I have to admit: when I was vacationing in South East Asia last year, Singapore was probably the country I was the least excited about. I pictured it as the “Dubai” of the region: modern, expensive, with a lot of rules and no historical background… In other words, not the best country to visit for the culture lover/cheap traveler in me… But on my way from Indonesia to Malaysia, I gave it a try anyway. I love to challenge my preconceived ideas and quite often, the world proves my misconceptions wrong. My trip to Singapore soon became one of the highlights of my South-East Asia trip and what was supposed to be a short stay of two to three days was quickly extended to a full week. I fell in love with the country’s people, natural landscapes and diversity. And because Singapore is so much more than just modern buildings and expensive things, here are ten places that will make you want to pay this country a visit:
Take a stroll through Gardens by the Bay
The first thing you should do when you get to Singapore is to take a stroll through Gardens by the Bay. Though it is one of the most touristic attractions in the country, it also happens to be a great place to escape the summer heat and get a break from the city. This is one of the things that first made me all in love with Singapore: the nation is full of green spaces where you can work out, walk or just enjoy a lunch break. Located just a few minutes away from the city center and offering you an amazing view of the Singapore’s most famous skyscrapers, it is a must-see.
Admire the city’s skyline at ION Orchards
Though I am not really a big fan of malls in general, I had been told that I should at least experience Orchard road once. This shopping boulevard contains more than 20 shopping centers and seems to be the best place to go when you have a few hours to kill. But even there, the cheap traveler in me managed to find something to do… for free. Enter the ION Orchards mall and take the elevator to the 56th level. There, more than 200 meters high, you’ll feel like you’ve just stepped in another world. ION Sky is a space lost in the clouds, where you get a 360 view of the city’s skyline.
Indulge great food and visit temples in Chinatown
Another thing that transformed me quickly into a big Singapore fan is the diversity of its population. The nation is mostly inhabited by Chinese, Malays, and Indians and you really feel it when you walk in the city’s different neighborhoods. Chinatown is probably the most famous quarter of all, as more than half of the people are of Chinese descent in Singapore. There, you’ll be able to indulge in amazing food (Chai Tow Kway has to be one of my favorite dishes in the world), buy cheap souvenirs or meditate in one of the many temples you will come across during your expedition. The best moment to visit Chinatown is of course during Chinese New Year: I was lucky enough to experience it and completely loved the decorations, atmosphere and overall celebrations!
Have a drink and people watch in Clark Quay
Not too far from Chinatown is Clark Quay, the ideal place for a drink or a dinner by the river. This place is full of restaurants and is one of the spots where Singaporeans seem to love hanging out. Going there on weekends can be a bit overwhelming at times since it is quite crowded but it is well worth the experience. Singapore’s historical riverside is the place to be if you’re willing to enjoy delicious food in an old warehouse (or in a tongkang – old Chinese boat), or dance your heart out in one of the neighborhood’s clubs, later in the night.
Get lost in translation in a Japanese Garden
Another site that I really enjoyed during my stay was the Japanese garden. Though I almost got attacked (again!) by a monitor lizard when I sat for a quiet pic-nic (beware, they are literally everywhere in the country and can be pretty scary!). The Japanese garden is one of these peace havens where you completely forget about everything. Full of pagodas, flowers, cute bridges and other temples, it is the best place to go to if you are looking to spend a quiet afternoon. Take a book, one or two dragon fruits and you are set. Find a nice spot in the grass, take a deep breath, and relax!
Experience the diversity of Asia in Little India
Once you’ve had enough quiet time, get back to the city and head towards yet another ethnic district. Despite its sad history (the district is reported to have developed around a former settlement for Tamil convicts), Little India is now one of the most colorful and vibrant neighborhoods in Singapore. But though you’ll find plenty of sari shops (and who doesn’t love to wear a sari, seriously?), amazing curry dishes and other Indian arts there, the neighborhood is also a great illustration of the diversity of the country’s population. There, you’ll find places of worship of different religions and products from different nations of the world.
Shop ’til you drop in Haji Lane
Though I am not a big shopping fan, I have to admit that one of my favorite places in the city soon became Haji Lane. Sometimes pictured as the hipster enclave of Singapore, the Lane is full of indie stores selling products you wouldn’t find anywhere else and cafes where you’ll sip on the most original drinks you can think of. I enjoyed spending time in this Bohemian quarter, listening to its street singers and chatting with its fashionable boutique owners and designers. And if you are looking for Instagram-worthy shots, you will also feel like you’ve found the perfect spot, wandering around the colorful facades of this old Malay settlement.
Go trekking in McRitchie for a day
If Haji Lane was a great surprise, my day spent in McRitchie is by far my favorite memory in the country. Located at the very heart of Singapore, the country’s oldest reservoir (part of a water catchment system that captures rain water) is a popular destination for runners, water sports enthusiasts, and of course nature lovers. It is the perfect place for a day trek in a jungle like environment, surrounded by rubber trees and wildlife animals. Wander for kilometers in the reserve’s primary forest and you’ll soon get to the HSBC Tree Top Walk, a 250m aerial free standing suspension bridge connecting the two highest points in McRitchie. And do not worry if you aren’t a big walker, different trails go through the forest, ranging from 3 to 11 kilometers.
Get the Middle-East feel in Arab Street
Let’s go back to Haji Lane for a minute. How could I forget to mention its neighbor, Arab Street? As most of my readers know by now, I am in deep love with the Middle East so it’s no surprise that I felt particularly at home in this environment. Historically Haji Lane was the place where Malay pilgrims would stop on their way to Mecca. If nowadays, most people are unaware of the place’s historical significance and value to the Malay community, they can still be reminded of the Muslim heritage of the city in Arab Street and its surroundings. Packed with halal restaurants, spices shops and travel agencies arranging pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, this street will make you travel to another world as soon as you step foot in it. Not too far from it is the wonderful Masjid Sultan, which can also be seen by non-Muslims. Don’t miss out on this occasion and take a little time to visit this site and learn about Islam.
Enjoy Singapore by night while it lasts
If I had one last recommendation for a perfect Singaporean vacation, it’d be to have a walk downtown at night. The lights of the city are just amazing and some spots make you feel like you’ve been transported to the future. After sunset, the city’s atmosphere completely changes and you see everything in a different light (quite literally). Take a final stroll through Gardens by the Bay and enjoy the colors of the giant flowers coloring the black sky before a final goodbye.