Ten top things which prove that Singapore is a place that is steeped in history while also being a futuristic wonderland.
Visiting a destination that is rich with history can be very enlightening. A place where the classical buildings, monuments and cobblestone streets give one a sense of what it was like to have lived decades or even centuries ago. On the other hand, it is thrilling to be dazzled by modern architecture and innovation. Arriving anywhere that is ultra modern or cutting edge - a place bordering on science fiction - will leave you exhilarated.
So, how do you chose?
Welcome to Singapore, where you don’t have to.
Singapore combines its past, present and future together into an easy to navigate, always interesting, sometimes mind-blowing destination that you can see a lot of in just a day or two. Here are ten things to experience that give you the best of old and new Singapore.
10. SOMETHING OLD - SIPPING A SINGAPORE SLING AT THE HISTORIC RAFFLES HOTEL
There’s no way around it, this one is a splurge, so if you’re not a drinker or are watching your budget or generally don’t care about this specific type of “history”, this is an easy one to skip.
For those who like this kind of experience, there is a lot to recommend it.
The Singapore Sling is a delicious, gin-based cocktail created over 100 years ago by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon. He worked the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel.
The hotel itself is a beautiful relic of days past. It has been gorgeously restored and is on Singapore’s list of National Monuments. Strolling around Raffles gives you a sense of what it was like to be a person of means in the colonial days.
The Long Bar is another atmospheric window into a long distant past. With its shuttered windows, potted palms and lazily waving fans, it may transport you back to the early 20th Century. I half expected to see Somerset Maugham or Rudyard Kipling toasting me from the far end of the bar. I just couldn’t get enough of it.
There are some things you should be warned about however. Imbibing at the Long Bar is a VERY touristy and popular thing to do. There were super long wait times for a table. Luckily, I was alone so didn’t have too much trouble snagging my spot at the bar, which was where I wanted to sit anyway. I was even able to engage a little with the bartender. I’m not sure the people at the tables had that same experience with their harried waiters.
The other downside of this experience was the cost. A single Singapore Sling sets you back $26 (!!!). I know, it’s a lot (when I was in Venice, Italy and went to Harry’s for a Peach Bellini I think they charged about the same). I try to rationalize it as $10 for the drink and $16 for the experience and that makes it a little easier to swallow.
On the plus side, they give you a burlap bag full of peanuts to munch on while you’re there and you can eat your fill of those. Everyone throws their peanut shells right on the floor, which adds to the atmosphere - it’s the only place you can litter in Singapore without facing any severe consequences.
9. SOMETHING NEW - CHANGI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Singapore’s fabulous airport could be considered a destination in its own right. If you have a long delay or flight cancellation, pray that this is the airport you are stuck in.
I was blown away by Changi and it makes me wonder why all airports can’t be designed to enhance our travel experience as opposed to being a place that we dread being trapped at.
I visited Singapore right as they were debuting Jewel and the Rain Vortex - a section of the airport that features a live tree and plant forest as well as the world’s largest indoor waterfall. They were really promoting it at that time, as you can see by these advertisements:
I was able to see it (minus the “water”) and even silent, it was pretty incredible.
There are so many attractions at Changi Airport - their website currently lists 46 unique spaces throughout the terminals - where you won’t feel like you’re waiting in a normal, soulless airport. There are multiple gardens, art installations, giant slides, a butterfly sanctuary, trampolines, a hedge maze, a mirror maze, net- walking (?) and topiaries as well as endless world class shopping, spas and dining options. In my opinion, this should be the standard for airports, but since it’s the exception - get there early!
8. SOMETHING OLD - GET YOURSELF SOME OF THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION
Singapore is a true melting pot of people, cultures and religious beliefs. Scattered throughout this city-state are Chinese Temples, Cathedrals, Buddhist Temples, Synagogues, Hindu Temples, Churches and Mosques. Depending on your interest level in the religious, cultural and artistic offerings in these places of worship you could spend an entire day visiting them. These are some of the ones I visited:
Bonus feature - this is a free activity. Amen!
7. SOMETHING NEW - MARINA BAY SANDS
This iconic three-towered hotel and entertainment center is a must-visit when in Singapore. If staying at the Marina Bay Sands isn’t in your budget, there are ways to get a taste of what this amazing complex has to offer.
The rooftop SkyPark is where the final scene of “Crazy Rich Asians” was filmed. You don’t need to be crazy, rich or Asian to visit the observation deck, you just need to buy a ticket. However, I would suggest NOT buying a ticket to the deck. Instead, buy a trip up to the poolside bar on the floor just below the observation deck. The city views of are similar, but you’ll also get an up close look at the insane, “world’s largest” rooftop infinity pool. Even better, your entrance includes an adult beverage so you can sit and sip while taking in heavenly views of Singapore.
After spending time at the top of the Marina Bay Sands, make sure you wander around the complex - where you’ll find luxury shopping, gondola-style sampan boat rides, gourmet restaurants, an ArtScience museum - even a theatre featuring Broadway musicals and other performances.
6. SOMETHING OLD - SINGAPORE'S COLONIAL PAST
I know, intellectually, that colonization is bad - but I also like beautiful, old buildings. Singapore has many monuments representing its British occupied past and I enjoyed walking around the Colonial District taking pictures of them. This is a lovely part of the city and since I didn’t venture inside any of these buildings it was also a free activity.
5. SOMETHING NEW - MARINA BAY SANDS (AGAIN) LIGHT AND LASER SHOW
In the evening, head to the side of the bay opposite the Marina Bay Sands to watch a truly spectacular music, light and laser show. When I was there the show was called Wonder Full and as the name suggested, it was wonderful. According to their website they’ve now added water jets into the show and renamed it “Spectra”. I’m sure it is incredible. The show is offered several times nightly and best of all, this is a free activity!
4. SOMETHING OLD - EAT LIKE A LOCAL AT A HAWKER'S MARKET
My friend Dan is from Singapore and offered to show me around town some. He was insistent that I eat at a Hawker’s Market (which I guess is basically a food court). This an inexpensive way to try some authentic regional dishes without busting your budget. Even though Dan did the ordering for me, don’t be afraid to try it on your own. He gave me some good advice saying, “If you’re not sure, just go to the stand with the most people in line.”
Some of the things I sampled were delicious, all were interesting. Mostly it was a fun thing to do and a good way to hang with the locals.
3. SOMETHING NEW AND SOMETHING OLD - SINGAPORE'S WATERFRONT
You could spend your entire visit wandering around the Marina Bay waterfront and along the Singapore River and leave completely satisfied. It’s also the area where Old Singapore and New Singapore blend together seamlessly.
Marina Bay features some of the best cutting edge architecture and attractions. Towered over by the fantastic skyscrapers of the Central Business District, the bay is home to the previously discussed Marina Bay Sands Hotel and entertainment complex. This is where you’ll catch its nightly light and laser show.
It’s also where you can take a spin on the Singapore Flyer, one of the World’s tallest observation wheels. Or you can take a stroll across the Helix Bridge - designed to resemble human DNA.
Check out the Esplanade, an ultra- modern performing arts complex resembling Singapore’s smelliest fruit, the durian.
Don’t forget to get a picture with the iconic Merlion statue, the symbol of Singapore. It was getting a facelift when I visited so I had to settle for an underwhelming smaller version in the nearby park.
Oh well, add it to the list of reasons I want to return.
The Singapore River which flows into Marina Bay is where you can get a sense of what Singapore was like in days gone by. Singapore has always been an important shipping and trading center. In some old movies Singapore was depicted as an exotic, mysterious and slightly rough port of call. All of that history (real and make believe) is on display along the Singapore River.
The historic warehouses still line the riverfront. However, they no longer store goods being shipped to and from all corners of the Pacific. These buildings have been restored and converted to attractive shops, restaurants and bars. It’s a really atmospheric area even though you’re more likely to see camera toting tourists and souvenir shops than rowdy sailors, prostitutes and opium dens around the quays these days.
In addition to the preserved warehouses, some of Singapore’s best museums and hotels can be found riverside, housed in gorgeous old colonial buildings - with the modern skyscrapers of the CBD looming as backdrop.
In my opinion, the best way to experience all that the Singapore Waterfront has to offer is hop on a restored Bumboat. These traditional vessels take visitors up and down the river and around the bay. The cruises provide enlightening narration and great photo opportunities. The 45 minute ride is an activity that is definitely worth the ticket price ($25).
2. SOMETHING OLD - SPEND SOME TIME IN A GREAT CHINATOWN
I chose Chinatown as my home base when I visited Singapore. It’s near many of Singapore’s best attractions and is well served by public transportation for the things on your to do list that are not within walking distance.
Chinatown is a bustling and vibrant area. Many of the aforementioned temples are in this neighborhood. There are tons of great restaurants, Hawker’s markets, bars, shops, souvenir stands and wet markets lining the streets of Singapore’s Chinatown. Many are housed in colorful and historic shophouses.
Chinatown is buzzing with activity both day and night. However, visiting in the evening has the bonus of seeing Singapore’s Chinatown aglow under all the festive hanging lights. This lighting adds so much to the atmosphere. You many never want to leave.
1. SOMETHING NEW - GARDENS BY THE BAY
Seeing Gardens by the Bay with my own eyes was the main reason I went to Singapore. It did not disappoint. Prepare to be blown away by this Singapore “bucket list” attraction.
Gardens by the Bay is like Tomorrowland’s version of a botanical garden. It’s like stepping into a sci-fi fantasy, but it’s also a place that celebrates our real natural world and environment.
This amazing complex consists of two giant bio-domes, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. These two huge structures look more like space ships than conservatories.
Gardens by the Bay is also home to the incredible Supertree Grove. These “trees” are gigantic, solar powered vertical gardens. You’ll find it hard to believe your eyes at this wild blending of nature and technology.
Walking around the Gardens by the Bay and seeing the Supertrees is free, but you’ll need a ticket to see the domes. Touring the Cloud Forest Dome and the Flower Dome is an experience you won’t want to miss.
The Flower Dome contains flora from all different climates around the globe. Following the path around the Flower Dome is like taking a botanical world tour. It’s the largest glass greenhouse on earth.
In the middle of it all is the Flower Field - which constantly changes its displays to fit different themes. When I visited, the featured flower display was all about tulips.
Of the two domes, I thought the Cloud Forest was even more impressive. So if you have limited time or interest, this is the dome to visit. It is a stunner. It features a giant mountain covered with plants, a Cloud Walk stroll that feels suspended in air and a really impressive indoor waterfall. There are areas of the Cloud Forest with names like the Secret Garden, Crystal Mountain and the Lost World. It’s a fantasy land and you may actually learn something too!
The domes are both spectacular, but the real star of the show is unquestionably the fantastical Supertree Grove. Plan to spend a lot of time here. There is a garden path to walk among these giant vertical gardens. Even better, you can head up into the canopy as there is a sky walk connecting several of the trees.
The views are great from the sky walk - you’ll want to take a million pictures.
Return to Gardens by the Bay after dark to see the Supertree Grove in a synchronized music and light extravaganza. It’s a completely different experience to see the solar powered Supertrees glowing with light. It feels like being on another planet. Don’t skip this one. It’s a fun and festive atmosphere. Added bonus, the music and light show is free to attend, so there’s no excuse to miss it!
While that’s the end of the list, there are many other things to see and do around Singapore that were not mentioned above. Depending on how much time you have and where your interests lie you may want to add them to your itinerary.
I didn’t visit any museums when I was there, but there are many that are highly acclaimed including the National Museum of Singapore, the Asian Civilizations Museum and the Singapore Art Museum.
If you didn’t get enough flora at Gardens by the Bay, the city also hosts a world renowned botanic garden. The Singapore Botanic Garden is near a historic part of the city named Orchard Road. I had planned to visit this area but ran out of time.
I should also mention the Singapore Zoo. I don’t actually like zoos as a rule, but I had read so much about how great the Singapore Zoo was that I decided to give it a chance. To be sure, it was one of the better zoos I’ve been to, hosting some really interesting animals. However, at the end of the day no matter how sensitive and environmentally conscious a zoo is, it’s still a zoo, so I don’t think I’d make a return visit. There are also highly touted “Night Safaris” which I didn’t try, but seem to be very popular.
Lastly, you can take a monorail or cable car to Sentosa - dubbed Singapore’s “Pleasure Island”. Here there are beaches, golf courses, spas, restaurants, a 4D Theatre and many other offerings. If I had had one more day in Singapore, I would have visited Sentosa. I will definitely check it out next time I’m there.
If you’re traveling around Asia, Singapore is a main hub, so it is very convenient to visit. Try to tack a few days onto any Asian trip you’re planning and see this magical place. You won’t regret it.