HOW TO SPEND A FEW DAYS SOAKING UP SINGAPORE
Before going to Singapore, one of the few things I knew was how expensive it was. For that reason, I didn't think I could afford it as a full-time traveler on a budget. I was traveling through South East Asia at the time but Singapore would have to wait. That is, until I found a cheap flight from Bali and, just like that, my priorities changed, haha. Let's face it, Singapore was simply too close not to go.
I was so excited to be visiting the Lion City! I only stayed two days in what I thought was pricey Singapore but I suggest three full days to visit at a more leisurely pace. Of course, you can stay as long as you want but I'll be sharing my suggestions on how to spend a few days soaking up Singapore based my visit.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGAPORE
Singapore used to be known as Temasek until some time during the 14th century when the country's name was changed to Singapura. Legend has it that a Sumatran prince was out hunting and spotted a mysterious creature. Thinking it was a lion, he took it as a sign of good fortune and renamed the island Singapura which means "Lion City" in Malay.
However, modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a high-ranking British statesman, as a trading post of the British Empire. During this time, Singapore began prospering as a nation but it all came to a halt when it was invaded by the Japanese during World War II. This victory was short-lived as the Japanese were forced to surrender the island to the British in 1945 when Singapore become a British Colony. After more than a century of being occupied by foreign entities, Singapore finally gained independence from newly-formed Malaysia as recently as 1965. It's hard to believe that in just a few decades, Singapore went from a humble fishing village to one of the most prosperous countries in the world.
Its history as an international trading post during the 19th century played an important role in the development of the country. Tradesmen from all over the Asian continent went to Singapore to do business, and eventually set roots on the island. As a result, Chinese (76%), Malays, Indians and Arabs are all tightly woven into Singapore's rich cultural fabric. This cultural diversity, spanning from food to religion to language, is what makes Singapore so unique. First-time travelers like myself will be surprised at how diverse Singapore truly is, starting with Chinatown.
I was lucky enough to be in Singapore during Chinese New Year and Chinatown was buzzing with activities! Once an unassuming immigrant enclave, Chinatown eventually blossomed into a thriving tourist hot spot. As a result, Chinatown Street Market caters to the millions of tourists visiting Singapore each year. Located in the heart of Chinatown, this outdoor pedestrianized mall is a magnet for avid shoppers and foodies, alike. An endless choice of shops selling typical Chinese souvenirs, from cute lucky cats to quintessential red lanterns line both sides of the main corridor. After all that retail therapy, you can get your fix of fresh dim sum and other Cantonese dishes at one of the many food stalls in the market.
As expected, Chinatown Street Market is very touristy so I suggest venturing out into neighboring streets to get a true glimpse of the local Chinese culture. One way of doing that is by visiting the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum located in the downtown core of Chinatown. This is the biggest and most important Buddhist temple in the country. As the name suggests, the main attraction is the sacred Buddha tooth relic securely kept in a giant solid gold stupa. Only monks are allowed in the chamber but visitors can see the relic from the viewing platform.
EAT AT A HAWKER CENTER
No visit to Singapore is complete without eating at a hawker center. Hawker centers are indoor food courts invented in Singapore as an initiative to keep the country clean and tidy. For this reason, you won't find any random street food vendors in Singapore. Instead, head to one of over 100 hawker centers scattered all over the island for some of the best (and cheapest) food. The many food stalls serve a variety of local dishes derived from the various ethnic communities living in Singapore.
If your stomach starts to rumble while you're in Chinatown, the Chinatown Complex Food Center (335 Smith Street) is a great option. I suggest trying the famous Soya Sauce Chicken Rice at Hawker Chan, the first hawker in the world to be awarded one Michelin star. The stall in the hawker center is closed on Sundays but the Hawker Chan restaurant (78 Smith Street) across the street from the Chinatown Complex Food Center is open every day. That's where I had my first (and only) Michelin-star meal for less than $5!
EXPLORE LITTLE INDIA
Bollywood music blasting from a corner shop. The sweet smell of magnolias and burning incense. Spicy aromas floating in the air. Rows of brightly-colored shophouses. Welcome to Little India! I found Little India to be incredibly photogenic and the lively atmosphere was beyond compare! This charismatic neighborhood is bursting with scents, sights and sounds that will awaken your senses like never before. Little India is a mix of traditional and modern coming together perfectly. You'll find shops overflowing with flower garlands and hipster boutique hotels residing side-by-side. Also, here's a tip (or two): make sure to keep your eyes peeled for some of the best heritage street art in Singapore and head to Syed Alwi Road for some awesome shophouses.
Read also: Where to Find the Best Street Art in Singapore
Of course, I can't write about Little India without mentioning the glorious food. Who doesn't love hot, freshly-baked naan?! My mouth is watering just writing about it. Little India is brimming with restaurants that will satisfy any palate including vegans and vegetarians. I had one of the best vegetarian Indian meals here and it only cost a few dollars. Just take your pick! You can't go wrong with Indian food, it's always delicious.
While you're out and about in Little India, make sure to visit the House of Tan Teng Niah, the most colorful building in Singapore. Ironically, the former owner of the house was a Chinese (not Indian) businessman. Built in 1900, House of Tan Teng Niah is the only Chinese villa left standing in Little India. The two-story villa fell into a state of disrepair but was restored in the 1980's by using vivid colors reminiscent of India.
The House of Tan Teng Niah is located at: 37 Kerbau Road.
Next, head to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the oldest temples in Singapore. You'll instantly recognize the temple by its entrance plastered with gaudy deities and mystical creatures. The temple was built by Indian migrants and was the first building that marked Serangoon Road as an Indian sector now known as Little India. The temple is dedicated to Sri Veeramakaliamman, a powerful goddess and destroyer of evil. She was chosen as the main deity to offer a sense of security and comfort to Indian migrants arriving in an unknown land.
The temple is located at: 141 Serangoon Road.
KAMPONG GLAM (ARAB STREET & HAJI LANE)
Kampong Glam is the historical Muslim quarter of Singapore. Part Middle East and part creative hub, Kampong Glam shouldn't be missed. If you want to feel like you've been magically transported to the Middle East, Arab Street is the place to be. I only had time to take a walk down Arab Street but it's the ideal place to indulge in some Middle Eastern cuisine, have a cocktail or smoke shisha at one of the many hookah lounges. Or do all three, haha. Naturally, shops selling items such as carpets, bronze lanterns and textiles typically found in the Middle East are aplenty in the Muslim quarter.
At one end of Arab Street sits the Sultan Mosque, the biggest mosque in Singapore and the most popular landmark in Kampong Glam. Construction of the mosque was completed in 1932 and holds great significance for the Muslim community. The glistening gilded dome of the Sultan Mosque presides over Kampong Glam like a faithful guardian. Visitors wearing appropriate attire are allowed to tour the mosque outside prayer times.
I think my jaw dropped when I turned the corner into Haji Lane just a stone's throw away from Arab Street. This was my kind of place! Known as the more artistic side of Kampong Glam, Haji Lane is a magnet for Singapore's creative minds as well as a fair share of tourists, of course. The Chinese shophouses on Haji Lane have all been restored into indie designer boutiques, hipster restaurants and funky watering holes. If that isn't enough to pique your curiosity, Haji Lane is also riddled with fantastic street art ranging from large graphic murals to quirky art pieces in unexpected places. Trust me, you should definitely make time to go to Haji Lane while in Singapore!
BLAIR PLAIN CONSERVATION AREA
Blair Plain Conservation Area definitely falls under the 'hidden gem' category (at least in regards to tourists). This tiny neighborhood comprised of only 4 streets is known for its cluster of beautiful heritage shophouses and terrace houses dating back to the late-19th century. In fact, the area was heralded for conservation in 1991 when it was given its name. The unique architecture of the houses truly reflects Singapore's diverse cultural history. Some examples are the Chinese-influenced inner courtyards, the Malay fretwork, the European windows and shutters and the Corinthian pilasters from the Colonial era. While some houses are more subdued in color, others have been painted in bright hues making them look like finely-decorated wedding cakes!
Besides beautiful shophouses, you'll also find curated boutiques, quaint coffee shops, specialty restaurants, vintage dealers and art galleries tucked away in Blair Plain. If I could afford to live in Singapore (a girl can dream, haha), Blair Plain Conservation Area would be a top contender. I loved how it felt like a small town within a bigger city. This charming heritage area appealed to many of my interests namely architecture, design and street art.
Speaking of which, a few heritage artworks by renowned accountant-turned-artist Yip Yew Chong (YC Yip) can be found in the Blair Plain Conservation Area. YC Yip grew up around this neighborhood and each mural is inspired by his childhood in Singapore. I really like how his lifelike murals beautifully illustrate stories of yesteryear. Two of his murals are on Everton Road and the third is on Spottiswoode Road. They're pretty big so you can't miss them!
GEYLANG - THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT
Remember how I hadn't planned on going to costly Singapore? Well, that's how I ended up in the Red Light District where (surprise, surprise) accommodation is the cheapest. After reading up on Geylang, my boyfriend and I decided it was safe enough to justify saving money on a hotel room. Also, to be honest, there wasn't much choice given it was Chinese New Year.
This might come as a surprise but licensed brothels are legal in Singapore hence, Geylang became known as the Red Light District. I had never been to a red light district but Geylang seemed pretty tame on the surface even at night. I did come across some illegal street gambling but nothing much more threatening. Even the brothels stretching from Lorong 8 to Lorong 24 are discreet (minus the watchful doormen).
Overall, Geylang looks like a regular neighborhood with grocery stores, a variety of shops, cheap Indian snack bars and Chinese seafood restaurants alongside
sleazy night clubs and sex shops (this is the Red Light District, after all). I wouldn't say it's a 'must-visit' but it was interesting to see a less polished side of Singapore.
RENT A BIKE USING AN APP
Singapore has 3 bike-sharing apps: SG Bike (including MoBike), startup Moov and newcomer Anywheel. It's very easy to download any of these three apps (available in English) to rent a bike anywhere in the city. At the time, I took advantage of a free 3-day trial offered by MoBike but daily bike rentals start as low as about S$2/day.
I loved riding a bike in Singapore, it was super safe and convenient! I could go anywhere I wanted without any hassle. Once I got tired, I simply ditched the bike at any random location and I was on my way. The only thing you need to consider is having easy access to Wi-Fi to unlock the bikes using your smart phone. I didn't get a SIM card while I was in Singapore (for only 2 days) so I had to rely on public Wi-Fi.
VISIT MARINA BAY
Marina Bay boasts the most popular tourist attractions in Singapore so you'll most likely end up here during your few days in Singapore. There's so much to see at Marina Bay, starting with the Merlion, Singapore's national icon. The Merlion is a mythical hybrid creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. The body represents Singapore's humble beginning as a fishing village while the head refers to Singapura meaning "Lion City" in Malay (as you already know). Sadly, the Merlion was under repair when I was in Singapore so I could only catch a glimpse of it through the scaffolding (shrugs).
Across the river is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, an award-winning architectural feat designed by Moshe Safdie. You might recognize its ship-like structure straddling the roof of the three hotel towers. If you wish to splurge on a room at Marina Bay Sands Hotel, you'll have access to the largest rooftop infinity pool in the world! Alas, I could only afford to take a picture of the hotel complex, haha.
The complex also integrates the ArtScience Museum, another architectural gem by the same architect. This one-of-a-kind museum was constructed to resemble a blooming lotus flower symbolizing the welcoming hand of Singapore. Many interesting exhibitions, events and workshops are held at the ArtScience Museum but I chose to simply marvel at its remarkable architecture from the riverfront.
And because everything is made easy in Singapore, visitors can use the Helix, a futuristic pedestrian bridge, to get from one side of the river to the other. Yet another incredible engineering achievement, the Helix was built to resemble a DNA strand (because, why not?) resulting in an unusual stainless steel, double-helix structure.
GARDENS BY THE BAY & SUPERTREE GROVE
Gardens by the Bay is Singapore's claim to fame thanks to its Supertree Grove. Each of the three gardens is an horticultural masterpiece featuring hundreds of thousands of plant species from around the world. The Supertree Grove is in the Bay South garden. The grove consists of about a dozen concrete/steel trees with massive branch-like canopies. The Supertrees measure between 25 and 50 meters tall. These unique structures look otherworldly especially when lit up at night. Although the trees themselves are artificial, over 700 plant species have been planted on the trunks turning them into living organisms. You can also catch a glimpse of the Supertrees across the water from the Marina Bay promenade.
Entrance to the Supertree Grove is free but admission fees apply for other attractions in Gardens by the Bay.
SINGAPORE RIVER PROMENADE
Singapore River Promenade connects three different quays, namely Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robertson Quay, each with their own distinct characters. It’s a great place to take a stroll while taking in the views of the cityscape. Singapore River Promenade is a short walking distance from Marina Bay making it easy to visit both at the same time.
The promenade stretches into the Central Business District, home to one of the most telling skylines in Singapore. The stark contrast between the stout Chinese shophouses and the glossy skyscrapers recalls what Singapore once was and what it is today. The cluster of shophouses along this part of the river is known as Boat Quay where happy-hour pubs and overpriced restaurants cater to the corporate clientele working in the nearby Financial District.
SEARCH FOR SCULPTURES ALONG THE RIVER
I especially liked the various bronze sculptures dotted along the Singapore River Promenade. The most famous is "First Generation", a tribute to the first migrant communities who settled by the riverside. The sculpture depicts a group of merry boys jumping into the river as was common back in the day. You can find the sculpture right near the historical Fullerton Hotel.
At the corner of Cavenagh Bridge is the Singapura Cats (or Kucinta), an endearing sculpture of a mother cat watching over her two playful kittens. Further along the river going towards the Coleman Bridge is another lovely sculpture entitled "Fishing at Singapore River" (colloquially known as The Boy and his Dog) which symbolizes everyday life by the river during Colonial times.
The last of my favorite sculptures is the plump "Bird" statue by the famous Colombian artist, Fernando Botero, which sits gingerly in front of the United Overseas Bank (UOB) by the riverfront. There are more heritage sculptures along the Singapore River Promenade but these ones stood out the most for me.
WALK ACROSS HISTORICAL BRIDGES
The Singapore River was the lifeline of the country for centuries so it's no wonder a series of heritage bridges cross this legendary waterway. A total of five bridges have been given conservation status meaning they can never be demolished. I only saw three of them with the first one beingthe British-inspired Cavenagh Bridge. This bridge was manufactured in Scotland in 1868 and assembled by Indian convicts a year later in Singapore. It has the honor of being the oldest suspension bridge in Singapore. Originally built to accommodate vehicles, the Cavenagh Bridge has been used as a pedestrian bridge for more than one hundred years.
Next is the Anderson Bridge built in 1910 to alleviate the traffic from the less sturdy Cavenagh bridge. The vehicular Anderson Bridge is located in the downtown core right next to the Cavenagh Bridge. Last but not least is the Elgin Bridge, the first footbridge to have been built in Singapore. In existence since the early 1800's, the original wooden Elgin Bridge served to connect the Chinese merchants to the Indian traders on either side. However, the current Elgin Bridge made of iron was erected in 1929. You can access Elgin Bridge from either Clarke Quay or Boat Quay but the three bridges are conveniently located within walking distance of each other.
FINAL THOUGHTS & USEFUL INFORMATION
So, after visiting Singapore, do I still find it expensive? More or less.
While you certainly won't get away with traveling on a "$20/day or less backpacker budget", you can find ways to stretch your dollar like eating at hawker centers or local eateries. If you're like me and enjoy getting around on foot then you'll be happy to know that Singapore is very pedestrian-friendly. I chose to walk a lot which also helped to save money. Public transportation (MRT & buses) is surprisingly affordable; rides start at under $1 depending on the distance. Grab, South East Asia's version of Uber, is also cost-effective (just make sure to download the app).
On the other hand, accommodation will be much more expensive compared to other countries in South East Asia. As mentioned previously, the cheapest hotels are usually in Geylang but expect to pay more than you normally would in SEA for the same type of room. For example, I stayed at K Hotel and paid $39 SGD ($29 USD) per night which, I admit, was a great deal (especially during Chinese New Year). However, you get what you pay for even in Singapore. The outdated room was very basic, very small and the bathroom was tiny. And, it was in the Red Light District which isn't to everyone's liking. Fortunately, the room was much better/cleaner than I expected despite the bad reviews, haha.
Most people who visit Singapore will often say it's unlike the rest of South East Asia, and I have to agree. Whereas traveling in Myanmar or Vietnam or Laos can be challenging, traveling in Singapore is a breeze. This tiny island-country is astonishingly clean and orderly whereas other countries in South East Asia are rather dirty and hectic. You won't see even the tiniest piece of paper on the ground. In fact, Singapore's laws against littering are so strict that selling gum is illegal.
Another great thing about traveling in Singapore is the overall safety. Pick-pocketing and petty theft are rare, violent crimes are even less so. Walking around during the day or night really isn't an issue. I never felt unsafe anywhere in Singapore not even in the Red Light District. I'm guessing the estimated 86,000 CCTV cameras contribute in keeping the crime rate low. I digress. What's more, English is widely spoken as it’s one of four official languages in Singapore. This is yet another reason why traveling to the city-state is easy and effortless.
On a final note, the currency used is the Singaporean dollar (see currency converter here) and ATM's are widely available. Depending on your nationality, you might be permitted to stay in Singapore without a visa for a duration of 30 days (this applies to Canadians) but always check on the official website for more details.
If you're planning on going to any neighboring countries, consider spending a few days soaking up Singapore. I really enjoyed my short visit exploring the Lion City and would gladly go back!
Have you been to Singapore? Did you find it expensive or affordable?