Singapore offers all of Asia in one island. Its cultural fabric weaves together immigrants of Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian descent – their warm hospitality a common thread. All have brought along their indigenous food, religion, and tradition – on display in their respective cultural centers. Racial diversity married to ethnic tolerance is the key to this city-state’s phenomenal success.
Separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor, this petite island republic measures only 26 miles east/west and 14 miles north/south. A former British colony, it gained independence from Malaysia in 1965. Once considered just a “stopover,” Singapore has developed into a world-class, modern city, thanks to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who dedicated his three-decade term to economic development and social programing resulting in this feat of urban planning.
Clean and orderly, but not lacking in character and flavor, this compact, walkable city-state is where sophisticated infrastructure sidles up to traditional British colonial-era architecture. Once seen as overbearing and labeled a “fine” city, because of its harsh monetary penalties for littering, spitting, and gum chewing, rules have lightened, but streets still remain pristine.
Year round, Singapore’s climate offers little variation, but November and January can be rainier. Only 80 miles from the equator, temps range in the 70-80’s; it’s humid but not unbearable, with comfortably cooler nights.
BEST OF SINGAPORE:
Chinatown: Experience traditional and authentic Singaporean Chinese life. The five-story, Tang-dynasty, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is said to be the home of the Buddha’s left canine tooth – the temple’s opulent, gold encrusted décor definitely deserves a walk-through. Shop Chinatown Marketplace with its vibrant vegetable and fruit stands, cheap, quick meals, and action-packed wet market where all manner of meat, fowl, and fish are bought and sold. Chinatown’s pedestrian zone presents peddlers offering accessories and souvenirs – trinkets, chopsticks, and tea sets. For lunch, visit Sin Swee Kee for a simple but delicious Hainanese Chicken Rice meal: steamed and slow cooked in broth, served with rice and soup – it’s a national dish of Singapore.
Little India: Browse the Arcade for colorful saris, flower garlands, silk fabrics, gold jewelry, jasmine and spices, and have a temporary, henna tattoo inked in intricate designs on your hand. Shop 24-hour Mustafa Center and snack on roti prata (grilled flour pancakes served with vegetable or meat curry). Visit Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman Temple, (know for its fire walking ceremony), and gaze up at its ornate, colorful gopuram (Dravidian-style, pyramid-shaped sandstone towers).
Kampong Glam: The Malay neighborhood is a gathering place for immigrants from Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Middle East and the impressive, newly restored, golden-domed Sultan Mosque is its center piece. Arab Street and Haji Lane are lined with Mediterranean restaurants, two-story shop houses, bazaars, and local designer’s quaint boutiques. Stop in Jamal Kazura Aromatics for bespoke fragrances and aromatic oils presented in glass perfume bottles imported from Egypt. Indulge in a cup of Teh Tarik or Bubble Tea (sweetened milk tea mixed with tapioca), elaborately “pulled” from high above – this perfectly mixes and cools the beverage.
Gardens by the Bay: A horticulturist’s dream, this national garden includes over 250 acres of reclaimed land dotted with 18 giant, 16-story, Supertrees (giant vertical gardens designed to harvest solar energy); two glass biomes conservatories, the Flower Dome (world’s largest greenhouse) home to plants from the cool-dry Mediterranean and subtropical regions, and the cool-misty Cloud Forest with its world’s largest indoor waterfall and 35-metre mountain. Take a walk on the Skyway – it connects the Supertrees and offers an infinite high-rise view. At night, the trees come to life with a light and sound show. The tram and audio tour offers easy access to the whole complex, which also boasts plenty of dining options and a children’s garden with water features.
Marina Bay Sands Hotel: The triple-towered, 2,500-room skyscraper is topped by a miracle of engineering—the three-acre, cantilevered, SkyPark complete with landscaped gardens, infinity pool, bars, restaurants, and observation deck. It’s big enough to fit four and a half A380 jumbo jets! Dine at Sky on 57 (Singapore’s celebrity chef Justin Quek’s modern twist on traditional Asian) and stay late to enjoy a cocktail and watch the sunset and city lights from the outdoor terrace of Flight Bar & Lounge. Back down on terra firma, is the hotel’s casino, theatres, convention center, Marina Bay Shoppes, and Museum of ArtScience.
Orchard Road: Stroll along this tree-line boulevard which packs 22 malls into a mile and a half. The place to seek out international brands and electronics, and the underground connecting tunnels are a great place to escape the midday heat.
Waterfront Promenade: A continuous walkway links up a necklace of attractions: Collyer Quay, Marina Center & Bayfront areas. Don’t miss Singapore’s mascot, the Merlion (it “mashes up” the head of a lion with the body of a fish) — it stands guard over the marina area.
River Cruise: Board a Bumboat (a small vessel used to ferry provisions in Singapore’s historic trading port), cruise along the Singapore River, and make several stops along the way. Visit the Asian Civilizations Museum for an excellent history lesson and enjoy legendary Chili Crab at Jumbo Seafood at Riverwalk. Boat Quay and Clarke Quay offer plenty of international, al fresco dining choices along the river. Or, enjoy a cup of tea (or a pint!) at elegant Fullerton Hotel, a 19th century, iconic-columned landmarked building.
Sentosa: This touristy resort island packs an entertainment punch: Universal Studios theme park, Resorts World, Adventure Cove Waterpark, S.E.A. Aquarium (register for a behind the scenes VIP tour and Aquarist for a Day program), and lovely sand beaches.
For kids of all ages: Visit Singapore Zoo (over 2,800 animals set in a lush tropical rainforest setting); Singapore Flyer (165-meter observation wheel); Night Safari (get up close and personal with 2,500 nocturnal creatures like Malayan Tigers and Asian Rhinos); Botanic Gardens (including the 60,000- species National Orchid Garden). Or, cross the border to LEGOLAND Malaysia (passport and possible Visa required).
Hotels: Located in the Marina area are the Mandarin Oriental (atrium-style, excellent breakfast, and outdoor rooftop pool) and the Ritz Carlton; Four Seasons and Singapore Marriott located near Orchard Road. Don’t miss 19th century Raffles Hotel and sip a celebrated Singapore Sling at the hotel’s Long Bar!
Travel tips: Fly into Singapore’s Changi Airport, the “World’s Best Airport.” Bali, only a two-hour flight away, makes the perfect vacation destination companion to Singapore. Click here to read my recent article on Bali.
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