East Meets West in the Lion City
Singapore is an ideal entry point to Asia, with its mix of cultures and cuisines, historic sites and modern attractions.
Give Singapore a chance. That’s all the country asks. The tiny tropical island just south of Malaysia is certainly working to shed its image as an uptight, iron-fisted city-state. Sure, chewing gum is still illegal, but two casinos are set to open this year, nightclubs thump until 4 a.m. and the arts scene is—dare I say it—growing! If you’re looking for an introduction to Asia, where East meets West, everyone speaks English, the streets are clean and safe, and the food top-rate, Singapore is worth a stopover.
The legend of “Singapura,” translated as “Lion City,” dates back to the 11th century, when a prince from the Sri Vijayan empire saw what he thought was a lion on Singapore’s shores. The name stuck, and one millennium later, a statute of a half-fish, half-lion spouting water in Marina Bay, the Merlion, welcomes visitors to the island.
Also overlooking Marina Bay is one of the most impressive vestiges of Singapore’s colonial past, The Fullerton Hotel. When Sir Stamford Raffles “resettled” the island in the 19th century, British soldiers established barracks at Fort Fullerton along the water. At this location in the 1920s was built what was then the largest structure ever in Singapore, serving as the city’s General Post Office and the center for trade and commerce. At the end of the last century, the Fullerton building—with its neo-classical architecture, Doric columns and portico—was restored and recast as a five-star hotel (which, consequently, has one of the best Sunday champagne brunches in town). [Read more about Dining in Singapore.]
No trip to Singapore is complete, though, without a visit to the Raffles Hotel. The colonial grande dame named after Singapore’s modern founder is all class, accented by rattan chairs and four-poster beds. Sidle up to the Long Bar, home of the Singapore Sling, a $20 drink that tastes like a melted Popsicle.
Though Singapore has a prominent colonial past, the city-state’s present and future are grounded in multiculturalism. The population of roughly 4.6 million is comprised of four major ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay, Indian and “other” (loosely defined as Eurasians and expatriates). Each has its own neighborhood, dedicated to maintaining a slice of home for the diasporas.
By far the largest hub, Chinatown is home to both mainland Chinese and a growing number of boutique businesses filling the refurbished shophouses. Along pedestrian alley, Pagoda Street, stalls sell robes, scarves and paper fans, while nearby Smith Street has some of the best dumplings in town. Visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum on South Bridge Road, then wander up the street to view Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, the 182-year-old Sri Mariamman.
A larger Hindu community gathers in Little India, where there’s a constant throng of people shopping on main drag Serangoon Road. This neighborhood glows during Deepavali (the Indian Festival of Lights usually in October and November), when festive light displays put Christmas decorations to shame.
Kampong Glam, the Malay-Arab Quarter and epicenter of Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community, features the huge gold-domed Sultan Mosque, hookah bars, textile shops and delicious Middle Eastern food. [Read more in our Arab Quarter feature.]
Finally, Holland Village is the unofficial home to many of the city-state’s expatriates; here you’ll find ice cream shops, Mexican restaurants, Irish pubs and coffee shop chains with free Wi-Fi access. Stop by Wala Wala Café Bar on the weekend for great live music.
Giant anteaters. Bengal tigers. A lion that actually roars! Singapore’s Night Safari, the first wildlife park designed exclusively for night viewing, creates an exotic natural bubble in a place better known as an urban jungle. The park eschews cages, preferring to use cattle grids, moats and hot wires to keep its 1,040 animals from too much mingling. Visitors can get up close, either on the tram or walking along one of three trails: Fishing Cat, Forest Giants and Leopard Trail (Leopard Trail? How can that not be cool?). This is the must-see in Singapore. The Singapore Zoo is also a daytime favorite, featuring “breakfast with the orangutans.”
One of the island’s newest attractions is the Singapore Flyer, currently the largest “observation wheel” (don’t call it a Ferris wheel) in the world, rising 541 feet with views of Indonesia on a clear day. The downside: The S$29.50 (US$20) ride is limited to one rotation that lasts just 30 minutes. Some people prefer to get their view for free (or the price of a cocktail) from the New Asia Bar at the top of the Swissôtel.
Major Local Events
In 2008, Singapore hosted the Singapore Grand Prix, the first Formula One night race, along its city streets. Don’t underestimate the appeal of a Grand Prix—it catapulted the city-state to international prominence, with cheap “walkabout” tickets already selling out for this year’s three-day event from Sept. 25 to 27.
Ask any Singaporean what the national pastimes are, and the answer will always be “shopping and eating.” Find more than 30 malls along a mile of Orchard Road, boutique shopping in the Arab Quarter, bazaars in Little India and souvenirs galore in Chinatown. Plus, every June the Great Singapore Sale draws tourists from around Southeast Asia for the island-wide discounts. [Read more about Singapore Shopping.]
Where to start … Singapore is a foodie’s paradise, offering everything from cheap, delicious street food to five-star French cuisine. Eating at hawker centers, outdoor food courts scattered across the island, is an integral part of any visit. In one aisle, you can find Indonesian satay, Malaysian nasi lemak, Chinese dumpling soup, Japanese teriyaki and Indian curry, each for about $3. One of the best “hawkers” in town is the Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown, renowned for its chicken rice—a popular local dish that’s as smooth as it is simple. [Read more about Top Singapore Restaurants.]
In the past few years, Singapore has embraced the “if you build it, they will come” motto for its art scene, injecting millions into modernized national museums and annual festivals. By last count, there were at least three festivals happening in 2009 alone—the Singapore Arts Festival (May 15 to June 14), Month of Photography Asia (June 17 to July 19) and ARTSingapore (Oct. 9 to 12)—with the Singapore Biennale hot on their heels in 2010. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Borobudur hold auctions here regularly, and the Market of Artists and Designers (MAAD) exhibits and sells affordable art a weekend every month.
Check out my favorite gallery, Collectors Contemporary, or the Singapore Art Museum for international contemporary art; visit the National Museum of Singapore and Asian Civilisations Museum for historical artifacts from the region.
To the delight of the locals, major artists such as Elton John, Sting and Coldplay now include Singapore in their touring schedule. Check performance schedules at Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay and Fort Canning Park for shows.
If you’re looking for outdoor adventures, skip Singapore. It’s always hot and humid, and the ocean water is pretty dirty, thanks to the omnipresent tankers off the coast. But if you enjoy walking, there are plenty of options. Start by strolling through the National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a place that practically defines serenity. Jurong Bird Park, an aviary with more than 8,000 birds, is family-friendly, while the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is perfect for a quick, short hike and some monkey-spotting.
The best beach in town is on the island Sentosa, just south of Singapore proper. But if you’re strapped for time, take a taxi to East Coast Park instead, where you can wade in the water, rent rollerblades and grill dinner as the sun sets. [Read more about Sentosa Island.]
Singapore has started to loosen its tie over the past decade. The nightlife options keep expanding, with the two casinos mentioned earlier slated to open in late 2009 at the island’s “integrated resorts,” and nightlife hotspot Clarke Quay, a Disney-fied collection of colorfully themed clubs and restaurants along the Singapore River, continues to draw bar-hoppers into the early morning. Highlights include The Clinic, where shots come in syringes and people recline in wheelchairs; new Cirque du Soleil-inspired Zirca; and stalwart dance club Attica.
Off the Quay are three of my favorite clubs: Butter Factory, an artsy venue in One Fullerton that plays hip-hop as opposed to trance/techno music found most other clubs; Supperclub, where you dine on beds and watch interpretive dance performances; and Zouk, one of the oldest and best nightclubs in town.
Fans of pubs might feel at a loss in Singapore, where clubs reign supreme. Try Boat Quay for beers at alfresco bars along the river, or walk one block back to Circular Road for popular Irish pub Molly Malone’s and brewery Archipelago. Or, hold out for the annual Singapore Beer Festival or take a tour of the local brand Tiger Brewery.
Did you know it snows here? Kind of. Indoor ski center Snow City makes its own snow for skiing, snowboarding and tubing with a compressed air gun.
Also, did you know prostitution is legal in Singapore? There are “Designated Red-light Areas” (DRAs) in Geylang, on Desker Road in Little India, and in Orchard Towers on Orchard Road. Though you can shop in Orchard Towers during the day, you might want to give it a pass at night, when gawkers and “customers” take over.