Singapore: what to expect
As a small and prosperous city state at a crossroad of international shipping lanes, Singapore is in many ways the odd one out in Southeast Asia. You’ll quickly find that it is highly developed, spotlessly clean, and even surprisingly tranquil in places—which are adjectives not so easily used to describe such overwhelming, loud, and (yes…) smelly Asian capitals as Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, or Bangkok.
While Singapore is clean and pleasant it is also very strict and business-like, with apparently little tolerance for creativity. It’s also an expensive place to visit, much to the annoyance of budget travellers accustomed to rock-bottom prices elsewhere in Asia. That said, scratch beneath the veneer of futuristic skyscrapers and infinity pools and you can make a few interesting discoveries, and foodies will love the dazzling array of Asian cuisine at their fingertips.
Singapore can be a great hub from which to start a larger Southeast Asia trip. It has many international flight connections and is not as immediately overwhelming as other entry points like Bangkok. But it also makes for a great regional waypoint where you can easily spend a day or two just exploring the city.
Things to do in Singapore
Here are a few of the best places to visit in Singapore:
Explore Chinatown and Little India
These parts of town have by far the most traditional character. In the old Chinatown and Little India, the futuristic high-rises and business districts give way to British colonial architecture with pastel colors. Several Hindu temples, mosques, and other places of worship are also scattered across the town.
You can get to Chinatown with the MRT metro and explore by foot from there. The Little India neighborhood is just adjacent to Chinatown.
Chow down some delicious food at a hawker center
Sitting at the crossroad of numerous Asian cultures, Singapore has pretty much all the food. Whether it’s Indonesian, Chinese, Malay, Indian or Thai, you can get it here, sometimes in the form of interesting multi-ethnic fusions.
Hawker Centers are the go-to places for finding authentic flavors at very reasonable prices (as little as $3 USD for a full meal). They are essentially institutionalized versions of the street food markets you’ll find elsewhere in Asia. Vendors don’t set up temporary stalls here but take up permanent residence in small kitchens, usually as part of a large roofed open-air building with shared seating areas. Hygiene standards are high, so if street food elsewhere makes you too afraid of tummy issues, here’s your chance to dig in without any worries.
This page has a good list of Hawker centers. You can find great food at any of these. At the recommendation of a Singapore expat friend I also went to Gluttons Bay Hawker Center—this center is a little different as the stalls here were brought together by essentially stealing all best cooks from other centers. While the food is a bit more pricey at this all-star hawker center, the food is superb and there is some nice seating available by the waterside.
While you’re in Singapore be sure to try the national dish, simply named “chicken rice”. It looks like just some plain rice with plain chicken, but don’t let its humble appearances deceive you. What seems like a dull plate is actually the product of an elaborate cooking process in which the meat is gradually and gently steamed… with a very tender and delicious result. Ask a local where to find the best chicken rice, as everyone will have deeply held opinions on this topic.
Get your karaoke on
Singaporeans love karaoke. For a big night out, rent a karaoke box with your friends and sing your heart out. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of English-language songs. This page at TimeOut has a good list of karaoke places in Singapore. Go with a bigger group and you can split the cost of a booth among many people.
Visit the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari
For a city where space is normally so tight, the zoo offers quite good amounts of space for the animals. You can buy a combination ticket that also lets you visit the night safari. I think it’s much nicer to see animals in the wild in, say, Thailand’s national parks or in the jungles of Borneo, but as far as zoos go the Singapore Zoo is one of the best in Asia. A ticket to the zoo costs $35 Singapore Dollars or about $22 USD.
Go to the Singapore cloud forest
The Gardens by the Bay is a network of modern greenhouses and waterfront parks. The Cloud Forest is an indoor ‘mountain’ with a surrounding canopy walk that’s pretty surreal and interesting. The outdoor Gardens by the Bay are free to visit, though the Cloud Forest costs about $14 USD to enter.
Stay at the airport (yes, really…)
I’m not being tongue-in-cheek here… Changi Airport is legitimately amazing. Its facilities are famously elaborate, making it a perfect transit hub in Asia. Just be glad if you’re stuck here for a few hours, as you’ll be able to enjoy the on-site aquariums, gardens, cinema, and swimming pool. If only every airport were even half as good…
There are many other activities in Singapore, though they tend to be more high-end (think golfing, gambling, indoor skiing, etc.). Otherwise the city is mostly business-like and modern with lots of shopping malls… which may be nice for its residents but is less compelling for visitors, especially those on a budget.
The Marina Bay Sands infinity pool is often listed as a Singapore sight. But if you’re thinking of having a swim there, I should mention that this impressive pool is closed to the general public nowadays (only people staying in the luxury hotel can access it).
I usually recommend staying just a couple of nights in Singapore before moving on to other parts of Southeast Asia, though be sure not to miss Chinatown and the hawker centers in particular.
Visiting the city beaches or the artificial resort island of Sentosa isn’t really worth it unless you live in Singapore and crave a break from the city. Head for the beaches in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia, as Singapore’s city beaches simply can’t compete with the real deal.
Singapore cost of travel
Singapore is easily the most expensive place in the region, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still survive on a budget. If you eat at hawker centers then food will be cheap indeed (you can spend as little as USD $2 or $3 for a very solid meal). Transportation costs are very manageable so long as you take the MRT metro, which connects all the key places including the airport.
Your biggest expense is likely your accommodation. Entertainment can also cost quite a bit, as alcohol is heavily taxed and tickets or entrance fees are relatively pricey.
A good rule of thumb is to take your daily budget for countries like Indonesia or Thailand and at least double it. If you’re on a tight budget, you might just want to skip things like the nightlife and the zoo, and focus on any of the free activities.
Budget accommodation in Singapore
If you’ve been spending USD $5 for a dorm bed in, say, northern Thailand, Laos or Vietnam, then you will surely raise an eyebrow at the USD $15 to $30 you will have to spend on a bed in Singapore.
Hostel dorms are your best bet in Singapore if you’re on a tight budget, as you won’t find a basic room for less than $40 to $60 or so.
When I was in Singapore some backpacker friends resorted to staying in cramped 16-person or even (gasp!) 24-person dorms just to keep costs down, though good sleep is far from guaranteed in these desperate chicken coops. Paying just a bit more for a smaller dorm is a wise investment, unless you’re okay with roughing it for a few nights.
The following are a couple of good value backpacker hostels based on price and rating:
|Fine Stones Hostel||Modern hostel (think European standards) a stone’s throw away from Little India. Dorms and several private rooms available.|
|Beary Best! Hostel||Located in the middle of Chinatown. Dorms and one private room.|
|The Hive||Very cheap for Singapore (about $15 US for a dorm bed), located a little further away from Little India and Chinatown,|
Around the web
- Free things to do in Singapore – Adventurous Miriam
Great visual guide to some of the top attractions