To many, the island of Singapore is nothing more than a gleaming amusement park -- a Disney World of Asia, with over the top attractions, five-star resorts and billion dollar parks. The streets are clean, the crime is low, and everyone seems generally happy to be there. For many Westerners, that's the allure. The primary language of the country is English and there's more expats living in the high-rise apartments overlooking the ocean than most other cities in Southeast Asia. Although these assertions are true, I found that there's so much more to Singapore than the high-rise buildings and fancy restaurants. There's a soul, an underbelly and a culture all to itself, all you have to do is dig a little.
Whether you're extending your business trip or visiting for a vacation, here's a weekend itinerary that will show you why Singapore is such a vibrant and exciting place to visit (and eat!)
Where to Shop
Aside from food, Singapore is also known for the world-class shopping. If you're into high fashion and spending thousands of dollars on purses and shoes, go to Orchard Row. Here you'll find rows of stores like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada. In addition to stand-alone stores, Orchard Row is home to many high-end shopping malls, like the Paragon, Ngee Ann City and The ION, whose signature glass façade will blind you as you walk by. Away from the luxury, yuppie onslaught of Orchard Row, there's plenty of real bargain shopping to be had.
For vintage finds and clothes with a little worn/torn and hipster appeal, visit Haji Lane and the Sungea Road Thieves' Market. Haji Lane is home to many vintage shops, like Soon Lee & Rusty Bottoms, where you'll be sure to find unique and trendy pieces for a real bargain. For things more retro, the Thieves' market won't disappoint. The flea market is a madhouse (think Forever 21 on crack), but some serious searching can lead to some pretty amazing treasures (for a cheap price tag to boot!)
Where to Play
Although the shopping is remarkable, the city's parks, gardens, museums and zoo is really worth a mention. These spots are often packed with tourists, but they are worth a visit if you have the time (and patience). If nothing else, visit Gardens by the Bay and the Singapore Zoo. Gardens by the Bay, a 250-acre green development, was recently refurbished (for a pretty penny) and is home to state of the art conservatories (like the Cloud Dome and the Flower Dome) that are home to thousands of species of plants, many of which are from endangered habitats. The domes are incredible, but the real allure of the Gardens are the Super-trees. These magnificent, solar powered structures are self-sustaining trees that convert sunlight into energy and use rainwater to keep the fresh greenery growing on them alive.
The Supertree walkway gives you the chance to stroll through the trees (close to 50 meters up in the air). The experience is fun and the view you get of the Bay and the stunning Marina Bay Sands hotel is magnificent. The cost is only $28 and is well worth it, if only to briefly escape the urban jungle that is the rest of the city.
Another touristy recommendation is the zoo. Set on a peninsula over the upper Seletar reservoir, the zoo is truly one of the best in the world. Unlike many popular zoos in the U.S., this one is strictly open, which means none of the animals are caged. There are more than 2500 animals here, from monkeys to elephants to manatees and the cage-less environment gives you the chance to really bond with the animals.
One of the hidden gems of Singapore is a piece of the island not yet modernized by high-rise buildings. The Bukit Brown Cemetery is a stunning cemetery with over 100,000 historic graves. The site was abandoned in the '70s and now is overrun with grasses and wildlife. The cemetery is a quiet, historic oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city. Sadly the land will soon be paved for a new road and a housing development, but there's a Facebook page to save the historic part of the island.
Where to Eat
For an authentic taste of Singapore, follow your nose to one of the city's top Hawker Centers. In these multi-ethnic food halls is where you'll see Singapore's obsession and undying love for food first hand. They feature thousands of uniquely Asian foods stalls, which feature everything from Malaysian cuisine to Indian curries to spicy Thai noodle bowls. You won't pay more than $10 for a meal at any one of them and most are open all day long. Your first time ordering from one will be scary, but as soon as you sip or bite into the dish they created, you'll know why millions of people go there every year. The most popular hawker center for tourists (and some locals) is the Maxwell Road in Chinatown. Here you'll find the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice, which has been rated the best chicken in rice in Singapore. Plus it's right across from the Buddha, so the views are pretty stunning.
Another popular center is Tiong Bahru. Located in the trendy and up and coming Tiong Bahru district, this food hall is home to some of Singapore's most popular stalls, like Teochew Fish Ball Noodle and Kampong Carrot Cake Stand. It can get really busy during lunch and on weekends, but it's definitely worth a visit, if only for the slow roasted pork from Cantonese Roasted. If you're in the business district, Lau Pa Sat Festival Market is a great place to visit. Here you'll find tons of fresh seafood stalls featuring Singapore classics like chili crab or steamed cockles with a spicy sauce. It'll be completely filled to capacity with suits during lunchtime, but the chili crab is worth the wait.
If you want to dine with the wealthy businessmen and the socialites of town, visit Jaan, one of the top ten winners of the best Asian restaurants. Although you want to go for the food, the incredible view of the city and bay from its 70th floor location will have your jaw dropping completely. There are only 40 seats so it feels intimate and cozy. The food is innovative, modern and clean, much like the cityscape below.
Lastly, a taste of Singapore is not complete without trying the authentic Perankan cuisine. The term Perankan is used to describe descendants of Chinese and Malaysian ancestors. The food is incredibly spicy with very unique dishes like black nut pastas and spiced curries. One of the best restaurants in the city for Peranakan dishes is Candlenut in Chinatown. Chef Malcolm Lee is turning out truly authentic dishes with a modern, Singaporean twist.
Food is the national tradition of Singapore, and after visiting one of the many acclaimed Hawker Centers you'll quickly see why. But surprisingly enough, there's more to do than just eat in Singapore. The city is filled with activities and not all of them are so-called tourist traps either.