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Singapore

City life: Singapore

A financial powerhouse, a playground for young and old, and rich in history and culture, Singapore is a lot less predictable than you think — and a lot more fun

City life: Singapore
View of the Singapore Science Museum from the Helix Bridge. Image: Duncan Longden

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The old adage about Singapore being boring is, quite frankly, getting a bit boring. This city-state, which celebrated its 50th year of independence in 2015, is a financial powerhouse that’s home to sci-fi architecture, glow-in-the-dark gardens, awesome art collections and vibrant ethnic communities. Over its short but rich history, its 277sq miles have been shaped by ethnic Malays, Chinese opportunists, Indian immigrants and British colonisers, all of whom left their mark on the food, architecture, language and philosophy of the Lion City. Here, smoke-filled Hindu temples rub shoulders with Victorian concert halls, pastel-coloured shophouses sit in the shadow of sky-piercing towers, and the people are polite in the extreme — and positively obsessed with food, heaping as much praise on a finely-made £1 dumpling as they would on 500 quid’s worth of molecular cuisine. They also like to party. Hard.

I get my regular fixes when I visit: playing dowager countess at a certain historic hotel; gulping down bowls of chicken laksa in a blindingly-lit food hall; shopping on Orchard Road; and gawping at the Gardens by the Bay Supertrees. But the really great thing about Singapore is there’s something new to enjoy every time; whether that’s Haw Par Villa’s creepy-but-cool statues and dioramas or spotting a lemur in a remote jungle corner; the opening of another world-class museum or sampling the scene at the most talked-about new bar or restaurant.

And while this may be one of the world’s most expensive cities, you don’t need a tux and a trust fund to get the most out of it. Accommodation will probably be your biggest outlay but public transport is cheap, food choices are plentiful and it’s possible to find a meal for under a fiver, while Singapore’s dinky size means you’re always likely to have a fascinating historical or cultural attraction on your doorstep. Now what’s that saying? ‘Only boring people get bored.’

Little India. Image: Duncan Longden

Little India. Image: Duncan Longden

What to see

Art and architecture: The new National Gallery Singapore has beautifully blended the rotundas and balconies of Singapore’s old City Hall and Supreme Court with vast glass walls, floating walkways and a rooftop gallery overlooking the Padang, CBD and Marina Bay Sands. Entry to the enclosed galleries is SGD$20 (£10).

Gardens by the Bay: This billion-dollar horticultural attraction is split into three parts; the cool, misty Cloud Forest biodome, the bursting-with-colour Flower Dome and the free Supertree Grove. Each evening, at 7.45pm and 8.45pm, its forest of 16-storey-high, solar-powered robo-trees pulse, flicker and glow for the wondrous Garden Rhapsody show.

Colonial district: This is where Singapore as we know it began, where Stamford Raffles claimed this swampy island for the Crown. The Empire may have faded but a fine collection of aides-mémoires remain, notably the National Museum, Fort Canning Park and the city-state’s last grand pile, Raffles Singapore.

Island adventures: For family fun, head to the island resort of Sentosa, on Singapore’s southern tip. Ride roller coasters at Universal Studios Singapore, fly down hillsides on go-karts, zip-wire through the jungle, stand-up paddleboard, Segway or simulate a skydive.

Chinatown: Marvel at garish gold temples, haggle over paper lanterns and chow down on crispy noodles and milk tea in a cool courtyard cafe. To delve deeper into this vibrant neighbourhood, stop at the Chinatown Heritage Centre, where interactive exhibitions will leave you struck by the grit of Singapore’s early Chinese immigrants.

Little India: A riot of colour, where spice traders, gold merchants, sari shops and hardware stores selling aftershave with names like Black Panther and Love Machine spill out onto the pavement from rainbow-bright shophouses.

Like a local

Gay times: It may still be against the law to be gay in Singapore but it’s not an edict that’s enforced. So feel free to head down to Neil Road and dance in the open-air courtyard of Tantric or sink into a divan at DYMK (an acronym for Does Your Mother Know), a laid-back bar that’s all about kicking back and unwinding.

Great outdoors: The luscious green MacRichie Reservoir Park features a six-mile nature trail and is home to a variety of exotic fauna, including macaque monkeys, monitor lizards and plantain squirrels. Its showpiece is the TreeTop Walk, a 250-metre-long aerial suspension bridge, 25 metres above the ground, offering intrepid visitors spectacular views across the rainforest canopy. nparks.gov.sg

Talk the talk: The majority of Singaporeans speak excellent English, but add a cheerful ‘lah’ onto the end of your sentences and you’ll fit right in.

Where to eat

Chinatown: The Maxwell Food Centre near Chinatown is a well-known spot for delicious cheap eats — try Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice for… well, that’s obvious. But few know of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, just down the road — a house of worship that serves up a superb vegetarian buffet lunch of curried vegetables, crunchy beansprouts and leafy greens for an astonishingly cheap £1.50 donation. btrts.org.sg

Meat Liquor: This London burger joint gets a Singapore twist in trendy Duxton Hill, with green chilli burgers and tangy tamarind chicken fingers. If you’re in the mood for a party, there’s a raucous ‘anti-brunch’ on the second Saturday of every month — think free-flowing cocktails, nonstop nibbles, hip-hop… and morning-after headaches.

Corner House:
 Set in a romantic, black-and-white bungalow, hidden amid the flowers and banyan trees of the Botanical Gardens, the Corner House makes the most of herbs and spices, many of which were collected here in the 1930s by English botanist EJH Corner and recorded in the very same house.

Coffee shop on Haji Lane. Image: Duncan Longden

Coffee shop on Haji Lane. Image: Duncan Longden

Shopping

Bugis: This indoor market-cum-mall is a one-stop shop for kitschy souvenirs, bargain fashion buys and glitzy gadgets. There’s also a great selection of nail bars offering manicures, pedicures and gel nails for half of what you’d pay in the UK.

Tiong Bahru: Essentially a 1930s public housing estate, but one with curvaceous art deco architecture, geek-chic pavement cafes and hip independent boutiques. Search out bookseller Books Actually for some coffee table swag and head to the Plain Vanilla Bakery for a slice of cinnamon brown sugar cake.

Haji Lane: This pedestrianised alleyway in the Kampong Glam neighbourhood is where the fashionable folk come to shop. Max out your overdraft on cute dresses from top Korean designers, handcrafted Himalayan hammocks, all-white Japanese bicycles and vintage Chinese spectacles.

Where to stay

Hotel Vagabond: This design hotel, within walking distance of Little India, has gorgeous granny-chic interiors by fancy French designer Jacques Garcia. Rooms are compact but packed with stylish touches — flamboyant fabric panels, velvet ottomans and Egyptian cotton sheets, plus there’s a free bottle of wine per stay and a 3pm check-out — which makes it a bargain by Singaporean standards.

The South Beach: With architecture by Foster + Partners and interiors by Philippe Starck, this is the local hipsters’ darling. Instagram until your heart’s content — by the video installation wall, in the psychedelic elevators or in a Louis IV chair plonked in the rooftop pool.

The Patina Capitol, Singapore: Inhabiting a sugar-white colonial-era pile, this new six-star aims to upstage Raffles. The vibe is all white linen, elegant period features and wooden floors modernised with top tech and invisible service.

Nightlife

CÉ LA VI: Formerly known as Ku De Ta, this 49th-floor rooftop bar is the granddaddy of them all. Zoom up for sunset drinks accompanied by pinch-me views of the sparkling skyline and Singapore Strait.

Fresh!: Miss Britney? Yearning for some Brit Pop? Longing for the Back Street Boys? Pull on your shell suit and shuffle over to this fun-filled, graffiti-splashed nightspot for craft beers, straight-up liquors and a ’90s soundtrack.

28 Hongkong Street: Singapore has a hive of hip, hidden cocktail bars, but this one stands out from the crowd. It secured a place among the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2015 for its combination of sexy Prohibition-era cocktails and smouldering ambiance.

Essentials

Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies four times a day from Heathrow, and daily from Manchester to Singapore Changi Airport. British Airways is the only other carrier with daily direct flights, from Heathrow.
Average flight time: 13h.

Getting around
A highly efficient subway system (MTR) runs from Changi Airport to all corners of the city, with buses filling in the gaps. Pick up a one-, two- or three-day Singapore Tourist Pass — similar to a London Oyster Card — when you arrive at the airport. It costs from SGD$20 (£10), which includes a refundable SGD$10 (£5) deposit and SGD$10 (£5) credit.

Metered taxis are cheap but not always plentiful, and seem to all but disappear when it rains. As an alternative, try Uber or local cab app Grab; they’re slightly more expensive but a lot more reliable.

When to go
Located just north of the equator, Singapore sizzles all year round, with temperatures settling around 25C in the evenings and hitting the mid-30s by day. However, expect squally afternoon and evening thunderstorms during the monsoon months, from December to early March, and then again from June to September.

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens don’t require a visa.
Currency: Singapore dollar (SGD). £1 = SGD1.90.
Vaccinations: None required, although it’s worth packing mosquito repellent.
International dial code: 00 65.
Time difference: GMT +8.

More info
yoursingapore.com

How to do it
Audley Travel has three nights at the five-star Sofitel So Singapore from £1,370 per person, including breakfast, private transfers and flights with Singapore Airlines. Stay an extra two nights for just £80 more.


Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)