In July 2016, I spent 4 days in Singapore, the island city-state located just off the southern tip of Malaysia. Does it sound crazy to travel that far from Chicago for a “long weekend”? I chose Singapore because I wanted an easy solo trip and I needed an Asia fix. Though I’ve lived and traveled in Asia, I hadn’t made it to Singapore, so I figured it was time. Now I’m looking for excuses to go back.
Why the Lion City Should be on Your Urban Bucket List
Though many people visit Singapore on business or on brief stopovers, it really should be considered a destination in its own right. It offers a vibrant mix of cultures and cuisines, otherworldly architecture, and huge range of indoor and outdoor attractions. If you get bored in Singapore, you’re really not trying.
Even the most jaded world traveler could find something to love about Singapore. However, it’s particularly great for first-time visitors to Asia, solo travelers, and families. It’s safe, clean, English-language-friendly, and easily navigable. Singapore is not the cheapest place to visit, but it can accommodate a range of budgets and keep you entertained.
This post provides an overview of four reasons I loved Singapore and why it merits a spot on my “must-visit” cities list. Stay tuned for more details of what I saw, ate, and drank (spoiler alert: there will be beer).
1. CULTURE: COMFORTABLY MULTICULTURAL
My favorite thing about Singapore is its ethnic and religious diversity. The mosaic of cultures, combined with a colonial past and global outlook, makes Singapore feel both familiar and fascinating.
The island is an Asian microcosm, offering the opportunity to experience many cultures and religions in one place. The vibrant neighborhoods reflect beautifully varied sights, smells, flavors, products, places of worship, and daily routines. Chinatown, the Arab Quarter, Little India — walking from one area to the next, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled across a continent in the span of a single day.
Despite its many distinct components, Singaporean culture is greater than the sum of its parts. Its citizens recognize that peaceful coexistence is essential to the country’s success. Some may debate how far this inclusivity actually extends. However, many nations could learn something from Singaporeans’ acceptance of ethnic and religious differences.
The central business district, Marina Bay, and Orchard Road shopping centers offer plenty of globally appealing, sophisticated, ultraclean, air-conditioned oases. However, if you really want to experience Singapore’s culture(s), get out into the more colorful neighborhoods.
2. FOOD: DELICIOUS DIVERSITY
Along with diversity of culture comes diversity of cuisine. In Singapore, you can eat your way around Asia, perhaps the entire world. It’s entirely possible to plan your whole day around where you’ll eat.
- Go to a cafe for breakfast and try Singapore’s take on coffee (kopi) and toast.
- At lunch, head to a hawker center to taste a range of deceptively simple (and simply delicious) street foods. Try the chicken rice, Hokkien noodles, chicken satay, and carrot cake (it’s not what you think).
- If you need a snack, graze on whatever is nearby: durian, macarons, shaved ice, samosas.
- For dinner, head to the newest restaurants for Asian/Western fusion, global vegetarian, killer brisket, and even (!) locally brewed beer.
My culinary advice: Try it all. Come to Singapore hungry and bring friends (or make some) to maximize the sampling potential.
3. ARCHITECTURE: HISTORIC, (POST)MODERN, OTHERWORLDLY
It’s easy to fixate on the iconic structures of Singapore’s ultramodern skyline, especially around Marina Bay. There you’ll find the Sands hotel with its rooftop oasis, lotus-inspired ArtScience Museum, Supertrees of the Gardens by the Bay, and durian-shaped Esplanade Theatre.
If you can tear your eyes away from the skyline for a moment and look down a few stories, you’ll discover even more architectural eye candy. As you walk around, check out traditional Chinatown facades, the colonial Raffles Hotel, intricately ornamented Hindu temples, gold-domed mosques, and Joo Chiat/Katong’s colorful Peranakan shop houses.
Making things even more interesting is Singapore’s vision of being a “City in a Garden.” The commitment to the aesthetic and environmental benefits of green spaces is evident in rooftop and vertical gardens all around the city. Some of my favorites are the vegetation-and-glass-clad PARKROYAL on Pickering and the conservatories at the Gardens by the Bay.
Brave the heat and humidity and strike out on foot to discover the amazing architecture of Singapore. Just don’t forget to wear your sunscreen and make frequent beverage stops.
4. PARKS & REC: SURPRISINGLY GREEN
Given its small size and high level of development, Singapore offers a surprising amount of opportunities for outdoor recreation. It has an extensive system of well-maintained parks and trails throughout the island, and you can also escape to some of its offshore islands for a day trip to get your nature on.
The national park system includes Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (home to about 40% of the nation’s native plants and animals and some of its only remaining primary rain forest), Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (Singapore’s first ASEAN Heritage Park), and Singapore Botanic Gardens (whose Blue Bali restaurant features a nanobrewery). Though these parks are easily accessible by public transit or reasonably priced cabs, once you’re inside, it’s possible to forget you’re in one of the world’s most prosperous cities.
Singapore also has its answer to Chicago’s 606 trail and New York’s High Line: the Green Corridor (or Rail Corridor). Unlike the elevated 606 and High Line, however, it runs along the ground. The Corridor follows an old rail line and provides miles of continuous trails for running, hiking, and cycling. Through 2019, parts of it will be closed and reopened in stages as a pipeline is laid under it and improvements are made. If you decide to check it out, visit the Green Corridor’s website to find out which sections are open.
Singapore has many other categories of awesomeness: endless shopping, nightlife, amusement parks, and a nascent brewing scene, to name a few. If you’ve been there (or if you live there), what’s your favorite or most unexpected Singapore moment?
If you haven’t been there, what are you waiting for?
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