Introducing Singapore (city)
It's popular to dismiss Singapore as a kind of Asia Lite - blandly efficient and safe, a boringly tasteless, disciplinarian and unadventurous place where citizens are robbed of their cherished freedom to spit on the street and chew gum. Utter nonsense.
Singapore is in fact one of the most enjoyable cities in Southeast Asia. As you zoom in from one of the world's best airports along the lushly tree-shaded expressway or on the zippy MRT train line, you'll quickly realise this is no traffic-snarled Bangkok. And as you stroll through the fashion emporiums of Orchard Rd, poke around antique shops in Chinatown or take a walk around one of the dozens of beautiful city parks, you'll know the city bears no comparison to crime- and poverty-ridden Manila or Jakarta.
Then, as you are drinking and dancing until dawn in the city's pubs and clubs, or sipping a cocktail surrounded by the colonial elegance of a Raffles Hotel veranda, think of your fellow travellers in Bangkok, who are being turfed onto the street at midnight.
There's no law that says an Asian city can't be well run. It may have been a long and difficult haul from swampy colonial outpost and notorious den of vice to powerhouse industrial nation, but those who say that Singapore has lost its soul along the way couldn't be more wrong.
Few cities in Southeast Asia can boast Singapore's fascinating ethnic brew. Where else in the world can you dip into the cultures of China, India and Muslim Malaysia all in one day, against a backdrop of ultra-modern Western commerce? Not only has Singapore's history of migration left a rich cultural and architectural legacy that makes wandering the streets an absorbing delight, it has created one of the world's great eating capitals.
Food is the national obsession - and it's not difficult to see why. Sitting out under the stars at a bustling hawker centre with a few bottles of Tiger beer and diving into an enormous array of Asian dishes is one of the iconic Singaporean experiences. Sambal stingray, char kway teow, oyster omelette, chicken rice, clay-pot seafood, fish head curry, beef rendang…the list is as long as it is delicious.
And, of course, if your credit card hasn't already taken a battering in the shops, the city's restaurants are some of the most stylish and innovative in the region.
If there's one thing more stylish than the bars and restaurants, it's the boutiques that have made Singapore a byword in Asia for extravagant shopping. Away from the Gucci and Louis Vuitton onslaught of Orchard Rd, however, there are bargains to be found on everything from clothes to electronics - and a range of art and antique shops that few Asian cities can match.
But Singapore is not all about shopping and eating. Nor is the notion of Singapore as completely urbanised anything more than popular myth. Adventure activities include diving with sharks at Underwater World on Sentosa, mountain biking around Bukit Timah, leopard-spotting at Singapore Zoo's magical Night Safari, waterskiing or wakeboarding on the Kallang River, go-karting and rock climbing. And if you want to retreat from civilisation completely, the centre of the island retains large tracts of forest where the only sound you can hear is the monkeys swinging through the trees. In fact, Singapore is one of only two cities in the world that still retains a patch of primary rainforest, in the form of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
It's a fascinating place - and a remarkable achievement. No-one is denying that Singaporeans have had to sacrifice some level of freedom in their island's rise from racially divided, resource-starved port town. But you get the feeling that if Western development aid had ever matched Singapore's strides in poverty reduction, education, infrastructure and health care, they'd be patting themselves on the back and saying that political freedom was a small sacrifice to make.
Besides, it's not all strait-laced conformity. You don't have to look far to find echoes of the island's colourful, rakish past, or evidence of a thriving and creatively unfettered artistic community. Singapore's soul is alive and well - and it is unique.
Ready to go?
These tours & activities make it easy:
Best places to stay in Singapore City
Singapore city guide
This perennial stopover city is constantly reinventing itself as a destination in its own right, jostling for the position of top dog among Asia’s – even the world’s – best cities.
Shopping in Singapore
20 free things to do in Singapore
Though Singapore may be one of the most expensive countries to visit in Southeast Asia, there are plenty of free things to see and do to ease the wallet pain. Here are some of our favourite Singapore freebies...
Smart, sharp and just a little sexy, Singapore is Southeast Asia’s new ‘It kid’, subverting staid old stereotypes with ambitious architecture, dynamic museums, celebrity chefs and hip boutiques. Spike it all with smoky temples, gut-rumbleinducing...
Museums and galleries in Singapore City
Best places to eat in Singapore
Architecture and the urban landscape in Singapore
Asian street food fight: Singapore vs Taipei
Many Asian destinations claim to be the one true king of dining al fresco. Thais boast proudly that Bangkok's endless alleyways filled with tasty dishes make their capital tops, while Hong Kongers swear their dai pai dongs (street stalls) offering Cantonese fare put that city in street-food slot one...
Singapore City Tour with optional Singapore Flyer
Get to know Singapore on a morning or afternoon half-day tour. You'll see all the city's highlights in one short tour perfect if your time is limited. Highlights include Singapore's vibrant Chinatown, colonial landmarks, Little India and the iconic, Merlion. You also have the option of combining your city tour with a 30-minute flight aboard the Singapore Flyer.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Established in 1860, this dreamy 74-hectare park retains an aura of Victorian gentility, with its swan lake, symphony stage and themed gardens (including the National Orchid Garden).
Local's guide to Singapore: beyond the skyscrapers
Singapore. Mention this buzzing city-state and several things comes to mind: urban jungle, chilli crab, hawker food, perhaps even shopping. Yet, Singapore has a skyscraper-free hidden side. There are myriad experiences and places even locals don’t know about...
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre
One of Chinatown's most accessible hawker centres, Maxwell Road is a solid spot to savour some of the city's street-food staples. While stalls slip in and out of favour with Singapore's fickle diners, enduring favourites include Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice , Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake and Fried Sweet Potato Dumpling .
A perfect day in Singapore
City, island, nation – Singapore pivots on a delicate geographic, cultural and political fulcrum just north of the Equator. Balancing deftly, the government directs society's traffic with utopian efficiency: graffiti-free trains run on time, traffic jams make front-page news and crime is something you see on TV...