Singapore is, for many people, effectively an oversized transit lounge – somewhere clean, safe and hot to break up a trip to somewhere else. Singapore is, also, an intriguing, vibrant, colorful city state. A land that manages to combine both a strikingly new and modern built environment, and a celebration of the natural beauty that both surrounds and permeates it.
We recently returned from an extended short break in Singapore, where we allowed ourselves what we thought would be ample time to really get under its skin, to find the real Singapore. And while we did to a certain extent, it also left us wanting more – to go back again and again.
It is, without any word of exaggeration, a magnificent place to spend more than a few days. The self-styled Garden City, it’s virtually impossible to move more than a few meters in any direction without encountering greenery – tropical looking trees with screeching birds, climbers and creepers that seem to grow before your eyes, impossibly lush and dense grass, and the flowers!
If you’re only in Singapore for a short time, one of your first stops must be the Botanic Gardens. A huge, sprawling wilderness that is both easy and a lot of fun to get lost in, and home to the glorious National Orchid Garden.
I initially baulked at the entry fee of S$15 (NZ$18) to the Orchid Garden (the Botanic Gardens themselves are free), but once inside I was mesmerized by the riot of colour, shape and fragrance, and loved seeing the tiny birds, the slightly less tiny snails, the slightly terrifying statue-like lizards.
The Botanic Gardens are easy to find on the brilliant MRT underground rail network, which is incredibly cheap, clean, safe and reliable. If you have ever traveled on the underground networks of Paris, London, or Budapest, the MRT is everything that those veritable institutions aren’t.
Public transport is one of the last bastions of mask wearing in Singapore, and it is strictly and rigorously enforced. If you plan on traveling by MRT or bus, take a mask.
If critters, jungle and monkeys are your thing, spend a day getting to, and on, the island of Pulau Ubin. It’s only 10 minutes (and $4) by ‘bumboat’ from Changi Point Ferry Terminal, but it might as well be in a different country.
Still traditional and undeveloped, this wilderness of rainforest and wetlands has a tiny village at the wharf, where you can hire a bicycle or grab a quick and outrageously cheap bite to eat – and not a lot else.
We walked rather than cycled, and managed to have a quite close encounter with a two-metre-long monitor lizard, which was swimming very quickly and fortunately in the opposite direction, as well as some weird little mudskippers, a pair of glorious oriental pied hornbills, a billion butterflies, some wild boar, and most terrifyingly, a pack of wild macaque monkeys who decided my peanuts (probably the worst choice of snacks if I’m being honest) should be their peanuts. They won.
To get there, we took the MRT to the end of the East West line at Pasir Ris, then a number 109 bus, again to the end of the line at Changi Village, then the bumboat which leaves from the adjacent ferry terminal. If going to the island, take cash as there are no ATMS or Eftpos terminals.
If the seafood restaurant on the island doesn’t take your fancy (although we have heard great things), Changi Village has excellent hawker stalls where you can get your fill of beautiful, authentic local food and refreshing cold beer for just a few dollars.
When eating in any hawker stall in Singapore (which is highly, highly recommended!), be sure to clear away your tray when finished – which is a new, but still rigorously enforced law. Also a good idea to take a good supply of wipes, wipe your fingers and face with them, then the table.
The food! Singapore is absolute heaven for food lovers – as a truly international city, the diversity of cuisine is astonishing, and the prices and quality are incredible. We joined a walking tour in Chinatown that took in Michelin starred or Michelin recommended hawker stalls.
It took us into areas we wouldn’t have found otherwise, where we were treated to some of the best dishes we have ever had. Fragrant, juicy (and Michelin starred!) chicken and rice, a punchy, textual pork dish we christened ‘pork everything’ (the whole animal ethos may be new to many of us, but in Asia it has been in action for hundreds of years ).
Another tasty ‘dry noodle’ dish, strong and sweet local ‘kopi’ (coffee with butter and condensed milk – trust me on this), pandan cake that was like eating a lightly fragrant cloud, a belter of a Chinese take on a Portuguese egg tart, a huge glass of sweetly refreshing sugarcane juice (super fun to watch it in production), and popiah – effectively a spicy vegetarian spring roll before it is deep-fried.
The tour took over three hours, and was beautifully led by our cheerful, giggly guide Angel. We were also lucky to have the CEO of the company along for the ride, as he reacquainted himself with the post-Covid tour. A truly genial and exuberant host, this tour comes highly recommended, and at a snip over $60 each it was exceptional value. See: monsterdaytours.com
A huge amount of locals live in government provided housing, which has led to the creation of real neighborhoods everywhere. The people who live in the towers shop, socialize and eat and drink downstairs.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re hungry, look for a giant housing block – chances are it will also house a market full of cheap clothing and essentials, and a hawker market in the basement. Expect to pay less than $5 (and in some cases a lot less) for more food than you can possibly eat, $2 for a fruit drink (made in front of your eyes, and containing nothing but fruit), or maybe push the boat out and buy a cold beer for under $10.
The food and drink will be excellent almost without exception, but it’s worth looking out for the ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ rated stalls – a government scheme that guarantees cleanliness. Having said that, Singapore is possibly one of the cleanest, tidiest places on the planet, so you can’t really go wrong. Just remember to clear your table, and to take your wipes.
While Clarke Quay (especially one side of it) is a bit naff (think slightly embarrassing dad clubs and not very authentic restaurants), it’s still a nice walk along the river. Slightly further on is Boat Quay, also a bit touristy but a lot nicer with a huge array of bars and small restaurants (just don’t expect to find $4 main meals here!), which then leads into Merlion Park and its spectacular views of both the eponymous hybrid creature and the striking Marina Bay Sands.
Keep walking, if you can, around the basin to the shopping mall. Marvel at the likes of the Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores, enjoy the indoor waterfall, be amazed that this is a shopping mall with a river – complete with gondolas – running through it.
Keep walking, another few minutes and you’re into the Gardens by the Bay, a multimillion-dollar installation that champions the natural beauty of Singapore with spectacular gardens both indoors and out. It has to be seen to be believed. See: gardensbythebay.com.sg
Post-pandemic Singapore is experiencing a real shortage of taxi drivers (apparently a lot of them left the industry when the work dried up, and few have ventured back), so they can be hard to come by. Make friends with the concierge and they will be able to pull a few strings. Taxis are cheap and safe, but the MRT is almost impossible to beat.
We stayed in the excellent, low-key Riverside Hotel Robertson Quay – easy walking distance to Clarke Quay and the surrounds, Chinatown and Orchard, and close to the Fort Canning MRT station. There are excellent small restaurants, cafés and bars close by.
Singapore – it’s impossible to do it all justice in just a few words and photos. You’ll just have to go and experience it for yourself.