There are a lot of cliché things you can do in Singapore and I’m sure you’d have a fun time doing them, things like visiting Raffles for the obligatory Singapore Sling (yawn). This guide isn’t going to drag your sorry, sweating carcass through the same holiday every other person before you has had, it’s going to thrust you into the world of the locals. Yes, thrust.
Most Asian countries are renowned for being affordable, Singapore isn’t one of them. If you’re a Singapore lover or proud national, don’t worry, I’m not bagging the place. The truth is there are two versions of the country: A) the version for tourists and rich expats and B) the version for locals with a realistic budget. Singapore is only as expensive as you allow it to be.
The best place to base yourself is in the thick of things. Orchard Road is infamous for shopping and, if shopping is what you are there for, is a fantastic place to stay. The newly built Marina Bay Sands is away from the hustle and bustle of Orchard Road and gives you the chance to have more of a break without being too far out of the action. Hotels along Clarke Quay have a similar feel, but are a bit closer to the main action areas.
Getting around is easy because the country is so small and most of the things you want to see are close to each other. The Singapore Mass Rapid Transport (SMRT) system is so easy to use and so affordable. It’s clean, cheap and there aren’t any scary people hanging around the train stations trying to rob you. Buy your tickets as you go or get a rechargeable ticket if you’re staying longer than a few days.
If you’re ever feeling lazy just jump in a taxi, but be aware there are additional charges for peak travel times and try to have the address of where you’re going with you, just in case you don’t speak Chinese as well as the driver. Also be aware it can be very difficult to get a taxi at peak travel times because not many people own cars.
Food is more than just something you eat, it’s an obsession, a national pastime and a way for people to connect. There are many beautiful restaurants, each more expensive than the last. The best food in Singapore comes from hawker centres, food courts and small, local restaurants and street vendors. Do not be afraid to follow your nose into a great hawker centre and try something you never normally would. The hospitals in Singapore are first rate, so you should be fine. I joke, I joke!
Eating at a hawker centre or food court is usually very safe as there are food safety standards in place which are enforced. Just don’t get dragged into going to one of the touristy ones like Maxwell Road. Instead, walk until you find a local one or ask a local taxi driver to take you to their favourite.
One of my favourite hawker centres is the East Coast Parkway, where you can buy beautiful fresh seafood, cooked right in front of you, for a fraction of the price of anywhere else. It’s a great spot for a delicious, local dinner when the sun goes down and also great to stroll along the shaded paths and watch the locals engaging in some funny exercise techniques. Think lots of arm shaking and swinging mixed with an assortment of high kicks and marching actions.
If you’re out shopping and feel hungry, head to the food court in the building and try all the different types of food on offer. It is a fraction of the price and twice as good as anything you’ll get at one of the popular chain restaurants. Hawker centres and food courts are divided up so each shop specialises in something i.e. drinks, nasi goreng, noodle soup. My personal favourite is Roti Prata served with a simple but mighty fine dipping curry. The national food of Singapore is Hainanese chicken rice and the competition between chefs can get fierce, they even made a movie out of it!
Don’t miss out on trying the coffee from one of the hawker centres or food court drink shops. It’s strong, made on condensed milk and at $1.50 a pop, kicks Starbucks ass. Just ask for an ‘Iced Kopi with milk’, chug it down and go get your shop on like a crazy person.
Traditional Chinese dumplings are not to be missed and finding the right place to visit can be life changing. Local dumpling restaurants serve exceptional dumplings to lucky diners which will definitely spoil you and make you question the integrity of your local Yum Cha restaurant back home. Head to Chinatown to get your hands on the city’s best or ask a local for their recommendation.
A visit to Little India is essential. The local wet market is teaming with life and colour, just walking through it is an experience with all the sights and smells. The best vegetarian Indian restaurant in the area has to be Komala Vilas. For a few dollars you can cram in with locals and eat the best masala dosai of your life, with your hands of course. Masala dosai is a light, chickpea-flour bread stuffed with beautifully curried potato and vegetables and served up with a selection of mouth-watering dipping curries. Om nom nom.
There are beautiful temples to gaze at and shops packed to the rafters with spices, brightly coloured bangles, glittering gold jewellery and hand-made floral arrangements. You could easily spend half a day just walking through the streets, snapping photos. The best time to visit the area is during Deepavali, the festival of lights. The streets are adorned with bright and colourful lights and banners to celebrate and the whole area comes alive, even more so than normal.
Drinking alcohol in Singapore is very expensive and a big night out will easily run into the hundreds, similarly a bottle or glass of wine with dinner doesn’t come cheap. This is due to heavy taxing on alcohol. I still recommend visiting a rooftop bar for at least one drink with a view. The two best are Ku De Ta at Marina Bay Sands, for views of the city, or One Raffles Place, for views of Marina Bay Sands and the ocean.
The Singapore Zoo and Night Safari are heavily promoted and with good reason, they are fantastic. If you have kids, even if you don’t, they are really worth the visit. Both are top-notch and the Night Safari is an experience you just won’t get anywhere else. It’ll cost you a night of your holiday, but it is a night well spent.
Sentosa Island is the home of Universal Studios and other fun attractions like a street luge. It can be a fun spot for families, however it isn’t essential to visit and if you do go, half a day would probably be enough. Be aware it costs to get onto the island and then costs for each individual thing you do while over there.
Chijmes is upmarket and costly to eat at, but beautiful to see and rich in history. The building was originally a Catholic convent, started by 4 French nuns in 1854, and remained so for 132 years. It is now a national monument and used for commercial purposes. The gothic-style Cathedral and beautiful surroundings are definitely worth stopping in to see.
The infamous Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road is always brimming with people. It’s notorious in the minds of tourists as somewhere to nab a bargain by haggling with vendors over the price of things like electronics. However, it’s also notorious in the minds of locals as a rip off zone. There are also whispers of discount designer perfumes being emptied out and switched with scented water. Be warned!
Walking around Singapore on foot is always safe, though like any country it’s important not to be silly, complacent, disrespectful or put yourself in any situation that could lead you into trouble.
Phoebe Lee is a writer, award-winning blogger and travel lover sharing helpful travel tips, insight and reviews for regular people. Follow her adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.