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.
Guffawing critics ridicule this well-oiled 'Singabore', casting its good citizens as naive, skin-deep and unadventurous. Don't be deceived: simmering in a strange brew of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arabic and Western cultures, this shiny city is charged with 24-hour energy and multicultural diversity. With a day to play with, you can sample the best of what’s on offer.
Hurl a pair of chopsticks in any direction and chances are they'll land in something edible. Breakfast in Chinatown can be gloriously calorific: Yum Cha Restaurant (20 Trengganu St, Chinatown) plates up salubrious dumplings and dim sum (especially good seafood), washed down with green tea or kick-arse Chinese coffee.
Outside on the streets, Chinatown is Singapore’s cherished cultural core – an ebullient mix of street-side commerce and sophisticated nightlife, tempered with memories of less affluent times. Wander past restored colonial shophouse facades to Thian Hock Keng Temple (158 Telok Ayer St, Chinatown), one of Singapore's oldest and most lavishly decorated holy houses. Dedicated to Ma Cho Po, goddess of the sea, it was built in the 1840s by early Hokkien immigrants from China in gratitude for safe passage to Singapore.
Time to hit the shops: Orchard Road is ground zero for your credit card. Jump on the super-slick MTR subway and you’ll be there before you can say ‘Versace’. Salvatore Ferragmo, Gucci, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Louis Vuitton…The big boys compete for ever-brighter street presence and mega-mall domination. Home to the vast Takashimaya department store, city-sized Ngee Ann City (391 Orchard Rd) is the mall to end all malls. Or try classy Paragon (290 Orchard Rd) for designer gear.
Hungry again? Jump off the MTR in Little India and immerse yourself in subcontinental mayhem. This district is very un-Singapore: chaotic, messy and rebelliously smelly. Head for the Tekka Market (Serangoon Rd, Little India), queue up for some biryani mutton or flaky roti prata, and bump elbows with the locals at plastic tables.
After lunch, the engrossing Asian Civilisations Museum (1 Empress Pl, Colonial District) is a contemplative, cool space in which to spend a few hours. The museum’s 10 thematic galleries explore traditional aspects of pan-Asian culture, the focus shifting between exquisite, subtly-lit artifacts from Southeast Asia, China, India, Sri Lanka and even Turkey.
Time for a drink! A mandatory Singapore diversion is the local alcoholic icon – the ‘Singapore Sling’. Raffles Hotel (2 Stamford Rd, Colonial District) is one of the most over-hyped hotels in the world, but this is where the sticky-sweet ‘Sling’ was invented. Sip your way through one or two at the Long Bar before dinner.
Down by the Singapore River is where you want to be at night. Boat Quay can be trashy and touristy, but there are few prettier places in the city to eat. Scan the sidewalk menus for some chilli crab or the local staple ayam buah keluak (chicken cooked with a dark, oily local nut), or just sip a glass of wine and watch chugging ‘bumboats’ ripple the reflections on the river.
Paralleling Boat Quay one block south is Circular Road, which has exploded as a nightlife strip in recent years. Literally dozens of new bars have opened here, luring thirsty after-work businessmen with 24-hour beer barns, dance clubs, karaoke bars, an Irish Pub, a refrigerated 'ice' bar and plenty of cheap eats to soak it all up.
If you’ve run out of steam by now, we don’t blame you: Singapore runs at a frenetic tempo. Keeping pace through a blur of bars, shops and restaurants makes for a super-stimulating day.