Singapore may have a clean-cut reputation but innovative attractions, a multi-layered cultural heritage, diverse food scene and sophisticated nightlife make it one of Asia’s most enjoyable cities. This year’s bicentennial celebrations aimed to demonstrate how the city has evolved into one of the world’s most modern, while the upmarket Raffles Hotel – one of Singapore’s colonial landmarks – has completed a major overhaul. Contrary to popular belief, it is quite possible to see the city on a budget, with capsule hotels almost as commonplace now as the hawker food centres that serve up cheap eats.
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Enter the lotus
The lotus-shaped, Moshe Safdie-designed ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay merges the worlds of art and science to mind-bending effect. The must-see Future World gallery is home to interactive installations for all ages that include room-sized animations created by visitors and a passage through beads of light that shimmer in interpretations of intergalactic events.
Embrace Asian art
Overlooking the historic Padang cricket field, the superb National Gallery has cavernous halls filled with pan-Asian art spanning the mid-19th century to the modern day. Look out for the wry humour of Thai artist and activist Manit Sriwanichpoom and exhibitions that include a rooftop garden containing plants taken from land reclaimed from the sea.
Wonder at flora
Misty and lush, the domed conservatories of Gardens by the Bay contain plants from all over the world. One maintains a cloud forest habitat and has a walkway that leads to the top of a 35m-high indoor waterfall, cloaked in foliage. Outside, stand under the majestic “supertrees” – giant, vertical gardens that glitter with colour during twice-nightly free sound and light shows.
Get lost in Chinatown
For guaranteed bustle, pick your way through Chinatown and alleyways lined with market stalls – the brave can sample a foul-smelling (but sweet and creamy-tasting) durian fruit. Be sure to pop into the Tang-style garnet-and-gold Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which contains what Buddhists regard as the tooth of the philosopher.
Step into India and Arabia
Little India is another of the city’s vibrant neighbourhoods. Start at the candy-striped Chinese merchant’s house of Tan Teng Niah, built in 1990, and loop past market stalls to Sri Veeramakaliamman, a landmark Hindu temple, keeping an eye out for street art along the way. More murals can be found in the Arab Quarter at Kampong Glam. Have a mooch along Haji Lane, lined with colourful shop fronts that are now hipster-style cafes (including one that prints a selfie on your coffee) and arty boutiques.
Where to stay
Romantics should consider The Fullerton Bay Hotel, an Art Deco haven set on a historic pier beside the marina. The pretty Lantern Bar, above the water, is the perfect spot for a sundowner. Doubles from S$519 (£306), B&B.
The Warehouse Hotel occupies a restored heritage building on the riverside at Robertson Quay and has a rooftop pool above 37 loft-style, boutique rooms. Doubles from S$258 (£152), B&B.
Destination Beach Road Singapore is a comfortable high-rise hotel with a rooftop pool and city views, a five-minute walk from Kampong Glam, opposite a popular hawker centre. Doubles from S$180 (£106), B&B.
Where to eat
Candlenut is the world’s only Michelin-starred Peranakan (Chinese mixed with Malay and Indonesian) restaurant. It is based in Dempsey Hill, an area of upmarket eateries in a former army barracks. Try the earthy black nut sambal (buah keluak).
Birds of a Feather is a plant-filled cafe/restaurant that serves modern Sichuan food with a European influence. At weekends the brunch is popular, or try the spicy oriental bolognese for dinner.
For Malaysian specialities, The Coconut Club in Ann Siang Hill attracts a crowd by getting its nasi lemak just right.
For more affordable bites, Lau Pa Sat is one of Singapore’s most well-known hawker centres set in a wrought-iron market hall with a night market running alongside it. Sample as much as your belly will allow.
Hawker Chan, meanwhile, serves one of the world’s cheapest Michelin-star meals (the two restaurant outlets mean you can avoid queueing at the original stall). His soy sauce chicken is superbly tender.
Where to drink
Artisanal cocktails rule in Singapore. In Ann Siang Hill start at Nutmeg and Clove for a botanics-inspired concoction, then seek out slick, underground bar Operation Dagger.
For a quieter neighbourhood social with mid-century furniture, head to Kampong Glam for bespoke drinks at Bar Stories. Craft beer fans can also try one of a growing number of options, the Good Luck Beerhouse, nearby.
The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel has been recently refurbished and is the ideal place to sink a Singapore Sling alongside a sack of monkey nuts. Or alternatively, go upmarket at one of the world’s top 50 bars, Native, where creative drinks are infused with foraged ingredients.
You’ll find well-stocked juice bars on Haji Road, such as the colourful Juice Clinic, while the Bhai Sarbat stall, on nearby Bussorah Street, has been selling speciality “pulled tea” to locals for decades.
Where to shop
Orchard Road is the place to go for shopping centres. Local brands to watch out for include Charles & Keith, which sells designer, vegan-friendly shoes and handbags. For a calmer experience, escape to Haji Lane, which is lined with heritage shophouses selling vintage clothes and knick-knacks. Fickle is a customisable flip-flop shop, while The Silver Triangle sells tribal jewellery designs from Laos. The market stalls of Chinatown are the best place to hunt down souvenirs including painted tea sets.
Singapore’s National Gallery is a clever joining of two historic buildings, the old City Hall and the Supreme Court. Once standing side by side, they are now connected by a sweeping, gold-tinged atrium supported by branch-like pillars that conceal bridges between the two buildings. Original features like the court lobby and a few jail cells can still be seen.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
Singapore dollars (S$).
What language do they speak?
English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are the country’s official languages.
Should I tip?
Tipping is not customary.
What’s the time difference?
8 hours ahead of GMT.
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
Daily, direct flights from London Heathrow take around 13 hours.
The MRT train system (Mass Rapid Transit) is a joy – easy to navigate, efficient and scrupulously clean. That said, you can still expect to walk between stations a fair bit. Taxis are available at tourist attractions though are fairly pricey.
It is both expensive and a tourist trap but if you want to touch the sky and really get a sense of a city built on land once belonging to the sea, head to the Sands SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands. The infinity pool is reserved for hotel guests but lifts that whizz up 57 levels to the observation deck cost S$23.
Get to Gardens by the Bay when it opens at 9am to visit the conservatories early on, before they get very busy. You can return later in the evening to watch the sound and light show in Supertree Grove.