Singapore is easy, even for a first-timer traveller abroad. Its public transport system is simple to navigate, the hawker centres are safe and squeaky clean, and while most faces seem glued to a screen, people are friendly. Every time my parents and I looked at a map on the street, a passerby would offer to help.
We quickly fell into a wonder-filled routine. We’d start the day with a hearty breakfast, set off exploring by 9 am, and either spend the whole day at a big attraction like the Singapore Zoo, or split the day between a museum and a shopping spree punctuated by a quick siesta. We returned from our holiday well-rested and of course, well-fed; Singapore’s food scene is legendary and even humble shops serve up memorable bites.
There’s a lot to see but pace yourself—Singapore’s equatorial humidity can swipe at energy levels. Keep an eye out for deals on passes at a tourist attraction, and ask for a senior citizen’s discount where applicable. Here’s some inspiration to get you started.
Singapore takes its moniker “Garden City” very seriously. Sculpted gardens and nature trails abound, and trees are planted as soon as a road is planned so that drivers will have a scenic view by the time the route is ready. National Parks has a plethora of DIY walking trails around Singapore here. Both Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park are a bit far from the city centre, and have public buses running from a nearby MRT.
Get breathtaking views at the living library of the planet’s plant life at Gardens by the Bay, near Bayfront MRT station; it has buds and shoots from every continent except Antarctica. One of the two conservatories, the Cloud Forest, boasts a 35m-tall manmade mountain and waterfall. What I found marvellous was that for adults with wobbly knees and aching ankles that might never trek the highlands, this was an easy, breezy way to admire the blooms and ferns usually found as high up as 2,000m.
There are two climate-controlled conservatories, a skywalk, a lake, several outdoor gardens, and the Supertree Grove—a cluster of vertical gardens shaped like trees, that harness solar energy and rain for the park’s needs. Don’t miss the Flower Dome conservatory, the world’s largest glass greenhouse that houses 1,000-year-old olive trees, bizarre baobabs, and a seasonal floral display from around the world—luckily, my mum’s favourite orchids when we visited.
A good way to get the most of the gardens is to visit the conservatories around 4pm, grab an early dinner at the Satay by the Bay food court or the other eateries, and watch the Supertrees glow in a sound and light show at 7.45p.m. and 8.45p.m. There is a free daily walk and a paid audio guide at the conservatories, and a paid, 25min, audio-guided drive around the outdoor gardens. If energy levels are high, stop by the ArtScience Museum beforehand. Alternatively, head afterwards to Marina Bay for a dazzling night view of the city from the Singapore Flyer, or wind down over a Singapore Sling at the bar where it was first concocted in Raffles Hotel.
There’s a lot to love about the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the country’s first UNESCO heritage site, founded in 1859 as a British colonial tropical garden. It is located near the Botanic Garden MRT station, and is a serenely beautiful way to catch a sunrise and sunset. The profusion of outdoor themed gardens lined with paved roads and wooden boardwalks (try the Rainforest Walk) are great for reading a book, people-watching, or cloud-gazing. Say hello to the country’s national flower, the Singapore orchid, as well as a beguiling array of orchids named after celebrities like Amitabh Bachhan at the National Orchid Garden close to Nassim Gate. You might even glimpse a bride at a photo shoot at the aptly named Golden Arches in the orchid garden.
It’s not easy for animal lovers to visit wildlife in captivity, but save for a few, the natural habitats of the Singapore Zoo are well-maintained. Visitors at the zoo, located near Choa Chu Kang MRT station, can take the tram or stroll around to admire its residents, including tree kangaroos, sun bears, and orangutans. Alongside the zoo is the gated park River Safari, where manatees and pandas are on view. Everyone has a favourite sighting; mine was the magnificent Asian white lions on the tram at neighbouring gated park, Night Safari. The kids will love it—make time to bask with free-ranging lemurs, sloths, flying foxes and other rainforest species at the zoo’s Fragile Forest (currently being refurbished and slated to re-open in October). Keep an eye open for various shows at feeding time, and discount passes offered by Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which runs the zoo, Night Safari, River Safari, and Jurong Bird Park. This August, they even created 800 lures in the zoo for players using the Pokémon Go app.
Don’t miss the Lory Loft at Jurong Bird Park near Boon Lay MRT station; the colourful, squawk-happy cockatoos and lories are quick to draw near even when it’s not feeding time. Take the hop-on, hop-off tram around the various displays, from birds of paradise to African penguins. Stop by the bird nursery, and look out for shows and feeding times. The park’s largest walk-in aviary, aptly called the Waterfall Aviary, houses over 600 free-flying birds and a 30m-waterfall in 5 acres. While my parents loved the flamboyant Caribbean flamingoes, my favourite moment stole up on me. As the park neared closing time and everyone but I left the World of Darkness raptor exhibit, the otherwise eerie silence was pierced by the hoots of owl species from around the world.
Perhaps the best way to experience the medley of cultures in this port city is to walk through its ethnic neighbourhoods, including of course, Little India. A few are listed below. If walking around is not preferable, head straight to the museums; my parents loved noticing the similarities between our Asian cultures. Look out for hours when entry is discounted or free.
Chinatown lights up in February with Chinese New Year festivities, but the neighbourhood is a treasure trove for culture buffs all year round. An amble down from the Chinatown MRT station will take you past Jamae Mosque, Sri Mariamman Hindu temple (Singapore’s oldest), the ornate Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, and the bustling Lau Pa Sat hawker centre, where the satay and Hainanese chicken rice is a must-try. The streets are lined with Chinese medicine stores, tea rooms, and colourful shophouses: traditional two- and three-storey buildings that once had storeowner’s homes above their ground-floor shops. You can see the interiors of a 1950s shophouse recreated in the Chinatown Heritage Centre nearby.
Gaily painted shophouses, stores selling beaded slippers and trinkets, and delicious eateries (try 328 Katong Laksa and Chin Mee Chin Confectionary) pepper the Katong/Joo Chiat area, home to the Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) community. The neighbourhood is close to the Eunos and Paya Lebar MRT stations. Dive into the Katong Antique House, a lovingly restored ancestral home that is run as a private museum chock-full of antiques. At the Peranakan Museum, don’t miss the section on Peranakan wedding rituals and accessories; better yet, buy the discounted joint ticket to the Asian Civilisations Museum (near Raffles Place MRT) which also runs this one.
Kampong Glam, near the Bugis MRT station, was home to Singapore’s Malay aristocracy before British colonization. It houses the gold-domed Sultan Mosque (Singapore’s largest), the Malay Heritage Centre, and Arab Street with its fabric shops and eateries serving hummus and kebabs. Try the nasi padang and nasi lemak at HJH Maimunah near Arab Street. Glimpse street art murals on Victoria Street and Haji Lane. My cousins are particularly fond of Chijmes (pronounced “Chimes”) on Victoria Street, a former Catholic convent now run as an entertainment complex with shops and restaurants; it won a UNESCO merit award for cultural heritage conservation.
The island of Sentosa, near the Harbourfront MRT station, offers entertainment of the kind most advertised about Singapore. My aunt remembers quiet school picnics to the island just four decades ago; Sentosa is now flush with beach bars and resorts, Madame Tussauds (with a quirky enacted history show of Singapore), adventure sports like indoor skydiving and the Universal Studios themepark. We spent half the day at the truly wondrous S.E.A. Aquarium, which also houses a small maritime museum and is home to marine animals and plants from 49 habitats. Its Open Ocean habitat whose residents include sharks and manta rays, hosts sleepovers, and is a great exhibit to grab a seat and watch the world go by. Spend at least a day wandering through Sentosa’s many delights. Around mid-afternoon, my dad spotted fun exercise equipment on the lawns near the beach station, and we took a 20-minute break to swivel backs and lengthen calves. Ferries and boats also run to nearby islets.