Singapore City Guide

January 19, 2013

singapore

If anyone tells you that Singapore is sterile and boring, ignore them.

This cosmopolitan island may have a lot of shopping centres, flash hotels and fancy restaurants, but it also has an incredible local food scene, a rich and multi-layered cultural history, and lush wilderness.  And with a brilliant (and cheap) public transport system, it’s easy to get around and explore.  I spent 10 days in Singapore in November, and didn’t come close to running out of things to do.  I felt really at home and all the locals I met were very enthusiastic about their city.  I think that rubbed off on me a little bit.  I’ll definitely go back.

Accommodation

Two great suburbs to stay in are Chinatown and Little India.  Food is plentiful in both of these suburbs, accommodation is cheap, and both are within walking distance of Singapore’s main shopping and business districts, plus the waterfront etc.  Another great thing about both of these suburbs is that they are lively at night and provide early morning activities.  The day often doesn’t get started in Singapore until after 11am, but there are Hindu and Buddhist temples that can be visited from 6am.  The garden on the roof of the Buddhist temple in Chinatown is a lovely place to spend a peaceful early morning hour.

I stayed my first two nights in Singapore at a midrange boutique hotel in Chinatown called Hotel 1929 (about $140 a night on agoda) and then at Bunc Hostel in Little India ($25 a night).  Both were clean and stylish and well located.  I slept just as well and had as good a time at Bunc as I did at 1929.  There are plenty of other excellent hostels around as well.  Forget the Marina Bay Sands – you really don’t need to spend a lot of money to stay in Singapore.

Eating

Find your closest hawker centre and queue up at the most popular stall.  While you’re waiting in line you’ll have time to decide what to order.  If it is busy, you can place a small pack of tissues on an empty table to reserve it.  No one will steal your tissues or your seat (there is a code!).  Some centres have table numbers and the food will be brought to your table, or you carry your food back to your table yourself.  A meal at a hawker centre will only cost you $3-5, but even at the flashier food courts in the shopping centres (like Food Republic at 313 Somerset and VivoCity Harbourfront) you still only pay about $7 for a meal.

The ieathawker app (99c on itunes) is a great way to familiarise yourself with Singapore’s signature dishes and where to find them.  This article from the Sydney Morning Herald inspired my trip to Singapore and explains the ways in which food and culture are so connected.  It was really useful having some information about the food I was eating and the traditions behind it.  There is a great deal of nostalgia attached to the street food of Singapore and it is a common topic of conversation with locals you might meet.

Outdoors

Singapore offers real jungle as well as the urban variety.  There are many places in Singapore to go for a bit of green.  My favourites are the Botanic Gardens (a short bus ride from Orchard Road), Macritchie Reservoir (a short bus ride from Marymount MRT Station), and Fort Canning Park (next door to Clarke Quay).  Even Singapore Zoo welcomes rambling (and has a tree top walk with lots of wildlife).  The Singapore National Parks Board offers details of all nature walks on the island, and has a great education program.

Shopping

Singapore might not be as exciting a shopping destination for Americans and Londeners as it is for Australians and Kiwis.  We are yet to welcome H&M and Uniqlo to Australia, so Singapore chain stores still offer some novelty.  I’m a sucker for Japanese things, and so the highlights of my shopping time in Singapore were the Japanese fabric stores in the People’s Centre complex in Chinatown, homewares store Muji, the cheap plaids and button downs at Uniqlo and amazing thousand yen store Daiso ($2 dumpling shaper and onigiri moulds!)  There is such a shopping culture in Singapore that it’s easy to get sucked into the giant malls on Orchard Road, so maybe if you are going and you don’t want to spend a fortune you could set yourself a shopping challenge and stick to it.  I spent the better part of an afternoon hunting for the perfect blazer.  I tried on many and had a great time, but none were perfect – so I walked away without spending a cent (although I still dream about that bright teal number I tried on in H&M).  Haji Lane is an interesting shopping destination if you are looking for something a little quirky.

Two of my standout memories of Singapore are walking through Macritchie Reservoir, fighting off monkeys who wanted to steal my sushi and sitting with locals at a crowded table in a Komala Vilas restaurant during Deepavali, eating dosa for the first time.  Not a shopping center or amusement park in sight! (although Singapore Zoo was excellent and swimming at Sentosa Island with the giant ships moored in Singapore Straight looming over us was just plain surreal).

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