You might be tucking into a plate of chicken rice when it happens. Or gazing up at the dazzling light show springing from the Supertree Grove. Perhaps you will be holed up in a funky gin den, savouring an artisanal cocktail. At some point during your Singapore stay, it is bound to happen: you will realise you have fallen in love with the Lion City.
Singapore is winning hearts in a big way. Banishing an outdated reputation as a somewhat staid destination, the city has learnt to roll with its strengths. That starts with colourful neighbourhoods such as Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street in Kampong Glam, where the historic shophouses and incense-wreathed temples huddled in the narrow alleys have been joined by chic bars, cafes and restaurants.
Then there is Singapore’s enviable ability to roll out new infrastructure, from green spaces such as Gardens by the Bay, a 101ha waterfront garden that includes the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome conservatories, to major cultural institutions such as the National Gallery, unveiled last year to celebrate Singapore’s 50th anniversary.
One of Singapore’s greatest strengths, of course, is its food scene. Start with some classic dishes such as chicken rice and Singapore chilli crab, add in some hawker experiences, including an evening at Satay Street, and perhaps treat yourself to a meal at one or two of the city’s acclaimed upmarket eateries such as Waku Ghin or Restaurant Andre.
Plenty of other delights await the hungry traveller. Begin the day either with a traditional kopitiam breakfast – milky coffee, a couple of soft-boiled eggs and toasted bread stacks – or with Singapore’s latest food obsession, brunch. Also burgeoning is the city’s small bar scene, with venues dedicated to everything from gin to wine.
The city’s hotel scene is just as lively. Singapore has long excelled at 5-star hotels, but a new breed of boutique hotels is offering funky alternatives, such as the New Majestic Hotel, with its individually decorated rooms, and the heritage-infused The Sultan. Many of them are clustered in the city’s newly happening hoods, which showcase yet another side to Singapore. Spend an afternoon in Tiong Bahru, where art deco buildings now house hipster-friendly outlets such as artisan bakeries and barber shops, or boho Holland Village, with its chic cafes and restaurants, and you will find yet another reason to fall for Singapore.
Off-the-beaten path Singapore
If you thought Singapore was all skyscrapers and shopping malls, think again. Despite its compact size, Singapore has plenty of surprises in store, from a trip back in time to a genuine jungle vibe.
Take Fort Canning, the hilltop that was the island’s centre of power for six centuries, from the days of the Malay rulers to the British. Plenty of visitors take a stroll around the area; few of them, however, are aware of what lies beneath. Buried under the hill is Battlebox, the top-secret bombproof bunker that was the British command centre in the Second World War. Take a tour to discover the little-known story behind the biggest British surrender in history, when a 120,000 strong army capitulated to the Japanese.
Stories of a different sort are on display at Haw Par Villa, which celebrates Chinese mythology. There are over 1000 quirky statues and tableaux to marvel at; highlights include bloodthirsty depictions of the 10 Courts of Hell, where sinners are disembowelled, crushed or otherwise given their just desserts and, elsewhere in the park, a rather agitated looking giant gorilla.
For a jungle excursion, head for Southern Ridges, a 9km trail connecting a series of Singapore’s lushest green spaces. If you are not up for the whole hike, the 4km section between Kent Ridge Park and Mount Faber is one of the best, taking in a canopy-level stroll through Forest Walk and over the striking Henderson Waves pedestrian bridge.
Singapore for families
Travelling with kids in tow? Chances are, Singapore is about to become your new favourite destination. Whether you take them for a stroll through the colourful neighbourhoods of Little India and Chinatown or let them feast on street food at Satay Street, there are countless low-cost ways to keep your youngsters entertained.
Just about every attraction in this island-state has a program of children’s activities. You would expect no less from the Singapore Zoo – their Jungle Breakfast, where you can eat alongside orangutans, is just one of the don’t-miss experiences – but even the National Gallery of Singapore has an ever-changing kids’ program, including hands on art and craft activities for the whole family.
Then there are the themed attractions at which Singapore excels. KidZania is an 81,000 square feet indoor theme park where children can try on different professions for size, from airline pilot to surgeon, firefighter to crime scene investigator, learning life skills along the way.
Singapore’s biggest draw for families, however, is Sentosa. Whether you arrive by cable car or monorail, you will need at least a couple of days to explore the highlights. Start at the S.E.A Aquarium, where the sharks, the dolphins and the manta rays will entrance in the littlies. Then let off some steam at one of the water parks: Port of Lost Wonder is perfect for toddlers, while Adventure Cove Waterpark will keep the bigger children entertained for hours. You will need another day to explore Universal Studios Singapore, which has rides and shows to suit every age group.
Singapore’s new attractions
Move over Lady Gaga:
When it comes to reinvention, Singapore has you beat. Few cities unveil new attractions as frequently as the Lion City; here are some of the latest additions to the portfolio.
With not one but two major museums opening in the past year, Singapore is packing some serious cultural punch. The headliner is the National Gallery, with a modern art collection consisting of more than 8000 pieces. While there, check out the lovely rooftop gardens, and the preserved features of the building’s former life as a Supreme Court. Then head to the Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris, which has masterpieces by Picasso, Pollock and Monet as well as a superb Asian collection.
There are other places in the world where you can hone your skills on an indoor ski slope, but Singapore has taken it a step further. By using a synthetic snow substitute instead of the real thing, Urban Ski has done away with the need for bulky ski gear; your street clothes will do just fine. And the slope itself works like a treadmill, constantly revolving beneath you, so you never have to trudge back to the top of the slope. Whether you opt for a skiing or snowboarding lesson, fun is guaranteed.
Here’s something we bet you didn’t know: Singapore has its own system of coral reefs, containing over 250 species of hard corals. To protect them, the country’s first marine park has been created at Sisters’ Islands. Two diving trails get you up close to sea life including clams, starfish, sea slugs and seahorses, while guided walks are also on offer at low tide. Book through Singapore’s National Parks service.
Forget the three-day break: there are some very good reasons to extend your Singapore stay. Try these on for size.
· Eat more. Foodies know Singapore is one of the world’s great gourmet destinations, with everything from hawker food to fine dining. Remember, the longer you stay, the more chicken rice you can eat.
· Keep cool. Singapore’s weather can be seriously steamy. When you are not pushed for time, you can avoid the heat of the day and take much of the hassle out of your holiday.
· Get arty. Singapore’s art scene is one of its underrated attractions. Whether your taste leans towards the classic collections of the National Gallery and the Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris, or the colourful street art in Kampong Glam, there is plenty to choose from.
· Enjoy the outdoors. Singapore is a refreshingly green city. Follow one of the forest trails through Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, take a seaside cycle in East Coast Park or enjoy a spot of birdwatching in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Keep an eye out for greenery in surprising spaces, such as Ocean Financial Centre’s vertical garden.
· Take your time. Trying to rush through attractions such as S.E.A Aquarium or Universal Studios leaves everyone frazzled. Devote a day or two to each, and everyone will enjoy it more.
· Hang with the hipsters. Head just slightly off the tourist trail and you will discover happening neighbourhoods such as Tiong Bahru, with its art deco architecture and barber shops, and bohemian Holland Village.
· Switch to island time. Singapore’s neighbouring islands offer surprising escapes from the city. Locals love rustic Pulau Ubin, with its mangroves and rubber plantations, and the Sisters’ Islands, for their unique marine environment.
This article first appeared in Travel ideas Asia 2016