Explore Singapore a city-state in Southeast Asia. Founded as a British trading colony in 1819, since independence it has become one of the world’s most prosperous, tax-friendly countries and boasts the world’s busiest port.
Combining the skyscrapers and subways of a modern, affluent city with a medley of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences along with a tropical climate, tasty food from hawker centers, copious shopping malls, and vibrant night-life scene, this Garden City makes a great stopover or springboard into the region.
Singapore is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world for a lot of reasons, one of which is the less stringent entry requirements.
- Riverside (Civic District) — Singapore’s colonial core, with museums, statues and theatres, not to mention restaurants, bars and clubs.
- Orchard Road — a 2.2 kilometer-long major road with lots of shopping malls.
- Marina Bay — the newest feature of Singapore, dominated by the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort and the Marina Barrage. The newly opened Gardens by the Bay is a large public garden with a cluster of gigantic Super Trees.
- Bugis and Kampong Glam — Bugis and Kampong Glam are Singapore’s old Malay district, now largely taken over by shopping
- Chinatown — the area originally designated for Chinese settlement by Raffles, now a Chinese heritage area popular with tourists.
- Little India — A piece of India to the north of the city core.
- Balestier, Newton, Novena and Toa Payoh — Budget accommodations and Burmese temples within striking distance of the centre.
- North — the northern part of the island, also known as Woodlands, forms Singapore’s residential and industrial hinterlands. Singapore Zoo is located here.
- West — The western part of the island form Singapore’s residential areas with Star Vista.
- Jurong— Home to Nanyang Technological University and the last housing frontier before the industrial area. Attractions include Singapore Bird Park, Singapore Science Centre and Singapore Discovery Centre.
- North East — Home to many residential towns with a heart of Serangoon NEX, Hougang Mall and Compass Point
- Tampines — a residential town located in the heartlands, in the far east of the island close to Changi Airport.
- East Coast — the largely residential eastern part of the island contains Changi Airport, miles and miles of beach and many famous eateries. Also covers Geylang Serai, the true home of Singapore’s Malays.
- Sentosa — a separate island once a military fort developed into a resort, Sentosa is the closest that Singapore gets to Disneyland, now with a dash of gambling and Universal Studios thrown in.
- North West — the aspiring north-west that goes into the undeveloped jungles, and the military training areas (Ama Keng, Lim Chu Kang, cemeteries, Kranji Camp and SAFTI).
Singapore is a microcosm of Asia, populated by Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a large group of workers and expatriates from all across the world.
Singapore has a partly deserved reputation for sterile predictability that has earned it descriptions like William Gibson’s “Disneyland with the death penalty” or the “world’s only shopping mall with a seat in the United Nations”. Nevertheless, the Switzerland of Asia is for many a welcome respite from the poverty, dirt, and chaos of much of the Southeast Asian mainland, and if you scratch below the squeaky clean surface and get away from the tourist trail you’ll soon find more than meets the eye.
Singaporean food is legendary, with bustling hawker centers and 24-hour coffee shops offering cheap food from all parts of Asia, and shoppers can bust their baggage allowances in shopping centers like Orchard Road and Suntec City. In recent years some societal restrictions have also loosened up, and now you can bungee jump and dance on bar tops all night long, although alcohol is still very pricey and chewing gum can only be bought from a pharmacy for medical use.
Two casino complexes — or “Integrated Resorts”, to use the Singaporean euphemism — opened in 2010 in Sentosa and Marina Bay as part of Singapore’s new Fun and Entertainment drive, the aim being to double the number of tourists visiting and increase the length of time they stay within the country.
Singapore prides itself on being a multi-racial country, and has a diverse culture despite its small size. The largest group is the Chinese, who form about 75% of the population.
Amongst the Chinese, Southern Min/Min Nan (Hokkien-Taiwanese) and Cantonese speakers are the largest subgroups, with Mandarin acting as the lingua franca of the community. Other notable “dialect” groups among the Chinese include the Hakkas and Fuzhounese. There is also a strong presence of mainland Chinese in Singapore after the Singapore government opened up the immigration policy for mainland Chinese since mainland China started its economic reforms since the 1980s, resulting in the new wave of immigration of mainland Chinese to Singapore during the late 20th century. The mainland Chinese in Singapore speaks Mandarin.
Malays, who are comprised of descendants of Singapore’s original inhabitants as well as migrants from present day Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, form about 14% of the population.
Indians form about 9% of the population. Among the Indians, Tamils form the largest group by far, though there are also a significant numbers of speakers of other Indian languages such as Hindi, Malayalam and Punjabi.
The remainders are a mix of many other cultures, most notably the Eurasians who are of mixed European and Asian descent, and also a handful of Burmese, Japanese, Thais and many others. Slightly over one-third of Singapore’s residents are not citizens.
Its weather is usually sunny with no distinct seasons. Rain falls almost daily throughout the year, usually in sudden, heavy showers that rarely last longer than an hour. However, most rainfall occurs during the north east monsoon (November to January), occasionally featuring lengthy spells of continuous rain. Spectacular thunderstorms can occur throughout the year, any time during the day, so it’s wise to carry an umbrella at all times, both as a shade from the sun or cover from the rain.
Singapore holds numerous events each year. Some of its famous festivals and events include the Singapore Food Festival, the Singapore Grand Prix, the Singapore Arts Festival, the Chingay Parade, the World Gourmet Summit and ZoukOut.
The Ultra Singapore Musical Festival is another popular festival in Singapore. Christmas is also widely celebrated in Singapore, a season where the city streets and shopping malls along its famous shopping belt Orchard Road are lit up and decorated with vibrant colors.
In addition, the Singapore Jewel Festival attracts numerous tourists every year, and is a display of precious gems, famous jewels and masterpieces from international jewelers and designers.
Malay may be enshrined in the Constitution as the national language, but in practice the most common language is English, spoken by almost every Singaporean under the age of 50 with varying degrees of fluency. English is spoken much better here than in most Asian neighbors. English is also the medium of instruction in schools, except for mother tongue subjects (e.g. Malay, Mandarin and Tamil), which are also required to be learned in school by Singaporeans. In addition, all official signs and documents are written in English, usually using British spelling.
Singapore’s other official languages are Mandarin Chinese and Tamil. Mandarin is spoken by many older and middle aged Singaporean Chinese while many young Singaporean Chinese speak mostly English and sometimes Mandarin Chinese though fluency and proficiency of Mandarin Chinese varies among younger Singaporean Chinese due to the increasing dominance of the widespread use of English in government, education and workplaces in Singapore and the lack of emphasis of Mandarin education in Singapore schools over the past decade.
What to see. Best top attractions in Singapore
Beaches and tourist resorts: Head to one of the three beaches on Sentosa or its southern islands. Other beaches can be found on the East Coast.
Culture and cuisine: See Chinatown for Chinese treats, Little India for Indian flavors, Kampong Glam (Arab St) for a Malay/Arab experience or the East Coast for delicious seafood, including the famous chili and black pepper crab.
History and museums: The Bras Basah area east of Orchard and north of the Singapore River is Singapore’s colonial core, with historical buildings and museums. NUS Museum in the west is also very much worth the trip.
Nature and wildlife: Popular tourist attractions Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park and the Botanical Gardens are all in the North and West. Finding “real” nature is a little harder, but the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (located in the same district as the zoo) has more plant species than that in the whole of North America. Pulau Ubin, an island off the Changi Village in the east, is a flashback to the rural Singapore of yesteryear. City parks full of locals jogging or doing tai chi can be found everywhere. Also check out the tortoise and turtle sanctuary in the Chinese Gardens on the west side of town for a great afternoon with these wonderful creatures.
Parks and gardens: The Garden City and City in a Garden are new concepts being promoted by the Singaporean government and Singaporeans take great pride in their parks and gardens. Be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens (including the National Orchid Garden) and the Gardens by the Bay (don’t miss the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest). There’s also the HortPark at the “Southern Ridges” and the “Chinese” and “Japanese Gardens”.
Skyscrapers and shopping: The heaviest shopping mall concentration is in Orchard Road, while skyscrapers are clustered around the Singapore River, but also check out Bugis and Marina Bay to see where Singaporeans shop.
Places of worship: Don’t miss this aspect of Singapore, where Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Baha’i faith, Christianity, Islam and even Judaism all exist in sizeable numbers. Religious sites can be easily visited and welcome non-followers outside of service times. Particularly worth visiting include: the vast Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery near Ang Mo Kio, the colourful Sri Mariamman Hindu temple in Chinatown, the psychedelic Burmese Buddhist Temple in Balestier, one of the oldest hokkien temples Thian Hock Keng temple and the stately Masjid Sultan in Arab Street.
What to do in Singapore.
While you can find a place to practice nearly any sport in Singapore — golfing, surfing, scuba diving, even ice skating and snow skiing — due to the country’s small size your options are rather limited and prices are relatively high. For water sports in particular, the busy shipping lanes and sheer population pressure mean that the sea around Singapore is murky, and most locals head up to Tioman (Malaysia) or Bintan (Indonesia) instead. On the upside, there is an abundance of dive shops in Singapore, and they often arrange weekend trips to good dive sites off the East Coast of Malaysia, so they are a good option for accessing some of Malaysia’s not-so touristy dive sites.
Singapore may be a young country but it has a constantly evolving artistic landscape that draws its influences from its unique heritage of East and Southeast Asian culture, with a good mix of western touch.
The Renaissance City Project was initiated in 2000 by the Singaporean Government to establish Singapore as a regional city of the arts to cultivate artistic interest and culture. Today, Singapore sees itself flourishing in the third phase of the renaissance city project with new museums, international galleries and art fairs entering the local artistic landscape.
In 2011, Singapore saw the opening of the ArtScience Museum at The Marina Bay Sands, a museum dedicated to design and technology. And in 2012, fourteen international galleries arrived at the shore of Singapore housed at The Gillman Barracks, a new artistic area. The National Art Gallery opened in 2015, and housed in two national monuments – the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall, is the largest visual arts institution in Singapore and also one of the largest regionally, focusing on modern Southeast Asian art through its collections.
Singapore’s art district, located around the Dhoby Ghaut and City Hall area have a concentration of art institutions, museums and galleries. Notable museums and art venues include, the National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, The Substation (Singapore’s first independent contemporary art centre) and Art Plural Gallery, Singapore’s largest art gallery.
On the cultural side of things, Singapore has been trying to shake off its boring, buttoned-up reputation and attract more artists and performances. The star in Singapore’s cultural sky is the Esplanade theatre in Marina Bay, a world-class facility for performing arts and a frequent stage for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Pop culture options are rapidly growing and Singapore’s home-grown arts scene is undergoing a second renaissance, with local English-language acts. Any bands and DJs touring Asia are also pretty much guaranteed to perform in Singapore.
What to buy
ATMs are ubiquitous in Singapore and credit cards are widely accepted (although some shops may levy a 3% surcharge, and taxis a whopping 15%).
Currency exchange booths can be found in every shopping mall and usually offer better rates, better opening hours and much faster service than banks.
Singapore is expensive by Asian standards but affordable compared with some industrialized countries.
Food in particular is a steal, with excellent hawker food available for under $5 for a generous serving. Accommodation is a little pricier.
What to eat in Singapore
What to drink
Singapore’s nightlife has both increased in vibrancy and variety over the years. Some clubs have 24 hr licenses and few places close before 3AM. Any artist touring Asia is pretty much guaranteed to stop in Singapore. Singapore’s nightlife is largely concentrated along the three Quays — Boat, Clarke and Robertson — of the Riverside, with the clubs of Sentosa and nearby St James Power Station giving party animals even more reason to dance the night away. Drinking age is 18, and while this is surprisingly loosely enforced, some clubs have higher age limits.
Friday is generally the biggest night of the week for going out, with Saturday a close second. Wednesday or Thursday is ladies’ night, often meaning not just free entrance but free drinks for women. Most clubs are closed on Monday and Tuesday, while bars generally stay open but tend to be very quiet.
Alcohol is widely available but very expensive due to Singapore’s heavy sin taxes. You can bring in up to one liter of liquor and two liters of wine and beer if you arrive from countries other than Malaysia. Changi Airport has a good range of duty free spirits at reasonable prices.
Alcohol is haram (forbidden) to Muslims, and most Muslim Singaporeans duly avoid it. While most non-Muslim Singaporeans are not puritanical and enjoy a drink every now and then, do not expect to find the binge-drinking culture that you will find in most Western countries. Unlike in most Western countries, public drunkenness in socially frowned upon in Singapore, and misbehaving yourself under the influence of alcohol will certainly not gain you any respect from Singaporean friends. Do not allow any confrontations to escalate into fights, as the police will be called in, and you will face jail time and possibly caning.
Tourists flock to the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel to sample the original Singapore Sling, a sickly sweet pink mix of pineapple juice, gin and more, but locals (almost) never touch the stuff. The tipple of choice in Singapore is the local beer, Tiger, a rather ordinary lager, but there’s been a recent microbrewery trend with Singapore’s very own RedDot Brewhouse (Dempsey & Boat Quay), Archipelago, Brewerkz (Riverside Point, Singapore Indoor Stadium, Orchard Parade Hotel, and Sentosa Boardwalk), Paulaner Brauhaus (Millenia Walk) and Pump Room (Clarke Quay) all offering interesting alternatives.
Tobacco is heavily taxed, and you are not allowed to bring more than one opened pack (not carton, but a single pack!) of cigarettes into the country. This is particularly strictly enforced on the land borders with Malaysia. Many public places including hawker centers have restrictions on smoking, and it is prohibited in public transport as well. There is a total ban on smoking in all air-conditioned places (including pubs and discos), and strict limitations on where you can smoke outside as well (e.g., bus stops, parks, playgrounds and all except the designated sections of hawker centers are off limits). The designated zone should be marked with a yellow outline, and may have a sign reading “smoking zone”.
Singapore treats drug offences extremely severely. The death penalty is mandatory for those convicted of trafficking, manufacturing, importing or exporting more than 15g of heroin, 30g of morphine, 30g of cocaine, 500g of cannabis, 200g of cannabis resin or 1.2kg of opium, and possession of these quantities is all that is needed for you to be convicted. For unauthorized consumption, there is a maximum of 10 years’ jail or fine of $20,000, or both. You can be charged for unauthorized consumption as long as traces of illicit drugs are found in your system, even if you can prove that they were consumed outside the country, and you can be charged for trafficking as long as drugs are found in bags that are in your possession or in your room, even if they aren’t yours and regardless of whether you’re aware of them – therefore, be vigilant of your possessions.
Homosexuality and lesbianism is punished with up to 2 years in prison, fines, deportation, beatings, psychological treatments, and lashings. Attacks may rarely occur and police may be unsympathetic or complicit. There are no anti-discrimination protections for LGBT status and same-sex relationships are not recognized.
Singapore makes a good base for exploring South-East Asia, with nearly all of the region’s countries and their main tourist destinations — Bangkok, Phuket, Angkor Wat, Ho Chi Minh City and Bali, just to name a few — under 2 hr away by plane. The advent of budget carriers in recent times means that Singapore is an excellent place for catching cheap flights to China and India, as well as around Southeast Asia. In addition, Singapore has direct flights to many of the smaller cities in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
For day or weekend trips from Singapore, the following are popular:
- Batam — the nearest Indonesian island to Singapore, just a short ferry trip away. Mainly industrial and infamous for it’s vice trade, but has some resorts.
- Bintan — Indonesian island just 55 minutes away by ferry, offering both high-end resorts and the “real Indonesia” experience.
- Johor Bahru — Malaysian city just across the Causeway. Just 20 minutes by bus 950 from Woodlands Bus Interchange. Not much to look at, but popular for cheap eats and shopping.
- Kuala Lumpur — Malaysia’s vibrant capital. 35min by plane, 4-5h by bus or overnight by train.
- Malacca — Once one of the three Straits Settlements, now a sleepy colonial town. 3-4h by bus.
- Tioman — the nearest of Malaysia’s East Coast paradise islands, reachable by bus & ferry or plane.
- For those who can afford more time to travel, here are several destinations popular among Singaporeans:
- Bali — One of Indonesia’s biggest tourist draws with its nice beaches and good food. About 2.5h by plane.
- Bangkok , Thailand’s capital and considered a food, shopping and clubbing paradise by many Singaporeans. It is less than 2h flight away or 2 nights by train, assuming you don’t stop off in Kuala Lumpur or Butterworth (for Penang).
- Phuket — One of the largest islands in Thailand, is another popular destination for Singaporeans. It offers a great weekend getaway and is less than two hours flight away. Relatively cheaper than Singapore, it is a great destination to hang around.
- Ipoh — the capital of the Malaysian state of Perak, it is famous among Singaporeans for its food. 7-8h away by coach, or 1 hour by turboprop flight.
- Langkawi — an island in the Malaysian state of Kedah, just south of the Thai border, famed for endless beaches. Just over a 1h by plane.
- Penang — One of the Straits Settlements, with a rich history and fabulous food. About 12h away by coach, or 1h if you choose to fly. Popular for its medical tourism.
Official tourism websites of Singapore
For more information please visit the official government website: