Singapore has come a long way since its early days as a tropical backwater, vice den and then diverse colonial trading post, and has transformed itself into a high tech metropolis and financial powerhouse. Often unfairly dubbed as clean, sterile and boring, Singapore may not have the frenetic party fuelled energy of Thailand or the relaxed natural beauty of Malaysia, but is one of the cleanest, efficient and pleasant cities in South East Asia.
Grand colonial buildings provide an elegant and aesthetically pleasing backdrop amongst the gleaming glass and chrome high rises and award winning gardens and beautiful city parks, stylish bars and clubs attract world class DJ’s and audiences and superlative gourmet food is the national obsession, rightly making Singapore one of the world’s top epicurean destinations. This small city is a working model that every city – and country – in the world should aspire too.
Singapore is one of my favourite cities in the world, it truly is amazing. No amount of superlatives could describe how at home I am here, yet it is a country that is also extremely underrated. Many people simply use it as a short layover stop on their way to another destination, but it deserves so much more than that and there is enough to see and do here to keep you interested for at least a week. It is the ideal fusion of West and East, making it an ideal decompression stop for those about to immerse themselves in the alien culture of Asia. It boasts some of the best Westernised attractions in the world, from the famous zoo and night and river safaris to Universal Studios and Sentosa island, shopping on Orchard road that matches anything found in Fifth avenue in New York, Bond street in London or the Champs Elysees in Paris.
The country is a symbol of colonial opulence and modern luxury, and all this whilst still retaining much of the imported cultural heritage in Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam.
Singapore also boasts a second to none infrastructure, one of the most efficient public transport networks and lowest crime rates in the world, what isn’t there to love about Singapore?
Culture and etiquette.
Singapore is a generally conservative but extremely polite society. Respectable Western dress and cultural conventions are the norm and casual to smart casual is more than fine. Normal accepted rules on removing shoes and covering shoulders is still expected in religious buildings and places of worship.
It is worth remembering that Singapore has a reputation for severe penalties for breaking the law and it is not undeserved. It is known locally as the ‘fine city’ for the severe fines handed out for even the most minor of infractions, so suffice it to say, just don’t break the law.
What you need to know.
No prior Visas are required for citizens of many countries including the UK, much of Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. A 30 day pass is issued on arrival for these and many other nations. Check with the Singapore embassy online for a full list.
Singapore’s health facilities are world class, and medical tourism rates are extremely high here. Pharmacies and clinics are plentiful, easily accessed and are well stocked with anything you may need. English is spoken widely and you will not have any problems if you need medical advice or attention.
Note that it is important to protect yourself against the sun and dehydration in Singapore, as the sun is extremely strong on the equator, so bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
There are no specific vaccinations needed for visits to Singapore according to the Centre of Disease Control, but it is still recommended that you are up to date with your routine vaccinations. Malaria is not present in Singapore but it is still wise to take precautions against mosquito bites as Dengue fever is still an issue as it is across Asia.
Crime and Safety.
Singapore is perhaps one of the safest countries in the world, with a crime rate far lower than any Western country. Penalties are severe for lawbreakers so most people don’t break the law, it really is that simple! You really have nothing to worry about beyond basic common sense precautions in Singapore.
Costs and money.
The Singapore dollar is the unit of currency and there are 100 cents in 1 dollar. Singapore is extremely expensive by Asian standards, closer to Western prices than anything else but still a great bargain compared to London or New York.
Accommodation will probably be your greatest expense in Singapore, with even a basic hostel running at around £10 – £20GBP. You can get a very basic budget hotel for around £40 GP per night but this means basic, if you want to stay in this level of hotel you will be better off staying off in a high quality hostel for half the price. Most good boutique hotels start at around £70 GBP a night upwards, and the sky really is the limit for some of the more luxurious hotels. The one thing that you will notice about the accommodation in Singapore is that you generally get a lot for your money. Yes it is expensive, but a comparable quality room in the UK or Australia for example will cost you a lot more.
Food costs can be expensive if you stick to the restaurants, especially those attached to hotels, but there are plenty of extremely cheap food courts around in any of the malls. Maxwell road food court and Smith street are two of the most popular, and you can easily get an amazing meal for just a few pounds.
Transportation is extremely cheap in Singapore because the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) public transport system is so efficient there is generally no need to use anything else. Single use tickets are about £1 or £2, but it is cheaper to buy an EZ link pass if you are here for a few days or more. The tourist passes are rarely value for money. Taxis are a lot more expensive but still good value by Western standards and can be handy for getting too and from the airport if you don’t fancy carrying your pack on the MRT.
Activities are generally not cheap in Singapore but they are amazing value for money. The zoo, Sentosa island, Universal studios and other attractions all cost a fair amount of money, but at around half the price of their counterparts in the Western world they are really good value. There are plenty of things to do for free in Singapore too if you want to keep the costs down, including the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, the Bukit Timah nature reserve and the botanical gardens.
When to go.
Singapore’s climate is generally stable year round thanks to the proximity to the equator. Hot and humid. The monsoon seasons run from May to September and then from November to March, but it can rain at any time. Generally it is just sunny, hot and humid.
Places to see.
Singapore’s Chinatown has been refurbished to within an inch of its life, but that doesn’t in any way mean that the character and culture has been lost. Chinatown is Singapores beating cultural heart, with the slightly gloomy but interesting Perankan or Asian Civilisations museums, the Chinatown Heritage Centre or even the strangely placed and kooky TinTin museum, there is plenty here to keep you entertained, and that’s even before you get to the market stalls. Scratch beneath the touristy surface for charming old shophouses, generations old businesses specialising in Chinese medicine and wellness, frenetic shrines and temples and some of the best food courts you will find in Singapore. Chinatown is a great place to pick up a bargain and grab a great spot of lunch at the same time.
Singapore’s cultural quarters are one of the best things about Singapore and Little India doesn’t disappoint with a sense assaulting taste of India. Colourful rows of shop front windows, brightly coloured shrines and temples, teeming markets filled with the smells of spices and the blaring sounds of the latest Bollywood music.
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
More of a gentle, pedestrianised hike than an intrepid trek, this vast swathe of primary rainforest in the middle of Singapore gives a glimpse into what the amazing country used to be like. The nature reserve is a huge eco tourist attraction and is great for wildlife spotting, with macaques being one of the most oft spotted animals.
Chinese and Japanese gardens.
This spacious and serene space is a pleasant place for a stroll or a picnic away from the city and a nice way to spend a few hours. The seven storey pagoda provides excellent views around the gardens and the pavilions. The Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum is also on the grounds and makes for an interesting diversion, although unfortunately it is due to move as the lakes are developed in mid 2014.
The reservoir is a great place for a few mild to moderate level hikes on the 12 km circular jungle trail, set around the reservoir itself in the middle of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
Labrador Nature Reserve.
Another one of Singapore’s many natural beauty spots, the short and pedestrianised jungle hikes are broken up with historical looks at old British WWII sites, famous restaurants and luxury spa resorts.
Singapore Botanical Gardens.
Open from 0500 through to 0000 hours, the botanical gardens are superlative showcase gardens in a city filled with beautiful countryside escapes. Filled from the early hours with joggers, picnickers and Tai Chi practitioners, you still won’t have to walk far to find a haven all to yourself. The massive collection of orchids is a highlight.
Quite simply one of the best zoo’s in the world. The world renowned Singapore zoo is set amongst a vast wildlife reserve and holds over 2,800 animals in amazing, spacious and healthy environments, including the worlds first free ranging Orang Utan exhibit. It really is an absolute pleasure walking around the amazing habitats, seeing the animals treated with respect and love, the way it should be! The grounds are huge as well, so although it gets a lot of visitors, it never feels crowded. It is well worth putting aside an entire day to visit here if you can.
Night and River Safari.
On the same grounds as the Singapore zoo but separate from it are the excellent Night Safari Ride, which showcases a range of nocturnal animals in their natural habitats and has a tram ride that takes you around the entire park. The recently opened River Safari is based on a similar theme, but as its name suggests has a boat take you on a guided tour through the different water based environments around the world, from the Nile to the Amazon, and even hods two of the Zoo’s newest inhabitants, two Giant Pandas.
Esplanade – Theatres on the bay.
Even if you don’t come here to see one of the world class theatre performances, you can come to enjoy the excellent shopping or dining experiences in the mall or simply see one of Singapore’s unique skyline additions in its architect designed ‘durian’ exterior on the already beautiful Marina Bay.
The Merlion is Singapore’s famous mascot, half fish, half lion, the huge statue gazes out to see amidst a pleasantly gentrified tourist area with great views over the bay of the Esplanade and the Marina bay. It is a pleasant place during the day with a few nice eateries dotted about and is within walking distance to other attractions such as the Singapore flyer, but is fun to visit later on too as the sun sets over the bay and Singapore’s skyline comes to life with a glittering array of lights.
Things to do.
The world class shopping experience on Orchard Road is comparable to 5th Avenue in New York, Ginza in Japan, the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris or Bond Street in London, but still at a fraction of the price. The shops are as glitzy, the designer labels are as eye wateringly expensive and haute couture as the other famous shopping streets, but you can still pick up a huge bargain here if you are used to shopping in the West.
In recent years Singapore has had a growth of vast, world class shopping malls spread throughout the country that match anything found on Orchard road, from the Marina Bay mall with its canal that runs through the central area to Suntec City, you will never be short of a space to spend your cash in Singapore.
Let your inner art critic out.
From world class galleries to cutting edge street art, Singapore is an art critics (or lovers) paradise. There are even famous art galleries in some of the hotels, with one of the more ritzy held in the Ritz – Carlton, with pieces specially commissioned by world famous artists for the public galleries and spaces. Considering most of these galleries are free, you can’t complain.
Get pampered, get healthy.
Singapore is famous for its health care and is one of the world’s top health tourism attractions, with plenty of people heading to the world class facilities for plastic surgery or medical treatments. Singapore’s seeming cultural obsession with health and wellbeing goes far beyond the clinical however. You can barely walk more than five minutes without coming across a massage centre, health spa or beauty parlour and it is always worth treating yourself.