I just got back from a work trip to Singapore, but I had enough time to do some sightseeing, given that the city is small and most of its attractions are all very close to each other. It was my first time in Singapore, but it has been on my travel bucket list for a long time. In my mind, I had Singapore on a pedestal and expected it to be extraordinarily clean, have beautiful architecture, have tons of amazing cheap food, and have strict rules. Well, I found Singapore to be everything I expected, plus more.
Singapore’s streets and buildings are as clean as Japan’s, with most areas being very well kept, even the hawker centres. The architecture is unique, creative, and incredible everywhere. On top of that, Singapore is very green, and they love adding gardens halfway up a building or on the rooftop, or even within the building itself. One great example of that is the Changi airport, which has gardens galore! But basically every building we went to in Singapore had a garden somewhere in or on the building.
The food was a bit of a surprise and a mixed bag in terms of quality and prices. Hawker centres are everywhere, which are basically like food courts with super cheap (<$5) food. However, I found that drinks tended to be more like American prices. Singapore also has no shortage of more expensive, American-priced food and fine dining. I love the fact that you don’t tip (one of my favorite things about Asia), though. And with the current exchange rate, you’re still saving money when you convert back to USD. Singapore has a wide variety of foods, given its mixed ethnic population. Certain hawker centres are better known for some dishes than others, and the universal rule of thumb is — if it has a line, you should get in the line (or queue, as they call it there).
I’ll try to organize this list to make it easy for you to plan a first trip to Singapore too. I was there for 6 nights, and while some people might think that’s too much, it’s actually not. I didn’t even get to do everything I wanted to, and since I’ll be coming here a couple more times this year for work, I still have plenty more to do (plus plenty I want to go back to). However, if you have a short layover, there are free tours departing from the city to give you a quick peek and taste of Singapore!
Singapore has Uber, but honestly, I find it much easier/faster to flag down a taxi, and taxis are prevalent and fairly cheap even if you pay with credit card (I think they usually have a 10% surcharge for paying by card). Most ride I took were S$5-7, and a ride to the airport was around S$15-20.
Better yet, take the MRT. The MRT is fast and efficient and easy to use. It’s efficiency even shows in the speed of its escalators. This is one of the first things I told friends – “omg, SG’s escalators are ridiculously fast! I nearly fell off a few times in the beginning because the end came up sooner than I expected!”
The MRT has large signs, and given that English is Singapore’s official language, there should be no issues conversing with anyone or finding your way around in English. I never once had to pause and look at my phone attempting to figure out where I was or how to get where I wanted to go. As soon as I stepped off a train, the signs were so clear that I knew immediately which way to walk. I almost felt like a local!
Singapore is also fairly walkable, especially through air-conditioned buildings or underground. If you don’t handle heat and humidity too well, avoid walking outside too much!
The most famous thing about Singapore I knew about before I went. A bunch of hawker stalls made it into the first edition of the Michelin Guide Singapore. https://guide.michelin.sg/bibgourmand2016
I’d say it’s pretty safe to go by that list first. I’ll describe a list of some hawker centres I know about here, some of which are on the Michelin list.
1) Little India’s Tekka Centre – best known for Indian food, and definitely try the biryani. You’ll notice people here eating with their [right] hand, like literally shoveling biryani rice into their mouth using their hands and no utensils. You can try it too, since there are hand washing stations at every hawker centre. PRO TIP: Bring a packet of tissues, since napkins are not provided at hawker centres. Alternatively, you can support locals and buy a tissue pack for $1.
2) Golden Shoe Hawker Centre – in the CBD, will be super crowded at lunch on weekdays as you fight the work crowd
3) Maxwell Food Centre – best known for Tian Tian Hainese Chicken Rice. However, I never got to try it because they had sold out and were closed when I tried to go for dinner. Best to go to popular places in the AM or for lunch.
4) Amoy Street Food Centre – I didn’t get a chance to go to this one this time, but considering it has the most Michelin-recommended stalls, it definitely sounds like one I should hit up next time.
5) Mei Ling Market & Food Centre – I didn’t get a chance to go to this one either, but the most talkative taxi driver I’ve ever had SWORE by the chicken rice at this centre. She said even if she has eaten already, whenever she drives past this centre, she always stops in and buys 2 portions of chicken rice just for herself, because she loves it that much. Definitely on my list for next time.
6) Newton Food Centre – this is mostly known as a more touristy hawker centre, but it is known for BBQ stingray. One of the stalls made it on the Michelin list too.
7) Tiong Bahru Market – I went out of my way on my last day to go here and try the Tiong Bahru Hainese Boneless Chicken Rice stall, which I saw on the Michelin list. I got two orders, one steamed chicken and one roast chicken, for S$2.50 each, and it was a generous amount. It was delicious! There’s a stall next to it that sells drinks, and I got a delicious passion fruit juice there for S$1.50.
8) Chinatown – I didn’t try anything here but there was a variety of food stalls that looked really good!
9) Geyland – located in the red light district of Singapore, I didn’t have a chance to go here but have heard it is extremely well known and popular for the delicious food here.
10) Lau Pa Sat (aka Telok Ayer) – I didn’t get a chance to go here, but heard it’s more touristy, and has neat Victorian style architecture.
Those were all outdoor hawker centres, and there are many more than the ones I listed (I didn’t even list all the ones in the Michelin guide), but hopefully I hit the major ones. There are also indoor air-conditioned food courts that are amazing, and only slightly higher priced:
11) Wisma Atria’s Food Republic – this is a beautiful mall with an awesome food court on the 4th floor. Variety of cuisines, we went for the Indian food and it was great.
12) Wisma Atria’s Japan Food Hall – adjacent to Food Republic, this newly opened area of Japanese restaurants made us feel like we were right in Kyoto or something.
13) Takashimaya food court – located in the basement of Takashimaya, we felt like we were in the basement food court in a big mall in Tokyo. Got a few snacks here.
I talked a lot about hawker centres here, and that’s nearly all I ate, other than free lounge food from Grand Hyatt and Sheraton. So I couldn’t really tell you about the other restaurants in Singapore, but my Singaporean friends have recommended a couple places:
– For Singapore’s famous chili crab, go to Jumbo or No Signboard
– For a really famous Singapore restaurant that serves fish steamboats (delicious fish soup served over charcoal), go to Whampoa Keng Fish Head Steamboat Restaurant. I did go here with a couple friends and it really hit the spot. Go early, as it can fill up at peak times.
– For a quick popular Singaporean breakfast, grab a toast with kaya jam at Ya Kun Kaya. You’ll see them everywhere. They are also a great place for enjoying a kopi (coffee) or teh (tea) with milk.
Things to Do
So you can’t just eat all day, right? There are plenty of things to do in Singapore, and one could easily spend a little or a lot of time at any of these things. Everything is fairly close, and it seemed like we could get anywhere in the main part of the city within 15 min either by MRT or taxi. Sometimes we just took the taxi out of sheer laziness, but like I said earlier, MRTs are fast and efficient and very easy to navigate. I definitely did feel like I did less walking than I usually do when I visit Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
– Rooftop garden at Esplanade Theatres on the Bay – wonderful view of Marina Bay Sands and the corporate buildings skyline.
– One Fullerton / Merlion Park – great place to view the Marina Bay Sands laser light show at night from across the water
– top of some building in Chinatown – pick an apartment building and take the lift to one of the upper floors, and enjoy the view
– top of Marina Bay Sands – PRO TIP: go to Tower 2, head up to the 55th floor where the restaurant is, and ask to take a quick walk around. Enjoy your free 360 degree floor to ceiling view. Hope it’s a clear day/night – it’ll be truly stunning. My favorite part is seeing the Gardens by the Bay and its beautiful Supertrees from up high.
– Also check out the Helix Bridge next to Marina Bay Sands
– The Botanical Gardens – an oasis from city life, and entrance is free. I think these vast gardens have earned many awards, and it’s easy to see why. Make sure to hit up the Food Canopy hawker centre here too. Definitely pay the S$5 or whatever it is for entrance into the National Orchid Garden.
– Gardens by the Bay – not to be confused with the botanical gardens, this is a more futuristic-feeling garden (free entrance) located next to the iconic Marina Bay Sands. It is probably best known for its Supertrees, but also has 2 indoor gardens (paid entrance) that are probably worth checking out. I went at night, so they were closed already. However, the Supertrees have a light and music show twice a night that is worth watching. PRO TIP: wear mosquito repellent, I got at least a few bites while watching the show.
– I feel like I can’t really leave this section without discussing the impressive and numerous gardens located inside the Changi airport. There’s a Sunflower Garden, an Orchid Garden, a Koi Pond, a Cactus Garden, and apparently even a Hello Kitty Orchid Garden. There’s more too, so I recommend giving yourself ample time to explore the airport when you depart Singapore. I got there 2 hours early, but wish I had 4 hours! (b/c you’re going to want to enjoy the lounges too!)
Great city walks/explorations:
– Orchard St – mall heaven. Impressive architecture especially at the Ion Orchard, and great inexpensive food, as I mentioned previously.
– Raffles/Bugis area – come here during a weekday to feel the hustle and bustle of a Singaporean work day. Lots of impressive buildings here, including the Bugis+ mall. Check out the National Library and the National Design Centre. Along Middle St, there are also several nice religious buildings to look at. The Singapore Art Museum is in this area, and there are also several really nice looking malls to walk through.
– Clarke Quay – great area to walk along the river, especially at night. I didn’t get to this time, but it was highly recommended to me to take a river cruise from Clarke Quay. On my list for next time!
– Marina Bay Sands – thoroughly impressive and jaw-dropping architecture, probably one of the most iconic buildings of Singapore. Explore the casino (need passport to enter), the classy shoppes and food court, and the hotel itself. You can also watch the Marina Bay Sands Wonder Full Laser and Water Show here too, held 2-3 times per night. The view is better from across the water at One Fullerton / Merlion Park, but you wouldn’t get to hear the soundtrack from there, and you can only see the water show part here, where the water fountain creates a sheet for images to be projected on.
– Geylang – the red light district of Singapore. I didn’t get a chance to visit, but it’s on my list for next time because I hear the food is AMAZING here.
– Little India – for a taste of Mumbai, they say to come here on a Sunday, since that’s the day most workers have off and go out. However, if you don’t like crowds, avoid Sunday. 😉 Check out the temples and mosques here, they are truly beautiful and colorful. Make sure to hit up Mustafa Centre, which is a multi-story shopping mall that sells everything at fairly inexpensive prices and is open 24 hours a day. Great place for souvenirs and gifts that won’t break the bank.
– Sentosa Island – resort island with the beaches and also the location of Universal Studios. I couldn’t tell you more…this will be on my list for next time.
– National Museum – free entrance. Didn’t have a chance to go, but on my list for next time. Great to keep as a backup plan for when its raining hard.
– National Library – free entrance, nice to explore each of the levels
– Baba House – free entrance, showcases Peranakan history, architecture, and heritage
– National Zoo – check out the night safari. If you fly SQ, I think your boarding pass stub gets you a discount. You can also obtain discounted tickets from Lucky Plaza on Orchard Rd, which has a lot of travel agencies.
– Singapore Flyer – the giant ferris wheel that apparently the country spent $2M to change the direction it turns for improved feng shui
Other random notes:
– Make sure to bring international adapters for your electronic devices, unless you’re staying at a major hotel. The Grand Hyatt and Sheraton Towers both had international adapters built-in to all their outlets already.
– Singapore has a lot of festivals and events. Be sure to google whether there are any during your trip, since it might be worth it to check out! For example, during my trip was the Great Singapore Sale (best shopping discounts of the year) and also the Singapore Food Festival. I managed to get myself a free picnic basket at Ion Orchard stuffed with full-size foods and drinks and coupons for various places in the mall.