to-dusk fasting. Among the special dishes brought out for the festivities are rice cakes, spicy beef stew, and chili paste.
October to December is not just about Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
- Deepavali is the Hindu celebration of good over evil, heralded by the lighting of oil lamps. Residential doorways receive colourful pictures that are painstakingly created with rice, flour, or petals.
- ZoukOut is the world’s only sunrise beach festival and is held at Sentosa Island’s Siloso Beach. An expected crowd of 40,000 dances to the electronic music performed by over 20 international and local artists.
- From mid-November to the end of December, Christmas On A Great Street decks Orchard Road with decorated trees and thousands of lights. Staged areas encourage photography with visitors who can then share their efforts on social media.